The Indian Synthesis In Polity–M.S. Srinivasan


(The ancient Indian Culture evolved a political synthesis which has a living relevance to modern polity.  This article examines the Indian synthesis in polity and its implications for building a healthy political life in our present age.)

Key Perspectives: king under the yoke of dharma; democratic element in Indian polity; organic synthesis; lessons for the present.

The King under the Yoke of Dharma

In ancient India, after some initial experiments with the various systems of polity monarchy finally established itself as the dominant form of polity.  But  the  ancient  Indian  monarchy is  a  unique  political  institution  very different  from  the  royalties of other parts of the world; it  was  not the  autocratic  monarchies of the European or Persian type but a  uniquely  Indian Institution and only a part of an organic political synthesis.  This first part of the article examines the ancient Indian polity based mainly on the deep insights of Sri Aurobindo and also on the pioneering, extensive scholarship of K.P. Jayaswal, whose work Sri Aurobindo mentions appreciatively as a “luminous, scrupulously documented contribution.”

The   king  in  ancient  India  is  the  protector  and   preserver   and  administrator  of Dharma.  The democratic and communal liberty of people is an integral part of the social Dharma which the king has no power to take away or destroy in any way.  The Indian king is more of a co-coordinating and overseeing authority than a ruling and legislating one.  The function of the Monarch  is to  ensure that each section, order or community was functioning according  to its dharma, harmonise their free growth with the broader vision of the  whole, promote mutual interaction between them, maintain internal security and order, prevent  foreign  invasion  and  administer  foreign  trade.   The power and authority of the king in ancient India was hedged in from all sides by other institutions.  The most formidable among them, which acted as a powerful check on the king’s authority is the Council of Ministers.   The ancient Indian treatises on polity are unanimous in their conclusion that the king should never indulge in personal despotism but rule in consultation with the Council of Ministers.

In fact, in ancient Indian polity, in theory as well as in practice, the Council of Ministers was a much more powerful institution than the king.   All  the  major  decisions are taken by the Council of Ministers and the  king  has  constitutionally  no  power  even to criticise or veto  the  decision  of  the Council  of Ministers.   He can only endorse it.   As K.P. Jayaswal states in his pioneering work on Indian polity, “It is a law and principle of Hindu constitution that the king cannot act without the approval and co-operation of the Council of Ministers.   The sutras, the law books and the political treatises are all unanimous on the point.” 

One may ask what is the justification for giving such a pre-eminent position to the Council of Ministers? What then is the role or necessity of the institution of the king?  What are the checks  against  the  power  and authority  of the Council of Ministers to prevent it from degenerating into  a despotism  of  an  oligarchy?   We must remember  here  that  the  Council  of  Ministers  in  ancient Indian polity is not a democratic institution  made  of  popular representatives but represents the Voice of Wisdom borne of character, knowledge,  experience  and competence.  The central core of the council of Ministers is a small group made of senior members of the royalty or the senior citizens of the community respected for their wisdom, character and integrity.  Megasthanese writing on the constitution of the council of Ministers, mentions about this core group.

“The seventh caste consists of the councilors and Assessors — of those who deliberate on public affairs.  It is the  smallest  class looking  to  number  but  the most  respected  on  account  of  high character and wisdom of its members”.

“In point of numbers this is a small class, but it is  distinguished by superior wisdom and justice, and hence enjoys the prerogative  of choosing   governors,   chiefs  of  provinces,   deputy   governors,  superintendents  of the treasury, generals of the army, admirals  of  the navy, controllers and commissioners who superintend  agriculture” 

Thus,  this emphasis on wisdom and character on the part of the  ministers acted  as  an  inbuilt  check on the institution  from  degenerating  into  a despotic  oligarchy.  And the institution of monarchy is itself intended to act as a counter-check on the council of ministers.  Though the position of the king is a hereditary occupation, a rigorous training and discipline is imposed on the potential candidate for the royal throne.  The  king  has  to command the respect of his subjects not by his position, but by the power  and character  of his personality, his genuine concern for the well-being  of  the people, and above all by the spirit of service and sacrifice he brings to  his office.  Ancient Indian treatises on polity are never tired of repeating that king is a servant of Dharma, servant of his people, and must have no personal likes and dislikes.  He is asked to totally sacrifice his ego at the service of Dharma and the service of his subjects.  As we have said elsewhere, the king has to derive his power not from his position, but from the scrupulous adherence to the dictates of Dharma and the respect and love he invokes from the people.

Thus the Institution of monarchy served a very useful purpose in ancient Indian polity.   It gave a sense of continuity to the government.   The high ideals of sacrifice and service expected from the king gave a moral dignity to the   office.   And  in  ancient  India,  the  king  is  considered   as   the representative of the Divine, not in the sense of any divine right to rule but as  a  human representative of the that aspect of divine  power  as  Strength, Justice  and Protection.  This gave a religious sanctity to the royal throne. The institution of the king acted as a sacred symbol of the State around which the creative energies of the society and the loyalties of the people can be rallied, especially in periods of crisis.

 In ancient India people looked up to the king and not the council of ministers as the symbol of the State.  Though  constitutionally  he  is  a weakling,  a  king  who lives up to the high ideals  of  character,  capacity, service  and  sacrifice  expected from him by the  tradition,  enjoys  a  deep respect  and loyalty from his people and as a result can become more  powerful than  the  Council of Ministers.  For there was a real and effective public opinion in ancient India.

The Democratic Element in Indian Polity

This brings us to the democratic element in ancient Indian Polity.   The self-governing commune and respect for public opinion are the two pillars of the ancient Indian democracy bearing testimony to the strong democratic spirit in ancient Indian polity.  The ancient Indian polity gave a much greater importance to communal liberty than individual liberty.  Each community or group is given the total freedom to organise its internal affairs according to its own internal constitution and outer environment.   Each order of the community (Brahmana, Kshathria, Vysya and Shudra) is represented in the governing organ of the community and exercised an effective influence over administration and decision-making.  But  one  of the major difference between the modern and ancient systems of  representation is  that  while  in the former it is based on votes or  in  other  words  mass popularity,  in  the later, moral and cultural consideration  like  character, competence and family background were given much higher importance in choosing the representatives.

 Apart from the Council of Minister, there were two popular institutions which exercised a strong and restraining influence on the power of the king.  First is the Metropolitan Council of the Cities, Paura, and the other one is the General Assembly, Janapada, made of the leaders and representatives of the villages and other local popular institutions.  These two institutions are partly democratic, made of elected representatives, and partly plutocratic, made of the wealthier members of the society.  The king’s edicts have to be approved by these robust institutions inorder to become the law of the land.  The king could not get his orders executed or do much if he was opposed by the ministerial and general assemblies.  There are many instances in ancient India when these institutions exerted their power and influence to remove a despotic or cruel king.  The other aspect of the ancient Indian democracy is the respect for public opinion.  As Jayaswal, writing on this aspect of ancient-Indian polity, states:

“…. The administration had to take into consideration the opinion of the general public as well.  That there was a real public opinion in the country is proved by the direction in Santi-Parvan of the Mahabharata:

The king should make secret and trusted agents travel through the kingdom for ascertaining whether his conduct of the previous day has or has not met with the approbation of the subjects’

 ‘Ascertain whether my conduct is or is not approved, what action of mine in the country is agreeable and what reputation do I have in the realm’

 The king’s policy and conduct were criticised in the country and the king was anxious to know these criticism.  The ideal is forcefully, though crudely, set forth in the national epic, the Ramayana, in the alleged reason as to why Rama parted with his queen.   Though      personally convinced of her innocence, he separated himself from her in response to the public will.

In Brishaspathi Sutra, the king is asked to give up the smallest undertaking if there is popular clamour against it.  Even the right thing should not be done if the people raised a voice against it”.

This consideration for the people’s Voice was not a mere shining ideal in the minds of thinkers but an effective political force in ancient India.  The voice of public opinion acted in two ways.  On the one hand, it functioned as a check against the despotic tendencies of the rulers; on the other hand it strengthened the position of a capable, beneficent and just king who ruled according to the high ideals of Dharma and admired by the people.  Such a king gains an upper hand over the Council of Ministers and acts as a counter-check against the adverse consequences resulting from any possible degeneration in the quality of the Council of Ministers.

The Organic Synthesis

Thus the Indian Polity is an organic synthesis of the truths behind the various forms and systems of polity and government attempted and experimented by humanity in the course of its history.  The mass of humanity has a natural tendency to rally round inspired and charismatic individual leaders.   People need a living human figure who can represent or symbolise their aspirations.  The institution of monarchy fulfilled this need.  But no individual however capable and inspired can rule independently without help and guidance from others.  He  needs  the  guidance  of  wisdom  which  comes  from  experience, expertise,  character and integrity.  So came the oligarchy of the Council of Ministers.

But government is ultimately for the people.  The aim of all government has to be the wellbeing of people.   No individual or group of individuals however wise, competent and good cannot succeed in promoting the well-being and progress of the masses, if they are not consulted and given an effective representation in decision-making.  The other important truth  of democracy  is  that  though  consciousness of  the  masses  is  primitive  and underdeveloped in comparison to its highly evolved individuals, it is not dump and  stupid; it has its own wisdom borne out of long evolutionary  experience; it  instinctively  knows  what are its immediate needs better  than  any  elite group.   So came the democratic element in the form of self-governing commune and the role of public opinion.

But the architects of ancient  Indian  polity were fully aware that neither mental or moral enlightenment nor vital instincts can  give  the  deeper insight into the universal Laws  of  life,  and  Nature “Dharma”,  on which must be based all the higher values of Life that  can  lead man  to his highest well-being and fulfillment.  But such an insight into the higher laws and values of life requires the spiritual intuition of the sage, Rishi.   Thus came the uniquely Indian tradition of seeking the guidance of spiritually illumined personalities even in secular affairs like politics which may be called as “sagocracy”.  The Indian tradition always considered that it is the pure, calm, tranquil concentrated, selfless and intuitive mind — and not the active, agitated and stormy rational mind — which can reflect the highest knowledge and wisdom.  So it gave a much greater importance to the intuitive wisdom which comes from spiritual contemplation, spiritual education, renunciation, selflessness and experience than the knowledge gathered by the rational mind.  So most of the ancient Indian political manuals counsel the political sovereign or the king to seek the guidance of genuine spiritual seekers, high-souled Brahmanas and individuals with proven integrity, character and selflessness while taking important value-laden political decision.

Lessons for the Present

This brings us to the question what is the relevance of Indian polity for the present times? What are the lessons we can learn from this ancient Indian creation for the modern political life? As we have discussed briefly the ancient Indian polity is not the result of a dogmatic imposition of a one-sided “ism” on the entire nation but an organic synthesis of the collective needs of people.

In any new synthesis, the deeper truths of monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, democracy and sagocracy have to be included in an organic harmony.  The nature of the stress and  the  balance  between  these element may vary  according  to  the  unique temperament  and the socio-political conditions of the community or the  needs of  the age, but all these elements must be there because they  correspond  to some fundamental needs of the collective life of human beings.

The other important lesson we have to learn from Indian polity is the need to harness the highest intellectual, moral and spiritual energy of the community for uplifting the political life.  In ancient Indian polity this was done by the following methods:

  1. Council of Ministers made of people with the highest character, wisdom and experience for guiding the ruler.
  2. Subjecting the ruler to the higher ideals of dharma and imposing a rigorous mental and moral education and discipline on the crown prince.
  3. Guidance from the spiritual wisdom of seers and seekers of spiritual knowledge.

Here again, we have to figure out how the principles behind this ancient Indian wisdom can be incorporated into the modern politics and governance.






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