Gana Sangha: The Democratic Rule of Ancient India

  • bookmark icon

    BOOKMARK

The Athenian democracy of ancient Greece and the ancient Roman Republic have served as models for democratic countries around the world. While India became the world’s largest democracy on 15th August 1947, few realize that India had its own tradition of ancient democratic republics more than 2,500 years ago. These polities, known as ‘Gana Rajya’ or ‘Gana Sangha’, give us a fascinating glimpse into political life in ancient India.

While the Harappan Civilization was known for its great cities, we know little about its political systems or how it was ruled. It is only from the early Vedic period, through references in Hindu texts like the Rig Veda, Mahabharata and the Dharmasastras, as well as later Buddhist and Jain religious literature that we learn about the democratic states that existed in ancient India.

Mahajanapadas of ancient India | Wikimedia Commons
Mahajanapadas of ancient India | Wikimedia Commons

City-States in the Indus Valley

It was during the ‘Second Urbanization’ in North India, around 600 BCE, that a number of city-states, republics and monarchies came into existence. Noted Banaras Hindu University Historian, Prof Anant Sadashiv Altekar, in his book State and Government in Ancient India (1949), writes about how the earliest references to a semblance of democratic rule can be found in the Aitreya Brahmana section of the Rig Veda, in which there are references to ‘Sabha’(Council) and ‘Samiti’ (Committee) electing chieftains.

According to Prof Altekar, most of the early republics and city-states were located in the North-Western part of India. A passage in the Aitreya Brahmana of the Rig Veda states that the people in the vicinity of the Himalayas, like the Uttarakurus and the Uttaramadras, had a ‘Virat’ (Kingless) type of state.

These city-states are said to have survived till the invasion of Alexander of Macedonia in 325 CE. Contemporary Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia writes about how when Alexander and his army arrived at the city of ‘Nyasa’ somewhere in the Gandhara region of today’s Pakistan, the ‘President’ of the city along with his 30 deputies went to meet him to discuss the terms of surrender.

In fact, Greek chroniclers emphasized the different forms of government they encountered in Punjab then. In the Greek chronicles, while the famed Porus has been described as a ‘king’, the city of Nyasa was ruled by an aristocracy. There is a reference to a tribe called ‘Sabaracae’, where according to the Greeks, ‘the form of government was democratic and not regal’. Prof Altekar believes that references to ‘Gramas’ on the banks of the Indus River in the Mahabharata, corroborate the existence of city-states in this region.

Yudhisthira seeking advice on governance from Bhishma in Shanti Parva | Wikimedia Commons
Yudhisthira seeking advice on governance from Bhishma in Shanti Parva | Wikimedia Commons

Republics in the Mahabharata

Historian Dr K P Jayaswal extensively studied the political system in ancient India through references in Hindu religious texts such as the Mahabharata and the Rig Veda, and published them in his book Hindu Polity - A Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times (1924).While the Mahabharata, as we know today, evolved only around the 5th century CE, with verses and chapters being added over time, it is a rich source of information on the life and politics in ancient times.

For example, in the Shanti Parva section of the Mahabharata, Bhishma tells Yudhisthira about republican states referred to as ‘Gana-Sanghas’ known for their successful foreign policies, full treasury, standing army, skills in wars, good laws and discipline. Based on his studies, Dr Jayaswal also believed that Lord Krishna was actually the Chief of the Andhaka-Vrishni Sangha of the Yadavas, which was actually a democratic republic of four tribes named Vrishni, Andhaka, Kukura and Bhojaka. It had political factions or parties called Vargas in their General Assembly.

In fact, in the Shanti Parva section of the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna has been mentioned as Sangha Mukhya, which could be translated as ‘Head of the Council’. In this chapter of the Mahabharata, there is a reference to a conversation between Krishna and Sage Narada, which tells us about how the Assembly worked.

The Yadava Assembly had two opposing factions led by Ahuka and Akrura, respectively, who respected Lord Krishna as their leader but mistrusted each other. Lord Krishna had a hard time building consensus between the two.

In his conversation with Narada, Lord Krishna compared himself to a mother who is torn between two sons gambling with each other. Narada was concerned their union would fall apart if consensus was not built and advised Lord Krishna to use sweet words to bind the factions together.

Archaeological site of Vaishali | Wikimedia Commons
Archaeological site of Vaishali | Wikimedia Commons

Types of Republics and How They Functioned

Interestingly, details of how the republics of ancient India functioned can be found in Buddhist canonical literature and the Sutras. Historians Jagdish P Sharma and A L Basham studied each of these republics in their book Republics in Ancient India c 1500 BC – 500 CE (1968).

According to Sharma and Basham, there were two types of republican states. Some were unitary while some were a union or confederation of many republican tribes. States like Shakya, Koliya and Moriya followed a unitary republican model, while states like the Andhaka-Vrishni Sangha, and the Vajji Union were a federation of republican tribes. Most of these states were located in the foothills of the Himalayas and in the northern region of Bihar.

The Shakyas were a republican state, located on the present-day Indo-Nepal border, to which Gautama Buddha belonged. He was born Siddharth Gautama, son of the republic’s president Suddhodana. The Shakya Council known as Santhagara had 500 members and their leader bore the title of ‘Raja’.

Vajji Union in Green before conquest of Ajatashatru | Wikimedia Commons
Vajji Union in Green before conquest of Ajatashatru | Wikimedia Commons

The most important and powerful republic during the time of Buddha was the Licchavi republic and Vajji Union which it formed, which again covered parts of Nepal and the present-day Tirhut division of Bihar. The Vajji were a union of republics comprising the Vaidehas, Licchavis, Nayas and Mallas. Of these republics, the Licchavi was the most dominant. Their Assembly consisted of 18 members, of which nine alone were from the Licchavis. Their capital was in the city of Vaishali and they elected a President (Raja), Vice-President (Upa-Raja), Defence-Chief (Senapati), and Treasurer (Bhandargarika).

Individually, the Licchavi also had their Assembly, with 7,707 members, probably from the founding aristocratic families.

How these Ganas functioned is mentioned in the contemporary Buddhist text known as the Mahavagga, which also shows how similar these ancient republics were to modern democracies. Members of the Assembly voted via ballots, and a political whip called Ganapuraka was appointed to make sure voting was done correctly. Another officer called Salaka Grahapaka was entrusted with impartially collecting these votes. Voting was done either secretly, through whispering, or by the open method.

The Society

These ancient republics did not follow the strict social code of the Varna system of the Vedic religion. The Manusmriti refers to the Licchavis and Mallas as Vratya Kshatriya, while calls Satvata (Yadavas) as Vratya Vaishya. Vratyas were those who deviated from Vedic orthodoxy.

Society in these republics was divided into two classes. The first were citizens of the tribe called Kshatriya-Rajakula, who owned lands and had voting rights. The second were Dasa-Karmakara, who were landless labourers who tilled the land for the owners and had no voting rights.

In some cases, citizenship had been extended to outsiders. We come across terms that distinguish a native citizen from an assimilated outsider. A Kshatriya member of the Malava Gana was referred to as Malavah, while a non-Kshatriya, non-Brahmin was referred to as Malavya. Similarly, a non-Kshatriya member of the Kshudraka Gana was called Kshudrakya. When Ajatshatru’s Brahmin minister Vassakara came to the Vajji capital of Vaishali as a refugee, he was given a judgeship in the city.

Vajji Union conquered by Magadha after Ajatashatru's invasion | Wikimedia Commons
Vajji Union conquered by Magadha after Ajatashatru's invasion | Wikimedia Commons

Their Downfall

By the 5th century BCE, most of the republican states began to disappear. The rising power of Magadha meant that these states were conquered, one after the other, and incorporated into the Magadha kingdom. According to the Mahabharata and Arthashastra, the reason for their downfall was their inherent weakness due to their lengthy decision-making process, and mutual distrust.

Centuries later, when India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal became republics, they named their nations Ganarajya, Janatantra, and Ganatantra, keeping up with the legacy of ancient Gana-rajyas and Gana-sanghas. While the ancient republics give us a fascinating glimpse into the democratic polities of those times, one must be mindful of the words of Prof Sharma and Basham, who warn: ‘It is a serious mistake on the part of the student of ancient political institutions to interpret ancient terms, concepts, and institutions in a modem context.’

Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons

If you enjoyed this article, you will love LHI Circle - your Digital Gateway to the Best of India's history and heritage. You can enjoy our virtual tours to the must-see sites across India, meet leading historians and best-selling authors, and enjoy tours of the top museums across the world. Join LHI Circle here