Social Message of the Upanishads

by Sanchita Kundu | 2020 | 29,269 words

This study deals with the ethical principles of human society as gleaned from the Upanishads: a category of ancient Sanskrit philosophical texts dealing with spiritual insights and meditation. Their teachings deal with gaining control over one’s senses in order to find and attain the ultimate goal of life. The universal vision of these Upanishads p...

Chapter 4.1 - Political Picture of the Upanishads

Besides expressing the only reality, that is Braḥman 'ekamevādvitīyaṃ'. Upaniṣads represent a comprehensive attempt to analyse the society and to provide an enduring social philosophy for mankind. It is marked by intense thought in the sphere of political and cultural aspect of the society.

Politically Upaniṣads reveal well organized pattern of Government. We may refer to Aśvapati mentioned in Chāndogyopaniṣad whose kingdom is well ordered.

''na me steno janapade na kadaryo na madyapo nānāhitāgnirnāvidvān na svairī svairiṇī kutaḥ''.[1]

''In my kingdom there is no thief, no drunkard, no one who does not perform rites. There is none who is not learned and who does not believe in the authority of the Vedas. There is no adulterer and how can there be adulteress''.

Before going into the discussion of political and legal institution of Vedic period, it is imperative to understand the rise of the idea of the term king or rājan during the ancient time. It is supposed that the term came into existence out of fear of attack from the outside hostile force and from one’s own community. Owing to that sense of fear the term came into effect, as a protector or as a ruler to rule over.

The man was personified as King of a group of individuals or of a territory over which one exercises his power and influence. The most vital reason of origin of such thinking was to get protection and hence sometimes the application was explicitly limited to kṣatriya, a member of the second class of the society.

The idea of protecting people was main and hence well known synonyms arising out of that were nṛpa—''protector of men'', bhūpa and bhūpāla ''protector or guardian of the earth'';

The phrase ''herdsman of the people'' (gopā-janasya) was found even at the time of Ṛgveda

''kuvinmā gopaṃ karase janasya kuvidrājānaṃ maghavannṛjīṣin/ kuvinma ṛṣiṃ papivāṃsaṃ sutasya kuvinme vsvo amṛtasya śikṣāḥ//''[2]

In Manu's law book the alternative name of Kṣatriya was qualified as protector. In the Mahābhārata member of military class was called Kṣatriya.

The word was derived from two parts which in unison expressed the statement—he who saves from injury:

''kṣatād yo vai trāyatīti sa tasmāt kṣatriyaḥ smṛtaḥ.''

A resembling elucidation of the word Kṣatriya already existed in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka-Upaniṣad where it is expressed that nobility (kṣatram) was “life-breath’‘(prāṇaḥ); the breath of life protected (trāyate) one from hurt (kṣaṇitoḥ)—

''kṣatraṃ prāṇo vai kṣatraṃ prāṇo hi vai trāyate hainaṃ prāṇah kṣaṇitoḥ /
prakṣtramāpnoti kṣatrasya sāyugjaṃ salokatāṃ jayati ja evaṃ veda//

''All creatures live happily in the world if they are protected by kings like children protected by their father.''

Kings were indeed regarded as the protector of the earth owing to their possessing a strong armed force—

''nāvāgerambarīṣasya bhujābhyāṃ paripālitā/
vabhūva vasudhātyathyaṃ tāpatrayavivarjjitā//''

There were so many descriptions of king in Hindu ancient scriptures such as: dīrghabāhu (of long arms), mahābāhu (of mighty arms), vipula, mahābāhu, mahoraska (broad-shouldered, long armed, broad-chested)—

''buddhimān nītimān vāgmī śrīmān śatrūnirvahaṇaḥ/
vipulāṃso mahāvāhuḥ kamvugrīvo mahāhanuḥ//''

King’s character had been compared with a poisonous snake. As snake is deadly even when young, in the same way a king can protect the earth even in boyhood.

''tatpālanādastu sukhopabhogo/
dharmmāt phalaṃ prāpsyasi cāmaratvaṃ//''

The very happiness and richness of a king arises mainly

from his ability to give protection to his subjects against external threat and aggression. So it has been said that when the gods marched for war against asuras then they wanted Indra to be their chief in the war campaign, because otherwise it would be like people to wage war without a king—

''nārājakasya yuṇvamasti. Indramanvicchāmeti.''[7]

It had been described in Vāyu Purāṇa that King Yayāti had served and rendered services to different classes of personalities and persons according to their status in the then society such as: to please (atarpayat) the gods with sacrifices, the ancestors with srāddhas, the poor with favour (anugraha) the Brahmanas according to their desires, the guest with drinks, food etc., the vaisyas with protection, the śūdras with equity (ānṛśaṃsa) and lastly the dasyus with due control (saṃnigraha) they deserved.

Thus, the king, by pleasing and entertaining his people according to dharma was a second Indra himself. There was also explication of the term rājarṣi—'a kingly ṛṣi' - i.e. ''an inspired sage of kingly decent, a king who at the same time is a ṛṣi'': he moves his subjects through their welfare. It is a fact that the administration of a country would be the best if it is run by a management headed by an active magnanimous and iron willed benevolent king as when Rāma was king, in the epic Rāmāyaṇa it is said—

''na paryadevan vidhavā na ca vyālakṛtaṃ bhayaṃ/
na vyādhijaṃ bhayancāñsīd rāme rājyaṃ praśāsati//''

During Rāma’s tenure there was no widow, no beasts of prey, no diseases were there to suffer, and no enemy to fight. The younger generations were enjoying longevity of old age life, each and every persons were the ardent follower of Dharma; the trees were always flowering and bore fruits without any interruption, desired rain fall was there, the wind was agreeable. It means there was no natural calamity or disaster; lastly everybody in the kingdom was content and happy—

''āsan prajā dharmaparā rāme śāsati nānṛtāḥ/
sarve lakṣaṇasampannāḥ sarve dharmaparāyaṇāḥ.''

The Ṛgveda, had thrown a considerable light on political and legal institution of the Vedic age. Based on the same foundation of Vedic code of conduct and Dharma Yājñavalkya, Manu, Kauṭilya and others with their enriched high value of ethics developed a healthy political tradition and welfare system of coming generation of people.

''....the ancient Indians, even in those early days of the Vedas, the Saṃhitās and the Brāhamaṇas were aware of important concepts relating to their socio-political structure is proved by the existence of such terms like Rājya, Svārājya, Sāmrājya, Bahujya, Varajya, Mahārājya and Ᾱdhipatya which are referred to in ancient texts like Atharvaveda, Taittirīya Saṃhitā, the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa and the Jaiminīya Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa''.[10]

Thus the basic thinking of Vedic philosophy of life has contributed a lot to the theory of conception of state and its organisation which has become the most striking and important feature of Indian political thought. Vedic thinking has also deeply influenced the Indian society irrespective of its caste system.

But such was not the condition at the initial stage because at the very early period of Vedic age, the post Harappan period of civilization, the institutions were characterised by elements generally associated with tribal polity. The society in the Vedic period was patriarchal. The family or Kula was the basic unit of political organisation headed by Kulapa or Gṛhapati.

The next stage of change was established in the objective formation of Grāma or Village headed by Grāmaṇī. It was a most logical change through evolutionary force and as a result, group of villages was called Viś. Those among the kulapati, who were noted for their strength and leadership, used to become Viśpati.

Viśpati was the tribal chief. From the position of Viśapati one would rise to the position of the janapati for similar qualities.

According to the Ṛgveda when the land was occupied by the Aryan people the administrative machinery of the Aryan people worked with the tribes by keeping the tribal chief at the centre of administration because of the Chief’s remarkable valour in the battle field and his efficient alacrity in the administration of their own tribal affairs.

The above fact indicated clearly that the ancient Indians believed that the kingship arose out of military necessity, and the king must be powerful, efficient and must have valour and capability to be a successful general whose leadership would be accepted by all without any challenge from his clan or people.

It was also noted that in the situation where standing army was absent then the kings depended on the Viś who would make and organise groups of militia personnel for the rājās or kings. In the Ṛgveda there were mention of assemblies such as Sabhā, Samiti, Vidatha, Gaṇa. These organised military personnel and religious functions.

A study of Vedic literature would make it more evident that there were many controlling kings reigning over numerous states with which Afganistan and Punjab were then included and thus made a prominent part of the Vedic civilization. Ṛgvedic city were as small as city state of ancient Greece spreading over an area of few squire miles. It had a capital as large as sum total of a few dozen of villages.

Villages had their own assemblies called sabhās and the capital had central assemblies called samiti. Sabhā and samiti at the time of the Vedas were used to be regarded as a place of high esteem and in one place—

''sabhā ca mā samitiścāvatāṃ prajāpaterduhitarau saṃvidāne /
jenā saṃgacchā upa mā sa śikṣāścāru vadāni pitaraḥ saṃgateṣu//''

They were regarded as a twin daughters of Prajāpati, the Creator. The place of assembly was holding such an high esteem in the mind of the then people that men and their new wed used to foster a well cherished ambition that one day they would be able to sit at that high place of political institution and be able to draw the attention and command of the proceeding of the assembly by the prowess of their power of persuasion and through the their oratory alacrity—

''je grāmā yadaraṇyaṃ jāḥ sabhā adhi bhūmyāṃ/
je saṃgrāmāḥ samitayasteṣu cāru vadema te//''

The Vidatha seems to be more popular assembly rather than either Sabhā or Samiti in the Ṛgvedic period. Vidatha was a congregation or assembly where men and women participated and were equated. Vidatha the word seemed to be derived from the root Vid to know and perhaps professed religious or sacrificial gathering, rituals where highest knowledge was required for representation. It was a large gathering and arrangement were made for singing and dancing.

Women were in habit to take active part in the Vedic sacrifices and were very prominent in the assembly of Vidatha. One passage of Athervaveda said that vrātya was followed by the members of the sabhā, samitī and the army—

''taṃ sabhā ca samitiśca senā ca surā cānuvyalan.''[13]

With the evolution of time the idea of King or Monarch took shape in the mind of the then society and people. The authority of executing power over the clan and society was bestowed on the best and fittest among the persons of that period of time and society having superior intelligence, valour and outstanding leadership.

In Indian political thoughts Kings were entrusted with the most important and fundamental duties based on Vedic dictum and rules of law written in the passages of Saṃhitās, Śruti and Brāhmaṇas.

During the earlier part of monarchism duties of monarchs and kings came down as power of authority.

During the Vedic period some functions of king were expressed in Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa

''niṣasāda dhṛtabrata iti dhṛtabrato vai rājā…sukraturiti rājyājetyevaitadāha jadāha sāmrājyāya sukraturiti.''[14]

This means the king, like the learned Brāhmaṇa, is the upholder of the sacred ordinances (dhṛtavrata); he should speak and do only what is right. The king was the sole maintainer of the order of life. He had to maintain the established rule and order.

The king should compel his subjects to follow the respective Dharma and commit only in accordance with the righteousness. The king and the priest jointly upheld the moral and ethical part of the world.

According to the Śāntiparvan of the Mahābhārata the presence of royal authorities and their functions were the basis of human existence and their progress and prosperity. The rājadharma, the eternal norms, laws and duties belonging to kings very expressly and inevitably should surpass all other duties that had been manifested in the Dharma.

All the duties of other classes had been covered by those of the king. All sorts of activities such as renunciation (tyāga), learning etc. had been protected by them. It is important to note that the ancient poets when fostered the idea of rājadharma used the term for 'protecting'. The phrase vratam meant ''to preserve or protect the observances or rules''. The king also promoted 'religion' and ‘morality’ in general sense.

These had been cited before that King Aśvapati in royal court in Chāndogyopaniṣad[15] as his court was a ''centre of learning''.

A king was kept above the periphery of punishment—

''tasmād rājādaṇḍyo jadenaṃ daṇḍavadhamatinayanti''[16]

It seemed as Western proverb 'that King cannot do any wrong'. But under the ancient Indian political concept king too had to undergo punishment but of course in different manner. Sacrificing some amount of money he would throw into water as fine as it was taught—

''īśo daṇḍasya varuṇo rājñāṃ daṇḍadharo hi saḥ/
īśaḥ sarvasya jagato brāhmaṇo vedapāragaḥ//''

Varuṇa was the lord of punishment because he held the sceptre even over kings and Varuṇa maintained closed relation with the water and so atonement was to be in that way. But there was also an alternative by which punishable act would be annulled by giving 'dakṣinās' (donation) to Brāhmins.

If a king kills a Brāhman he can be released from his heinous crime, according to some later authorities, by conducting an aśvamedha (horse sacrifice) yajña, as it would be regarded as his utmost atonement for the crime he committed knowingly.

Moreover, it was mentioned in one of the ancient Upaniṣads that in the beginning this world was in the guise of Brahmā

''brahma vā idamagra āsīdekameva tadekam sanna vyabhavat tacchreyo rūpamatyasṛjata kṣatraṃ yānyetāni devatrā kṣatrāṇīndro varuṇaḥ somo rudraḥ parjanyo yamo mṛtyurīśāna iti/ tasmāt kṣatrāt paraṃ nāsti tasmād brāhmaṇaḥ kṣatriyamadhastādupāste rājasūye kṣatra eva tadyaśo dadhāti saiṣā…hinsitvā.''[18]

As he was alone so he could not bloom, it created kṣātra power, or rather emerge from it, and afterwards the third and fourth classes. Yet 'He' did not bloom. He then created Dharma, and this too emerged from Brahmā and that Dharma was the ruling power of Kṣatriya class (kṣatrasya kṣatram). Therefore, the text bluntly said, ''there is nothing higher than Dharma,'' so a weak man could defeat a strong man by means of justice as one could do through a king.

Later on in comparatively more advanced society kings and monarchs exercised the authority to tax people in exchange of giving them protection.

''yathā gauḥ pālyate kāle duhyate caththa prajāḥ/
sicyate ciyate caiva latā puṣpaphalārthina//''[19]

Not only this the ruler was to help men of all classes in realising their earthly and spiritual aims. The great poet Kālidasa also described the king as an extraordinary person and distinct from other people—

''śamayati gajānanyāngandhadvipaḥ kalabho'pi san prabhavatitarāṃ vedodgraṃ bhujangaśiśorviṣaṃ/
bhuvamadhipatirvālāvastho'pyalaṃ parirakṣituṃ na khalu vayasā jātyaivāyaṃ svakāryasaho ganaḥ//''

The ruler must always look after his won security—

''ātmānaṃ satataṃ rakṣed dārairapi dhanairapi.''[21]

The foremost duty of a ruler was to look after the well being of his subjects. His first and foremost aim should be to seek his realm's happiness and affluence—

''adhikaṃ śuśubhe śubhaṃ yūnā dvitayena dvayameva saṃgataṃ/
padamṛddhamajena paitṛkaṃ vinayenāsya navañca yauvanaṃ//''

On the other hand, living under the realm of a bad kings would lead to destruction. In this light from mantras of Atharvaveda could be cited: ''be this king dear to cattle, herbs, animals''—

''ayaṃ rājā priya indrasya bhūyāt priyo gavāmoṣodhīnāṃ paśūnām''.[23]

As Nārada said—

''na lipyate yathā vahnirdahan śasvadapi prajāḥ/
na lipyate tathā rājā daṇḍaṃ daṇḍeṣu patayan//''[24]

''…fire is not polluted even though it always burns the creatures of the world, similarly a king is not polluted by inflicting punishment on those who deserves it'',

And also he mentioned that as the gold becomes pure in fire, all gains are stated to become pure in the hands of kings. Under such Vedic dictum and philosophic thoughts of ancient Vedic Ṛṣis Indian kings had reigned people.

During the pre-Vedic and early part of Vedic period small tribal units used to function as a popular assembly and since then king's power and his function was not extensive, his judicial power was confined within a limited small area. In course of time as an effect of evolution, when the state became territorial in character and very large in size then on the reasonable ground the power of patriarchal chiefs like the kulapatis viśpatis declined. Simultaneously the popular Samiti too faded away from the field of administration owing to its inability to function properly on the large perspective of social and political structure. But in due course as the society and community became large and complicated to administer so under such circumstance powers and privileges of kings increased in proportion. Even in the Ṛgveda we find the references of ekarāts (sole ruler), adhirāts (great rulers) and samrāts (emperors).

At this time Indian political system came in contact with term like Rājadharma. Rājyaśāstra, Daṇḍanitī, Nītiśāstra, Arthaśāstra. Some of these terms like Rājadharma—''duties of the king'' was used by Manu and other Smṛti writers. As Monarchy became a natural reality, so the system of the government and the science of politics were called Rājdharma or Rājyaśāstra. In these systems Daṇḍanitī became self-explanatory in its application by the supreme authority because like modern thinkers Manu was also of the opinion that the ultimate sanction behind the state was force and if it was not used then its only alternative i.e. law of jungle would prevail upon the society and the country.

It was the Daṇḍa or punishment which ruled over all subjects, it was the Daṇḍa which protected them; when all were sleeping, Daṇḍa only kept itself awaken; law was nothing but Daṇḍa itself—

''daṇḍaḥ śāsti prajāḥ sarvā daṇḍa evābhirakṣati/
daṇḍaḥ supteṣu jāgarti daṇḍaṃ dharmaṃ vidhurvudhāḥ//''

Daṇḍa, however, must be applied under strict discretion otherwise it would produce adverse effect on the subjects, society, and country as a whole. But if it was applied in proper manner under strict jurisprudence then the subjects would be happy and country would accelerate towards the realm of prosperity—

''tīkhṇa daṇḍo hi bhūtānāmudvejanīyaḥ/ mṛdudaṇḍaḥ paribhūyate/ jathārthadaṇḍaḥ pūjyaḥ.''[26]

Kauṭilya considered and concluded that the ruling of Daṇḍa was to be viewed as a prohibitive aspect of the administration against the crime. Kauṭilya's view point was that it ought to be considered as a tool for maintaining law and order in the society, so that it could ultimately secure progress of religion, philosophy, and economic well being.

''ānvīkṣikī trayī vārtānāṃ yogakṣemasādhano daṇḍaḥ / tasya nītirdaṇḍanītiḥ / alavdhalābhārthā lavdhaparirakṣaṇī raksitavivardhinī vṛdhasya tīrtheṣu pratipādinī ca. ''[27]

Thus Daṇḍa should have been regarded as instrument and tool for establishing law and order in the society and thus brought about a natural tendency among the subjects to abide by the law of the land for the prospect, progress and prosperity of the society and ultimately of the country at large.

But, Manu went instead, farther to the extent to declare that Daṇḍa was the real king, the real leader, and thus real protector—

''sa rājā puruṣo daṇḍaḥ sa netā śāsitā ca saḥ.''[28]

Daṇḍanīti thus were holding all the forces such as social, political, economic and religious in unification for the all round development and prosperity of the country as a whole.

The next thing, the most distinctive attributes and features in the administration was the Nītiśāstra which had originated from the root to lead; Nīti therefore meant proper guidance to follow. Nītiśāstra was the essence of Ethics, because proper guidance or direction was the precondition of possibility of ethics that led to prosperity, prudence, wisdom and the Nītiśāstra stood as the symbol of these three qualities in unison. So as a matter of fact Nītiśāstra became the greatest propriety, wisdom and prudence in shaping and driving the internal and foreign policy of the government during 5th century A. D and hence it became very much popular during that period.

As a result of popularity of Nītiśāstra Kāmandaka and Śukra fancied to name their books on Nīti and not on Daṇḍanīti or Arthaśāstra. ''Lakṣmīdhara (1150 A.D.), Annaṃbhaṭṭa (1200 A.D.), Chandeśvara (1350A.D.), Nīlakānta and Mitramiśra (1625 A.D.) preferred the name of their digests as Nītikalpataru, Nītichandrikā, Nītiratnākara, Nītimayukha and Nītiprakāśa respectively and not as Arthaśāstra-Kalpataru or Rājadhamaratnākara... etc.''[29]

The aim of the Government was all round progress of the society and the same was taken to be the scope of Nītiśāstra. Śukra pointed out how Nītiśāstra was a sine qua non for the stability of the state and society and how it was connected for the realisation of quadruple aims of Dharma, artha, Kāma and Mokṣa.

During the later part of Vedic age kings became surrounded by pomp and power and started to extend kingdom on the greater part of the land and in consequence of that they became rich and prosperous by becoming the owner of land and big herd of cattle.

They started to receive taxes from subjects payment of which became regular and obligatory for the subjects under the protection of the king.

The Atharvaveda described the king as lord of riches, the chief of the people and the most prominent among the warrior. It also prays that king should have the power, lustre, and complete control over the land and subjugation of the subjects he lorded upon. It was so even in one ritual the Brāhmaṇa, the Kṣatriya, the Vaiśya and the Śudra each had to forgo the ownership of their cattle to the king—''gopāṃ janasya''[30]

This proved that king had such influence and power which encompassed all the classes of the community. It was very natural that the king would become holder and executer of extensive control and power over the people and as an effect to that his wrath too would be dreaded to his subjects for non compliance of his dictum.

It had been noted that after 500 B. C the states became fairly large in size than the previous era and simultaneously the king’s power too increased to bigger extent. The direct effect of that was the slow disappearance of organisations like samiti and in place of that the political system of that time gave birth to self-styled and tyrannical kings.

During this period of dawn of monarchism king's safety was very considerably taken. In Arthaśāstra[31] it had been described how the streets were kept guarded while kings were supposed to pass that area and how a strong vigilance and guard was kept over the visitors in the audience. A strong bodyguard was at his beck and call.

During this period king became in reality the effective head of the executive administration and there was no samiti or assembly to check his unrivalled power over the people and the country at large. He controlled everything such as treasury, military force, foreign policy. Peace and war were largely determined and dictated by him. Minister were selected by him and tenure of ministry mainly depended upon his whims and pleasure.

The king not as a ceremonial functionary or titular head of the country but as royal executive head used to preside over the council of ministers and decisions had to receive royal assent. Tax matters were determined according to customary law, but it depended upon the discretion of the king and he had the inherent power to amend or change the law according to his thinking. Foreign affairs took a large part of his responsibility.

He was the supreme of the judiciary. All appeals were taken up and decided either by him or through his Chief Justice. He was the last and ultimate authority to declare or pronounce the final judgement of any disputes among the contested parties of the said disputes. He was the only authority to grant reprieve.

During the first millennium period there was no popular assembly to function and hence the administration at that time was controlled by the king and his selected group of ministers.

The Vedic literature did not specifically feature anything about any ideal state, but there were some observations connected with the evidence of facts which gave us a glimpse of idea about the nature of state that it was then. The king or the head of state was regarded as god like Varuṇa who was the upholder and executer of law. It was said that Religion was to be promoted and morality was to be encouraged and education was to be patronised.

State at that time not only looked after the material aspects of its subjects but also took interest and tried to secure the spiritual aspects of its subjects.

In the Atharvaveda—

''dadhi manthāṃ pariśṛutam…āṣtre rājñah parīkṣhitaḥ''.[32]

The kingdom of Parikṣit was idealised as such, ''flowed with milk and honey'', all round development was the moto of the state and it was the chief aim of the state during Vedic and Upanisadic ages i.e. down 600 B C. Thus was the moral and ethical state of mind attained by the people of that age and simultaneously the state was to prosper under the high ethical, moral and transparent regime.

Having such heritage of high ethical and moral background, the system cognized the ideal development of individual to the full development of society and thus laid to promote Dharma, Artha, Kāma and Mokṣa. The Vedic ideal, like 'bosudhaivakutumbakaṃ',' sarvabhutahita' referred not only to the spiritual aspect of life but also to the mundane sphere of State polity level.

The India of Vedic age was studded with scores of assemblies where scholars and politicians expressed their ideas.

''vaśinī tvaṃ vidathamā vadāsi.''[33]

Modern scholars also had differed among themselves on the precise meaning of those words. For instance Ludwig called the sabhā as something like the Upper House because of representations in that sabhā were done by the priests and rich people. The samiti was for the commoners to participate or to represent in as it acted like Lower House in the administrative diction.

But Zimmer thought that sabhā was for the villagers and samiti was for the whole tribe. In another place Hillebrandt fostered entirely different opinion about them. His argument was that the sabhā and samiti were much the same. Samiti was the assembly and sabhā was its meeting place. Jayaswal admitted that the samiti was presumably the national assembly and sabhā was the standing committee, but he straightforwardly acknowledged that the exact correlation between these two bodies of congregation could not be arrived by any factual evidence.

Origin of the word Vidatha was from the root vid meant to know and presumably it was a place for some big gathering for some sorts of religious gathering. In those days women were regularly taking part in the deliberation of Vidatha and in Vedic sacrifices during that period.

Though in rare passages kings were rarely seen taking part in the Vidatha, but the latter body was rarely found taking any active role in the management of administration.

The view of Hillebrandt about sabhā was unacceptable, because in his understanding there was no difference between them sabhā and samiti but in the Atharvaveda[34] , it was clearly stated that they were two different bodies and compared them as twin daughters of the Creator. Not only this, because in another passage it was found how vratya was followed by the members of the sabhā, samiti and the army. So it was, therefore, very clear that both were not same but entirely different bodies.

It was also described in Atharvaveda that how gamblers would present in that hall of sabhā and challenged the other and staked to their last penny, and quite often staking the freedom of themselves and their wives—

''sabhāmeti kitavaḥ pṛcchamāno jeṣyāmīti tanvā śūśujānaḥ.''[35]

In connection with sabhā the gambling was referred to also in the Brāhmaṇa literature—

''tena so'syābhīṣṭaḥ prītaḥ / yatsabhāyāṃ vijayante. tena so'syābhīṣṭaḥ prītaḥ / yadāvasathe'nnaṇ haranti.''[36]

So it would thus seem that sabhā was almost like a village social club but few government like jobs were conducted over there by the members when necessary. It was perhaps as a matter of politics rather than social gathering sabhā was more or less associated with the king.

It had been found in the hymn of the Ṛgveda that samiti was referred to as a social or learned conclave—

''saṃ gacchadhvaṃ saṃ vadadhvaṃ saṃ vo manāṃsi jānatāṃ/ samānī va ākutiḥ samitiḥ samānī//''[37]

But again earlier hymn of the same book i.e of the Ṛgveda referred to the ambition for political power which indicted the plan for numerical domination of the sabhā. In the Atharvaveda there was a mention of a dutiful king paying visit to samiti and most remarkable hope was expressed in Atharvaveda that an exiled king would be restored on his previous position as he was forever in agreement with the samiti, and a reverse would take place if that king was not in tune with samiti.

It was rather painful matter that the samiti which used to hold and exercised so much power and influence over king and administration during the days of the Ṛgveda and the Atharvaveda would completely disappear from exercising its power and influence during the period of Brāhmaṇas. Sabhā, however had lost its popularity among the villagers during this period but used to support king in the royal court. The status of its members were as high as high priest—

''marutaḥ pariveṣtāro maruttasyāvasan gṛhe. āviksitasya kāmaprerviśve devāḥ sabhāsadaḥ.''[38]

The samiti once more made its presence more conspicuous during Upansadic period, it is found that Śvetaketu was visiting Pāñcālas after the completion of his study. While he was there, the king was present there on that time and questioned him to test his scholastic knowledge. The description of question-answer between the king and Śvetaketu exemplified the occasion that the samiti was not merely a popular general assembly only but a congregation of learned persons. One such type of debating assembly in the presence of King Janaka, Gārgī was vehemently got entangled in a debate with Yājñavalkya and at the end of debate she acceded to the supremacy of Yājñavalkya’s scholastic Vedic theory and its application.

In due course of time Samiti lost gravity and charisma for the people and administration as well. There was no doubt that sabhā and samiti both ceased to exist much earlier than the time of Dharmasūtra (C. 500 BC) and instead the word sabhāsada was used only to a member of a judicial assembly.

The Dharmasūtra literature was very much specific in the matter that the king's sole duty was to enforce Dharma as had been directed by the sacred books, because it was the thinking of the Vedic peers that the Dharmaśāstra like Nītiśāstra were promulgated by the Creator which were barred from any changes.

But with the passage of time, the society became complex and complication arose in the matter of administration and as well as in the affair of developing state's subjects. For the purpose of all out development and rightful administration of the state it was felt that the states should have its own power to make rules and regulation of its own.

The rules and laws in Dharmasūtra and Nītiśāstra worked but had not provided all the contingency and hence the changes were felt necessary for the both in the interest of state and its subjects. Manusmṛti had allowed the king to issue administrative orders which were implemented for the betterment of his subjects—

''tasmāddharmaṃ yamiṣṭeṣu sa vyavasyennarādhipaḥ/ aniṣtaṃcāpyaniṣṭeṣu taṃ dharmaṃ na vicālayet// ''[39]

These orders were in concurrence with the śāstras and traditions. Yājñavalkya also supported and maintained that the king’s promulgation of orders were to be enforced and executed by the law courts—

''nijadharmāvirodhena yastu sāmariko bhavet/
so'piyatnena saṃrakṣayo dharmorājakṛtaśca yaḥ//''

Śukranīti[41] also denoted that these orders were mostly related to well founded and initiated laws and customs that were exhorted. It pressurized people to respect and obey the elders and maintain harmony in the family, not to infringe boundaries, not to use wrong weights and make false blame, not to misuse assets and property, not to make false evidence and fraudulent documents etc.

In fact in due course with the passing of time the work of polity became more strict and authoritative and started to be regarded more binding upon the people than what Dharmaśāstra was used to be—

''dharmaśca vyavahāraśca caritraṃ rājaśāsanaṃ/
vivādārthāścatuṣpādaḥ paścimaḥ pūrvavādhakaḥ//''

The same was the view and the opinion of Bṛhaspati.

Nārada’s view and interpretation of law was more strict for its application and binding on the people than what it was before. He dictated that he who did not obey the law of king was subjected to immediate punishment—

''rājñā pravartitān dharmān yo naro nānupālayet/
daṇdyaḥ sa pāpo vadhyaśca lopayan rājaśāsanaṃ//''

Śukra said that the king should promulgated law in public—

''likhitvā śāsanaṃ rājā dhārayīta catuṣpathe/
sadā codyatadaṇḍaḥ syād sādhuṣu ca śatruṣu //''

Though it was clear that Dharmaśāstra had entrusted states with laws and customs to exercise but in spite of that it was felt imperative by the states to make some laws and regulations of its own from about 3rd century B. C., and when these powers were granted and appeared for promulgation then by that time influence of samiti or Popular Assembly had already vanished from the scene and became history of the past and the laws and customs were exercised instead, by the king himself in consultation with his minsters.

Rājaśāsanas or the royal decree was not as absolute as modern day’s legislation. Personal, civil, and criminal laws were determined and exercised according to the customs of the land and samiti independently, and hardly any interference did take place from King’s end. Personal, civil, and criminal laws were being followed and maintained as determined by the customs and samiti rules which were hardly effected by the king’s power if any ordinance were being issued by him.

But within the jurisdiction of administration and taxation king had the power of reformation in the new structure of law. Hence they could create new offices and departments, promulgate new laws of their liking for the betterment of their subjects, and could impose fresh taxes on people for harnessing more revenues for the states and as a result of that the royal powers increased to a considerable size. There was no effective representation of people in Central government by any popular assembly of previous type.

Next to the king in state's functionary came ministers and council of ministers. The political thinkers of ancient India understood that the Council of Advisers was the most vital organ of the state machinery. The Mahābhārata in one place considered that the King was to have a vital organ like the council of ministers to administer the state properly. He had to depend on the ministers as animal depended on the clouds, and Brāhmanas on the Vedas.

The Arthaśāstra pointed out that the king would be successful if he had competent council of ministers, one wheel could not alone move the carriage

''sahāyasādhyaṃ rājatvaṃ cakramekaṃ na vartate/
kurvīta sacivaṇstasmātteṣāṃ ca sṛṇuyānmatam//''

Manu observed that a simple thing would become difficult if one had to perform it single-handed. So handling complex matter like running the state needed the help of assistance of ministers—

''api yat sukaraṃ karma tadapyekena duṣkaram/
viśeṣato'sahāyena kimu rājyaṃ mahodayam//''

Śukra observed that a king could not know everything so he had to avail the assistance of a group of men having different aptitude in different disciplines and any reverse thinking of that would cause destruction of himself and his kingdom—

''puruṣe puruṣe bhinnaṃ dṛśyate buddhivaibhavaṃ/
āptavākyaranubhavairāgamairanumānataḥ// ''

As a matter of fact the Indian political thinkers always considered the ministers to be the indispensable part of the king.

Considering the ministers to be the vital part of the state machinery ancient Indian thinkers considered the numbers of ministers according to the size of the country and the functions they were supposed to perform. As for example Manu prescribed seven or eight members in the ministry—

''moulān śāstravidaḥ śūrān labdhalakṣyān kulodgatān. sacivān sapta cāṣtau vā prakurvīta parīkṣitān.''[48]

Arthaśāstra hold different views on the subject, from which it was known that the Mānava, the Bārhaspatya and the Anuśāsana school were in favour of a group of ministers to 12, 16, and 20 respectively.

Śukranīti rather considered the numbers ought to be of a bit smaller size of 7 or 8. Śukranīti recommended the number to be of 7 numbers. The Nītivākyāmṛta was in favour of a smaller size of ministries which would consist of 3, 5, or 7 members only. But Manu

''nivartetāsya yāvadbhiriti kartavyatā nṛbhiḥ/
tāvato'tandritān dakṣān prakurvīta vicakṣaṇān//''

Kauṭilya's view was maintioned asyathāsāmarthyamiti kauṭilyaḥ. Both in together concurred that the number of council of ministers would be depending upon the situation in the state concerned and demanded.

Now it appeared that not only ministers but also a large numbers of people were also involved in the running of the government smoothly and efficiently and they were called amātyas.

In the Mahābhārata the number of amātyas was 36. The Arthaśāstra also showed that the amātyas were of no doubt belonging to higher class of officials but were inferior to ministers and consequently larger in number than the number of council of ministers.

The executive power of the then ministers covered over a wide range of duties such as to supervise and direct the state policy regarding taxation and expenditure, to oversee education of the princes, to participate in their coronation, to direct state’s foreign policy both apropos feudatory under their control and external independent states. It was quite natural that the amātyas were given charges of different departments under the name of various portfolios.

There was no specific record in any earlier writers in India who had ever enlightened the present, on any detailing of the past, about the different portfolios assigned to the members of the ministry.

Only what have been traced was in the description of Śukra during 11th century A.D. who gave us some idea of the portfolios held by the ministers of the then era. According to him, the council consisted of 10 member ministers. They were—

  1. Purohita,
  2. Pratinidhi,
  3. Pradhana,
  4. Sachiva,
  5. Mantrin,
  6. Prāḍvivaka,
  7. Paṇḍita,
  8. Sumantra,
  9. Amātya,
  10. Dūta.,

The status and pay of each succeeding persons were lower than those of the preceeding ones.[50]

Footnotes and references:


Chāndogyopaniṣad 5.11.5


Ṛgveda 3.43.5


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 5.13.4


Vā. Pu. 88.172


Rāmāyaṇa 1.1.9


Mārk.Pu. 26.35


Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa


Rāmāyaṇa 6.128.98


Rāmāyaṇa 6.128.105


Internet: Vedic ideals and Indian political thoughts—by K. Sreeranjani Subba Rao


Arthavaveda 7.12.1


Arthavaveda 12.1.56




Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa


Chāndogyopaniṣad 5.11.5.


Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa


Manusaṃhitā 9.245


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 1.4.11


Kā. Nī. 5.84


Vikramovarśīya 5.18


Manusaṃhitā 7.213


Raghu. 8.6


Arthavaveda 4.22.4


Nārada Smṛti 17.18


Manusaṃhitā 7.18


Kau. Ar. Śā 1.4


Kau. Ar. Śā 1.4


Manusaṃhitā 7.17


State and government.... by Ancient Sages by Swami Satyamayananda Altekar, P-3


Ṛgveda 3.43.5


Kau. Aṛ. Śā 1.21


Arthavaveda 20.127


Ṛgveda 10.85.26


Arthavaveda 7. 12. 1




Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa


Ṛgveda 10.191.2


A. Br. 8.21




Śukra. 1.292-311


Dharmaśāstra B-3.Ch-1


Nā. Sa. 17.13




Kau. Aṛ. Śā


Kau. Aṛ. Śā






Manusaṃhitā 7.61


Śukra. 2.70-72

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: