In lineage society during the mid-first millennium B.C., the basic unit was the family under the control of the senior most male member. The head person exercised his authority over the clans through kinship and rituals.
The families were tied together because of the genealogical relationships. In the society, kin connections and wealth created distinctions between the rulers and the ruled. The state system emerged because of population growth; a shift from a pastoral to a peasant economy; socio-cultural heterogeneity; and various other factors.
Romila Thaper, in her seminal work on social formation (History and Beyond, a collection of essays), says extensive trade, the fall of the political elite, and the democratic process resulted in the shift towards the state system. With the formation of the state, the issue of governance became a major concern for society.
In the Mahabharata, there is a reference to Matsyanyaya, a condition in which small fish become prey to big fishes. It happens in a society where there is no authority. To avoid such a crisis, people agreed to have a set of laws, and they either selected a person to become the ruler or appealed to God for a king who would maintain law and order in the society. Thus, there are references to the Divine Origin of Kingship and the Social Contract Theory of Kingship.
Various studies, however, suggest that the polity emerged as an independent domain. Monarchy was the dominant form of government in the early Indian polity.
As mentioned in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, there were seven constituents of the state:
- (i) Swamin or the Sovereign: The King is considered the structure’s head.
- (ii) Amatya, or the Officials, come next to the King. Through the officials, the King governs the State.
- (iii) Janapada, or the Territory, includes agricultural land, mines, and forests.
- (iv) Durga, or the Fort, refers to the fortification of the capital.
- (v) Kosa, or the treasury, is the place where collected revenues are kept.
- (vi) Danda, or the Army: It refers to the authority and power of the law.
- (vii) Mitra, or the Allies, are friendly states.
These are considered the natural organs of the state.
Manusmriti was in favour of political authority. It advocated that there would be disorder in society without political authority. The King must ensure justice in society and protect the weak. Manu advocated for social hierarchy and the caste system. Justice for him was based on the customs and practises of different castes. He said the king derived his authority from God, but he should be guided in practise by the Brahmanas. His view was that Brahmanas had the knowledge to rule, and knowledge should rule.
The state, according to Manu, should have villages, districts, and provinces. The structure resembles the present-day structure of administration. His system was based on the principle of decentralisation of authority. He said an assembly of the learned and the officers of the State should advise the King.
Members should be objective and fearless while taking decisions based on dharma. The village and district authorities should function independently, and the king should interfere or help only when required.
The king’s major concern should be the welfare of the people. The King should show them compassion to the best of his power. He should help the distressed, the helpless, and the elderly.
Kautilya’s Arthashastra gives a more detailed picture of statecraft. Arthasastra deals with various functions and the methods of running the state. Kautilya favoured a strong monarchy, but he did not support the idea of an absolute monarchy.
In the earlier tradition, the king was guided by Brahmanas, but in Arthasashtra, the king is considered the last word in everything. Arthasastra suggested how a king should control his senses and discharge his duties, protect himself from various threats to his life, and the importance of selecting the right priests and counsellors. It also discusses civil law, with various measures for effective administration, as well as criminal law for dealing with those deemed a threat.
Kautilya suggested that the king should be vigilant about the motives and integrity of his ministers. He also talked about bribery and corruption in the administration. Through reward and punishment, the king should set standards for others to follow.
The king is above others but not above dharma, which means obeying customary and sacred law and protecting his people’s life and property. Kautilya considered this the basic duty of a king.
He recommended the organisation of armies and spies to watch the internal and external developments of friendly and hostile neighbours. He said the king should place the army under a divided command.
The king should protect farmers from oppression and care for the orphans, the aged, and the helpless. A good king should take up welfare activities in the interest of all. The king should be concerned about his people’s happiness; otherwise, he would lose their support.
Danda is another important concept which is found in the ancient political tradition. Danda is the sense of coercion or punishment. Danda is meant for discipline. The King has every right to punish the guilty if any individual does not obey the rules of the state or if anybody is involved in an activity which goes against the interests of the state.
The Buddhist canonical literature advocated that a monarch should rule as per the law of truth and righteousness. The ruler should not permit wrongdoing in his territory and should look after the poor. A king was a chosen leader of the people whose main duty was to punish wrongdoers and protect his people.
Tiruvaltuvar’s Tiru-k-Kural, composed during the second century A.D., is one of the famous classics of Tamil literature.
On Polity – It proposed that the essentials of a state include:
- An adequate army
- A hardworking individual
- Ample food
- Foreign alliances and dependable fortifications
It also discusses the King’s qualities and duties; ministers’ responsibilities; the importance of spies to keep watch on various activities within the state; and diplomacy. It said statecraft is getting support without letting your weakness be known.
In the ancient Indian polity, there were references to the republic even as the monarchy was predominant.
According to Greek and Roman accounts of India, when Alexander invaded India in 327–324 B.C., there were many places governed by oligarchies. The Buddhist Pali canon also talks about the existence of many republics, mainly in the Himalayas’ foothills and North Bihar. These republics were mostly tributary to the greater kingdoms but enjoyed internal autonomy.
The Sakyas, who were on the borders of modern Nepal and to whom the Buddha himself belonged, are an example. Another example is the Vrijjian confederacy of the Lichhavis, who resisted the great Ajatasatru.
In north India, between the Himalayas and the Ganges, during the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., several Janapadas existed. The Janapadas were managed independently by Sanghas or Ganas. The Ancient Political Tradition respected democratic values and public opinion despite monarchical government.
Both Brahmanical and Buddhist literature have details about the workings of assemblies. They also talk about the process of decision-making through the election. In Buddhist literature, there are rules related to voting in monastic assemblies, their membership, and quorums.