Ancient Indian republics

Nepal, the country at the feet of Himalaya, abolished monarchy only quite recently, in the year 2008. In Nepali, the state is currently called Saṅghīya Lokatāntrika Gaṇatantra Nepāla – Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.

Strikingly, if you somehow went back twenty five centuries in a time machine, words like saṅghīya – now ‘federal’, back then more connected to the concept of a ‘council’, and gaṇatantra – ‘system of the people, the multitude‘ or ‘republic’ could very well had made sense to people speaking languages descended from ancient Sanskrit. Similarly with the Hindi name of India, Bhārat Gaṇarājya.

This is because the north of India and what is now Nepal used to contain political entities which recognized no high authority of a hereditary monarch. Instead, these communities had systems based more on rules, collegial institutions and consent of thousands of citizens. Looking at this history is a good opportunity for students of European republicanism to broaden their views, and this piece is an attempt at that.

Romita Thapar, author of History of Early India, calls the consent-based chiefdoms the gana-sangha. She writes:

The persistence of the gana-sanghas in Indian history was quite remarkable, especially in the northern and western regions. Despite being conquered periodically, their resilience was demonstrated by their reappearance and continued presence until the mid-first millennium AD. [Thapar, 137]

These places were also the forming grounds of two of the major religions of India: Buddhism and Jainism. Around the middle of the first millennium BCE northern India and Nepal were being introduced to life in cities, with large public buildings, commerce, the use of iron, an artisan class and in general, a population that could now be more removed from rural circumstances.

Note that the west of India and today’s Pakistan already went through a flourishing of a urban Indus Valley, or Harappan Civilization much earlier—between years around 2600 and 1900 BCE. There is much speculation about its egalitarian social system, but since they’re based purely on archeology, it’s hard to know any specifics (1).

The free Eastern backwater?

Later republican tribes or “chiefdoms” tended to occupy relatively more remote, mountainous and less fertile areas. This led historians to suspecting that we are observing more rebellious and dissenting elements, at least among the warrior class, flocking to the fringes of the then-civilized world [Thapar, 147]. This world was divided between sixteen Great States – mahajanapadas – among which the Vajji (and, in some measure, its grand enemy: Magadha) will be of our principal interest.

Despite the expansion of city dwelling, there were still many signs of the older, tribal way of life. Many political entities, such as our later interest, Licchavis, were at least notionally large “clans” claiming common descent. For example, the Sanskrit term viś started in the early age of Vedas as one referring to the people, a tribe, an ethnic group of people [Sharma, 26-27, 32]. Later it started to mean ‘settlement’. Similar allusions to tribalism were present in organization of the ancient Rome, where some voting was conducted by “tribes” (tribus) and Athens, where official “tribes” of citizens were called phylae.

There was evidently some kind of controversy between inhabitants of the Himalaya foothills and the mainstream Vedic society. The latter occupied mainly lands to the West (nearer today’s Delhi), such as the Kuru Kingdom.

These people were more conformant to the rituals and social structures prescribed by important Hindu religious texts, such as the younger parts of the Vedas, and the Puranas. In the classic Vedic world view–the so-called Brahmanic tradition, leading to modern Hinduism–the most prestigious class in the society are brahmins (priests), followed by kshatriyas (fighting-men), vaishyas (farments, merchants) and shudras (laborers). This is known as the varna system – sometimes confused with castes (jati), which are more numerous and complex.

The ruling class of northern republics was, in contrast to the Brahmanic system, the warrior Kshatriyas. They apparently snubbed various rules and rituals of the Brahmanic tradition. The mere absence of kingship was something of an affront to it. Buddhic texts mention an assembly of countrymen of the Buddha, the Sakyas, laughing out a pompous Brahmin named Ambattha [Singh, 267]. On the other hand, a Brahmanic writer called a republican tribe vratyakshatriyas, warriors who were not properly initiated and degraded themselves [Sharma, 181]. Even Brahmani from monarchist Magadha did not command the full respect; it could have been enough that they lived in the east [Sharma, 137-138].

Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, preaches to laymen (which would likely be Vaishalian kshatriyas) and monks. Religious art.

Of course the texts that we have today are biased towards their religions of origin, but the overall cultural distrust is clear. It is possible that the Vajji Confederation, for example, represented a different path of evolution from the same more archaic way of life, compared to the likes of kingdoms of Kuru or Panchala, which had their own strong sense of Brahmanic sacredness. As far as we know, the mature four-fold varna system was in fact an innovation, not a primordial rule.

Thus the key social distinction in the republics was between the ruling warrior nobility kshatriya – included in elective institutions – and the rest, placed outside of the political system and civic rights bestowed by it. In some respects, it could remind people familiar with Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the concept of “noble democracy” in the centuries 16th to 18th CE.

Not all historians are eager to describe ancient Indian ganasanghas as republics, because they were (probably) very oligarchic. One must agree that ancient republican governments, based on assemblies and councils, obviously differed from modern systems based on parliaments and political parties.

What isn’t enlightening is blanket statements (sometimes found in historiography) that historical states were somehow not republics – based on an assertion that they can be treated as oligarchies, where modern states are presented as comparison. It is also common for democracies of today to be de facto ruled by political dynasties, big money aristocracies and other elites. Even in the USA, who often present themselves as a paragon of democracy, political scientists conclude that not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions, they have little or no independent influence on policy at all (2). This provides context in which to view censures thrown at ancient Roman Republic and others. There still existed, and exists, the fundamental difference between those and systems based on sovereign power over the people.

On the day we will throw away fifty or seventy percent of today’s “republics” and “democracies” on similar basis and call them oligarchies in common discourse, I would revisit picky evaluations by historians. (Of course, an oligarchy can be technically a republic, but I think what we mean here is that in a republic a procedure should be more important than a clique.) Until then, it is applying loftier standards to historical entities that is misleading. It gives anything in the present a pass for free, and if anything, supports today’s old school oligarchies by giving them an undeserved aura of modernity.

Of course, one must be aware that any republic until the French Revolution and some time beyond was only ruled by the class of politically free males conscriptable to the military. For the longest time – until equality before the law was fully introduced in the 19th century, in most places – these classes were clear minorities. But this was an element of gradual progress of societies, and development of ideas that led to modern democratic systems. There is most likely no possible timeline where these intermediate stages could be skipped.

Sakyas and the origins of Gautama Buddha

There are a number of ancient Indian political entities for each republican system is claimed, in the sense of having a system of rules, instead of one hereditary ruler. Among those is the tribe of Vrishni, appearing in the ancient epic Mahabharata; and a few ganas that resisted Alexander of Macedon when he reached the river Indus with his army, such as Malavas and Kshudras (Malloi and Oxydrakai in Greek sources). These I will skip for today.

Instead, I will follow critically the old work of Jagdish P. Sharma, Republics in Ancient India (1968). Sharma was born in Northern India, in a family of a farmer, before becoming a scholar and teaching at the University of Hawaii for many decades since 1960s. In the book he focused on a reconstruction of what can be inferred from the Vedas about really ancient tribal republics (which consists of more technical reasoning and hypotheses), as well as republics of the Indian North-East in the early Buddhist period (in practice until around 5-4th centuries BCE).

Jagdish P. Sharma

Indeed, it makes sense to make a short tour through two of these places using the life of the Buddha as the guideline. This not to deny that the Buddha’s political stances were in fact rather ambivalent and, depending on one’s interpretation, rather dispassionate or cunning. But what is fascinating is that the traditional community rule of Buddhist monks may have preserved many parts of political procedure of the most famous republican tribe, the Licchavis.

First of all, one must be aware that Buddha is a title, meaning The Enlightened (Awakened) One. Although with time Gautama Siddhartha came to be associated with it the most, it could be also applied to other people. Siddhartha is the given name, and Gautama the family name, one of the prestigious Hindu descents—gotra. Siddhartha was born in the tribe of Sakyas, regarded as one of the westernmost republican chiefdoms.

His father, Suddhodana, bore the title of raja. This is often translated as a king, but the word has a range of meanings: proper rajas at the time were more like ‘chiefs’, but any politically active man could be called a raja: J.P. Sharma examines claims about 7707 rajas among the Licchavi [Sharma, 99]. Sharma notices that in some places Suddhodana is described merely as a “clansman” and that probably he was a raja in this loose sense. There’s a tradition, however, that Suddhodana was a powerful and wealthy man, and both he and Siddhartha had aristocratic or perhaps princely wives – Maya (the mother of the Buddha) and Yasodhara (with whom he had a son before abandoning his family for ascetic life).

Legendary aggrandizement would not be surprising for such an important religious figure. We also hear that Buddha entered the womb of his mother Maya as a white elephant, in her dream.

There are many chronologies for the Buddha’s life competing in scholarship, dating his death to years such as 544, 486 or 368 BCE. Upinder Singh in her History of Ancient and Early Medieval India assumes around 480 BCE as a probable date, with her reasoning based – as they generally are for this period – on an intepretation of the later Ashoka Edicts. Incidentally, the age of the Buddha was also roughly the Classical age of Ancient Greece and Athens.

The countrymen of Siddhartha, Sakyas, were at least in the fearful shadow, if not some form of subordination to the neighboring kingdom of Kosala. Kosala, but certainly not Sakyas, was one of the dominant states, mahajanapadas.

The main institution of Sakyas was an assembly (Sakya-gana) consisting of heads of landowning families. These men would be the rajas, while their eldest sons and heirs probably held the title of uparajas, or viceroys. There was also a narrower council conducting every day business, the Sakya-parishad. The hall where the gana assembled was called santhagara – a term commonly used in Indian republics at the time; the Sakyas’ santhagara existed in the city of Kapilavatthu (Kapilavastu). [Sharma, 195-199]. This is one of the ancient cities whose remains have not been conclusively located, but the proposed locations are in today’s southern Nepal.

As was the case for many old assemblies, the decision of the Sakyas was supposed to be unanimous. A similar rule held also for a number of early modern European bodies, such as the Swiss Tagsatzung (Federal Diet), the States General of the Dutch Republic, or the Diet (Sejm) of Poland and Lithuania. These European institutions, however, consisted of representatives of territories, who relied on reaching a consensus by mutual concessions. The Sakya-parisad was a direct assembly of eligible citizens, not unlike the Great Council of the Venetian Republic, whose membership was effectively hereditary from the 14th to the 18th century CE.

Maya, the mother of Siddhartha to be, has a vision of him as an elephant. Dong Zen Temple in Malaysia, photo by Marufish.

The Indian republics, as reconstructed by J.P. Sharma from his sources, had a system of decision by a small council of arbiters if no unanimity could be reached [Sharma, 199-200]. Before the modern parliamentary customs, the opinion in political assemblies was generally voiced by shouting, the show of hands, or moving to the either side of the assembly hall. The unanimity was understood in rough, rather than literal, terms: it was often enough that there was no substantial group willing or able to push their dissent. Voting relying on strict numerical majority, on the other hand, was an exotic concept if at all present. Since Buddhist communities adapted some ballot voting later, Sharma thinks that this modern-like kind of voting could sometimes happen among Sakyas and in similar polities, but not as a regular feature of these systems [Sharma, 201-202].

To highlight the nature of the sources the historians are working with here—let’s look how knowledge about the procedure of ancient Indian councils is gleaned from the account of heavenly council in Mahagovinda Sutta, a Buddhist religious text. Various gods (devas) gather there in the heaven of Sakka (Śakra), the heavenly ruler who’s also supposed to have revealed some spiritual truths to the Buddha. The gods listen to and acclaim eight truths (forming the Eightfold Path) of the Buddha. There are then confirmed by a smaller group of heavenly maharajas-councillors, who were independently observing the debates. This sequence serves historians as Sharma as information on how the society that produced this account imagined a “parliamentary” procedure—something which it had to know from different context, such as its own politics.

Sakyas, according to Buddhist literature, met a brutal fate in the hands of king Vidudabha of Kosala. According to a legend [Singh, 266], Prasenajit, the father of Vidudabha, asked Sakyas for a woman from their tribe to marry. He desired to associate himself with the homeland of the Buddha, already a recognized spiritual teacher and authority.

Sakyas thought themselves better than Prasenajit, but lacked the courage to outright refuse a wish of such a powerful monarch. They sent him a girl who was a daughter of chief Mahanaman and a slave woman. King Prasenajit discovered the descent of his wife, and disowned her, as well as her son Vidudabha and his sister. The Buddha intervened to assuage the trouble in the family; but Vidudabha, who went on to be the royal successor, grew up with desire for vengeance upon the Sakyas.

The young king three times set out to destroy the Sakya country, but every time the Buddha intervened on behalf of his homeland. In the meantime, Vidudabha conquered and annexed to his realm other neighboring chiefdoms, like Koliya and Kalama. It is related that Sakyas managed to claim a part of the earthly relics after the Buddha’s death (the paranirvana). When he was no more, Vidudabha went ahead and ravaged the Sakya lands, reportedly murdering much of the Kshatriyas (along with their women and children) outright [Sharma, 203-205].

As with many other stories from that period, it is very much unclear what in these tales has some basis in reality, what’s meant to elevate Buddhism and its founder, or just to conjure up an entertaining narrative etc. If true, it would be similar to how Ivan IV the Terrible, grand prince of Muscovy, razed the city of Novgorod—a former seat of a republican state until the late 16th century.

The sages and pleasures of Vaishali

After abandoning his comfortable life in the Sakyan capital Kapilavastu, Siddhartha—the future Buddha—went east, to the grand city of Vaishali. This is according to one of the accounts, anyway. There are many versions of how the future Buddha wandered through this part of India, seeking knowledge of different teachers [Mishra, 151].

Vaishali was an important political, cultural and spiritual center, capital of one of the mahajanapadas: Vajji. A seeker of lore could find here a lot of famous mentors. Indeed Mahavira, the founder of Jainism – another major Indian religion – was born and taught in Vaishali around that time. Mahavira formulated the doctrine of non-violence (avoiding harm to any living being) and strict asceticism. It can be interpreted to some extent as a Kshatriya reaction to the Brahman ideas of animal sacrifice and ritual purity. The Jainist sources say that after the death of Mahavira the Vajji’s council of rajas instituted a festival commemorating the event [Sharma, 104-105].

According to the ancient writers who say that Siddhartha headed straight from Kapilavastu to Vaishali, first he met there a hermit named Arada Kalama. This man taught the Buddha principles of meditation. The Buddha surpassed Arada and left his school to follow another meditative philosopher from Vaishali, Udraka Ramaputra. Siddhartha went through a number of such teachers and doctrines before reaching his own enlightenment.

Similar to ancient gurus being the object of their study, scholars disagree in their interpretation what exactly was real, what personages actually existed and so on. Whatever the details, stories like this show that ancient Indian cities had people engaging in various intellectual speculation, not unlike their contemporaries in Greece.

The Vajji were most likely a broader confederacy, consisting of different tribes, of which the most important were Videhas and Licchavis. The Licchavis were associated with Vajji most often and the two names were even used interchangeably in literature, similar to how ‘England’ has been also used as a name for Great Britain in many languages. Licchavi most likely occupied the land of Videhas, their junior partners, while migrating east. They overthrew Videhan kings and established a sympathetic republic among them, around the city of Mithila, before moving down to Vaishali [Sharma, 148-149].

Amrapali donating her mango grove to the Buddha, before becoming a nun.

The sources do not provide much on the exact separation of institutions of Licchavis and the broader ones of Vajji. The Sharma’s reconstruction is that for sure they had a council of “kings” (i.e., rajas), comprising nine men from the Licchavis, on the confederate level probably joined by an appropriate number of representatives of other tribal groups. He also takes some mentions of a specific leading raja to mean that they had an official president, or a “first among equals” [Sharma, 105-107]. The great leader Cedaga seems to be such a character in the final years of the Licchavian republic. If true, it would differ from the general trend in European republicanism, which disallowed that one man (with no colleagues) would hold an important office, let alone the highest one.

The main general assembly of Licchavis, consisting of heads of Kshatriya families, would meet once a year. (This would be similar to Landsgemeinde in medieval and early modern Swiss cantons.) They would pass laws and elect members of the council. Sharma mentions excavation of a tank (pokkharani) where new rajas—active citizens—could be anointed in a ritual bath. We also hear that they appointed, according to the contemporary custom, particularly beautiful women as state courtesans, wives of the whole city [Sharma, 104]. A particularly famous and wealthy one, Amrapali, is remembered as a supporter and a convert of the Buddha’s. As a historical figure, she bears some resemblance to the famous courtesans of classical Greece, such as Aspasia and Phryne.

Sources preserve accounts of Licchavian justice system. We’re told that the defendant (we’d assume – if he was a Kshatriya) had to be found guilty by a number of consecutive bodies of judges, lawyers, clan representatives etc., going up to the (main) raja. Only then he would be punished. Many historians took this description from Buddhaghosa (a Sri Lankan philosopher of 5th century CE) at face value, but Sharma tends to interpret this as merely a procedure respecting rights of the accused, taking place – according to the historian – before the council of rajas.

In general, the historical depiction of Licchavi seems exaggerated and filtered by layers of monarchist satire and propaganda. It ascribed to Licchavis all kinds of improbable stuff, like unworkable courts, ignoring all social and age distinctions, lawlessness and lack of manners [Sharma, 116-121; Singh, 268-269]. In all likelihood, Licchavis were more of a group of fighting noblemen rather than an anarchist commune. This, again, makes one think of the fanciful legend of Poland-Lithuania as it exists in historical consciousness, formed largely by hostile political propaganda, interested in either conquest or establishing autocracy.

The self-perception of Licchavis could have in fact emphasized continuity of the traditional method of government. In religious literature, the Buddha is preparing his final departure from material world (parinirvana), which is described in Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Siddhartha is visited by Vassakara, a Brahmana minister of the king of Magadha, who seeks to learn how Vajjis could be defeated. The Buddha presents a number of prerequisites for the Vajjis’ success. Among those were: holding frequent assemblies with a lot of people present; concord among the citizens; but then also things like respecting ancient rites and shrines, and not abducting women and maidens. Upinder Singh interprets this as Magadhans getting the hint that the most important thing is sowing internal discord among the Licchavis [Sharma 107-108; Singh 268].

Wars with Magadha and the fall

The realm of Magadha would later become the core of the Maurya empire, the first to include most of modern India. The Magadhan expansion, and its internal consolidation, was thus an important factor for the direction that history of the whole subcontinent took.

The first of the legendary great kings of Magadha was Bimbisara, ruling perhaps at the end of the 6th century BCE [Singh, 270]. He reportedly had five hundred wives. This might be a little exaggerated—whatever the exact number, royal marriages at the time obviously had a political dimension. Often political entities invaded one another, fought wars, and then wives were exchanged as a part of making peace. Bimbisara had among his women at least one princess from Licchavian aristocracy. He also consorted with Amrapali, the courtesan follower of Buddha’s; somewhere in the gardens of Vaishali, even as a war between Magadha and the Vajjian Confederacy was going on.

The confederate republic of Vajji was the stronger side during the Bimbisara’s reign. They were the ones invading Magadha across the Ganges (Ganga) river. The open nature of the republic meant that some defectors from Magadha, even high officials, were able to change sides and hold some offices [Sharma, 111-112]. Bimbisara, though, was able to expand and conquer neighboring realms in different directions.

Bimbisara, king of Magadha, coming with his retinue to visit Gautama Buddha. From a gateway in a Buddhist stupa in Sanchi. Photo by Biswarup Ganguly.

Both Jainists and Buddhists claim the magnificent Bimbisara as follower of their founders, Mahavira and Siddhartha. The king is said to visit each of them with the whole retinue, and seek their philosophical and spiritual advice. Puranic texts, belonging to the Brahmanic tradition and opposed to these religions, claim that nothing of the sort took place.

In a truly kingly fashion, Bimbisara was eventually murdered by his own son, who assumed reign as Ajatashatru. Once his power, in turn, was established, he sought better ways to take on the people from the north of Ganges.

The army of Vajji and Licchavi would likely be a typical army of citizens, the tribesmen. They would return to their farms or to the city when not on campaign [Sharma, 115]. It could be somewhat reconstructed in accordance with what is known about armies of Indian states from that time. It would consist of infantry, cavalry, chariots and war elephants. It is said that in Vajjian-Magadhan wars the combatants used war machines. Narratives mention chariots equipped with a mace, maybe as a form of battering ram (perhaps let loose from a slope), and some kind of catapult-like throwers of giant stones. According to sources close to Hindu deities, god Indra gave these contraptions to Magadhans [Jha, 89-90; Sharma, 125]. Of course, some of these claims just invite skepticism about the details.

Magadha had much trouble fighting the force of the republic. It had to resort to sowing some kind of internal discord to be able to defeat them. Vassakara, the Magadhan minister who sought advice of Gautama Buddha, resided in Vaishali for many years, posing as a defector and playing various factions against each other [Sharma, 126]. According to Jaina sources, king Ajatashatru (also known as Kuniya) attempted sending three embassies to get what he wanted on the cheap, and only then went to war with Vajji. Buddhists say the king followed the advice of Siddhartha in lying in wait for years. Only then the king of Magadha embarked on the final, grueling, ten-years-long campaign.

There are a lot of colorful narratives explaining how Ajatashatru finally went to war against Vajji. Some involve disagreement over a mysterious mountain mine of fragrant materials, others a river port, still others – refusal to return a precious elephant who sprinkled court ladies with water when they bathed. Vaishali also harbored Vehalla, one of the sons of Ajatashatru and a strong potential pretender to the throne of Magadha [Sharma, 126-127]. It’s interesting how Indian history would turn out, had it been the Vajji who successfully placed a ruler dependent on them in the south – in a similar way Rome had its client kings in various places.

An 18th century depiction of a mythical battle from ancient Mahabharata. (Wikimedia Commons)

Similarly fragmentary are the accounts of the actual war. The conflict started with bloody pitched battles. The Jaina sources emphasize the role of Cedaga, the powerful chief raja of Licchavi, who was also a great general and an archer. Some members of Magadha royalty and a large portion of their armies were vanquished in the initial confrontation. Cedaga had much success in whittling down the Ajatashatru’s brothers – until god Indra intervened, providing Magadhans with machines that let the kingdom reverse the fortunes of the struggle.

Licchavi were abandoned by their other Vajji confederates and had to flee behind the ramparts of Vaishali. There they withstood the siege for twelve years. It was the strength of the ascetic Kulavalaya which protected them; but eventually a prostitute employed by Ajatashatru managed to corrupt him and convince to betray the fortress. The same Jainist story asserts that after the fall of Vaishali, raja Cedaga jumped into water to his death, while the Licchavis fled to Nepal [Sharma, 105, 124-125].

Ajatashatru vowed to root out, destroy and utterly ruin the Vajjis (3). But since Licchavi and Vajji are still mentioned by later historical sources, Sharma thinks that they survived in some form despite the Ajatashatru’s onslaught. They could have been plundered, humiliated and forced into submission. Probably the Vajji confederacy was destroyed, but the individual tribes survived, and Licchavi alone were sometimes referred to as “Vajji” later, out of the long habit.

There’s an interesting anecdote about the favorite disciple of Buddha’s (and his companion in his final hours), Ananda. Ananda knew that he himself was soon to depart. He thought that if he died in Magadha territories, the Vajji would not be able to get any of his relics. On the other hand, if he were to die in Vaishali, the same would happen to Magadhans. Thus he decided to go to breathe his last breath on an island in the middle of Ganges.

Centyries later the king of Gupta Empire, Chandragupta I (ruling in early 4th century CE), married Kumaradevi, a Licchavi princess [Sharma 133-135]. His son Samudragupta styled himself Lichchhavi-dauhitra, the grandson of Licchavis. Licchavi tribe also gave name to the dynasty that founded the kingdom of Nepal, for sure from 5th century CE onwards.

Buddhist sangha was (likely) modeled after Licchavis’

The Buddhist texts on community rule – called Vinaya – contain information about performing votes and making communal decisions. These procedures, historians think, took influence from the polities where these communities have formed. Buddhist and Jainist communities are called sanghas, the same as republican councils.

For example, we know of wood chips, salakas, which were used as ballots for voting in some matters. A person worthy of sufficient trust was elected to collect those ballots from voters. During his election, in turn, his supporters would remain silent, while the objectors would come forward with a different candidate. The people – or monks, as the case may be – were called upon for assemblies with sound of a drum [Sharma, 113-114]. This reminds one of the famous bell of Saint Sophia, that served both as an instrument to call upon citizens, as well as the symbol of liberty of republic in medieval Novgorod.

There is a lot of stories of wealthy youth flocking to the Buddhist community and renunciatory, ascetic life. They offer a glimpse of a world of public debates on various topics, which swayed people like Bhadda-Kundalakesa, a famous nun and orator, to convert from Jainism to Buddhism [Wijayaratna, 2], as well as perhaps the other way around in different cases.

The parents – who at least nominally had to give permission to young people to become monks or nuns – were often not happy with this. Look, our only son, our beloved son! He has given up everything and taken on the practice of these shaven-headed priestlings – a modern scholar relates words of a father, preserved by ancient sources [Wijayaratna, 4].

Parinirvana, the death of Buddha, depicted in Cave 26 of the Ajanta complex in India. The sculpture dates from 5th, possibly 6th century CE.

It was a movement of some part of the elite out from physical world and civic life, and towards spiritual speculation. One has to wonder about the influence of this had on politics. There is a classic passage of Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy (book 2, chapter II):

When I consider whence it happened that the nations of antiquity were so much more zealous in their love of liberty than those of the present day, I am led to believe that it arose from the same cause which makes the present generation of men less vigorous and daring than those of ancient times […]; and this […] arises from the different character of the religions then and now prevailing. For our [Christian] religion, having revealed to us the truth and the true path, teaches us to make little account of worldly glory; whereas, the Gentiles [i.e., pagans], greatly esteeming it, and placing therein their highest good, displayed a greater fierceness in their actions. […] This [Christian] manner of life, therefore, seems to have made the world feebler, and to have given it over as a prey to wicked men to deal with as they please; since the mass of mankind, in the hope of being received into Paradise, think more how to bear injuries than how to avenge them. But should it seem that the world has grown effeminate and Heaven laid aside her arms, this assuredly results from the baseness of those who have interpreted our religion to accord with indolence and ease rather than with valour. (transl. Ninian Hill Thomson)

I will make no foolish attempt here to evaluate the early Buddhist thought as a whole, but it seems plausible that monastic life attracted some people who be would otherwise active as political citizens. Machiavelli himself arose as a political fighter for liberty of Florence when the princely influence of Medicis was already established and escapist, metaphysical speculation of Neoplatonism, with its contemplation of eternal verities, was popular [Bouwsma, 43-44]. Whether there were similar defiant figures in late Vaishali, we simply could not know from the kind of sources that we have.

There is a beatiful conversation between Ananda – as we mentioned, the favorite disciple of the Buddha – and Vassakara, the Magadhan minister and spy. Vassakara asked Ananda, after the death of the Buddha, how they community can exist if they are now without a leader or a refuge. Ananda explained that their doctrine and set of rules are their refuge, and that he can always rely on judgement of any respectable monk who follows the rules and virtues. Moreover, any such individual should be revered and listened to. Thus the community, samgha, could function with no one ruler or leader [Wijayaratna, 153].

This, indeed, corresponds to the political republican conviction that the law is the supreme sovereign, lex regnat, non rex (the law, not the king reigns), and Cicero’s maxim that we have to be slaves to the laws in order to be free (i.e., from kingly domination). Ananda in fact expands on this concept, by saying that virtuous and exemplary people should serve as sources of the good application of the rules and the governing doctrine.

The status of Republics in Ancient India

Much of what I say of Indian republicanism is based on the J.P. Sharma’s Republic of Ancient India (1968). This work is widely cited in syntheses of Indian history to this day. The author declared in the preface that he will himself to the early Vedic and Buddhist period alone [Sharma, 13-14], and promised a further work which would detail later Indian republicanism. This book sadly never saw the light of the day, as far as I’m aware.

A major problem with Sharma’s book, to be honest, is its relative isolation in the historiographical landscape since 1968. (Due to how history writing works, this is the fate of many books on less popular subjects.) Some of Sharma’s views are based on comparative history, using knowledge of Ancient Greek, Roman and Medieval Germanic republicanisms, as far as these were explored by the 1960s. The works that Sharma had used are likely superseded in many of their observations.

This means that some of his conclusions may need to be revised by modern historians of India. But this work, it seems, has not happened, at least on the large scale. This may be in part because of the exaggerated fear of “presentism” in treatment of republicanism (as if republicanism were invented out from whole cloth, say, in 1776?); in part because of an increasing imperial-nationalist turn in India, more fascinated by empires than by republics. (4)

It is the highly reconstructive character of history of ganasanghas that makes me refrain from trying to draw much of a lesson from it. It is important that they existed. How they exactly functioned and how they declined – there is no sure and concrete narrative.

Sharma doesn’t try to force one. As far as he makes reconstructions, he does it with all his sources in plain sight. I think this is a good thing on his part, compared to the frequent avoidance of risk and broader views among modern historians (ironically, in the age of rampant narrativism and tribal epistemological nihilism in history). But feeding back these reconstructions, based on his models, back into some grander models would be probably too much.

A modern Brahmana performing a fire sacrifice of homa, or yajna, first described in the Vedas. Photo by Ilya Mauter

As far as the comparative method is concerned, the net of comparison could be probably cast more widely if the research were to be repeated today. Sharma uses examples of different peoples of the Indo-European language family (Vedic people, civilizations of Classical Antiquity etc.), some contemporaneous, some more late. There was no mutual awareness between these polities in practice. Common roots of their ideologies, if any existed, cannot not established. Thus Indo-Europeanism was likely an incidental feature here, given republics than we know of in pre-Columbian Mexico and probably other places. (1)

To be perfectly honest, my current opinion on all this is that Rousseau was right. The initial state of human societies, using vocabulary of Early Modernity in Europe, was “free government”, by assembly and council; given the egalitarian skew of humans compared to great apes and enforcement of equality of men among hunter-gatherers. It was monarchy and tyranny that was an innovation (corruption – a proper Rousseauist would say), a new possibility created by agricultural technology and fledgling social organization.

Indian republican states could have met some Greeks living the polis life, mainly when Alexander of Macedon reached India and even faced some ganasanghas head-on. But there’s no actual transmission proven – I think – which would connect, say, Athens and Licchavi in any way. Greek coins have been found in India, but for all we know that deeper mutual knowledge of these cultures were shallow. From that time we know that Greeks heard of people they called “gymnosophists” – literally ‘nude sages’. Their Greek descriptions sound like heavily filtered accounts of Buddhist and Jainist ascetics.

Finally, there’s a problem that many of Sharma’s tentative statements came to be presented straight as facts (at least on the Internet), apparently without any strong academic reason. For example, the hypothesis on an Indo-European etymology for the term Licchavi – that Sharma presents as an educated speculation, one that might be accepted by subsequent scholarship – appears in the current Wikipedia article on Licchavis, with no qualification.

Why did republics survive in Europe?

As I am planning to cover the D. Stasavage’s book The Decline and Rise of Democracy, I should soon have an opportunity for seeing a theory based on his survey of broad history of republicanism and democracy in the world.

But here is a theory that I think could be derived from the current historical knowledge, as I’d summarize it today. First, Europe preserved self-governing cities even under monarchical states – which kept much republican practice in a seemingly unbroken chain. This also survived in India at least into the first millennium CE. I can’t really form an opinion (yet) on what happened later; there has been a theory of Northern Indian urban decay in early Medieval India, though not everyone accepts it [Singh, 584-585]. But regardless, the question is not about the level of economic activity, but about the system of social organization: whether there were communities which had self-government and self-determination, removed in important ways from under the central authority. This existed in Europe, not only for cities that formed independent communes (like Venice or Florence), but also for countless towns from Portugal to Lithuania which had their own local governments. Apart from this, there were diets and assemblies of provinces in many countries, where representatives of cities and nobility were called upon to assent to taxes and royal policies.

Second, the tradition and world-view of Roman republicanism was preserved in European culture as a prestigious undercurrent, a part of which was is sometimes sneeringly called “senatorial bias” in Roman historiography. Essentially, there existed a view (which many rulers tried to stamp out) that Roman Empire was a corrupt tyranny in comparison to the virtuous Republic that preceded it, with sacrifices of citizens, rule of the people, important decisions made collectively by the senate, and so on. While cities and provinces preserved the practice of self-government, the republican anti-monarchist narrative provided impetus for the idea of establishing a whole territorial state based on institutions of the people, most importantly (for the world history) in England, its colonies and revolutionary France.

A pillar placed in Vaishali by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who reigned 269-232 BCE. The so-called Ashoka edicts are crucial for dating the life of Siddhartha Buddha and other events in ancient Indian history.

The state of the accounts and documents that can access today may be related to this, and partly explain why history went as it went down. From Indian republics we have no Demosthenes or Cicero with their speeches (so crucial to Graeco-Roman rhetorical tradition), no theoreticians like Polybius expounding at length on institutions and magistrates of cities, no Thucydides with histories focused on political systems and happenings on assemblies, and of course no biographies of a Brutus giving up luxuries and ultimately his life to free his homeland from a Caesar.

Perhaps India could have also been like this, if, say, the Vajji triumphed over Magadha. I’m inclined to say ascetic religions could have played some role in drawing people away from defending political liberty. Though Greek philosophers had some ideas about abnegation and renouncing earthly life, it was more of an elite pursuit without serious organized religion behind it. It did not make anyone become a monk for life; even Socrates kept being an active citizen of Athens. The movement towards the inside of the mind, and from active politics toward abstract cosmopolitanism, was strengthened in Greece only after the conquest by Macedon kings in 4th century BCE (this gave us schools such as Stoicism, Epicureanism etc.).

Another thought is related to demographics of Indian republics, which are very unclear as far as I’m aware. How many citizens were there, really? From European republics before 19th century (like Venice) it seems that at least a number above 5% and approaching 10% of the population was typical for the citizen class. For actually powerful countries fielding a lot of citizen soldiers, like Athens or Rome, it would be much more, over 30%. If we take the legendary number 7707 for Licchavi, which had a similar territory in size to ancient Sparta [Sharma, 103], it would be actually a little more than the number of Spartiates around that period (5). Here we are comparing the number of men voting in assembly to the number of adult men with full civic rights, serving in the army.

I see no reason to believe than Indian republics were, by themselves, less viable that their Classical counterparts in Europe. They fared far worse, because of circumstances, and ended up largely buried by history. This means this could have also happened to Europe—or whatever would become of the Graeco-Roman world. On the other hand, the history of Licchavi and others is another argument for universality of political liberty.


(1) This question would be worth presenting with more nuance. Maybe it’s be a good idea in the future to write a blog post about evidence of egalitarianism in archeology of some cultures, including also Cucuteni–Trypillia (6th to 3rd millenium BCE, Romania and Ukraine), or papers of Lane Fargher and collaborators about Tlaxcala, the republican city in Mexico competing with Aztec Empire—and noticed as such by the comtemporary promoter of Venetian Republic, cardinal Contarini. See note 178 to the article of S. Halikowski Smith, Gasparo Contarini’s “Relazione” of November 1525 to the Venetian Senate on the divergent dynamics of the Spanish and Portuguese world empires, “Mediterranean Historical Review” 32/2017: The original remark is in the page 501, volume 33 of I diarii di Marino Sanuto, Venezia 1879:

(2) The paper cited is M. Gillens and B.I. Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, “Perspectives on Politics” 12 (2014), 3:

(3) Phrasing of A.L. Basham, History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas: A Vanished Indian Religion, London 1951, 75, cited by: Sharma, 133. Ajivikism was yet another great religious school, contemporaneous to Buddhism and Jainism. Its founder, Makkhali Gosala, apparently conversed with Mahavira. Ajivikism went extinct by the late Middle Ages.

(4) Though there is one book by Venkatesh Rangan about the 18th century CE, entitled The First Republic: The Untold True Story of the Imperial Karbhari Sarkar (, that I’d like to review at some point.

(5) Estimations of Thomas J. Figueira. See (Luraghi, Nino, and Susan E. Alcock, eds. 2003. Helots and Their Masters in Laconia and Messenia: Histories, Ideologies, Structures. Hellenic Studies Series 4. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies – Chapter 8), Table 8.1.

Cited literature

William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1968.

Hit Narayan Jha, The Licchavis (of Vaiśālī) (The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Studies Vol. LXXV), Varanasi-1: Vidyavilas Press, 1970.

Yogendra Mishra, An Early History of Vaiśālī (From the Earliest Times to the Fall of the Vajjian Republic, cica 484 B. C.), Delhi—Patna—Varanasi: Motilal Banarsidass 1962.

Jagdish Prasad Sharma, Republics in Ancient India c. 1500 B.C.-500 B.C., Leiden: E .J. Brill, 1968.

Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Delhi etc.: Pearson, 2013.

Romila Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, London etc.: The Penguin Books, 2002.

Mohan Wijayaratna, Buddhist Monastic Life According to the Texts of Theravāda Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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