Formation of States (Mahajanapadas): Republic and Monarchies

Formation of States (Mahajanapadas): Republic and Monarchies

  • From the 6th century BCE onwards, the outlines of the political history of north India become clearer, and kings and religious teachers mentioned in different literary traditions can be identified as real, historical figures.

The Sources of period c. 600–300 BCE: Literary and Archaeological

Buddhist Texts:

  • Pali canon:
    • The Pali canon is not a homogeneous source of history. The first four books of the Sutta Pitaka (the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara Nikayas) and the entire Vinaya Pitaka were composed between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE. The Sutta Nipata also belongs to this period.
    • The Khuddaka Nikaya (the fifth book of the Sutta Pitaka) and the Abhidhamma Pitaka are later works.
    • The geographical context of the composition of the canon corresponds roughly to the middle Ganga valley (modern Bihar and eastern UP).
    • Many historians use the Jatakas (one of the 15 books of the Khuddaka Nikaya) indiscriminately as a source for the 6th century BCE and the Maurya, and post-Maurya periods.
      • Although they may contain older legends, in their present textual form, the Jatakas belong to the 3rd centuries BCE–2nd century CE and should not, therefore, be used as a source for the earlier period.
      • They can be cited only occasionally, to fill gaps in the detail of political narrative or confirm points emerging from contemporary sources.

Brahmanical Texts:

  • Puranas:
    • Texts belonging to the Brahmanical tradition include the Puranas, which provide useful information on dynastic history.
    • The later sections of the Puranic king-lists clearly have a historical basis, but they present several problems.
      • The Puranas contradict each other in places.
      • Rulers of different lines are sometimes mixed up and presented as members of the same dynasty. Contemporary rulers may be described as successors, collateral rulers as direct descendants.
      • Certain kings known from other sources are not mentioned.
  • Epics:
    • Due to their complex internal chronology, it is difficult to use the Sanskrit epics— the Ramayana and Mahabharata—as sources for any specific period. They can at best be used in a very general way for a comparative perspective on cultural practices.
  • Grihyasutras and Dharmasutras:
    • The Grihyasutras and Dharmasutras form the earliest segment of the vast corpus of Dharmashastra literature. Kane dates the Dharmasutras of Gautama, Apastamba, Baudhayana, and Vasishtha between c. 600 and 300 BCE.
    • It is difficult to ascertain the precise region where the Dharmashastra texts were composed; they seem to broadly belong to north India, although it is possible that Apastamba belonged to some area in the south.
    • In addition to the Dharmasutras, the principal Shrautasutras and early Grihyasutras, dated c. 800– 400 BCE by Kane, can also be used as sources for this period.
  • Panini and his Ashtadhyayi:
    • Panini was a grammarian who lived in the 5th or 4th century BCE. His Ashtadhyayi is the oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar. Panini mapped out the grammatical rules of Sanskrit as it existed in his time and his book marked the transition from Vedic Sanskrit to classical Sanskrit.
    • The Ashtadhyayi is a work on grammar. But in order to illustrate the rules of grammar, Panini referred incidentally to many aspects of his time—to places, people, customs, institutions, coins, weights and measures, and peoples’ beliefs and practices. This is why historians use the Ashtadhyayi as a source of information on the 5th/4th century BCE.
  • All these texts are normative and cannot be treated as simple reflections of prevailing social practices. Nor do they reflect identical points of view. They have to be read as attempts of the Brahmanical tradition to engage with and regulate widely divergent practices.

Jaina Texts:

  • Jaina texts can be used as historical source material for this period. They include the canonical texts and other works such as the Bhagavati Sutra and the Parishishtaparvan.
  • A comparison of Buddhist, Puranic, and Jaina texts on details of dynastic history often reveals more disagreement than agreement. This may be due to incomplete or incorrect information available to their composers, or the fact that they were compiled at different times, but it also has to do with different perspectives.

Foreign Texts:

  • Apart from indigenous literary sources, there are a number of Greek and Latin narratives of Alexander’s military career by writers such as Arrian, Curtius Rufus, Diodorus Sicilus, Plutarch, and Justin.
  • Written several centuries after the events they describe, they recount Alexander’s invasion of India (327–26 BCE) and the political situation prevailing in the north-west at the time. Alexander’s life and career had become the stuff of legend in the Graeco-Roman world.


  • Archaeology continues to be an important source for the history of the subcontinent in c. 600–300 BCE. In north India, the focus is on the culture associated with a pottery called Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW). The NBPW phase is dated between the 7th century BCE and 2nd/1st centuries BCE. At sites in the Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and western UP, the NBPW phase is preceded by the PGW phase, with an overlap between them. In eastern UP and Bihar, it is preceded by the Black and Red Ware (BRW) phase.
  • The evidence from NBPW sites includes an early series of punch marked coins, which mark the beginning of the use of money in the subcontinent.
  • Northern Black Polished Ware: This pottery’s name is misleading, because it is not only found in north India, it is not always black, nor is it necessarily polished.

Formation of States (Mahajanapadas)

  • The political structure of the ancient Indians appears to have started with semi-nomadic tribal units called Jana (meaning “people” or by extension “ethnic group” or “tribe”).
    • Early Vedic texts attest several Janas or tribes of the Indo-Aryans, living in a semi-nomadic tribal state and fighting among themselves and with other Non-Aryan tribes for cows, sheep and green pastures.
  • The tribal political organisation (Jana) of the Rig Vedic phase gave way to the rise of territorial state (Janapada) towards the end of the Vedic period i.e. early Vedic Janas later coalesced into the Janapadas.
    • The term “Janapada” literally means the foothold of a tribe.
    • The fact that Janapada is derived from Jana points to an early stage of land-taking by the Jana tribe for a settled way of life.
  • Permanent settlement in a particular area gave a geographical identity to a tribe or a group of tribes and subsequently this identity was given concrete shape in the possession of the area, which was generally named after the tribe.
    • This process of first settlement on land had completed its final stage prior to the times of the Buddha and Paṇini.
    • The Pre-Buddhist north-west region of the Indian sub-continent was divided into several Janapadas demarcated from each other by boundaries.
    • In Paṇini’s writing, Janapada stands for country and Janapadin for its citizenry.
    • Each of these Janapadas was named after the tribe (or the Jana) who had settled therein.
  • To maintain this possession required political organization, either as a republic or a monarchy.

Formation of States: Mahajanapadas (Monarchies and Republics):

  • Defined by Kautilya in his Saptanga theory, (Described in Arthasastra) there are 7 constituent elements of the state:
    • The king,
    • the minister,
    • the country,
    • the fortified city,
    • the treasury,
    • the army and
    • the ally
  • No state formation satisfied all these 7 aspects till the end of 6th century BC.
  • From the sixth century B.C. onwards, the widespread use of iron in eastern Uttar Pradesh and West­ern Bihar, as evidenced from excavations at Raj ghat and Chirand, led to the formation of large territorial states which were better equipped militarily and in which warrior class played the main role.
  • The territorial idea was gradually strengthened in the sixth century B.C. with the rise of large state (Mahajanapada) with towns as their seats of power.
  • New agricultural tools and implements enabled the peasants to produce a good amount of surplus which not only met the needs of the ruling class but also supported numerous towns.
    • Towns came into existence as centres of industry and trade.
    • Some such as Shravasti, Champa, Rajagriha, Ayodhya, Kausambi, Kashi and Pataliputra were of substantial importance to the economy of the Ganges plains.
  • Others such as Vaishali, Ujjain, Taxila and the port of Bharukachchha (Broach) had a wider economic reach.
    • A passage from Panini, makes it clear that the people owed their allegiance to the Janapada (territory) to which they belonged and not to the Jana or the tribe to which they belonged.
  • In the post-Vedic period, the entire northern territory mostly situated north of the Vindhyas and extending from the North-West frontier to Bihar was divided into sixteen states called Sodasha Mahajanapadas. These Mahajanapadas were either monarchical or republican in character.
    • The Buddhist and other texts only incidentally refer to sixteen great nations (Solasa Mahajanapadas) which were in existence before the time of Buddha.
    • They do not give any connected history except in the case of Magadha.
    • According to Buddhist texts, fourteen of the Mahajanapadas belong to Majjhimadesa (Mid India) while the two (Gandhara and Khamboja) belong to Uttarapatha or the north-west division of Jambudvipa.
    • The Anguttara Nikaya’s list of the mahajanapadas is as follows:
      • Kashi,
      • Koshala,
      • Anga,
      • Magadha,
      • Vajji (Vrijji),
      • Malla,
      • Chetiya (Chedi),
      • Vamsa (Vatsa),
      • Kuru,
      • Panchala,
      • Machchha (Matsya),
      • Shurasena,
      • Assaka (Ashmaka),
      • Avanti,
      • Gandhara, and
      • Kamboja.
    • The Mahavastu has a similar list, but substitutes Shibi (in the Punjab) and Dasharna (in central India) for the north-western states of Gandhara and Kamboja.
    • Another Buddhist text, the Digha Nikaya, mentions only the first twelve Mahajanapadas and omits the last four in the above list.
    • The Jaina Bhagavati Sutra gives a slightly different list of sixteen Mahajanapadas.
      • The author of Bhagvati has a focus on the countries of Madhydesa and of the far east and south only. It omits the nations from Uttarapatha like the Kamboja and Gandhara.
      • The omission of all countries from Uttarapatha shows that the Bhagvati list is of later origin and therefore less reliable.


  • Two kinds of states are included in the list of mahajanapadas—
    • monarchies (rajyas) and
    • non-monarchical states known as ganas or sanghas.
      • The latter two terms are used synonymously in the political sense in the Ashtadhyayi and Majjhima Nikaya, and are used interchangeably.
      • The translation of gana and sangha as ‘republic’ is misleading. These were oligarchies, where power was exercised by a group of people.
  • The most powerful states in the 6th century BCE were Magadha, Kosala, Vatsa, and Avanti.
    • The relations among the states fluctuated over time and included warfare, truce, and military alliances.
    • Marriage alliances too were an important aspect of inter-state relations, but often became irrelevant when it came to realizing political ambitions.

(1) Anga

  • The capital city of Anga mahajanapad (around modern Bhagalpur and Munger districts in Bihar) was Champa.
  • Magadh was on its west and Raja Mahal hills on the east.
  • The Ganga bordered it on the north. The Champa river was its boundary with Magadha, which lay to its west.
  • It was a great center of trade and commerce and its merchants regularly sailed to distant Suvarnabhumi.
  • Anga was annexed by Magadha in the time of Bimbisara. This was the one and only conquest of Bimbisara.

(2) Assaka

  • The capital of the Assakas was Potana or Potali or Podana. (In modern Maharashtra)
  • Jataka stories suggest that Assaka may at some point have come under the sway of Kashi and that it achieved a military victory over Kalinga in eastern India.
  • Assaka or the Ashmaka was located in Dakshinapatha or southern India.
  • In Buddha’s time, the Assakas were located on the banks of the river Godavari (only Mahajanapada south of the Vindhya mountains). The Ashmakas are also mentioned by Paṇini.

(3) Avanti

  • The country of the Avantis was an important kingdom of western India and was one of the four great monarchies in India in the post era of Mahavira and Buddha. The other three being Kosala, Vatsa and Magadha.
  • Avanti was divided into north and south by the river Vetravati.
    • Initially, Mahissati (Sanskrit Mahishamati) was the capital of Southern Avanti, and Ujjaini (Sanskrit: Ujjayini) was of northern Avanti, but at the times of Mahavira and Buddha, Ujjaini was the capital of integrated Avanti.
  • Both Mahishmati and Ujjaini stood on the southern high road called Dakshinapatha which extended from Rajagriha to Pratishthana (modern Paithan).
  • Avanti roughly corresponded to modern Malwa, Nimar and adjoining parts of the Madhya Pradesh.
  • Avanti was an important center of Buddhism and some of the leading theras and theris were born and resided there.
  • Pradyota dynasty ruled over Avanti.
    • Pradyota was contemporary to Gautama Buddha.
    • Ajatashatru, the king of Magadha fortified Rajagriha to protect it from an invasion led by Pradyota.
    • Pradyota also waged war on Pushkarasarin, king of Takshashila.
    • Pradyota’s chief queen was a disciple of Buddhist monk Mahakatyayana and constructed a stupa in Ujjayini.
  • Last King Nandivardhana of Avanti was defeated by king Shishunaga of Magadha. Avanti later became part of the Magadhan empire.

(4) Chedi

  • The Chedis or Chetis in eastern Bundelkhand near Yamuna midway between the kingdom of Kurus and Vatsas.
  • Its capital was Sotthivatinagara.
  • A branch of Chedis founded a royal dynasty in the kingdom of Kalinga according to the Hathigumpha inscription of Kharvela.

(5) Gandhara

  • The      kingdom of Gandhara comprised modern Peshawar and Rawalpindi districts of      Pakistan and the Kashmir valley.
  • Its capital Takshashila (Taxila)      was a major centre of trade and learning.
  • The Taxila University was a renowned center of learning in ancient times, where scholars from all over the world came to seek higher education.
    • Paṇini, the Indian genius of grammar and Kautiliya are the world renowned products of Taxila University.
    • King Pukkusati or Pushkarasarin of Gandhara in the middle of the sixth century BC was the contemporary of king Bimbisara of Magadha.
  • Gandhara was located on Uttarapatha and was a centre of international commercial activities. It was an important channel of communication with ancient Iran and Central Asia.
  • King      Pukkusati or Pushkarasarin ruled over Gandhara in the mid-6th century      BCE. He had cordial relations with Magadha, and waged a successful war      against Avanti.
  • Gandhara was often linked politically with the neighboring regions of Kashmir and Kamboja.
  • The      Behistun inscription of the Achaemenid emperor Darius indicates that      Gandhara was conquered by the Persians in the later part of the 6th      century BCE.

(6) Kamboja

  • Kamboja      included the area around Rajaori, including the Hazara district of the      North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.
  • Its capital Rajpur (modern Rajori). It was located around Punchh area of Kashmir.
  • Kambojas are also included in the Uttarapatha. Ancient Kamboja is known to have comprised regions on either side of the Hindukush.
  • The Mahabharata refers to several Ganas (or Republics) of the Kambojas.
  • Kautiliya’s Arthashastra and Ashoka’s Edict No. XIII attest that the Kambojas followed republican constitution.
    • Paṇini’s Sutras, though tend to convey that the Kamboja was a Kshatriya monarchy, but “the special rule and the exceptional form of derivative” he gives to denote the ruler of the Kambojas implies that the king of Kamboja was a titular head only.
  • In a struggle for supremacy that followed in the sixth/fifth century BC, the growing state of the Magadhas emerged as the most predominant power in ancient India, annexing several of the Janapadas of the Majjhimadesa(Madhyadesa).
    • Puranas laments that Magadhan emperor Mahapadma Nanda exterminated all Kshatriyas. This obviously refers to the Kasis, Kosalas, Kurus, Panchalas, Vatsyas and other tribes of the east Panjab.
  • The Kambojans and Gandharans, however, never came into direct contact with the Magadhan state until Chandragupta and Kautiliya arose on the scene.
  • But these nations also fell prey to the Achaemenids of Persia during the reign of Cyrus (558–530 BC) or in the first year of Darius. Kamboja and Gandhara formed the twentieth and richest strapy of the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus I is said to have destroyed the famous Kamboja city called Kapisi (modern Begram).

(7) Kashi

  • The Kingdom of Kashi was bounded by the Varuna and Asi rivers to the north and south respectively. It is from the names of these two rivers that its capital city Varanasi got its name.
  • Before Buddha, Kasi was the most powerful of the sixteen Mahajanapadas. Several jataka tales bear witness to the superiority of its capital over other cities in India and speak highly of its prosperity and opulence. These stories tell of the long struggle for supremacy between Kashi and the three kingdoms of Kosala, Anga and Magadha.
  • The Jatakas refer to a longstanding rivalry between the kingdoms of Kashi and Kosala.
    • Kashi was also involved in occasional conflicts with Anga and Magadha.
  • At one time, one of the most powerful states of north India, Kashi was eventually absorbed into the Kosalan kingdom during Buddha’s time.
  • Kashi emerged as a leading extile manufacture in the time of Buddha, the Kashya, orange brown robes of Buddhist monk are said to be manufactured here.

(8) Kosala

  • The kingdom of Kosala was bounded by the Sadanira (Gandak) on the east, the Gomati on the west, the Sarpika or Syandika (Sai) on the south, and the Nepal hills to the north.
  • Its territory corresponded to the modern Awadh in Central and Eastern Uttar Pradesh.
  • The Sarayu river divided it into a northern and a southern part.
    • Shravasti was the capital of north Kosala, and
    • Kushavati the capital of south Kosala.
    • Saketa and Ayodhya were two other important towns and may once have been political centres.
  • The kingdom was ruled by the famous king Prasenjit during the era of Mahavira and Buddha.
    • Pasenadi (Prasenajit), king of Kosala, was the Buddha’s contemporary and is frequently mentioned in Pali texts.
    • King Prasenjit was highly educated.
    • His position was further improved by a matrimonial alliance with Magadha: his sister was married to Bindhusara and part of Kashi was given as dowry.
  • Kosala succeeded in conquering Kashi. It extended its power over the Sakyas of Kapilavastu.
  • Kosala and Magadha were linked through matrimonial ties during the time of Prasenajit and the Magadhan king Bimbisara, but a bitter struggle between the two kingdoms ensued after the latter’s death.
    • It was finally settled once the confederation of Lichchavis became aligned with Magadha. Kosala was ultimately merged into Magadha when Vidudabha was Kosala’s ruler.

(9) Kuru

  • Kurus roughly corresponded to the modern Thanesar, state of Delhi and Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh.
  • According      to Buddhist tradition, the Kuru kingdom was ruled by kings belonging to      the Yuddhitthila gotta, i.e., the family of Yudhishthira, from their      capital at Indapatta (Indraprastha) near modern Delhi.
  • Kurus      established matrimonial relations with the Yadavas, Bhojas, and      Panchalas.
  • At Buddha’s time, the Kuru country was ruled by a titular chieftain (king consul) named Korayvya. The Kurus of the Buddhist period did not occupy the same position as they did in the Vedic period.
  • Though a well known monarchical people in the earlier period, the Kurus are known to have switched to a republican form of government during the sixth to fifth centuries BC.
    • In the fourth century BC, Kautiliya’s Arthashastra also attests the Kurus following the Rajashabdopajivin (king consul) constitution.

(10) Magadha

  • The Magadha was one of the most prominent and prosperous of mahajanapadas. The capital city Pataliputra (Patna, Bihar) was situated on the confluence of major rivers like Ganga, Son, Punpun and Gandak.
  • The alluvial plains of this region and its proximity to the iron rich areas of Bihar and Jharkhand helped the kingdom to develop good quality weapons and support the agrarian economy. These factors helped Magadha to emerge as the most prosperous state of that period.
  • The kingdom of the Magadhas roughly corresponded to the modern districts of Patna and Gaya in southern Bihar and parts of Bengal in the east. During Buddha’s time its boundaries included Anga.
  • Its earliest capital was Girivraja or Rajagaha (modern Rajgir in Bihar).
  • It was an active center of Jainism in ancient times. The first Buddhist Council was held in Rajagaha in the Vaibhara Hills.
  • Later on, Pataliputra became the capital of Magadha.

(11) Malla

  • The Mallas are frequently mentioned in Buddhist and Jain works.
  • The Malla principality was located to the west of the Vajjis and consisted of a confederacy of nine clans.
    • There were two political centres—at Kusinara and Pava.
    • The Vajjis and Mallas seem to have been allies.
  • During the Buddhist period, the Mallas/Malls Kshatriya were republican people with their dominion consisting of nine territories corresponding to the nine confederated clans. These republican states were known as Gana.
  • Two of these confederations – one with Kusinara (modern Kasia near Gorakhpur) as its capital and the second with Pava (modern Padrauna, 12 miles from Kasia) as the capital – had become very important at the time of Buddha.
    • Kusinara and Pava are very important in the history of Buddhism and Jainism since Buddha and Lord Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara took their last breath at Kushinara and Pava/Pavapuri respectively.
  • The Mallas originally had a monarchical form of government but later they switched to one of Samgha (republic), the members of which called themselves rajas.
  • The Mallas appeared to have formed an alliance with the Licchhavis for self-defense but lost their independence not long after Buddha’s death and their dominions were annexed to the Magadhan empire.
  • Malla along with other Sanghiya kshtriyas like the Licchhavis, Koliyas and Shakya were ruling from their Santhagara, which was like an assembly hall.
    • These Santhagara kshatriyas were placed below Vedic kshtriyas in the social hierarchy.

(12) Matsya

  • Matsya or Machcha tribe lay to the south of the Kurus and west of the Yamuna, which separated them from the Panchalas.
    • It roughly corresponded to the former state of Jaipur-Alwar-Bharatpur region of Rajasthan.
    • It was suitable for cattle rearing.
  • The capital of Matsya was at Viratanagara (modern Bairat) which is said to have been named after its founder king Virata.
  • In Pali literature, the Matsyas are usually associated with the Surasenas.
    • The Shurasenas      had their capital at Mathura. Buddhist tradition describes Avantiputra,      king of the Shurasenas, as a disciple of the Buddha. This king’s name      (literally, ‘son of Avanti’) suggests the possibility of a matrimonial      alliance between Shurasena and Avanti.
  • The Matsyas had not much political importance of their own during the time of Buddha.
  • King Sujata ruled over both the Chedis and Matsyas, thus showing that Matsya once formed a part of the Chedi kingdom.

(13) Panchala

  • The Panchalas occupied the country to the east of the Kurus between the mountains and river Ganges. It roughly corresponded to modern Budaun, Farrukhabad and the adjoining districts of Uttar Pradesh.
  • was divided into two parts by the Ganga.
    • The capital of      Uttara (north) Panchala was Ahichchhatra and that of Dakshina      (south) Panchala was Kampilya.
  • The famous city of Kanyakubja or Kanauj was situated in the kingdom of Panchala.
  • Originally a monarchical clan, the Panchals appear to have switched to republican corporation in the sixth and fifth centuries BC.
    • In the fourth century BC, Kautiliya’s Arthashastra also attests the Panchalas as following the Rajashabdopajivin (king consul) constitution.

(14) Surasena

  • Surasenas lay to the east of Matsya and west of Yamuna.
    • This corresponds roughly to the Brij region of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. and Gwalior region of Madhya Pradesh.
  • It had its capital at Madhura or Mathura.
  • Avantiputra, the king of Surasena was the first among the chief disciples of Buddha, through whose help Buddhism gained ground in Mathura country.
  • In Kautiliya’s Arthashastra, the Vrishnis are described as samgha or republic. The Vrishnis, Andhakas and other allied tribes of the Yadavas formed a samgha and Vasudeva (Krishna) is described as the samgha-mukhya.
  • Mathura, the capital of Surasena was also known at the time of Megasthenes as the centre of Krishna worship. The Surasena kingdom had lost its independence on annexation by the Magadhan empire.

(15) Vajji or Vrijjis

  • The principality of the Vajji (Vrijji) was in eastern India, north of the Ganga, extending up to the Nepal hills.
  • Vajji was considered as a confederacy of eight clans (with 7707 Rajas).
    • This is based on a reference in Buddhaghosha’s Sumangala Vilasini to the atthakulikas of the Vajjis as one of the legal tribunals of Vaishali.
    • The most important members of the confederacy were the Vajjis, Lichchhavis, Videhas, and Nayas/Jnatrikas.
    • Vaishali was both the capital of the Lichchhavis and of the Vajji confederacy.
  • Mithila (modern Janakpur in Nepal) was the capital of Videha and became the predominant center of the political and cultural activities of northern India.
  • The Licchavis were a very independent people.
    • The Lichchhavis are mentioned often in Buddhist texts.
    • They were on good terms with Kosala and the Mallas, but were embroiled in conflict with Magadha. Jaina tradition states that the nine Lichchhavis formed a league with the nine Mallas and 18 clan lords of Kashi and Koshala.
    • The mother of Mahavira was a Licchavi princess.
    • Vaishali (modern Basarh in North Bihar) was the capital of the Licchavis and the political headquarters of the Varijian confederacy.
    • Vaishali was located 25 miles north of the river Ganges and was a very prosperous town. The Second Buddhist Council was held at Vaishali.
    • The Licchavis were followers of Buddha. Buddha is said to have visited them on many occasions.
    • They were closely related by marriage to the Magadhas and one branch of the Licchavi dynasty ruled Nepal until the start of the Middle Ages.
    • Vaishali was defeated by king Ajatasatru of Magadha.
    • Around 600 BCE, the Licchavis were disciples of Mahavira and Gautama Buddha. During their lifetimes, both Mahavira and Gautama Buddha visited Vaishali several times.
  • The Jnatrikas were based in Kundapura (or Kundagrama). Mahavira belonged to this clan.
  • The Vajji confederacy is said to have been led by Chetaka, who was the brother of Trishala (mother of Mahavira) and father of Chellana, wife of the Magadhan king Bimbisara.
  • Vajji administration:
    • Known as the Vajji Sangha (Vajji Confederation), Vajji consisted of several janapadas, gramas (villages) and gosthas (groups).
      • The main gosthas were the Licchavis, Mallas and Śakyas.
    • Eminent people were chosen from each khanda (district) as representatives to the Vajji gana parishad (people’s council of Vajji).
      • These representatives were called gana mukhyas.
      • The chairman of the council was titled gana pramukha but often he was addressed as a king although his post was neither dynastic nor hereditary.
    • The other executives were the mahabaladhrikrita (a minister of internal security), the binishchayamatya or chief justice, dandadhikrita (other justices) etc.
Ananda Stupa, with an Asokan pillar, at Vaishali, the capital city

(16) Vamsa or Vatsa

  • Vatsa or Vamsa, south of the Ganga, was noted for its fine cotton textiles. Its capital was Kaushambi (near Allahabad).
  • It had a monarchical form of government.
  • Kausambi was a very prosperous city where a large number of millionaire merchants resided.
    • It was the most important entreport of goods and passengers from the north-west and south.
    • Ujjain and Kaushambi were connected by a major trade route.
  • Udayana was the ruler of Vatsa in the sixth century BC, the time of Buddha.
    • He was very powerful, warlike and fond of hunting.
    • Initially king Udayana was opposed to Buddhism but later became a follower of Buddha and made Buddhism the state religion.
  • Legends recount the rivalry between kings Udayana of Vatsa and Pradyota of Avanti, and refer to a love affair and marriage between Udayana and Vasavadatta, Pradyota’s daughter.
  • Udayana also seems to have entered into matrimonial alliances with the ruling families of Anga and Magadha. This king went on to become the romantic hero of three Sanskrit dramas of later times—the Svapna-Vasavadatta of Bhasa and the Ratnavali and Priyadarshika of Harsha.

Republics and Monarchies

The existence of the republics (Ganas / Sanghas)

  • The tribal political organisation of the Rig Vedic phase gave way to the rise of territorial state towards the end of the Vedic period. The territorial idea was gradually strengthened in the sixth century B.C. with the rise of large state with towns as their seats of power.
  • The Buddhist literature, particularly the Anguttara Nikaya lists the sixteen mahajanapadas. mahajanapadas can be divided into Monarchies and Republics (Ganas or Sanghas). 
  • Two of the mahajanapadas, the Vajji and Malia, were sanghas.
    • Buddhist texts mention others as well- the Sakyas of Kapilvastu, Koliyas of Dvadaha and Ramagrama, Bulis of Alakappa, Kalamas of Kesaputta, Moriyas of Pipphalivaha, Bhaggas (Bhargas) with their capital on Sumsumara hill.
  • Whereas the monarchies were concentrated in the Gangetic Plains, the republics existed either in the Indus basin or  near the Himalayan foothills in eastern Uttar pradesh and Bihar.
  • In a society of gana-sanghas, people were treated on equal basis, at least among the ruling clans.
    • They rejected the Vedic philosophy because it divided the whole society into four distinct classes or varnas.
    • New Buddhist and Jaina ideas were popular among the people.
    • It was possible that some independent minded settlers of the plains did not like the Vedic orthodoxy or social division. They moved up towards the hills from the plains kingdoms and opened settlements there on equality.
  • The Mahajapandas of Vriji, Malla, Kuru, Panchal and Kamboj were republican states and so were other smaller states like Lichhavi, Shakya, Koliya, Bhagga, and Moriya.

Sources for republics:

  • Indian literature comprising Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain texts mention different types of non-monarchical states called Ganas or Sanghas, and this account is corroborated by the statements of the Greek historians of the Alexander’s campaigns in India.
    • Buddhist  texts clearly indicate that the Sakya assembly gathered to discuss important business such as forging alliances, embarking on war, and concluding peace.
    • More details on ganas are provided by Buddhist and Jaina texts than Brahmanical ones.
      • This is because kingship was central to the Brahmanical social and political ideology, and kinglessness was equated with anarchy.
      • Brahmanas and purohitas may not have enjoyed the prestige they did in the rajyas.
      • There are hardly any references to purohitas or gifts of land to Brahmanas in the ganas.
      • And in the Ambattha Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, when the Brahmana Ambattha visited Kapilavastu, members of the Sakya assembly are said to have laughed at him, treating him with scant respect.
  • The terms gana and sangha are used as synonymous political terms in some literary sources like Panini’s Ashtadhyayi and the Majjhima Nikaya.
  • Arthasastra mentions several corporations such as the Lichchavikas, Vrijjikas, Madras etc. They had an assembly whose members were called Rajas.
  • Coins also offer information on republics. The term gana on coins of the Yaudheyas and Malavas points to their non-monarchical polity.
  • The existence of republics is also proved by testimony of Greek writers. Megasthenes says that most of the India cities of his time had a democratic form of government and also mentions several tribes who were free and had no kings.
    • His statement is corroborated by Arrian who asserts that the superintendents report everything to the king where people have a king and to the magistrates where the people were self-governed. He also refers to the small state of Nysa as having an oligarchical form of government.

There were two types of Republics/ganas:

  • those that comprised all or a section of one clan (the Sakyas, Koliyas, Mallas for instance),
  • those that comprised a confederation of several clans (the Vajjis, Yadavas, Vrishnis).

Factors responsible for rise of Republics:

  • The origin of the republics has been traced to the reaction against the pattern of life that evolved in the later Vedic period.
    • The movement against the Vedic life was aimed at the abolition of the growing class and sex distinctions and directed against the acceptance of superstitious religious practices which took a heavy toll of cattle-stock.
  • It was also directed against the hereditary kingship bolstered up by the Brahmanas, who arrogated to themselves all the rights and privileges.
  • The republics in the Indus basin may have been the remnants of the Vedic tribes.
  • In some cases in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar people were possibly inspired by the old ideals of tribal equality which did not give much prominence to the raja.
    • The new movement against Vedic orthodoxy derived inspiration from traditions about the remote past when there were no Varna distinctions, no domination by the upper classes on the lower ones and no coercive oppression of the people by hereditary king.
    • This perhaps explains the legends according to which republics replaced monarchies.
      • The traditional story of origin of the Shakyas, to which tribe the Buddha himself belonged, tells us that they had descended from the royal house of Kosala. We are told that four brothers and their four sisters were expelled by their royal father, so they preserved purity of their race by marrying among themselves.
      • The account clearly indicates that the founders of republics broke away from the parent stock and moved to new areas. This may have been the case with Videha and Vaishali, which are referred to as monarchies transformed into republic.
  • Due to the socio-political conditions of the period:
    • In the early period the members of ruling class obtained a portion of the booty of war and tributes collected from the vanquished non-Aryans.
    • But in subsequent times, when the victorious tribal chiefs came to occupy prominent and hereditary royal positions in the territorial states, they claimed all revenues for themselves.
    • The leading members of the tribe resented the situation and demanded the right to collect taxes from the peasants and the right to bear arms and maintain their own army. The reaction gave birth to a political framework, which was republic.
  • The ganas had greater vestiges of tribal organization than the monarchies.
    • Some  may have simply been more complex political forms of older tribal formations.
    • Others  may have been created through the subversion of monarchical rule:
      • For instance, the Videhas were apparently originally a monarchy, but had become a gana by the 6th century BCE.
      • The Kurus were a monarchy at this time, but became a gana a few centuries later.

Functioning of republics:

  • In a gana sangha the heads of the families belonged to a clan or chiefs if there were more than one clan. There were some assemblies to govern the territories.
    • The right to govern the territories was given only to a few ruling families. They alone were the members of the assemblies.
    • Other members of the communities had no right of governance.
  • The central feature of the’republican’ government was its seemingly corporate character.
    • The representatives of the tribes and the heads of families may have sat in the public assembly (santhagara) of the capital.
    • The tribal assembly was presided over by one of the representatives called the raja or senapati.
  • The office of the chief executive of the tribal state was not hereditary, and he was more a chief than a king.
    • This is indicated in a later Buddhist story Simha, in spite of being the youngest son of senapati Khanda, was allowed to succeed his father to office.
    • When Simha wanted to step aside in favour of his eldest brother, the members of the assembly plainly told him that the office did not belong to his family but to the assembly of the tribe.
  • All important issues were placed before the assembly, and no decision was taken in the absence of unanimity among members.
    • This has given rise to the much trumpeted notion of some historians that non-monarchical states of the post-Vedic period were truly democratic in character.
  • Were Ganas or Sanghas democratic in nature?
    • Early studies on the ganas by Nationalist historians tended to glorify them by exaggerating their democratic features.
      • It was mainly to disapprove the assertions of Western scholars that Indians had never known anything other than despotic rule.
    • The ancient Indian ganas were not, however, democracies. The translation of gana and sangha as ‘republic’ is misleading. Power was vested in the hands of an aristocracy comprising the heads of leading Kshatriya families.
      • There was no single hereditary monarch. Instead, there was a chief (known variously as ganapati, ganajyestha, ganaraja, or sanghamukhya) and an  aristocratic council which met in a hall called the santhagara.
    • Meetings at the santhagara:
      • Meetings at the santhagara of the ganas were probably announced by the beating of a drum, and there may have been a regulator of seats.
      • Voting was done with pieces of wood known as salakas.
      • The collector of votes was the salaka-gahapaka, chosen for this job on account of his reputation for honesty and impartiality.
      • The gana-puraka was responsible for ensuring the presence of a quorum, which was required for major deliberations.
    • The assemblies were dominated by oligarchs. The real power lay in the hands of tribal oligarchies.
      • The absence of monarchy did not really mean the prevalence of democracy in the true sense of the term.
      • In the republics of Sakyas and Lichchhavis the ruling class belonged to the same clan and the same varna (mostly kshatriya).
      • The ganas were closely associated with the Kshatriyas and were named after the ruling Kshatriya clan; members were linked to each other through real or claimed kinship ties.
      • However, apart from this hereditary elite, various other groups- Brahmanas, farmers, artisans, wage labourers, slaves, etc. – lived in these principalities and had a subordinate status, politically, and probably also economically and socially. They were not entitled to use the clan name and did not have rights of political participation. For instance, Upali, the barber who lived in Sakya territory, and Chunda, the metal smith who lived in Malla territory, were not part of the ruling elite and did not attend the assembly.
      • Although in the case of the Lichchhavis of Vaisali 7707 rajas sat on the assembly held in the motehall, the brahmanas were not included in this group.
      • In post-Maurya times, in the republics of the Malavas and the Kshudrakas, the kshatriyas and the brahmanas were given citizenship, but slaves and hired labourers were excluded from it.
      • In a state situated on the Beas river in Panjab, membership was restricted to those who could supply at least one elephant to the state. This was a typical oligarchy in the Indus basin.
      • This proves that the republican system was in essence oligarchical. The assembly of rajas usually met once a year to transact public business and elect their leader, who had a fixed tenure.
        • The Lichchhavi assembly had sovereign power and could pronounce death or exile punishments.
          • Effective executive power and day-to-day political management must have been in the hands of a smaller group.
        • Significantly, women were not included in the assembly.
        • The strict control which non-monarchical governments exercised over their domains through executive edicts and legislation expose their undemocratic character.
          • A Buddhist narrative tells us that on the occasion of the Buddha’s visit to the city of Pava the Mallas issued a decree that a general welcome should be given to him, and enforced it by the penalty of a heavy fine for default. It reveals the authoritarian character.
          • If credence is given to a Jataka story, there was a ban among the Shakyas on the marriage of a girl even with a king of supposedly low status; nor was it permitted for people of unequal birth to dine together.
          • These laws enacted by the ‘republican’ states to control the private and family life of individual members of society are no better than those evolved by the brahmana authors of the Dharmasutras.
        • The republics could not do away with the essential organizational and ideological features of the monarchies. The governments of the Lichchhavis, Shakyas and Mallas possessed all the paraphernalia of a monarchical state apparatus. They could not rise above the level of ‘distorted republics’
    • Effective  executive power and day-to-day political management must have been in the hands of a smaller group. The political system of the ganas seems to have been a compromise between government by assembly and by an oligarchy within this assembly.
  • The administrative machinery
    • The administrative machinery of the Sakyas and Lichchhavis was simple.
      • It consisted of raja, uparaja (vice-king), senapati (commander) and bhandaganka (treasurer).
    • We hear of as many as seven courts for trying the same case one after another in the Lichchhavi republic but this seems to be too good to be true.
    • The elder members of the aristocratic families (rajakulas) formed the core of the assembly; in one case the rajakulas are credited with the right of declaring war.
  • Example of Lichchhavis:
    • The Lichchhavis of Vaishali had, according to the Ekapana Jataka, 7707 rajas  to govern the realm, and a similar number of uparajas (subordinate kings), senapatis (military commanders) and bhandagarikas (treasurers) and they were all given to argument and disputation. The Mahavastu, however, puts the number at 168,000 rajas in Vaishali.
    • These  figures should not be taken literally but they definitely suggest that the Lichchhavis had a large assembly, comprising the heads of Kshatriya families who called themselves rajas. They usually met once a year to transact public business and elect their leader, who had a fixed tenure.
    • The uparajas may have been the eldest sons of the rajas.
    • The Lichchhavi assembly had sovereign power and could pronounce death or exile punishments.
    • Daily administrative matters were dealt with by a smaller council of nine men in the name of larger assembly.
    • Women, significantly, were not included in the assembly.
    • It is possible, even likely, that the procedures of the Buddhist monastic order (sangha) were patterned on the sangha polities, especially the Lichchhavis.
  • Influence of the monarchies:
    • Members of the republican assembly bore the title raja or king.
    • The head of the state was a senapati, the term denoting commander of the army in the monarchical system.
    • Even the officers of the republics bore the same titles as their counterparts in the contemporary monarchies.
      • Such common terms as mahamatta (mahamatya) and amachchha (amatya) were used to describe officers both in the republics and the kingdoms.
      • This proves that post-Vedic republics were greatly influenced by the monarchies of the time.
  • In any case certain states in the age of, the Buddha were not ruled by hereditary kings, but by persons who were responsible to the assemblies.

Other characteristics of Gana sanghas:

  • The gana sanghas had two divisions in the societies—the kshatriya rajakula or the ruling families and the dasa karmakara or slaves and labourers.
  • Gana sanghas did not observe a varna society.
  • These republican states had a Gana-parishad or an Assembly of senior and responsible citizens. This Gana-Parishad had the supreme authority in the state. All the administrative decisions were taken by this Parishad.
  • The rajas sat as representatives in the assembly meetings of the ruling families. He enjoyed social and political powers.
  • Land ownership in Ganas:
    • In a gana sangha land was owned by the clan, but the hired labourers and slaves worked on it.
    • The Kshatriya political elite were probably also the largest landowners in the ganas.
    • Walter Ruben suggests that the clan exercised rights over land, and private property may have been absent.
  • The gana sanghas tolerated individual and independent opinions and unorthodox views.
  • The gana sanghas ruled over a small geographical area.
  • Gana-sangha an be seen as a proto state.
    • It was unlike a kingdom, since power was diffused, stratification of society was limited an ramification of administration and coercive authority was not extensive.
  • Despite being conquered periodically, resilience of Gana-angha was demonstrated by their reappearance and continued presence until mid-1st millennium AD. Though The republican tradition became weak from maurya period onwards.

Differences with Monarchies:

  • In the monarchies the king claimed to be the sole recipient of revenue from the peasants, but in the republics this claim was advanced by every tribal oligarch who was known as raja.
    • Each one of the 7707 Lichchhavi rajas maintained his store-house and apparatus of administration.
  • Again, every monarchy maintained its regular standing army and did not permit any group or groups of people to keep arms within its boundaries.
    • But in a tribal oligarchy each raja was free to maintain his own little army under his senapati, so that each of them could compete with the other.
  • The brahrnanas exorcised great influence in monarchy, but they had no place in the early republics, nor did they recognize these states in their law-books because they did not get privilege in republics like they got in monarchies.
  • The main difference between a monarchy and a republic lay in the fact that the latter functioned under the leadership of oligarchic assemblies and not of an individual, as was the case with the former.
  • Unlike monarchies, the kingship in the republics was not supposed to be hereditary. The chief was usually elected and was known as mahasammata, the great elect.
  • Whereas the monarchies were concentrated in the Gangetic Plains, the republics were ranged round the north­ern periphery of these kingdoms-in the foothills of the Himalayas and just south of these, and in north-western India in modern Punjab.
    • Size of states near foothill were smaller in comparison to Gangetic plain and so it was easy to maintain republic form of government as kings would have been represented easily in the assembly of smaller states.
    • If states become big, due to several factors like distance, it was not possible to have representative for of government.
Factors responsible for decline of Republics:
  • The republican tradition became feeble from the Maurya period. Even in pre-Maurya times, monarchies were far stronger and common.
  • The history of the ganas of ancient India spanned a thousand years or so. They were eventually defeated by the monarchical states.
    • Their military defeats at the hands of monarchical states can be seen as a result of the inability of their system of governance and military organization to meet the challenges of empire building.
  • The chief cause of decline of the republics was internal quarrels between clans and groups in the state.
    • Due to internal conflict only, great republics of Andhaka-Vrishnis, the Vajjis and the Videhas were destroyed.
    • Their greatest asset – governance through discussion – proved to be their greatest weakness as well because it paved the way for internal dissension, particularly when threatened by the aggressive monarchies.
      • The ambitions of monarchical states were reflected in the political vocabulary of the time, in terms such as chakravartin, samrat, and sarvabhauma. These signified a ‘universal ruler’, one who aimed at establishing his rule over all of Jambudvipa, i.e., the subcontinent. Several centuries later, the rulers of Magadha succeeded in translating this ambition into reality.
  • Power in the republics was concentrated in the hands of a few clans who were not ready to give to other sections of the society.
    • The Kshatriyas did not consider other classes of society equal to them, hence, they were not in a position to increase the circle of their influence.
    • As a result, compared to their monarchical counterparts their power essentially remained modest.
  • Republics did not stick to principle of the election of the most meritorious person as the leadership was given to person on the basis of birth and the principle of hereditary succession was slowly introduced, sacrificing foundation principle of the gana – samghas.
  • Caste arrogance and caste system was one of the reasons for the decline of the republics because the republics could not accept the people born in other castes on the basis of equality.
    • As a result, despite having democratic ideology the republics could not bring about unity in their own state.
  • Kautilya‘s Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft, outlines the special strategies that a would be conqueror could use to vanquish the ganas and these were directed towards creating dissension among their ranks.
  • Empire building and universal rule, the ambitions of monarchical states, spurred their military victories over the ganas, whose system of governance and military organization were unable to meet these challenges.
  • Unlike the monarchies, standing armies might not have existed in the ganas.
    • The Lichchhavis had a strong army but, when not engaged in battle, the soldiers probably retired to their lands.
  • Most of the ganas, especially the politically important ones, were located in or near the Himalayan foothills in eastern India, while the major kingdoms occupied the fertile alluvial tracts of the Ganga valley. Due to this ganas lacked resources vis-a-vis monarchies.
    • The republics due to their small size and limited resources could not match the strength of monarchies.
  • After the decline of the Mauryas the republics again raised their heads and flourished for a couple of centuries but ultimately all these republican states were destroyed by the imperial Guptas who pursued the policy of extension of the empire and that of annexing the neighbouring states. A few of them were destroyed by Chandra Gupta I, most of them by Samudra Gupta and the rest of them by Chandra Gupta II.
The Kingdom (Monarchy)
  • A kingdom means a territory ruled by a king or queen. In the 6th century B.C. along with the gana sanghas some kingdoms also emerged particularly in the Ganges plains. The land of these kingdoms was more fertile and people settled there at a later period than the gana sanghas.
  • In a kingdom, the king enjoyed the sovereign power. All functions of the government centered round him. The king could compel obedience to laws and use force if necessary. There were customary laws of jatis and the region. Obedience to these two types of laws continued throughout ages. In a kingdom a family which rules over a long period becomes a dynasty.
  • A king was assisted by advisory councils such as sabha and parisad. Earlier, people were more loyal to the clans. It weakened in a kingdom. Loyalty was shifted to the caste of an individual and to the king. Kingdoms were expanded over a large area and it weakened the popular assemblies. Three important kingdoms of this period were Kasi, Kosala, and Magadha. They often fought for the control of the Ganges plains for strengthening defence and economy.
  • Important characteristics of a kingdom :
    • Kingship was attributed to the wishes of God.
    • Importance of the priests and Vedic rituals increased.
    • Earlier, there was a rivalry between the brahmanas (priests) and kshatriyas (rulers), but in a kingdom they supported each other.
    • Instead of voluntary tributes of the earlier period, kings started collecting compulsory taxes. like bali, bhaga, kara and sulka or toll duties.
    • There was a clear division between the ruler and the ruled ,the rich and the poor.
    • Some individuals or families possessed more lands than the others.
    • The state had all rights over unused lands.
    • After clearing wastelands or unused land the king received a tax from the cultivators, which was usually one sixth of the produce.
    • In a kingdom the state generally controlled the means of production and distribution.

Administration in the monarchies:

  • The most imp feature of the administrative machinery was the rise of a class of officials known as mahamatras.
  • General affairs – sarvarthaka
    Justice – vyavaharika
    Army – sena nayaka
    Work of cadastral survey or measurement of the king’s share in the produce – rajjugahakas
    Chief accountant – ganaka
  • The chariots were drawn by horses or wild asses and carried six men, of whom two were bowmen, two were shield bearers and two were charioteers.
  • Bhaga was the most imp source of state revenue which gave the king an epithet known as shadabhagin.
    Grama-bhojaka was the most imp revenue collecting authority.
    Toll officer – shaulikika in the dharmasutras and shulkadhyaksha in the pali texts.

Difference between Republic and Democracy:

  • Many confuse a republic with a democracy. To know the difference between the two, let us first start with a monarchy. A monarchy is a form of government  where the governance is carried out by a private individual (king or the emperor) who are not accountable to anybody else. A democracy is a form of government where the governance is carried out by representatives who are elected by the people. Now, if it is only a democracy, then again these elected representatives who rule the country will not be answerable to anybody as they will have not to follow any rules while governing the country.
  • This is where a republic comes into picture. A republic is a government where the governance has to abide by a predefined set of rules, generally called as the “Constitution”. So those who govern the country in a republic should always abide by the rules defined in the Constitution and should never violate them.
  • In republic Mahajanapadas, there was no real democracy as not everyone had right to choose their representatives. Only upper layer of society like Brahmanas, Kshatriyas had chance to have say in the representations.

7 thoughts on “Formation of States (Mahajanapadas): Republic and Monarchies”

    1. read reasons of rise of maghada .. they took advantage of geographical condition as well as political

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