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India: The Ancient Home of Republics


By Devender Singh Aswal

The assertion that ‘India is the mother of democracy’ is being viewed by many with skepticism and disdain. The skeptics have been fed with the narrative that the Greek city-states were the mother of democracy.  Democracy is a Greek word which means – the rule of the people. Many occidental scholars believe that democracy, as it stands today, evolved out of the British monarchy. However, notably, the Assemblies of the Greek city-states were forbidden for women, slaves and to people who were not of Athenian descent. Per contra, the United Kingdom of Great Britain, which claims the Magna Carta, 1215, as the fount of democracy, still has a hereditary monarchy.

The origin of democracy in India goes into the hoary past. In the Rig Veda, composed before 1000 BCE, the term ‘Republic’ occurs 9 times and in the Atharva Veda and other texts of great antiquity, many a time. While moving the motion for adoption of the final Constitution of India on 25 November, 1949, Dr Ambedkar said, ‘There was a time when India was dotted with republics, and even where there were monarchies, they were either elected or limited. They were never absolute.’ The  Buddhist Bhikshu Sanghas had rules of parliamentary procedure regarding Motions, Resolutions, Quorum, Whip, Counting of votes, Voting by ballot, Censure  Motion, Regularisation, Res Judicata, etc.  These rules of parliamentary procedure must have been borrowed from the contemporary assemblies.

By 600 BCE, many maha-janpadas or republics dotted India. To name a few, Gandhar, Kamboj, Anga, Vaaji and Magadha, Avanti, Kashi, Kosala, Surasena, Chedi, Panchala, Kuru, Matsya, Assaka, Kalinga had monarchical parliamentary democracy.  Between 920 and the 11th century, the Cholas built a temple of democracy near Chennai containing an inscription about the manner of election of representatives to the village assembly by casting the votes in the designated pot or the ballot box.

The earliest reference about election of a ruler is found in the Coronation Hymn of the Atharva Veda.  The hymn reads, ‘The people elect you to rulership. Be seated on this high point in the body of the State and from there vigorously distribute the natural wealth and material prosperity to the people’.  It appears from many writings that the kingship was originally elective but later it became hereditary due to the evolved rule of primogeniture.  There are references in the Aitareya Brahman and in the Tattiriya Upanishad how the gods, who were suffering defeat, met together and decided to appoint a Raja to lead them in battle in order to be victorious. The Mahabharata, which allows revolt by the people against a wicked King, states that a State must not be kingless, for the fear of anarchy. ‘A man should first choose his King, then his wife.’  There is a similar mention in the Valmiki Ramayana. According to AL Basham, ‘The king was thus the first social servant and ultimately dependent on the suffrage of his subject.’

The Vedic Sabhas and Samitis provided a well structured forum of discussion. In the Mahabharata’s Shanti Parva, the gathering of common people is called ‘Jan Sadan’, which was an earlier variant of Parliament or Assembly. Greek writer Megasthenes describes many Indian republics. He refers to, both, monarchical and republican forms of governments. Diodorus, another Greek historian, also mentions the existence of independent democratic republics. The Astadhyayi of Panini and the Arthashastra of Kautilya refer to the role of Sanghas and ganas at length.  A hymn of the Yajurveda says, ‘Salutations to the Assembled and salutations to the Sabhapati.’

These Sabhas and Samitis took decisions after discussion and consensus. The assemblies were to meet periodically.  In the Pali Canon, the Buddha enjoins upon his disciples to hold full and frequent assembles, to meet together in concord, to rise in concord and carry on their business in concord and work according to the established laws.

Truth was to be spoken in these assemblies. A verse in the Mahabharata says, ‘That is not an assembly where there are no elders / Those are not elders, who do not speak with righteousness / That’s no righteousness, where there is no truth / That’s not the truth that leads to deceit.’ There is a writing on one of the walls of Parliament House, ‘Satyameva Jayatae’ – taken from the Mundakopanishad.

The king was to listen to the counsel of his ministers. The Nitisara of Sukracharya, says, ‘public opinion is more powerful than the king as the rope made of many fibres is strong enough to drag a lion.’ The Kings were invariably advised to keep a finger on the pulse of public feeling and never to offend it too blatantly. The King attended the Samiti and it was thought necessary to do so. The Rigveda says, ‘like a true king going to the assembly’. The function of this Council was to give advice to the king, and not to govern. It was not a mere rubber stamping body. The Counsellors were expected to speak freely and openly. Often, the mantri parishad exerted great powers and could take decisions in the absence of the king.

In the Mahabharata, there is a story of a king, Venu, who was killed because of his wickedness, tyranny and, Prithu, his son was made the king. He took the oath, ‘I will constantly protect the earth in thought, words and deed. I will carry out the established laws in accordance with Dandaniti. I will never act arbitrarily.’ The Jataka stories give instances of kings deposed by mass revolt.

Democracy is ‘government by deliberations’. The Rigveda and the Upanishads reflect the long argumentative tradition of India. A hymn of the Rigveda exhorts the ‘assembled’ to ‘Talk together, walk together. The hymn prays, ‘May there be unity among you / May you be open minded and work together in harmony’. A meeting of a republican assembly commenced with a prayer of the Rig Veda which exhorts the assembled to ‘reflect upon on all matters of State without rancour; to distribute all resources of the State to all stakeholders equitably; and to accept their share with humility.’

The hymn in the Atharva Veda – ‘May the adversary not win the debate’, shows how much importance was attached to debates and discussions. Women were not debarred from public debates. Women like Gargi, Maitreyi, Bharati (wife of Mandan Mishra) participated in scholarly debates and were highly venerated. In the Shati Parva, Bheeshma exhorts King Yudhister about the importance of deliberations – ‘When the members or the ‘gana’ cease to discuss among them on account of uncalled for anger, on account of natural avarice, there is the symptom of discomfiture. The great safety of the ganas therefore is considered to lie in the maintenance of the confederacy only.’

The hymn of Rigveda about the Creation asks critical questions about the creation of the universe and about the omniscience of the Creator. The Rig Veda also lampoons the Brahmins who ‘croak like frogs and priests greedy for gold’. A fine example of scientific temper is in the Valmiki Ramayana, where sage Jabali urges Ram to ignore family oblation / Shradh to the ancestors as the food taken by someone else would not fill the belly of the departed ones. Jabali clearly castigated the composers of the books of rituals as he considered it a device to secure donations for themselves.

Indian seers believed that sovereignty vests in the people. The Chandogya Upanishad, probably composed in 5th century BCE, fervently implores, ‘Open the door to thy people and let us see thee for the obtaining of the sovereignty.’ These words are also inscribed at the entrance of the Parliament House building.

Inside the Lok Sabha chamber overlooking the Speaker’s Chair, the words inscribed are, ‘Dharma chakra   pravartanya’, that is, ‘for the rotation of the wheel of righteousness’. At the main entrance of the Supreme Court, there is an inscription enunciating the ancient law, ‘Yato dharmas tato jaya’ – where dharma is, there will be victory.   Dharma is not sectarian but ‘righteousness’ which establishes order and balance. Dharma and Rajdharma are intertwined. According to the Mahabharata, ‘When Rajdharma becomes lifeless, the very basis of civilisation sinks. When the traditional state ethics is departed from, the very foundation of life is shattered.’ The Mahabharata, Sukraniti, Kautilya Arthashastra, Naarad Samhita, Brihaspati Samhita, other Smriti Lierature, Valmiki Ramayana, Thirukural, Raghuvansham, many rock edicts, contain elaborate instructions on statecraft for good governance.

Happiness of the people is an important and recurring theme in the text books. The Arthashastra says, ‘In the happiness of his subjects, lies the happiness of the king. In their welfare lies his welfare. Whatever pleases himself, he shall not consider as good but whatever pleases his subjects, he shall consider as good.’

There are classical texts about the art of taxation. In the Shanti Parva, Bhishma tells Yudhistar that taxes should be collected by a king like the honey bee, ‘without plucking the flower’. Further, as one plucks ripe fruits from the garden so shall a king collect revenue when it is due. He shall avoid taking wealth that is not due because that will make the people angry and spoil the very source of revenue. As the calf suckles the udders of her mother giving pleasure to the mother and nourishment to the suckling calf, so should the taxation be doubly beneficial.

The ruler was enjoined by the texts to uphold the Rajdharma. The King assumed the title of Dharmaraja-which is also the name of Yama-the God of death. The King carried a danda or a stick, a symbol of coercion and punishment but the danda was wielded according to the Dandaniti. Justice was to be dispensed according to Dandaniti and without delay.

There was a system of appointment of Magistrates for dispensation of justice. Jatakas tell about a bench of five magistrates. The Arthashastra advises a Court for every ten villages and Higher Courts for Janpadas and provinces. There were judicial standards set for the judges. They were to be learned, righteous in conduct, devoid of anger and as impartial as humanly possible. The honesty of the judges was to be tested periodically by agent provocateurs. The Vishnu Smriti prescribes banishment and forfeiture of all property for a judge found guilty of corruption or injustice. There were distinct rules of evidence for civil and criminal cases.

According to the Mahabharata, ‘The State was created to protect the weak, the poor, the exploited, the helpless, and the oppressed from the strong. That large class of the weak is only to survive because of the power of the King (the State) and this is an important aspect of Rajadharma.’   There can be no well governed State without Rajdharma.   According to Thiruvalluvar, the great Tamil saint poet born some 2000 years ago, ‘A well governed State is one where there is adequate growth in assets and services, where assets are well distributed and protected, and all citizens get their fair share.’ This is a reiteration of Vedic teachings.   Such lofty ideals- the sheet anchor of our Constitution-are not to be found elsewhere in any other ancient text. The Preamble to the Constitution, the Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy resonate with these ideals of our classics. Whether our democracy measures up to these metrics and to what extent – it’s for the people to judge.

(The author is ex-Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha, and a practicing Delhi based Advocate. Views are personal.)