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  Pre-history of democracy

How inherent is democracy to the soil of India? There are still a few who believe that the British gifted it to us. There is a much larger section that believes that democracy began in Greece and somehow we came to ‘get’ it. Indeed for many scholars anything that happened before the advent of Greek city states is pre-history. What really may have happened in history?

Without having to move far-right, there is evidence now for one to believe that notions of democracy may in fact have originated in India. One of the finest expositions of what may have transpired in India before the visit of Alexander is set out most readably by Steve Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History at Nipissing University, Canada. In his essay ‘Democracy in Ancient India’ he describes a pre-history to democracy that precedes Greece.

Once we put aside Western historians, we must put away Brahminical sources as well. Manu Smriti --and its concept of ‘varna’ or castes-- goes back barely to 200 AD. Earlier than that we have Kautilya --300 BC-- with his Arthasastra and its emphasis on a monarch. Most Indians are by then filled with enough glow about the line they are heir to and decide that there is no more to it.

But wait a minute, says Muhlberger. There is a pre-Sanskrit history as well. Delving deeply into Pali sources he asserts democracy-like-societies precede even the Buddha to around 600 BC. One needs to make subtle changes to criteria, though: democracy is more than governments through elections-- it is governance by discussion. Although there was central authority and inheritance of power, Muhlberger nevertheless asserts that the core was democratic, because intermarriages and upward mobility was possible.  By the time Alexander arrived in India there were many sovereign republics in India.

Muhlberger’s very readable essay is also full of vibrant images of those times. Here is a sample: “The Pali Canon gives a picturesque description of the city of Vesali in the fifth century B.C. as possessing 7707 storied buildings, 7707 pinnacled buildings, 7707 parks and lotus ponds, and a multitude of people, including the famous courtesan Ambapali, whose beauty and artistic achievements contributed mightily to the city’s prosperity and reputation. The cities of Kapilavatthu and Kusavati were likewise full of traffic and noise. Moving between these cities were great trading caravans of 500 or 1000 carts—figures that convey no precise measurement, but give a true feeling of scale: caravans that stopped for more than four months in a single place,as they often did because of the rainy season, were described as villages. Religion, too, was taking to the road. The hereditary Brahman who was also a householder, as in later Vedic tradition, saw his teachings, authority and perquisites threatened by wandering holy men and self-appointed teachers “

Click this to read the full essay here.