It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the emperor sitting in Pataliputra (modern Patna) set laws for everyone across that vast territory, as our governments today are supposed to do. The chief law that, in his edicts, Ashoka claimed to impart as well as follow was dhamma or dharma. Of course, his empire employed a considerable administration, but there were also fundamental building blocks of Indian society that largely escaped the emperor’s reach: the village, the local assemblies, the guilds and the caste system, to name a few. The result of organic growth, they were decentralized, self-governing units, and generally not to be interfered with.
Villages managed their own affairs; the state intervened mostly in matters of major irrigation works, the collection of revenue, or famine relief (according to inscriptions and texts that mention provisions the rulers made for times of hardship). Otherwise, villages had their committees — for land issues, irrigation, temple management, etc. The bigger villages often had their own assemblies: the famous Uttaramerur inscription of the Chola era is an eloquent record of the care with which candidates to those assemblies were screened against a long list of prescribed qualifications and disqualifications.
Guilds (shreni, puga, sangha or gana) of traders, craftsmen and agriculturists were powerful organizations that shared information and resources: from raw materials to production to marketing, their method was collaboration rather than competition. Guilds had their own office bearers, who seem to have been selected through consensus, sometimes elected; the king was not supposed to interfere with their by-laws without consulting guild representatives, as several texts make clear.
It is worth stressing that these semi-autonomous bodies never had one centralized backbone. Similar institutions have of course existed in other lands and cultures (recall the guilds of medieval Europe), but given India’s geographical extent and endless sociocultural diversity, their organic spread and running did help consolidate a pan-India perspective and practice of trade, business and polity. They are one of the more discreet, less studied components that went into the making of India.
I am not trying to romanticize ancient India’s society and institutions: texts and inscriptions, again, refer to corruption and abuse of power at various levels, but also to means of containing them. By and large, those bodies served India well. Even today, villages are self-managed to an extent; we do hear now and then of abuse by village councils, but not of the day-to-day effective handling of issues, which local politicians will certainly not be bothered with. The major departure is the introduction of party-based democracy, which has often vertically divided villages along political lines, leading to deep-rooted corruption and scattering of energies and resources.
Be that as it may, bodies such as the ancient guilds are among the historical roots of the extraordinary degree of entrepreneurship Indians have shown themselves capable of. I am not referring here to the high-flying corporate style of business, which is a Western import of the late twentieth century, but to the cart-puller, the tea-shop owner, the dabbawalla, the running of swarming town and city markets, the millions of micro- to small businesses, a few of which have grown into sizable family-run or community-run business groups, but most of which have been content remaining of modest size.
This is what our economists, trained in “global” finance and macroeconomics — an unsustainable system based on greed and deceit, which, as Schumacher put it almost half a century ago, made the fatal mistake of putting consumption at the centre rather than the human being — contemptuously call the “unorganized” sector, or sometimes, more magnanimously, the “informal” sector. There is nothing either unorganized or informal about it, as a few economists of a different school of thought, such as R. Vaidyanathan of IIM Bangalore, have argued at length. It is simply a different, organic kind of “organization”, which mainstream economists are not trained to understand and appreciate. And yet, crucially, despite having been sorely neglected by successive governments, this sector employs over 90 per cent of India’s work force and generates over half of the country’s GDP. It is central to the health of Indian economy.
We sometimes hear fears of sinister attempts to “homogenise” Indian society. Those fears are groundless, because the task is impossible. This huge unwieldy body, for all its diseases and dark spots, has antibodies that resist external, centralised or formal controls; it prefers organicity and decentralisation, which have become an intimate part of its temperament evolved over millenniums.
Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India, and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This is the eleventh part in a series on Master Ideas of Indian Civilisation; earlier articles in this series:
- Defining Indian Civilization, 11 June 2018
- The Universal in Indian Culture, 11 July 2018
- Consciousness, the Key to Indic Thought, 6 August 2018
- Sacralising the Cosmos, Nature and Life, 3 September 2018
- The Individual and the Collective in Indian Thought, 4 October 2018
- India’s art of simple living, 29 October 2018
- India as a Knowledge Creator, 29 November 2018
- Was India’s Knowledge Elitist?, 31 December 2018
- Dharma, Generator of Indian Ethics, 31 January 2019
- India’s Search for Meaning, 4 March 2019