The Ashta Pradhan (Marathi: अष्टप्रधान) (also termed Asta Pradhad or the Council of 8) was a council of eight ministers that administered the Maratha empire. The council was formed in 1674 by their king, Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
The term Ashta Pradhan literally translates to "the Prime Eight", from the Sanskrit ashta ("eight") and pradhan ("prime"). The body discharged the functions of a modern council of ministers; this is regarded as one of the first successful instances of ministerial delegation in India. The council is credited with having implemented good governance practices in the Maratha heartland, as well as for the success of the military campaigns against the Mughal Empire.
The coronation of Shivaji was held in 1674, at the fort of Raigad in present-day Indian state of Maharashtra. On that occasion, Shivaji formalized the institution of a council of eight ministers to guide the administration of his nascent state. This council came to be known as the Ashta Pradhan. Each of the ministers was placed in charge of an administrative department; thus, the council heralded the birth of a bureaucracy.
The formalization of an administrative mechanism was of a piece with other measures, indicative of the formalization of a sovereign state, which were implemented on the occasion of Shivaji's coronation: coinage bearing Shivaji's insignia (the copper Shivrai and the gold hon) were issued, and a new era, the Rajyabhishek era, was proclaimed on the occasion.
The Ashta Pradhan was designed to encompass all the primary administrative functions of the state, with each minister being given charge of one role in the administration. Ministerial designations were drawn from the Sanskrit language; the eight ministerial roles were as follows:
Pantpradhan or Peshwa - Prime Minister, general administration of the Empire.
Sacheev - Secretary, preparing royal edicts.
Mantri - Interior Minister, managing internal affairs especially intelligence and espionage.
Senapati - Commander-in-Chief, managing the forces and defense of the Empire.
Sumant - Foreign Minister, to manage relationships with other sovereigns.
Nyayadhish - Chief Justice, dispensing justice on civil and criminal matters.
Panditrao - High Priest, managing internal religious matters.
Continued conflict with the Mughal Empire meant that military matters remained exceedingly important to the affairs of the nascent state. Hence, with the notable exception of the priestly Panditrao and the judicial Nyayadisha, the other pradhans held full-time military commands, and their deputies performed their civil duties in their stead. In the later era of the Maratha Empire, these deputies and their staff constituted the core of the Peshwa's bureaucracy.
Shivaji's son Sambhaji, (ruled 1680–89) undermined the importance of the council. Over time, council positions became hereditary, ceremonial positions at court with nominal powers, if any. Beginning 1714 AD, a prime minister appointed by Shivaji's grandson Shahu gradually arrogated power. Within a short period, de facto control of the Maratha state passed to his family. This family of hereditary prime ministers retained the title of Peshwa. However, the Ashta Pradhan council was never revived to fill the functions it discharged for the last decade of Shivaji's reign.
- The Ashta Pradhan is somewhat similar to the court arrangements of other famous emperors such as the Navaratnas of the courts of both Vikramaditya and Akbar, as also of the Astadiggajas of Krishna Deva Raya's court.
- Lakshman Sen the ruler of the Sena Empire had Pancharatnas (meaning 5 gems) in his court; one of whom is believed to be Jayadeva, the famous Sanskrit poet and author of Gita Govinda.
- The Ashta Pradhan can be construed as an initiative to develop a second line of leadership in the state akin to the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh. Guru Gobind Singh and Shivaji were fighting against the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.