The strength of Indian civilization and its unique social hierarchy where the ascetic intellectual, the Brahmin, was placed above the all powerful King, helped in putting restraint on its rulers. However, while this strengthened the ability of the society to reign the King, it also had a weakening effect on the State, which became crucial when India was faced with foreign invaders. The relatively weak State, with limited resources, and unable to indulge in uninhibited violence practiced by their invaders, were often inadequate in their confrontation with foreign invaders. Maybe therein lie several lessons for us.
One of the big mysteries in world history is the manner in which India was conquered repeatedly by foreign invaders during the last thousand years, in spite of its large size, prosperity and its armies. Even the fact that most of the foreign invaders came from societies that were relatively less civilized and far more violent does not adequately explain this aspect. The answer to this actually lies in the State-Society dynamics, wherein a stronger Indian society, thanks to its well established and sophisticated civilization, gave far less space to its Kings and and their establishment than was available to foreign invading States, most of whom enjoyed uninhibited dominance over their people.
The Society-State Dynamics
Political states, in the modern sense of the term, did not exist during the earliest stages of social evolution. As people organized themselves in peaceful and harmonious societies under their own social contract, laying down the unwritten social norms to be followed by all who wished to be part of that society, civilizations began to evolve and mature. In time, leaders emerged from within these societies, and were accepted by the people, giving rise to Chieftains, village heads, Heads of Clan and finally Kings and their establishments, which we now term "State". The dynamics of the relationship between the State and the society varies, depending upon the power of the King having brute force at his disposal, and the society which derived its bargaining power largely from the established social norms and their application to the King.
The extent of sovereign power of the King has, thus, always been a bone of contention, even in the West.
In the medieval times and earlier, the main challenge to it often came from the religious bodies who claimed their authority from the divine. However, with the separation of Church from the State, kingdoms could keep their challenge at bay, and those who were able to do that effectively gained strength and dominated the race. England could be considered a prime example of this phenomenon.
Strengths of Longstanding Civilizations Restricted the Authority of the State
In India, and to certain extent, China, the social norms of the Civilization took firm roots since ancient times. Since the authority of the King is accepted more easily by people unable to discipline themselves, civilized societies like India and China could therefore afford to keep their rulers at an arms' length. In case of both, and more particularly India, the rural nature of society also contributed to this phenomenon, which was in sharp contrast to the urban masses of Western civilization, which could be controlled by their rulers far more easily and effectively.
In India, there were a few other factors too that played a very significant role in defining the State-Society dynamics, and which may have led to the weakness of the State and its consequent vulnerabilities that were easily exploited by foreign invaders. The first was the social hierarchy itself, wherein the King was equally bound by the regulations of "Dharma" ... the unwritten social code of duties that must be religiously followed by every member of the society.
Unique Social Hierarchy of India also kept the King in check
One of the most unique characteristics of Indian civilization is its social hierarchy, wherein the position at the top is reserved for the ascetic intellectual (Brahmin), who is prohibited from striving for either power or wealth, and instead devotes his existence to a highly self-disciplined life, guiding the rest of the society to a common and shared welfare. Those unaware about the ancient Indian practices may find it intriguing that the Kings and soldiers of India often learnt their craft, including the use of arms and fighting skills from these very Brahmins, who, in spite of their abilities, did not strive for political power, and instead, left it for the people in the next rung of the hierarchy (Kshatriyas), which included the King. This moral authority, obtained by the ascetic by virtue of his "Tyaga" (selflessness) was one of the major instruments for the survival of this social order.
In most other societies in the history of mankind, the King was considered a divine figure, and at the top of the social hierarchy. The loyalty to the King was often as important as the loyalty to one's religion. In such cases, the State was usually all powerful, and societies, in spite of the sophistication of its urban etiquettes and prosperity, were usually incapable to challenging or controlling the King. This was largely the situation in the West, till the empowerment of society enabled the strengthening of democratic institutions, followed thereafter by empowerment of judicial institutions. But before this happened, the uninhibited powers of the sovereign Kings allowed them to expropriate resources almost at will, enforce deployment of their subjects in their forces and enforce absolute loyalty to the King.
An important difference between India and China, both of which evolved as great civilizations in ancient times, was the difference in the status of the King in religious philosophies. In China, the Confucian philosophy very strongly advocated absolute loyalty to the King, treating it as one of the fundamental duties of every person. On the other hand, in India all philosophies of "Dharma" (Duties) placed far greater emphasis on one's obligations towards one's family, relatives and friends. As one would expect, the current Chinese rulers find it highly convenient to invoke Confucius as a tool for seeking legitimacy for their authoritarianism.
Diluted Authority of Indian State and King
All these factors indicate that the role and place of King in the ancient Indian society allowed him an authority that was relatively diluted compared to the absolute authority that Kings often enjoyed elsewhere over masses that were still evolving as civilizations. This may have been facilitated by the high prevalence of violence in some societies, since the legitimacy of using violence only favored the authority of the King. Indeed, the military expedition of Alexander, who is considered "great" because of his violent conquests, indicates how easily Western Monarchs could indulge in violence against fellow human-beings. In sharp contrast is the case of "Ashoka" in India, around a century later, who also indulged in violence to conquer territories, though on a scale that might be considered miniscule by Alexander's proportion, but is considered "great" because he realized the futility of such violence, shunned it completely, devoted State resources for people's welfare, and then indulged in religious expeditions that resulted in the spread of Indian religious philosophies of that time, as Buddhism, to vast territories outside India.
The Indian society placed the King at a very high social pedestal, but did not absolve him of the social responsibilities that were to be observed by the rest of the society. The King could lead a life of luxury, exert great influence over the lives of people, indulge in wars and collect taxes. But the unwritten obligations of social norms ensured that he consulted his Ministers, took social expectations obligations and expected code of conduct into account in his decisions.
Empowerment of Society; Weakening of State
This particular characteristic of Indian society empowered the society, but weakened the State. It prevented the Kings from developing ambitions of armed conquests of the sort that were generally the norm among so called "great" rulers of the Western civilizations. There, these Kings almost absolute freedom to expropriate resources and plunder wealth from people within or outside their territories, which could then be used to add the necessary muscle to their forces for plundering and conquest of other territories. India and China, the two prosperous and sophisticated civilizations, were often at the receiving end of these violent adventures.
One must note that the experience of China was also similar, though it faced the evil of invading armies to a relatively lesser extent. The invading armies of Chenghis Khan could plunder through its territory en-route to Beijing almost at will. However, unlike India, the Chinese empire was able to maintain its integrity till the nineteenth century, when its continuous weakening in the face of rising Western dominance and the invasion of Manchuria by Japan led to a complete political makeover.
Phases of History Keep Changing
Lest we forget, every phase in human history eventually passes to give way to a new phase. More than two thousand years back, a teacher in the University of Takshashila in India, decided to devote his life to find ways of strengthening the State. Before he went on to write the first comprehensive treatise of Statecraft and named it "ARTHASHASTRA", this teacher, known as "Chanakya" or "Kautilya", had guided one of his disciples, Chandragupta Maurya, in establishing the first historically documented empire of India. This great empire, which spread from Afghanistan to Indo-China, came into existence almost a century before the first great empire was established in China. In a few hundred years though, the gains achieved by this empire were largely lost, though in the meanwhile it had contributed to unprecedented prosperity that continued for more than one and half millennium, until eighteenth century, when the combination of colonial exploitation and social decay descended India to its current state of poverty and backwardness .... a state that is changing again since 1947, albeit not at a pace that could be considered satisfactory.
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