Indian Political Thought

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Indian Political Thought

Ancient thought

Hindu thought

Modern thought


Ancient thought

In the epoch that began with the philosophical movements which are expressed in the mystical texts known as Upanisads and culminated in the regime of the emperor Aśoka, whose rule extended over all but southernmost India, the dimensions of Indian social thought were established. During these formative centuries, roughly from the seventh to the middle of the third century B.C., new modes of economic production, the incorporation of indigenous peoples into the Aryan community, and other social changes rendered the old agencies of integration inadequate; with many of the certainties of life dissolving and new social relationships demanding new justifications, men were faced with the need to re-examine basic values and institutions. A variety of ideas about the nature and destiny of human life began to challenge traditional religious conceptions.


Discussion of a system of political beliefs and speculations requires a general understanding of the symbolic forms in terms of which reality is comprehended by a people. Men reveal reality to themselves through particular ways of seeing, which discriminate objects and events from the whole in which they are embedded. Observation is purposive behavior, and in the first stages of the development of human knowledge acts of discrimination and the assignment of meaning are closely bound together. Later, as thought becomes theoretical, the contents of experience are grouped and correlated, and in time strict definition becomes possible, as facts are subsumed under general ideas and conceptually grasped. When the subject of our investigation is the political thought of the last several centuries in Europe or America, the cosmology at the base of such ideas may be taken for granted. But the study of ancient civilizations cannot properly proceed without a consideration of symbolic and mythic materials, although such materials may be only indirectly related to political theory and although we may have to content ourselves with what is at best informed conjecture.

In this attempt to discover the different ways in which the world is viewed we discover that, except for the Greeks in the classical age, existence is rarely comprehended in terms of a rational order which lends itself to intellectualistic investigation. More frequently the imagery is dramatic: the world derives its meaning from its creator rather than from the logic of its structure, and knowledge takes the form of mystic apprehension (gnosis) instead of rational inquiry. Insight into the meaning of a world not yet completed depends on revelation and supernatural capacities: the emphasis is on encounter instead of examination. In one version of this latter world view the god-creator involves himself in the universe, assuming a variety of forms and disguises. Man’s response to this sacred power may take the form of supplication or ritual, in which instance professionals are usually required to act as intermediaries between man and the holy. But sometimes the godhead is not seen as a deity possessing will and design, and the individual worshiper may seek through discipline and contemplation to merge himself in the cosmic process.

Ancient Indian political thought must be understood in the context of religious beliefs. In the earliest cosmology the political order was seen as analogous to the cosmos, its creation a repetition of the divine creation of the cosmic system. Vedic liturgy was essentially an effort to reproduce the cosmic order so as to ensure the effective functioning of society. By the later Vedic period the anthropomorphic gods of the heroic age had been eclipsed by more imposing and aloof deities, and the rituals had become a highly formalized religion with a complex ceremonialism. As religion came to be tied to technical expertise, the priests strengthened their position, isolating themselves from social controls. By the end of this period the Aryan invaders had extended their hegemony over the whole of the Gangetic plain.

The early texts

The most authoritative statement of the orthodox tradition exists in the venerable Rg Veda, which provides the earliest historical record of the Indo-Aryan peoples who invaded northwest India in the middle centuries of the second millennium B.C. The Vedic hymns themselves can be dated from at least the eleventh or twelfth century. When the interpretation of the Vedas required explanatory texts, a set of ritual manuals, the Brahmanas, were appended to the hymns. The later Vedas, Brahmanas, and the early Upanisads belong to the centuries 900-600 B.C. It is probable that the original versions of the epics Mahábhárata and Rámáyana were in existence shortly after the end of this period. The sources of heterodox doctrine are found in the pronouncements of great teachers who lived at this time. (It was not until the fourth century that the Pali Buddhist canon was compiled.) Although the Rg Veda, the Bráhmanas, and other early texts contain much material relevant to the study of political thought, literature expressly devoted to legal and political questions is encountered only with the Dharma Sutras (500-200 B.C.). The ArthaśSastre literature, which deals with the art of government and what is described as “the science of material gain,” may date back to the sixth century, but the oldest treatise that remains is the work ascribed to Kaufilya, which is usually believed to date from the early years of the Mauryan state (c. 300 B.C.), but which may be as late as the third or fourth century a.d. During the several centuries before and after the beginning of the Christian era, the Mahabharata attained the form in which we have the work, and the major Dharma Śāstra treatise, the code of Manu, was compiled. The Dharma Śāstra and Arthaśāstra literature extends well into the medieval period of Indian history; some texts, however, are as recent as the ninth and tenth centuries a.d. It will be apparent to the reader by now that only the broadest chronological arrangement of these writings is possible. By the eighth century the Arabs had dominated the lower Indus valley; however, long before the Muslim conquests the creative period of Sanskrit theory was over. Not until the nationalist and reform movements of the nineteenth century was there a significant revival of Indian political speculation.

There is little evidence that Vedic kingship was considered a divine institution; few priestly functions were performed by the king. Sometimes the ruler is compared with certain of the gods—or it may be said that he has superhuman attributes, or that during the sacrifice he takes on aspects of divinity. There is no evidence that the early monarchy was elective in any modern sense of the word (although the texts often suggest that the king was chosen by the people), but there are indications that the ruler was dependent on the support of at least the aristocracy, and we may assume that “election” must be understood as approval or appointment. The authority of the assembly and the role of the people in the coronation ceremony point to a degree of popular participation that was never equaled in later times.


When the tribal organization based on kinship relations was no longer adequate to meet the strains on social cohesion, the ruling nobility grew increasingly dependent on the brahman priests to provide new principles of legitimation which could justify political authority. By the later Vedic age the priests had come to control the sacrifice and through the sacrifice the means of salvation. At this time the ideas of karma and transmigration began to assume a central importance. Every soul, according to this belief, has existed from eternity and journeys through a series of rebirths until it has earned eternal bliss. Each thought and action has consequences for the destiny of the soul and determines one’s position and status in society. In the light of these doctrines it would be extremely difficult to reconcile religious interest with social reform. As Max Weber remarked, the sanction for traditionalism was as complete as any contrived by the mind of man. With the brahman priest at the apex of the class structure and karma ideology as its foundation, we are confronted with a society so effectively integrated by religion that political institutions need play only a minor role in regulating conflict. And, indeed, throughout most of Indian history social coordination was accomplished through caste and village institutions.

The vitality and naive optimism of the Vedic age had succumbed to a more restrained philosophical and religious perspective. The Brahmanic deities had become manifestations of an impersonal cosmic principle. Prajapati, lord of creation, was exalted above the other gods: but he had himself become the harmonizing sacrifice. The figure of Prajapati provides a link between earlier Indian religion and the varieties of mysticism that served to shift religious emphasis from ritualism to individual spiritual insight.

In the political speculation of this time, most of which is found in brahman texts, we are not surprised to find that the authority of the brahmans is considered superior to that of the king and that the priests are independent of the secular power. Mitra, the old Vedic god who was taken to represent the priesthood, at one time stood apart from Varuna, who in this instance epitomized power. That is, mind was conceived to be independent of will. But just as will relies on intelligence, regnum (ksatra) could not exist without sacerdotium (Brahmaā). There are passages in the texts that qualify this characterization, but they are rare.

The first suggestion of an attempt to explain the origins of government occurs in the Aitareya Braāhmana (I, 14). The gods, at first disunited, came to realize that victory over the titans could be theirs only if they yielded to Indra, the great warrior, and granted him their collective powers. The account of the royal coronation in this work (vIII, 15) contains a theory of kingship that is at least a primitive version of the European political philosophies which locate the basis of authority in a contract. For a closer approximation to the idea of the state’s contractual basis we must turn to the later Buddhist legends. The functions of the royal authority were secularized to a degree uncommon in the ancient world, and the spheres of politics and religion were differentiated as the ksatra- Brahmā distinction indicates); yet there remained a religious dimension to kingship and an aura to the person of the king that impeded the development of a concept of contract between the king and his people. [Seesocial contract.]

The texts of this period argue that the primary obligation of the king is the preservation of dharma. This term, which defies any exact rendition, is used to describe the totality of rules and duties, the eternal and necessary moral law, truth, and justice. It is a category of theology, ethics, and law: The central importance of this concept in Indian political philosophy expands the boundaries of speculation to include aspects of human experience not generally associated with politics in Western thought on the subject. In this conception law is ultimately god-given. Dharma stood above the king, and the king’s failure to preserve the sacred tradition must have disastrous consequences. It was the function of the power of sanction and coercion (danda) to ensure compliance with dharma, and the rajadharma, the dharma of the king, thus existed as guarantor of the whole social order with its hierarchy of privileges and duties. Behind this doctrine lies the belief that it is only the fear of punishment that makes men righteous in their conduct.

In the Dharma Sūtras, which are condensed technical prose works consisting of rules governing the broad area of human conduct, the individual is still not sharply distinguished from the group. Local custom and law are recognized as authorities in this age of transition from the tribal community to the territorial state. With the systematization of usage and tradition in the Sūtras, the legitimacy of royal power—formerly dependent on priestly proclamation—came to be based on the law codes. But this in itself did not mean that the king was becoming more independent of brahman controls. Actually the powers of the king were more rigidly defined. Heretical religious beliefs were beginning to appear at this time, however, and since there was the possibility that competing ethical and religious movements would be successful in eliciting the support of the king, the prestige and power of the ruler continued to expand, and the position of the brahmans became increasingly vulnerable.

This was a turbulent period in Indian history, and the capacity to respond effectively to environmental challenge must have dictated an adaptability in the ideological superstructure of the nascent state—an allowance, so to speak, for the necessity of sin. Symbols of foundation were continually invoked. The concept of foundation implies the possibility of the “artificial” establishment of social aggregates. The heroic role thus came to be institutionalized: it was the assertive, trans-moral role charged with the upholding of honor and the protection (by violence if need be) of the order of things. And it was kept within bounds by its subservience to the higher spiritual power. The harmony of the two complementary powers—the temporal, or ksatra, and the spiritual, or Brahmaū, ensured the harmony of the world. The former (whether represented by Romulus or Varuna) is that mysterious potency which is always in an equivocal relationship to society. In guarding the established order against hostile forces it may be necessary to take on characteristics not unlike those of the enemy. Authority is transformed into naked power. In India the amoral dimension of ksatra found its fullest expression in the figure of the god Indra, who represented the warrior virtues, power as well as authority. Indra had the right to go above the sacred code when necessary for its protection. But purification and compensation were always required. This is one reason for the importance of the sacrifice in Aryan ideology.

The most characteristic feature of the sacred is its dangerous and proscriptive property. Intermediaries are needed to make possible communication between the realms of the sacred and the profane, since the forces unleashed in the contact between the two spheres are so powerful they might otherwise destroy each other. The brahmaūn priest acted as this intermediary in the conduct of the sacrifice. It must have been only a matter of time before the power to manipulate the gods began to seem superior to the gods themselves. This brahman potency, projected into the pantheon, ultimately returned in the conception of Prajaūpati (or Brahman). Some students of Indian philosophy insist that the monistic principle usually associated with the Upanisads had long been dominant in Brahmanism.

Political and legal treatises

Although in the Vedas an embryonic caste form is portrayed (the Purusa hymn names the four orders but does not directly indicate that status distinctions are intended; see Rg Veda x, 90, 11 ff.), by the end of the Vedic period the institution had become stereotyped, and it was fairly prevalent by the time of the Buddha. The brahman was the referent whereby rank position was determined, and distinctions had come to be based on relative ritual purity. The two highest castes (brahman priests and ksatriya nobility) monopolized duties that required ritual purity. The brahmans possessed the right to study the scriptures, perform the sacrifice, pursue the ascetic life, and “receive gifts.” By the later Vedic period they and the ksatriyas had become virtually endogamous. The ksatriya ideal that dominated the centuries of the Gangetic expansion—personal honor and military valor—was tamed with the establishment of the territorial state. Protection and regulation became the major responsibilities of the governing elite. The demand for specialists in the techniques of coordination and adaptation grew, and the influence of the minister began to challenge the traditional status of the knight. The needs of the settled community were bringing the brahman more directly into political activity; he was often the person best qualified for the deliberative, advisory, and supervisory roles of the emergent state. But at the same time the governing nobility took unto itself offices and powers that had formerly been reserved for the various corporations of society and for religious functionaries. The ksatriya role had become more specifically political —in that secular authorities, with bureaucratic instrumentalities at their disposal, regarded themselves as charged with mobilization of social resources for the achievement of collective purposes. Below these dominant classes were the agriculturalists and herdsmen, traders and artisans (collectively the vaiśya class), and the sudras, who are described as the servants of the other classes of society and who were, for all practical purposes, beyond the pale of justice.

Before this class structure had hardened into a caste system, it was confronted by the indirect challenge of heterodox salvation religions, which themselves were part of an intellectual movement reaching back to the seventh century B.C. It is the theme of many of the Upanisads that knowledge alone—knowledge acquired through meditation—can transform the individual, raising him to union with the eternal One. In such an argument each member of society is equal to every other, in that all participate in the divine. By the time of the Buddha (c. 560-480 B.C.) there existed in India the better part of a hundred distinguishable doctrines, and they ran the gamut from idealism to bald materialism and nihilism. These new disciplines and schools, Buddhism included, were not reform philosophies intent on social change; they offered, rather, an alternate way of life, introspective and world-renouncing. Buddhism is not the expression of active brotherliness; it would be more accurate to say that the teaching calls for a retreat from intense involvement in social relationships. Although not a social philosophy, Buddhism, with its greater attention to ethical considerations and the role of human volition in determining social arrangements, opened new possibilities for political speculation. Induction and reason are of greater importance because less can be explained as the result of divine intervention. By way of Buddhist arguments, secularization could be carried further than had been possible in orthodox theory, and we find, for example, theories assuming the human origin of kingship that allow the unambiguous acceptance of the contract as the basis of obligation; taxes are payment to the king in return for protection. The Buddhist view of social evolution postulated an idyllic state of nature at the beginning of time. Gradual moral decline at length underscored the differences dividing men, and social institutions were introduced to cope with the problems that arose. To establish order the greatest among men was named king and received, in return, a portion of the produce.

As in the Braūhmanic literature, punishment (danda) is a duty of the king, but it no longer has the central position it had in earlier political thought. The Buddhist conception of dhamma connotes the supreme principle of righteousness. It is closer to Western concepts of virtue than is the Brahmanical dharma, which generally has a legalistic ring and is tied to the maintenance of caste prerogatives. Furthermore, Buddhism offers more in the theory and technique of organization than does Brahmanism. The coordination of missionary activities, the preservation of Buddhist tradition and dhamma, and the supervision of discipline were functions of the monastic community known as the Sangha. The only distinction recognized among the monks was seniority, and resolutions, to carry, had to have the consent of all present (on rare occasions the majority principle was employed). Although it was a self-governing and democratic body, the Sangha had no power to prescribe new laws that contradicted the precepts of the founder.

In searching for reasons to explain the growing influence of such heterodox systems as Buddhism and Jainism at this time, we may speculate that with the waning of tribal institutions and with the appearance of new forms of economic production and political organization, the salvation religions might be viewed as substitutes for the lost reservoir of psychic strength. It is not that a sense of loneliness or impotence was felt on a conscious level, for there is no precise moment when the kinship role is replaced by the occupational role. But before expectations, roles, and controls were integrated (caste was not yet sufficiently advanced to serve this function), the sharpened sense of guilt which accompanied the relaxing of clan and tribal authorities may have produced a tormenting uneasiness and “self-consciousness.” It remained for the new religions to turn this estrangement to positive ends. Buddhism encouraged the internalization of controls, and this development in itself must have helped ease the transition from one type of external authority to another—preventing, if we are right in our speculation, a greater reliance on arbitrary force.

Also, in the absence of a “correspondence theory” which projects political events into the cosmic order, such activities are confined to the area of human relationships, and political innovation is less apt to be discouraged. Despite the explicit goals of Buddhism, a consequence of the radical shift in cosmological symbohzation would conceivably be the justification of secular ends as legitimate in their own right. A clearly perceived tension between sacred and profane could produce either the spirit of world renunciation and asceticism or the frank acceptance of the contrary demands of the two levels of existence. And when salvation became more distinctly a private affair, the state was allowed a freer scope for its activities than was possible in the era of braūhman supremacy.

Perhaps most apparent is the opportunity that heterodoxy provided the ruling class to free itself of priestly influence. The Buddhist emperor Aśoka (c. 270-232 B.C.) interpreted dhamma broadly so that it provided the basis of a civic code that amounted to a rejection of the sacrificial cult of the braūhmans and the inequities it justified. Although the policy pronouncements that remain in the form of rock and pillar inscriptions indicate that Aśoka was always careful to avoid antagonizing the priests directly, his heterodox sympathies threatened the traditional balance of power. When the state combined Braūhma and ksatra in its own authority it approached a self-legitimating caesaropapism. Thus there existed the opportunity for religion to become the instrument of government. In the first “pillar edict” we learn that it was sometimes necessary for Aśoka’s religious agents to “persuade” those who wandered from the true path.

Hindu thought

Portions of the great heroic epic the Mahaūbhaūrata were influenced by Saūnkhya doctrine—perhaps the most important philosophical influence on the development of early Hinduism—before the epic was revised to conform with Vedanta teaching, a system more congenial to the priestly group. The atheistic and rationalist Sankhya philosophic system, of ancient origin but outside the Vedic tradition, shares certain features with Buddhism, such as the belief in the “constant becoming” of the world and a conception of life as suffering. But the Saūnkhya of the Mahaūbhaūrata embraces a concept of God, who is the expression of the highest excellence. Many of the incidents in the Mahabharata refer back to the remote Vedic period, but the major brahman modifications and additions probably date from the second and first centuries B.C. In the most famous section of the work, the Bhagavad Gūtaū, Krishna, the divine charioteer of the warrior-prince Arjuna, seeks to convince the ksatriya of the need to fulfill his caste obligations. Arjuna, who had lost conviction in his motives for fighting, returns to the battle confident of the importance of upholding dharma. The Giūtaū offers an alternative to the world-renouncing ideal of the monk; worldly activity is valued as long as it is not motivated by selfish desire. Caste gains in religious significance in such a philosophy, while simultaneously the promise of salvation is offered to every man who leads a life of detachment and devotion to God. The ksatriya was always more the hero than the achiever, and in this sense the ideal depicted in the philosophic poem is not a radical departure from the traditional figure of the knight. The knight has been civilized and his energies turned to the larger purposes of the community, but it remained for Kautilya and the Arthasastra theorists to emphasize achievement and to declare that artha (material gain) was a fundamental principle of society and essential to the building of an empire.

The Śaūnti Parvan, the twelfth book of the epic, is the major source of political commentary in the Mahaūbhaūrata. The subject of this didactic book is niūti, the science of worldly pursuit. We are told that at first dharma kept everything in its place, but the shadow of greed and lust eventually fell across the land. The resultant condition of anarchy (maūtsyanyaūya, the “law of the fishes”—what we might describe as the law of the jungle) is disorder of Hobbesian proportions. The account of the origin of kingship that follows contains justifications of authority in terms of function, heredity, subordination to the brahmans, and finally, divinity itself. The authority of the ruler is exalted in these passages, for “when the science of politics (chastisement) is neglected, the Vedas and all virtues decline.” Taxes were considered the king’s remuneration for protecting and furthering the interests of his people. But in taxing his subjects the king must resemble the subtle leech and the gentle cowherd, extracting the necessary revenue without destroying initiative.

The Arthaśaūstra writings

The Mahaūbhaūrata mentions a number of schools of Arthaśaūstra doctrine, and the names of previous writers (some as early as the fifth century B.C.) agree with those found in the Arthasastra of Kautilya. In the earlier stages of its history the science of politics was termed raūjadharma, but when the study was broadened to include both politics and economics, it came to be called arthasastra, (In treatises which emphasize that fear of retribution is the real basis of order, the term dandaniti is sometimes employed.) Most political thought assumed the existence of a monarchical form of government, and politics was accordingly defined as the science of kingship. The Arthaśaūstra texts were intended as guides for the king and his ministers, and they included such subjects as public administration, economic regulation, foreign policy, techniques of warfare, and civil law. The most important of these works, and the earliest we have, is the treatise generally attributed to Kautilya, the minister of the first Mauryan emperor.

Kautilya is not primarily concerned with broad political speculation on the origin and nature of the state (India provides no philosophical text that can be compared with the major theoretical works of Europe), and his originality is not to be found in the realm of abstraction. The treatise is, as its author explains, a compendium and summary of earlier Arthasastra writings. Of the three ends of human life—virtue, wealth, and enjoyment—Kautilya assigns first importance to wealth, but he is always aware of the instrumental value of religion and ethical norms in preserving the structure of society. He allows the king to determine for himself what shall have the sanction of law, although the Vedas are accepted as sources of dharma, and statute law must be compatible with the sacred texts. Despite the significance he attaches to the role of the king, Kautilya is pragmatic in his approach and would give priority to that component of sovereignty which happens to be of most consequence at any particular time. In Indian theory sovereignty was usually thought to contain seven elements: the king, the ministers, the populace, the fort, the treasury, the army, and the ally. (The same catalogue may be found in the Kamandaūklya, the Sukranltisaūra and the Manu-Smrti.) The theory, in which diplomacy is made an integral part of politics, is intended to show the necessary conditions for the effective functioning of the state.

The Arthaśaūstra leaves the reader with the impression that its author is little concerned with ethical considerations. Political expedience had been a characteristic of the Arthasastra tradition, and in such works as the Santi Parvan right is equated with might in a world in which the stronger live upon the weaker. Kautilya usually recommends unscrupulous tactics only against those who would subvert the social order, and he is aware that power, if not restrained in its use, can be destructive of itself. The author of the Arthasastra was sensitive to the economic bases of power and opposed any decentralizing tendency that would weaken the control of the state over the economic life of society. Yet the state should not seek to eliminate the independent group life of the community. The caste structure was accepted as long as the general well-being was not prejudiced by narrow class prerogatives. The Arthasastra represents an important step in the direction of authority based on the interests of all. The king was advised to see no interest other than the interest of his subjects. However, Kautilya also makes clear that prosperity rests on the good will of the people and that the power of the state depends on wealth. This conception of authority must necessarily include many functions previously reserved to institutions that were not considered political. The scope of political authority, then, was markedly broadened, and in the literature of this period we begin to read such statements as “the king is maker of his age.”

The Nūtisaūra of Kamandaka, usually placed in the Gupta period (fourth or fifth century a.d.), is essentially an abridgment of the Arthaśaūstra, although the later writer neglects a number of subjects that Kautilya obviously believed of great importance. Two-thirds of the Kamandaklya Nitisara relates to foreign policy and the conduct of hostilities.

All the literature that has been considered thus far was produced in northern India, and, except for Buddhist writings, in Sanskrit. The contributions of Tamil and other south Indian writers are now beginning to receive more attention. Perhaps the most important work produced in the south (broadly contemporaneous with the Niūtisaūra) was the Tlrukkural (KuraJ) of Tiruvajluvar, which also owes much to Kautilya. Several Jaina texts can be classed among the Arthaśaūstra writings. Such authors as Hemacandra (twelfth century a.d.) were willing to allow the ethical standards of their religion to inform political life, but generally they can be contrasted with authors of Buddhist canonical works, who demanded the subordination of politics to ethics and held in contempt the “ksatriya science.”

The last great comprehensive political study of the ancient Hindus, the Śukraniūtisaūra (probably ninth to thirteenth century a.d.), though a smaller work than the Arthaśaūstra, is wider in scope. It is as much a moral treatise as it is a political one: the great attention to the moral norms necessary for regulating conduct prevents a sharp distinction between politics and ethics. Probably the dearth of comment regarding the origins of state and government must be taken to mean that the author of the text considered the state as having existed in some form from earliest time, being the product of human needs. Sukra, like Kautilya, is concerned with the actual mechanism of government, the organization of power, and the theory of empire. The usual seven components of sovereignty are elaborated, but Sukra introduces an analogy to the human body, which has led some students of the work to describe it as an organic theory of the state. The ministers have an important place in this theory; they were to be consulted on all questions of policy. Their recommendations must be accepted by the king. By the time of Sukra eight ministers constituted the standard council. With the possible exception of the minister of religion and the crown prince, the roster is not greatly different from modern cabinets. Public officials were to be chosen on the basis of character and accomplishment: circumstances of birth were of less importance to Sukra than to other theorists.

The Dharma Saūśtra writings

Whereas the Arthasastra literature introduces inductive reasoning and a greater realism into political thought, the Dharma Sastras are essentially deductive in nature. In the first centuries a.d. the prose Dharma Sutra texts were reworked in verse form, and the social and religious regulations of the orthodox brahman culture were systematized. These codes are accepted as authentic guides to law, custom, and duty. Through the centuries they achieved a stature comparable to that of the Vedic hymns, although it is not possible to say whether any of the law codes were deliberately employed as regulations backed by coercive sanctions. The Manu-Smrti is the oldest and most famous of the Dharma Sastras; it is usually regarded as the most authoritative work on Hindu law. In defining sacred law, the treatise includes, in addition to the sacred tradition, individual conscience and the example of virtuous men. Allowance must be made for local custom, and past usage must be considered in the settling of legal disputes. The king is understood to be divinely created and ordained to protect the people from a barbarous state of nature, but the absolutism of the European divine right argument is not found in the conception. The king embodies the virtues of eight deities; his authority is derived from the divine nature of his office and the significance of his crucial role in the preservation of the social order, as well as from the supernatural origin of his person. It goes without saying that such characterizations of kingship as we find in the Manu-Smrti and the Mahabharata are compatible only with hereditary kingship. Caste distinctions are also made the product of divine decree as well as the result of social necessity. Brahman superiority is described and justified in the most extravagant terms. In the Manu-Smrti and most of the law books, punishment increased in severity as social status diminished.

A basic tenet of Hindu political thought was the belief that the king must regard himself not as the creator of the law but only as its guardian. The Narada-Smrti is an exception. In this work the royal decree is regarded as legitimate in its own right. Perhaps the most authoritarian of Indian writers, Narada demands that the king be obeyed whether right or wrong in his actions. However, from about the third century B.C. there seems to have developed a growing appreciation of the need to relate law and tradition to changing social conditions. This awareness can be seen in the Dharma Sastra work attributed to Yajnavalkya. In that work and in the codes of other legal authorities it is argued that the edict must harmonize with customary and sacred law and that departures from the original rajadharma must be carefully controlled. Judicial offices were generally to be filled by brahmans, since no man could be judged by one who was not at least his social equal and since the sin involved in the crime must also be judged. The earliest court was likely the king’s palace, but by the time of the Dharma Sastras complexities of judicial administration necessitated formal institutions of a more specialized nature. There existed a regular procedure for appeal from lower to higher courts.

The political commentary of the Dharma Sastras is similar to that of the Arthasastra writers and requires little further discussion here. Tax revenue was seen as the king’s rightful due in return for the security he provided. Concern for social stability induced some of the legal theorists to elaborate rules of statecraft with Kautilyan candor, but usually (as in Yajnavalkya) military action was to conform to a code of conduct. The technique of the power balance was understood, and alliances were considered among the major assets of the state. In Hindu political theory, diplomacy is constructed on the interrelationships within a group of states, all neatly described in terms of their probable effect on the fortunes of the home state. This theory (mandala) is based on the assumption that the king, by nature, aspires to conquest and that his neighbor is his enemy. The natural ally is the kingdom on the opposite frontier of the enemy.

The Puraūnas

The Puranas, compendia of ancient legends and lore covering a wide variety of topics, in their present form belong to the first seven or eight centuries a.d. Again we are reminded of the fundamental importance of punishment in preserving dharma. In these texts, as in others, there is no place for the right of resistance. The problem of individual rights as opposed to the right of the state does not arise in ancient Hindu theory—except, possibly, with reference to brahman immunities. The king is advised to be neither mild nor harsh in dealing with his subjects and to exert his authority to bring about their full spiritual and material development. If he fulfills his duty he is entitled to a sixth part of the merit earned by his people.

Modern thought

There are Arthaśaūstra works, including several Jaina commentaries, which belong to the period following the decline of the Gupta regime, but few writers go beyond apology and justification and, as was true also of earlier theory, there is little attention to defenses of the individual against the pressures of society. Nor did the centuries of the sultanate contribute much to the heritage of Indian political philosophy, except, perhaps, for the area of legal theory. In Islamic thought the law, which is based on revealed principles, is the arbiter of the struggle which rages in man’s own soul and which constitutes a potential threat to the stability of society. The significance of the protective role of the monarch in this theory led certain theorists, Abu-l Fazl among them, to depict the king as the chosen instrument of God. Such an exaltation of royal authority left little place for popular participation in selecting rulers and determining policy.

The nationalist movement

With the attempts of the Marathas and Sikhs in the seventeenth century to throw off the foreign power, political theory enjoyed a temporary revival, but it was not until the nationalist movement of the nineteenth century that political literature acquired more than a fragmentary form and political argument was organized around fundamental problems of obligation and the proper scope and ends of political power. The majority of the theorists who supported reform legislation or self-government based their positions on Western ideas, without wishing to abandon elements of the Indian tradition.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy (d. 1833) believed that the ancient ideals of India could be restored by removing “the senseless accretions that had defiled [dharma] in later years.”

G. K. Gokhale (d. 1915) located the roots of India’s misfortunes not in foreign imperialism but in the traditional society; he described England’s involvements in India as a “providential arrangement.” England, he argued, possessed components of character—freedom and self-assertion—that complemented those of India. These were qualities necessary to training for eventual self-government within the empire. Toward this end he established, in 1905, the Servants of India Society, which worked to inspire a commitment to the nation (a goal implying the idea of one nationality), to organize the political education of the people, and to encourage economic development and the improvement of the condition of the depressed classes.

Gokhale and the moderates, who had dominated the Indian National Congress since its inception in 1885, confined their political agitation to constitutional methods, but Bal Gangadhar Tilak (d. 1920) and his followers proposed civil disobedience and insisted that political independence must precede reform. Although he provided no elaborate program of social reconstruction, it was Tilak more than any other figure who popularized the nationalist movement. This he accomplished through a frankly revivalist appeal, which directed religious sentiments into a movement with strong political ramifications. The restoration of Hindu orthodoxy, not liberal and democratic ideals, constituted his primary objective.


Mohandas K. Gandhi (d. 1948) is, of course, the towering figure of modern Indian history and of modern Indian political theory, although his thought is often the response to a practical need and does not assume the form of an elegantly constructed treatise. Gandhi employed traditional concepts and symbols but without hesitation introduced interpretations and ideas foreign to Indian culture that evince the importance of Western humanism in his approach. He opposed Western technology on the grounds that the machine civilization brought with it the exploitation of men and the concentration of power. Here he followed Tolstoi, whose writings, with those of Thoreau and others, he studied while in South Africa. He described his twenty years there as a time of experiment—the trying out of different modes of political action and different types of political program. The influence of Gokhale on his thought is readily apparent, as is the impact of the strand of Indian nationalist political thought represented by Tilak. These influences are seen in Gandhi’s attempt to redirect religious individualism and his emphasis on native languages and the Swadeshi principle. Swadeshi puts first those duties nearest us in space and time: it is “that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote.” Humanity is served through service to our neighbor; our understanding of the world is only the understanding we have of those with whom we live.

This argument has major economic implications: those things produced at home are to be preferred. Its extension, the use of the boycott, is another legacy of Tilak. According to Gandhi, reconstruction begins at the local level, and the village is the basis of social planning. Village activity and an individual’s effort and initiative are stressed in his writings and speeches. He invariably favored small-scale organization and the use of simple tools and materials at hand. His campaign for the use of only hand-spun and hand-woven cloth (khadar) was of central importance to the larger program, and it was the spinning wheel that Gandhi chose as the symbol of social freedom. His ideas on land reform were radical, but he did not call for the abolition of private property. He hoped, rather, that the propertied class could be persuaded to accept the ideal of economic equality: the idea of wealth held in trust for the poor would make expropriation by legislative enactment unnecessary. Gandhi argued that the accumulation of riches beyond a man’s legitimate requirements is akin to theft. This additional wealth must be used for the welfare of the community. Gandhi also insisted on the importance of physical labor for everyone—what he called bread-labor. Constructive work, which he considered an essential part of civil disobedience and other political action, included also the removal of untouchability (which ranked with the spread of khadar as a goal of critical significance to the movement), communal unity (here he is closer to Gokhale than to Tilak), and basic education through the knowledge of a craft. In learning a necessary craft the young person not only acquires a skill but also intensifies his bonds with the community and thus comes to an understanding of purposes.

Gandhian philosophy postulates a universe very different from that governed by the law of the fish. History is as much the record of harmonious adjustment as it is the story of conflict. The technique for adjusting and reconciling differences, a method on which Mahatma Gandhi’s fame must ultimately rest, assumes the moral potential of the wrongdoer, the possibility of reasonableness in the adversary. In his political theory Gandhi concentrated on the means of achieving political ends to a degree uncommon in the history of Western thought. If there is a single theme in his philosophy it is that the character of the means determines that of the results. As one student of Gandhi has remarked, “It is only when means themselves are understood to be—and designed to be—more than instrumental, to be, in fine, creative, that the next step will be taken in the evolve-ment of a constructive philosophy of conflict” (Bondurant 1958, p. 232).

The crucial element of this theory is ahimsa—“action based on the refusal to do harm.” Ahimsa is first mentioned in the Chandogya Upanisad as one of the five ethical qualities, and it was later associated particularly with Jainism. In modern India Jainism is strongest in Gandhi’s native Gujarat. (In medieval India, it should be noted, the idea of nonviolence was influential but was never taken to mean the proscription of either war or capital punishment.) Not only is physical injury to be avoided, according to Gandhi, but one’s tactics may not even seek to embarrass the adversary. The first step in resolving differences is to emphasize interests that the parties to the conflict share, or to formulate interests that they might conceivably share, and to attempt to establish cooperation on this basis. Issues must be made as simple as possible so that difficulties are not further aggravated by misunderstandings. Gandhi believed that there were always common purposes, but he did not believe that compromise—in which each side makes concessions so as to reach agreement—was the means for arriving at these purposes. Only when principles were not involved should compromise be employed as a technique. Instead of reducing demands, a program for resolving conflict should aim at bringing about a new and higher level of adjustment which would prove mutually satisfactory.

Satyagraha (“holding on to truth”) envisages the possibility of conversion, the possibility that a sense of justice may be awakened in the opponent. Satyagraha moves from rational persuasion to the stage of suffering (which is intended to encourage an openness to rational argument) to the stage of what is sometimes called nonviolent coercion. This last form, which includes noncooperation and civil disobedience, is the final resort when the other forms have not succeeded. Civil disobedience, the most drastic phase, was understood by Gandhi as a higher obedience—obedience to a transcendent moral law. It can be a dangerous instrument and readily misused; Gandhi always advised great caution—as in the instance of the fast, which too drastically limits the alternatives available to the opponent and therefore should be undertaken only by those disciplined in the methods of satyagraha. He wished to distinguish nonviolent forms of resisting evil, which are usually forms of passive resistance (and often intent on harassment), from satyagraha, which forsakes the courting of injury. Fasting, he thought, may easily become a type of passive resistance. Yet in a choice between cowardice and slavery on the one hand and the use of violence on the other, Gandhi was unambiguous in recommending violence. [Seecivil disobedience.]

Ahimsa is not the highest good: it is the necessary condition of truth. Truth is supreme among values. Truth is destroyed by violence, and our inability to know the truth with absolute certainty requires us to be tolerant of those who disagree with us. Gandhi has said that satyagraha does not permit the use of violence because the absolute truth cannot be known by man, and for this reason he is not competent to punish others. Here Gandhi spoke as a relativist, arguing that loyalty to truth rules out fixed modes of thought and action. But it can be said that the most sublime truth is the sa-credness and unity of life.

Satyagraha has inspired the mass of the population as few ideas have been able to do. In the movement led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan satyagraha acquired Muslim overtones, but its objective remained political independence and social reform. Gandhi was reluctant to speculate on the nature of a government based on nonviolence, but it is clear that the sense of community aroused in the people by satyagraha would be the basis of the new polity. Democracy, or self-government, meant independence of controls—whether those exercised by a foreign power or those of a centralized national government. The ideals of the anarchist could never be fully realized, Gandhi admitted, but state intervention in the conduct of human affairs could be considerably reduced if the democratic state were in actual fact a federation of village communities in which voluntary associations flourished, rights flowed from the fulfillment of obligations, and a high degree of self-sufficiency made possible the relative autonomy of each village.

More recently, Vinoba Bhave urged that the coercive power of the state be replaced by direct, voluntary action on the part of the people. The Sarvodaya movement, under the leadership of Bhave, held that the good of one man is inseparable from the good of others; in his efforts to translate this idea into an economic reform program, Bhave invoked the Gandhian theory of the trusteeship of wealth. Millions of acres of land have been turned over to landless peasants, but the revolution has come “from above” and not as the consequence of direct efforts of the people to solve their own problems.

Bhave, like Gandhi before him, insisted that the only change that endures is that which rests on the conversion of men to principles of truth, selflessness, and nonviolence—principles which guard against the subordination of means to ends and which have their dramatic statement in the lives and aphorisms of the ancient teachers.

Charles drekmeier

[See alsoasian society, article onsouth asia; BUDDHISM; hinduism; and the biography ofkautilya.]


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