Why is the Republic of India a Civilization-State?

Why is the Republic of India a Civilization-State?

On 26 January 1950, India’s Constitution came into effect amidst severe apprehensions about India’s balkanization. So, seventy-one years later, the Indian democratic republic may still appear to be a historical accident, but it is not. Here is why:

India has always been a fertile territory for experiments in governance, but surprisingly, there is no more than a casual reference to the ideas underlying non-western civilizations in Political Science courses or History of Political Thought. The neglect of Indian polity is particularly striking, for apart from Western political thought, Indic political ideas comprise the most extensive and most crucial body of political philosophy. Moreover, these political ideas are integral to Indic civilization—one of the only surviving non-western civilizations. Today, we know that Western ideas have clearly impacted Indian political thought. Still, what is generally not realized is that India has also contributed to Western political thinking in all probability. 

The problem of scant attention given to Indic political thought compared to Indic religion and philosophy was partly remedied with the re-discovery of Kautilya’s Arthashastra —the Indic equivalent of the Machiavellian, The Prince. However, other great works like Kamandaki’s Nitisara— Elements of Polity, the Raj Dharma (administrative ethics) section of the epic, Mahabharata, the epic Ramayana, Digha Nikaya (Collection of Long Discourses), and to some extent antiquated Hitopadesha (Beneficial Advice) also deal with an Indian way of thinking about the state-society relationship. 

Drawing from these essential texts and Indic political thinkers, the king’s role is viewed mainly as an administrator—the ruler is not an agent of social change. This view is radically different from its counterparts in the West. In Western political theory—Rousseau, Locke, and Hegel—political order means the subjugation of society to the state. In Indian tradition, the society and culture are always supreme, and the ruler is accountable to dharma (Indic ethics—a common internal bond) and society. Therefore, the conception of the “state of nature” in Hobbes and Rousseau is irrelevant to Indic tradition because ethics and civilization preceded the state’s development in India. In the Ramayana and Mahabharata’s grand narratives, an esoteric reading accounts for personal ethics and the path to profound spiritual freedom. But an exoteric view informs us of political power, administrative ethics, and the limits of provisional freedom. According to these epics, the state is created to protect against the disintegration of social order, and the state is given only those powers required to do so. Thus, a ruler’s powers are not like those of the Leviathan conceptualized in Hobbes.

Despite these radical Indic political concepts, the popular view on ancient and early medieval India is that it was merely a region invested in despotism with no knowledge of Freedom or Liberty. Hegel assumed that only one tribe of men were free in Asia, and others were their slaves. It is worth noting that for almost thousand eight hundred years after the Greek republics collapsed, the Western world also lived through monarchical despotism and tyranny. Likewise, apart from ancient Greece and Rome, in India too, there existed republics and proto democracies. A fair study of Indic history informs you that ancient Indian republics were not only in existence from the 8th century B.C. to 4th century A.D., but they were doing some fascinating experiments in state-society relations. With time, at least four different forms of constitutions emerged. 

  1. Arajya: A political community without a king. These communities self-governed using Dharma texts (Indic ethics).
  2. Ganarajya: A state or a political community ruled by a ‘gana’ or an assembly of people.
  3. Youvarajya: A political community ruled by a crown prince.
  4. Dvairajya: A political community ruled by two kings.

For various reasons, Ganarajya and Youvarajya systems thrived much more than the other two. 

The ‘Gana‘ seems to be the earliest Indic political forum of the entire community (Jana). The Jana’s formulation of political policies rested with the Samiti (Sanskrit for Committee) and the Sabha (an assembly of elders). Over time, these Ganarajya states developed into Janapada—a self-sufficing political and cultural unit. Every Janapada had its peculiar dialect and customs developed from regional interpretations of Indic Dharma (ethics). Several of these Janapada states even joined hands to form a federation of Mahajanapada (mega-Janapada). Over time, however, powerful Indic monarchies who performed the state’s integrative functions better than the assemblies of Gana overwhelmed them. Fortunately, imperial states incorporated these republics into their fold; republics were not entirely stamped out, even after repeated invasions by the Turks, Mongols, Portuguese, French, and the British. 

The Gana-Sabha system emerged from the shadow as soon as these imperial powers became weak. The Sabha system was active in the village setting as Panchayat (village associations) that included both notable big men and peasants, in contestation with each other and in opposition to the state. Here, different qualities of people and opinions were tested, rather than the scene of a pronunciamento by elders. Even the British acknowledged this system. Henry Maine, who was influenced by J. S. Mill, was sent to India in the 1860s to advise the British government on legal matters. He came across several accounts of thriving indigenous systems of autonomous village governments, whose structure and practice shared many characteristics of participatory democracy. Later, Maine articulated a theory of the village community as an alternative to the centralized state. In the Panchayat system, De Tocqueville saw an ideal model of a society with a limited state. He planned to study it, comparable to Democracy in America but overwhelmed by his political duties, he never managed a trip. So, while Indian electoral democracy was only instituted in the first half of the twentieth century, the practice of public reasoning, deliberation, and toleration of a plurality of ideas is a much older phenomenon, dating back to ancient Indic traditions. 

During the 1947 Constituent Assembly Debates of post-colonial India, there was an Alexander Hamilton vs. Thomas Jefferson sort of debate between Gandhi’s idea of Indic village-style, decentralized administration vs. B. R. Ambedkar’s —the principal architect of the Indian constitution—healthy centralized state. Although Ambedkar’s view prevailed, the village democracy did not entirely disappear from the Indian constitution. India officially called itself Bhārat Gaṇarājya, and the first two words of the Indian national anthem honor Jana and Gana. Hence, the constitutional democracy of the Indian republic was not an accident; it is a sui generis phenomenon reflecting the plural character and age-old but essential values of Indic civilization. Therefore, modern-day India is a Civilization-State. The West can only describe it from the outside, but it is for India to interpret herself from within—an ongoing process.  

Finally, it merits mentioning that Professor of international history Arnold J. Toynbee reminded the world, “India is a whole world in herself; she is a society of the same magnitude as our Western society.”

To know more about India’s constitutional debates, check this excellent ten-episode series. Subtitles are available in English.

3 thoughts on “Why is the Republic of India a Civilization-State?

  1. Very interesting. If this is the seed of a book, please, write it. Worst case scenario: It gives westerners some perspective on their own political theories. Missing, it seems: It’s beyond me how it’s possible to discuss Indian polities without mentioning caste. I hate to be a bore but the social fact of caste must affect everything.

  2. Thanks a lot, sir, for the motivation and kind words. I don’t think I’m there yet to write a book. I’m still forming my views, and I still lack experience.

    Regarding caste: there are has been a certain lack of nuance in the English translations. There are three things at play when we say caste, namely,
    1) Varna (mental aptitude) –> it is descriptive. There are 4 broad aptitudes among citizens in any functioning society, namely, Knowledge-seekers, Security providers, Entrepreneurs/ Merchants, and General Service providers
    2) Ashrama (Ethical conduct for the stage of life one is at – Bachelor, Married, Retired life, and Renounced from social bonds) –> it is prescriptive
    3) Jati (Occupational skills acquired by ancestral inheritance; Jati relates to Janani, which is Sanskrit for Genesis/birth) –> it is presumptive

    In reality, 1) and 2) were clubbed as Varnashrama in the Gana-Sabha system and throughout ancient and early medieval periods. In this system, a Knowledge-seeker’s prescribed ethical conduct in the four stages of life was different from Merchants and so forth. The caste’s tricky issue pertains to the fourth aptitude (Varna), the ‘general service providing’ class, called Shudra –> etymology ‘Shuk’ = misery and, dra = melt; their service was essential for society to function smoothly. They were analogous to the feet on whose strength the Indic society stood.

    People are born with particular innate aptitudes regardless of their Jati (ancestral occupational inheritance). So, a scholar’s progeny need not long to be a scholar or marry within the community of scholars; s/he could be interested in general service. S/he could choose to be a farmer, a painter, weaver, or any artisan for that matter. However, to learn these skills, there weren’t any formal schools. One had to approach a family that was invested in such skills. Formal education only focused on astronomy, medicine, math, ethics, and Vedic philosophy.

    Furthermore, a general service provider’s offspring may have the aptitude to seek knowledge. Such candidates would have had to pass an oral aptitude test to get into the Gurukula (formal Indic schools). Such aptitude tests for taken even for the child of a scholar. Once admitted, the candidate would crossover to the fold of knowledge-seekers and follow its prescribed varnashrama. These intergenerational crossovers were common in the ancient and early medieval periods. There are notable examples for this as well. From the middle and late medieval periods, I believe the Indic society got too complacent; they matched their Varna not by aptitude but by Jati. A secondary reason was the cultural flux induced by repeated invasions by proselytizing cultures. In such a scenario, there was a need to conserve traditional order. So, Knowledge-seekers, Security providers, Entrepreneurs/ Merchants, and General Service providers became four hardened sub-groups who never inter-mixed or crossed over. The general class bore the brunt of this hardening as they lost upward-mobility. In such a scenario, their ancestral occupation became their only safety net. Later, with the industrial revolution, handcrafted goods lost their value, and whatever these artisans produced was heavily taxed by the colonial powers, causing them greater misery. Finally, they had to choose menial jobs to earn a living.

    However, the Gana-Sabha system was not in this Jati hardening period; it was situated in the era of fluidity, inter-mixing, and cross over. The Gana-Sabha were primarily overwhelmed because they concentrated too much on cultural developments while the neighboring imperial state of Magadha was largely martial.

    Today, the word ‘caste’ is put forward to attack the very concept of Varna. We often find activists who want to eliminate the class of traditional Indic knowledge-seekers or the entrepreneurial class from society. I would like to add a message of caution here —every sophisticated society will have a scholarly class, entrepreneurial class, etc. Doctors often marry doctors. Frequently, their children would also acquire the interest to pursue an MD degree. We can’t stop this grouping and matching. We can’t eliminate innate aptitudes, but we can certainly provide a fair path to crossover based on natural talents. Jati or ancestral occupational inheritance should not come in the way of marriage or profession. The Indic society certainly went wrong with Jati and is now in the process of rectification.

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