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May 4, 2011

The perfect state

Searching for Ramarajya – the Indian ideal of good governance

Only more than a month has elapsed since you took the sceptre in your hand, O Raghava! And mortals have become strangers to disease, death does not overtake even men worn out with age, women undergo no labour-pains during parturition and human beings are well-built indeed. An abundance of joy has fallen to the lot of every citizen dwelling in the town, O king! Pouring down nectarean water clouds rain at the proper time. Even the very winds which blow here are capable of giving a delightful touch, and are pleasing and healthful. People living both in the cities and in the country, arriving in the capital, declare, ‘May such a sovereign be our ruler for long’, O king!” (Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Uttara Kandam XLI: 15-21)

 

Image: San Diego Museum of Art

Every civilisation has its utopian visions and there can be little doubt that “Ramarajya” is that vision for Indians. Until the rise of Hindutvavadi organizations in the 1990s, the term was available to and evoked by leaders and thinkers across the spectrum because it could safely be assumed that people understood it to mean exceptionally good, even perfect governance.

What is “Ramarajya”? The quotation with which this article begins appears in the Uttara Kandam, added to the main text of the kavya, which begins with Rama’s coronation and goes on until the end of his avatara. The description it offers uses indicators to tell Rama that things could not be better than in his kingdom.

Health is, interestingly, the first described. People do not fall ill and they live long. They are well-built and resilient. Women do not even experience labour pains because Rama’s state is so well-governed. It is not just longevity and physical strength but good maternal health that matters. Striking, in an age where maternal mortality is unacceptably high in spite of medical advances.

Befitting a society sustained by rain-fed agriculture, the quotation mentions generous, timely monsoons. The water is “nectarean,” that is, unpolluted and pristine. Timely monsoons as any student of Indian economics knows are the key to cascades of prosperity—bountiful produce, well-nourished people, thriving markets and patronage of arts. People live well enough, to travel between cities and countryside, and are able to see that they are well-governed. “May such a sovereign be our ruler for long,” they aspire, suggesting that their consent to a regime is contingent upon good governance.

A most curious omission in the Uttara Kandam quotation is the “other”—whether the “other” within or the foreigner. It raises many questions. Was defence not a component of Ramarajya, or did the righteous rule of Rama in Ayodhya intrinsically efface all opposition? Was Rama’s sway taken to extend across the universe such that these conditions obtained everywhere? Were Ayodhya’s stature and defence preparedness such that the outside world was rendered irrelevant? And on the internal dimension, can we assume that all within were as one? We might, except for the story of Shambuka, who crossed caste barriers to practise austerities and paid for it with his life.

Moreover, unlike Indian school history texts, we are not assured that Rama’s rajya was safe for everyone. That is a given. People also presumably live long because they are not summarily killed by thieves, arsonists, rapists and murderers. Rama’s righteousness is protection from the unrighteous behaviour of others.

But the majority of those who use the term “Ramarajya” have not read the Valmiki Ramayana and these words. For them, it is the story of Rama, narrated over and over, with individual, community and regional variations, that is the text from which they cull the elements of this utopia.

And the story of Rama is the story of strict adherence to certain ideals, some of which are: promises must be kept; one must do one’s duty; loyalty to family and friends is paramount; and the ruler’s conduct should always be above reproach. Rama abdicated his throne and chose exile to keep his father’s word. He followed the dharma of warriors and extended protection to everyone who came his way. His dharma also entailed facing challenges without hesitation, so he engaged with every obstacle—human or otherwise—in his path. Rama’s loyalty to friends is illustrated by the support he extended to Sugriva, not entering into the morality of his rivalry with Vali. Finally, Rama explains his exile of Sita on hearing the allegations of a denizen of Ayodhya by saying that all his actions must be universally acceptable; so if his decision to resume his life with Sita is questioned by anyone, it must be reversed.

For hundreds of generations, the didactic value of Rama’s story has lain both in the absolute pronouncement of these ideals in the course of a narration as well as in debating the times where his interpretation or action raises other moral questions. And perhaps these discussions about Rama’s decisions and conduct in different circumstances also point to another element of Ramarajya: the right to question, the right to challenge and the right to debate. We would call these freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. The tradition of the Ramayana makes a gift of these to our political thought.

What would a “Ramarajya” administration deliver? A good quality of life, where people live in good health, enjoy a good livelihood and dignity, appears to be the first element of good governance by Ramarajya standards. Good governance would appear to assure habits of production and consumption that do not interfere with nature and its cycles. In a well-governed state, citizens travel, observe, discuss and then endorse or reject their government; at any rate, informed citizenship is an element of good governance, Ramarajya style. The administration is accountable and responsive. Peace, we infer, prevails within and without. But most important, good governance is predicated on the personal integrity and conscience of the ruler; Ramarajya depends on “maryada purushottama”, the model human being. For the rest of us, this mythical political ideal offers a mirror and a yardstick to our times.


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