Sabhas and Samitis

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SABHAS AND SAMITIS The term sabha occurred eight times in the Rig Veda and seventeen times in the Atharva Veda. In one instance, sabha referred to a meeting hall. In other instances, sabha referred to a "body of men shining together." The term sabha was often linked with the term samiti (meeting together), both words referring to a gathering, assembly, or council of people. The Atharva Veda identified sabha and samiti as two daughters of the high Vedic god Prajāpati. Whenever the terms appeared together, sabha preceded samiti, leading some scholars to infer that sabhas might have existed before samitis. No ancient texts, however, have identified clear differences between sabhas and samitis, their sequence in appearance, or their relationships to each other.

Sabha-sthanu (assembly-hall pillar) described a feature of the sabha's physical structure. A variety of additional sabha-linked terms suggested actors and activities that may have taken place in the sabha: sabha-vin (keeper of the gambling/assembly hall); sabha-saha (eminent in the assembly); sabha-pati (lord of the assembly); sabheya and sabha-yogya (worthy of the assembly); sabha-chara, sabhasad, and sabhyas (member of the assembly); sabha-vati (woman member of the assembly); and sabha-pala (guardian of the assembly). According to the Rig Veda, people in the sabha called on the deity Indra to protect the sabha and its members and to grant their words effectiveness in the sabha.

The term samiti occurred nine times in the Rig Veda and thirteen times in the Atharva Veda. The Rig Veda stated that one could not rule without a samiti. One Vedic reference described a rajan's (ruler) presence in a samiti. Another reference described several rulers sitting together in a samiti. The Rig Veda reported people in a samiti discussing their cattle. One Rig Veda prayer called for agreement and unity of thought in the samiti. The Atharva Veda included the prayer of a Brahman priest on behalf of a samiti.

Despite occasional references to sabhas, samitis, and rajans in the Vedas, none of the Vedas provided an unambiguous description of how sabhas, samitis, and rajans related to each other. This did not prevent subsequent scholars from suggesting that sabhas and samitis engaged in democratic (possibly even unanimous) decision making, served as councils to rulers, elected and removed rulers, collected taxes, and declared war. Nor did it prevent subsequent scholars from suggesting parallels between the Vedic sabhas and samitis, anthropological descriptions of clan and tribal gatherings, Homeric agoras, Roman senates, Teuton councils of chiefs, and Anglo-Saxon witenagemots. In view of the scant number of references in the Vedas, all such scholars' suggestions must be recognized as speculative.

The Rig Veda mentioned jana 275 times and vish 271 times, both terms referring to groups of interrelated families. The vidatha was a form of assembly referred to 122 times in the Rig Veda and 22 times in the Atharva Veda. Translated as a "family council," the vidatha included women and elders as participants. The vidatha collectively worshiped Vedic deities such as Agni and Indra, offering sacred food and singing their praises. Occasionally the vidatha selected a priest to sing or lead the singing. The vidatha hoped that, in return for the offerings and songs, Agni or Indra would provide wealth and brave sons. Over the centuries, references to the vidatha gradually disappeared.

Another form of assembly referred to in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda was a parishad made up of companions who collectively owned cattle, worshiped Agni, and shared a common leader. The term parishadi implied the inclusion of women as members of the parishad. At the end of the fourth century b.c., the Sanskrit grammarian Pānini described a ruler as a parishad-bala (one who ruled with a parishad, or group of royal associates). Pānini also identified three types of parishads: academic, social, and administrative. Later, in Kautilya's Arthashastra, parishad referred to a council of royal administrators or advisers—a form of assembly quite different from the parishad of the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda.

One of the last times the term samiti occurred in Vedic literature was in the Chandogya Upanishad, when the student Shvetaketu visited the Panchala samiti and was asked by its rajanya (leader) to answer five philosophical questions. Upon Shvetaketu's failure to answer any of the five questions, the samiti's rajanya asked how anyone unable to answer those questions could be considered to be educated.

Sabhas and Samitis in Post-Vedic Literature

While the term samiti gradually fell out of use, the term sabha continued to appear in the classical literature. As time passed, sabha acquired different shades of meaning. The Mahābhārata described a sabha in which the legitimacy of Yudhishthira (now a slave) gambling away his and his brothers' noble wife Draupadi was debated before King Dhritarashtra. The Mahābhārata also described three occasions when women entered a sabha. The Apastamba Sutra described the construction of a sabha to be used as a guest house and recreation hall for the three higher varṇas, the ancient Hindu social ranks: the Brahmans, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas.

At the end of the fourth century b.c., the grammarian Pānini referred to a religious sangha (assembly) that did not separate the high and the low ranks. With the subsequent spread of Buddhism, sangha came to refer to orders of Buddhist monks. The Buddhist Mahaparinirbbana Sutta prescribed procedural rules for the sangha. These included meeting publicly and regularly, observing established precedents, respecting the advice of elders, making decisions in concord, and supporting the Buddhist sages.

Sabhas and Samitis in Post-Independence India

Prior to India's independence in 1947, groups engaged in political, legislative, and social action gave themselves such English titles as committees, councils, associations, leagues, congresses, assemblies, and so on. Independent India's constitution called for two houses of Parliament: an Upper House (the Council of States) and a Lower House (the House of the People). The Hindi terms Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha were applied to these two Houses, reviving the old Sanskrit word sabha and infusing it with new meaning. The government of India established a rural self-government structure called panchayati raj (the rule of panchayats). Panchayat referred to a council of five elders who were thought to have shaped the affairs of their villages in former times. The government used the Sanskrit terms samiti and parishad (with no English equivalents) to label components of the panchayati raj. These included gram panchayats (village councils), panchayat samitis (executive bodies of all panchayats in the same administrative block), and zila parishads (executive bodies of all panchayats in the same district or zila).

Joseph W. Elder

See alsoCaste System


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