Ancient India

Pre Mauryan Period

The 6th century BC has left a permanent impression on Indian history because it witnessed the intense philosophical debates and discourses and resultant implications. Among the various thinkers contributing to this unique phase were Mahavira and Buddha who compelled the attention of the world to Indian traditions. The political system at the time of Mahavira and Buddha was characterized by the existence of two distinct forms of government: monarchical kingdom and clan oligarchies or Ganasamghas. The geographical locations of these units were unique with the monarchical kingdom occupying the Ganga-Yamuna valley and the Ganasamghas being located near the foothills of the Himalayas. Kshatriya clans such as Shakyas, Mallas, inhabited the Ganasamghas or the Lichchhavis.The Ganasamghas were organized on the lineage principle with the entire clan participating in the exercise of power.

There was constant conflict between the various political units and the picture that emerges from the Jain and Buddhist literature is that it was a period of expanding horizons and political consolidations that ultimately ended with the establishment of the Mauryan Empire.Bimbisara the 5th century BC Magadha ruler began a systematic and intensive phase of state organization. The earlier pastoral cum agricultural economy with tribal organization had given way to a more settled agrarian based economy that became a major factor in state formation.

It made possible the support of a large standing army that was imperative for the expanding frontiers of the kingdoms of the Ganga valley and as an instrument of coercive control within the kingdom. The agrarian based economy encouraged the formation of an impressive officialdom that is an indispensable aspect of state formation. The standing army divided into various specialized groups replaced the tribal militia of the earlier society and became an instrument of coercion directly in the control of the king. The growing armies of the aggressive expanding monarchies even attracted the youth of Ganasamghas who saw in them a possible outlet for their military skills.

Foreign Invasions

Persian Invasion

Cyrus (558-530BC) of Persia was the first conqueror who penetrated into Indian subcontinent. He destroyed the city of Capisa (north of Kabul). Herodotus the Greek Historian tells us that in 516 BC Darius I (552-486BC) sent a naval expedition to explore the valley of the Sindhu River and annexed the part of Punjab and Sind. The main impact of Persian invasion was the introduction of the Aramaic form of writing which later developed into the Kharosti alphabet. It led to promotion and increase in Indo- Iranian trade. The fusion of Iranian and Persian features into the Mauryan art was visible. Buddhism impacted the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia.

Greek Invasion

After the conquest of the Persian Empire, Alexander marched to India through the Khyber Pass in 326 BC. He constructed a bridge and proceeded towards Taxila.The King of Taxila surrendered and offered to help Alexander. The most powerful among the North Western was the ruler of Kingdom between Hydaspes (Jhelum) and the Acesines (Chenab) whom the Greeks call Porus.Porus was defeated and made captive by Alexander. Alexander’s advance was arrested on the bank of the Beas for his soldiers mutinied and refused to proceed further after the battle of Vitasta and Jhelum. While retreating he divided the whole territory from the Indus to the Beas into three provinces and put them under the overall charge of three Greek governors. The Greek invasion of India opened the trade route between northwest India and west Asia. The invasion led to more Greek settlements in this area. Opening up of four distinct routes between India and Greek by land and sea paved the way for increased trade and cultural contacts between the two regions. Indians learnt from the Greek in the fields of astronomy, coinage, architecture and sculpture. The Gandhara school of Sculpture became well known.

Formation of states

In the later Vedic period the tribal organizations changed its identity and gradually shifted to the territorial identity. This territorial identity was gradually strengthened in the 600 BC with the rise of large states. The formation of bigger kingdoms made the king or the chief more powerful. Tribal authority became territorial and towns became the seat of the power. Instead of copper weapons the kings started using iron weapons and horse drawn chriots. Therefore from the 6th century BC the widespread use of iron in east ern UP and western Bihar led to the formation of large territorial states.

The new agricultural tools and implements enabled the peasants to produce a good amount of surplus which not only met the military needs but also the administrative requirements. The people became content with these material advantages and started settling permanently in their land. Towns came into existence as centres of industry and trade. People owed their allegiance to the territory to which they belonged and not to the Jana or the tribe to which they belonged. These areas of settlements were now regarded as janapadas or states. In transition from tribe to monarchy, janapadas lost the essential democratic pattern of the tribe but retained the idea of government through an assembly representing the tribes. These states consisted of either a single tribe such as Shakyas, Koliyas, Mallas etc or a confederacy of tribes such as Vrijis, Yadavas, Panchalas etc. Each janapada or state tried to dominate and subjugate other janapada to become mahajanapadas.

Nanda Dynasty

The Nandas were the successors of the Shishunaga dynasty. The Puranas refer to 9 Nandas. The Mahabodhivamsa also refer to nine Nandas and their names are Ugrasena, Pundak, Pandugati, Bhootpal, Rashtrapal, Govishank, DasSiddhak, Kaivest and Dhan. The Puranas describe the first Nanda king named Mahapadma as the son of a Shudra mother while the Greeks say that he was born of the union of a barber with a courtesan. Mahapadmananda according to Puranas destroyed all kshatriya rulers. The Nandas belonged to castes other than Kshatriya. He defeated the kingdoms of Aikshvakus, Panchalas, Kasis, Haihayas, Kalinga, Asmaka, Kuru, Maithilas, Sursenas etc and annexed these territories to Magadha. He has been described as Eka-rata or sole sovereign.

The Nandas succeeded in establishing a great empire which covered a large part of northern India and part of the south. Little is known about the history of Nandas after Mahapadmananda except the last ruler Dhana Nanda. It is accepted by all that nine rulers of Nanda dynasty ruled over Magadha. Dhan Nanda was the last ruler of this dynasty. During his time Alexander invaded India. He was a powerful king and kept a large army. He was unpopular among his subjects by means of excessive taxation and extraction. Chandragupta Maurya took advantage of his unpopularity and misgoverance and succeeded in killing him and captured the throne of Magadha.

Political Philosophy of 6th Century BC

The most notable aspect of political philosophy in the age of the Buddha and Mahavira was the completely pragmatic approach to power. Kingship is marked by the absolute and arbitrary exercise of power with no evidence of effective check upon the king’s ability to impose his will on the dominion. The king had total control over his people and is depicted as using power in a willful manner rather than in legitimate control. Even the law was not applied consistently but in highly personal and arbitrary way. The literature indicates that in the process of change old institutions had collapsed but had not been replaced by others. The collective power of the people of the earlier society that had been expressed through tribal institutions was no longer feasible in the expanding territorial units. Power was thus become less an instrumental value viewed from the point of view of the community as a whole and instead became an end in itself. This had important consequences for Buddhist social philosophy.

The process of territorial expansion and the consolidation of the early Indian state were operating at two levels in the age of Buddha. The monarchical kingdoms of the Ganga valley especially Kosala and Magadha are each expanding at the expense of their weak neighbors. But at the same time they were locked in a struggle for supremacy among themselves in which Magadha ultimately triumphed. The Ganasamghas were the first to collapse and the smaller ones like the Shakyas and Mallas had already dissolved during the lifetime of Buddha. The collapse of the Ganasamghas became inevitable in the face of the rapid changes taking place in 6th and 5th centuries.

Pre Mauryan Economic System

In the Pre- Mauryan period for the first time an advanced food producing economy spread over middle Gangetic plains and the beginning of urban economy in this area. Cattle rearing were no longer the primary occupation and were replaced by agriculture. Rice was the staple cereal produced in the region. Iron played a crucial role in opening the rain fed forests to clearance, cultivation and settlement. This period saw the second urbanization in India as towns had come into existence as centers of industry and trade. The use of burnt bricks and ring wells appeared in the middle of NBPW phase in the 3rd century BC.Specialized craftsmen tended to form guilds because it facilitated carriage of raw materials and the distribution of finished articles. At least 18 guilds or srenis of artisans were known and functional.

The guild was not the highly developed mercantile system that it was to become later. Each guild inhabited a particular section of the town. The introduction of a monetary system facilitated trade. Coins made of metal appear during the age of Gautama Buddha. The earliest hoards of coins are found in Eastern UP and Magadha. They were referred to as Nishka and Satamana.Anathapindaka was a sresthi of Shravasti who had given jetuvana vihara to Gautama Buddha.Menduka was another sresthi of Rajagriha.The Dharmasutras laid down the duties of the each of the four Varna and the civil and criminal law came to be based on the Varna division. All kinds of disabilities were imposed on the Shudras.They were deprived of religious and legal rights and relegated to the lowest position in the society. Patriarchal tendencies became dominant. Women were looked down upon and were not allowed to access education.


According Romila Thapar the republics grew out of monarchies. The more independent Aryans rebelled against the monarchical rule and established republics which were more in keeping with the tribal traditions. While some say republics predated monarchies. In ancient India these republics were given the term gana and sangha. According Panini the term ‘samgha’ and ‘gana’ had the same meaning. The Arthsashtra of Kautilya mentions a number of republics including those of Lichchhavis, the Vrijikas,the Kuru,the Panchalas, the kamboj etc. The most prominent and powerful of these republics was that of the Lichchhavis. It had its capital at Vaisali. Even the Greek writers are of the opinion that a large number of republics existed in India at the time of Alexander’s invasion. The Buddhist literature is another source of these republics. It refers to a large number of republics which covered the area to the east of the kingdoms of Kosala and Kausambhi and to the west of Anga, to the north of Magadha and the south of the Himalayas. The republics were basically of two types-the republics comprising a single tribe like those of the Sakyas, the Kolias and the Mallas and the republics comprising a number of tribes or the republics of confederacy like the Vrijjis.

Government of the Republics: The kings in these states had the supreme authority. These republics or sanghs were governed on democratic lines. A chief was elected to act as the president of the administrative council. The administrative and the judicial matters of the republics were carried out in public assembly at which young and old are alike present in the common hall at Kapilavastu. It was called as Santhagara. The assembly of the people could also be called on special occasions. The president of the council was called a Raja. It is not known as to how he was elected and for how long he ruled but it appears that the office was not hereditary. The local administration was carried by local assemblies which played an important role in the administration of the state. In some of these republics villages were organized on professional basis e.g the potter, smiths of the clan used to have separate villages of their own. The small republics were gradually losing their importance and were being over-shadowed by kingdoms like Vatsa, Avanti, Kosala, Magadha etc. Soon the leadership became hereditary in certain families. The leaders took up the titles of Maharajas and Mahasenapatis in the 4th century. The ancient Indian republics flourished in Mauryan times and survived up to Gupta period.

Rise of the Magadhan Empire

Out of the sixteen Mahajanapadas four were very powerful. They were Magadha, Vatsa, Avanti and Koshala.The period from 4th century to 6th century BC saw the struggle for supremacy among these four Mahajanapadas.Magadha emerged as the powerful and prosperous state .

The founder of Magadha was Jarasandha and Brihadratha.But the growth started under the Haryanka, expansion took place under the Shishunaga and Nanda, reached its zenith under the Mauryas.The earliest capital of Magadha was at Rajgir which was called Girivraja at that time. The main reasons for the rise of Magadha was the geographical location with both Rajgir and Pataliputra situated at strategic locations. Abundance of natural resources such as iron enabled Magadhan rulers to equip with sufficient and effective weapons. Rise of the town and use of metallic money boosted trade and commerce. The princes could levy tolls and taxes to maintain their armies. The rulers started using elephants in the warfare against the enemies.

Socio- Economic Aspect in 6th Century BC

Most historians differ about the extent to which iron contributed to the emergence of new relations of production in the age of Buddha and Mahavira. However there is a degree of consensus on various elements that marked the new relations of production. There is a noticeable expansion of economy and within that of marked the new relations of production. There is also expansion of the economy and within athat of agriculture. Rice cultivation based on transplantation to a virtual demographic revolution.

The Jain and Buddhists text mention numerous settlements attesting to an expansion of settlements, the extension of cultivation and of people into unexploited lands. Along with an expansion of agriculture and settlements there was increased craft production, numerous crafts are mentioned in the texts as also coinage signifying a money economy, trade routes and corporate commercial activity in the form of srenis.

The age of the Buddha has also been characterized as the period of second urbanization. From the texts it is also clear that the gahapatis, a category of persons mentioned in the accounts in the context of economic activity played a crucial role in the expansion of agriculture. Some of them were in control of substantial tracts of land. The gahapatis were the primary taxpayers in the monarchical janapadas and in his capacity they were regarded as intrinsic to the sovereignty of the king.

The growing complexity of the economy was expressed in the emergence of a sharply stratified society. While some sections of society had large concentrations of land there were others who had no access to the means of production. The period is marked by the appearance of such categories as vaitanika (wage earner) and karmakaras (labourers who hired out their labor).Karmakaras are mentioned often along with the dasa ( servant) and together they implied elements of servitude and made them unfree in some way. The term dalidda denoting extreme poverty also appears for the first time while its counter position with wealth suggests sharp economic contradictions in the new society. Economic contradictions were accompanied by some social contradictions certain families were regarded as of high status others were regarded as low; the Brahmanas were staking their claims to preeminent status based on birth but there is evidence of such claims being contested. In the sixth century BC life was one that was in the throes of rapid change.

Apart from the emergence of inequality the transformation and reformulation of political units and socio-economic institutions entailed the breakdown of clan and kin organizations and the collective units of the earlier periods. In its place what was visible was individuals and greed. There was power in the hands of some while no norms had yet evolved which could mediate between the exploiters and the exploited or between the king and his people.

Rise of Urban centres

The 6th century BC saw the growth of towns in every part of India. The establishment of big empires was one reason of the growth of town because several towns were built up as capital cities of empires while several others grew as centres of trade. The urban life was prosperous. The towns were populous and soon became markets and habitats of artisans and traders. These towns were encircled by four walls. The buildings were built of bricks and mud. The rich lived in ornamented and big houses. Wood was sufficiently used in the buildings. In Pali and Sanskrit text there are references to cities like Kaushambi, Sravasti, Patliputra, Kapilavastu, Varanasi, Vaishali etc. Most of these cities originated on river banks and trading routes and they were well connected with one another e.g Sravasti was well linked with Kaushambi and Varanasi. These towns became not only the centres of trade but centres of industries as well.

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