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Republican States in Ancient India 

Republican States in ancient India was called Ganarajya. The word Gana also means numbers and Ganarajya will therefore mean the rule of numbers or the rule of many. Another term to denote a republic was Samgha and republican bodies are called by Kautilya as Samgha. The Dharma Sutras and Dharma Shastras contain frequent references to Gana which seems to denote town or village corporations. That this term also denoted independent political corporations is abundantly testified to by epigraphic and numismatic evidences. Inscriptions refers to Malava and Yaudheya Ganas and in Samudragupta’s Allahabad Pillar Inscription they are clearly distinguished from monarchies. The Bijaygadh Pillar Inscription expressly refer to the fact that the Yaudheya Gana used to elect its chief who also served as general. The concept of republics in ancient India is much older than that of Greece or Rome and flourished mainly in north-western and north-eastern regions of India from 600 B.C. to 400 A.D.

Our chief source of information about the republics of ancient India are the Greek writers for north-western zone and the Buddhist works for the north-eastern zone. This apart the Mahabharata, Arthashastra and works of Panini, Katyayana, Patanjali, etc. also provides us information about these republics. The coins issued by these republican states are another valuable and concrete evidence to prove their existence.

Antiquity of Republics in Ancient India

Zimmer finds clear traces of the oligarchical form of government in verses in Rig Veda and Atharvana Veda. K.P. Jayaswal has furnished evidence for the existence of non-monarchical form of government in the Vedic period by referring a passage in the Aitareya Brahmana (VII, 3,14) which mentions that community was consecrated to rulership and their institutions were called Vairajya or kingless states. In the age of Mahabharata there were Ganas or states having republican form of government. Sometimes many Ganas combined to form a Samgha or confederation. The Mahabharata provides valuable information regarding non-monarchical states. Two chapters in Shantiparva of Mahabharata have been devoted to the nature and problems of republican polity. The Bhishmaparva mention republican states of Kuru, Panchala, Bhoja, etc.; the Sabhaparva refers to republican states of Sibis, Dasarnas, Trigarthas, Ambasthas, Malavas, Abhiras, Andhaka Vrishni, etc. The Andhaka Vrishni were a confederation, the constituent units of which were autonomous parts under their own leaders. Sri Krishna was the chief of this confederation.

Republics during Buddha’s time

The Buddhist texts (Jatakas) also refers to the existence of many autonomous clan with a non-monarchical form of government in sixth century B.C. Notable among them were Shakyas of Kapilavastu, the Mallas of Pava and Kusinara, Lichchhavis of Vaishali, the Videhas of Mithila, the Koliyas of Ramagama, Moriyas of Pipplalvan, etc. Some of the republican states joined together and formed confederations and federations for better prosperity and greater military power. For example, when Buddha was alive Videhas of Mithila and Lichchhavis of Vaisali formed a confederation and the Jnatrikas and Vajjis also joined them.

Panini in his Astadhyayi also mentions both types of states; republics (Samgha or Gana) and monarchies (Janapada). The republican states mentioned by him are Kshudrakas, Mallas, Ambashtas, Hastinayan, Madras, Madhumantas, Apritas, Vasati, Sibis, Bhaggas, etc. Many of these states continued up to 3rd century B.C. and resisted Alexander invasion of India.

There is one vital difference between the republics of the Buddhist age and those of the Mahabharata period. In the Buddhist age, full general assemblies of the republics met frequently in concord and transacted business in democratic spirit. In the Mahabharata period in the republic states, on account of the ignorance and passions of the masses, authority was concentrated in the hands of the community and more specially in those of magistrates. During the Mahabharata period we find a new tendency of the people to place themselves under the protection of individual leaders for better defence against external aggression.

Republics during the Mauryan period

Greek writers refer to Yaudheyas and Kshudrakas as powerful, free and independent republics with well organised army. Kautilya mentions Corporations like Lichchhivikas, Vrijikas, Mallakas, Madrakas, Kukuras who made use of the epithet of king Raja. In the beginning of the Mauryan period the whole of northern India was studded with these democratic states. That they possessed considerable powers is admitted by Kautilya himself when he says that to a king the acquisition of the help of corporations is better than the acquisition of an army, a friend or profit. Republics existed not only in north India but also in south India. Asoka Rock Edicts refers to non-monarchical kingdoms like Satiyaputras and Keralaputras.

Republics during the Guptas period

During the time of Guptas we find republican states of Arjunayanas (Agra-Jaipur area), Yaudheyas (south-eastern Punjab), Malavas (south-eastern Rajasthan), Madras (central Punjab), Audumbaras (eastern part of Kangra, Gurudaspur and Hoshiarpur district of Punjab), Kunindas, etc. Some of these republican states possessed great powers and resources and extended their sway over a vast tract of country.

The Yaudheyas established their reputation as a great political power and ruled over a considerable portion of the Punjab. Their coins bear the significant legend ‘Jaya Yaudheya. The Yaudheyas had an unsurpassed reputation for bravery and no wonder for they were the devotees of Lord Karttikeya, the generalissimo of Gods. It was this reputation of their bravery and the report about the rich resources of their state that made Alexander’s soldiers lose their heart and refuse to advance further. The Yaudheyas flourished down the end of 1st century A.D. whey they were temporarily overpowered by Kanishka I. Soon they rebelled against the Kushana hegemony and dealt a powerful blow to the Kushana empire from which it could not recover.

The Malavas and Kshudrakas were among those republics which offered stoutest resistance to Alexander. The Kshudrakas were their southern neighbour who later seem to have completely merged with the Malavas. The Malavas migrated to Ajmer-Chitor-Tonk area in 100 B.C. and to modern province of Malva about 400 years later. They were for a time subjugated by the Scythians in C 150 A.D. but reasserted their independence in 225 A.D. They claimed descent from the Ikshavaku king Sri Rama and were important enough to have given their name to a vast province. Their coins bear the legend ‘Victory of the Malavas.

Next in importance were the Arjunayanas who flourished from 200 B.C. to 400 A.D. and allied themselves with the Yaudheyas in ousting the Kushanas. Their coins have been found which do not bear the name of any king or general but simply ‘Arjunayanamjayah(victory to the Arjunayanas). They loved independence more than their own life and were even ready to give up their paternal homes and lands to preserve their political self and soul.

Types of Republics

There were several types of republics like Dvairajya, Bhaujya, Rashtrika, Pettanika, Svarajya, Vairajya and Arajaka.

Dvairajya was a state that came into existence when two brothers or cousins being claimants of the same kingdom preferred to rule it jointly instead of dividing it into two parts. The two rulers would hold joint consultations on all important matters. When the two kings rule in harmony the state was called a two-king state, Dvirajaka in Sanskrit. Kautilya characterises Dvairajya as a constitution of rivalry and mutual conflict leading to final destruction. This rule of two was neither a monarchy nor an aristocracy. It is a constitution peculiar to the history of India. Historical instances of this constitution are known to our literature and inscriptions. Avanti in some period of Hindu history was under this constitution for the Mahabharata relates that Avanti was under Vinda and Anuvinda two kings ruling jointly. In sixth and seventh century A.D. Nepal was under such a constitution.

Bhaujya refers to states having non-hereditary leadership. Bhoja or Bhojakas and Rathikas or Rashtrikas as mentioned in Asokan edicts had this type of constitution. The Mahabharata in its lists of different classes of rulers mentions Bhoja as a class. The Aitareya Brahmana calls their constitution as Bhaujya as the sovereignty rested in the Bhoja leaders. Later inscriptions have Bhojas and Mahabhojas which signify ordinary and higher classes of leaders. Owing to their special constitution a people in western India acquired the name Bhojas. This probably is a case where a community is formed on account of its political constitution.

Rashtrika of the western India were a non-monarchical community. Pali texts knows and names the Rashtrika or Ratthika class of rulers. Accordingly, Rashtrika Sapatya or Board of leaders were not hereditary. They were therefore elected. The mention in the Pali authority goes to indicate that the Rashtrika constitution was also very probably known to eastern India. Like Bhaujya this too gave a national name to the Rashtrikas of the west. They were in Gujarat next to Saurashtra. Arthashastra refers to Su-rashtras a republic where no king consul was allowed.

Pettanika– The commentary on the Anguttara Nikaya denotes Pettanika as “hereditary leadership”. Theirs appears to have been really a perverted form of the Bhoja form of government, where rulers or leaders had managed to become hereditary. The Pettanika oligarchy or probably aristocracy was prevalent in western India as evidenced by Ashokan inscriptions. That it also existed in eastern India is evidenced from the Pali canon mentioned above.

Svarajya according to Aitareya Brahmana was a type of constitution which prevailed in western India where the ruler or president was called Svarat. It literally means self-ruler. The Taittiriya Brahmana says that a wise man performs Vajapeya sacrifice and obtains Svarajya; which is explained as ‘becoming the leader of equals’. This information shows that the Svarat ruler was taken from amongst equals and was made president. And that the selection was based upon merit for Indra who is said to have first obtained Svarajya consecration is described as having proved his merit. Evidently this refers to an election or selection to the presidentship amongst the members of a gana or council. It should be noted that the members of the gana according to the Mahabharata were considered to be equals. According to the Aitareya Brahmana this form of government prevailed amongst the Nichyas and the Apachyas of western India near Indus river.

Vairajya according to Jayaswal has termed it as a kingless constitution. According to the Aitareya Brahmana the whole country or nation took the consecration of rulership. There is no doubt that this was a real democratic constitution. The Aitareya Brahmana gives the example of Uttara Madras and Uttara Kurus. Kautilya rejects it as a bad form of government and held democracy in contempt. According to him ‘nobody feels in a Vairajya government the feeling of mine (with regard to the state).

Arajaka or non-ruler state was an idealistic constitution which came to be the object of derision of the political writers of Hindu India. The ideal of this constitution was that law was to be taken as the ruler and there should be no man ruler. The basis of the state was considered to be mutual agreement or social contract between the citizens. This was an extreme democracy. The Mahabharata from which the above description is taken ridicules the constitution and says that the framers of this legal state found out their mistake when the arrangement would work no more with the result that nobody obeyed the law without sanction. When the law would not rule, the citizens of this form of government took to monarchy.

Administration of Republican States

The Buddhist literature throws considerable light on the administration of the Shakya and Lichchhavi republics. Other minor non-monarchical states usually followed the same pattern.

The Executive Assembly

The executive organ consisted of certain members which varied from republic to republic. While in some republics like the Mallas it consisted of four members, in republican states like the Lichchhavis the executive council consisted of nine members. The head of the executive, that is the chief executive officer was designated as Raja or Rajan and was elected for a term of some years. He occupied the presidential chair when the general assembly of the republic was in session.

The Legislative (Central) Assembly

The legislative assembly also known as the general or supreme assembly consisted of a large number of members. Its membership is stated to have been as high as 5000 among the Yaudheyas and 7707 among the Lichchhavis. The Kshudrakas had sent 150 of their leading men to negotiate peace with Alexander; the number of the members of their Central Assembly may have been about five times larger. The Central Assembly was the supreme law-making body. It formulated laws regarding all aspect of republic life. It controlled foreign affairs, entertained ambassadors and foreign princes, considered their proposal and decided the momentous issues of peace and war. Members of the Assembly discussed not only matters of political and military interest but also problems concerning agriculture and commerce.

Assembly Proceedings

The house where the members of the General Assembly met and conducted deliberations and transacted business was known as Santhagara. For deliberating and taking decisions on all official issues a minimum number of members were to be present. An officer called Gana-puraka secured the quorum. Usually a proposal was moved and repeated thrice and if no objection were raised it was considered passed. In case of difference of opinion or objection the matter was decided by the majority of votes. Voting by ballots (called Salakas) was in use. If the subject matter of deliberations was complicated and the house could not reach any conclusion, it was referred to specialised committee of experts called Udvahika.

The state was divided into many small administrative units for efficient administration. The head of each unit in the Buddhist period was probably a member of the Supreme Assembly of the state. Each head of the administrative unit was assisted by Uparaja (deputy chief), Senapati (general) and Bhandagarika (treasurer). Law courts were the main bulwark of justice in a republican state, the guardians of the constitutional rights of the citizens and protectors of law and liberty. The republics had their own army and it safeguarded their territorial integrity.

Decline of Republican States

The attack of foreigners weakened the republican states considerably. For instance, the Malavas and the Kshudrakas had formed a league to raise a powerful army of nearly one lakh soldiers to resist the Greek invasion. The Malavas later fought against the forces of Nahapana and the Yaudheyas against Rudradaman. With the rise of the Guptas under Samudragupta the republican states like the Malavas, the Arjunayanas, the Yaudheyas and the Madras accepted the suzerainty of the Guptas and offered him tributes. The Allahabad Pillar Inscription informs us that the mighty corporations like those of Yaudheyas, the Malavas and the Arjunayanas had to pay taxes and make obeisance to the great emperor Samudragupta. These two factors; invasion of foreigners and rise of Guptas led to the decline and downfall of the republican states in India. From around 3rd century A.D the leadership of the republics passed into the hands of hereditary presidents who were military leaders and claimed royal titles and they could not be distinguished from monarchies. The growing tendency to regard monarch as divine may have induced the republics to accept the leadership of hereditary presidents styled as Maharajas. Probably it was felt that monarchy was a better protection against aggressions than republics. This factor also led to the decline of republics in ancient India and from 5th century onwards they ceased to be important factors in Indian politics. No trace of them is to be found in the Puranas or Dharmashastras to which monarchy seems to be the only conceivable form of government. Even a professionally political writer like the author of Shukraniti had not a word to say about them. Gradually things have come to such a pass that it requires great effort to believe even when sufficient evidence is forth coming that institutions which we are accustomed to look upon as of western growth had also flourished in India long ago.

Impact/Contribution of Republican States

  • The existence of the republican states for more than a thousand years from 600 B.C. to 400 A.D. testifies to the inherent strength of democracy and republican traditions in ancient India. Their existence for such a long period shows that ancient India nurtured democratic institutions and practices.

  • The freedom loving patriotic republican states acted as bulwark against foreign invaders like the Greeks, Scythians and Kushans.

  • Trade and industries prospered under their regime and republics in Punjab and Sindh were studded with numerous and prosperous cities.

  • They encouraged freedom of thought which in its turn resulted in philosophical progress. This is particularly noteworthy about the eastern republics whose citizens have made rich contributions to philosophy as developed in the Upanishads, Buddhism and Jainism. In the western region also, there were many philosophers who impressed the Greeks by their theories and views.

  • The Buddhist Sangha, trade and craftsmen’s guilds borrowed many elements and traditions of republican government like voting system, committee system and popular tribunals.

References

  1. A.S. Altekar- State and Government in Ancient India (From earliest times to c 1200 A.D), Motilal Banaridass, Banaras

  1. K.P. Jayaswal- Hindu Polity– A Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times, The Bangalore Printing and Publishing Co Ltd, Bangalore, 1943

  1. B.N. Luniya- Life and Culture in Ancient India, Lakshmi Narain Agarwal, Agra, 1989

  1. R.C. Majumdar- Corporate Life in Ancient India, Calcutta, 1918

  1. H.V. Srinivasa Murthy- History and Culture of India to 1000 A.D., S. Chand & Company, New Delhi, 1980