Dharmaśāstra-s: Theory and Practice — Local Self-Government, and Elections in Ancient India

India's was unique in its idea of self-governance in village communities where people from all spheres of life had a say while candidates needed to be supremely learned and in tune with the Dharmaśāstra-s to contest for positions.

Dharmaśāstra-s: Theory and Practice — Local Self-Government, and Elections in Ancient India

The subject of local self-government in ancient India is of both historical and practical — if not political — interest. Village communities of ancient India were centers of administration and custodians of social harmony. In the face of ruinous political usurpations of cataclysmic proportions, it was the complex and intricate system of local government that safeguarded the integrity and independence of Hindu society. In the words of Sir Charles Metcalfe,

“The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything that they want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds to revolution; Hindoo, Pathan, Moghul, Mahratta, Sikh, English are all masters in turn, but the village communities remain the same. In times of trouble, they arm and fortify themselves: a hostile army passes through the country: the village communities collect their cattle within their walls and let the enemy pass unprovoked. If plunder and devastation are directed against themselves, and the force employed be irresistible, they flee to friendly villages at a distance; but when the storm has passed over, they return and resume their occupations. If a country remains for a series of years the scene of continued pillage and massacre, so that the villages cannot be inhabited, the scattered villagers nevertheless return whenever the power of peaceable possession revives. A generation may pass away, but the succeeding generation will return. The sons will take the places of their fathers; the same site for the village, the same positions for the houses, the same lands, will be reoccupied by the descendants of those who were driven out when the village was depopulated; and it is not a trifling matter that will drive them out, for they will often maintain their post through times of disturbance and convulsion, and acquire strength sufficient to resist pillage and oppression wit h success”.    (Mookerji 1958:2)

We can see a similar sentiment echoed in the words of Sir George Birdwood:

“India has undergone more religious and political revolutions than any other country in the world; but the village communities remain in full municipal vigor all over the peninsula. Scythian, Greek, Saracen, Afghan, Mongol, and Maratha have come down from its mountains, and Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, and Dane up out of its seas, and set up their successive dominations in the land; but the religious trades-union villages have remained as little affected by their coming and going as a rock by the rising and falling of the tide”.    (Mookerji 1958:2)

Because of their proximity to the governed communities, these local village-administrative units adhered to the notion of direct democracy (not representative democracy); and therefore, the common man had great prospects of a good and healthy life. If today, the common man appears indifferent to the State, it is because he cannot (directly) participate in the policies that contribute to his betterment. Contrarily, ancient Indian village-governing bodies included ‘citizen participation’ in political processes and ‘service delivery’ of local public goods like potable drinking water, general sanitation, primary health, elementary education, maintenance of public properties etc. Therefore, it balanced the two values of ‘citizen participation’ and ‘service delivery’, the basic goals of decentralised democracy envisaged in the Report of Balvantray Mehta Study Team (1957) and the subsequent 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India. The Amendment arguably envisions citizen participation within service delivery. The spirit echoes the following expression:

“removal of various sources of unfreedom, poverty as well tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance of over-activity of repressive states”    (Sen 1999:3)

Local village-assemblies oversaw all the affairs of the concerned village including disputes and apportioned taxes, and their deliberations had the great sanction of religion and custom (Drummond 1937).  All their deliberations were conducted in the presence of those who attended the meetings, and throughout the procedures, the reactions of the audience were registered and bore influence (Tinker 1954). Village assemblies were usually headed by the village headman — he was called grāmaṇi in Vedic literature[i]grāmika or grāmeyaka in northern India, and mununda in the eastern Deccan, grāmukūṭa or paṭṭakīla in Maharashtra, gāvuṇḍa in Karnataka and mahattaka or mahantaka in U. P. and so on. According to the Śukranīti, the grāmaṇi[ii] was like a father and mother to the villagers[iii].

The village primary assembly (mahājana) comprised of all the respectable householders of the village. Innumerable inscriptions from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu show that the number of these members of mahājana-s was sizable — often 200, 420, 500, sometimes even 1002. Such a large body required an executive committee for administration purposes. The direction to the constitution of this council can be seen in the different Dharmaśāstra-s. For example, according to the Manusmṛti,

“Whatever an assembly, consisting either of at least ten, or of at least three persons who follow their prescribed occupations, declares to be law, the legal (force of) that one must not dispute. Three persons who each know one of the three principal Vedas, a logician, a mimāṁsaka, one who knows the Nirukta, one who recites (the Institutes of) the sacred law, and three men belonging to the first three orders shall constitute a (legal) assembly, consisting of at least ten members. One who knows the Ṛgveda, one who knows the Yajurveda, and one who knows the Sāmaveda, shall be known (to form) an assembly consisting of at least three members (and competent) to decide doubtful points of law. Even that which one brāhmin versed in the Veda declares to be law, must be considered (to have) supreme legal (force, but) not that which is proclaimed by myriads of ignorant men. Even if thousands of brāhmins, who have not fulfilled their sacred duties, are unacquainted with the Veda, and subsist only by the name of their caste, meet, they cannot (form) an assembly (for settling the sacred law).”   (Manusmṛti 12. 110-14)                                                                           

According to the Gautama,

“An assembly (pariśad, shall consist) at least (of the ten following (members, viz.) four men who have completely studied the four Vedas, three men belonging to the (three) orders enumerated first, (and) three men who know (three) different (institutes of) law. But on failure of them the decision of one śrotriya, who knows the Veda and is properly instructed (in the duties, shall be followed) in doubtful cases.”     (Gautamasūtra XXVIII.49-50)

Baudhāyana states,

“Four men, who each know one of the four Vedas, a mīmāṁsaka, one who knows the aṅga-s, one who recites (the works on) the sacred law, and three brāhmins belonging to (three different) orders, (constitute) an assembly consisting, at least, of ten members. There may be five, or there may be three, or there may be one blameless man, who decides (questions regarding) the sacred law. But a thousand fools (can) not (do it). As an elephant made of wood, as an antelope made of leather, such is an unlearned brāhmin: those three having nothing but the name (of their kind).”      (Baudhāyana

According to Bṛhaspati, “Honest persons, acquainted with the Vedas and with duty, able, self-controlled, sprung from noble families, and skilled in every business, shall be appointed as heads (of an assembly)” [XVII. 9]. Again, “Two, three, or five persons shall be appointed to look after the welfare of the assembly” [XVII. 10].  These executive officers were called samūha-hita-vādinaḥ and kārya-cintakāḥ. According to Yājñavalkya, these governors should be well-grounded in religion (as embodied in the śrutisand smṛtis), pure in body and mind, and free from avarice [II. 191]. They were entitled to the obedience of the members of the corporation. The king was required to enforce their authority by penalty, and the disobedient member was fined. But their authority thus binding on the assembly was also respected by the king himself. As Bṛhaspati states, “Whatever is done by those (heads of an association) . . . must be approved by the king as well, for they are declared to be the appointed managers (of affairs)” [XVII. 18].

What the sūtra and smṛiti literature prescribed was confirmed in practice. Prof R. Nagaswamy, the renowned archaeologist, epigraphist and art expert of South India, has demonstrated the coherence between the injunctions of Dharmaśastra-s and the ground-realities in ancient India, and in Tamil Nadu in particular. He has used two inscriptions: the Manūr inscription of Pāṇḍya Varaguṇa[iv], and the Uttaramerūr inscription of Parantaka Chola to illustrate the same[v].

Uttaramerūr, which has a 1,250-year history, is situated in the district of Kanchipuram. It was established by the Pallava king Nandivarman II in approx 750 A.D. Subsequently, it was ruled by the Pallavas, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Sambuvarayars, the Vijayanagara Rayas, and the Nayaks. It has three important temples — the Sundara Varadarāja Perumāḷ temple, the Subramanya temple, and the Kailāsanātha temple — all of which possess a great number of inscriptions, particularly dating to the reigns of Raja Raja Chola (985-1014 A.D.), his son Rajendra Chola, and the Vijayanagar emperor, Krishnadeva Raya.  

The entire village is constructed according to the canons of the āgama texts, and accordingly, it has a village-assembly maṇḍapa at its centre. The three temples of the village are oriented towards the maṇḍapa. There are two 10th C.E inscriptions in the Perumāl temple which throw clear light on the system of village-administration in ancient India.  Prof Nagaswamy remarks,

“This inscription, dated around 920 A.D. in the reign of Parantaka Chola [907-955 A.D] is an outstanding document in the history of India. It is a veritable written constitution of the village assembly that functioned 1,000 years ago. The inscription gives astonishing details about the constitution of wards, the qualification of candidates standing for elections, the disqualification norms, the mode of election, the constitution of committees with elected members, the functions of those committees, the power to remove the wrongdoer, etc…  But it is on the walls of the village assembly (maṇḍapa) itself that we have the earliest inscriptions with complete information about how the elected village assembly functioned.”

The primary assembly of Uttaramerūr was known as a sabha in the case of agrahāra-s and ūr in the case of ordinary villages.  It consisted of all the residents of that particular village. Its meeting was usually summoned by the beating of the drum — and when the drum was beat, the entire village — including infants — had to be present at the maṇḍapa; only the sick and those who were away on pilgrimage were exempt.

The most important aim of the assembly was to elect the executive committee. Accordingly, there were six important executive committees:

  1. Annual Committee (samvatsara-vāriyam): it was the most important, influential of all the committees. It had 12 members, and the election of this committee preceded that of all other committees. And only those who had (previously) been on the “garden committee” and on the “tank committee”, could be chosen for the “annual committee”.
  2. Garden Committee: It had 12 members
  3. Tank Committee: It had six members. Their duty included the maintenance of tanks, irrigation, levying of tank taxes and utilizing the funds so collected for the same purpose. The committee also had to de-silt the village tanks once in three months and strengthen the tank bunds by widening and raising its height. The sluices and overflow channels were to be maintained properly.
  4. Gold Committee (pon vāriyam): Its primary work was to test gold by rubbing it against a touchstone. Usage of rough stones were strictly prohibited because that would lead to greater loss of gold while rubbing. The committee members were expected to recover the gold dust from the touchstone at the end of each day and deposit it with the village assembly. Once in three months, they were obliged to go before the village assembly and swear that they had not committed any fraud in the testing. It was well known that people were so proud of their oaths and sworn statements that they would sacrifice their life rather than break their own sworn statements.
  5. Pañcha-vāra Committee: It had six members, and it supervised the five committees (pañcka-vāra) of the village.
  6. Committee for supervision of justice: It was formed to supervise the justice or fairness of the annual elections of the various committees. Thus, this committee convened the annual meeting of the assembly and conducted the elections of the various committees whenever they were necessitated  

The most astonishing detail that the Uttaramerūr inscription furnishes is the process of secret-ballot election (kudav olai) of the said committee members. R. Nagaswamy remarks,

“The village assembly of Uttaramerur drafted the constitution for the elections. The salient features were as follows: the village was divided into 30 wards, one representative elected for each. Specific qualifications were prescribed for those who wanted to contest. The essential criteria were age limit, possession of immovable property, and minimum educational qualification. Those who wanted to be elected should be above 35 years of age and below 70. Only those who owned land that attracted tax could contest elections. Another stipulation, Dr. was that such owners should possess a house built on a legally owned site (not on public poromboke). A person serving in any of the committees could not contest again for the next three terms, each term lasting a year. Elected members who accepted bribes, misappropriated others’ property, committed incest, or acted against the public interest suffered disqualification.”

Accordingly, Uttaramerūr, a village of 12 streets, was divided into 30 wards/electoral units for the purpose of elections. A meeting-point was designated in each ward where the residents were to assemble when the drum called for elections. When thus assembled, each resident was to write down on a ticket the name of the person he wished to vote for. When this was done, all the tickets of a ward were filled into a packet — thus, there were 30 packets for each of the 30 wards. Each packet bore the name of its ward on its “covering ticket”. All the 30 packets were then put into a pot (kudam) (இபன்னிரண்டு சேரியிலுமாக இக்குடும்பும் வெவ்வேறே வாயோலை பூட்டி முப்பது குடும்பும் வெவ்வேறே கட்டிக்குடம் புக இடுவதாகவும் ) and placed before the mahājana/sabhā i.e. the village assembly in the maṇḍapa. One of the young boys (who did not know what was inside the packet) was then called to pick out one of the packets. The tickets in this packet were then “transferred to another (empty) pot and shaken”, i.e. shuffled thoroughly. The boy then drew one ticket out of the pot and made it over to the arbitrator (madhyasthā) (பகலே யந்திர மறையாதானொரு பாலனைக் கொண்டு ஒரு குடும்பு வாங்கி மற்றொரு குடத்துகே புகவிட்டுக் குலைத்து அக்குடத்திலோரோலை வாங்கி மத்யஸ்தன் கையிலே குடுப்பதாகவும்). While taking charge of the ticket thus given to him, the arbitrator received it on the palm of his hand with the five fingers open (அக்குடத்த வோலை மத்தியஸ் தன வாங்கும்போது அஞ்சு விரலும் அகல வைத்த உள்ளங்கையாலே ஏற்றுக் கொள்வானா கவும்). He then read out the name on the ticket thus received (அவ்வேற்று வாங்கின வோலை வாசிப்பானாகவும்). The ticket thus read by him was also read out by all the purohita-s present in the inner hall (வாசித்த அவ்வோலை அங்குள் மண்டகத்திருந்த தம்பிமார் எல்லோரும் வாசிப்பாராகவும்). The name thus read out was then put down (and accepted). 30 names were thus chosen, one representing each of the 30 wards. Such a method gave no scope for canvassing and other electioneering methods of doubtful utility and ethical value. The conditions of eligibility were a sufficient safeguard against the election of an undesirable person, and the necessary eliminations they involved would leave no chance of producing any undesirable result. The following qualifications were to be possessed by a member to be eligible for nomination by his ward, viz.

(1) He must own more than a quarter of tax-paying land (காணிலத்துக்கு மேல் இறை நிலமுடையான்);

(2) He must live in a house built on his own site (தன் மனையிலே அகம் மெடுத்துக் கொண்டிருப்பானை);

 (3) His age must be below 70 and above 35 (எழுபது பிராயத்தின் கீழ் முப்பத்தைந்து பிராயத்தின் மேற்ப்பட்டார்);

(4) He must know the mantra-brāhmaṇa, i.e. he must know (the Veda)  by teaching (மந்த்ர பிராமணம் வல்லான் ஒதுவித்தறிவானைக்);  

(5) If he owns only 1/8th of land, he must be proficient in one Veda and one of the four bhāṣya-s   by explaining (it to others) (அரக்கா நிலமே யுடையனாயிலும் ஒரு வேதம் வல்லனாய் நாலு பாஷ்யத்திலும்  ஒரு பாஷ்யம் வக காணித்தறிவான அவனையுங் குட வோலை எழுதிப் புக இடுவதாகவும்);

(6) He must be conversant with business (அவர்களிலும் கார்யத்தில் நிபுணராய் ஆகாரமு டையாரானாரை யேய் கொள்வதாகவும்);

(7) He must be virtuous, and his earnings must be honest (அர்த்த சௌசமும் ஆன்ம சௌசமும் உடையாராய்);

(8) He must not have been on any of the committees for three previous years (மூவாட்டினிப்புறம் வாரியஞ் செய்து கணக்குக் காட்டாதே இருந்தாரையும்);

The following were the factors that would affect an immediate disqualification of the candidate: 

(1) (a) Defaulting persons (i.e. those who have not submitted financial accounts) and their relations, however remote, who are thus specified, viz. (i) the sons of the younger and elder sisters of his mother (இவர்களுக்குத் தாயோடு உடப் பிறந்தானையும் = தாயின் சிறிய, பெரிய சகோதரிகளின் மக்கள்); (b) the sons of his paternal aunt and maternal uncle (அவர்களுக்கு அத்தை மாமன் மக்களையும்); (c) the uterine brother of his mother (மாமன்); (d) the uterine brother of his father (இவர்கள் தகப்பநோடுப் பிறந்தானையும்); (e) his uterine brother (இவர்களுக்குச் சிற்றனவர்); (f) his father-in-law (மாமனார்); (g) the uterine brother of his wife (பேரவ்வைக்களையும்); (h) the husband of his uterine sister (தன்னோடுப் பிறந்தாளை வோட்டானையும் = உடன் பிறந்தாளை திருமணம் செய்தவர்); (i) the sons of his uterine sister (உடப் பிறந்தாள் மக்களையும்); (j) the son-in-law who has married his daughter (தன மகளை வேட்ட மருமகனையும் = தன் மகளை மணம் புரிந்த மருமகன்); (k) his father (தன தமப்பனையும்); (l) his son (தன மகனையும்).

 (2). Incorrigible sinners and their relations, however remote viz. killing a brahmin; drinking intoxicating liquors; theft; adultery with the wife of one’s spiritual teacher, and associating with anyone guilty of these crimes (இடப்பெருதாராகவும், அகமியாகமனத்திலும் மகா பாதங்களில் முன் படைத்த நாலு மகா பாதகத்திலுமெழுத்துப் பட்டாரையும்)

(3) Outcasts until they perform the necessary expiatory ceremonies.

(4) Those who are mentally or morally disqualified.

(5) Those who have (i) taken forbidden dishes of any kind which is equivalent to drinking intoxicating liquor (கிராம கண்டகராய் ப்ராயஸ்சித்தஞ் செய்து சத்தரானாரையும்); (ii) become village priests ; (iii) committed incest; (iv) rode on an ass [which was a punishment for some offence, and hence implied a conviction disqualifying the candidate] ; (v) committed forgery

This inscription was inscribed on the 16th day of the fourteenth year of the king, Parantaka Chola (mudalam parantakanin padinankavatu āndu padinaram nāl).

Special qualifications were prescribed for the judges— and this is most evident in the Mānūr inscription: the judge to be elected should have at heart the village’s welfare, he should be proficient in Dharmaśāstra, he should not have served in any village administrative committee five years before their election, and once his tenure of five years is completed, he cannot be a judge for another five years. Furthermore, they were to pass an examination in legal texts to qualify as judges, they must be of sterling character, and must have studied at least one Veda. The judge should give accounts of the fines collected when he demits office. Judges were fined heavily (in gold) paid to the village assembly if they gave wrong rulings.

R. Nagaswamy’s contribution here is of particular importance. Every scholar who had previously dealt with the Mānūr inscription had taken its context to be the village assembly, but Prof. Nagaswamy showed that this was an inscription that dealt not with village assembly but the constitution of the law court of the village. He showed that the use of the words manru, and manrādutal were legal terminologies, and their constant reference to Dharmaśāstra-s drove the point home:

 “….the inscription could be interpreted from another angle namely ‘the constitution of the law court’ of the village. The use of words ‘Manru’ and ‘Manradutal’ in the inscription is a pointer in that direction. It is needless to say that all the inscriptions are ‘lekhya pramanas’, written documents and as such use legal terminology. The word manru, etc. frequently occurring in epigraphs is used in connection with the courts. Even in literature the word is used in the sense of court ‘dharmasana’ (Periyapuranam). From this angle the inscription of Manur assumes greater significance.”

Another significant point to be noted is the power of the village assemblies to amend the constitution. The village assembly had first met in the 12th year of king Parantaka Chola (918 A.D.) and drafted a constitution — it was brief and vague in certain areas. So, two years later, a more refined constitution (now under study) was drafted. It can clearly be seen that this later constitution is detailed, clear and shows certain amendments to the first one. Therefore, there was freedom to frame constitutions for elections to village assemblies, and such constitutions were written documents, drafted clause by clause with meticulous care, and when necessity arose, they could be amended to give fuller participation to all members and express themselves in the affairs of the administration.

Prof Nagaswamy remarks that in its entirety, the Uttaramerūr inscription shows how in every aspect of life the highest standard of democracy was enforced in the village – in complete correspondence to the Dharmaśāstra-s. It shows how the Chola ideal of democratic participation extended to a larger section of society, exerting at the same time constant vigil and scrupulous enforcement of the Law, without favors or prejudices[vi]. Prof. Nagaswamy calls this, “grass root democracy”. It is thus a perfect example of how the theory and practice of Dharmaśāstra-s were not divorced from one another.
References / Footnotes

De Souza, Peter R. (1999) “Democratic Decentralization of Power in India”, in D.D. Khanna and G.W. Kueck (eds) “Principles, Power and Politics”, New Delhi, Macmillan.

Drummond, J. H. (1937) Panchayats in India, Bombay.

Kane, P.V. (1941). History of Dharmaśāstra. Bhandarkar Oriental research institute, Pune

Government of India (1957): Report of the Team for the Study of Community Projects and National Extension Services, Vol. 2, Ministry of Community Development, New Delhi.

Mookerjee, Radha Kumud., (1958) Local Governemnt in Ancient India, Motilal Banarasidas, New Delhi.

Nagaswamy, R. (2016). Tamil Nadu: the Land of the Vedas. Chennai: Tamil Arts Academy.

Nagaswamy, R. (2003) Uttaramerur: the Historic Village in Tamil Nadu. Chennai: Tamil Arts Academy.

Nilkantha Sastri, K.A. (1932).  Studies in Cho/a History and Administration, Madras

Oppert, Gustav. (Ed.) (1882). Śukranītisāra. Vol. I. Madras: The Government Press.

Sen, Amartya. (1999). Development as Freedom. New Delhi: Oxford University Press

Tinker, Hugh. 1954. The Foundations of Local Self-Government in India, Pakistan and Burma, University of London, London, Athlone Press.

Venkayya, V. (1904). Uthiramerur Inscription, in Annual Report on Epigraphy. ASI.

[i] See, Kāṭhakasaṁhitā, viii, 4; xv, 4; Maitrayaṇīsaṁhitā, i, 6, 5. Taitt. Brāh., i, 1, 4, 8; 7, 3, 4. Śat. Brāh., v, 3, 1, 5

[ii] Most often, only one headman was allowed for a village.  Through the course of time, the post of headman became hereditary, and if, in an off-chance, the succession of the son was met with disapproval, the government could nominate another scion of the family. PV Kane wrote,

“It appears that from being a very high officer (a ratnin) in Vedic times, the gramani was reduced in his influence, came to be appointed by the king alone and the office became hereditary and could be given permanently”. (Kane  1941: 683)

[iii] Śukranīti. I. 11.343.

[iv] See section, “Vedic courts” in Tamil Nadu: Land of the Vedas(R. Nagaswamy, 2017)

[v] See R. Nagaswamy’s, Uttaramerur: The Historic Village in Tamil Nadu (2003)

[vi] The inscriptions of Raja Raja Chola II, (1150 CE) found in many parts of Tamil Nadu mention that the primary goal was for every individual in the country to lead a full, free, independent and happy life; a praśasti says, “ellorum tanitanniye vālntanam ena manam mahilndu

About Author: Manjushree Hegde

Manjushree is a Mechanical Engineer who decided to make a crossover to a serious study of Sanskrit and Indian culture. She has a post graduate degree in Sanskrit and is now working as a research scholar.

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