The Political Structure of Early India

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Introduction

The political structure of early India grew out of the nomadic and religious culture of the region. While an early structure of city-kingships would help unify the people, that unification would create intense stratification as it evolved into the caste system. Based on Hindu religion, this structure would create both stability and unrest in the populace. The early political structure of India was warped by intense colonial rule which subjugated the entire nation to the will of the British. The roots of the early political structure of India still haunt its contemporary political manifestations. 

Lessons From History

India is one of the oldest seeds of civilization in the world, and the roots of their political structure is varied. During the Vedic period under the Aryans each city ruled itself with its own king, seeking peace. This was a reflection of the social values of the Aryans, which was local and inclusive. “These villages were headed by Gramani. Moreover this pattern gave rise to large units or clans formed by a group of village. The circle continued with several clans forming the tribe and their leader was Rajan or the Vedic king” (Classle). This was the first known organization of society in early India, and from these formations the roots of Indian political society grew. Prior to this structure through kingship Indians were largely nomadic, foraging and moving through the country (Cultural India).

In understanding the culture, kingship became hereditary, and this may have led to some of the foundational themes of the chaste system. Hinduism defined India even during the Vedic period, as “In Ancient Indian Political System, the king as well as his subjects was bound by `Dharmas` or rule of law which were code of duties. Though a king, yet he had limited powers” (Classle). The King was seen as being a representative of Divine power, but not divine as according to Hinduism all mankind is on a wheel of incarnation in order to realize their innate divinity and rise through the ranks which blind them from it. This changed during the medieval period;

The king became an autocrat and he was entitled to the throne on the base might. In the Mughal kingdom, Ancient Indian Political System revolved round the autocracy of the king and he was assisted by councilors or ministers to share the multifarious activities of the state. The council of ministers was given great power and they continued to advice the kings on their day to day handling of administration. (Classle)

The Caste System

All of this would change drastically with the Indo-European invasion period after 1500 BC. It was during this period that the chaste system was implemented, which forms the foundation for the history of India’s political system. Awareness of this is given to contemporary man through the Rig Veda. The word caste is understood as,

A collection of families or groups of families bearing a common name; claiming a common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine; professing to follow the same hereditary calling; and regarded by those who are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogeneous community. (Deshpande 10)

The caste system is a closed system which permits no change between classes as demarked by rank of birth. According to tradition and belief it is only the top caste, the Brahmans, who have the possibility of liberation from the wheel of incarnation. The rest of the caste’s serve the Brahman realization. Only Brahmans were political leaders, and this presented a very one-sided representation in law and culture. According to the Rig Veda, Brahmans were the first people created by God, and closest to God. As such, 

These traits justify the social position of the class vis-à-vis others: they are predominant because they are prior, and they claim to stand outside of the power relations that govern social life for others because of their superior knowledge and sole possession of the ultimate ‘weapons,’ sacrificial techniques. (Deshpande 10)

This reality forms the foundation of early political structure of India all the way to today. This belief system has infiltrated all aspects of politic and culture, as the caste determines what job the person will have for life and their value and power in society. Much of the time Brahmans chose to focus on the priesthood, allowing the caste just below to fulfil the role of political rulers and soldiers, the Kshatriyas. As such, “the Kshatriya is charged with the protection of the higher Brahmin class with rule over (and unrestricted exploitation of) the lower Vaishyas. The word ‘kshatra’ in Sanskrit means government, power, and dominion” (Deshpande 10). In this way none of the lower castes may step out of line, appeal for change, or contest how they have been treated. So the lower castes are conditioned to accept their position in society throughout their lives. 

This class division reflected itself in how education and culture interacted. In early India; although Sanskrit was the language of learning and theology in South India, as it was in the north, the growth of the bhakti (devotional) movements enhanced the crystallization of vernacular literature in all four major Dravidian languages: Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada; they often borrowed themes and vocabulary from Sanskrit but preserved much local cultural lore. (Library of Congress)

Supporting the upper caste, the Vaishyas are the merchant class. They are conditioned to accept, “A Vaishya's duty was to ensure the community's prosperity through agriculture, cattle rearing and trade. The Vaishyas were considered and expected to be weak in comparison to their rulers, and were infinitely exploitable and regenerative” (Deshpande 11). Political turmoil ferments because the Vaishyas control commerce, and consider themselves socially valuable. However, they resent the top castes because there is nothing they could do to change their station. Next, “come the Shudras, who are usually laborers, peasants, artisans, and servants. Shudras were thought to not have any special abilities and were considered only capable of serving as slaves to the upper three classes” (Deshpande 11). This class is not given education, and enjoy no rights. 

The very bottom class are called “untouchables”, and they perform the dirtiest jobs in the culture. In the early political structure of India this served the function of a slave community. This group was taken by the tribal natives of India after the Indo-European invasion, which is common of invaders to term the earliest residents as the least valuable.  This is a result of the, “Hindu law books insisted that there were only four varnas and never a fifth, which was used as a reason to not accept the tribal people of India. They were therefore not considered to be included in the ranked castes” (Deshpande 11). As a result the untouchables were not allowed to participate in culture, or even live within society. This caste could face criminal charges for even being seen by a Brahman. 

If the members of the caste system do not abide by the laws they face being demoted in their next lifetime (Cultural India). Overall this led to a stagnation of culture, both politically and socially. In the early political culture evolved from;

The caste system very much impacted the economic structure in the Indian village. The village was essentially a food-providing unit, where each family of the craft or service caste was linked with one or more of the land owning-farmer-caste family. This system was known as the Jajmani system, which survived in India up to the arrival of the British. W.H. Wiser in his Hindu Jajmani System shows the mutuality of relationship in a village community based on the exchange of goods and services between different castes (Deshpande 12).

While the British would come to co-opt India’s cultural machinery, they saw the caste system as amenable to their manipulative influence (Carr). An effective means to oppress a people is to curtail their education system. The British influenced the early political structure for their own benefit. The British said they desired, “to create a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in morals, in opinions and in intellect” (Dawn). However, this is only a line because the British would never accept that Indians could be equals. As such, “Once the colonizers were over with shedding the native blood, they focused on replacing the leadership that had expedited the Indian freedom struggle with one that believed in 'compromising' with them” (Dawn). While some positive changes have occurred in India since they attained freedom from colonial roots, the caste system continues to keep them ideologically and politically stunted. 

As a result of the British impact on India the educated classes have emerged with a Euro-centric worldview. This is unfortunate as it further distanced themselves from the roots of their development which is not from a European perspective. This was one of the aims of the British education, as

This class, because of a language and education that enabled them to work for the coloniser, ran the colonial machinery. This class inherited Pakistan, the class that had read Shakespeare and Milton, bright and intelligent, thoroughly convinced of the superiority of West's ideas and ideals, and critical of Indian history. (Dawn)

Throughout Indian history the culture made many strides in progress, but they were consistently drawn back by the caste system. However, this is never seen by those who speak for Indian culture because they are of the higher castes. This is seen in their political layout as;

Before their confidence could translate into an energy that could begin to transform their present, something inside them questions the validity of what they hear and present vignettes from their history that have painstakingly been inculcated in them through colonial, 'modern education'. (Dawn). The entrapment of this education system continues to thwart political progress. 

Conclusion

The early political structure of India grew out of their nomadic and religious heritage. The impact of the caste system provided the strongest psychological foundation for cultural manipulation. The British colonial rule severely warped the political development of India, but not nearly as much as the caste system. There is no way to separate religious beliefs, education, and culture at large from the political reflection. How and if contemporary India may develop out of these roots remains to be seen.

Works Cited

Carr, Karen Eva. “Ancient Indian Government.” Quatr.us, 2016. Retrieved from: http://quatr.us/india/government/

Classel. “Ancient Indian Political System.” Classel.net, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.classle.net/#!/classle/content-page/ancient-indian-political-system-pdf/

Cultural India. “Ancient India government.” Cutluralindia.com, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.culturalindia.net/indian-history/ancient-india/ancient-government.html

Dawn. “How the British influenced Indian culture.” Dawn.com, 6 Jun. 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.dawn.com/news/881307/how-the-british-influenced-indian-culture

Deshpande, Manali S. “History of the Indian Caste System and its Impact on India Today.” [Thesis]. San Luis Obispo: California Polytechnic State University, 2010. Retrieved from: http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1043&context=socssp

Husnainiqbal. “Evolution of Political system in ancient India: From Indus Valley civilization to Maurayan Empire.” Husnainiqbal, 22 Mar. 2013. Retrieved from: https://husnainiqbal.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/evolution-of-political-system-in-ancient-india/

Library of Congress. “The History of Ancient India.” Ancient.eu, 15 Dec. 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.ancient.eu/article/294/