On September 25, while addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an important historical point: India is not just the world’s largest democracy, but also the “mother of democracy”. This assertion would unsettle several long-held Western notions about our world, and it should. The existence of proto forms of democracy and republicanism in ancient India is part of humanity’s common heritage and deserves an important place in our shared view of the past.
There are two pillars of the modern world. The first is science-based rational thinking, and the second is democracy. It is also telling that both are often believed to be Western inventions, reflecting Western ascendancy over our world.
In recent years, there has been a move to recognize advances in science made in the past by non-Western societies. The Pythagorean theorem, for instance, was well known in ancient India. It would be more historically accurate to refer to the Fibonacci numbers perhaps as Pingala’s numbers or Hemachandra’s numbers. But old beliefs and the assumptions that go with them are still strong. As Joe Biden noted last year, they don’t tell you how a black man contributed to the making of the electric bulb. In a similar vein, it is time to fix the historical record on the origins of democracy.
The evidence for republics in ancient India has always been available in plain sight. In the Mahabharata’s Shanti Parva, republics (ganas) are mentioned along with the essential features of administering them. The Vedas describe at least two forms of republican governance. The first would consist of elected kings. This has always been seen as an early form of democracy, later practiced in Europe, especially in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th-18th centuries.
The second form described in the Vedas is that of rule without a monarch, with power vested in a council or sabha. The membership of such sabhas was not always determined by birth, but they often comprised people who had distinguished themselves by their actions. There is even a hint of the modern bicameral system of legislatures, with the sabha often sharing power with the samiti, which was made up of common people. The “vidhaata”, or the assembly of people for debating policy, military matters and important issues impacting all, has been mentioned more than a hundred times in the Rig Veda. Both women and men took part in these deliberations, a far cry from the Greeks who did not admit women (or slaves) as full citizens of their “democracies”.
Other sources appear in the Ashtadhyayi of Panini, the Arthashastra of Kautilya, as well as a variety of ancient Buddhist and Jain writings. 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. The Lichchavi state of Vaishali, in particular, deserves special mention. Buddhist writings describe in detail Vaishali’s rivalry with neighboring Magadha, which was a monarchy. The long battle of attrition between Magadha and Vaishali, which the former won, was a fight also between two systems of governance, ganatantra and rajatantra. Had the Lichchavis won, the trajectory of governance may well have been non-monarchical in the Subcontinent.
Was the rajatantra an “off with his head” kind of system with concentration of powers in one person? No. Instead, any state is thought of as composed of seven elements. The first three, according to Kautilya, are swami or the king, amatya or the ministers (administration) and janapada or the people. The king must function on the advice of the amatyas for the good of the people. The ministers are appointed from amongst the people (the Arthashastra also mentions entrance tests). As per the Arthashastra, in the happiness and benefit of his people lies the happiness and benefit of the King. Isn’t this the lodestone of democracy?
It would be unreasonable to expect republics in ancient India, as with the Greek city of Athens, to have developed full-fledged democratic institutions as we understand them today. As late as the 1780s, when America was founded, voting rights were restricted to (white) males who owned property or paid taxes, which amounted to a mere six percent of the population. The idiosyncrasies of that old system are still visible today. As with scientific advancement, democracy remains and will always be a work in progress.
Another criticism of the idea of India as the “mother of democracy” would be that there is no surviving direct line between the ancient ganas and the modern republic of India. However, the same applies to ancient Greek city-states. If the line survives, it is as a way of thinking. The stability of India’s democratic institutions is more or less an exception among post-colonial states since 1945. This is best explained by an ancient system of thought that contains expressions of democracy.
Why is it so important in the 21st century for us to recognize the origins of democracy in ancient India? There are at least two reasons. First, as a growing power on the world stage, India has to offer its own narrative on world history, as well as provide the world with a vision. We as a nation are not aspiring upstarts. We are the nation that inspired great journeys, from those of Alexander to the voyage of Columbus.
The other reason relates to the general loss of confidence in the US. The power struggles of the near future are becoming clear. It is also a struggle to define history and take it forward. At this time, an India that sees its own democracy as a pale imitation of an Anglo-American system is neither good for itself nor the world.
Banerjee is a scientist, columnist and author. Verma Ojha is a historian, author of historical fiction series, ‘Urnabhih’