The idea of political, as contextualized in Indian historiography, is reflected in nebulous form in ninth and tenth mandalam (chapter) of Rig Veda.1 In Ramayana and Mahabharata, it subsequently developed and acquired elementary contours reflecting in the discourse on the organs of state and of its ideal forms. But unfortunately, their historicity lacks academic acceptance and is termed as mythology. The political, therefore, is accepted from Digh Nikaya2 and its study, the thought of administration, of state, and of its craft began from it in post-Buddha years. Ambedkar, in fact, argued that most of the mythological texts were written after Buddha which may be a possibility because, according to Gunakar Muley3, the earliest script found in India, hitherto, is Brahmi which developed after Buddha. Therefore, there is an absence of any written texts in pre-Digh Nikaya years; and therefore, an importance of Shruti and Smriti methods developed in the society to transmit the collective knowledge from the past to future for which there were specific trainings. It is equally possible that the mythological texts existed in the pre-Buddha-era, but because of an absence of script, it was not written. And in its absence, there emerged interpolations or number of different texts of the same title. For example, Rig Veda had 21 different texts (samhita) as per Patanjali’s Mahabhasya. But only five could preserve their tradition till Dara Shikoh’s time, and which continues till date, out of which only Sankhyan can be recited in its traditional form and also, of which manuscript exists along with that of Shakal text.4
Each surviving Rig Veda has different number of stanzas/shlokas/richain5 which reflects that with the migration of population, of academics and of intellectuals, different texts of same title developed. Further, there was a hermeneutic change visible in different Samhita of Rig Veda, between the mandalam of Rig Veda or between Rig Veda, Ramayana and Mahabharata which reflects the emergence and development of state in different ages. An analysis of it may be apt here.
The political idea or the emergence of state is visible for the first time in a very elementary form6 in mandalam 9 and 10 of Rig Veda which is commonly identified with Shakal text. Both these mandalams are also considered as later addition. In comparison, 2 to 7 mandalam reflects a different kind of society, more of a bliss, without any Samiti, Sabha, Rajan and Prajapati which evolved subsequently with their duties and roles. This reflects, if read in tandem with Digha Nikaya, an emergence of division of work, of private property, of social divisions, of political ideas and of state. It also reflects, in historical context, that long before Buddha-era, such developments had begun to emerge because during Buddha’s time, the state, monarchy, etc. was already in existence. Derivatively, thus, Rig Veda seems to be prior to Buddha and Digha Nikaya in existence.7
The state was more starkly visible in a more developed form in Ramayana, another mythological text, which is linked with Rig Veda.8 In mandalam 10, Ikshvaku and Ram are mentioned once; in mandalam 1, it is considered as another interpolation, Dasrath and Sita are mentioned. Here, there emerged different specialized organs of state. The king was no longer elected; rather it became hereditary which was contrary to what Rig Veda had practiced. In Rig Veda, he was elected and the role of the collective was most important. There was no specialized organ. Here, in Ramayana, contrarily, the eldest son became the king; the ministerial, advisory council was consulted and its consent was sought. Once it was approved, the hereditary succession was legitimized. An interesting phenomenon, however, was visible. The hereditary anointment of eldest son was being contested from within the family which was nipped in the bud on ethical premise. But the idea to contest against the law of primogeniture persisted which subsequently manifested violently in the Mahabharata in which the state was more developed in comparison to Ramayana. In both these mythological texts, the organs of the state and the nature of the statecraft differed, and the ethical cover over the property relations blew over. Or in other words, the property relations among the families and in society became starker. Subsequently, the law of primogeniture which was applicable in Europe scrupulously was overthrown early in India in her recorded monarchical history.
The mythological texts reflect starkly that the hereditary monarchies in India had a much longer history than the Greco-Roman civilization, where the history of democracy has been longer. Even the written history, since Buddha, reflects this fact. But more pertinent is the point that why this developed. It may be difficult to answer but few suggestive, plausible arguments may be posited here. The vast fertile land and available labor for cultivation facilitated the emergence of many monarchies, their expansion or divisions which could be sustained through taxation and labor. The extractions from peasantry in tax or rent or in services were enough to sustain them as their number was large. In comparison, the scrupulous application of law of primogeniture in Europe, where only the eldest son inherited the monarchy or was crowned king, was due to the absence of above referred sustainable factors as available in India. It was necessary to check the fragmentation of kingdom. With fragmented taxation and man power, it was difficult to sustain a kingdom with limited resources. Moreover, Europe had very limited fertile cultivable land and even the quality of animals was poor. The continuation of democracy of the citizens, a limited functional process, at a later stage of Greco-Roman civilization, was premised on the slave labor. The limited existence of labor, land and animal could, thus, only sustain a tribal society with frugal existence.
By the time Kautilya wrote his Arthashastra, the state in India had arrived in its full blown form reflecting the existence of politics of the age in its developed stage. It was a long journey from democracy, universal citizenship and participatory-collective administration of Rig Veda to a developed state with hereditary monarchy and absence of citizenship. It was also the development of caste as hereditary, specialized work that impacted the development of monarchy as hereditary, specialized work or the development of state as a specialized organ. More appropriately, these impacted and strengthened each other and reduced the citizens to subjects. In territories, where the private property, monarchy and state were yet to develop or had not developed in its full form, the democratic space and citizens’ freedom, and the civil society continued to function till it was marginalized or eliminated in the course of history.
Therefore, philosophy proper, as Hegel had argued, ceased to develop as an independent branch of knowledge after Buddha, unlike political thought, which as an allied branch of philosophy had a long continual history in India. Philosophy became ‘identical with its religion’ in the course of the formation and development of hereditary monarchies. The withering away of the free institutions, which existed due to the ‘connection between political freedom and freedom of thought’, created conditions for the philosophy proper—the absolute universal of self-consciousness—to lose its vitality. The Idea weakened and could not fructify into objective. The external and the objective couldn’t be comprehended as a full-blown form in accordance with the Idea.9 But the epistemology about the concepts of an ideal polity, civil laws, justice, property, sovereignty and secularism as the six allied branches of philosophy proper blossomed over the centuries. This was because these concepts were necessitated by and required for the existence of state, and for its expansion in different forms in different regions according to the then prevalent social structure. The content and the contours of these themes, however, lacked substantive or sharp formulation when compared to the consistent evolution seen in Greco-Roman political philosophy; but an intensive reading of the available historical material in India leads us to interesting conclusions that are conceptually similar in content to the European formulations while simultaneously being distinct and with a discernible Indian imprint. The similarities and differences in the political philosophy are, broadly, the results of the similarities and differences in the pre-capitalist social formations of India and of Europe, of their state structures, of Episcopal orders, and of variegated pattern of land holdings. In fact, one of the basic factors of distinction in India was the wide prevalence of land holdings and of property rights among the peasantry in customary forms whose vast numerical existence for centuries created conditions for the emergence of distinctive inputs into the conceptual paradigms of political thought.10 It provided an ontological base over which many philosophical discourses emerged as different branches of knowledge and fructified into independent/autonomous/related disciplines.
Let us now discuss the six major concepts of political philosophy in India referred to earlier. One can begin with the notion of secularism actuating amidst the peasants or of application of policy and conduct of state towards religion and towards faiths of people. It may be noted here that historically the Indian states were largely non-theocratic. It had multifarious linkages with different religions and there was separation between the personal faiths and political practices of the rulers. The subjects enjoyed religious freedom. The application of few apparently discriminatory policies by the local or central authorities, or their acts of imposing religious conversions on the subjects were minor trends. The absence of any Episcopal order provided conditions for the emergence of new religions, new gods and new sects. The absence was itself grounded in the existence of a large peasantry with diffused land holdings among different castes which acted as bulwark against theocracy and the emergence of a church type Episcopal order. The land holders required, in their routine existence, substantive degree of autonomy to formulate and actuate their decisions for cultivation and management of their properties, a freedom that was effectively transmitted into freedom of other kinds including their religious attitude. Curtailment of this freedom by imposition of fixed ideology by the state/ruling class on such a large number of land owners would have been a difficult proposition and a non-beneficial act. In fact, it would have created condition for a rebellion and a cause for revenue loss. The scattered and the autarkik village existence of the populace with expanding cultivable land acreage benefited the state in terms of increase in revenue generation and in providing insulation to it from economic crisis. In this mutually beneficial and balance of power relations between the state and the peasantry there was no requirement of a theocracy, neither was it desirable or possible to impose it nor to create an Episcopal order. In fact, there was no social condition for its emergence. The attitude of the state was to support every religion or to adopt policies which were beneficial to it. The economic appropriation of the peasants’ produce and the avoidance of religious coercion was the best option for it. Thus, in a historically evolved social structure, in which there was a numerical preponderance of the peasantry with their local village and family deities, totems and rituals and an in-built requirement of functional autonomy necessary for cultivation and related functions, secular conduct of the state and the idea of limited liberty among the peasantry were imperatives.
In contrast to this, in Europe the states were theocratic in nature for centuries. In tandem with the Episcopal order, they imposed Christianity on their subjects as political ideology. It denied their civil freedom and created a fixed paradigm within which the aspirations for ideal polity or justice was to be sought, thereby intending to regulate the formation of new ideas in public sphere.
Simultaneously, the Episcopal order built up Christ and Christianity as the pre-eminent god and religion respectively and destroyed the plurality of other polymorphous religions. It went to the extent of suppressing the formation of sects within Christianity itself which created intense contention in the public sphere. The emergence of the Episcopal order and of theocratic states, and their power, were premised on and were in proportion to the increasing accumulation of wealth by the lords and churches, who appropriated the bulk of cultivable lands and other properties. This deprived the masses of its ownership and of its derivative necessities for existence. The more the surf age of society and the appropriation of the surplus produce by the lords and churches, the more was the necessity of religion for the masses. It helped in the preservation of the prevalent social structure. It necessitated the emergence and consolidation of a theocratic state and the development of an Episcopal order that was in contradistinction to the idea of equality of religions. Their emergence and consolidation, however, created dual power centres and conflict for dominance over the temporal and mundane domains. The sovereignty of the state became divisible between the pope and the king, representing two factions of the ruling class. It became, therefore, imperative for Austin and Bodin11 to negate the past and to reassert for the new ruling class represented by the state its indivisible, absolute, legal supremacy over the rest; the Episcopal order, declined after the consolidation of the bourgeois regime, was politically relegated into the background.
In India, this duality of power and the resulting conflict for dominance rarely occurred. In the absence of an Episcopal order, the sovereignty remained absolute and indivisible and was located in the monarchy. Any attempt or discourse of usurpation or division of power was immediately neutralized by a coercive and ideological state apparatus as it lacked popular support. The wide prevalence of property rights in customary forms, both individual and communal in nature (segmentary exclusion of the untouchables notwithstanding), in tandem with the deeprooted idea of equality and plurality of religions, also preempted any pan-Indian usurpative or revolutionary challenge to the state.
The existence of mass property rights provided, even within the matrix of inscriptive precapitalist social formations, a restricted public sphere, a limited civil society and some basic functional civil laws12 that were largely absent in medieval Europe except for its segmentary presence among burghers. These involved a large urban and rural populace of different castes/religion/gender (including the lowest decideratum) who had considerable operational and ideological autonomy as far as their customary rights were concerned. But it must be noted here that these groups were not a political community yet. In contrast, in Europe, the absence of mass property holdings and the presence of the Episcopal order resulted in the social erosion of such freedom. This either brutalized large sections of the populace or propelled them into radical/reformative social transformation with great intensity and increased frequency, leading to constant social change.
The search for justice and ideal polity, however, engaged the masses and the intelligentsia, both in the European and Indian societies. It was reflected both in religious discourses and in academic treatises. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Zia Barani’s Fatawa-i-Jehandari, Abul Fazl’s Akbarnama were parts of it. Both in the popular and academic discourses, the notion of an ideal dharma/religere, the idea of powerful and benevolent kingship and of its different organs as integral part of the state were posited and were partly incorporated in the administrative and social machinery, which followed legal codification and customary inscriptive laws in the dispensation of justice and in governance. Here it may be noted that both the societies had political communities and citizenship in the ancient world. In Europe, however, the slaves were denied of it; in India, it was destroyed by the emerging hereditary monarchies. The idea of republicanism, nonetheless, persisted, at least in the vernacular literary works of poets. Kabir’s quest for Begumpura,13 for example, was part of this urge.
The presence of the past in the modern history of India was sharply contoured and enriched under the impact of colonial capitalism. In the process of fighting back for social and political emancipation, the past was resurrected in new forms14 with enriched content for a comparative study with Europe. To demonstrate parity/superiority with Europe, new concepts of political philosophy were added through creative interpretations of the past. Some of them, for example, were nationalism, socialism, democracy and feudalism. It was rarely emphasized that only modern capitalist Europe was better placed than colonial India that Europe could be said to have had a bigoted past and it was far more intolerant and brutal than India. The pre-capitalist India was a more hospitable place to live in than the pre-capitalist Europe. Only in late history, in and around the 17th and 18th centuries, Europe had marched ahead of India in civilizational progress. A comparison of precapitalist India and of capitalist Europe was illogical and incompatible.
Fortunately, this kind of comparison no longer dominates the frontiers of research in postcolonial India. Currently, two aspects of political philosophy are being focused upon: the first is the exploration of new theories and their analysis, and the second is the ‘discovery’ of new thinkers and new interpretations of their views under different rubric.15 In both the cases, a thematic comparison with Europe is used as a method for increasing our understanding. These efforts being made to understand the distinctiveness of philosophy of different societies without getting caught up in the notion of one being inferior or superior to the other is a sign of maturity.
Political philosophy as an academic discipline, different from the genre of political thinkers, is being gradually introduced as a new course in the universities of India. It’s widening thematic base and enrichment through inter-disciplinary input is a right step toward holistic understanding of the past and of contemporary society.
Notes and References
- See K.P. Jayaswal, Hindu Polity, The Bangalore Printing & Publishing co. Ltd., Bangalore City, 1943, pp. 12–13.
- See M.P. Singh, “Dhamma: Buddha’s and Ashoka’s” in Himanshu Roy and M.P. Singh (eds) Indian Political Thought, Second edition, Pearson, New Delhi, 2017.
- See Gunakar Muley, Bhartiya Lipion ki Kahaani, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, 2014, chap 2.
- See B.B. Choubey, The Rig Veda (Asvalayana-Samhita) vol. 1, IGNCA, New Delhi, 2009, p. 7.
- K.P. Jayaswal, op. cit. pp. 12–21.
- See Rahul Sankrityayan et al. Buddhism, PPH, New Delhi, 5th Print, 1990, p. 4.
- Father Camille Bulcke, Ramkatha, Hindi Parishad, Allahabad University, 5th Edition, 1997, pp. 1–2.
- See Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Vol. I (New York, NY: Humanities Press, 1974) chaps. Introduction and Indian Philosophy; See also, B.K. Matilal, Mind, Language and World, edited by J. Ganeri (New Delhi: OUP, 2002), pp. 351–369.
- See Himanshu Roy, Secularism and Its Colonial Legacy in India (Delhi: Manak, 2009), Preface and Introduction.
- John Austin and Jean Bodin are considered as the theoretical classical representatives of legal and external sovereignties of early bourgeois state. See, for example, their books: John Austin, Lectures on Jurisprudence (London: John Murray, 1832) and Jean Bodin, On Sovereignty, edited by Julian H. Franklin (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1992)
- See Farhat Hasan, ‘Forms of Civility and Publicness in Pre-British India’ in Rajeev Bhargava and Helmut Reifeld (eds) Civil Society, Public Sphere and Citizenship (New Delhi: Sage, 2005).
- See Gail Omvedt, Seeking Begumpura (New Delhi: Navayana, 2008).
- See K.M. Panikkar, ‘Colonialism, Culture and Revivalism’, Social Scientist, Vol. 31, Nos. 1–2, Jan-Feb 2003.
- See Yogendra Yadav, ‘Was Lohia Parochial and Monolingual?’ Economic & Political Weekly, 24th October 2009.