Glimpse of Vedic Era - Democratic ideas, Sabha & Samiti - Ancient History Series

The root of democratic thinking can be found in Rigveda. It has made of Democracy a Deity aptly named Samajnana or Samjnana, the collective consciousness of the people, the National Mind, to which the individual mind must pay its homage. The Samajnana Sukta (RV. X, 191) calls upon the citizens to come together to their Assembly (Samgachchhaddhvam) and speak there with one voice (samvadaddhvam), cultivating a union of minds (sammanah), of hearts (sahachittam), of policies (samanamantrah), and of hopes and aspirations (akuti), and functioning in a common Assembly based on equality as an integral unity and not divided into groups and parties (samitih samani). Lastly, there is a call for equal sacrifice in the pursuit of a common national policy (Samanam mantrah abhimantraye vah samanena vo havishajuhomi: "I call ye to a common purpose which ye serve with a common sacrifice"). Thus should all live in a happy harmony (susahaasati).

Democracy, Sabha and Samiti in Vedic Period

Sabha and Samiti - Structure and Function

This earliest conception of democracy was also translated into reality. The Rigveda mentions the institutions in which the democratic ideal was first expressed and embodied, institutions which it aptly calls Sabha and Samiti, which are the keywords of Indian politics. The Atharva-Veda (VII, 12, 1-2) calls the Sabha and Samiti as 'the twin daughters of Prajapati,' with the implication that the work of creation was to be completed by the democratic process. These two were like the first aids to civilization in which the creation of the material world was to culminate. As the two Chambers of Legislature,they are mentioned as working in unison (Samvidane).

The Atharva-Veda also applies to Sabha the significant epithet of Narishta which Sayana interprets as 'inviolable, not to be overridden' (ahimsita parair anabhibhavya), because where the many meet in an assembly and speak there with one voice, that voice or Vote of the Majority is not to be violated by others (Bahavah sambhuya yadi ekam vakyam vadeyuh tat hi na parair atilanghyam). This means that Vedic democracy was governed by the Vote of the Majority. A member of the Sabha prays that he may speak agreeably at its meeting (samgateshu) and that other members speak with the same voice (ye ke cha sabhasadah te me santu Sasvachasah). He also prays that he may acquire (adade) the collective strength (varcha) and knowledge (vijnana) of the Assembly as a full partner of the Samsat.

Democratic Principle - Dharma

The Vedic political theory was that Law or Dharma was the true sovereign, while the King or the Chief Executive was the Danda to uphold and enforce Dharma. Thus kingship was constitutional and limited by democratic checks such as the election, and expulsion of kings and their reinstatement on the basis of their loyalty to the Constitution (Dharma). The King had also to seek the advice of his Ministers aptly called Rajakrits or King-makers' by the Atharva-Veda. The Aitareya Brahmana (I. 40) frankly traces national insecurity to the want of a leader or King (arajataya) and makes him elective (rajanam karavamaha iti tatheti). It is to be noted that the democratic principle was at work in all spheres of public life, political, social and cultural. Social life was organised in a hierarchy of institutions named following.

Hierarchy of institutions in Vedic Period
  1. Griha or Kula (Family)
  2. Grama, a union of families
  3. Vis, the canton or clan, a union of villages
  4. Jana or the people organised into
  5. The Rashtra or the State

These institutions trained the people in citizenship in different stages. Indeed, the Atharva-Veda gives fuller expression to the ideals of democracy. It fosters the sense of democracy by means of special prayers addressed to appropriate Deities, so that the people may approach and practice it in a religious spirit. The root of success in the working of democracy is traced to the moral fitness of the citizens concerned in their habits of unity among themselves in the different spheres of private and public life. Its foundation lay in the domestic life and family where the parties and partners concerned must cultivate constant concord among themselves by way of an emotional integration.

The Atharva-Veda enjoins the following prayer this purpose to the Deity appropriately designated as Sammanasyam, the Universal Mind pervading, unifying, and integrating individual minds (AV, VI. 60).

"Let us all have a union of hearts (sahridaya), of minds (sammanasya), without any ill-will (avidvesha), with each loving the other as warmly as the cow its new-born calf (anyah anyam abhiharshata aghnya jatam vatsamiva).

"Let the son follow the ways of his father (anuvrata), and be of one mind (sammanah) with his mother with whom he must not disagree. Let the wife speak to her husband honeyed words of sweetness (madhumati) and peace (santivan vacham)!

"Let not brother and sister bear ill-will towards each other (dvikshat)! Let all speak words of gentleness (bhadraya vacham vadata), united in ideals and ways of life (samyancha savrata).

"Let the spread of Brahma-Samjnana, the knowledge of oneness of life, in every household (grihe purushevyah), dispel discord and ill-will in every sphere, society, country and the whole world! (na viyanti na vidvishate). Men's minds must thus be prepared for universal peace and brotherhood, for 'War begins in the minds of men.'

"Let the people be not divided (maviyaushta) but with pure heart (chittinah) work together (samradhayantah) in teams of cooperative effort (sadhurah charantah), speaking with one another in agreeable words (valgu vadantah), with a common purpose and mind (sadhrichinan wah sammanasah).

"Let all be of one purpose (sadhrichinan) and mind (sammanah) under a common leadership (ekasnushtin) in a spirit of fellowship (samvananam)!

"Let all have an equal share (samani) of water (prapu) and food (annabhaga)!

"Let all be yoked together (yunajini) in same harness (samane yoktre saha) for common work and worship (saparyata), like spokes revolving round the nave (arah navimiva abhitah)."

It will thus appear from the above Vedic Texts that a good deal of Socialism and Communism was held in solution and anticipated in ancient Indian society which stood for the ideal of a Welfare State, and the equal rights of its citizens to the primary necessaries of life like food and drink and to work and employment in co-operative enterprise.

Ways for Sharing Ideas and Nurturing Knowledge

As regards the working of the democratic principle in the cultural sphere, it showed itself in institutions known as Samghas or Academies of learned men (dhirah) whose discussions helped to evolve the refined (samskrita) language of the Veda out of the popular speech of the day (Vachamlaukikim), "like groats through a sieve." They are aptly called comrades (sakha) in culture 'who come together (samyajante) for developing the truths they had realized in their hearts (krida tashteshu) or reached by their minds (manasho jabeshu)' (RV. X, 71, 8). Their learned discussions hammered into shape both Vedic thought and Language. Besides the Samgha, there was also the Parishat at which kings joined with cultured commoners in fellowship in learning. The Upanishads mention the Panchala Parishat whose meetings were regularly attended by King Pravahana.

Again, we read of learned men gathering at the courts of kings in Conferences conducted in the true democratic manner and method. The best example of such a learned Conference was that convened by King Janaka of Videha. Its procedure was very fruitful. It helped to codify the multifarious doctrines and schools of philosophy into a system through discussions by their exponents, of whom the most conspicuous was Yajnavalkya, while there was also among them a lady philosopher named Gargi who held her own against the men philosophers in open debate. The Conference ended with the award of the royal prize (like the Nobel Prize) to Yajnavalkya for his admitted superiority in learning. The prize was 1,000 cows, each of whose horns was adorned with a string of five gold coins called Padas, so that the total gift of gold amounted to 10,000 gold pieces.

It is to be noted that women had equal access to the highest knowledge with men. Enriched by the royal prize Yajnavalkya returned from the court of Janaka to his hermitage only to feel that he should now devote himself to the pursuit of knowledge by renouncing the World in a total spirit of Vairagya. Before wandering from home into homelessness (anagarika), he called his wife Maitreyi to make provision for her. Maitreyi first put to her husband the following significant question: earth filled with wealth (sarva prithivi vittena purna) belongs to me, tell me, should I be immortal with it, or no?" "No", replied Yajnavalkya, "like the wife of a rich man will be thy life, but there is no hope (asa) of immortality (amritatva) by wealth." Wealth is only "possession of means of happiness and enjoyment" (sukhopaya-bhoga-sampannam) and of performing expensive ceremonies like Agnihotra, which cannot lead to Immortality (Tena prithivi-purnavittasadhyena karmana Agnihotradina amrita kim syat). This answer at once decided the mind of Maitreyi who thought: "What should I do with that by which I cannot win immortality?"

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