India has a long history of “governments by discussion,” in which groups of people having common interests made decisions on matters that affected their lives through debate, consultation, and voting. During Buddha’s times, though the rulers were not elected and the king’s son would succeed his father, the day-to-day decisions of governance were taken in village assemblies. Decisions of village assemblies were respected by the king.
Siddharth Gautam (later to be Buddha) was the son of the king of Kapilavastu, home to the Sakyas. Though the king was the head of the government, the affairs of the state were deliberated upon and decided at a democratic institution called the Sangh. Every Sakya youth above the age of twenty had to be initiated into the Sangh. Siddharth, too, became a member of the Sangh when he came of age and started participating in its proceedings.
When he was twenty-eight years old, there was a major clash between the Sakyas and the neighbouring Koliyas on the issue of sharing the waters of the river Rohini, which separated their two states. The Senapati of the Sakyas convened a session of the Sangh to consider the question of declaring war on the Koliyas. Siddharth, not surprisingly, opposed the war and proposed a motion to settle the dispute through peaceful means. The motion was not just spoken against; it was defeated by an overwhelming majority when it was voted on. The public voted for the alternative resolution of going to war with the Koliyas.
The Sangh followed this action up with an even more remarkable act of democratic power. The Senapati proposed a motion to proclaim an order calling to arms, for the war against the Koliyas, every Sakya between the age of 20 and 50. The motion was passed by the Sangh, with Siddharth and his supporters dissenting. Siddharth refused to accept the proclamation, which was construed by the Sangh as a breach of his oath (taken while being admitted to the Sangh), to safeguard the best interests of the Sangh with his mind, body and money. As punishment for the dereliction of his duty as a Sangh member, Siddharth was, eventually, sentenced to exile from Kapilavastu.
There may be disagreement over the logic of the Sangh’s decisions, but there can be little doubt over the strength of the democratic institutions of Kapilavastu, as exemplified in the story. The prince had little say and the collective will of the people prevailed.
Buddha's commitment to republicanism (or at least the ideal republican virtues) was a strong one, if we are to believe the Maha-parinibbana-suttanta, among the oldest of Buddhist texts. This is illustrated by a story. Ajatasastru, the King of Maghada, wishes to destroy the Vajjian confederacy (the Licchavis) and sends a minister, Vassakara the Brahman, to the Buddha to ask his advice. Will his attack be a success? Rather than answer directly, the Buddha speaks to Ananda, his closest disciples:
"Have you heard, Ananda, that the Yajjians hold full and frequent public assemblies?"
"Lord, so I have heard," replied he.
"So long, Ananda," rejoined the Blessed One, "as the Yajjians hold these full and frequent public assemblies; so long may they be expected not to decline, but to prosper…”
The Buddha saw the virtues necessary for a righteous and prosperous community, whether secular or monastic, as being much the same. Foremost among those virtues was the holding of “full and frequent assemblies.”
In this, the Buddha spoke not only for himself, and not only out of his personal view of justice and virtue. He based himself on what may be called the democratic tradition in ancient Indian politics — democratic in that it argued for a wide rather than narrow distribution of political rights, and government by discussion rather than by command and submission.
Another example, perhaps more complete in description, of sophisticated local-level democracy in Indian history, is recorded on the walls of the Sundaravarada temple of Uttiramerur, Kanchipuram district. The inscriptions document a written constitution that dealt with elections to a village assembly around 750 AD, qualifications required of contesting candidates, circumstances under which a candidate would be disqualified, mode of election, tenure of the elected candidates and the right of the public to recall the elected members when they failed to discharge their duties properly, etc.
The village assembly had administrative and judicial functions, and was empowered to impose and collect fines from both common criminals and errant village administrators. Elected members of the assembly were also effectively policed by a larger assembly comprising village residents as well as the serving elected members of the village assembly.
Records detail the regulations and acts passed by the village assembly with respect to specific public services, such as the testing of gold quality, institutes of higher learning, and village tank maintenance. Each public service was rendered effectively by delegating the tasks to committees comprising members elected from various communities, to ensure sufficient expertise and impartiality within the committee.
One of the earliest instances of civilizations with democracy was found in ancient India, even during the times of the Rigveda, probably the earliest Indo-European literature and one of the most sacred books of the Hindus. The village in India was looked upon as the basic unit of administration in earliest Vedic age. The states mentioned are mostly monarchies, but with two democratic institutions called the Sabha and the Samiti. The Sabha (Assembly in Sanskrit) is widely interpreted to be the assembly of the elect or the important chieftains of the tribe, while the Samiti seems to be the gathering of all the men of the tribe, convened only for very special occasions. The Sabha and the Samiti kept check on the powers of the king, and were given a semi-divine status in the Rigveda as the "daughters of the Hindu deity Prajapati".
The later epic Ramayana seems to mention a Samiti summoned by King Dasharatha of Ayodhya for ratification of his son Prince Ramachandra as the successor (Book II, Canto II:80). Later, there were even many republics in ancient India, which were established sometime before the 6th century BC, and prior to the birth of Gautama Buddha. These republics were known as Maha Janapadas, and among these states, Vaishali (in what is now Bihar, India) was the world's first republic.
It is a pity that we have forgotten our own history. From where did we adopt democracy? Some say that we learnt of democracy from the US and some say that we learnt it from England. But the truth is that democracy has been there in our country from the times of Gautam Budha. Democracy then was far more powerful than it is today. Vaishali was the first Democracy of the world. Democratic traditions are ingrained in our psyche and, therefore, we chose democracy naturally after independence in 194.A King’s son used to succeed the king. There were no election to choose the king but at the same time the King did not have absolute power. All decisions were taken by the gram sabhas. Whatever the people of the village wanted the gram Sabha wanted the same. The king had no options but to accede to the wishes of the people.
Today we elect our king once in five years but the king is not in our control. In ancient time people did not choose the king but the king was under their control.
There is an anecdote connected with Vaishali. One day a Sabha was organized which was attended by the citizens and the King presided the meeting. Citizens proposed that a certain woman become the “Nagar vadhu”. That woman accepted but on the condition that she would be given Palace of the king as her living quarters. The proposal was accepted by the majority of the citizens and the Palace of the king was allotted to the Nagar Vadhu . The king objected as the Palace was his living quarter.
The people argued that the Palace was constructed with the tax paid by the people to the king and therefore, they were the real owners of the Palace. The wishes of the people prevailed. The king vacated the Palace and built a new Palace for himself. It is a different matter that making a woman “Nagar Vadhu” was a wrong practice, even then. But the point that is being driven home by this example is to depict the power of people in the prevalent political system.
Arvind has retained the basic thrust/focus on the origins of democracy in India in both these documents.