Indian Civilization Restricted the Role of the King

In Indian Civilization, Life in Villages was Self Regulated by Social Norms and Traditions

Indian Civilization Restricted the Role of the King
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Modern state appropriates all authority including a monopoly on violence and dispute resolution, and by specific laws, makes social self regulation illegal. In stark contrast to this, the Indian civilization evolved on the basis of self regulation of society through social means, where a central role was assigned to family, and the customs and traditions of people were the law.

All over the world, the role of the State has expanded enormously compared to what it used to be earlier. Unlike the modern state, which is all pervading in our lives, and tends to control almost each and every aspect of our existence, the role of the King and his interference in the ancient Indian societies was relatively much limited. To a certain extent, this may have been contributed by a largely rural civilization, consisting of small rural agglomerations, many of which were relatively isolated from the sphere of influence of the King. The remoteness of the villages often meant that it would neither be worthwhile for the authorities of the King to be present there, nor would it be feasible for the village residents to approach the King for anything practically feasible. The small size of an average village and the large number of villages practically isolated them from the influence of the King and his authority, as a result of which they hardly ever interfered in their life, except for collecting taxes.

Social Regulations in Villages

In ancient India, the social fabric of the villages were highly organized by strong and traditional bonds among the families, and their inter-relationship, which was regulated by the inhabitants themselves, with little interference of the King or his organs. In most cases, the State authorities neither had any presence there, nor were informed of the developments there.

Thus, it was left to the people on how to live harmoniously without conflicts. Perhaps, this was one of the main reasons for the evolution of the strict social norms and dharma that promoted harmony and prevented conflict and violence.

While many villages had some kind of a 'leader' (Mukhiya), it was largely the family dynamics that regulated life therein. The conduct of individuals was governed primarily by their family values and norms, also known as "Sanskaar". Their individual conduct reflected the reliability and dependability of the family, and in a small community where people lived together practically for the whole of their lives, and everyone knew everyone else, their conduct invariably created a family image within the society, which was considered one of the biggest social assets. This family image represented the social stamp of acceptance and reverence, and was the most important qualification of any individual in his interaction with the society. Thus, there was enormous pressure on every member of the family to preserve and advance their family image or honor.

The role of family image can be considered as analogous to the modern day brand value of companies, which can fetch them market premium, or the goodwill of a firm that facilitates its business. Similarly, in the rural society, family image governed social respectability and with it, the economic prospects of an individual. This contributed to a self regulating society, where strong incentives existed for individuals to conform to expected norms of conduct.

Enforcement of Norms through Threat of Social Exclusion

If an individual indulged in aberrant behavior that was not accepted by the society, the society conveyed its disapproval in no uncertain terms, primarily by condemnation and social exclusion. The social exclusion was considered a very strong punishment, primarily because its repercussions were immense in a society that thrived and survived largely on social cooperation, and where it was very difficult, if not impossible for an individual or even a small family to survive completely on its own.

Today, technology and markets have radically changed these aspects. In modern urban agglomerations of 21st century, everyone is anonymous, and no one is really concerned about any other person. As a result, the role of social interactions in deciding the fate and destiny of an individual has become minimal, compared to how it used to be in the traditional rural societies of India, where strong peer pressure was often sufficient to extract compliance with the unwritten norms of the society.

The role of customs and usage as a source of law is recognized in modern jurisprudence and is accepted across the globe. Its most vocal advocate was Sir Henry Maine, a prominent jurist in eighteenth century and a member of the Council of British Governor General in India, who extensively studies legal systems of Indian villages, and concluded that the law actually originates in social customs and is merely recognized by the State in its legislations, and by the Courts in their case laws.

Little Role of King

In the traditional villages of ancient and medieval India, the Kings did not interfere in the social dynamics, nor did the people expect them to do so. Society valued and preserved its independence. Though the King retained its authority to interfere and dictate the people, when it had valid reasons to do so, it seldom happened in the day to day life. The Kings did not monitor the day to day life of their subjects, nor took it upon themselves to regulate their interactions among themselves.

One of the primary functions of the State in modern society is to provide law and order. In the ancient Indian civilization, the society did not leave this function solely to the King. The modern day concept of State monopolizing all violence was also not the norm there. Since conflicts between individuals invariably became conflict between families, and could very easily affect other family members, strong incentives existed within the family to restrain its members from precipitating a conflict or exaggerating it.

Most villages had a system of villages panchayat, consisting of arbitrators appointed from respected members of the village community, who would listen to both parties in an open session involving all people, and recommend a compromise option, which both parties were expected to follow. In customary tradition of the villages, these arbitrators, called panchas were given a very high status, and their word was equated with a divine character, to make everyone comply with it. Thus, their verdict carried almost the same sanctity as the orders and judgments of the modern courts.

The way Indian rural societies regulated themselves involved little role of the State. There were thus hardly any laws made by the King for the conduct of people. There was also limited role of State authorities in resolving disputes, except in case of grave crimes or rebellion against the state itself.

The life was simpler, harmonious, and perhaps better regulated than the 21st century Indian society!


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