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Mainstream, VOL LV No 28 New Delhi July 1, 2017

Indian Democracy at Crossroads — A Lesson from India’s Past

Saturday 1 July 2017

by O.P. Jaiswal

We have numerous references of gana-sangha or gana-rajaya in Buddhist, Jain and Greek literature. It was an alternative polity to the kingdom and probably may represent the continuation of an earlier system. Monarchies or hereditary kingdoms were authoritarian in nature, based on the Brahmanical ideology and depriving the overwhelming majority of the masses their surplus and other rights. “In the later vedic age changed socio-economic back-ground sought to do away with the growing class and sex distinctions as well as expensive and superstitious practices involving the senseless destruction of cattle wealth which hampered agriculture. The leaders of the new movement modelled their ideals on the basis of the past tribal solidarities where there were no varna distinctions, no domination of the Brahmanas or Kshatriyas over the masses and no coercive authority of the king.”1 Thus inspired by these principles the leaders of the free and fearless group of the new movement formed Republics in Ancient India.

Buddhist2 and Jain literatures have various references of Republics existing during Buddha’s time, particularly in the northern part of the mid-Ganga Valley. Important among those were: (i) Úâkyas of Kapilavastu, (ii) Koliyas of Ramagama, (iii) Lichchavis of Vaishali, (iv) Videhas of Mithilâ, (v) Mallas of Kusinârâ and Pâvâ, (vi) Moriyas of Pippalivana, (vii) Bulis of Allakappa, (viii) Bhaggas of Simsumara hill.

Similarly Greek writers like Arrian,3 Strabo,4 Curtius5 and Diodorus6 mention about the Republics which were flourishing at the time of Alexander’s invasion during 325 BCE. Impor-tant among them were: Yaudheyas, Mâlavas, Kshudrakas, Ambasthas, Andhakavrishnis, Sibis, and Musicanis etc. They resisted the advancements of Alexander the Great. It is noted by the Greek authors that Alexander’s fight with the Malavas were so intense that the wound that Alexander suffered became fatal. Many states issued coins which bear only the name of the Republic, such as—the Yaudheyas coin bears Yaudheyânâm Ganasya Jayah, Similarly, the Mallava’s coin also bears— Mallava Ganasya Jayas. The sovereignty of the nation was vested in the small ruling families (oligarchy) and they alone participated in governance.

It is interesting to note that “the connection between the Republics and the growth of various ideologies and belief system, particularly Buddhist and Jaina, was due to many of these being rooted in the Republican system, they did not perform the Brahmanical rituals or observe the rules of Varna.”7 On account of this, the Brahmanical sources disapproved the gana-sangha system and it was also ignored in the Vedic literature. Ashoka, a devout Buddhist, also followed and believed in the Buddhist philosophy and practices; that is why in a whole range of his edicts,8 there is no mention of Varna or Jati. The survival of the gana-sangha system and practice from 7th century BCE to 3rd century BCE, made the Brahmanical orthodox enthusiasts restless, intolerant and frantic to capture state power at any cost.

In 104 BCE an enthusiastic Brahmin commander-in-chief of the last Mauryan emperor Brihdratha, named Pushyamitra Sunga, usurped power after killing him in the parade- ground. The task of establishing Brahmanical hegemony was thus realised after centuries of efforts. In order to consolidate the Brahmanical order he needed a strong philosophy to justify the system, and for that Manu readily codified the law, known as Manusmrti. Manu pro-pounded the philosophy of ‘Divine Theory’, for creation of everything including the state and the society. Some important points of Manu are as follows:

1. For the sake of prosperity of the world the Divine created the Brahmanas, the Kshatriyas, the Vaisyas and the Sudra from his mouth, his arm, his thighs and his feet. (1/31).

2. One occupation only the Divine prescribed to the Sudras to serve meekly to upper caste. (1/91)

3. Brahmana’s name denotes auspicious, a Kshatriya’s is connected with power, Viasya’s with wealth, but a Sudra’s is contemptible. (11/31)

4. The kingdom where Sudras are very numerous, which is infested by atheists and destitutes of twice-born (inhabitant), soon entirely perishes, afflicted by famine and disease. (VIII/22)

5. Once born man (a Sudra) who insults a twice-born man with gross invectives, shall have his tongue cut out, for he is of low origin. (VIII/270)

6. If a Sudra mentions the names and castes of the upper caste man an iron-nail, ten fingers long shall be thrust red-hot into his mouth. (VIII/271)

7. If he arrogantly teaches Brahmanas their duty, the king shall cause hot oil to be poured into his mouth and ears. (VIII/272)

8. With whatever limb a man of low caste does hurt to a man of highest caste, even that limb shall be cut off. (VIII/279)

9. He who raises his hand or stick, shall have his hand cut off; he who in anger kicks with his foot, shall have his foot cut off. (VIII/280)

10. A low caste man, who tries to place himself on the same seat with the man of a high caste, shall be branded on his hip and he banished, or (the king) shall cause his buttock to be gashed. (VIII/281)

11. If out of arrogance he spits (on a man of high caste), the king shall cause both his lips to be cutoff; if he urinates (on him) the penis, if he passes wind the anus be cut. (VIII/282)

12.A man, who is not a Brahmana, ought to suffer death for adultery, for the wives of all the four castes even must always be carefully guarded. (VIII/359)

13.A man of low caste, who makes love to a maiden of the highest caste, shall suffer corporal punishment; but he, who addresses a maiden on equal level, caste shall pay the nuptial fee, if her father desires it. (VIII/366)

14.A Sudra, who has intercourse with a woman of upper caste, guarded or unguarded, shall be punished in the following manner: if she was unguarded, he loses the part (offending) and all his property, if she was guarded, everything (even his life). (VIII/374)

15.For the same crime a Brahmana tonsured (of the head) instead of capital punishment, but men of other castes shall suffer capital punishment. (VIII/379)

16.Let him never slay a Brahmana, though he has committed all possible crimes; let him banish such an offender, leaving all his property to him and his body unhurt. ((VIII/380)

17.A Sudra, though emancipated by his master, is not released from Servitude; since that is innate in him, who can set him free from it? (VIII/414)

Pushyamitra Sunga, in order to consolidate his power, made an announcement to prosecute the Buddhists, and those who will bring a head of the Buddhist will be suitably rewarded by golden coins. The enthusiast Brahmana esta-blished the Sunga dynasty which could not last even for a century followed by another Brahmin dynasty which also survived only for 45 years. Survival of both the Brahmin dynasties lasted for nearly 150 years, sometimes in 27 BCE,9 after their exit, the Brahmanic power never reappeared to surface, but in recent time there is an attempt to bring back the Manusmrti again. Let us see whether democratic norms, not based on caste and Varnashrama system will survive or the Brahmanical system, after 2100 years of gap, will again re-appear making the caste and Varnashrama system strong.

So, this way our Democracy is on cross-roads. We should take lessons from India’s past, not to commit blunder for the final exit.


1. Sharma, R.S., Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India, 2005, pp. 120-124.

2. Mahaparinibhan Sutta, VI.21-27; Rhys Davids, Dialogues of the Buddha, pp.ii, 179-90.

3. Arrian, V.22.11A, p.115.

4. Strabo, XV. 30.

5. Curtius, IX. ch.4

6. Diodorus, XVII. 102.

7. Thapar, Romila, History of Early India, 2002, New Delhi, pp.146.

8. Op.cit., pp.193.

9. Shastri, K.A. Nilkantha, ed., Comprehensive History of India, New Delhi, 1985, pp. 122-23.

The author, now retired, was a Professor of History, Patna University. He is an ex-member, ICHR, New Delhi.

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