The Early Monarchies: The First Victory of Caste in South Asia
(600-300 BC)

Much of the early history of the South Asian region that has been recorded comes from the painstaking effort to put together historical documents (such as traveler accounts), archeological evidence and the interpretation of literature and moral texts of the times. These accounts lead a student to scattered stories of the populations that lived in the region between Kamboja and Gandhara in the North (modern day Northern Pakistan and Southern Afghanistan), their encounters with the Greeks and the multiple "States" that were spread out all across the lower reaches of the Himalayas and the Gangetic plain , extending down to the Narmada and Godavari rivers further south. It is from within such a milieu of multiple "States" that the Mauryan empire emerged in the fourth century B.C.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this early phase of South Asia is the two distinct forms of organization of "States" that existed. On the one hand there were many monarchical vedic kingdoms where forms of kingship as we have come to know over the centuries seem to be developing. Such early kingdoms included Kosala, Maghada and Kashi. On the other hand, were the republican tribal states that had chosen to retain, resist or leave the formation of monarchies and their Vedic ideas of divinity and authority. The republican states were either single tribe formations (Shakayas, Koliyas) or confederacies of tribes (Vrijis, Yadavas) that were administered through certain notions of consensus and "democratic" practices.

The Vedic Monarchies: If today, we were to ask the question: "Where did the caste formations in Indian society come from?" then one aspect of the answer to such a question would lie in a close examination of the early monarchies. There is evidence to suggest that the monarchies of the sixth to the fourth century B.C showed early signs of the caste society. This included the establishment of the hereditary lineage of kingship - in many early cases of Kshatriya kingship. Practices that are indicative of ritual hierarchy - the centrality of priests to continuing practices of granting divinity to kings all indicate early caste society.

The Republican Tribes: The republican tribes of the sixth to fourth century B.C can be seen as emergent from the earlier tribal formations that settled the northern reaches of the sub-continent. In their gradual transition from tribe to tribe-republics such formations not only resisted the idea of a caste based monarchy but also retained some central ideas of administration of a population from earlier times. These include the idea of a "government through an assembly representing the tribe." Thapar (1975) summarizes this "corporate" aspect of their administration as follows:

The actual procedure of government involved the meeting of the representatives of the tribes or the heads of families in the Public Assemblies or [in the] Moot Hall of the capital city. The assembly was presided over by one of the representatives who took the title raja. This office was not hereditary and he was regarded as the chief rather than a king. The matter for discussion was placed before the assembly and debated and if an unanimous decision could not reached it was put to vote. (p.51)

The early history of this region can therefore be read and understood as a struggle for one of the two formations -monarchies and republican states - to survive. Given their "democratic" nature and their losing battle against Vedic monarchies where extraordinary caste based powers were granted to the Brahmin and the Kshatriya, it was not surprising that the radical new movements of the times such as Buddhism and Jainism that explicitly rejected caste emerged from within such republics rather than vedic monarchies (Buddha was of the Shakaya tribe and Mahavira of the Jnatrika tribe). The three early kingdoms of the Gangetic plains Kashi (modern day Benaras), Kosala (east of Kashi) and Maghada (southern Bihar) battled each other till under Bimbisara, Maghada emerged victorious. However, it was only under Ajatashatru (who killed his father, Bimbisara to become king - a practice seemingly in fashion - as the Maghadan kingdom records five continuous parricide based successions), that Maghada was able to quell the tribal republics. The most notable resistance came from the Vriji (centered near what is today Muzafarpur) tribal confederacy. It was only after a 16 year long struggle that Ajatashatru was able to quell the spirit of the Vriji's. The success of Maghada is summarized by Thapar as follows:

Finally, Maghada was victorious and was recognized as the most powerful force in eastern India. Bimbisara's ambition had been fulfilled. The victory of Maghada was a victory for the monarchical system, which was now firmly established in the Ganges plain (p. 56).

It was the control over the Ganges plain including the river, and thus over trade, that gave the Maghadan kingdom much of its power. However, after the death of Ajatashatru in 461 BC, five more hereditary kings ruled Maghada till 413 BC. Following this were a two short lived kingdoms - Shishunaga and then the Nandas. The Nandas, were the first to upset the clear idea of caste hierarchy in that their founding king - Mahapadma - was not a Kshatriya. Multiple origin stories mark the emerging tussle. Some mark him simply as a shudra. Others report specificities - as a person born to a barber and a courtesan. These tensions, already so visible, account for the extraordinary growth of Buddhism in the region at around the same time. The Nandas put together a methodical administrative structure and ruled over an agrarian economy (that included both canal system and systematic land tax) successfully till the coming of Chandragupta Maurya in 321 BC - and thus the beginning of the Mauryan Empire. However to understand the growth and tenure of the Mauryan empire (especially Ashoka), we need to understand two other important developments - the arrival of the Greeks from the North and the growth of Buddhism.


Thapar,Romila; Indian History vol.1; Penguin , 1981.
Thapar, Romila; Interpreting Early India; Oxford, 1992.
Kosambi, Damodar; An Introduction to the Study of Indian History; Popular Prakashan, 1975.
Panikkar, K. M; Survey of Indian History; Asia Publishing House, 1971.

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