Sashna Chandrasekharan writes a thought provoking opinion piece on democracy in Ancient India. She highlights that the Early Vedic period, the Indus Valley Civilisation and the ancient system of Panchayats, indicate that democracy is embeded deep within India's history.
The multiplicity of kingdoms that formed Ancient India contributed heavily to the cultural abundance and uniqueness of India. The pioneering ideas introduced in Ancient India’s political thought is one of the exemplary facets that can be attributed to the heterogenous arrangement of the country. The existence of states, despotic rulers and republic systems with different laws and customs in each kingdom offered a broad field for societal and political speculation, for the people and scholars alike. Anthropologist Janki Nath Bhat argues in his essay, Ancient Indian Democracies, that no kingdom in the early Vedic period could be thought of as an absolute monarchy or republic. This is because the wide scope for intra-state influence on norms and standards instilled certain core principles of democracy in the people, requiring some level of democratic structure to Ancient Indian politics. Institutions like the Sabha and the Samiti, which are comparable to the current day Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha were an integral part of the governance of the early Vedic kingdoms. These institutions thrived even through the later Vedic period, when the political system had shifted towards monarchism and autocratic kings rule. However, Bhat notes that in the Early Vedic period, despite the strong foundations of monarchy in the Aryan civilisation, the king’s power was curtailed in many ways. The upper classes of society were given a voice in choosing the king, and the king’s oath for the welfare of the kingdom during his coronation inspired democratic sentiments in the people. The Samiti had the power to banish a badly behaved king and replace him with a new king that they elect. The ubiquitousness of these democratic processes were established by the Grammar scholar Panini, who in the 5th century CE created terminology for voting, decisions reached by voting, and the completion of a quorum.
Perhaps the most significant institution among the ancient governing organisations, is the Panchayat, which has weathered the storms of time and remained more or less intact to this day. Through the Muslim invasions and even during British Colonialism, the Panchayats still managed to function without many substantial changes to their constitution. Even in the present day, the Panchayats are lauded as the gem of India’s grassroots democracy. Archeologist and Historian Syed A. Naqvi explains that during the Gupta period, the village councils had already grown to become a regular political body. He also attests to the influence of the village councils in kingdoms across the country. The village councils or Gramajanapadas in Bihar were formal bodies that met regularly to conduct administrative issues and communicate village decisions with “outsiders”. These councils set a precedent for a fair state that functioned for the citizens of the kingdom. Its influence can be seen in the inscriptions of the Chola dynasty (900-1300 A.D) about the social welfare system of the kingdom. The primary village assemblies, called Ur, had almost sovereign authority in their jurisdictional capacities in matters of civil cases. They handled disputes involving large values, received donations from the villagers with the guarantee of using it according to the wishes of the donors. These councils even took efforts to increase the village’s economic prosperity by bring forests or wastelands into cultivation, construction and maintenance of public utilities like dams, tanks and canals and even promoted intellectual and cultural interests. The councils closely worked with the Sabha, in collecting taxes, negotiating concessions for land revenues in cases of natural disasters and receiving grants to promote religious, cultural and educational pursuits. Numerous South Indian villages received special endowments for the promotion of Vedic studies or Vedavrittis, and the study of grammar, such as the Bavishya-Purana and Yajurveda.
However, despite such compelling information on the philosophies and workings of Ancient Indian polity, it must not be forgotten that all these historical findings come from the writings of Brahmin scholars and writers, who largely wrote for the king. Their works were primarily manuals on administration and didactical in nature, for the ruler. While there are a lot of structural comparisons to be made between the political set-up of the Vedic times and democracy as we know it now, I would argue that the spirit of democracy is even more deeply rooted in Indian history.
Democratic values and ideas of communal welfare have taken form even before the Vedic times in the Indus Valley. This is all the more remarkable when we see that at present, though we’ve come far in advancing the tools and technologies needed to uphold an electoral democracy, we still struggle in putting the ideals of democracy to practice. Democracy, at its foundation is an attempt at governance with the aim to improve quality of life in the state and align the state’s development with the involvement of its citizens. In this light, we can make some assumptions about the quality of the tribal politics of the Indus Valley, from the quality of life indicated by the excellent town planning, architecture, arts and crafts that the Indus Valley has been credited for. Naqvi notes that the gridiron pattern of street layout uncovered by archaeological excavations shows how much consideration was given to the safety and security of the residents and suggests the existence of a highly developed and well-monitored civic control system. He emphasises that it implies more than just the existence of a masterplan conceived of by builders and Architects: “One cannot but be impressed with the urban order, the modular planning, the uniformity of the great…sites….Rather it is as if each segment of the population knew precisely that there was only one way to live together—by conformity to a time honoured plan with the validity of the people.”
In fact, one of the features of the Early Vedic period, the relatively higher status for women is thought to be a vestige of the matriarchal societies of the Harrapan civilisation. It could have illustrated to the early Aryans, the societal benefits of women’s education and involvement in the mainstream of life. One can speculate that the rights women had in the Early Vedic time, the attention paid to city planning as well as the arts, were actually influences from the Harrapans, as the traditional norms of the Aryan civilisation were patriarchal, monarchical and had little appreciation for indigenous cultures. Thus, not only have there been robust democratic frameworks since the Early Vedic Period, but also the core values of democracy - social welfare, j