Concept of Elections and Democracy in Vedas and Dharma Sastras

  • By K Jaya Rao
  • August 14, 2022
  • This article tells in detail how Democracy worked in ancient India, as stated in the Vedas and Dharma Sastras. Enlightening.

His Holiness Jagadguru Sankaracharya Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, in his essay on "Democracy in Vedas" with reference to the stone inscriptions of Uttiramerur shed new light on election law. Ancient India which gave this world ‘Shastras' on all aspects of human life propounded certain basic principles on the subjects of democracy and elections which hold good even to this day. These basic principles called Siddhantas are eternal and are not subject to any change.


Human perceptions on different matters have changed over time but human values remain the same. The aims and objectives changed but human nature did not. What today's constitution is for us, the stone edicts and inscriptions were for the societies that then existed. But what is said in the edicts and inscriptions of Uttiramerur holds good even now. The forms of governments might have changed from tribal headman to kingship, dictatorship, autocracy, oligarchy and democracy but the basic principles of people's happiness and development run through all these forms and have not undergone any change. 


The Paramacharya of Kanchi explained that the knowledge imparted in the Vedas, which propounded the basic principles, have not lost their relevance even now as some people seem to think out of ignorance. For such people the existence of democratic principles and election process in ancient India should be an eye-opener.


The Paramacharya vividly explained the democratic process of elections in the Chola period. That there were qualifications for voters such as (1) Payment of revenue, (2) owning a house, (3) age limits between 30-60 (4) knowledge of Dharma, etc and that the elected should not earn property by wrong means, that after one tenure (of one year) bar for 3 years and that the elected should not be in line of any already elected relative are the ideal principles even for today.


The Paramacharya rightly bemoaned the interference of the democratically elected government in Hindu religious laws and customs. It has become the fashion of the day to ridicule the Vedas. The democratic process then was pure and simple and was not abused as it is done now. The voters were educated then.


The elected members were truly educated. True education meant study of shastras aatmagyan, good conduct and exposition to Dharma sastra and Neethi Sastra. If we compare them to the present-day, we wonder what has happened to us all these days.


Let me go back to the period of the Vedas and the smrutis and examine what they say about democratic process.


1. Prajapathi: ln Rigveda it is said that Prajapathi was the leader of the people. “There is no other head than you to take care of us.” Prajapathe Nathva Detanyananyo.” (Rig-M-tO—SUI 121/M-10).  


a) Parameswar is to be called Prajapathi because he is the father and head of the people.

b) Raja: Raja means one who wins the hearts of the people. Thus Raja is described as Prajapathi.

c) Pathi: Means head and Prajapathi means, head of the people.

d) Praia ke Rakshak. (Guard of people) thus Raja word is derived from Praia.

e) Raja need not be by birth; he becomes one by merit According to the Acharya. “It is not enough to be a king by birth but he should also be a ‘Sabhya'.” 


2. Three Sabhas: Threeni Rajaanaa Vidathe Purooni Parivlshwanl Bhooshatha Sadamsi (R.M. 3S-38,M-6) The administration was run by means of three Sabhas.


1) Vidyarya Sabha dealing with education.

2) Dharmarya Sabha dealing with Justice and Truth.

3) Rajarya Sabha dealing with Government and administration.

These three sabhas carry out all affairs of the people and run the administration thereof.


3. Sabhapathi: Sabhaya Sabhaam me Pahe yea Cha Sabhyaaha Sabha Sadah - Atharva Kan-19-55-6

Sabhapathi rules the sabha and all Sabhasad also rule the Sabha, which means, Sabhapathi is not given full powers to control Sabha. The Sabhapathi controls the Sabha and he shall be under the control of Praja (People). Thus, it is the pure form of democracy mentioned in the Vedas with Checks and balances.


4. Qualifications of Sabhapathi:

Indro Jayaati Na Paraa Jayaatha Athlrajo Raiasu Raia Yathai Charkrithya Yedhya, Vandyaschopa Sadyo Namasyo Bhaveha - Atharva Kan-6-98-1


Qualifications of Sabhapathi are described in this Manthra. One who is active, successful over enemies, not to be defeated by enemies, Sabhapathi among Sabhapathis, bold among bolds, capable of being respected, praised, to be bowed before him, to be taken refuge, accepted by all people, fit to be Sabhapathi and he is a one entitled to be made Sabhapathi.


5. Parishad: After sabhapathi, Parishad (council), qualifications are enumerated in the following Manthra: Trlvldyo, Hithu Kastharke Nalrukto Dharma Pathakaha Trayasche Shraminah, Perishath Saya dashavara


The Parishad (council) members shall be well-read, knowledgeable about cause and effect, law, economics, dharma etc. They can be married/unmarried or Vanaprashthas. They should be ten in number.


6. Majority Dictum: Thraypara Parishajneya Dharma Samshaya Nimaya purve - Manusmruti

Full bench order of three Sabhasad can never be disobeyed by anybody. This speaks of the modern system of judiciary, if in full bench of three, two express same opinion, and one judge differs, the opinion of the two judges prevails. So three judges are to be appointed. In Parishad three Sabhapathis are to be appointed.


7. Ideal Purpose: Yekopi Ved Vidharmam Yam Vyavassed lejothama Sa Vijneya Parodharmo, Nejnana Mu ditho Yuthal - Manusmruti

The Dharma Vyavastha (Judicial Administration) of one of good background, of full knowledge, is the best of all because the Administration of thousands, lacs, crores of tools, is unacceptable. The same view is taken by the Paramacharya.


8. Qualifications of Ministers: Moulan Shastra Vldhah Shuooraan Labdha Lakshan Kulodgatan Sachivan Saptha Chastow Va Prakurveeta Preekshitan.-Manusmruti

Those who are having knowledge of Shastras, brave, not useless thinkers, having good character, such seven or eight ministers to be chosen. No one man’s rule or opinion, shall command the state, the state will be run by different ministers having different opinions, thinking on different angles, working through various ways for the welfare of the people.


9. Appointment of Inner-Council of Ministers: Anyanapl Prakurveeta Succheen Prajna Navasthitan Samya Gartha Sama harthroo, samaathyan Supareekshithan - Manusmruti

Inner circle of ministers who are pure, intellectual, good, strong-willed, resourceful, very clever, and tested men are to be chosen who shall be ever vigilant.


10. Final opinion obtained through Multi-opinions: Tesham Swam Swamembhipraya Mupalaphya Prithek Prithak Samasthanam Cha Keryeshu VidedyaDhita Mathemanah - Manusmruti

Taking opinions from all individual members, multi-opinions (Bahupaksha) which is acceptable and to him (Sabhapathi) and other Sabhasads should be executed.


11) Vedas and Purvaj are guide lines: Swacchamnaya Paroloka Varthatha Pitruvanrushu - Manusmruti

Sabhapathi, following the Vedas, behaves like a father unto the people.


12) Appointment of ambassadors: Dootam Chiva Prakurveeta Saravesastra Visharadam - Manusmruti 

The experts of all subjects shall be appointed as ambassadors.


13) Method of Punishment: Sama, Dana, Bheda and Danda are well known even in rural India. It means (1) by negotiations and compromise. (2) by charity, (3) by dividing and creating differences, (4) (it these three methods fail) by force. – Manusmruti


Shasan Paddathl: (System of Administration)

Sabhapathi or Raja and Sabha shall adopt all possible means to provide happiness and prosperity to the people. Dvayo Strayanam Panchanam, Madhye Gulma Mahishtitam, Thatha Grama Shatanam Cha, Kurya Drastra Syo Sangraham — Manusmruti


a) Village Administration Among two, three, five or 100 villages there shall be one “Rajaskanam" wherein state duties are performed by appointed officials. 


Gramasyadhipatlm Kuryat dasa grama pathim thatha Vlmshatisam Sateshamcha Sahasra Pathivemavacha Grama doshan Samut pannan gramikah sanakal swayam Samsetgrama dasesaya daseso vlmsathlslnam Vlmshateeshastu, satesaya Nivedayet Samsethgrama satesastu Sahasra pathaye Swayam


Gradhipathi for one village, officers for 10 villages, 20 villages, or 100 villages or 1000 villages, having hierarchical links about administration so that daily news pass on to Rajyasabha members, and Maharaj Sabha members and from there to the emperor, and thus the news are pooled at a Centre.


A group of 10,000 villages has two Sabhasads, one to Rajya Sabha and another to supervise the Rajya Officials.


Each administrative division is called Shreni. Eighteen Valandas constitute one Mandala. During the Muslim and the later British rule the same type of administrative units called Gram, Taluk and Zilla was adopted. "Uthiramerur" was actually one of those villages where the stone inscriptions are found (Paramacharya). 


14)(b) Nagar Palan (City, Administration): Nagare Nagare Chaikam Kuryoth sarvartha Chinthakam, Uchal Sthanam Ghora rupam Nakshathrana miva Graham - Manusmruti


In big cities there shall be Vichara Sabha Mandir wherein Sabhapathi (Raja) and elders deliberate for the welfare of the people.


15. Dharma: Dharma Yeva Hathohanthl, Dharmo Rakshathi Rakshitha.-Manusmruthi

Dharma kills the killer and it protects those who protect it.


Pado Dharmasya Kartharam, Padah Sakshina Mrichhathl Padah Sabhasadah Sarvan Pado Flajana Mrinchchathi

When injustice and partiality take place, the blame is apportioned - one part fails on the doer, another on the witness, the third on Sabhasada and the fourth on Sabhapathi (Raja).


16. Varenyam (Ideal) Yatha Raja Thatha Praja

As is the Raja, so are the people (Chanakya Ne Da 13-8)

People follow the Raja, (Sabhapathi or head). Therefore, the Raja should imbibe Dharma and be an ideal to be followed by the Praja (People).


17. Safeguarding the people is the sole duty:

Sarvasyasya Etha Nyaayam, Karthavyam Parirakshanam - Manusmruthi

The ruler shall, without discrimination, do justice and his sole duty is to safeguard the people.


The last four Manthras of Rigveda describe very beautifully the highest form of unity. These are known as Sanghatan Sooktas.


1. Samsamuduvasay Vrishnanagne,

Vishwannarya Aa

Eilaspade Samidhyase

San no Vasunya Bhar

Oh God! You are the most omnipotent of all, and creator of the universe, that is what the Vedas are proclaimed. Kindly shower wealth on us.


2. Samgachchadvam Samvadhadvam,

Samvo Manamsi Janathaam

Devaa Bhagaam Yadha Poorve

Sanjanana upasathe

All of you, human beings together, tread the right path, hearts filled with love, mind endowed with knowledge, being dutiful like your ancestors.


3. Samano Manthrah, Samithi Samano,

Samanam Manah, Sahachithmesham

Samano Manthra, Mabhimano thra Yeva

Samanena va havishaa juhomi

Have same ideas and same intelligence (Buddhi), and same heart and common emotion (Chith). God bestows equal inner knowledge (Gyan) to all. "Righteous persons" enjoy all wealth of universe and gifts.

4. Samaneeva Akuthl 

Samaanaa Hrldayani, Vaha 

Samana Mastu, O, Mano

Yathavaha Su Saha Satl

Your Ideals, emotions, ought be non-controversial. Fill your hearts with love thereby enhance your wealth and prosperity.


5. Sarvejana Sukhino Bhavanthu

Sarve Santu Niramayaa

Sarve Bhadrani Pashayamhu

Makaschhit Dukkha Bhagh bhave 

Let all people be happy. Let there not be fear. Let us see peace everywhere. Let there be no sorrow any-where.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, February 1994 issues. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


Also read

1. How Indian is the Indian Constitution?

2. India is a Union of States not a Federation like USA

3. Ideas to help India realize potential

4. A proposed Preamble

5. What is India

6. How did Democracy evolve in India


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