Good governance of the Hindus in Ancient India

Good governance of the Hindus in Ancient India

The saying of the greatest English exponent of Political Philosophy, Edmund Burke, that no country in which population flourishes can be under a bad Government, introduces us to the subject of the political constitution of Ancient India. Burke lays down two important standards to test the good or bad government of a nation:

  • Population, and
  • Wealth

All the Ancient Greek writers and travellers are agreed that the Ancient Aryas were the largest nation on the earth.

Appollodorus states that ” there were between the Hydaspes and Hypanis (Hypasis) 1,500 cities, none of which was less than Cos.”

Megasthenes says that “there are 120 nations in India.” Arrian admits that the Indians were the most numerous people and that it was impossible to know and enumerate the cities in Aryavarta. Strabo says that Eukratides was the master of 1,000 cities between Hydaspes and Hyphasis. Professor Max Dunker says “the Indians were the largest of the nations.”

Ctesias states that “they (Hindus) were as numerous as all the other nations put together.”

But the most important proof of the over-abundant population of Ancient India is to be found in the successive waves of emigration from India to the different parts of the world, founding colonies and planting settlements in what are now called the Old and the New Worlds.

As regards wealth, India has always been famous for its immense riches. “Golden India” is a hack-eyed phrase. Both in population and in wealth, India, at one time was not only pre-eminent but was without a rival.

What higher authority, what more positive proof of the good government of Ancient India is required than the fact that ” Ancient India knew no thieves,” nor knew why to shut the doors of its houses even at the time when, according to Dr. Johnson, ” the capital of the most civilized nation of modern times is the true Satan-at-home.”

‘ Prepare for death, if here at night you roam,
And sign your will before you sleep from home.’

The form of Government depends upon the character of a people, the conditions of life, obtaining among them, and the principles of their social system.

With changes in respect of these matters, the form of Government also undergoes a change. Broadly speaking, the best form of Government is that which enables only men of high character, noble minds, wide sympathies, men of sterling qualities and talents to rise to the top, and prevents men of shallow minds, mean capacities, narrow sympathies, and unscrupulous characters from coming into power, it being always understood that the proper functions of Government are only

  • National defence, and
  • Protection of one individual or of one class from another.

The form of Government may vary, but the spirit depends on the ethical side of a people’s character. It is well said:

Political rights, however broadly framed,
Will not elevate a people individually depraved.

If high moral principles guide the people in their daily conduct as a nation, the Government of that nation is free from those party strifes, that incessant warfare raged by one individual against another and by one class against another for power or for protection, which is a leading feature of all European and American Governments of the present day. It is this law that discovers to us the eternal principle, that spiritual elevation not only helps material prosperity but is essential to the happiness of a people, and that it is an index to the realization of the aim and object of all government.

Mr. Herbert Spencer says:

“There has grown up quite naturally, and indeed almost inevitably among civilized peoples, an identification of freedom with the political appliances established to maintain freedom. The two are confused together in thought; or, to express the fact more correctly, they have not yet been separated in thought. In most countries during past times, and in many countries at the present time, experience has associated in men’s minds the unchecked power of a ruler with extreme coercion of the ruled.

Contrariwise, in countries where the people have acquired some power, the restraints on the liberties of individuals have been relaxed; and with advance towards government by the majority, there has, on the average, been a progressing abolition of laws and removal of burdens which unduly interfered with such liberties.

Hence, by contrast, popularly governed nations have come to be regarded as free nations; and possession of political power by all is supposed to be the same thing as freedom. But the assumed identity of the two is a delusion—delusion, which, like many other delusions, results from confounding means with ends. Freedom in its absolute form is the absence of all external checks to whatever actions the will prompts; and freedom in its socially-restricted form is the absence of any other external checks than those arising from the presence of other men who have like claims to do what their wills prompt.

The mutual checks hence resulting are the only checks which freedom, in the true sense of the word, permits. The sphere within which each may act without trespassing on the like spheres of others, cannot be intruded upon by any agency, private or public, without an equivalent loss of freedom; and it matters not whether the public agency is autocratic or democratic: the intrusion is essentially the same.”

It is due to a thorough recognition of this truth that the Indian sages laid so much stress on the necessity of formation of Hindu character on ethical and altruistic principles, to secure political as well as social prosperity. The higher the ethical development of character, the greater the freedom enjoyed by a people. It is in this sense true that the best-governed people is the least governed people. Over-government is an evil, a positive evil and a very frequent evil. Over-government defeats its own ends. The real object of government is frustrated: its proper functions are neglected.

Mr. Herbert Spencer says :

“Among mechanicians it is a recognized truth that the multiplication of levers, wheels, cranks &c., in an apparatus, involves loss of power, and increases the chances of going wrong. Is it not so with Government machinery, as compared with the simpler machinery men frame in its absence ?

Moreover, men’s desires when left to achieve their own satisfaction, follow the order of decreasing intensity and importance: the essential ones being satisfied first. But when, instead of aggregates of desires spontaneously working for their ends we get the judgments of Governments, there is no guarantee that the order of relative importance will be followed, and there is abundant proof that it is not followed. Adaptation to one function pre-supposes more or less unfitness for other functions ; and pre -occupation with many functions is unfavourable to the complete discharge of anyone. Beyond the function of national defence, the essential function to be discharged by a Government is that of seeing that the citizens in seeking satisfaction for their own desires, individually or in groups, shall not injure one another ; and its failure to perform this function is great in proportion as its other functions are numerous.

The daily scandals of our judicial system, which often brings ruin instead of restitution, and frightens away multitudes who need protection, result in large measure from the pre-occupation of statesmen and politicians with non-essential things, while the all essential thing passes almost unheeded.”

In ancient India, owing to the high ethical and spiritual development of the people, they were not over governed. They enjoyed the greatest individual freedom compatible with national cohesion and national security.  It is owing to this want of ethical and altruistic development of character of the Westerners that freedom, in its true sense, is not yet enjoyed in Europe and America.

Mr. Herbert Spencer says:

“Only along with the gradual moulding of men to the social state has it become possible, without social disruption for those ideas and feelings which cause resistance to unlimited authority, to assert themselves and to restrict the authority.

At present the need for the authority, and for the sentiment which causes submission to it, continues to be great. While the most advanced nations vie with one another it is manifest that their members are far too aggressive to permit much weakening of restraining agencies by which order is maintained among them. The unlimited right of the majority to rule is probably as advanced a conception o£ freedom as can safely be entertained at present, if, indeed, even that can safely be entertained.

After the Mahabharata, the Hindu statesmen tried to preserve as much of the old Constitution as they could, while providing for the assimilation of new elements consequent on the slightly-changed conditions of life. Burke truly snys that the true statesman is he who preserves what is acquired and leaves room for future improvement. Thus, though the comparative neglect of the ethical and spiritual culture of the Hindus after the beginning of the Kaliyuga affected their individual freedom, yet the groundwork of the Constitution being sound, it was able to adapt itself to changing circumstances, and, as the necessities of the situation plainly demanded, more heed was paid to the conservative principles than the progressive ones. But the spirit of the Constitution was never affected till its practical dissolution with the advent of the foreigners in India.

” Arrain mentions with admiration that every Indian is free.” (Lieutenant- Colonel Mark Wilks, while discussing the political system in its provincial working says :Each Hindu township is, and indeed always was, a particular community or petty republic by itself.”

” The whole of India, “ he says again,” is nothing more than one vast congeries of such republics.”

These facts do not seem to support the theory that representative government does not suit the genius of the Hindus. Even Mr. James Mill is forced to admit that ” in examining the spirit of these ancient Constitutions and laws, we discover evident traces of a germ of republicanism.”

As regards the executive system, Professor Max Dunker says :

” The king placed officers over every village (called pati), and again over ten or twenty villages (gramh), so that these places with their acreage formed together a district. Five or ten such districts formed a canton which contained a hundred communities, and over this, in turn, the king placed a higher magistrate ; ten of these cantons form a region which thus comprised a thousand villages, and this was administered by a Governor. The overseers of districts were to have soldiers at their disposal to maintain order (Police). This is of itself evidence of an advanced stage of administration.”

The Police of India was excellent. Megasthenes says, that in the camp of Sandrocottus, which he estimates to have contained 400,000 men, the sums stolen daily did not amount to more than Rs. 30.

As regards the strength of the representative institutions, Sir Charles Metcalfe says : ” The village communities are little republics having nearly everything they can want within themselves and almost independent of any foreign nation. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down, revolution succeeds revolution, and Pathan, Moghul, Mahriitta, Sikh, English are all masters in turn, but the village communities remain the same.

This union of village communities, each oiie forming a separate little State in itself, is in a high degree conducive to their (Hindu) happiness, and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence.”

The benevolent nature of the Hindu civilization is proved by the fact that the Hindu Colonies and dependencies enjoyed the same Constitution as the mother country. Sir Stamford Raffles says about Bali, an island east of Java:

” Here, together with the Brahminical religion is still preserved the ancient form of Hindu municipal polity.”

Hindu works on diplomacy, polity and government (though few are now extant) show the high development that political thought reached in those days. Some of them have been translated into Persian and thence into European languages. Abu Sabhhad had the Rajniti translated into Persian in 1150 A.D. Buzarchameher, the renowned minister of Nausherwan the Just, received his political education and training in India.

Law is a test of good government. The great Hindu work on law is a marvel of simplicity and wisdom. Without being complex, it satisfied all the diverse wants of the people. Its provisions did not change every week, and yet they suited the varied circumstances of Hindu society.

Sir W. Jones says :

” The laws of Manu very probably were considerably older than those of Solon or even of Lycurgus, although the promulgation of them, before they were reduced to writing, might have been coeval with the first monarchies established in Egypt and India.”

The English derived their laws from the Romans, who, in their turn, derived them from Greece. During the Decemvirate, Greece seems to have been indebted to India for its laws.

Sir W. Jones says :

” Although perhaps Manu was never in Crete, yet, some of his institutions may well have been adopted in that island, whence Lycurgus a century or two after may have imported them into Sparta.”

The Bible in India says that the Manu Smriti was the foundation upon which the Egyptian, the Persian, the Grecian and the Roman Codes of law were built, and that the influence of Manu was still every day felt in Europe.

Professor Wilson says, the Hindu had ” a code of Laws adapted to a great variety of relations which could not have existed except in an advanced condition of social organization.”

Coleman says:

“The style of it (Manu) has a certain austere majesty that sounds like the language of legislation and extorts a respectful awe. The sentiments of independence on all beings but God, and the harsh administrations even to kings are truly noble, and the many panegyrics on the Gayatri prove the author to have adored that divine and incomparably-greater light which illumines all, delights all, from which all proceed, to which all must return, and which can aloneirradiate our intellect.”

Dr. Robertson says:

” With respect to the number and variety of points the Hindu code considers it will bear a comparison with the celebrated Digest of Justinian, or with the systems of jurisprudence in nations most highly civilized. The articles of which the Hindu code is composed are arranged in natural and luminous order.

They are numerous and comprehensive, and investigated with that minute attention and discernment which are natural to a people distinguished for acuteness and subtlety of understanding, who have been long accustomed to the accuracy of judicial proceedings, and acquainted with all the refinements of legal practice. The decisions concerning every point are founded upon the great and immutable principles of justice which the human mind acknowledges and respects in every age and in all parts of the earth.

Whoever examines the whole work cannot entertain a doubt of its containing the jurisprudence of an enlightened and commercial people.  Whoever looks into any particular title will surprised with a minuteness of detail and nicety of distinction which, in many instances, seem to go beyond the attention of European legislation; and it is remarkable that some of the regulations which indicate the greatest degree of refinement were established in periods of the most remote antiquity.”

Mr. Mill says that “the division and arrangement of Hindu law is rude and shows the barbarism of the nation”; upon which Professor Wilson, with his usual candour, remarks : ” By this test, the attempt to classify would place the Hindus higher in civilization than the English.”

Mr. Mill’s review of Hindu religion and laws is a piece of stupendous perversity, ignorance and stupidity. Professor Wilson speaks of it in the following terms :

” The whole of this review of the religion as well as of the laws of the Hindus is full of serious defects arising from inveterate prejudices and imperfect knowledge.”

Of Mill’s History of British India, Prof. Max Muller says :

“The book which I consider most mischievous, nay, which I hold responsible for some of the greatest misfortunes that have happened in India, is Mills’ History of India, even with the antidote against its poison which is supplied by Professor Wilson’s notes. “I, Professor Max Muller deplores that “the candidates for the Civil Service of India are recommended to read it and are examined in it. “

What wonder, then, that there is often misunderstanding between the rulers and the ruled in India!

While discussing Mill’s views, Professor Wilson again says :

“According to this theory (Mill’s theory contained in his explanation of the causes of complex procedure in the English courts of law) the corruption of the judge is the best security for justice. It would be dangerous to reduce this to practice.”

An eminent authority’, the late Chief Justice of Madras, Sir Thomas Strange, says of the ‘ Hindu Law of Evidence :

” It will be read by every English lawyer with a mixture of admiration and delight, as it may be studied by him to advantage.”

A writer in the Asiatic Journal (p. 14) says :

” All the requisite shades of care and diligence, the corresponding shades of negligence and default are carefully observed in the Hindu law of bailment, and neither in the jurisprudence nor in the legal treatises of the most civilised States of Europe are they to be found more logically expressed or more accurately defined. In the spirit of Pyrrhus’ observation on the Roman legions, one cannot refrain from exclaiming, “I see nothing barbarous in the jurisprudence of the Hindus.”

Of the Commentary of Calluca on Manu, Sir W. Jones says :

” It is the shortest yet the most luminous; the least ostentatious yet the most learned ; the deepest yet the most agreeable commentary ever composed on any author ancient or modern, European or Asiatic.”’

~ Har Bilas Sarda, Superiority of the Hindus, 1906


  • Eliphinstone’s India
  • History of Nations, Strabo
  • History of Antiquity
  • Herbert Spencer’s Autobiography
  • Indica
  • Diodoras
  • Historical Sketches of the South of India
  • Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons, 1882
  • Description of Java, Vol II
  • Brigg’s Land Tax of India
  • Houghton’s Institutes of Hindu Law
  • Mill’s India
  • Coleman’s Mythology of the Hindus
  • Max Muller’s India: What can it teach us