In the United States, Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again reaffirmed that India not only holds the distinction of being the largest democracy in the world but also proudly claims to be the mother of democracy.
With utmost clarity, he stated, “India’s DNA is intertwined with democracy. Democracy courses through our collective spirit, pulsating in our very veins. We embody democracy, living and breathing its essence. Our predecessors eloquently captured its essence in the form of our constitution, upon which our government is built, firmly rooted in the fundamental principles of democracy. The democratic values of India leave no room for discrimination based on religion, caste, creed, gender, age, region, and more. The undeniable truth is that democracy is the very soul of India, woven into the breath and values of common Indians.”
The development of democratic values and concepts in India is not only based on the Magna Carta, issued in 1215 in England but also on ancient and eternal cultural streams and ways of life-based on cooperation, coordination, and coexistence. In this country, democracy is not just a system of governance but a way of life and perspective that reflects unity in diversity and harmony in differences, nurtured and constructed from the experiences and history of millennia.
In the scriptures like Shruti, Smriti, Puranas, Itihasa, Mahakavya, etc., there are references to many words and institutions such as Vish, Jan, Praja, Gan, Kul, Gram, Janapada, Sabha, Samiti, Parishad, Sangh, Nikay, which indicate that democracy existed in India at that time. From the perspective of Vedic literature, two types of democratic systems emerge, one in which the king was elected and the other in which the power of the state was vested in the Sabha or Parishad. This can be called a ‘Rajadheen’ and a ‘Ganadheen’ system of governance. The election of the Vedic king was done by the people gathered in the assembly.
The Samiti was the supreme institution among the organisations that conducted public affairs. It represented the common people. Decisions were made through discussion and mutual agreement. On the other hand, the Sabha worked under the Samiti. It gave special importance to the elderly and experienced people. It was a permanent institution of selected people. From the beginning to the end of the state coronation described in the Satpath Brahman, it is clear that before the king received the royal position, he had to obtain permission from various parts of the nation, representing different parts of the nation’s ‘Mitti, Jal, Varna, Vayu, Parvat’ and the entire ‘Praja‘.
It was not possible for him to be arbitrary. He had to seek the advice of the council of ministers, the approval of the assembly, and the welfare of the people. Even the process and system for his re-election was determined. It is notable that membership in the committee and assembly was based on merit rather than birth. The Rigveda mentions the Vidatha assembly, which was used for discussion and regulation of important issues related to policy, military and public welfare, and more than a hundred times.
There are many instances in the Ramayana and Mahabharata which indicate that the king gave special importance to the opinions of the people, the representatives of the janapads, and the advice of the council of ministers in the decision-making process. Even in the tragic story of Bhagwan Rama’s abandonment of Mother Sita, the king’s intention to prioritize public opinion is evident. The king was not arbitrary and dictatorial. He was bound by principles, morals, traditions, and public decorum.
King Dasharatha and his guru Vasishtha show young prince Rama that the constant concern for the welfare and ill-being of the people, and continuous consultation and discussion with ministers, generals, and officers are the chief duties of the king. The reason for King Dasharatha’s successful reign is the participation of his council of ministers in the major affairs of the state, which comprised of eight ministers. The role of a vast council of ministers in King Dasharatha’s state-related or any other scheme-related matters illustrates his democratic vision. Chapters 107/108 of the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata provide a detailed description of the characteristics of the ‘Ganarajyas’ (republic).
It is stated that when there is unity among the people of a republic, it becomes powerful and its people become prosperous, but in times of internal conflict, they are destroyed. In the same Parva, Bhishma advises Yudhishthira on the establishment of a welfare state, stating that a king should protect the welfare of his subjects and follow the path of righteousness, and be responsible to the members of the assembly, the common people, and the citizens. The Mahabharata provides sufficient references to the qualifications of assembly members, the importance of the Ganas, the process of their formation and construction, their working procedures, and their administrative responsibilities.
It is known from Buddhist and Jain scriptures that during the time of BhagwanMahavira and Bhagwan Buddha, there were many republics in the northeastern part of India. Among these, the prominent ones were Licchavi of Vaishali, Shakya of Kapilavastu, Bhagg of Sumsumara Parvat, Kalama of Kesaputta, Koliya of Ramagram, Mall of Kushinara, Mall of Pava, Moriya of Pippalivana, Videha of Mithila, and Buli of Alakalp. Licchavi was so powerful and prestigious that it stood as the main obstacle in the rise and expansion of the contemporary Magadha state.
The Licchavis along with other neighboring republics formed a united federation named Vajji Sangha. The supreme power of these republics resided in a Gan Sabha’ or an institutional hall, which was similar to today’s parliament. The elected official of the executive of the republic was called the chief Nayak or king of that republic. It was the duty of the republic to maintain internal peace and harmony in addition to the general administration. Among other officials, the uparaja, senapati, bhanda-garika, koshadhyaksha, and asanpannaapak were prominent.
There were clear and definite rules for completing the quorum, submitting proposals, and counting votes. If there was opposition or disagreement, secret voting was arranged by means of shells. The voting officer was called a shalaka-grahak. Each member or elder of the assembly of the ganasabha had the federal title of “raja”. According to the Ekpanna Jataka, there were 7,707 kings (members) in the central committee of the Lichchavi Republic, and the number of uparajas, senapatis, and koshadhyakshas was also the same.
Similarly, in another place, the number of members of the Shakya Republic’s assembly was 500, and the central council of the Yaudhey Republic was said to have 5,000 members. The convening of the councils was regular, just like the current parliamentary session. Generally, the ganasabha had complete control over the activities of the republics. There was usually a council of ministers in the republics, consisting of four to twenty members. The ganadhyaksha was the head of the council of ministers. The appointment of high officials, ministers, and rulers of the state was also made by the ganasabha. This central committee (ganasabha) also functioned as the highest judicial institution.
From the Buddhist scripture “Avadanasataka” of the second century A.D., it can be inferred that some states in South India were under the control of republics and some were under the control of kings. The Jain scripture “Acharanga Sutra” warns monks to avoid places where there is a republican government.
Panini also has described the ‘sangha’ and ‘gan’ as different from the monarchy and considers the “gan” to be synonymous with the “sangha”. In Kautilya’s “Arthashastra”, two types of sanghas are mentioned: the “varta-shastrotpjivi”, who were dependent on trade, agriculture, animal husbandry and war, and the “rajashabdopjivi”, who held the title of king. The first category includes the Kambojas, Saurashtras and the second category includes the Lichchavis, Vrijjis, Mallas, Madras, Kukuras, Panchalas, etc. In fact, both “sangha” and “gan” were political institutions used in the same sense.
According to the “Arthashastra” of Kautilya, the king should work for the welfare of the people on the advice of ministers. Ministers should be appointed with the consent of the people. Their advice was that the happiness and prosperity of the people lie in the happiness and prosperity of the king.
Greek-Roman writers also recognized the existence of republics in ancient India. According to them, during Alexander’s invasion, there were several republics in Punjab and Sindh that were different from monarchies. When returning, Alexander encountered republics such as Malav, Ambashth, and Kshudrak. Information about republics can also be obtained from coins. Coins of republics such as Malav, Arjunayan, and Yaudhey have the mention of the Ganas instead of the king. Megasthenes also wrote in his travelogue that at that time, republican rule prevailed in many provinces and cities of India.
Similarly, the inscriptions at Uttaramerur in Kanchipuram, dating back to the first half of the tenth century during the reign of Parantaka Chola I, provide detailed and authentic information about the various dimensions and practices of the contemporary democratic system. These include the eligibility of candidates, the process of their selection and voting, determination and division of tasks, and rules for recalling elected candidates. The electoral process at that time was so transparent that it mandated the public declaration of at least one property qualification among the mandatory qualifications of the candidates.
It is worth recalling that many years prior to Magna Carta in England, the famous poet, philosopher, social reformer, and founder of the Lingayat sect, Saint Basaveshwara had established the Anubhava Mantapa in Karnataka, which is recognized as India’s first and most important parliament. It was an open and public forum where people from all sections of society attempted to engage in free discussions on economic, religious, social, and political issues in an effort to reach conclusions and solutions. Based on numerous strong evidence and solid facts, it can undoubtedly be said that not only did democracy exist in ancient India, but many republics also established their ideal form and structure. If democracy is strong, vibrant, and dynamic in BharatVarsha with different religious beliefs, dozens of languages, and hundreds of dialects, then the credit for this goes to these ancient republics of India.
The roots of Indian democracy are so deep and extensive that the entire world, including Europe and America, takes inspiration from it. But for the fulfilment of vested interests and political ambitions, today many forces inside and outside the country try to raise questions about India’s glorious democracy from time to time, which is absolutely unfair and extremely unfortunate. These baseless questions not only deviate from the truth but also reveal a sense of disregard and lack of understanding towards India’s rich democratic traditions, heritage, and values.