Since the turn of the twentieth century, Indology and Indian history has rec- ognized a type of polity, dubiously and always within inverted commas denoted ‘republic’. These so-called ‘republics’, or janapadas, are far better viewed as ‘communities as states’. In some reckonings, they existed from about 800 bce
to the time of Kautilya’s Arthashastra, conventionally ascribed to the fourth century bce. As clan-based polities, janapadas have been identified from the Pali sources of early Buddhism and from Jaina texts; other sources, such as the Mahabharata, the Arthashastra and Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, add to this evi- dence and also shift the ground of investigation from northwestern to north- eastern India during the sixth to fourth centuries bce.
Janapadas and mahajanapadas (‘great communities’) were seldom monar- chical. According to R. S. Sharma and some other historians of ancient India, the social key to these regimes was gana, glossed by the term ‘tribe’. Sharma sought to avoid reducing gana to simple blood affinity, choosing instead to take it to mean an association of people living in the same area. For others, the key termdesignating this form is sangha, or the combined gana–sangha, but there seems to be no significant difference in meaning among these terms, nor less general agreement about its being a distinctive form of political organization that may have came into existence around 800 bce. This form was characterized by collegiate government; its leading members were recruited in part through birth in a particular place. Accordingly, eligibility derived partly from clan affiliation and corporate entitlements to status and property; the rest derived from individual achievement. In such polities there might or might not be one man bearing the title raja (king), but if there was, his author- ity would be circumscribed by a council.
There are models of non-monarchical governance dating from the later- vedic institutions called sabha and samiti, and these are assumed to be models for the ‘Sixteen Mahajanapadas’ known from later vedic as well as from Jaina texts. ‘Mahajanapada’ is translated, variously, as: realm, state, domain and political region. However, taking a somewhat more literal gloss and mindful of R. S. Sharma’s distinctions, I prefer ‘great community’; that is, a conjoint sense of people and place, the governance of which was often carried out by sophisticated and religiously legitimated collegial institutions. For this reason, I identify a long era – lasting from 800 bce to 300 ce – as one during which communities were states. To hold that communities as states continued to exist in much of the subcontinent until the founding of the Gupta regime, and only then did a different style of monarchy take hold, one in which com- munities and monarchies simultaneously formed the basis of state regimes, contradicts much old and some new wisdom to be sure.
But I do not imply some sort of communal stasis; a picture of unchanging social forms might constitute yet another sort of ‘orientalist’ distortion. The work of Romila Thapar, for example, is rich in references to multiple modes of production, divisions of labour, social stratification and considerable urban- ization as well. These endured well beyond the onset of monarchical polities on the order of Mauryan grandeur, as we are reminded by the work on early Rajputs by B. D. Chattopadhyaya; according to his argument, royal lineages among Rajputs were still emerging in the ninth century ce!
Was the Mauryan empire a monarchical form fundamentally different from mahajanapada communities as states? In one sense the answer must certainly be yes: there was a profound difference in the ideological content of the hege- monic expressions of Ashoka. His inscriptions were long held to delineate a
rule over a gigantic territory. The Mauryans, and before them the Magadha kings, did stimulate the development of state societies in south India. Yet the Mauryan kingdom did not become a model for later states; this was to be the accomplishment of the Guptas, who provided a template for a millennium of states by which, in part, we are able to define a medieval epoch in India.
The appearance of states in the south was initiated by the founding of the Pallava kingdom during the sixth century ce and owes much to the influence of external trade from the Gangetic basin and from the eastern Mediterranean. Beginning in the megalithic period of south India’s Iron Age, and markedly during the last half of the first millennium bce, an important shift of domina- tion from the pastoral upland to the riverine plains occurred. Associated with this was the decline of an older elite of chiefly families in various parts, which were supplanted by a new elite formation. Among the Tamils the old chiefs were superseded by three new chiefly lines called muventar, who adopted the names of Chola, Chera and Pandya and founded kingdoms; the term ventar is used in the texts of the Tamil sangam to mean ‘crowned king’. These king- ships cannot have been much removed from the lineage structure from which they emerged when they were previously noticed in the Ashokan inscriptions, but they must have been based on complex sedentarized farming communities with some degree of commodity production in a number of riverine plains of the southern peninsula, even if they retained elements of an earlier pastoral society and economy.
The differences between the northern kingdoms that succeeded the line- age-based janapadas, described by Thapar, and the southern kingdoms which appeared later sprang from the different environmental and social substruc- tures of the two regions. The core communities that formed the heartland of the Mauryans and their successors in the north were the farming villages of the Ganges basin. Between the border of Bengal and the intersection of the Ganges and the Yamuna a single extended riverine environment supported a homogeneous structure of communities. By contrast, most of the southern communities, except in some parts of the river valleys, retained a balance of the sedentary and pastoral activities consistent with the ecotypic cores and peripheries of the particular locality; hence, settlement units were accordingly more varied. Another important difference was the sea, and the advanced maritime commerce that, together with the intrusive commerce of the Mau- ryans into Karnataka, acted as a catalyst for the development of the southern kingdoms of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
While the reassertion of Brahmanical religious authority and Puranic Hin- duism was a shared element between north and south, the fate of Jainism and Buddhism differed in interesting ways between the two regions. The accounts of the Gupta age emphasize the continued presence of Jaina and Buddhist institutions and the continuation of important writings in both beliefs. Bud- dhism flourished in Bengal along with Jainism for many centuries thereafter, whereas Buddhism began its long decline elsewhere partly as a result of the destruction wrought by the Hunic invasions in the northwest and partly as a result of the incorporation of the Buddha as an avatar in a revived worship of Vishnu. The practice of intermarriage among Buddhist and Vaishnava and
Saiva devotees in some of the great families of the time, including royalty, also contributed to the decline of Buddhism.
The peaceful displacement of Jainism and Buddhism in the north contrasts starkly with the violent suppression of both by devotees of the new devotional (bhakti) worship of Shiva in the south: the proudest boast of the new kings of the Pallava and Pandyan kingdoms was that they had slaughtered Jainas. Such claims have embarrassed modern historians but not moved them to offer explanations. One possible explanation for the violence could focus on the different ways in which commerce and communities were structured in the southern peninsula. Jainism, along with Buddhism, may be characterized as an ideology of transactionalism, a religious tradition whose core teachings are atheistic and ethical and whose social practices of moderation and conserv- ancy appealed to merchants. They found pragmatic interactions governed by codes of decency more congenial to their commercial interests than the prof- ligate norms of social interaction and ritual associated with the behaviour of even the most devout practitioners of bhakti worship.
In Karnataka, Jainism enjoyed a very long prominence as a major religion and attracted considerable royal patronage as a legacy of early Magadhan and Mauryan trade via the famous Dakshinapatha route from the Gangetic plain. This commercial connection continued during and after medieval times, and Gangetic products continued to find their way into the south. Jainas found niches in Karnatak culture that were denied to them among Tamils after the sixth century ce.
The adoption, indeed, the invention, of devotional practice and theology in the worship of Shiva and Vishnu among Tamils was conterminous with the establishment of the new kingdom of the Pallavas and the resurgence of one of the old muventar, the Pandyans. Bhakti Hinduism was made a central ideo- logical element in both of these kingdoms. Not only were its kings devotees of the Puranic gods and generous benefactors of them and their Brahman priests through construction of temples and grants of land, they also claimed to have defeated kings who had been devoted to Buddhism. Such royal claims and their connection with state formation suggest the importance of revived Hinduism as an ideology of place. If it is appropriate to speak of Jainism and Buddhism as ideologies of transactionalism, as suggested above, it is equally fitting to see place/territoriality as the salient political element of bhakti worship. There is a persuasive fit between the structuring of communities among Tamils and the form of religion that Tamils made their own after the sixth century ce.
The composition of landed communities between that time and the much later period of the Vijayanagara kingdom is noteworthy. Beginning in the pre- state era, localities consisted of combinations of various ecotypic zones, from a simple upland/pastoral with plains/agricultural to more complex combina- tions of substantial wet zones, fed by rivers or tanks, with zones of mixed wet and dry cultivation and pasturage with herdsmen at the peripheries. In a few areas, such as segments of the Kaveri (Cauvery), Vaigai and Tambraparni basins, extended zones of irrigated cultivation made for considerable uniform- ity and the possibility of replications of localities resembling the practice of
numerical clustering in the Gangetic basin; but that was exceptional. For the most part, community identity was culturally constructed by religious affilia- tion through temples housing the gods of particular places. The gods were patronized by specific landed groups, including their chiefs, who might be organized into discrete territorial hierarchies under great chiefly houses. Temple worship and patronage, and related processes involving communities, commerce and the formation of state regimes, set the foundations of early medieval society, in which new configurations of community and state emerged.