How were ministers in royal courts selected in Ancient and Medieval India?

By Sunil Kumar

Ancient and Medieval India is a long span of time characterised by many different kingdoms, ways of thinking, invasions and a change in thinking.

However; there is still an underlying unified continuity.

Earliest period: Indus Valley Civilization is assumed to be a republic by many experts; with trade councils.

Vedic civilization: In the Rg Veda; Indra, Agni, Soma, Yama and Varuna were described as kings. A Dharmic backdrop permeated ancient India; and ideas included in ancient epics such as Rajasuya and Ashvamedha were routinely practiced by kings.

English: A map of the Maurya Dynasty, showing ...

English: A map of the Maurya Dynasty, showing major ciies, early Buddhist sites, Ashokan Edicts, etc. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now for the mahajanapadas and then the Mauryan empire. Kautilya(Chanakya) in the Arthashastra mentions that ministers should be chosen based on the king’s personal knowledge of their honesty and capacity. He also advises that the king should maintain a council of elders from different fields and with accomplishments he is aware of.

Manu advises the king to choose ministers based on noble learning and birth; without specifying their varna(caste). Out of these; however the Prime Minister should be a Brahmin. Yajnavalkya however recommends that all ministers should be Brahmins.

Lower officials(amatyas) should be chosen based on their intelligence, honesty and cleverness. The ministers and amatyas etc in ancient and medieval times also had to maintain an extensive spy network that acted as the eyes and ears of the king/emperor.

Buddhist texts(since religion always played a big part) maintained that the king is one who has earned great merit; and should choose ministers on similar lines as in ancient texts stressing on their honesty, intelligence, eloquence, initiative as well as dedication to the dhamma.

Practically, kings chose ministers based on their military needs as well as the usual baggage of ego and relationships. Most kings will obviously want to weed out any minister who threatened their positions or was fomenting a rebellion.

For example; the last ruler of the Maurya dynasty, Brihadratha was assassinated by his Senani(Commander-in-Chief), Pushyamitra Shunga(a Brahmin) who later established a short-lived Shunga dynasty. The Kushans, the Gupta dynasty, Harshavardhana practically every king in ancient times was influenced by a dharmic perspective enunciated in ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts of the numerous Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms that dotted the landscape.

Medieval India(also a long time period) saw the co-existence of Hindu kingdoms and newer more brutal ideas seeping in after invasions from Central Asia etc. The Sultans were even more blood-thirsty and largely chose ministers based on loyalty, military prowess, personal relationships and ability to extract taxes.

E.g: Alaudin Khilji according to most historians of the time and now; was an unlimited despot; as the head i.e. Commander in Chief of the army, head of the executive, head of the judiciary and the sole authority in enforcing religious matters. He attempted to circumvent the powerful ulemas(Muslim clergy) and appointed 10 ministers to assist him(Amir-e-Kohi(Agriculture) and Shahana-e-mandi for markets etc).

Although the Mughal Akbar was illiterate(most historical sources); he was intensely curious and attempted to study the best practices of the times.

Navaratnas(nine learned intellectuals), an ancient Sanskrit concept from the times of the king Vikramaditya; admittedly became famous due to Akbar’s court which had luminaries such as Raja Birbal, Tansen, Todar Mal, Faizi etc.

In the Early Pandyan dynasty(South India); The king’s court consisted of royal officers like the ministers, generals, commanders and accountants. His power was restricted by the Aimberunguzhu (Tamil: ஐம்பெருங்குழு) or the Five Great Assemblies.

Trade guilds, marital relationships and political intrigue also often led to the appointment of ministers all over ancient and medieval India. Hope this answers your question.

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