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Updated on September 5, 2010


Many are under the impression that it was monarchy which was prevalent all over India in ancient times and democracy was an alien concept. But the reality is that there were isolated pockets of republics in northern India, which were democratic and reminiscent of the Greek and Roman republics.

By 600 BC Aryan tribes ceased to be nomadic and began to lead a settled existence. With the possession of specific areas of settlement, there arose the need for political organizations. Two forms of political organizations evolved in this process.

a. Monarchies which were around the Gangetic plain

b. Republics in the Himalayan foothills and north western India.

Major Indian republics were all single tribes like the SHAKYAS the tribe into which Gautama Buddha was born, JNATRIKA, KOLIYA and MALLA. There were also confederacy of tribes like the VRIJIS and YADAVAS.

In 1903, T.W. Rhys Davids, the leading Pali scholar, pointed out in his book Buddhist India that there were many clans, dominating extensive and populous territories, who made their public decisions in assemblies, moots, or parliaments. Coins and inscriptions have documented the existence of republics and the workings of such popular assemblies.

References to republics are also found in the writings of Greek historians like Arrian in his Anabasis of Alexander, Diodorus Siculus on the exploits of Alexander and the writings of Megasthenes the Greek ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya.

Indian writings too mention about these republics. The most important source are the PALI CANON, Panini’s ASHTADHYAYI and Kautilya’s ARTHASHASTRA. It is clear from Panini that egalitarianism was an important element in the fifth century B.C

Decision making in republican governments were participatory in nature with the RAJA or the chieftain arriving at it, in consultation with the members of the assembly. In the early period the office was not hereditary.

An interesting aspect of the republic was that in the caste hierarchy the KSHATRIYAS came first and the BRAHIMINS second, which was contradictory to the traditional hierarchy. Scholars are of the opinion that, this probably explains the heterodox and non-Brahminical nature of Buddhism. Orthodoxy was mostly absent in such republics. Naturally Buddhism flourished in such areas. But this experiment on participative government which began around 500 B.C. faded out 400 A.D. What was remarkable was that it lasted longer than the Athens of Pericles or Republican Rome before the advent of the Caesars.



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