Republics and Democracy in Ancient India
To understand the history of a people, one needs to also understand what form of society existed down the ages.
Current the propensity of Historical studies follows the Feudal or Monarchial paradigm
Thus except for a few scattered republican societies here and there, history is all about Kings , Queens, kingdoms and empires. The few republican society that do get a mention are the Greek City sates, or the Roman society and its senates.
In the Indian subcontinent with its vast and diversified society, trying to look at the society through a monarchial lens will not do it justice.
Democracy in the Indian subcontinent is old as time it self, and moreover the democratic forms of society have survived through the ages down to today.
Fortunately, in the Indian context, we have a wealth of literary evidence, which gives valuable evidence.
A good starting point for those interested is a book: “ J. P. Sharma: Republics in ancient India, c. 1500 B.C.–500 B.C. xviii, 278 pp. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968.”
Dr. J. P Sharma, after an extensive study, in his book cities evidence from the Vedas and other sources, to show how democracy and republicanism existed in ancient India.
His dates of 1500 BC appear to arrive from the then accepted worldview that te Vedas were written about 1200 BC or so, and then Aryan Invasion Theory which held that Indian was invaded by a people called the Aryans around1,500 BC, an dthey brough civilization to India. This theory is no longer seriously taken , but tis is not the place to debate that.
The terms Sabha,( gathering) , Samiti, ( smaller Gathering/ committee ) Rajan, Raja,( Householder, Leader)., exists and are found in Vedic literature. Sabha is found eight times in the Rig Veda, the oldest Veda.
The term Rajan denoted Householder, Head of the Household. One who was eligible to take part in the assembly or gathering or the sabha.
It did not mean a “ King:. It simply meant a ‘ Leader’, a leader who was elected..
The term Raja came to mean in time, a feudal king, a monarch. The elected leader or elected king would, as is usual with human nature, wish his offspring to follow in his footsteps, and take the leadership or Kingship position after him.
These vedic texts also show that the position of the King/Leader was not absolute, and he could be removed by the Sabha or the Assembly.
The term Sabha is still used today. The Indian Parliament is called the ‘ Lok Sabha- Assembly of the People”
In the Indian republic today, democracy has basically three levels-
The village level- The Panchayat- council of five
Province or State level- Assembly
National -Parliament and upper House
The base of the society today is still the village Panchayat ( Panch = 5; Panchayat- a council of five.) This elected body formed the basis for the governance of the village society since ancient times..
When a feudal society came into power, the lowest level was still the village, and the concept of the Panchayat survived.
The feudal king was interested only in the taxes that could be levied, and apart from that the village by and large ran its own affairs.
The Panchayat drew up laws and rules for day to day functioning of the society.
At a higher level, a group of villages, 12, the 24, the 48 and finally 84, would form a mini republic with Panchayats existing at all levels. They would again have the power to form and dispense law and justice.
When feudalism was on the rise, it would try and break through the republican society.
The power of the feudal would stay in the city, while the society in the rural area ran their own affairs.