Opinion | How India had a tryst with democratic and republican values since Vedic ages

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is right in saying that a democratic model of governance existed in the subcontinent millennia before India, that is Bharat, became a sovereign democratic republic on 26 January 1950.

Sumeet Mehta January 25, 2022 07:55:44 IST
Opinion | How India had a tryst with democratic and republican values since Vedic ages

Indian army soldiers adjust the national flag on display during a full dress rehearsals of the Independence Day ceremony on the rampart of Red fort in New Delhi. AP

India, that is Bharat, is all set to celebrate its 73rd Republic Day on 26 January 2022 when its Constitution came into effect. The celebration is marked with distinct remembrance of the ethos and ideals on which the then recently independent nation drafted its Constitution. As we celebrate the day when the country transformed from a member of the Commonwealth realm into a sovereign democratic republic, let us look into our glorious civilisational past to find the roots of democracy and republican form of government.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the new Parliament building, he recalled how democracy was operated in ancient Bharat. His specific reference was to the 10th century model of democracy practised in the Chola empire, three centuries before Magna Carta was signed. He referred to stone inscriptions of the Chola era that document in detail the way democracy was worked in Uttaramerur, a small village in Tamil Nadu.

Modi stated that stone inscriptions documented how every village was categorised as “kudumbu” that was somewhat equivalent to a municipal ward in today’s terminology. Every “kudumbus” sent one representative to the general assembly or a municipal corporation in today’s terminology. The prime minister said, “The mahasabha that was held thousands of years ago is still there.”

Inscriptions in various temples in Tamil Nadu document the existence of village assemblies in various Chola villages or towns — Thiruninravur, Manimangalam, Dadasamudram, Sithamalli, Thalaignayiru, and Jambai. In that event, Modi triumphantly declared, “World will call India ‘Mother of Democracy’ if we extol our democratic history.”

Later in the Summit for Democracy hosted by US President Joe Biden, Narendra Modi reiterated the same idea. “The democratic spirit is integral to our civilisational ethos. Elected republican city-states such as Lichchhavi and Shakya flourished in India as far as 2,500 years back. The same democratic spirit is seen in the 10th century ‘Uttaramerur’ inscription that codified the principles of democratic participation. This very democratic spirit and ethos had made ancient India one of the most prosperous. Centuries of the colonial rule could not suppress the democratic spirit of the Indian people. It again found full expression with India's Independence, and led to an unparalleled story in democratic nation-building over the last 75 years,” he said.

The 10th century CE inscriptions in Uttaramerur stand as evidence of how democracy was practiced and republics operated in ancient Bharat. This article is an attempt to look back at our glorious past and understand how democratic and republican forms of government existed in ancient Bharat, even before democracies and republics developed and thrived in ancient Rome and Greece.

In the Mahabharata, the gathering of common people called “Jan Sadan”, which was equivalent of Parliament, is mentioned in the Shanti Parv, which documents the discussion between Bhishma and Yuddhisthira on various aspects of governance including the benefits of Janpada which is nothing but a republican form of government. The Bhishma Parv of the Mahabharata mentions 230 Janapadas.

As per Studies in the Bhagwati Sutra by JC Sikdar, the Sabha Parv of the Mahabharata also provides evidence of the republican form of polity, called Gana polity, where the constitutional practice of republicanism existed with the statement “grhe grhe hi rajanah”. This is significant evidence of the existence of democracy and republican form of government nearly 5,000 years ago. It is imperative to remember that Athenian democracy traces its roots nearly 2,500 years ago, and mention of democracy and republics in the Mahabharata that is nearly 2,500 years before Athenians started experimenting with democracy and republican form of government.

Various literary evidence suggests that the Janpadas existed since 1,500 BCE. The earliest mention of the term “Janpada” occurs in the Aitareya and Satapatha Brahmana texts. As per India As Known To Panini, authored by Vasudeva Saran Agarwal, wherein he studied the cultural material in Ashtadhyayi Panini, in around 450 BC, around 74 Janpadas existed and they covered the regions of what is now Afghanistan and Southeastern Central Asia.

The Bhagwati Sutra, which is the fifth of the twelve Jain agamas, lists sixteen Janpadas that existed during the time of Lord Mahavira, the 24th and the last Tirthankara of Jains. This Sutra discussed the “social contract theory” that reflected the non-monarchical form of government existing during that era. The Bhagwati Sutra documents the prevalence of monarchial states along with republican states by mentioning “Rajja” for a monarchical state, and “Gana” for a republican state.

As per the Bhagwati Sutra, the earliest settlements of people who progressed from nomadic life to permanent settlement were called “Janavaya.” Janavaya meant the settlement of a clan or a community. These Janavayas expanded and consolidated to form a “Janapada”, which was a territorial unit of the people of a particular community or clan. This is evidence of India having the Country States and not City-States like those prevalent in ancient Greece during the life of Lord Mahavira in the form of Janapadas and Mahajanapadas.

In Anguttara Nikaya, which is part of Sutta Pitaka, one of the three baskets of the Buddhist Pali canon or Tripitaka, sixteen Mahajanapadas or republican states of that era were listed. This included the Sakyas of Kapilvastu in the foothills of the Himalayas near the border of Nepal, the Bhaggas of Sumsumara in the hills of eastern Uttar Pradesh, the Butis of Allakappa that was situated between the districts of Shahabad and Muzaffarpur in Bihar, the Kalama of Kesaputta that is now known as Kesariya and situated in the district of East Champaran, Bihar, the Kaliyas of Ramagama which is located in Parasi District of Nepal, the Mallas of Pava now known as Fazillpur and situated in Bihar, the Mallas of Kusinara now called Kushinagar and situated in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the Moriyas of Pipphalivana located in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Nepali Tarai region and between Rummindei and Kushinagar, the Videhas of Mithila that is located in Nepal, and the Lichcchavis of Vaishali that is now in Muzaffarpur district in Bihar.

As per Atthakatha, the Lichcchavi republic has 7,707 Ganarajas (Kings) and 7,707 Uprajas (Deputy Kings). This was akin to Nagar Pitas (Fathers of the City) in different wards of Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) in the pre-1960s era before they were renamed to Nagar Sevaks (Workers of the City). They also had 7,707 Senapatis (Generals) and 7,707 Bhandagarika (Treasurers) in the Lichcchavi republic.

RC Sikdar in his book Studies in the Bhagwati Sutra quotes Dr DR Bhandarkar suggesting that 7,707 Kings enjoyed autonomy at the local administration level, while “sangha” (or assembly) enjoyed supreme authority in managing the affairs of the state (republic). Sikdar goes ahead to explain the Executive Council of the Lichcchavi republic is composed of eight members “ashtakula” representing the interests of different sections of the society. These facts highlight the decentralisation of power and authority by dividing responsibilities to different people. If this is not enough, the Lichcchavis also had a concept of quorum and whip in the assembly called “Ganapuraka” in their legislative assemblies.

Buddha was born in the year 563 BCE and attained Mahaparinivana in the year 483 BCE. So it would be safe to assume that a stable, systematic, and thriving democratic and republican form of government existed in ancient Bharat nearly six centuries before Christ was born and before the Athenian revolution happened in 508-09 BCE paving the way for Athenian democracy. It would be fair to believe that India, that is Bharat, had a matured form of democracy and republican model of government nearly two millennia before Magna Carta was signed in the 13th Century CE, and the Western world started its experiments with democracy.

To sum up, Narendra Modi was right when he proclaimed that a democratic/republican model of governance existed in the subcontinent millennia before India, that is Bharat, became a sovereign democratic republic on 26 January 1950.

During the Constitution Day celebrations organised by the Supreme Court on 26 November 2021, Modi said “It was a compulsion for India and for many countries of the world to live in the shackles of colonialism for many generations. Since India's Independence, a post-colonial period started all over the world and many countries became independent. Today there is no country in the world that apparently exists as a colony of another country. But this does not mean that the colonial mindset has ceased to exist.”

Has the time come for us to peep into our past and move forward by disengaging from the colonial worldview and post-colonial hangover that is deeply embedded within us? Has the time come for us to deliberate and discuss the civilisational ideals and ethos of the democratic republic of Bharat and further them along with the modern idea of the democratic republic of India, that is Bharat?

The author is a Chartered Accountant by qualification and a follower of the Indic civilisation by choice. Views expressed are personal.​

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