The wonder that was India

Author: Francois Gautier
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: June 19, 2000

Is it not time for India to adapt another Constitution to break away from the colonial legacy left by the British and evolve its own system based on its particular genius?

Indians have always had to confront the stigma that the country was always politically disunited, except under Ashoka and some of the Mughal emperors. That their rulers were just a bunch of barbarians, constantly fighting among themselves and that it was thanks to the Mughals and the British that India was finally politically united. This is doing grave injustice to India. The Vedic sages had devised a monarchical system, whereby the king was at the top, but could be constitutionally challenged.

In fact, it even allowed for the general human inclination to war, but made sure that it never went beyond a certain stage. In ancient India there were never the great fratricidal wars, like those between the British and the French. Moreover, the system allowed for a great federalism the real power lay in the village panchayats. Sri Aurobindo refutes the charge levelled by most western historians that India has always shown an incompetence for any free and sound political organisation.

There always was a strong democratic element in pre-Muslim India, which showed a certain similarity with Western parliamentary forms, but these institutions were Indian. The earliest systems was that of the clan, or tribal system, fou-nded upon the equality of all members within it. In the sa-me way, the village community had its own assembly, the visah, with only the king above this democratic body. The priests, who acted as the sacrifice makers and were poets, occultists and yogis, had no other occupation in life and their positions were thus not hereditary but depended on their inner abilities. It was the same with warriors, merchants, or lower class people.

As Sri Aurobindo observes, from the king down to the Shudra, the predominance, say of the Brahmins, did not result in a theocracy, because the Brahmins in spite of their ever-increasing and finally predominant authority, did not and could not usurp political power.

Later, a republican form of government manifested itself over many parts of India. In some cases these "republics" appear to have been governed by a democratic assembly and some came out of a revolution; in other cases, they seem to have had an oligarchic senate. But they enjoyed thr-oughout India a reputation for the excellence of their civil administration and the redo-ubtable efficiency of their armies. It is to be noted that these Indian republics existed lo-ng before the Gr-eek ones, although the world credits the Greeks with having created de-mocracy. But here, as usual, history is recorded through the prism of the Western world and is very selective indeed.

One should also note that none of these Indian republics developed an aggressive colonising spirit and that they were content to defend themselves and forge alliances amongst themselves. But after the invasion of Alexander's armies, India felt, for the first time, the need to unify its forces leading to the rise of monarchies yet again. But there was no despotism here as happened in Europe until the French revolution. The Indian king did enjoy supreme power, but he was first the representative and guardian of dharma, the sacred law. Furthermore, although the king was a Hindu, Hinduism was never the state religion and each cult enjoyed its liberties. Which religion in the world can boast of such tolerance ?

In truth, Indians always regarded life as a manifestation of Self. The master idea that governed life, culture and social ideals has been the seeking of man for his inner self. Thus, Indian politics, although very complex, always allowed a communal freedom for self-determination. In the last stages of the pre-Muslim period, the summit of the political structure was occupied by three governing bodies: the king in his Ministerial Council, the Metropolitan Assembly and the General Assembly of the kingdom. The members of the Ministerial Council were drawn from all castes. Indeed the whole Indian system was founded upon a close participation of all the classes. Thus the Council had a fixed number of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra representatives, with the Vaishya having a greater preponderance. And, in turn, each town, each village, had its own Metropolitan Civic Assembly allowing a great deal of autonomy. Even the great Ashoka was defeated in his power tussle with his Council and had to practicallyabdicate.

It is this system which allowed India to flower in an unprecedented way, to excel perhaps as no other nation had done before her in all fields. Has not the time come for a political renaissance of that Indian spirit?

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