Why India’s ancient republics need to be recognised for their place in world history

Synopsis: In the current political thought, Democracy is considered a western idea. But given the evidence from India, this thought needs to be reconsidered.


Indian Prime Minister while addressing the UN General Assembly in New York made an important historical point: India is not just the world’s largest democracy, but also the “mother of democracy”. This thought would certainly challenge the present notion of western thoughts being the progenitor of democracy.

Why is such reorientation important?

In recent years, there has been a move to recognise contributions in science made in the past by non-Western societies. For example, the Pythagorean Theorem was well known in ancient India. Further, it would be historically accurate to refer to the Fibonacci numbers, perhaps, as Pingala’s numbers or Hemachandra’s numbers.

Riding on the same idea, we should also explore the non-western roots of ideas like democracy.

What is the historical evidence of Democracy from the Indian past?

Firstly, The evidence for republics in ancient India is abundant. In Mahabharata’s Shanti Parva, republics (ganas) are mentioned as essential features of administration. The Vedas describe at least two forms of republican governance.

i) The first is that of elected kings. This early form of democracy was later practised in Europe.

ii) The second form described in the Vedas is ruled without a monarch, with power vested in a council or Sabha. The membership of such Sabhas often comprised people who had distinguished themselves by their actions. There is a hint of the modern bicameral system of legislatures, with the Sabha sharing power with the Samiti, which was made up of common people.

Both women and men took part in these Sabhas, This is a far cry from the Greeks who did not admit women (or slaves) as full citizens of their “democracies”.

Secondly, Other sources: Ashtadhyayi of Panini, the Arthashastra of Kautilya, as well as a variety of ancient Buddhist and Jain writings mentioned democracies.

For example, Buddhist and Jain texts list 16 powerful states or Mahajanapadas of the time. After Alexander’s invasion in 327 BCE, Greek historians also record Indian states that did not have kings. E.g. The Lichchavi state of Vaishali.

Further, Kautilya provided the theory of state where the power is not concentrated. The first three elements of this Saptanga theory are swami or the king, Amatya or the ministers (administration) and Janpadas or the people. The king must function on the advice of the Amatya for the good of the people. The ministers are appointed from amongst the people (the Arthashastra also mentions entrance tests).

Thus, this system divided power and made the King receptive and accountable to the people. As per the Arthashastra, in the happiness and benefit of his people lies the happiness and benefit of the King.

What are the criticisms to recognize democracy in India?

First, that the primitive system was too simple. But it would be unreasonable to expect republics in ancient India to have full-fledged democratic institutions as we have them today. But as with scientific advancement, democracy remains and will always be a work in progress.

Another criticism would be that there is no surviving connection or continuity between the ancient ganas and the modern republic of India. However, the same applies to ancient Greek city-states. Thus, what survives is the way of thinking.

With its rich history of democracy, India cannot just lead, but also define the future of democratic principles and global governance.

Source: This post is based on the article “Why India’s ancient republics need to be recognised for their place in world history” published in Indian Express on 5th October 2021.

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