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How ancient India speaks to contemporary India

Indira Gandhi rarely consulted her cabinet ministers before taking an important decision. Nor, it appears, does Narendra Modi (think of demonetisation, for example). Is this method of acting unilaterally, without consultation with colleagues and advisers, wise?

columns Updated: Jun 30, 2018 18:49 IST
FILE PHOTO: India's prime minister Narendra Modi is central, absolutely central, to Indian political discourse today. He is the most powerful prime minister since Indira Gandhi. (REUTERS)

I have just finished reading Upinder Singh’s recently published book, Political Violence in Ancient India. A subtle and wide-ranging work of scholarship, it analyses debates on violence and non-violence in a range of texts: from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana to Kalidasa’s plays to the discourses of the Buddha (taking in the Laws of Manu and Kautilya’s Arthashastra along the way).

Singh’s main theme is violence; but there is a secondary theme, that of kingship. Her book has rich, detailed, descriptions of the different expectations that ancient India had of its rulers. Some texts asked kings to be tough and strong, while other texts urged them instead to be compassionate and forgiving.

The world that Singh’s book describes is long gone. We live in a democracy, where politicians and parties have to earn the right to govern by winning elections based on universal adult franchise. The political systems she writes of were very different in nature; there, kings became kings because of whose sons they were or because of wars their armies had won. We live in an industrial, even post-industrial world; whereas the economy in ancient India was largely based on agriculture. In our Republic, Dalits and women have equal rights under the Constitution; whereas in past times Dalits and women were subordinated in theory as well as in practice.

That said, scattered through Political Violence in Ancient India are statements that beg to be interpreted—or reinterpreted—in the light of the present. While reading the book, I was continually struck by the parallels between the world that Singh writes about and the world in which we now live. Thus, in summarizing the landmark work of political theory in ancient India, she remarks: ‘Although the king is central to his political discourse, Kautilya’s organic understanding of the state recognises the importance of the other elements as well, and the general tenor of the Arthashastra is that the king must never act unilaterally without consultation’.

Now Narendra Modi is central, absolutely central, to Indian political discourse today. He is the most powerful prime minister since Indira Gandhi. The government and party are absolutely identified with him, as they were with her. Indira Gandhi rarely consulted her cabinet ministers before taking an important decision. Nor, it appears, does Narendra Modi (think of demonetisation, for example). Is this method of acting unilaterally, without consultation with colleagues and advisers, wise? If it was considered imprudent for the ruler of an ancient autocracy, surely it is even more imprudent for a democratically elected prime minister responsible to his Cabinet, to Parliament, and to his voters?

However, these words of caution from the ancient past should be heeded not merely by the prime minister of India. The lesson applies to other politicians and to other walks of life too. Within her own sphere of governance, Mamata Banerjee may easily be as authoritarian as Narendra Modi. She is not known to often consult her Cabinet colleagues either. Likewise, while it may be possible and feasible to run a small office by dictatorial means, to successfully manage a large corporation such as the Tatas, its Chairman cannot act unilaterally.

An attractive feature of Upinder Singh’s book is her use of literary texts to illuminate political realities. One of her authorities, the Gupta-era poet, Harishena, believed that it was important for kings interact regularly with scholars and writers. And it helped even more if the ruler was a scholar and writer himself. Harishena’s own model ruler was Samudragupta, ‘a warrior-king who [was] also an intellectual, poet, and musician’. Singh quotes the poet as saying that Samudragupta was one ‘whose mind is suffused with happiness as a result of his association with the wise; who is thus accustomed to retaining the truths and purpose of the sastras…; who, having removed the obstacles to the grace of good poetry through the injunction of excellence clustered together by the experts, enjoys in the world of intellectuals, in an attractive manner, kingship, as a result of fame for writing copious lucid poetry’.

Once more, the words resonate beyond politics. Not just prime ministers, but Managing Directors too might humanise and enrich their lives—and their work—by coming into close contact with artists, poets, musicians, and scientists.

The wisest minds of ancient India often underlined the importance of compassion. Upinder Singh quotes in this context the Metta Sutta of Theravada Buddhism, which believed that ‘just as a mother would protect with her own life her only son, so one should cultivate an unbounded mind towards all beings, and loving kindness towards all the world’. Another early Buddhist text, the Samyutta Nikaya, instructed kings ‘to exercise rulership righteously: without killing and without instigating others to kill, without confiscating and without instigating others to confiscate, without sorrowing and without causing sorrow’.

When the Buddha was asked whether he approved of the killing of anything at all, he answered that he did: the killing of anger. As one discourse puts it:

‘Having slain anger, one sleeps soundly;

Having slain anger, one does not sorrow;

The killing of anger, O devata,

With its poisoned root and honeyed tip;

This is the killing that noble ones praise,

For having slain that, one does not sorrow’.

Unbridled anger is unproductive in all aspects of life. The Australian cricketer David Warner is known to slay opposing bowlers with his bat; but if he also learns to slay anger on (and off) the field he will surely sleep more soundly.

Let me end with an aphorism from Political Violence in Ancient India that speaks directly to contemporary India, and to leaders in business and sport as well as in politics. It is this: ‘The king’s most dangerous enemy is the king himself’.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 30, 2018 18:48 IST