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Debating Democracy’s Dawn - Ancient Athens or India?

Updated: Apr 25

Democracy, as an integrated concept and political framework, has been a focus of deep reflection for many thinkers, leaders and scholars for thousands of years.

To understand its origin and the contestation between ancient India and Athens regarding the same, we reflect on Aristotle's observation that 'Man is by nature a political animal,' and on the shastras and Samhitas that talk about statehood, such as the Republic of Vaishali.


An Illustration on Debating Democracy's Dawn

Illustration by the Geostrata


This historical expedition dissects the evolution of democracy and the discourse around it, shedding light on two of the world's great civilisations that contributed to its glory.


ATHENIAN DEMOCRACY


Evidence suggests that in prehistoric times, a form of democracy existed within hunter-gatherer tribes. The shift to settled agricultural communities brought about wealth disparities and hierarchical social structures.


Centuries later, around the 6th century BCE, Cleisthenes introduced a relatively democratic government in Athens, commonly referred to as the birthplace of democracy.

The term 'democracy' originates from the ancient Greek 'demos,' meaning 'people,' and 'kratos,' meaning strength.' The Athenians established what is widely regarded as the earliest form of democracy between 580 and 507 BCE.


Cleisthenes’ Athenian democracy is characterised by two distinct features: the random calling of citizens for a limited number of government positions and a legislative assembly consisting of senior citizens. Every eligible citizen would be granted the right to speak and vote in the city-state, as specified by law. Nonetheless, there were some groups like women, slaves and foreigners who had no right to citizenship, contrary to the contemporary concept of universal suffrage.


The Socrates’ trial shows that Athenian democracy had a weakness. In this trial, the symbolic claim of intellectual freedom was his main point. The tolerance of diverging concepts is what the prosecution has exposed by this very act thus shedding light onto the irony of a system that touts the free market of ideas but in the real sense oppresses critical thinking and intellectual inquiry. However, this was the initial step in the development of the democratic idea.


Ancient Athens is considered to be the oldest organised democracy in the world. But there is plenty of evidence that suggests, that democracy in India predates that of the Greeks.


BHARATIYA DEMOCRACY


The Kingdom of Vaishali, present-day Bihar, India, is a prototype of early democratic administration. The city was known as a democracy circa 600 BCE which is over 100 years before Athens' democratic system. The management of the state was formed based on the idea of a popular presence, a representative form of authority and an assembly-based decision-making.


The very essence of it was the Citizens' Assembly, called "'Gana", which was a form of direct democracy. While it may not have had a direct impact on Athenian democracy because of geographical and temporal concerns as reasons, the early republic of Vaishali is very symbolic in the sense that it shows the different historical paths of beliefs in democracy and that the man has the universal desire to lead which himself.


The 1st century BCE boundary stone at Sanchi Stupa, representing Kushinagar, the capital of the Malla mahajanapada, gives us an insight into how the region was politically organised and socially structured during that time.

This mahajanapada was one of the most advanced republics existing in the territory of ancient India in the time of Buddha, in the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. Historians refer to these illustrations together with well-known passages in early Buddhist texts to support the idea that the Mallas exercised freedom by their means, possibly through assemblies.


Although there’s a lack of direct administrative records, the combined evidence including specimens, documents and contexts leads to believe that there were the republican institutions of Malla Mahajanapada and the knowledge sources contribute to the formation of a better understanding of the cases of governance variance of the old times.


In the Vedic period, the head of the village was named the ‘Gramin’. Villages had their committees or meetings where the majority of the votes were considered to be the means of providing justice to the people, making each village a democracy of its own.

The ancient Indian literature consists of many political maxims that have detailed commentaries on the features and duties of an ideal ruler of the people and ‘Rajaniti’. Such commentaries are timeless and have been written, reiterated, and debated through Brahma, Brihaspati, Sukra, and finally Kautilya.


There are several mentions of one central decision-making figure (raja) who followed his statutes of responsibilities (rajdharma) and made policies and laws with the assistance of skilled ministers (mantri), each assigned a specific range of duties (mantralaya). There are stark similarities between this system with the parliamentary and presidential forms of government being practised around the world today.


Further decentralising the process, there is the panchayat which deals with the administration of the villages. The panchayat system is where five representatives come together to govern a society, and this is an almost three-thousand-year-old practice in Indian society.


Certain rules and regulations were carried out during the ‘election’ of the members, who also had to fulfil certain qualifications to ensure their eligibility. These striking similarities with the current democratic establishments can be explained not only as a result of mere coincidence but also as a natural evolution.


While it is the Athenian experience that is most commonly cited as the source of modern democracy, the existence of earlier republican forms in India serves to problematize the parochial and Eurocentric narrative, thereby highlighting democracy’s universal appeal.

Ultimately, the process of defining who is the "mother" of democracy loses importance when we understand that democracy's historical path is the sign of shared human will to be part of the self-rule process, where diverse cultures are the primary contributors to its complicated history.


 

BY SOMYA MAAN

TEAM GEOSTRATA

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4 Comments


well written article which explains the true essence of democracy being a shared value.

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Unique perspective

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Democratic principles based on ancient Indian texts are still prevalent

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Bharat's democratic civilizations have played a major role in strengthening the fundamentals of democracy.

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