The principles of sovereignty, democracy, and equal justice for all citizens weren’t foreign concepts but were deeply rooted in ancient Bharat since its inception. Unfortunately, due to numerous invasions and external influences on our land, the rich historical legacy of Bharatiya governance has been overshadowed. Despite this misconception, these ideals were intrinsic to our nation’s ancient history and were practised for over 8500 years, evident even in Rigveda, one of the oldest texts in the world.
The concept of sovereignty existed in ancient Bharat, albeit shaped by the distinct philosophy of the time and influenced by unique circumstances. Its evolution was intertwined with religious conflicts and a shift in power from kings to the people. While religious influence was significant in Bharatiya society and state affairs, the widespread presence of popular influence varied across different kingdoms. Understanding the evolution of administrative systems and legal frameworks in ancient Bharat is crucial to comprehend the development of the sovereignty concept. However, this inquiry cannot disregard the social and religious growth, as religion played a dominant role in organising society and governing the state.
The Rigveda portrays a patriarchal society leading to a monarchical Rastra. Initially, kingship was largely elective but gradually transitioned into a hereditary system. Governance involved the Samiti (tribal assembly) and Sabha (council of elders), likely responsible for selecting and supporting the king in times of need. The king didn’t demand regular tribute but relied on voluntary offerings. As successful war leaders emerged due to frequent conflicts among various Bharatiya groups, a class of rulers known as the Rajanyas began to take shape, marking the incipient stages of an organised societal structure.
Classes, not castes in the Rigveda
But besides these two occupations, we seem to have in the Rigveda traces of others, such as carpenters, doctors,” grinders of corn, poets, etc. One of the verses 1 ‘1 makes it perfectly clear, that professions were hot generally hereditary and this is further strengthened by the instance of Visvamitra who was not born into the priestly class and yet became a priest. That was again true of Devapi. Further it is not the priests alone who were the composers of Rigvedic hymns; there were princes also. Vitahavya or Bharadvaja is said to have composed Bk. vi, 15; Sindhudvipa Bk. x, 133; Mandhatti Bk. x, 133; Sibi Bk. x, 179; and Prthu Vainya Bk. x, 148. In Book viii, 9, 10, Prthu Vainya is mentioned with three Rsis. In Bk. in, 34, 9 we read of the colour of the Bharatiyas as a class contrasted with that of the Dasyus. Further in Book lii, 49, 1, mention is made of ‘‘all the tribes drinking Soma have obtained their desire.” The cumulative evidence of these verses points to the conclusions that there were classes not castes, that there were groupings according to occupation and that these groupings were in a fluid state. It is just possible that kingship was hereditary amongst certain tribes, but it does not prove that there was a caste of rulers and warriors. There were functions, that is, of rulers, warriors, farmers, sacrificers, poets, carpenters, etc., but these did not intersect the society into rigid sections or castes. It was the occupation that counted, not birth. This state of society points to a good deal of laxity in social grouping. It was a period of social growth, of adaptation to new environments, of expansion and adjustment that we find pictured in Rigveda. But if the integral elements of social structure were in a state of flux, the ethical elements had become fixed and pronounced. The conception of Vanina as essentially an ethical god whose ordinances are fixed and unassailable (iii, 54, 18) is a great step taken in the direction of moral development. Further the fact that sin and crime had come to be recognised strengthens our inference.
During this era, the king’s authority and governmental roles hinted at the early concept of sovereignty known as Vedic Ksatra or Ksatrasri, closely tied to the Ksatriya ruler. Ksatrasri, representing the Ksatriya class, was responsible for upholding the Law, protecting the realm, and ensuring the safety of the people. Sovereignty was directly associated with the king’s power, essential for preserving the core values of the Bharatiya culture, particularly the spirit of sacrifice that distinguished Bharatiyas from those adhering to Anrta. The reference to Mitra-Varuna as kings suggested an expectation for earthly rulers to mirror their virtues, preserving the Bharatiya culture by subduing non-Bharatiyas, notably through fire-sacrifice rituals. The authority of the king relied on possessing Ksatrasri, defending the Bharatiya culture, safeguarding the realm, providing security, and fostering peace among the populace, thereby earning their affection. The Vedic king frequently engaged in battles against both Bharatiya and Non-Bharatiya adversaries, highlighting the significance of power as a determining factor in his prestige. Consequently, the king aimed to be unrivaled within his domain, symbolising supremacy by triumphing over rivals.
Kingship, purely Secular
The pivotal development during this period was the establishment of kingship as a fundamental institution intertwined with the essence of the Rastra. Its origin stemmed from human necessities and, akin to these needs, was believed to possess eternal significance. The genesis of kingship is described in a later, somewhat embellished account: “The Devas and Asuras engaged in battle. The Asuras emerged victorious. The Devas concluded, ‘It’s due to our lack of a leader—Arajataya—that we are defeated by the Asuras. Let us appoint a Rajan (king).’ All consented.” This narrative, while a later interpretation, echoes the conflict between Bharatiyas and Non-Bharatiyas that catalysed kingship in the early Vedic era. It highlights kingship’s nature as a response to a crucial necessity: the requirement for a leader in times of war.
Consequently, Vedic kingship predominantly embodied power, essential for overcoming adversaries of Rta (the nature of law in the Vedic ages was described as Rta for universal order and harmony), upholding Dharma, and ensuring the populace’s security. In Vedic society, kingship was synonymous with the utmost prestige and honor. At times, kings such as Trasadasyu of the Purus even proclaimed themselves divine. Nonetheless, kingship remained a secular and populist institution devoid of the sacred or religious connotations that would later envelop it in the Brahmana period.
Yet, the king’s role as the guardian of the Bharatiya way of life, enforcer of Dharma through the punishment of Droha (treason), and ultimately the protector of the Rastra (State) established a template that guided subsequent epochs of Ancient Bharatn history.
The example of the secular nature of the Bharatiya king was seen in the construction of Cheraman Juma Masjid in the Muziris mosque was built in 629 A.D by Malik Ibn Dinar in Thrissur in Kerala, during the Hindu Dynastic King of Chera Late Cheraman Perumal in the modern-day Kerala. Another example of secular nature of King of ancient Bharat has been seen in the construction St. Thomas Church, Palayoor is located at Palayur (also spelled Palayoor), in Thrissur district in Kerala on the west coast of Bharat and was established in 52 A.D by St Thomas. This Church was built under the patronage of the King of Venad, Nedum Cheralathan. These are the two examples of the secular nature of Hindu King and many more were there in ancient Bharat which indicates that Hindu are secular by nature/birth and that is why our country has so many religions and belief survives together.
The concept of Republic of Ancient Bharat
Republics with sovereign authority must have originated very early in Bharat. Some of them survived with complete or modified independence down to the fourth century B.C.
These are mentioned, not only in Buddhist and Jaina records, but also in the Greek and Latin literature on Bharat and Alexander, as well as in the Sanskrit epics and treatises on politics. The Hindus of the Vedic age were familiar with republican nationalities. Among the Uttara Kurus and the Uttara Madras the “whole community was consecrated to rulership,” in the language of the Aitareya Brahmana. Such polities were called vairagya, i.e. kingless. Republics are described in the Mahabharata as invincible states in which the rule of “equality” is observed (sadrishah sarve jatya .kulena). “Neither prowess nor cleverness can overthrow them; they can be overthrown by the enemies only through the policy of division and subsidy.” The men who constituted the executive of such kingless polities were called Rajan or kings. The title reminds one of the impressions which the Senate of republican Rome left on the emissaries of Pyrrhus of spirus. They described it as an “assembly of kings.” During the lifetime of Shakyasimha, the Buddha (B. C. 557-477), the Sakiyas and the Vajjians were the most important republican clans in the eastern provinces of Bharat. The territory of the Sakiya republic covered about fifty miles east to west, and thirty or forty miles southward from the foot of the Himalayas. The population numbered about one million.
The Videhas had at first been monarchical with jurisdiction over an area twenty-three hundred miles in circumference. But they abolished the regal polity, and joined the Vesali and six other peoples to form the powerful Confederacy of the Vajjians. The administrative and judicial business of the Sakiya republic was “carried out in public assembly, at which young and old were alike present, in the common mote hall. A single chief was elected as office- holder presiding over the sessions, and if no sessions were sitting, over the state. He bore the title of raja, which must have meant something like the Roman consul or the Greek archon.” Besides this mote hall at the principal town we hear “of others at some of the other towns. And no doubt all the more important places had such a hall or pavilion.
Buddha himself was a stanch republican in political views. We have the following conversation between him and his disciple, “the venerable Ananda,” in the Maha-pari- nibbana-suttanta:
“Have you heard, Ananda, that the Vajjians foregather often and frequent the public meetings of the clans?”
“Lord, so I have heard,” replied he.
“So long, Ananda,” rejoined the Blessed One (Buddha), “as the Vajjians foregather thus often, and frequent the public meetings of their clan, so long may they be expected not to decline but to prosper.”
In the later period, we find that it was with the powerful military republics that Alexander had to measure his strength in his march through the Punjab and Sindh (B.C. 326). The most important of them were the Arattas, the Ksudrakas, the Khattiyas, and the Malavas. The political constitution of the city of Patala, near the apex of the delta of the Indus, was, according to Diodorus, drawn “on the same lines as the Spartan.” For in this community “the command in war vested in two hereditary kings of two different houses, while a council of elders ruled the whole state with paramount authority.” The republic of the Arattas (Arastrakas, i.e. kingless) came to the help of Chandragupta Maurya when a few years later he commanded a successful crusade against the Greeks of the Bharat borderland.
The nucleus of civic life was the assembly. The same Bharatiya institution was called agora in Greece, comitia in Rome, Gernot aniong the Saxons, and sabha among the Hindus. This assembly of the whole folk, variously called sabha, samiti, samsad, sanigati, etc.?, was the legislature, as well as the judiciary, nay, the army too. The temper of the people was vehemently democratic; the village, or rather the tribe, was the unit of political life; administration was carried on by public discussion; animated speeches must have been a characteristic feature of that society. In the Atharva Veda (circa B.C. 1000 – 800) we listen to an almost nc-odern harangue in the interest of political unity and concord: “Do ye concur; be ye closely combined; let your minds be concurrent; as the gods of old sat concurrent about their portion.
Collectivism in production has also been a regular feature of economic life in Bharat. As early as the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. We hear of gilds or corporations of butchers, leather workers, fishermen, sailors, dyers, ivory workers, metallurgists, etc. Even the evils of modem capitalism, of trusts and corners, seem to have been experienced by the people. In the Artha-shastra (fourth century B.C.) we read that the middlemen, the merchants, used to raise prices by concerted action among themselves, so that profits sometimes went as high as cent per cent. The socialistic legislators of the day were compelled to interfere in matters of exchange on behalf of the consumers. Kautilya penalised “such large profits as are ruinous to the people.
Criminal Law in Ancient Bharat
As human civilisation progressed, the shift towards living in societies rather than smaller groups became more convenient. Initially, relationships based on blood ties gave way to larger social associations. During the early stages of Bharatiya civilisation, great emphasis was placed on Dharma. People abided by Dharma voluntarily, eliminating the need for external authority to enforce laws. This stateless society was characterised by mutual respect, minimising selfishness and exploitation. However, this ideal societal structure faltered due to population growth and resource scarcity. Despite the prevailing belief in Dharma, faith in God, and a sense of reverence, society began to deteriorate. Exploitation of the weaker sections by some individuals became rampant, leading to the dominance of the strong over the weak.
In response, law-abiding citizens sought a solution, leading to the emergence of the institution of the King and the establishment of the State. The primary objective was to safeguard the people’s rights and property. Consequently, the King organised a system to uphold laws and punish violators, known as the “criminal justice system.” While evidence of an organised society existed during the pre-Vedic era in the Indus Valley civilisation, the traces of a formal criminal justice system surfaced during the Vedic period when clear laws were formulated. The Vedas serve as the oldest literature, outlining societal conduct and guidelines for the King’s governance.
During the period spanning around 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1000, known as the Hindu period due to the dominance of Hindu law, the administration in ancient Bharat (India) was predominantly monarchial, with elements tracing back to the early Vedic era. The King held the responsibility of maintaining law and order, supported by advisors or assistants. Provinces, divisions, and districts constituted the administrative structure, with appointed governors and district officers handling judicial and administrative tasks.
Cities were governed by officials called Nagarka, overseeing law enforcement, civic regulations, and citizen census. Villages were fundamental units, led by a village headman representing the King’s authority, along with a Village Council or Panchayat. Early Vedic polity saw the establishment of popular assemblies like Sabha and Samiti, which evolved over time into more restricted bodies, losing their initial democratic essence.
The pre-Mauryan age marked the initiation of a formal state judicial system. The Mauryan period (circa 326-185 B.C.) bridged the gap between different epochs of ancient Bharat’s criminal justice administration, incorporating elements from earlier laws and codes. Ashoka, even after converting to Buddhism, retained the death penalty but introduced a brief respite before execution.
The Mauryan administration continued the urban and rural judicial divisions, the state police system, and the prison administration from preceding periods. Foreign dynasties such as the Indo-Greeks and Kushanas introduced variations in governance, adapting their own systems. The Guptas (circa A.D. 320-550) established an imperial-style administration, reorganising provincial structures and innovating in local governance by involving popular representatives in Municipal Boards.
King Harshvardhana (A.D. 606-647) in Northern Bharat created an efficient administration, lauded for justice, diligence, piety, and popularity. However, his penal law was comparatively harsh, unlike the Imperial Guptas who maintained exceptional leniency. Various regions like the Deccan under the Imperial Chalukyas of Vatapi and the Rajput states in Northern Bharat had distinct administrative styles. The overall criminal justice system in ancient Bharat was influenced by the concept of Dharma (law), evolving across different periods and dynasties.
The legal system of ancient Bharat (India) is extensively detailed in books like the Dharmashastra, a category of Sanskrit texts dealing with Hinduism’s moral laws and principles. These texts served as ancient law books guiding devout duty and moral conduct for Hindu followers. While Hindu monarchs enforced these laws as part of their religious obligation, the extent of their imposition across society’s diverse sections remains uncertain due to India’s heterogeneous and complex nature. Nevertheless, the Dharmashastra shed light on ancient India’s social and religious conditions, family life, gender and caste distinctions, and legal principles. They contain the rudiments of many social, religious, and legal practices found in modern Hindu civilisation. So, it is unwise to state that all the constitutional values are of European or Western origin. These are all gifts of our value-based society, and total anarchy came into our nation during the Mughal Invasion and from then onwards, the society moves towards an anarchic society instead of a society which were the followers of Dharmashastra, Nitishastra and Sukraniti.