Sanātana-saṃvidhāna – Constitutions in Ancient India

It was on the twenty-sixth day of November, 1949 that India gave unto herself the Constitution; indeed a historical event for all Indians. We celebrate it as the Samvidhan Divas (Constitution Day of India) every year. The Constitution of India is one of the most detailed and lengthy constitutions in the world. To its great credit, it did not limit itself to merely the skeletal aspects of the administrative setup of the Union and the States, but also gave a wide scope for the thoughtful law-making minds and the consequent limitations thereof to awaken the erring human mind; the working hands of the executive for law enforcement; and the watchful eyes of the judiciary for interpreting the laws and for the adjudication of disputes. To this was added the inherent or fundamental rights and privileges of its citizens and a few directives to run the government. The goal and the path, both were set.

While India today has lived up to the expectation of the constitution’s founding fathers as a true and vibrant democracy, many of us, including lawyers and judges stop at remembering and cherishing the making and makers of the Constitution of India. Barring a few exceptions, Indian history has never meant Indian constitutional and legal history, beyond the British era, for a student of law or history. As we are all aware that our nation existed for several millennnia before the Independence. The date of independence and the presenting of the constitution were merely milestones that wrote a new chapter in the history of India. What many might not be aware is that law and legal administration, including constitutions, existed and thrived in the frame of the dharmashastras, so long as human race can remember civilization in the Indian subcontinent. Bharat Ratna Dr. Pandurang Vaman Kane’s five-volume magnum opus, History of Dharmashastra stands testimony to this. It needs a scholarly mind to look deep into the various aspects that make a difference between an Indian Constitution and Indianness in the Constitution.

On this 68th anniversary of the present-day Constitution of India, Prekshaa is happy to publish an English translation of a Kannada essay by Śatāvadhāni Dr. R. Ganesh titled ಸನಾತನ ಸಂವಿಧಾನ (Sanātana-saṃvidhāna) from his anthology ಮಥನ-ಕಥನ. May the following article be food for thought for our readers!

– Prekshaa Editorial Team


It may be difficult for many to believe that there existed constitutions in ancient India, for it is a matter of public belief that the sense of nationalism, the need for constitutions, etc. are recent developments, mostly influenced by the West. This is ignorant romanticism at best. Hundreds of Dharmasūtras and Smṛtis, with appropriate philosophical elaboration have evolved with time; they have been perpetually handed down as an unbroken tradition from several generations as our ‘Constitution.’ Not just as a constitution, but much more than that! This statement is not an exaggeration stemming from pride but a critically examined truth.

Modern Constitutions are generally not founded on the philosophical basis of the distinctions between mata, dharma, and adhyātma[1]. Thus they appear rather materialistic. This wasn’t the case with India’s ancient constitutions in which the above–mentioned aspects were interwoven. For this very reason, certain alleged scholars pronounce a blanket rejection of our timeless constitutions without even bothering to read them; this negative progression is deplorable. Let us consider a few aspects to see how the scope of our ancient timeless constitutions or laws was greater than modern-day laws.

Modern-day laws contain, by and large, two characteristics:

  1. Different and multi-level transactions amongst the public
  2. Administrative and Penalizing authority that administers and oversees such public transactions and penalizes the wrong–doer

In sum, only the material subjects that meet the human eye and that which can be evidenced extrinsically are covered within its ambit. One who commits the most heinous of acts, if not witnessed by others – direct or circumstantial – can easily escape from the clutches of modern laws. One can hold his head high if he wears the mask of a virtuous conduct, irrespective of how adulterated his mind may be. This is the resultant effect of the limited intellect of a self-centred society.

Apart from business transactions and penalty, personal conduct and atonement were two other facets featured in our ancient laws. If transactions and penalty were visible on external evidences, conduct and atonement were evident from intrinsic values, though externally invisible. If aspects of business transactions and penalty aimed for society at large, the aspects of personal conduct and atonement aimed at a sensible individual. While one is related to the outer world, the other is related to the inner self. Any rational and proactive individual would, on learning of his misconduct or iniquities, come forward on his own accord to repent for his sins. If not, wise and elderly persons possessing judicious mind would show such a person the way forward. Since the public or private transactions to which the law oversees is related to two or more persons or sectors, any party aggrieved by loss or injury would inevitably approach the legal administration seeking justice. Viewed from this angle also, the sensitive, obligatory, and proactive aspects of consciousness of conduct cannot be discerned in the present-day laws.

Atonement of sins becomes necessary for one who fails in his dutiful behaviour. Unlike modern laws, the wrongs committed by a person in the absence of any witness would fall within the ambit of the ancient laws and hence atonement was possible as a result of which refinement of the inner self was achieved. The active awareness of one’s own conscience would assist in achieving this. The fallacy that Truth is only that which is proved by oral or documentary evidence under the present-day law has become the perfect ingredient for self-destruction. This has also caused collective degradation in the society. When one is reminded of the fact there exists sounds and rays in our celestial world that despite being felt by us and influencing us are beyond the reach of our sense organs as shown by science, only then would we come to realise the perfect harmonious beauty of the four components that existed in our ancient constitutions – ācāra (conduct), vyavahāra (transaction), prāyaścitta (atonement), and daṇḍa (penalty/ administration).

Edited by Hari Ravikumar.


[1] The word ‘mata’ literally means ‘opinion’ but in this case, refers to ‘sect’ or ‘faction.’ The word ‘dharma’ has no single word English equivalent; it refers to ‘sustenance,’ ‘sustained living,’ ‘fundamental principles,’ and ‘moral law’ among others. The word ‘adhyātma’ refers to realization at an individual level and includes in its ambit the term ‘spirituality.’



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Kashyap N Naik is a practising advocate at Bangalore and a light classical singer. He has an abiding interest in Indian literature, history, law, culture, and philosophy. 

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