An Eclectic Bibliography of the World History of Democracy

by Steven Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History, Nipissing University.

Ancient Democracy in India

The material on ancient democracy in India is not easy for a non-specialist to work with. My own interpretation of the evidence and its significance can be found in Democracy in Ancient India. However, the reader may want to check this essay against the ancient sources and other modern interpretations.

Begin with J.P. Sharma's Republics in Ancient India C. 1500 B.C.-500 B.C. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1968). This is the single best discussion of the evidence and how it has been interpreted. For further bibliography I offer two lists. The first includes a number of modern works that discuss either the history of ancient Indian republics, or the society of the time, or the ancient literature on which our knowledge of the preceding two subjects is based.

The second list is of ancient sources in translation. Not all relevant sources are listed, just the most interesting (usually those that provide a relatively large amount of information about politics or society). The serious researcher can find the remaining sources (those that provide only a little information) through other works in this bibiliography.

Comments are welcome, and I especially invite additions to the list from specialists.   One such addition is a short Bibliography on the Evidence for Very Early Democracy in India, a list of works, supplied by Joelle Brink.

Please visit the World History of Democracy site.

Secondary sources

Altekar, A.S. A History of Village Communities in Western India. University of Bombay Economic Series, no. 5. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1927.

Concerns the history of the villages of the Bombay Presidency down to the early British period. Altekar opposes the idea that all Indian villages were alike in the past, and the idea that all Indian villages were little republics -- at least after Vedic times.

Altekar believes that the distinguishing feature of the western village was the hereditary headman. He says that the village council, not recorded in the early times, was always an informal group of elders, never a highly structured or elective group. The council slowly developed from the time of Christ until Muslim rule came, after which it lost ground. The coming of British rule was an important blow to the village community, because it lost control of its own finances. The wearing down of village autonomy by various empires over the centuries is perhaps the most important impression one gets.

Contrasts western villages with the north, where panchayats lost almost all power, and with the south, where they did have a formal constitutional structure. Caste divisions did not prevent people from taking part in the panchayat; wealth and influence was what got you on.

Altekar, A.S. State and Government in Ancient India. 3rd rev. ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1958.

A systematic survey of the subject. Altekar seems to work from a Hindu standpoint, and most certainly is inclined to favor the strong state. He discusses the ancient republics of India in some detail, but emphasizes their limitations.

Dutt, Sukumar. Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1962.

A good history of Buddhist practice in India up to the 13th century, with discussions of sources, doctrinal traditions, and daily life based on the archaeological remains. The book builds on the earlier Early Buddhist Monachism and Buddha and the Five After-Centuries by the same author.

The book has a useful discussion of the relationship between monastic organization and that of lay sanghas (communities based on conciliar principals).

Majumdar, A.K. Concise History of Ancient India. Vol. 2, Political Theory, Administration, and Economic Life . New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1980.

Chapter VII discusses ancient republics.

Majumdar, R.C. Ancient India. 7th ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1974.

Indian republics are discussed in Book II, ch. IV.B.2, Administrative Organization: Non-monarchical States. (pp. 157-159).

Majumdar, R.C. Corporate Life in Ancient India. 3rd ed. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1969.

Originally written in 1918; this is an edition revised in the light of more recent scholarship.

The book is a very full discussion of guilds, corporations, village assemblies and other forms of "corporate organization" in ancient India. M. believes that village life in ancient India had a real democratic element in it, and that the techniques of self-government found in the Buddhist sangha reflect a sophisticated tradition of that existed in political sanghas at the time of the Buddha.

Rhys Davids, T.W. Buddhist India. 8th ed. Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1959.

This is an attempt to describe ancient India from non-Brahmin sources. It orginally was written in the early 20th century, and is much concerned with old academic controversies about the dating and reliability of sources. Rhys Davids' technical work on these sources seems to have been very influential on all later scholars.

Sen, Benoychandra. Studies in the Buddhist Jatakas. Tradition and Polity . Calcutta: Saraswat Library, 1974.

The Buddhist Jatakas are an important though difficult source for information on early Indian society. This book was originally a rather short dissertation at the University of Calcutta in 1926, and published in 1930. This is a revised version, but how much revised is hard to tell from the contradictory statements of the author in the preface.

The major contribution of the work is to discuss the position of kings in Jataka society, though there is some discussion of republics.

Stein, Burton. Peasant State and Society in Medieval South India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1980.

This book focuses on a later period and a different area than that described in the Buddhist and classical Greek sources, our main evidence for the earlier Indian republics. South India is defined by Stein as the Coromandel plain and inland and coastal areas dependent on it -- it does not include Kerala. Stein is not interested in the subject of democracy. He is always talking about dominant groups, chiefs, and ritual status. However, there is much discussion of the many corporations and assemblies that existed in this area.

Stein also quotes British reports of the area in the 18th and 19th centuries when at least some observers saw local society as having some democratic aspects.

Stein, Burton. "Politics, Peasants and the Deconstruction of Feudalism in Medieval India." Journal of Peasant Studies 12 (1985): 54-86.

A clearer and shorter discussion of material from his 1980 book, with the purpose of saving Marx's insight about the "Asiatic Mode of Production." In the process he discusses how some inhabitants of South India enjoyed self-government through assemblies and committees.

Wagle, Narendra. Society At the Time of the Buddha. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1966.

A study based on the vocabulary of the Pali Canon (the earliest Buddhist scriptures). It pays particular attention to the vocabulary designating settlements, and the bulk of the book to the way that various persons greet, address, and refer to each other. Inspired by sociology, it seeks to reveal the social structure of Buddha's time, i.e., the 5th c. B.C., which appears in this book to be characterized by a constant struggle for position between various groups. Wagle prefers to see the "republican" groups of this era as "extended kin groups."

Primary sources in translation

Majumdar, R.C., ed. The Classical Accounts of India. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1960.

A compilation of a variety of Greek and Roman authors drawn from standard translations. Material preserved in classical Mediterranean literature is among the most important evidence for the existence and nature of Indian republics.

Rhys Davids, T.W., tr. Buddhist Suttas, Vol. 1. Sacred Books of the East, no. 11. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1881.

The works included in this and the following volumes edited by Rhys Davids are from the Pali Canon, usually considered the oldest Buddhist scriptures. The Canon has much to say about the organization of the Buddhist sangha and casts some interesting light on other political institutions of this time (6th-5th c. B.C.E.).

This volume includes the Maha-parinibbana-suttanta , or Book of the Great Decease (Buddha's death). Chapter one makes an explicit connection between the parliamentary constitution of the Vaggians and the constitution of the order of monks.

Rhys Davids, T.W., tr. Vinaya Texts, Part 1. Sacred Books of the East, no. 13. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1881.

This volume includes the first four books of the Mahavagga Khandhakas, another part of the Pali Canon.

Mahavagga Khandhakas I and II contain much detail about the organization of monastic sanghas in the very early days of Buddhism in India, illustrating the techniques of monastic self-government.

Rhys Davids, T.W., tr. Vinaya Texts, Part 2. Sacred Books of the East, no. 17. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1881.

This volume includes the remaining six books Mahavagga Khandhakas , V-X.

Books IX and X include much detail on the procedures and competencies of different kinds of monastic assemblies.

Rhys Davids, T.W., tr. Vinaya Texts, Part 3. Sacred Books of the East, no. 20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1881.

This volume includes Books IV-XII of the Kullavagga.

Kullavagga X is on the order of nuns. Although nuns shown as inferior to monks, X, 6 records at some length how danger of scandal gave women a parallel (if not entirely equal) authority structure.

Roy, Pratap Chandra, trans. The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. Vol. 8, Santi Parva, Vol. 1. Calcutta: Oriental Publishing Co., n.d.

The Mahabharata is a huge epic that tells us much about the development of classic Hindu society after 400 B.C. Its "Santi Parva" section has a very long passage where a theory of kingship is put forward. The theory consists of calls to righteousness, combined with a Machiavellian prescription for monarchs to do what is necessary to uphold order. Order means both social order in the modern sense and the preservation of caste distinctions and the maintenance a religion based on caste.

The king is seen as an absolute ruler, who must keep aloof from the subjects. The techniques of rule include systematic supervision of households and communities through a hierarchy of inspectors, spying, and the old method of divide and conquer. Subjects are expected to throw themselves on the mercy of the ruler; even invaders who have the power to enforce their rule should be welcomed without resistance.

Chapter 107 talks about the way kings should deal with the gana (assembly). The translator believes that gana which "literally means an assemblage...throughout this lesson ...has been employed to denote the aristocracy of wealth and blood that surround a throne (p. 248 n.)."

In dealing with the gana Bhishima (the political expert narrator) prescribes divide and rule to the king. "Consultations should be held with only those that are the leaders of the aristocracy, and secret agents should be placed, O crusher of foes, with them only. The king should not, O Bharata, consult with every member of the aristocracy. The king, acting in concert with the leaders, should do what is for the good of the whole order (p. 249)." It is important for the king to avoid destructive feuds within the aristocracy, for they can bring him down .

 Whether gana means assembly, aristocracy, or an oligarchical council, the lesson urges the king to control it and make it a tool of his will to control the population at large.

Shamasastry, R., trans. Kautilya's Arthasastra. 8th ed. Mysore: Mysore Printing and Publishing House, 1967.

Kautilya's work claims to date from the period 321-296 B.C. It is a complete handbook for the working king. Like the Mahabharata , the Arthasastra assumes that kingly leadership is the ideal.

Book XI (pp. 413-417), "The Conduct of Corporations," states that the help of corporations is more useful resources than acquiring armies, friends, or profit. It implies that they are very powerful.

The emphasis is on corporations that oppose the king: "But those that are opposed to him, he should put down by sowing the seeds of dissension among them and by secretly punishing them (413)." Most of the book describes these tactics: the use of spies to exploit discords and jealousy; spies in the guise of teachers who cause arguments over science, arts, gambling or sports; those who create political arguments; those who encourage members or leaders to feel they are being socially slighted.

Bibliography on the Evidence for Very Early Democracy in India

Provided by Joelle Brink

Dahiya, B. S. Jats, the ancient rulers : a clan study (New Delhi : Sterling, 1980).

Rao, S. R.  Dawn and devolution of the Indus civilization (New Delhi : Aditya Prakashan, 1991).

Rao, S. R. The decipherment of the Indus script (Bombay : Asia, 1982).

Rao, S. R. The lost city of Dv¯arak¯a (New Delhi : Aditya Prakashan, 1999).

Tod, James.,  Annals and antiquities of Rajast'han or the Central and Western Rajpoot States of India. With a pref. by Douglas Sladen. (New Delhi, K.M.N. Publishers:1971). [First published 1829-32.]

Yadav, J. N. Singh Yadavas through the ages, from ancient period to date (Delhi : Sharada Pub. House, 1992).

Yadav, Kripal Chandra. India's unequal citizens : a study of other backward classes (New Delhi : Manohar, 1994).



Copyright (C) 1998, 2001 Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.