29 June 2009

Indian (Hindu) Political Thought

Ranjit Hoskote had written an article in the 'Times of India' (29 July 1998) on ancient Indian (Hindu) political thought. Here is an abridged version:

The Marriage of Power and Wisdom

Even so long ago as the Vedic period, Indian thinkers were preoccupied with the question of making power answerable to wisdom rather than rejoicing in autocracy. This is the tradition of thought to which the savant Ananda Coomaraswamy drew attention in his little known but fascinating study, "Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power in the Indian Theory of Government" (1942).

In this work, Coomaraswamy drew on texts like the Vajasaneyi Samhita and the Satpatha Brahmana to arrive at an alternative understanding of kingship, its responsibilities and goals. To Coomaraswamy, the problem of governance was best defined in terms of the relationship between the principles of kshatra and brahma. In early Aryan polity, kshatra was the temporal power held by the king, while brahma was the spiritual authority symbolised by the priest.

Coomaraswamy invites us to consider the coronation ritual (found in the Aitareya Brahmana, 8.27) during which the priest consecrates the king with the words: "I am That, you are This; I am sky, you are earth; I am harmony, you are the words. Let us two unite our houses."

The metaphor of the ideal marriage between king and priest reflects the importance the Vedic thinkers attached to governance, as against mere government. In this model, kingship is not an excuse for indulging one's appetite for control, nor is it a mechanical procedure of administration. Kingship is, rather, a sacred mandate to hold power in trust and use it responsibly for the general good – a mandate the king receives from the priest.

Coomaraswamy illustrated this concept of regulated authority by appeal to the Vedic deity Maitravarunau: Mitra (the sun god) and Varuna (the sky god) conjoined in one presence. Maitravarunau incarnates the duality of perfect rule: the marriage of energy and restraint, power and wisdom, consciousness and life. In the Satpatha Brahmana (4.1.4) we read: "Mitra is the counsel, Varuna is the power; Mitra the priest, Varuna the king; Mitra the knower, Varuna the actor... Whatever deed Varuna did that was not quickened by Mitra was unsuccessful... Whatever deed that Varuna did, quickened by Mitra, came to fruition."

Maitravarunau is an instruction in what a distinguished commentator has called 'serene vitality' – a dynamic balance of opposites through which the human possibilities can flower. The life of action demands a stern will, alertness and moral flexibility. The life of contemplation calls for compassion, responsiveness and moral reflexivity. And yet, as Coomaraswamy reminds us, each principle finds its fulfillment only in the other.

The publication date of "Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power in the Indian Theory of Government" is fraught with significance. At the height of the freedom struggle, Coomaraswamy already had a premonition of things to come. He had seen the abuse of authority – resulting from the divorce between power and wisdom – at its worst in the British colonial regime. Fearing that this divorce would be replicated in independent India, he offered his book as a gift to the nation in the year Gandhi launched the Quit India movement. Five decades after India achieved independence, it is painfully clear that its author's worst fears have been realised.

Today we have neither kings nor priests. We have politicians who require no consecration, and intellectuals who lack the authority to bestow it. The complete division between the two principles has led to undisguised power lust on the one hand, and impotent rage on the other. This indulgence in the negative passions, among politicians and intellectuals, provides tragic evidence for Coomaraswamy's assertion that national liberation is without meaning unless we learn to govern the self.

The inner meaning of swaraj, swarajya, autonomy – call it what we will – is self governance, conceived of as a moral discipline that brings inward motives and outward actions into accord. Only by liberating ourselves from the desire to control do we become truly free. Self government without this practice of self governance, as Coomaraswamy saw all too clearly, would simply translate as the replacement of foreign structures of domination with indigenous ones.

"The only royal road to power is to become one's own master; the mastery of whatever else follows." wrote Coomaraswamy. This is the traditional secret of government that we appear to have forgotten.

03 June 2009

The Time That Is Given To Us

From the "Lord of the Rings":

Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

02 June 2009

Elections 2009: Why Did BJP Lose?

Why did the BJP lose the 2009 elections? Some clues might be found in the following articles:

Swapan Dasgupta
They won all the battles, we had the best songs
Picking up the pieces
This verdict will force leaders to think nationally
Congress won conclusively

Shekhar Gupta
Hindu rate of BJP growth
Hands down

Sudheendra Kulkarni
Why stability won over change

(These are the few political commentators whose views I respect)