The independent republic of India was officially born on the 26th January 1950, after 89 years of British rule. However republican values have been home to Indians since 2000 BCE. While the President of India gets a 21 - gun-salute on the 26th of January every year, it wouldn’t be unceremonious to give a similar gun salute to all those erstwhile republic states and confederations that existed in ancient India. The republics of Ancient India clearly show that India practiced good old republican values in the form of ‘Gana rajyas’ and the ancient Indian society was a ‘Gana tantra’ at its best.
A republic is one where absolute power does not lie with one individual or a monarch. In a republic there is "liberty and justice for all" irrespective of a minority. The Vedic literature, Jain and Buddhist texts show to us that ancient India was ruled by councils of thinkers and learned men. We even find instances of Kings ruling under a republican influence guaranteeing justice to all. Though India had numerous kings and queens, they did not have absolute power as a monarch would. Not all Kings were from a royal blood-line or ruled by divine right. Many were even elected Kings.
Why we forgot about the old Indian republics…
Because of the political slavery that started with the invasion of India by the Mughal King Babur in 1526 CE till the end of British imperialism in 1947, Indians forgot where they came from. Historical research has finally uncovered that ancient India was a knowledge society and had republics since ancient times. Another reason for this historical amnesia about republics in ancient India is the thought that republicanism started only after the French revolution when monarchy was given a serious toss.
A number of states in ancient India had republican forms of government. Between 2000 BCE and 400 BCE a number of republics flourished in India's river based civilisation especially in the Gangetic plains of present day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
So where do we get this information about the old republics in India?
The republican forms of government are known to us mainly from the surviving Buddhist and Jain religious texts, Greek sources, Sanskrit epics and ancient text books on politics. Greek writers about India such as Megasthenes and Arrian describe many of the states having republican governments like those of Greece. These ancient texts refer to a number of states having Gana sangha, or council-based governance, as opposed to monarchies.
Some examples of old Indian republics…
We learn about the rise of republics prior to the rise of the great Gautama Buddha. We had a Videhan republic, Vajjian republic etc from the ancient texts. Another oft-mentioned example is of the sixteen Maha-janapadas (republics) according to the Buddhist text Anguttara Nikkaya and the Jain text Bhagavati Sutra.
A Lichchavi confederacy republic according to Jataka stories had as much as 7707 chiefs or counsels (Rājans as they called them). A Buddhist document says Lichchavis had 500 Rājans and a commentary suggests that the chiefs governed in turns. It was the same Lichchavi republic from where the mother of Jain Thirthankar Mahaveer originated from.
There is also an example of a republic in the ‘Vajjian/Vrijjian union’, which had Vaishali (in what is now Bihar), as its capital around 600 BCE. About this Vajjian union, it was the great Lord Buddha who said to his chief disciple Ananda thus: “For as long, Ānanda, as the Vajjians will assemble regularly and assemble frequently surely growth is to be expected for the Vajjians not decline.”
At the time of Alexander’s invasion in 327 BCE into the regions of ancient Afghanistan, the states of Arut and Balhika were affluent republics. These republics later became allies of the great Chandragupta Maurya (320 BCE – 298 BCE). Though Chandragupta Maurya conquered almost the entire subcontinent, some of his annexed areas continued to function as republics and returned to being republics after the fall of his empire. Another case in point is Madra desh in north western India, which survived as a republic until the 4th century CE.
How did the republic work…
While the word for a republic was sangha or gana as in the “Bharatiya gana-rajya”, some were sovereign in their origin with no allegiance to any external authority. Though they were not all of the same type, they had certain features common to all. Each had its council assembly or parishad where people’s representatives were present from different age groups.
The Indian historians R.C. Majumdar, H.C. Raychaudhuri and Kalikinkar Datta in their seminal work: ‘An Advanced History of India (1946) mentions that, “Besides the Rājan, there were other functionaries styled uparājan (Vice-Counsel), Senāpati (general), Bhāndāgārika (treasurer) etc. Tradition points to the existence of a succession of officials for the administration of criminal law in the Vrijjan state – the Vinishaya mahāmudra (deciding magistrates), Vyāvahārika (lawyer-judge), Sūrtadhara (canonist), Ashtakulika (representative of the eight clans), Senāpati (General), Uparājan (Vice-counsel), and Rājan (Consul)”
Even today we can see the surviving village panchayats for whom the government of India has a dedicated ministry of Panchayati Raj has republican values as its core. In his famous minute of 1830, Sir Charles Metcalfe, the then acting governor-general of India wrote: "The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything they can want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations..."
In a republic society, legislation and law making is a collective effort of thinkers and ancient India was no exception. While a republic evolved as a remedy and revolution to monarchy in Europe, the concept and practice of a republic was integral to the Indian system of governance with or without a monarch. In fact, the 26th January gana-tantra divas (republic day) celebrations should can also be seen as a continuation of the republican values in the long and chequered history of India.
Ram Lingam blogs his insights on India and Indian culture at www.indiasutra.co.nz
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