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Essay: Political forms of Ancient India

Categories: History, India
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The Indian sub-continent was the home of one of the earliest civilizations of man.  In the history of ancient India we see many forms of society ranging from urban civilization of Indus Valley to the Classical Age of Gupta Dynasty.  During this period we see a hierarchy  of centralized and decentralized government.  Some of which were highly organized in their political structure and government while others were merely weakened by internal problems and division of power. Indus Valley Civilization was one of the world’s oldest and greatest civilizations which took shape around 3000 BC to 2500 BC in the valley of the Indus River.  Remains of more than 100 cities, towns, and villages of the Indus Valley civilization have now been found from north of the Hindu Kush down the entire length of the Indus and beyond into peninsular India. Harappa and Mohenjo Daro are the two urban centers of Indus Valley civilization and the excavation of these sites reveal standardization and ordered society and ten centuries of relatively stable conditions.

The city was amazingly well planned with broad main streets and good secondary streets.  The houses of these cities were solidly built of bricks and many were multi-storied and equipped with bathrooms and lavatories. The high quality of the pottery, along with hoards of gold and silver found at Indus Valley sites, suggest great accumulation of wealth. Each city was laid out on a grid plan with a high citadel and a lower city of domestic dwellings.  Urban planning is evident in the neat arrangement of major buildings contained in the citadel, including the placement of a large granary and water tank or bath at right angles to one another. The lower city, which was tightly packed with residential units, was also constructed on a grid pattern consisting of a number of blocks separated by major cross streets. The cities had an elaborate public drainage system.  Sanitation was provided through an extensive system of covered drains running through the length of the main streets and connected by chutes with most residences.

All these archeological evidences uncovered a strong centralized authority.  The urban civilization of Indus Valley suggests a complex planning that undertook the region and the people lived up to the standard of the time.  The Indus civilization appears to have declined rapidly in the early 2d Millennium BC. Archeological remains further indicate intermittent and devastating floods around this time and possible invasions by the Aryans, whose epics refer to their conquest of walled cities.

The Aryans are said to have entered India through the fabled Khyber pass, around 1500 BC and gave rise to another civilization in Indian history, the Vedic period.  The Aryans are believed to have developed the Sanskrit language and made significant inroads into the religion of the time.  All these factors were to play a fundamental role in the shaping of Indian culture.  The Aryans did not have a script but they developed a rich tradition. They composed the hymns of the four vedas, the great philosophic poems that are at the heart of Hindu thought.

The Aryans were divided into tribes, which had settled in different regions of northwestern India. Tribal chiefmanship gradually became hereditary, though the chief usually operated with the help of advice from either a committee or the entire tribe. Tribal chiefs bearing the title Raja or king were at first little more than war-lords, and their principal duty was protection of their tribes.  The power of the king positioned with the higher authority of the priests.

Vedic kingship was the natural outcome of the conditions surrounding the Aryans.  A king was the leader of the people in the war of aggression and defense.  He is called the “Protector of the people”.  A study of the Rigveda shows that the king was no longer merely a leader of a primitive tribe, but occupied a position of per-eminence among the people.  The protection of the people was the sacred duty of the king.  In return, he expected and received loyal obedience from his subjects in the sense of a tribute to the king.

With work specialization, the internal division of the Aryan society developed along caste lines. Their social framework was composed mainly of the following groups: the Brahmana (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (agriculturists) and Shudra (workers). The Brahmanas were referred to as the receivers of gift.  The Vaishyas had to pay tribute for the lands that they got from the Kshatriya nobles.  It was, in the beginning, a division of occupations; as such it was open and flexible.  Much later, caste status and the corresponding occupation came to depend on birth, and change from one caste or occupation to another became far more difficult.  Later on, marriages became strict, and no Vaishya or Shudra was allowed to become a Brahmana or Kshatriya or even to take up the profession of teaching or fighting.

The Aryan tribes failed to unite against non-Aryan due to lack of strong political foundation and the unstable nature due to their internal caste system.  The weak character of the empire came from the rigid caste system that divided people and created unstable feelings among them.  These were some of the reasons that formed the Vedic empire far less organized than the Indus Valley Civilization.

Statecraft evolved as a new system of government following the Vedic period.  The solidarity of the tribal state and the political power of elite warriors gave rise to a new style of kingship.  It aimed at the creation of more professional armies and more dependent upon the king.  The statecraft aimed at acquisition of territories rich in natural resources and tax-paying peasants rather than booty or territory for tribal expansion.

The political history of India, during the greater part of the period, mainly revolves round the rise and growth of the kingdom of Magadha, one of the four leading states which existed about 600 BC.  Magadha’s king, Ajatashatru, was a ruthless ruler and caused the decline of Magadha empire.  The Magadha empire was overshadowed by the more powerful empire, Maurya, which slowly began to take control of Magadha empire.

By the end of the third century, most of North India was knit together in the first great Indian empire by Chandragupta Maurya.  Under his control, trade flourished, agriculture was regulated, weights and measures were standardized.  Money first came into use.  Taxation, sanitation and famine relief became the concerns of the state.  His son and successor, Bindusara, extended the Mauryan empire over virtually the entire subcontinent, giving rise to an imperial vision that was to dominate successive centuries of political aspirations.

The greatest Mauryan emperor was Ashoka the Great (286-231 BC) whose successful campaigns culminated in the annexation of Kalinga (modern Orissa).  The Mauryan empire reached its climax under Ashoka’s rule.  For the first time, the whole of the sub-continent, leaving out the extreme south, was under imperial control.  The military administration of the empire was very efficient, being vested in six boards of thirty members.  So also was the municipal administration of Pataliputra, the seat of the empire.  The empire was divided into provinces, each under a viceroy.  Taxes collected on land, trade, and manufacture of handicrafts were the other major sources of income during this era.  The state brought new lands under cultivation and developed irrigation facilities.  Under the Mauryans, the entire sub-continent was criss-crossed with roads.
 
Ashoka later converted to Buddhism, but did not impose his faith on his subjects.  Instead, he tried to convert them through his new policy, called Dharma, inscribed on rocks and pillars in the local dialects.  The highly structured politics along with high spiritual beliefs such as Ahimsa from Budhism led to the advanced and centralized nature of the Mauryan empire which flourished under the great rulers of its time.

Following Ashoka’s death in 232 BC, the Mauryan empire started disintegrating.  This was an open invitation to invaders from Central Asia to seek their fortunes in India.  This period saw the rise of several smaller kingdoms that did not last very long.  The last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty was Brithadratha. He was killed by his own commander-in-chief Pushyamitra Sunga in 185 BC.  Pushyamitra Sunga became the ruler of the Magadha and neighboring territories.  With the fall of Mauryas, India lost its political unity. The northwestern regions comprising Rajputana, Malwa and Punjab passed into the hands of the foreign rulers.  The descendants of Pushyamitra Sunga were not able to maintain the stability of their empire.  The power of the Sungas gradually weakened and the regions were absorbed within the dominions of the conqueror.

The greatest empire in the fourth century AD was the Gupta empire, which ushered in the golden age of Indian history. This empire lasted for more than two centuries. It covered a large part of the Indian subcontinent, but its administration was more decentralized than that of the Mauryas, but more centralized than Sungas.  The theory of the divinity of kings became more popular during the Gupta period.    Alternately waging war and entering into matrimonial alliances with the smaller kingdoms in its neighborhood, the empire’s boundaries kept fluctuating with each ruler.

The age of the Guptas is the Classical period of Hindu culture and learning.
This period also saw the peaceful coexistence of Brahmins and Buddhists and visits by Chinese travellers like Fa Hsien. The exquisite Ajanta and Ellora caves were created in this period.  This age registered considerable progress in literature and science, particularly in astronomy and mathematics. The most outstanding literary figure of the Gupta period was Kalidasa whose choice of words and imagery brought Sanskrit drama to new heights.
 The invasions of the White Huns signalled the end of this era of history, although at first, they were defeated by the Guptas. After the decline of the Gupta empire, north India broke into a number of separate Hindu kingdoms and was not really unified again until the coming of the Muslims.

During the course of Indian history of civilization we see a pattern of alternating centralization and decentralization form of government.  In its period, Indus Valley Civilization was considered to be highly centralized in its authority and maintained a complex system.  In contrast, The Vedic Period failed to display higher organization due to several factors, such as, caste system, tribal republics, and incapability of expanding their territory.  However, the Indian history incarnation of centralized form of government during the period of Mauryan empire.  Sunga empire, again, failed to succeed and did not reach up to the level of Mauryan empire due to division of power.  Finally, the Gupta empire took the Indian civilization to the Classical Age which proved a successful and victorious empire.  Thus, we see a cycle of successful empire during the Indian history civilizaion.

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