The term gana-sangha or gana-rajya incorporates the term gana which means equal. The term sangha on the other hand means an assembly or rajya or governance. In the system of gana-sangha the head of the family or the head of a clan governed the territory in the model of the assembly to which only members of a particular clan belonged. Sometimes this method of governance was known as a type of democracy but later on it was found that the system was not same as democracy because power was vested in the hands of small families and only they participated in the governance. The larger number of people who lived in the territory had no rights and was denied access to resources. Hence the most appropriate term that was used for this system of government was republic. The system of government that was followed by the gana-sanghas was different from the monarchy. It may be said that the pattern of government that was followed by the gana-sanghas was same as oligarchy because power was vested in the hands of ruling families. It can be said that the gana-sanghas may be known as pre-states or proto-states but they were certainly different from kingdoms.
The general trend that was followed by the gana-sanghas was that it consisted of a single clan known by the name Shakyas, Koliyas and Mallas or it consisted of confederacy of clans such as the Vrijjis and the Vrishnis. The confederacy of the Vrijji clan was independent in nature and maintained equal status. Though a confederacy of clans was formed yet each of the clans maintained their independent nature. The Vrijii clan was the kshatriya clan but they did not practice the varna system of the kshatriyas. The gana-sanghas retained more of a clan rule than did the kingdoms of those times.
The gana-sanghas had two strata - the kshatriya rajakula or ruling families, and the dasa-karmakara or the slaves and labourers. It has been found from records that as the gana-sanghas rejected the Vedic rituals they generally pre-occupied themselves with manifestations incorporating various other religious cults.
The major strength of gana-sanghas was the corporate aspect of their government. The assembly was presided by the head of the clan and all the other members of the clan were supposed to meet the head in the assembly. The office of the head of the clan was not hereditary in nature and was known as the chief. The process which was followed in the assembly was that a matter was put to discussion in the assembly and the result was achieved after carrying on an elaborate discussion. If the issue could not be solved with discussion alone it was put to vote and the opinion of the majority was taken into consideration. The members who generally assisted the chief in carrying out administrative functions in a detailed manner were the treasurer and the commander of the soldiers. Criminals had to face an elaborate judicial process from a hierarchy of officials including seven officials.
The social and political power also rested in the hands of the chiefs who presided over the assemblies and were ranked as kshatriyas. The main source of income of the gana-sanghas of the Indo- Gangetic Plain was agriculture. They concentrated mostly on wet rice cultivation. Cattle rearing were not a much important occupation but it was common in the areas of Punjab and Doab.
Ownership of the land area was in the hands of the clan but the land was cultivated by the dasa-karmakara or the slaves. The slave system among the gana-sanghas incorporated more of domestic slaves than slaves being used in production. It can be said that the dasa-karmakara virtually had no rights.
The gana-sanghas functioned more like a clan and the land-owning clansmen lived in the urban areas and participated in the regular urban activities. The Gana-Sanghas were more tolerant towards unorthodox values and individual opinions. Historical records have said that two important religious orders namely Jainism and Buddhism have emerged from the clans of the gana-sanghas. As the gana-sanghas did not follow a monarchy, they could also reject the Brahmanical political theories.
Thus it can be concluded saying that the gana-sanghas were essentially different from the established systems of government and it emphasized more on the need of governance.