India And The Theory Of Oriental Despotism

Guest Article

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The theory of oriental despotism in ancient India was propounded and used by the British as one of the justifications for colonization and tying it to their goal of civilizing or improving a ‘barbaric society’.[1] According to this theory, Britons characterized the Asian nation as societies with an authoritarian ruler(the despot) who controlled the means of irrigation, owned all the land and governed through an autocratic bureaucracy. They also talked about a strong control over the economic activities, with agriculture being controlled via the control on irrigation, in what they believed to be an arid nation without any private property. They claimed that the rule of Maharajas in India was completely unrepresentative of the voice of the people.[2]

This article attempts to study how this theory about oriental despotism in India was based on various assumptions and biases held by the British and argues that most of those assumptions were baseless.

The Assumptions And The Biasness

The rise of oriental studies mainly started in the late 18th century, becoming axiomatic to the interpretation of the Indian past by the 19th century. These too were based on some Sanskrit texts like Manusmriti, Bhagavad Gita and Hitopdesha. It shows that there was little study about India and its history in the 18th century, which is when historians like James Mill came up with the theory of Oriental despotism in India. The theory assumed that the King was the owner of all land, and no private ownership of land existed in India. [3] Moreover, the Britons’ thought process, to an extent, was guided by their inherent feeling of superiority over an India which, according to them, lacked scientific thinking. It was believed that, in India, the pattern of life was more concerned with metaphysics and religious beliefs rather than more tangible aspects like science and mathematics. This led to a perception of European nations being seen as more technically advanced and the feeling of this innate superiority of the West over Asian nations. [4]

Conflicts between colonial perceptions of Indian history are seen right from how Marx reduced it to a ‘history of successive intruders’. Further, Mill referred to oriental nations as boastful and vain in response to Hindu perceptions of the earth having gone through 4 yugas in a history that scaled over millions of years.[5] If we look at their arguments regarding the control of irrigation by the bureaucracy, it can be seen that India was assumed to be an arid land.

The viability of this theory was assumed, without question, by the British administration and various historians who wrote about India, leading to it becoming the focal point of the interpretation of Indian history.[6]

Breaking The “Myth”

This theory, though propagated with great confidence early on, was later proven to be wrong. After studying the Indian state and attaining more knowledge about it, British generals like Warren Hastings said that the notion of despotic, corrupt and extortionate rulers doesn’t hold in the Indian context. The English translations of Ain-i-Akbari revealed a descriptive and prescriptive account of governance under Akbar[7] while Arthashastra during the Mauryan period encouraged a particular pattern of governance and statecraft and talked about the ideal ruler in a hypothetical state[8], which challenged the British perception of India as a lawless land.

Control of irrigation by the bureaucracy in arid areas was presented as the major cause of Oriental despotism, but this is a theory that was rejected even in the non-Indian context. It was argued by the proponents of the theory of Oriental Despotism that irrigational facilities could be managed only through a strong central authority, and not by individual units or local authorities. So, irrigation maintenance necessitating many officers and bureaucracy in its management formed an important point for them reaching the conclusion of the presence of despotism in India.[9] However, these arguments too were baseless. There is no evidence to suggest that there was a need to form a large bureaucracy in ancient India. Even in the Mauryan period, Kautilya does suggest the existence of some departmental heads and high officers, but none of them were provided for irrigation. Other pieces of evidence, like the inscriptions of the Guptas, also suggest that irrigation was a provincial activity, rather than one controlled by a central bureaucracy.[10]

Further, the argument about the royal ownership of land leading to despotism in India falls flat too. Even Marx recognised the existence of private ownership of land in ancient India in the region south of Krishna, and of communal ownership of land in Indian villages. Although there is strong evidence of royal ownership of land in medieval India, it should be noted that in the early periods this ownership was restricted only to the wastelands, but later arable lands were allotted to the peasants. [11] Later, when the idea of royal ownership of land started gaining prominence, with the king being regarded as the ‘lord of the soil’ or the ‘owner of the earth’, it still did not lead to despotism in India. This was seen to be present in early medieval India with the King claiming Bhoga for the enjoyment of Agrarian resources. However, this dominance of the sovereign on the land was limited to only the intermediate landlords he appointed. All those granted land could establish their own rules, different from the ones made by the king. This shows that the ruler did not have direct control over the land, with his powers being restricted by the landlords and revenue officers he created. [12]


Through this article, it can be seen that the British argued that India had been under the rule of despotic rulers who had authoritarian control over everything in the country, especially the major economic activities that were taken up in ancient and medieval India. But all these arguments were based on certain assumptions that they had. Most of their arguments weren’t based on any studies but came from their understanding of India as a backward country with little scientific development and from certain prejudices they had about all the Oriental nations. Despite a strong belief by the Britishers of the existence of Oriental despotism in India which resulted in most of the Indian history being seen through the lens of despotism, and even guiding many of the studies about Indian history in that direction, later studies showed that most of their arguments for Oriental despotism in India weren’t true. Their major arguments of India being an arid country with control on agriculture by the ruler and that of there being no private ownership of land, with the despot having complete control over land in India were proved to be wrong. It was seen that such arguments were based on assumptions which were proved to be wrong and a product of the inherent feelings of superiority. Thus, it can be concluded that the theory of oriental despotism in India was a product of various baseless biases and assumptions held against oriental nations.


By Madhav Aggarwal (Guest Writer)

3rd Year Student at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.

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Phone No. - +91 9417632100



[1] Mill, John S. On Liberty. London: John W. Parker and Son, West Strand, 1859. Pg. 23.

[2] Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to Ad 1300. London: Penguin, 2002. Pg. 6.

[3] Ibid. Pg. 7.

[4] Ibid. Pg. 4-5.

[5] Deshpande, Anirudh, and Anirudh Despande. “Colonial Modernity and Historical Imagination In India.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 72, 2011, Pg. 1311.

[6] n 2. Pg. 7.

[7] Cohn, Bernard. Colonialism and its forms of knowledge. Princeton University Press, 1996. Pg. 61.

[8] Singh, Upinder. History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Pearson Education, 2009. Ch. 7.

[9] Sharma, R. S. “The Socio-Economic Bases of ‘Oriental Despotism’ in Early India.” Kingship In Asia and Early America: 30. International Congress of Human Sciences In Asia and North Africa, edited by A. L. Basham, 1st ed., Colegio De Mexico, México D.F., 1981, pg. 135.

[10] Ibid.

[11] n 9, pg. 136

[12] n 9, pg. 138

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