Canberra, 26 January 2013
Starting from around 600 BC, within a short span of about three centuries, two disparate developments changed the face of North India forever. First, the geographically small clan and sub-clan holdings of the Vedic Period gradually got subsumed into a complex system of larger entities that were fundamentally divided between clan-states and kingdoms—established through warfare, alliances and even duplicitous dealings. Second, a combination of the systemic power that the rulers (heads of clans) were able to wield and the adoption of iron technology produced enormous agricultural surpluses that in turn created a new urbanisation leading to great dynamism in the socio-economic life of the newly formed states. With these two occurrences the Gangetic plain became the centre of activity in the sub-continent. There was also a decline in the importance of the more western settlements at the frontier with Persia (Iran), with the exception of Taxila (Takshila), explained later in this chapter. This urbanisation also had a different and unintended fall-out. The urban people were less enamoured by the Brahmanic practices and resented the priestly hegemony, which led to the development of various dissenting religious practices, two of which—Jainism and Buddhism—went on to gain independent status as religions over a period of time. Although a great deal of turmoil was apparent in these 300 years, Indian intellectual development continued unabated with new literature, of great import, being added to the already enormous quantum of Vedic knowledge that had been compiled during the previous millennium.
The preceding Vedic Period was predominantly one of accommodation with only occasional clashes between clans. The geographical area under a clan was normally known by the clan name. In order to maintain hold of the land and to administer it effectively required some form of political organisation, which gave rise to the gana-sangha, a chiefdom that was a proto-state. Gana-sangha essentially means a ‘government by discussion’ or a rudimentary republic. In this there is an obvious parallel to the republics of the Greek democracies that were flourishing at the same time. This democratic outlook is understandable since the clans tended to be more egalitarian and had institutionalised the consultative process of governance from Vedic times. The government consisted of an open samiti where all clan members were allowed to have their say and the sabha and parishad with more restrictive membership where the decisions to be taken were discussed in greater detail. [In kingdoms and monarchies that evolved at a later date, the sabha grew into the ministerial advisory councils.] Within a gana-sangha power was diffused and there was very little stratification of society; it was an arrangement that was as close to a democratic entity as could be found at that time. The concept had obvious attraction for the people and was very resilient, with gana-sanghas lasting till about 500 AD in progressively evolved forms before they were completely supplanted by kingdoms and monarchies.
The evolution from clan-managed (democratically administered) land holdings to sovereign states or kingdoms (autocratic rule) is a great conceptual leap in terms of the radical changes that are involved in such a move. Therefore, when analysing this transformation it is necessary to identify the minimum characteristics that are required for a clan-state to be considered as having been converted into a kingdom. At a fundamental level there are six criteria that must be met before a gana-sangha can be classified as having become a kingdom and a sovereign political entity—the ruler should control a defined geographic area that is recognised by other clans and states as belonging to a particular state; there must be a minimum density of population with a concentrated requirement for resources; an urban centre must be the seat of political authority, which must be administering a centralised management system of the state with an awareness of the importance of diplomacy; the broader society of the kingdom must contain diverse communities and must be accepting of a stratified socio-economic system that could also embed unequal status for individuals; the state must be able to produce ‘things’ for domestic consumption as well as for external trade; and there must be a mechanism for the assertion of the governing authority through the creation of a standing military force that can be used as an agency of coercion and for the enforcement of rules and laws.
Geography and Politics. By 600 BC India was considered to consist of five large regions—Madhyadesha (The Middle Country); Praticya (the western lands); Pracya (the east); Uttarapatha (the northern route); and Dakshinapatha (the southern route). The Madhyadesha inititally centred on the plains of Kurukshetra but eventually came to encompass the Ganga-Yamuna doab and south towards the Vindhya and Aravalli ranges, an area that came to be called Aryavarta in later centuries. The western lands of Praticya contained what is modern day eastern Afghanistan, spreading to the east till the Aravalli hills. The area east of the doab and surrounding areas, all the way to the Gangetic delta at the Bay of Bengal was Pracya. This was the area that would determine the destiny of India for the next thousand years. Uttarapathah, the northern route, led to the north and northwest, across the Himalayas and the Pamirs towards Central Asia. This rugged and mountainous terrain was (and still is) occupied by hardy, self-sufficient and fiercely independent tribal groups who interacted with both Praticya and Madhyadesha. [The Uttarapathah was the main axis of ‘Aryanisation’, then the route for Buddhist proselytisation, and also for the spread of Magadhan imperialism. The trappings of statehood travelled along this trail.] These four regions were fairly well defined by about 600-500 BC. In contrast, the Dakshinapathah was less clearly demarcated. [This route is also supposed to be the trail that the yadavas followed to Malwa (later Avanti) and Gujerat at an earlier time.] Initially the south began where the north finished, a little distance south of the doab region, but the inexorable expansion of Madhyadesha southwards continued to push the border south till the Vidhya ranges were established as the dividing boundary. [The people of Praticya and Madhyadesha looked down on the Eastern frontier people of Pracya (modern-day Bihar and Bengal) as ‘mleccha’ (meaning uncouth) till the eastern settlements evolved into a network of proto-states and assumed the trappings of greater wealth and status and started to disparage the westerners as ‘vratya’ (or degenerate). It is interesting to view these changes from the perspective of analysing them after nearly 2500 years of this curious alteration of perception.]  
State- Formation
The formation of clan-states was facilitated by the development of the heavy plough—some driven by eight or even more oxen—which was the epitome of high-technology for the period. This also altered the social and economic conditions for the better with reduction in migratory movements and increasing the importance of agriculture for the prosperity of the state. By around 600-500 BC there were well established states across the entire Gangetic plain from the Punjab all the way to the delta at the Bay of Bengal. The establishment of agriculture as the primary source of wealth of the state had salutary influence in further socio-economic developments. The fundamental change was that ownership of land—so far communal in the pastoral and semi-nomadic communities—started to be claimed by the grahapatis (heads of families) whose families were cultivating a particular part of the communal land in an almost hereditary manner. In other words, cultivable land progressively came to be ‘owned’ by families rather than the clan. This led to establishment of the grama (village) as a permanent entity near the agricultural land, leading to the necessity to demarcate the janapada—ancestral clan territory—in clear geographic terms. It further initiated the requirement for protecting the delineated land area of the janapadas, which retained their original clan names, like Kuru. As some of these entities started to grow larger and more powerful in relative terms they came to be called mahajanapadas, with some of them conforming to the definition and all the requirements to become a state. It was not long before they came to be called ‘rashtra’ or kingdom.
The Buddhist texts of the time list sixteen mahajanapadas—Anga, Magadha, the Vrijji confederacy, Kashi and the Mallas in Pracya; Kosala, Vatsa, Panchala, Kuru, Matsya and Shaurasena in Madhyadesha; Kambhoj and Gandhara in Praticya; and Chedi, Avanti and Assaka in the Dakshinapatha.
With individual family ownership of agricultural land also came the responsibility to contribute to the leadership’s rituals of worship and consecration. Imperceptibly terms such as bali, which originally meant the offering intended for the clan-chief’s sacrificial ritual, [and later came to mean the sacrificial object itself] came into common usage. Bali eventually became a fixed and regular contribution that in turn started to be recorded and ultimately became a tax. In a similar manner bhaga, originally a ‘share’ of the spoils of war extorted by the clan-chief came to be a tax on all produce of the clan, normally set at one sixth. Both these were ‘donated’ in return for assured protection of the clan lands from both external enemies as well as from internal disorder. This dependency on the clan-chief for protection, altered the traditional allegiance and loyalty based on kinship into hard realities of economic and social compulsions. The Brahminic traditions aided and accelerated this fundamental change by supporting the concept of kingship that was being propagated by the priest-chief nexus. In this concept, the kingship was considered to have been pioneered by the gods when they elected Indra as their ‘leader’ when faced with defeat at the hands of the Asuras. This leadership was perpetuated in the role of ‘raja’ or king over a period of time. The same concept was superimposed on the clan society and it was proposed that the chief of the clan should be elected as king and given the basic responsibility for the protection of the mahajanapada—a predominantly a military role. In order to provide a greater sense of authority to the clan-chief, the priests strived to provide divine sanction for his anointment as a ‘king’ through elaborate rituals and celebrations. These rituals and associated mysticism gradually set a precedent for the pomp and ceremony associated with the coronation, giving it a heavenly legality.
…allegiance was now dictated less by the horizontal bonds of kinship and more by the vertical ties of economic and social dependency. Instead of being focused on the tribe of clan, loyalty was increasingly to the territory itself, to the individual or body which had sovereignty over it, and to the town or city where that power resided.
John Keay,
India: A History, Pg 50.
There were two basic differences between a clan-state and a kingdom. First, the clan-states continued to follow a corporate style of governance—the heads of the clan families met in a sabha (or sangha, leading to the term gana-sangha) and decided important matters concerning the clan; the leadership, although highly honoured was not hereditary; and in case of differences of opinion, a decision was made after a vote. [A decidedly democratic process that was greatly treasured by the ‘common population’ of these states.] Second, over a period of time the people of the clan-states cultivated a great degree of anti-Brahminical feeling, probably because the Brahmin-Kshatriya nexus was almost completely against their democratic ruling traditions. In some of the more independent and powerful clan-states the Vedic system of Varna-jati was completely rejected. As a result, the Kshatriya-Brahmin nexus that held sway in most ‘kingdoms’ did not have the same importance or influence in most clan-states. In these states the Kshatriyas did not normally accept the higher status of the Brahmins and also did not give them sufficient respect, prompting the Brahmins to call these Kshatriyas ‘degenerates’. Significantly the dissenting traditions to Hinduism (discussed in Part 8) originated in the more prominent of these clan-states.
There was however a disadvantage that came from the practice of democracy or rule by council—there were always delays in the decision-making process irrespective of the criticality or urgency in deciding the way forward in a crisis. On the other hand, the king (raja) being the supreme ruler—claiming descend from the gods themselves—could count on ‘divinity’ in action and decide what was good for the people. The advantage is obvious; decisions could be made at great speed and implemented immediately. The disadvantage was that a bad ruler (in any way—weak, arrogant, without compassion, selfish etc.) could bring untold suffering to the people through bad, incompetent or spiteful decisions. 
The Second Urbanisation
The progressive state-formation and the gradual centralisation of authority manifest itself as the second urbanisation of the sub-continent, after that of the Harappan Civilisation. Archaeological excavations in Ujjain, Varanasi and Kaushambi (capitol of the Kuru kingdom after Hastinapura) reveal ramparts of towns from around 600 BC. Similar ramparts have also been found in Takshila and Charsadda in the west. However, there is almost nothing of the townships themselves that can be seen since the building construction was of mud and timber. From an archaeological perspective, the period is distinguished by new ceramic ware produced through an invasive process, remnants of which has been found in an area extending (in contemporary geographical terms) in the west to the Punjab, east to Bengal and south as far as Maharashtra, that has been named northern black polished (NBP). Even in the absence of any other corroborative evidence, the large spread of the NBP ware is indicative of a major integrative effort or influence that was a continuous and underlying process during this period. This was also the time when coins, made of silver and copper, appeared for the first time and there is ample reference to banking, money-lending and commodity speculation in contemporary texts. It is certain that a full-fledged and robust economic system was in place. Roads linked all the major towns and cities, although large and bulky cargo was still transported through the well-established river transportation system.
It is in the frontier, where west meets the east, that the finest signs of urbanisation can be found. The city of Takshila was at the eastern end of the Achaemenids’ Indian satrapy and was the point of intersection between the great Persian Empire and the rising states of the Gangetic plains. Herodotus (the Greek historian) has recorded that the Indian satrapy was the wealthiest in the Persian Empire, paying more tribute than Babylon and as much as seven times that of Egypt. Takshila was the centre of learning and brought to the sub-continent the Aramaic script, the first known after the as yet un-deciphered Harappan script. Indian mythology claims that Takshila was founded by Lord Ram’s (the hero-king of the epic Ramayana) nephew, but there is no tangible evidence to support this story. However, the fact is that the city was indeed the ‘knowledge centre’ of the Indian sub-continent for a considerable period of time. It was here that Panini’s grammar—considered to be more scientific than any ‘even dreamed of’ by contemporary Greek grammarians—was written. This work refined the language to an extent that it was said to be ‘sanskrata’, meaning perfected, and hence the name Sanskrit for the language. 
Panini’s Grammar has been termed as:
“…one of the greatest intellectual achievements of any ancient civilisation.”
AL Basham,
The Wonder that was India, pg 390.
It is also in Takshila that Kautilya (or Chanakya) conceived and wrote his masterpiece on statecraft, the Arthasastra that is even today considered relevant to the ruling of a state and developing a viable foreign policy. It is therefore no wonder that the newly emerging kingdoms of the Gangetic plain continued to derive legitimacy for their rule and intellectual nourishment through direct contact with Takshila through the Himalayan Uttarapatha or northern route. [Legitimacy derived from the contact and approval received from the Great Persian Empire and intellectual sustenance received from the developments taking place in the places of learning located in Takshila.]
The Beginning of the Indigenous Imperium…
While Gandhara and western India remained under Achaemenid suzerainty, the first Indian kingdom was rising in the plains of, what is today, southern Bihar—the Kingdom of Magdha at the eastern most point of the Uttarapatha, with its capital at Rajagriha (literal meaning ‘house of the Raja’) later called Rajgir, had started flexing its muscles. The Kingdom of Magadha encompassed the region between the south bank of the River Ganges and the forests of Chota Nagpur further south and between Gaya and Patna in the east-west axis. This axis sort of coincided with the trail that both Gautama the Buddha and Mahavira followed and the wanderings of these two prophets were around the area of the kingdom. Both in the geographical spread and the timeframe of these religious developments coincided with the rise of Magadha as the preeminent kingdom of the sub-continent. The advantage has been that, because of the immaculate records that the followers of both these spiritual leaders kept, there is an accurate record of the rise and establishment of Magadha that is available. These records, from various sources, make it easier to understand the economic, social, political and military activities of the period. This is the portal in Indian history the crossing of which takes the story of India from largely myth and speculation to accurate accounts of authentic historic figures.   

About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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