Tuesday, February 5, 2008

All the king’s men

by Kuldip Dhiman

Governance in Ancient India (From the Rigvedic Period to c. AD 650) by Anup Chandra Pandey. D. K. Printworld, New Delhi. Pages 232. Rs 300.

"A native of the soil, high-born, influential, well-trained in the arts and crafts, far-sighted, wise, of retentive memory, intelligent, skilful, bold, eloquent, sweet in speech, good debater, full of enthusiasm and energy, self-controlled, of amiable nature, firm in royal devotion, free from qualities exciting hatred and enmity, of tested honesty, and possessing an attractive personality." This is the redoubtable Kautilya, or Chanakya, describing the qualities of a civil servant.

In his recent book "Governance in Ancient India", Anup Chandra Pandey brings to light, perhaps for the first time, the way kingdoms were run in ancient India. Culling his material from vedic literature, the epics, and other accounts, Pandey, himself a civil servant, presents an interesting picture of governance in ancient India. It is impossible to believe, the author argues, that these powerful states had not evolved a well-organised administrative and military system manned by specialised functionaries. "They must have raised a financial and fiscal structure to meet the needs of standing armies with their equipment, the civil service with its expanding areas of administration and of public welfare, and of the law enforcing agencies."

Monarchy was no doubt the accepted form of government in ancient India, but the king rarely had unlimited powers. There was always a battery of civil servants to restrain him. And that was why, although we might have had some very incompetent or even bad rulers in the past, we have rarely had tyrants. This, perhaps, also explains why democracy has taken root so quickly and easily in India.

The existence of the civil service in ancient India, the author says, is indicated by a number of technical words like amatya, ratnin, tirtha, mahamatra, adhikratah, narah, raja-bhara-niyukta, sahaya, rajapurusha, rajayukta, etc. The ancients never failed to appreciate the importance of good governance. They believed that if the civil service was vigorous and energetic, the state too would be. Hence, great care was taken while selecting civil servants.

To make sure they got able administrators, candidates were asked to clear various tests such as dharmopadha (to test righteousness), arthopadha (to test resistance to monetary gains), kamopadha (to test the capacity to control desires), and bhayopadha (to test fearlessness) before getting a commission.

In the beginning the kingdoms were rather small, and hence they could be easily managed with the help of a couple of advisers, but by the time of the Atharvaveda the Aryan influence had extended up to Anga, Magadha and also Gandhara. So the civil service grew in size, became a lot more complex, and began to exercise unprecedented power. The Rigveda shows the kind of respect the the civil servant, and especially the purohita commanded: "That king, indeed, overpowers all opposing forces with his valour and might, who maintains Brihaspati (the brahmana priest), well attended and praises and honours him as (a deity) deserving the first share (of the due homage). It was with the help of Angiras, the priest, that Indra destroyed Vala."

We then move on to the epic age, beginning with the Ramayana period when the commonly used word for civil service was amatya, though other words like tirthas, mahamatras, adikritah, raja-bhara-niyukta were also in vogue. Since kingdoms were now larger, the need for the office of Chief Minister had begun to be felt during this period. He was referred to as mantri-shreshtha, or mantri-pati. He was assisted by 18 amatyas who were assigned important portfolios of mantri, purohita, yuvraja, senapati, dauvarika, antahpuradhikrita, etc.

As we enter the more complex Mahabharata society, we see that the word amatya is still in vogue when referring to a civil servant, but the term rajapurusha was also gaining acceptance. During the Mahabharata there were perhaps two bodies of amatyas: the inner council and the mantri parishad. Here again it was emphasised that a king cannot, and should not, rule without an efficient bureaucracy. What are then the qualities of a good bureaucrat? He was expected to be an expert in jnana and vijnana, he should be high-born and well-bred. Military training was compulsory for all. The main task of a minister, in that age, too, was to advise the king on all important matters.

While the root of the kingdom is the spy, its essence is the counsel. Special emphasis was laid on keeping state secrets, while expert spies were sent to the enemy territory to get information about their plans. The main cause of the downfall of a state, the bureaucrats believed, was its inability to keep its plans secret.

One thing that is common in all ancient Indian societies is that the army was never allowed to dominate the Cabinet. "It is significant," the author rightly points out, "that the ancient Indian polity was dominated by the civil element rather than military element. This is the reason why the purohita was given precedence over the senapati, and the king was advised to follow the former as a student would follow his teacher and a servant his master."

The author then takes us to the Mauryan age, and the Gupta age, and the Vardhana age, documenting the way the civil service kept up with the changing cultural and political scenario.

This is a well-researched, well-documented and well-written book that covers uncharted territory. It will particularly be of interest to students and scholars interested in ancient Indian history and political science, and of course anyone interested in writing historical novels.



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