Read this article to learn about the evolution of political institutions in India during Vedic period!
Early Vedic Period:
Early Vedic political institutions, which are referred to in the Rig-veda, were characterised by elements commonly associated with a tribal polity. The family or kula was the basic unit of political organisation headed by the Kulapa or grihapati.
The next unit, grama or village was headed by the gramani. The Vis or a group of villages was headed by the Vispati. The highest unit, Jana or tribe consisted of a group of Vis headed by the tribal chief. The administrative machinery of the Aryans in this period worked with the tribal chief in the centre, because of his successful leadership in war. He was called rajan. It seems that in the Rig Vedic period the king’s post had become hereditary.
However, the chief or the king did not exercise unlimited power, for he had to reckon with the tribal organizations. The king was called the protector of his tribe as he protected its cattle, fought its wars and offered prayers to gods on its behalf.
There are indications to suggest that the early Vedic raja may have been chosen by his people, the vish or the Jana. Further, in a situation where the resources for maintaining a regular standing army were absent, the raja depended on the vish who constituted the militia.
Thus, although the raja or the janasyagopa (i.e., the protector of the jana) was certainly more prosperous and powerful than the other members of the Jana owing to his access to the loot obtained in battle and the tribute or bali offered by his own people, he depended greatly on popular support in order to exercise his powers effectively.
Several tribal or the clan-based assemblies such as the Sabha, Samiti, Vidatha, Gana are mentioned in the Rigveda. They exercised deliberative, military and religious functions. The Vidatha seems to be a more popular assembly than either Sabha or Samiti in the Rig Vedic period. The Vidatha was an assembly in which both men and women participated.
It functioned as centers for settling disputes, redistribution, and provided a place for performing sacrifice. The Sabha was the ‘Body of the Elders’ and constituted mainly of the Brahmanas and the elite. The speaker of Sabha was called Sabhapati and its members, Sabhya.
The Samiti was more in the nature of a folk assembly in which the entire population could participate. The members of the Samiti were called Vishah. The most important function of the Samiti was the election of the king. The Sabha, a selected body was more like an advisory council.
In the day-to-day administration, the king was assisted by a few functionaries. We do have references to the senani or the general, thepurohita or the priest, the gramani or the head of the grama and to spasas or spies, but these do not seem to have organised into a formal bureaucracy. The Rigveda does not mention any officer for administering justice and officer concerned with tax-collection.
Gana, the technical word for the republic, is found at forty-six places in the Rigveda. There were a few non-monarchical states (Gana) whose head was ganapatior Jyestha (elder).
Later Vedic period:
The later Vedic period witnessed certain significant changes in the political structure which were closely related to the growing importance of settled agriculture and the consequent social differentiation. Later Vedic literature contains, probably for the first time, discussions on the origins of kingship which is quaintly stated in the Aitareya Brahmana.
Various possibilities are explored. These include a suggestion that kingship originated out of the need for a leader in warfare. Other theories emphasised the divine origin of kingship. Certain other theories emphasised contractual elements, suggesting that the raja was chosen by his people who hoped for specific material gains in return.
With the decreasing importance of pastoralism, raids became insignificant. The raja’s function now was to protect the fields or crops of the agriculturists rather than cattle wealth. Bali (tribute) though voluntary in the Rig Vedic period, became compulsory.
There are also indications to suggest that such exactions could often be oppressive. Thus, the Kshatriya or the raja is described as the Visha matta or the eater of the vish in the Satapatha Brahmana. In later Vedic times popular assemblies lost importance, and royal power increased at their cost. The Vidatha completely disappeared. The Sabha and Samiti continued to hold the ground, but their character changed.
They came to be dominated by chiefs and rich nobles. Women were no longer permitted to sit on the Sabha. The Sabha was gradually converted into the King’s court, becoming an even more exclusive body than earlier.
Another significant development associated with this period was the emergence of the janapada, literally the area where they’re placed its foot or settled down. Some of these newjanapadas seem to have been formed through the amalgamation of separate Janas. The term rashtra, which indicates territory, first appears in this period.
The emergence of the janapada was also associated with the beginning of a rudimentary administrative system. The later Vedic texts refer to the ministers of the king called ‘ratnins’i.e. receivers of the jewels which were offered by the king-elect to each of them at his house at the ceremony called ratnahavimsi.
The Atharva Veda mentions these king makers to be Suta (bard), the Ratha-Kara, Karmara (artisan), Gramaniand the Rajas (nobles). These ‘kingmakers’ grew in number in the later texts. Taittiriya Brahmana mentions twelve ratnins.
(i) Brahmana (Purohita)
(3) Mahishi (Chief queen)
(4) Vavata (favourite wife)
(5) Parivrikti (discarded wife)
(6) Suta (Charioteer)
(9) Kshata (Chamberlain)
(10) Samgrahitri (treasurer)
(11) Bhagadugha (Collector of taxes)
(12) Akshavapa (superintendent of dicing).
During this period, collection of taxes and tribute seems to have been common. It was collected by Bhagadugha and was deposited with an officer called Sangrihitri. As the raja became less of a popular ruler and more coercive, elaborate means were devised to legitimise his position. These included sacrifices such as the rajasuya, the vajapeya and ashvamedha.
These rituals were virtually unknown in the early Vedic period and seem to have been devised to enhance the importance of both the new rulers and the priestly category who provided them with support. The rajasuya sacrifice was supposed to confer supreme power on him. He performed the Ashvamedha, which meant unquestioned control over an area in which the royal horse ran uninterrupted.
He also performed the Vajapeya or the chariot race in which the royal chariot was made to win the race against his kinsmen. Rad-Yajna was a special ceremony by which a deposed king could get back his kingdom or a reigning king the lost royalty of his subject.
Coronation was followed by striking the king on the back by the rod (dandairghanti) by the Adhvaryu priest and his assistant thereby rendering the king adandya (above punishment). Even in later Vedic times the king did not possess a standing army. The later Vedic period witnessed the beginning of territorial kingdoms. War was fought for territory. The famous Mahabharata battle fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, is attributed to this period.