Even though modern India became a republic on 26 January 1950, the oldest republics in the world were from ancient India which predated the times of Mahabharatha. A monarchy is a government where whatever the king or emperor says is the law, and the entire country is run like a private property of the royal family. But in a republic, there is a predefined set of rules written in the form of constitution, and the country or kingdom is a public property. A council of representatives will run the government based on the constitution.

Arashtra (countries without a king) was one of the terms used to describe a republic in ancient India. Other terms describing republics or republic governments were Gana, Gana Parishad, Sangha, etc. The council of representatives was called Sabha or Gana Sangha. Note that the upper house and lower house of the parliament in India today are called Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha respectively.

Ancient Greek works mention that during the invasion of India by Alexander, he encountered many such city states or republics, where a council of elders run the government. The Mahabharata also refers to several Ganas or Republics like Kambhoja.

Oldest Republics of the World

Kalinga (the ancient kingdom in modern day Orissa), with which Ashoka the Great of the Mauryan Empire fought the historic bloody war after which he converted to Buddhism, was a Republic.

One of the oldest republics in the word, the republic of Madra of ancient India continued to be a republic till as recently as the 4th Century. In Mahabharata, Madri, the wife of Pandu and the mother of Nakula and Sahadeva, the two Pandavas, was from this republic of Madra.

Licchavi was an ancient republic which existed in present day Bihar state of India. Licchavi existed before the birth of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. Vaishali was the capital of Licchavi.

Kamboja (located in modern Afghanistan) was a republic during the times of Mahabharata. It was a kingless country where elected chiefs among the people ruled the country. Mahabharata refers to several smallar Gana (or mini republics) of the Kambojas. Kautiliya’s Arthashastra and Ashoka’s Edict No. XIII also mention that the Kambojas followed a republican constitution. Ashoka’s Rock Edicts also mention that Greek people were under the rule of Mauryan Empire of India during the times of Ashoka.

Panchala, located in modern day Uttarkhand and Uttar Pradesh states of India, was a republic in ancient India with a well defined Constitution. This has been mentioned even in the texts like the Artha Shastra of Chanakya.

Malla, near modern day Gorakhpur was another small republic in ancient India. Their government was called a Gana or a Gana Parishad, and each member of the Gana was called a Raja. They even had a system similar to modern day Parliament, and it was called the Santhagara, and all decisions related to governance and new rules were taken at this general assembly.

Vajji (Vrijji) located to the north of Ganga, up till modern day Nepal was another major republic in ancient India. It bordered the republic of Malla.

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) or by a private family (the royal family) 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. Modern India is both a democracy and a republic. The judiciary of India headed by the Supreme Court of India ensures that the government of India always governs without violating the Constitution of India.

If a democracy is not a republic, then its government will have unlimited powers. But if it is a republic, then the powers of the government will be limited by the Constitution of the country.

The 16 ancient Indian Republics
The 16 Republics of ancient India

Mahajanapada – Republics of Ancient India prior to the times of Buddha

There were 16 major countries in ancient India just before the times of Buddha, most of which were republics, and were called the Mahajanapada. These are the oldest and probably the only list of republic forms of governments in the world from a single region which existed during a single era, with many of them neighboring each other.

In Sanskrit, Maha means great, Jana means people and Pada means foot. So Janapada means “foothold of the people” implying “ruled by the common man”, and Mahajanapada means “a great country with people’s rule”. These 16 ancient republics are the largest known oldest republics of the world. Many of these republics were initially kingdoms ruled by monarchs, and later switched to Sangha or Gana system (Republic).  Some continued to have kings, but the governance was carried out in the form of a republic by the appointed or elected representatives, others were pure republics with elected representatives. Very few continued to be ruled under monarchs.

The 16 Mahajanapada republics of ancient India mentioned in the Buddhist texts are

  1. Anga
  2. Assaka
  3. Avanti
  4. Chedi
  5. Gandhara
  6. Kambhoja
  7. Kashi
  8. Kosala
  9. Kuru
  10. Panchala
  11. Magadha
  12. Malla
  13. Matsya
  14. Shoorasena
  15. Vatsa
  16. Vrijji

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