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The ganatantrashastras are a group of texts of Indian origin from the 5th-7th century. They are written in a variety of languages (Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Gandhari, Telugu, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil and others). The earliest and most influential of these texts was written by Bhaskara, a brahmin philosopher from Prayaga, who had also studied at the Jainist-dominated University of Mathura.
The content of the ganatantrashastras is the outline of the ideal republic. Thus, they represent at once a sharp break with Hindu philosophical tradition because older Dharmashastra texts and the Arthashastra portrayed society and the state always in monarchical terms, with the concept of "Chakravartin", the just ruler of the world, featuring prominently, and yet also a continuity of tradition because the ganatantrashastras also stress "dharma" and declare to lay down nothing but traditional wisdom about impure and unwholesome practices. In contrast to political philosophies in the Roman or Chinese world, they seldom call for a revolution - instead, they encourage society and those carrying great responsibility within it to "return" to proper practices.
The Hindu republicanism of the Ganatantrashastras is, thus, much more conservative than its Roman counterpart. Its main object of historical criticism are aggressive kingdoms and empires (the Sassanids, Samudragupta, later also the Chinese Sui) as well as theories like the Arthashastra, which legitimise imperial aggression. Its core values are peace, prosperity and propriety. They contain the earliest and some of the clearest elaborations of the Principle of Non-Initiation of Aggression.
Most ganatantrashastras follow Bhaskara`s general outlook of the republic (the ganatantra). The harmonical, respectful, well-ordered, independent and stable family - not the individual - is considered the bedrock of society. Its social, political and economic independence must not be violated - this includes self-determination in religious matters as well as the unobstructed pursuit of economic activity and the protection of a calamity-stricken, wronged or attacked family by all other families of the gana. The gana is further constituted by elements of various overlapping social groups, in which families pursue their goals in co-operation:
- economic associations (shreni, nikamam)
- religious communities (sanghas)
- and local units (villages, towns and cities)
Each of these groups is, in turn, to be characterised through internal harmony, respect for the elders and experienced, independence (meaning a degree of autarky, the freedom to define and execute among themselves the rules of their own choosing, and also the duty and the right to collective self-defense) and coherence (divisions are warned against, admissions can be carefully regulated by the group).
Within each gana, decisions are to be taken and implemented unanimously or at least with great majorities.
Conflicts between shrenis, sanghas, villages and towns, as well as common action (to construct public works or to defend oneself against a common enemy) are to be decided by assemblies or councils of representatives determined by the gana, who must be both learned and exemplary persons and able to take decisions behind which their entire gana stands.
Public administration is thus conceived of as a short-term joint project, and otherwise relegated to the various ganas.
The ideal republic, thus, does not have a standing army, but all able-bodied men must assume the responsibility of defending themselves, in units to which they already belong, strategically commanded by leaders chosen ad hoc.
The initiation of aggression - the definition of which takes abundant space in many ganatantrashastras - is the main evil which must be avoided. Neighbours, family members, shreni colleagues, the brethren from the sangha - they must all be prepared to come to the aid of the aggressed against the aggressor.
The ideal republic of the ganatantrashastras may be considered, from a Western point of view, as a form of anarchy. In the Indian context, order is stressed - and one must not forget that both families and ganas were not characterised by individual liberty.
The ganatantrashastras accompanied and influenced the establishment of city republics all across India, from Gandhara to Bali, from the 4th to the 10th century. They also exerted a degree of influence on African political philosophies (especially among the Liberians, but to some extent also among the Watu and the Kirinyaga Alliance as well as within Simonist polities and the Aksumite Empire) and prompted important philosophical reactions in the Roman and Celtic Empires, where the democratic model of the republic was defended while some found the Indian model interesting, as well as in Sui China, where Li Qichao formulated the counter-model of a strong, centralised state.
At the onset of the industrial revolution, they became a target of harsh criticism by progressive forces, while conservatives held on to their principles for a long time, and contemporary conservative-libertarians in India and elsewhere stil find inspiration in these texts.