What Were the Ganas and Sanghas of Ancient India Like?

Excerpted with permission from Upinder Singh's 'A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India', 2nd edition.

Ancient Indian texts recognize the difference between the political structure and func­tioning of the rajyas and the ganas or sanghas. Two of the mahajanapadas, the Vajji and Malla, were sanghas. Buddhist texts mention others as well—the Sakyas of Kapilavastu, Koliyas of Devadaha and Ramagrama, Bulis of Alakappa, Kalamas of Kesaputta, Mori­yas of Pipphalivana, and Bhaggas (Bhargas) with their capital on Sumsumara hill. It is interesting to note that 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.

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. There were two kinds of ganas—those that consisted of all or a section of one clan, e.g., the Sakyas and Koliyas; and those that comprised a confederation of several clans, like the Vajjis and Yadavas. The confederacies suggest the existence of a self-conscious political identity among the ganas.

Upinder Singh
A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, 2nd edition
Pearson, 2024

The Sakyas claimed to belong to the Ikshvaku family and the solar dynasty. Their principality was bounded on the east by the Rohini river, the Rapti river to the west and south, and the Himalaya mountains to the north. As for the location of its capital, Kapilavastu, some scholars locate it at Tilaurakot, but there is better reason to locate it at Piprahwa-Ganwaria. The amount of detail regarding the Sakyas in Buddhist texts is due to the fact that the Buddha belonged to this clan. The Sakyas were connected through marriage to the royal house of Kosala. Buddhist texts clearly indicate that the Sakya assembly gathered to discuss important business such as forging alliances, embarking on war, and concluding peace.

The principality of the Koliyas of Ramagrama lay to the east of the Sakyas, the Rohini river forming the boundary between the two. Some texts suggest that the two peoples were related to each other. The Bhaggas seem to have been located in the Vindhyan region, between the Yamuna and Son rivers, and were apparently subordinate to the Vatsas. Little is known about the other ganas.

Early studies on the ganas by Nationalist historians (see, for instance, K. P. Jayaswal) tended to glorify them by exaggerating their democratic features. Comparisons were made with the republics of Greece and Rome and with modern political institu­tions. A lot of this was no doubt to disprove the assertions of Western scholars that Indi­ans had never known anything other than despotic rule. Later writings (e.g., J. P. Sharma) adopted a more dispassionate approach.

Governance in these polities was marked by group solidarity among the ruling elite, who formed an oligarchy. The Arthashastra, a later text, outlines the special strategies that the would-be conqueror could use to vanquish the ganas. Because they were differ­ent, the strategies recommended to defeat monarchies would not work, and Kautilya’s advice focused on creating dissension among their ranks.

The ancient Indian ganas were not like modern democracies. 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. Effective executive power and day-to-day political management must have been in the hands of a smaller group. Even in Athenian democracy where there was an elaborate system of governance involving all citizens, women, slaves, and foreigners did not have political rights. The political system of the ganas seems to have been a compromise between government by assembly and by an oligar­chy within this assembly.

Later texts offer many details about the Lichchhavis. For instance, the Ekapanna Jataka states that in the Lichchhavi capital of Vaishali, there were always 7,707 rajas (kings) to govern the kingdom, and a similar number of uparajas (subordinate kings), senapatis (military commanders), and bhandagarikas (treasurers). The preamble to the Chullakalinga Jataka refers to the 7,707 ruling families of the Lichchhavis and asserts that they were all given to argument and disputation. The Mahavastu, on the other hand, states there were twice 84,000, i.e., 168,000 rajas living in Vaishali.

The figures mentioned in these texts cannot be taken literally, but they suggest that the Lichchhavis had a large assembly, consisting of the heads of Kshatriya families who called themselves raja. They usually met once a year during the spring festival to transact important public business and elect their leader, who had a fixed tenure. The uparajas may have been the eldest sons of the rajas. It was at one of the annual meetings of the great assembly that the Lichchhavis honoured the beautiful courtesan Ambapali. It was also at such meetings that the rajas, old and new, bathed in the sacred pokkharani (tank) mentioned in the Bhaddasala Jataka. The Lichchhavi assembly had sovereign power and could pronounce punishments such as death or exile. Day-to-day administrative matters were dealt with by a much smaller council of nine, which carried out business in the name of the larger assembly. The assembly did not include women.

It is possible, even likely, that the procedures of the Buddhist monastic order (sangha) were patterned on the sangha polities, especially the Lichchhavis. The func­tioning of the two institutions may have been analogous, though not identical. 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.

Buddhist and Jaina texts are more forthcoming than their Brahmanical counter­parts on details regarding the ganas. This is no doubt because kingship was central to the Brahmanical social and political ideology, which equated kinglessness with anarchy.

Monarchies and oligarchies had different internal power equations (as discussed by Walter Ruben). In the ganas, 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 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.

The powerful monarchies of the time eventually developed a standing army—a permanent corps of troops recruited and maintained by the state. Such an organization does not seem to have existed in the ganas. The Lichchhavis had a strong army, but when not engaged in combat, the soldiers probably retired to their lands.

There may also have been differences in patterns of land ownership. 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. Although conclusive evidence is lacking on this point, a custom supposedly practised by the Lichchhavis is suggestive. The story goes that among the Lichchhavis, an exceptionally beautiful woman (e.g., Ambapali) was not allowed to marry, but was to belong (i.e., be available) to all the Lichcchavi men. This may have been an extension of clan rights over other resources such as land.

The ganas’ greatest asset—governance through discussion among the ruling elite—was also their greatest weakness. They were vulnerable to internal dissension, espe­cially when faced with aggressive monarchies. In the Lalitavistara, the future Buddha is described as sitting in heaven, thinking of his impending birth. One of the questions raised is: Which family should he be born in? The other bodhisattvas and gods discuss and reject the candidature of the Lichchhavis of Vaishali. They say that these people do not speak to each other in the proper manner, do not follow the dharma, do not preserve the ranks of social status and age, do not become anybody’s disciples, and each one thinks ‘I am king! I am king!’ The Arthashastra asserts that sanghas were unassailable and advises the king to win over friendly ones. It suggests that the head of a sangha should remain self-controlled and just towards other members, and should do what is beneficial and agreeable to them all.

The Ashtadhyayi mentions several ganas such as the Kshudrakas, Malavas, Ambashthas, Hastinayanas, Prakanvas, Madras, Madhumantas, Apritas, Vasatis, Bhaggas, Shibis, Ashvayanas, and Ashvakayanas. Slightly later references suggest that the Vrishnis, Andhakas, and other allied tribes living in the Mathura region were part of a sangha. Vasudeva Krishna of the Vrishni clan is described as a sangha-mukhya (the head of a sangha). Non-monarchical states are also mentioned in the Mahabharata, Megasthenes’ Indica, and in Greek accounts of Alexander’s invasion.

Names of ganas (e.g., the Yaudheyas, Malavas, Uddehikas, and Arjunayanas) occur on coins of the early centuries CE, and some are also mentioned in inscriptions. In the 4th century CE, Chandragupta I is known to have married a Lichchhavi princess, Kumaradevi, and this marriage was commemorated on gold coins. Samudragupta is known as Lichchhavi-dauhitra (grandson of the Lichchhavis) in inscriptions. Clearly, the Lichchhavis were still a political force worth making an alliance with. However, it was probably Samudragupta’s military campaigns that wiped out the ganas, or at least reduced them to a position of political insignificance.

The history of the ganas of ancient India thus spans at least a thousand years, if not more. 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 ambitions of monarchical states were reflected in the political vocabulary of the time, in terms such as chakravartin, samrat, and sarvabhauma. These signified a ‘world victor’…Several centuries later, the rulers of Magadha suc­ceeded in translating the idea of empire into reality.