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Ancient Indian Democracy

Frederick Lauritzen

18th August 2023


The president of India, Droupadi Murmu, praised ancient Indian democracy on the 14th August 2023, the eve  of the 77th anniversary of the Independence of India. She specifically referred to it as precolonial. The colonial era of India is defined thus:


British India 1600–1947

Portuguese India 1505–1961

Dutch India   1605–1825

Danish India  1620–1869

French India  1668–1954

Swedish India 1731–1813

Austrian India 1778–1785


It does not seem to include Moghul India even though the Moghuls represented foreign powers which arrived in India in 1526 lead by Babur, from today’s Uzbekistan, and the Sultanate of Delhi (1206-1526) established by Qutb ud-Din Aibak, a Turkic Mamluk slave-general of the Ghurid Empire from Central Asia. One may take 1206, the erection of the first minaret in Delhi as the date before which the President of India was referring.


Ancient Indian democracy is much older than such a timeline. The Manu Smriti (मनुस्मृति), a law code which refers to kingship and the brahmans as important, is rather monarchical, as is the Arthasastra (अर्थशास्त्रम्) of Kauṭilya (चाणक्य). This implies that the Maurya Empire as well as the Gupta Empire do not concern us here.


The Pali Canon, the earliest version of the Buddhist scriptures, is written in an Indian language derived from Sanskrit.


If one turns to Sanskrit, Pāṇini (पाणिनि – 6th or 4th century BC) in his Aṣṭādhyāyī (अष्टाध्यायी) offers evidence of such democratic communities. They are known as janapada (जानपद). They are mentioned in Panini, and the Rigveda. Some of these communities were ruled by kings, while others seemed to be akin to republics. The Greek historian Arrian seems to refer to such cities as 'free and indipendent' in his account of Alexander the Great's campaign in India (Arrian Anabasis 5.5). These are identified by the term saṃgha (संघ) in Panini. This is controversial for several academics, but not for the president of India who has referred to pre colonial democracies in India, following in the steps of the research of Kashi Prasad Jayaswal.


The controversy is not the term janapada or samghas defined by Panini, but to what they refer. There is endless scholarship on whether ancient Greek democracy was democratic according to today’s definitions.


Homeric assemblies promoted discussion and even disagreement (Agamemnon and Achilles). Indeed, there are democratic elements in the assemblies of kings of the Iliad. Homer indicates that it is best to have person to decide rather than a group of leaders (οὐκ ἀγαθὸν πολυκοιρανίη: εἷς κοίρανος ἔστω, “it is not good to have many leaders, let there be one” Hom. Iliad. 2.188). Such an assembly recalls the samiti/sabha of the RigVeda. One may recall the prayer for harmony in the samiti (Rig Veda 10.191.3).



The same debate could be applied to janapada or samghas. Indian historians have indicated that at the time of Panini (after the Rig Veda) these assemblies were democratic and sometimes had no kings. Were janapadas/samghas Hindu democracies? Leaving definitions aside, the President of India has today promoted the idea that ancient Indian democracies did exist in the precolonial era.  

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