The science of polity was well known to the people in ancient India. It was known by several names like Rajadharma, Rajyasastra, Dandaniti, Nitisastra, and Arthosastra. However no systematic literature was produced in this field.
The earliest literature on the science of polity can be dated back to 500 B C. But even before that lot of literature on polity was produced. The Hindu religious texts like the Vedas and the Brahmanas and the Buddhist and Jain canonical works contain valuable information about the political theories and contemporary political problems.
The Santiparva, the Adiparva and the Vanaparva of Mahabharata deal at length with the duties and ideals of kings and government, the origin of the state and monarchy, and the various problems connected with diplomacy, war and peace.
For example the Santiparva of the Mahabharata has brought out the importance of the science of polity thus:
“Politics is the refuge of the whole world : virtue and wealth and desire, nay salvation itself, depend upon it, O son of Kuru: like the rein unto the steed, like the goad unto the elephant, is Politics unto the people.”
Similarly, Kautilya the famous author of Arthasastra highlighted the importance of this subject when he said that it was the supreme science and supreme art which was at the root of all arts. Usanus also said that politics was the only science worth studying.
In short, it can be said that the people of ancient India considered the state and the government as basic instruments for promotion of peaceful and civilized life. However, the Indians did not attach much importance to political philosophy and mainly concentrated on the art or science of statecraft.
Literature on Polity:
Though the science, of polity developed as an independent science only around the seventh century B.C., there has been a continuous flow of literature on polity since the earliest times. Unfortunately most of these works have not come down to us. However, the material contained in these works was incorporated in the Rajadharma section of the Santiparva of the Mahabharata.
Similarly, in the Arthasastra we get plenty of references to these works on polity which enables us to form a fair idea about their contents. At least one thing is quite clear from these earlier works that monarchy was the prevailing system of government because they devoted considerable space to the discussion of the training of prince and the qualifications of an ideal ruler.
They also contain valuable suggestions regarding the handling of the army, calamities as well as treasury.
They also make suggestions regarding the conduct of foreign policy. These early works contained important portions dealing with civil and criminal law and laid down a scheme of fines and punishments for different types of offences.
Prof. Altekar says, “If the quotations from the works of his predecessors given by Kautilya can be taken as representative of their contents, we may well conclude that there was a fairly strong school of politics in India from c. 500 B.C.”
The Mahabharata is another important source of information about the ancient polity. The Santiparva not only discusses the importance of the science of politics but also advocates its own theories regarding the origin of the state and the kingship; the duties and responsibilities of the king; duties of different officials; as well as the problem of taxation.
It also deals with the problems of internal administration as well as foreign policy.
The Arthasastra of Kautilya was probably one of the most important works on the science of polity. It makes a thorough study of the various political problems with reference to the views of the earlier writers. This work by the minister of Chandragupta Maurya, is of purely secular character and deals with the problems concerning the acquisition and retention of the earth.
As Prof. A.S. Altekar has said, ”The Arthasastra is more a manual for the administrator than a theoretical work on polity discussing the philosophy and fundamental principles of administration or of the political science. It is mainly concerned with the practical problems of government and describes its machinery and functions, both in peace and war, with an exhaustiveness not seen in any later work, with the possible exception of Sukraniti”.
He further says, “The position of Arthasastra in the realm of the literature on politics is analogous to that of Panini’s Ashtadhyayi in the field of grammar. Like Panini, Kautilya superseded all his predecessors; their works were, therefore, lost in the course of time; the excellence of Panini’s work was so great that very few among the later grammarians thought it possible to supersede the great master. The same apparently was the view of the later scholars in the realm of the political science.”
Certain critics have condemned his work because he adopted the Machiavellian doctrine of the end justifying the means. But Kautilya was a realist in politics who may be described as a moral rather than immoral.
In fact he attributes the highest value to Dharma and declares in unequivocal terms that in any matter where there is a conflict between Dharmasastra and practices or between Dharmasastra and any secular transaction (the king) should decide that matter by relying on Dharma.
If Shastra comes, into conflict with any rational and equitable rule then the latter shall be the deciding factor and the strict letter of the text will be nowhere.
In the post-Kautilyan period also a number of works on polity were produced but they repeated most of the ideas expressed by Kautilya, though occasionally they also express certain original ideas. The Nitisara of Kamandaka, which was written probably during the Gupta period was one such work.
Tiruvalluvar composed Tirukkural during the latter half of the fifth century which exercised considerable influence on the political ideas in the South. The Nitivakyamrita by Somadeva Suri, a Jain writer of the tenth century, is also a colourless summary of the earlier works. Another Jain writer Hemachandra wrote Laghu Arthanniti in the twelfth century, but it does not rank very high in the literature on polity.
The most outstanding work on polity produced after Arthasastra of Kautilya was Sukranitisara, a work which is attributed to Sukracharya. The exact date of this work is not known, but it contains very useful information about the Indian polity in ancient India.
This work also does not discuss the theoretical problems concerning the polity, but is very useful regarding the administrative machinery which existed in the post-Kautilyan period.
Apart from supplying us general information about the duties of the king, the function of ministers, the problems of foreign policy, the methods of warfare, the system of judicial administration, and the various welfare activities of the state, it provides us interesting details about the seating arrangements in the royal court, the different grades of feudatories and their incomes, the percentage of state income to be spent on different items etc. which are not available in any other work.
After 1030 A. D. also a number of works on polity were produced, but they lack originality. Some of the prominent works on polity produced during this period include Abhilashitarthachintamani of Somesvara. Yuktikalpataru of Bhoja, Rajanitikalpataru of Lakshmidhara, etc.
It is evident from the enormous works produced on polity that an organised government was considered essential for the preservation of social Order. It was released that in the absence of an organised government anarchy would be the result, which was the worst possible evil.
Prof. Beni Prasad says that in ancient times people- believed that “One should select a king….Then one should select a wife and, then earn wealth. If there be no king, what should become of one’s wife and acquisition?”
One thing which becomes quite clear from these works on polity that during the earlier stages the people of India assigned very limited functions to the state. It was to preserve peace and order, impart justice and punish the wicked and patronize the good. However, in course of time the functions of the state enormously increased.
By the times the Mauryan Empire was established, the state was also expected to promote Dharma by fostering a sense of morality and righteousness, encourage economic activity by developing trade and industry, agriculture and other sources of rational prosperity.
It was also expected to patronize education and cultural activities. To relieve the sufferings of the people it was expected to construct and maintain rest-houses, charitable institutions, hospitals etc. In short, it was to cater to the material, spiritual and aesthetic needs of the people.
Kingship. Monarchy was the earliest form of government in India, though other forms of government also existed in ancient times. Many theories have been put forward regarding the origin of the kingship. One of the earliest theories contained in the Aitareya Brahmana suggests that the war begot kings. It tells us how the gods and demons were at war and the gods were suffering constant defeat at the hands of the demons.
The gods assembled to review the situation and came to the conclusion that they were being overpowered because they did not have any king. They then decided to make Soma as their king, and succeeded in winning victory, over the demons. This account clearly shows that the people of ancient India believed that the kingship arose out of military necessity and the king must be an able military leader.
The Taittiriya Upanishad also gives us a slightly modified story regarding the creation of kingship. According to this story the discomfited gods did not elect their ruler, but sacrificed to the high god Prajapati, who sent his son Indra to become their king.
According to another version the kingship came into existence as a result of a social contract. In the early period people lived in an age of happiness and righteousness, which is often described as the golden age.
But in course of time the frailties of human nature began to assert themselves and the vice triumphed over the virtue. The lift was regulated by the principle of matsya nyaya (the law of the big fish swallowing the small). As a result the life became quite miserable and uncertain.
To get out of this situation they entered into a mutual contract by which it was agreed that persons guilty of unsocial acts like misappropriation and adultery would be expelled from society. But this agreement could not be fully enforced, because there was no king or government.
The people then approached the Creator with a request to appoint a king who was worthy of commanding their reverence and assure them protection. The Creator appointed Manu as the King.
The Buddhists gave a slightly modified version of the origin of kingship and avoided the reference to the divine intervention. According to them the order was evolved out of chaos by one who was acceptable to the Great Community (Mahajanasammata).
However, one common point emphasised by these theories of Social Contract is that the government was set up to put down forces of disorder and chaos and a king could claim obedience from people or collect taxes from them only, if he provided peace and security to the people. If the king failed to perform these duties it tantamount to the breach of contract and he could be set aside.
In Manusamhita, we get another version regarding the origin of kingship. It says ,”When these creatures being without king dispersed through fear in all directions, the Lord created a king for the protection of this whole (creation) taking (for the purpose) the eternal particles of Indra, of the Wind, of Yama, of the Sun of Fire, of Varuria of the Moon and of the Lord of Wealth (Kubera)”.
In this theory there is no reference to any contract etc. The King was ordained by God to rule over his subjects.
Kautilya refers to the origin of the state only incidentally while a discussion is going on amongst the spies. One party argues that the government came into existence to counteract the law of jungle which prevailed in the early society, and the people themselves selected Manu as their King and also agreed to pay him the necessary taxes.
There is no detailed discussion on the problem otherwise. Sukra also makes no useful observations about the origin of the state, but he recognises the quasi-divine character of a virtuous king.
As regards the duties of the king, during the Rig Vedic period the king was considered as a shepherd of the people. It was his duty to protect his subjects and to offer sacrifices to gods. However, with the expansion of the Aryans and the evolution of large empires, the powers and responsibilities of the king enormously increased.
Along with this there was a corresponding increase in the celebration of sacrifices befitting the ranks of the king. This increase-in the powers of the king did not make him an autocrat.
He had to govern according to Dharma of the land and his authority was restricted by various religious and legal restrictions. The king could not go against the sacred customs. The fate of a king who went against the sacred texts and customs was pointed out in certain legendary tales.
For example one of the most common legendary tale was that of Vena. This king took his divinity too seriously and forbade all the sacrifices except to himself and confused society by enforcing inter-class marriages.
The rishis (divine sages) remonstrated with him, but Vena continued with his evil acts. At last the exasperated sages beset him in body and slew him with blades of sacred grass (kusa), which miraculously turned to spears in their hands.
This story must have served as a continuous warning to the kings who were tempted to flout the Sacred Law. If a king went against the sacred customs he automatically incurred the hostility of Brahmans. More than one great dynasty, such as Nandas, Mauryas and Sungas fell because of the hostility of the Brahmans.
Certain other checks also existed on the powers of the king. For example all the textbooks on statecraft recommended that the king should listen to the counsel of his ministers. The public opinion was another effective check on the authority of the king.
During the Vedic period the authority of the king was restricted by the popular or semi-popular assemblies. During the later times though these agencies had disappeared, the king was advised to keep his finger on the pulse of the public feeling and never to offend it blatantly. We get a number of stories in the Buddhist Jatakas to show that the kings were deposed by mass revolts.
Kautilya emphasises the need for collective deliberations and stresses that the king should follow the advice of his chief adviser on all important issues. The autonomy enjoyed by the various social, cultural and economic institutions which catered to the interests of their members also restricted the authority of the king.
Even the most powerful kings could not function in opposition to these institutions. The final check on the authority of the king was the traditional ideals of kingship.
According to these ideals the king regarded himself as servant of the people, the trustee of their interests. The king in his coronation oath swore that he would work mentally, physically and verbally, the welfare of the State, considering always as good whatever is law and whatever is not opposed to policy.
Therefore, Kautilya declared. “In the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king; it is no happiness or welfare to the king which is not welfare of the people at large.”
Naturally the kings brought up under the Indian traditions generally behaved with a sense of great responsibility. Kings like Ashoka regarded themselves as friend, philosopher and guide to his people.
One of the Rock Edicts of Ashoka says,
“I am never complacent in regard to my exertions or despatch of people’s business by me. I consider it my only duty to promote the welfare of all men. There is verily no duty which is more important to me than promoting the welfare of all men. And whatever effort I make is made in order that I may discharge the debt which I have to all living beings, that I may make them happy in this world and that they may attain heaven in the next world.”
Realising that the character of the government to a large extent depended upon the character of the sovereign, great emphasis was laid on the proper education and training of the princes during childhood and adolescence.
They were taught to cultivate qualities like modesty, self-control, piety, sweet behaviour, respect for elders and preceptors, sensitivity to public opinion and criticism, and proper training in military art and public administration.
The king was expected to regard his subjects as his children and strive for their welfare like a father. In fact the king must realise that he’ could be happy only when his subjects were contented and prosperous. Sternness was to be adopted only towards evil dears.
To check the frivolity of the king, the political writers prescribed very exacting time table for the king, which hardly left him with any leisure. The king’s time-table prescribed in Arthasastra allows king only six hours for his sleep and recreation. Similarly, the time-table prescribed by Sukra is equally exacting. No doubt this time-table was rarely followed in actual practice, but it clearly shows the ideals set before the king.
Councilors and Officials:
The king could not perform the onerous duties assigned to him single-handed and therefore always sought -the assistance of certain councilors or officials.
Emphasizing the need of assistance of these officials the Mahabharata says, “The king should depend upon the ministers like animals on clouds, Brahmanas on Vedas and women upon husbands.” Kautilya also says that the king should follow his chief minister as “a student his teacher, a servant his master”.
During the Vedic period the king was assisted by functions known as Ratnins. The prominent Ratnins during the period were the Purohtia Senani (Leader of Army), Gramani (Village headman), Sangrahtia and Bhandagarika (Treasurer). During the post-Vedic period the Ratnins faded away and their place was taken by ministers variously known as mantrins, sachivas and amatyas.
During the Mauryan times the king was assisted by a body of elder statesmen known as mantri-parishad. The size of this body varied from seven to thirty-seven. These ministers were chosen by the king with utmost care and advised him on important issues. The Council of Ministers was not merely a rubber stamp and its advice carried much weight with the king.
Almost all the authorities have emphasised that the councilors should speak freely and openly and that the king should give full consideration to their advice. In the absence of the king the council exercised tremendous powers.
We learn that Ashoka permitted his councilors to take minor decision even when he was present in the empire. Though the king was free to appoint his own councilors, in reality these positions went by inheritance. The meetings of the Council were held in complete secrecy.
The designations and functions of the councilors varied considerably. Usually every king had a chief counselor or mahamantrin. Another important official who exercised tremendous influence with the king was Purohita, the royal chaplain. His presence was indispensable in an age which believed that the victories on the battlefield depended largely only on the favour of gods.
Certain scholars have suggested that the king deliberated privately with the purohita before taking the final decision. The other important officials were Arthasastra sannidhatr (treasurer) samahartr (chief tax collector), sandhivigrahika (minister of peace and war), the pradvivaka (chief judge and legal adviser), senapati (general) mahaksapatalika (chief record keeper) etc.
The Councilors and high officials were known as mahamatras in the pre-Gupta period, but later on they came to be known as kumaramatyas or princely ministers. During the time of Ashoka another body of officials known as dharma-mahamatras also existed.
They were ministers of Righteousness and supervised the affairs of the religious, bodies. Even under the later rulers these officials continued to” exist, but their titles were changed. They however, continued to administer the royal donations to religious establishments.
The officials of the state received salaries in cash. Arthasastra has quoted the specific amounts which were paid to different officials. However, it has not specified the coin or the period of payment. Most probably the payment was made in panas, a silver coin, on monthly basis.
However in the later period it became usual for the kings to reward their officials by grants of the revenue of a village or district, which ultimately led to the development of the quasi, feudal system in medieval India.
For the smooth working of the administration the king also took the assistance of secretarial staff. However, our information is rather limited by the paucity of material available on this aspect of administration. During the Vedic period as the art of writing was not known, the secretariat did not exist. The oral orders passed by the King or the Assembly were communicated to the outlying areas by messengers.
As the size of the state was very small this system worked quiet conveniently. During the post-Vedic period not only the art of writing was known to the people but the size of the states also considerably increased. This would have naturally necessitated some sort of secretariat, but we do not know anything for definite in this regard.
In Arthasastra, we get reference to the fully developed secretariat, Kautilya says, “Government is writ and writ is government”. Similarly Sukra says that “royalty does not reside in the person of the king but in his sealed and signed orders”.
Both these writers have emphasised the need for a well-organised secretariat and bureaucracy. Naturally, therefore, the selection of the secretariat officers was made with utmost care. Special consideration was given to the education, ability and reliability of the person in the matter of appointment.
The success of the Mauryan administration was mainly due to the well-regulated civil service. There were about eighteen departments like finance, public works, royal correspondence, commerce, agriculture etc. Each department was under the charge of a superintendent. Each superintendent had under him a hierarchy of officers and supervised their working. The senior officers were known as lekhakas or writers.
They were not mere clerks but high officers of the status of amatyas, and enjoyed a status only next to those of the ministers. The Greek writers inform us that these officials occupied the highest posts in the government and played a prominent role in the administration of public affairs.
They took part in the selection of the governors, chiefs of provinces, deputy governors, superintendents of treasury and agriculture, generals of army etc. With the exception of the Cholas, we do not get any detailed information about the organisation and working of the secretariat.
The espionage system was in vogue in ancient India. The most detailed account regarding the organisation and working of the spy system is provided to us by Kautilya in his Arthasastra. He- tells us that spies moved in the guise of students, ascetics and merchants. They were also recruited from the classes of nuns, prostitutes and astrologers. They reported the conduct of both officials and non-officials.
The spies were severely punished if their reports were found to be false or inaccurate. Usually the government took action if the report of one spy was confirmed by the report of another spy. A special class of spies, directly under the king or a high minister, also existed.
Sukranitisara also emphasised the importance of spy system. It says, “A king worthy of praise should always learn his own faults from the subject’s point of view and get rid of them, but never punish the people.” if we keep this observation in mind, we will find that the criticism levelled against the secret service in India is unfair.
Probably at that time the government could not effectively work without the spy system. In those days when there were no effective agencies through which the public opinion could be gauged, the spies enabled the king to correctly gauge the public opinion.
The spies thus performed the services of the modern press, the inspecting official, the police detective and military spy. They sent confidential reports about the working of the administration as well as public opinion, and thereby helped the king to exercise a check on tyrannical officials.
A L. Basham says, “The ancient Indian spy system was not quite comparable to the secret political police of some modern states, since its function was by no means confined to the suppression of criticism and sedition, and it was looked on not as a mere Machiavellian instrument for maintaining power, but as an integral part of the state machinery.”
Popular Assemblies like Sabha and Samiti have existed in India since the earliest times. Though nothing definite can be said about these two assemblies, it is generally believed that they were popular institutions and exercised serious check on the arbitrary power of the king.
According to Ludwig, Samiti was the Assembly of the whole people, while the Sabha was a house of elders. On the other hand Zimmer is of the opinion that Samiti was an Assembly of the whole tribe and the Sabha was an Assembly of the village.
According to Prof. K.P. Jayaswal, “The Samiti was the national assembly of the whole people, while the Sabha was probably a standing statutory body of selected men”. Though the exact connotation of these two terms is still debated, it is admitted on all hands that they exercised a powerful check on the royal absolutism and were described as the twin daughters of Prajapatey in the Satabatha Brahmana.
The important role of these bodies as well as the desirability of harmonious relations between the king and the assemblies has been brought out in a number of Vedic verses.
In course of time the Sabha and Samiti lost their influence and their place- was taken by bodies known as Paura and Janapada. The former was a body consisting of the representatives of the capital while the later consisted of the representatives of the rural areas. They served as the chief channels for the ascertainment of the public opinion.
The traditional accounts as well as the Arthasastra and inscriptions of Ashoka confirm that these two bodies were consulted on all important matters of state like imposition of taxes, enactment of ordinances etc. However, these assemblies did not enjoy any legislative powers because the laws were based on sacred texts, customs and traditions of the land. The government was merely expected to enforce Dharma.