Monday, June 04, 2012

The Rule of Law and Ancient India

Robin Bradley Kar at the University of Illinois Law School has a new set of articles out on the origin of the modern Western notion of the rule of law (it can be found on SSRN here, here, and here).  He traces the beginning of these roots not to Roman, Greek, or Hebrew civilization, but before this to the Harappan Civilization and the Indus Valley.  Given that so little is known about the political institutions of the Harappan civilization I found this claim at the outset a bit tenuous, and have to say I didn't come away that convinced from the articles.  Indeed, it rests on the controversial claim that the Harappan civilization was the originator of the Indo-European languages (Kar acknowledges he is on contested ground here).  As such, he argues that later Indo-European speaking civilizations owe not just a linguistic heritage to the Harappan civilization, but a cultural one.  In particular, he argues that Indo-European societies commonly exhibit class stratification (for example, caste in India or the social stratification of early Celtic society).  This class stratification helps create an internal balance of power within society that is conducive to the creation of the rule of law, particularly when it separates religious power from political power.   It is then, as the Roman Catholic church did to European kingdoms in the late Middle Ages, that state power may become subordinated to the rule of law, or in its early form: the rule of heaven.

Francis Fukuyama in his recent book "The Origins of Political Order" makes a similar claim about the origination of the rule of law, and so says that India has actually long had it because Brahmins held the state accountable to a set of laws that the king did not create.  However, he finds that India never developed a strong state (like the Chinese did, who on the other hand, never had the social stratification necessary to create the rule of law).

Kar spends most of his articles going into quite detailed arguments about why the Harappan civilization must have been the originator of the Indo-European language group.  He notes that the only societies to develop large-scale civilizations and state apparatus only came from a relatively few language groups (and almost all of of the major ones from Indo-European or Sino-Tibetan).  Although there might be something to the idea that language groups would also pass on and share ideas about political ordering, it seems overly determinative.

Still, I think it is noteworthy that both Kar and Fukuyama bring their rule of law historical genealogy in one way or another back to ancient India.  I think these two pieces represent a broader movement in the academy that has been going on for some time to show that the origination of industrialization, the scientific revolution, or the modern nation-state in the West was less a sign of exceptionalism and instead a tweak or subtler reshaping of a more broadly shared heritage of ideas.  This has obvious political ramifications.  How one tells the beginning of the story (in this case the story of the rule of law) effects each other piece of the narrative up to the present, as well as arguments and justifications for what the next step in the story should be.
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