An Account of Democratic Practices in India

An Account of Democratic Practices in India

The article by Rakesh Goyal on the ideas of democracy in ancient India, while useful in providing a theoretical construct, is inadequate in putting forward the practical constructs of these ideas in ancient India. This is problematic, since there is ample evidence in favor of the same. There are several examples of democratic traditions in practice in ancient India. I shall be presenting two particular instances to highlight the thriving practices in ancient India. I shall also be putting out the actual practices adopted to safeguard the interests and note the potential diversity of the democratic practices observed in ancient India. Also, while the systems have been noted by Mr. Goyal as evidence for democracy in India, his article also lacks an elaboration on the criticisms of the systems thereafter in various texts, which have been given only summary reference, which we shall also briefly touch upon.

Vedic Practices of Sabha and Samiti

Mr. Goyal has pointed out to the Rig Vedic prayer that talks about an assembly that manages to resolve issues amicably. The prayer goes thus:


K.P. Jayaswal has noted in his monograph that the Vedas refer to two particular systems, Sabha and Samiti, both attributed to being the daughters of Prajapati, which he opines may indicate the antiquity of the systems. A Samiti was far superior to a Sabha, for it had the power to elect and dismiss heads of state. On the other hand, the Sabha served more like a modern democratic state’s council of ministers, entrusted to perform a certain set of functions.

The Maitrayani Samhita of the Yajur Veda particularly points out a particular form of monarchy, wherein the king was anointed ‘for self-rule’ or svarajya. As particularly noted from the Samhita by Hemachandra Raychaudhari (page 134):

‘In this western quarter, whatever kings there are of the southern and western rulers, they are anointed for svarajya.’

However, the term svarajya has not been clarified in great detail in many texts subsequent to make any concrete conclusions on the term’s meanings.

One may note interestingly that in both the case of Sabha and Samiti, the attempt was to have as cordial a session or sitting as possible. To this end, the Atharva Veda prayer pointed out by Jayaswal proves to be a guide on the prevalent opinion on decision making processes. The Shatrunashan Sukta (7.13) clearly states that

screenshots 1The Prevalence of the Ideas of Democratic Rule – Greek References and Panini’s Observations

As Mr. Goyal points out, Arrian, the author of the Annabis of Alexander refers to “eyewitness accounts of Alexander’s companions and describes him coming across free and independent Indian communities at every turn.” The historian mentioned many Indian republican states that controlled large territories and enjoyed a broader mandate at that time, as compared to the contemporary Greek city states. Many of these city states could be easily termed as the Greek oligarchy.

Muhlberger observes that the Greek writer Diodorus Siculus mentioned at the time of Alexander’s invasion that he mostly came across cities, which practiced a democratic form of government. Even in his memoir Indika, Megasthenes indicated that many parts of northwestern India were dominated by republics at that time. Contemporary Indian sources for that period also describe north-west India in particular in similar political details. There are three most important indigenous sources describing north India during that time – Buddhist scriptures in Pali, which describe the state of Gangetic plains during the 6th and 5th centuries BC; Panini’s Sanskrit Classic ‘Ashtadhyayi”, which discusses entire North India, focusing on the north-west during the 5th century; and Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which got shape during the 4th century BC, i.e., almost contemporary to Megasthenes. These three indigenous sources enable us to independently identify various ganas and sanghas, some minor, while some large and powerful. Panini elaborated in great detail on the republican polities, informing us that

“The states and regions (janapadas) in north India were established in his time by the conquest of a particular area by a specified invader group, which continued to hold sway on the polity of that area.”

Some of these communities (in Panini’s terms janapadins) were ruled by a king, who was of one of their own kinsmen and who was dependent on their support. However, in case of many other communities, the janapadins were organized as republics. In both these kind of states, the governance was dominated by Kshatriyas, or say, the warrior caste. Also, as Jayaswal observes from the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, the dialogue between Yudhishthira and the great pundit warrior Bhishma shows just how the democratic sangha ruled polities, also designated by the term Gana, whereby the political class, constituting members of the Gana, Gana-mukhyas and Sabhapatis or Presidents, conducted affairs of the state. Interestingly, Krishna’s Mathura and subsequent empire at Dwarka are examples of ganas as well, where Krishna mentions to Narada his difficulties to run the council to take decisions.

Vajji (Vaishali) Sangha’s Ashta Janapada System and the Republican Democracy in Practice

R P Kangle’s translation of Kautilya’s Arthashastra particularly notes two distinct form of semi-democratic states in India, also known as Sangha. As per Kangle, Sangha was a form of rule that evolved over from clan rule of the Vedic period. Kangle’s notes:

“Fairly big states were formed with council of elders to rule over them…A Sangha had more than one chief or mukhya. In some sanghas, the chiefs styled themselves as rajan or king.”

Two sets of sanghas were identified by Kautilya. The Kambojas, Srenis, Kshatriyas and the Surasatas etc. lived by an economic vocation and the profession of arms, much like the Greeks of Athens and Sparta, where there was no identified king. Jayaswal has identified particularly the Kshatriyas with the Greeks and the Srenis with the Agesinae, the people of erstwhile Southern Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan.  On the other hand, the Lichhivikas, Vrijjikas, Mallakas, Madrakas, Kukuras, Kurus, Panchalas etc. saw the use of the term rajan to denote the mukhyas.

For those who have read Hindi literature, Acharya Chaturasena needs no introduction. A lovely Hindi author and an Ayurvedic physician par excellence, he was as a consequence of his profession also an expert in Sanskrit and Pali. In his magnum opus Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu, Acharya Chaturasena actively describes from history the makeup of the Vajji Sangha (confederacy or republic in the modern sense), which had formed after the kingdom of Videha of the Mahabharata era had broken down. This Sangha consisted of eight janapadas, comprising of the eight clans of Videha, Licchavi, Kshatrik, Vajji, Ugra, Bhoja, Ikshvaku and Kaurava. Together known as the Atthakula (Ashtakula), the first four were the strongest and most prominent. Videha’s centre of power was Mithila, Vaishali was the center of power for the Licchavis, while Kundapur and Kollaga performed the same functions for Kshatriks and Vajjis.  The Vajji Sangha was ruled by a Rajaparishada, or a royal council, which was elected from within the atthakula every seven years. The elected members of the parishada would allot amongst themselves the various functions of the state. The republic’s assembly also had representatives from the various guilds of merchants, artisans and even farmers. Parallels may be seen with the ancient Greece at the same time around 6th Century B.C.; however, the difference however may be noted that unlike the much romanticized Athenian or Roman systems of democracy, it is believed that there were clear conditions laid out about the physical, mental and psychological state of the various assembly members present. Also, a king would be nominated from within the assembly, though this position was never hierarchical in nature. Moreover, as pointed out earlier, there was representation beyond just the Kshatriyas when it came to state affairs unlike the Roman or Athenian democracies, where only the warriors had a say in daily affairs of the state. Also, as Steve Muhlberger of the University of Missisauga points out, the varnas of pre-Christian-era India were not the castes of later periods, with their prohibitions on intermarriage and commensality with other groups, and that the republics involved in the political process all those who could claim, and justify the claim, to be capable of ruling and fighting.

Parakesarivarma Chola and the Kudavolai System of Constitutional Monarchy in Practice

Democratic ideas were not just limited to north of the Vindhyas. The idea of secret ballot, which some attribute to the British, was nothing new to India. Sastri highlighted that systems of electing local bodies was prevalent, though not as advanced as it became under the Cholas, under the Pandya and the Pallava kingdoms as well. There are inscriptions at Sri Ambalavana Swamy temple at Manur in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, which Sastri called proof of election of local bodies; however, R Nagaswamy, former Director of Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department, has recently stated that this may be referring to the election of a judicial body rather than a local body. As per Mr. Nagaswamy,

“….the inscription could be interpreted from another angle namely ‘the constitution of the law court’ of the village. The use of words ‘Manru’ and ‘Manradutal’ in the inscription is a pointer in that direction. It is needless to say that all the inscription are ‘lekhya pramanas’, written documents and as such use legal terminology. The word manru, etc. frequently occurring in epigraphs is used in connection with the courts. Even in literature the word is used in the sense of court ‘dharmasana’ (Periyapuranam). From this angle the inscription of Manur assumes greater significance.”

However, the inscription dated to Pandya king Maranjadayan of eighth century A.D., and almost a century earlier than the Chola period, demonstrates the practice of electing bodies from amongst the local people. This holds even greater significance in current times, as per Nagaswamy, given the tensions between the executive and the judiciary in India.

In the Chola rule over large parts of India, we see the first ever identification of an advanced process of electoral democracy using a secret ballot being utilized to determine what can be easily described in today’s modern lexicon as a local body like a municipal corporation or a grama panchayat as laid out clearly by Nilakanta Sastri’s account of Chola history. The earliest mention of this system of suffrage, called kudav Olai (for those who do not understand Tamizh, kudam means pot as a ballot box, while olai refers to palm-leafs to be used as paper votes for ballot) can be found on the walls of the village temple of Uttaramerur, twenty miles from the city of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. Excellently captured by the blogger R Muthuswamy, the plaque describes in detail how they conducted an election to the local assembly of the ‘Uttaramerur-caturvedi-mangalam in its own subdivision of Kaliyurkottam,’ in the presence of a returning officer. The elections were conducted in order to set up further sub-committees, particularly looking at the “Annual Committee”, “Garden Committee”, and “Tank Committee” of the village, tending to the affairs suggested by the name. Interestingly, the rules of the election to the local body clearly identified who could contest these elections through the following parameters:

In these thirty wards, those that live in each ward shall assemble and shall choose for “pot-tickets” (Kudav Olai) anyone possessing the following qualifications:

  1. He must own more than a quarter veli of tax-paying land;
  2. He must live in a house built on his own site;
  3. His age must be below 70 and above 35;
  4. He must know the Mantrabrahmana, i.e., he must know it by teaching others;
  5. Even if one owns only one-eighth veli of land, he should have his name written on the pot-ticket to be put into the pot, in case he has learnt one Veda and one of the four bhasyas by explaining it to others.

Among those possessing the foregoing qualifications:

  1. Only such as are well conversant with business and are virtuous shall be taken and,
  2. One who possesses honest earnings, whose mind is pure and who has not been on any of the committees for the last three years shall also be chosen.

The scribe note, written down on the 16th day of the fourteenth year of Parantaka Chola King (mudalam parantakanin padinankavatu aandu padinaram naal) (dated to the years 919-921 A.D.), thus clearly demonstrating the active utilization of the ballot box method, which the villagers, as quoted by the scribe, vowed to use ‘till the sun and moon endure’. However, the senior officials of the court had nothing to do with this electoral democracy, which was restricted to only the smallest unit of governance. Interestingly, the inscriptions also show how the process was fairly inclusive, with many of the officers meant to overlook the process belonging to all of the four varnas, and not just Brahmanas or Kshatriyas.

Criticisms from Within – the Challenges of Democracies Identified by Indian Literature

That there were republican systems present in ancient India is an accepted fact and presented as a case for presenting India as a modern democracy. However, the same evidences show us that most people subsequent to this period of flirtation with democracy, particularly the republican period, strongly thought otherwise. In his online essay Muhlberger notes how texts – Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina and even literary – left no opportunity wasted in making fun of the democratic system. As Muhlberger wrote,

“The Lalitavistara, in an obvious satirical jab, depicts Vesali as being full of Licchavi rajans, each one thinking, “I am king, I am king,” ….The Santi Parva section of the Mahabharata shows the participation of too many people in the affairs of state as being a great flaw in the republican polity….A Jaina work again criticizes ganas for being disorderly: the monks and nuns who frequent them will find themselves bullied, beaten, robbed, or accused of being spies.”

This seems to be as Muhlberger points out a later period insertion, one also shared by Jayaswal. Jayaswal translated the relevant section of the Shanti Parva, which point out the weaknesses of the gana in great detail to assert the matter. The main causes for the downfall of the ganas as identified by Bhishma in the Shanti Parva are identified as follows:

  1. Military strength being divided into too many hands and lack of mutual confidence.
  2. Cronyism within the gana members on dividing benefits.
  3. Inability to maintain state secrets due to the large number of members.
  4. Lack of discussion due to personal enmities.

The Mausala Parva interestingly notes deep anarchy in Dwarka accompanying the death of Krishna and Balarama. The majority of an inebriated Yaduvanshi clan’s male members club each other to death, even as Krishna and Balarama watch horrified, and subsequently die. Dwarka being a city that was run by the Yadu clan as a whole like a gana, the incident hints at the lack of an authority figure, who may have been able to control the chaos and violence that ensued subsequent to Krishna’s death. This story may have been a later insertion but points to the belief of chaos that Kautilya also refers to often. Interestingly, even though we see that the republics survived through the Sunga and even the Kushana empire, the last mention of republics in Northern Indian history takes place around the time of the Guptas, who themselves rose with the help of the Licchavis, but end the idea of the republic altogether by somehow defeating the increasing strength of the tri-mitra republics – Pushpamitra-Padhumitra-Padmamitras. Also, one must note that in both cases the forms of democracy continue to remain limited in nature – while only nominated members could assume power in the janapada, the potential nominees for the Cholan system also restrict the choice of candidates strongly, determined by land ownership among other factors.

While one reason why a more stable power centre may have been readily accepted by society was attributed to the solidification of caste and hierarchies by the time of the Gupta Empire, trade and commerce may have had a much bigger role to play. Wealth does not flow into a poor state. While Vajji was noted for their wealth and prosperity in ancient India, the unstable political climate due to constant threats and the concentration of political interests amongst the various guilds may have possibly resulted in cronyism, a practice seen too often in today’s democracies. The Mahabharata, timed close to the end of the Kushana and the rise of the Gupta periods, seems to suggest that ganas are not an ideal form of governance, if there cannot be unity within the clans, while also suggesting that such states cannot become very rich if the political class cannot overcome their fault lines. Such states were seen to be arajaka or disorderly in nature, wherein discipline was difficult to maintain. Political power is difficult to expand for a state that is usually very small and made them prone to threats from larger states. Kautilya disapproves of such republics because they were unable to rise up to the challenge of Alexander when needed. Personal pettiness amongst the Lichhavi members saw in Buddhist tradition the inability to rise up to the threat of Ajatashatru, when he attacked Vaishali. Even in the later stages of the Cholan rule, Sastri has noted from archaeological records the ignorance of the assemblies at large, partly because they continued to ask for resolutions that may have gone against state authority, leading to arajaka situations. In one particular instance highlighted by Sastri, one Mahasabha, or a village committee of Brahmins, undermined the authority of Rajaraja III by seeking the help of an external authority to settle an arbitration. While this is seen in a different light by Sastri, the concept of an arajaka situation may be easily read here.

Thus, we see that the ideas of limited democracies were thriving in ancient India, all the way up to the 12th century A.D., when the Cholas were active. Indian democracy has also seen experimentation with both the republican as well as the constitutional monarchical forms of democracy as are seen even today in the world.

The author likes to thank tweeters @GhoraAngirasa, @ArmchairPseph and @vvaayu for giving leads for this article.


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