Looking closely at history, we find that labeling India as ‘the mother of democracy’ is not an exaggeration
India’s ongoing and gradual development of many systems of governance that are distributed through diverse institutions is one of its most notable features. Somadeva Sri of the 10th century correctly recognised in his seminal work Nitivakyamitra “atha dharmarthaphalaya rajyaya namah,” the system of government as a provider of dharma and artha. The distinctive achievement of Indian culture is this idealisation. These mechanisms were designed to meet the requirements of her regular social life.
Our current democratic institutions are not the result of a single historical event, but rather of thousands of years of cultural development. The Vedic literature, the Smritis, the Epics, the Purana literature, the Sutra literature, the play, the poetry, and the different folk stories are only a few of the many materials we have to comprehend the early Indian social systems infused with democratic features.
From the Vedic era onward, various words designating this collective arrangement were continuously in use in early India.
It is also true that different thinkers defined these phrases differently, making it challenging to determine their precise sense. It goes without saying that some of these interpretations were made with the goal of misrepresenting our past. Early India’s social and political life was governed by samiti, sabha, kula, gana, Jati, puga, vrata, sreni, samgha, samudaya, sambhuya-samutthana, charana, and parisat.
The Vedas frequently use “coming together” or “assembly” to refer to gatherings where both political and non-political issues were discussed. They depict a democratic committee with the authority to reinstate a deposed ruler. The renowned Vedic scholar Sayana reveals an extremely intriguing detail about the sabha “its resolution, which has been made by many, cannot be broken”. The Atharvaveda makes use of the word “sansad” for gatherings that are comparable to today’s Parliament.
India experienced a diverse set of self-governing systems with the development of urban centers in the post-Vedic culture, where samiti and sabha paved the way for the establishment of additional systems like gana, samgha, and sreni. The creation of numerous ganas, the republican form of government, occurred throughout this Buddhist-Jain era. Many institutions with democratic inclinations have been founded during this phase. The ideas of gana and samgha have evolved at this stage. According to Jain teachings, gana is an assembly with a conscious mind that makes decisions. According to this, gana is a number and gana-rajya is a rule based on numbers. In those days, an assembly or parliament was known as a gana, and that body’s governance was known as ganarajya.
The Sanskrit grammarian Panini asserts in his seminal work Astadhyayi that the word samgha has the same meaning as gana. While Kautilya classified samgha as sastropajivin and rajasabdopajivin in the third century B.C., Panini referred to them as ayudhajivin.
The two perspectives can be reconciled to show that there were samghas, each of which members observed the practise of military art, and each of which had a ruler who observed the practise of accepting the title of rajan word. The Majjhima Nikaya lists 16 of its era’s mahajanapadas, while simultaneously using the gana and samgha in the phrase “imesa pi hi, bho gotama, samghan ganan- seyyathida vajjina mallana”.
Samgha can be viewed as a group or state, while gana can be viewed as a form of government. The Santi Parva of the Mahabharata contains one of the best examinations of the characteristics and conduct of a gana as a political group. The confederacy or communal living is what makes the gana what it is (samghata vritti). The definition of sreni by thinkers like Panini, Kaiyata, Veda Vyasa, and Narada is a gathering of people engaged in a common craft or business – “eken silpena panyena va ye jivanti tesam samuhah srenih”.
Sreni behaves like a self-contained entity. The term “sresthin” refers to their head or chief. These guilds have a solid reputation in the community. The policies of the local government were discussed at regular Sreni meetings. These Srenis have the authority to establish the guidelines for their own social group, and the king must consult them when deciding on any policies that affect them.
The srenis also represent a business structure with a clear area of jurisdiction. The state assumes responsibility over these srenis by appointing bhandagarika. It is significant that different guilds had strong relationships with Tamraparni (Sri Lanka), Suvarnabhumi (Sumatra), and Baveru in addition to establishing internal commercial relations (Babylonia).
The names samgha and sreni actually represent early political structures and have been used continuously for millennia. Early India had significant advancements in the arts, manufacturing, and agriculture, which inexorably prompted the emergence of the srenis. The words sresthin, sraisthya, and sreni are frequently used in the Vedas, Brahmana scriptures, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Pali literature. Sresthin and sraisthaya are terms for the head of a guild.
Ramayana depicts a fascinating scene where a procession of citizens, including gem-cutters, potters, weavers, armourers, ivory workers, renowned goldsmiths, merchants, washermen, tailors, actors, actresses, doctors, wool producers, perfume makers, and brahmanas of noble character, accompanied Bharata in search of Rama. This episode makes us reflect on how these guilds helped the society establish its own self-governing system.
Mahabharata also discussed these guilds’ function and significance in maintaining the system. Buddha received the renowned Jetavana garden as a gift from a wealthy Sresthin named Anatha Pindika of Sravasti. The leaders of five crafts were given the responsibility of serving as messengers to deliver Kitti Srimegha’s greeting to his son Parakrama, according to Mahavamsa, the historical account of Ceylon. The Harsacarita of Bana recalls the group of talented painters who were invited to a princess’ wedding. The Harivamsa further mentions that several royal families were present to witness the combat between Krishna and Balarama.
Numerous epigraphical examples support the same claim. Sanchi, Bharhut, Bodhgaya, Mathura, Junnar, and South Indian inscriptions, among others, chronicle presents given by a number of well-known guilds of oil millers, potters, hydraulic engine manufacturers, maize traders, bamboo workers, weavers, and many more. There are also numerous inscriptions that demonstrate the connection between the srenis and the royal power.
Thus, a strong feeling of self-governance was deeply ingrained in the founding ethos of Sreni and Samgha. The entire framework was designed to provide emerging congregations and cooperatives an institutional perspective. These social institutions had a democratic structure and served as early Indian examples of community management and social management.
When we look closely at history and try to understand the facts, we see that labeling India “the mother of democracy” is not an exaggeration. The movement to reconsider our past and shastriya tradition has gathered steam in recent years, and the results have been nothing short of astounding. One such truth is “India, the mother of democracy” and we should be proud of that.
(The author is Member Secretary, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi)