Wednesday, July 12, 2006

India had the first democracies?

It's unclear when democracy, or some kind of republican government, began. Democracy may go back many thousands of years among some Native American nations. Ancient Greece usually gets the credit for democracy, or republican government, among more 'advanced' civilizations with large cities, social hierarchies, and specialized technologies, professions, and a powerful military class.

Maybe India was the first. Greek democracy developed between 600 - 500 BCE. But from before 600 BCE there were several large societies in northeastern India that were republics, perhaps approached democracy. They were part of a group of nations called the Mahajanapadas, which are mentioned in ancient Buddhist texts. Their democracy was probably limited to the upper classes, maybe only the warrior class. But the caste system was still developing, and there are indications of significant social mobility. So perhaps in some ways they were more democratic than Ancient Greece, with its slave-owing, wealthy, but free, democratic elite, and the slaves, who were stuck down at the bottom. (Greek slaves, and their descendents, very rarely obtained full political rights, even if they were freed.)

Apparently, Buddha adopted traditions of the Indian republics when he developed rules for his followers. Most Buddhist monastic orders choose their leaders through consultation and agreement, sometimes by elections held by the monks and nuns, or the lay community that they serve. Buddha also advised that a group's important decisions should be made democratically.

Ancient Greek democracies also only lasted two hundred years or so. But some of the ancient Indian republics may have lasted until 200 - 400 CE. So maybe India should get the laurels for long-lived republics in recorded history... some of them may have lasted longer than modern democracies, so far.

Then, there's the idea that ancient Indian republics did not so much invent democracy, as figure out how to adapt older traditions to their changing civilization. They retained elements of their older democracies from when they were small tribal societies like those of the Native Americans.

Whether India had the first example of something new, or the last of something old, it probably should get some credit for democracy and republican government, along with Greece.

I'm not blowing smoke here, check these out:

Most of the info in this post is from:
A History of India: Volume 1, by Romila Thapar, Penguin, 1990
(book where I stumbled across this)
(academic paper, with bibliography)

... found these while looking for more:
(blurb for a recent book -have not seen it, but looks interesting)
(Wikipedia article about the Mahajanapadas)