July 14, 2011

The ruler's first commitment

Enforcement of laws using the science of chastisement

Lying on his bed of arrows at the end of the Mahabharata, Bhishma tells Yudhishthira the story of the first sovereign. “At first there was no sovereignty, no king, no chastisement, and no chastiser. All men used to protect one another righteously.” People looked after each other, but as that got tedious, there were lapses which clouded people’s judgment—“their virtue began to decline.” Greed, lust and anger set in. Righteousness (and the Vedas) disappeared.

Frightened and grief-stricken, the gods prompted Brahma to create a large code by which people were to live. The code identified virtue, profit, pleasure and (spiritual) emancipation as the ends of life, and given the Indian penchant for taxonomy, several lists of failings, weakness and habits. As people’s understanding and lives shrank, this was shortened and simplified several times.

Finally, the gods asked Vishnu to identify a mortal who “deserves to have superiority over the rest.” Vishnu then created such a person from his own energy, but for the first few generations, these individuals chose spiritual pursuits over political power. Ananga was the first of this line to choose to rule and he did so within the framework of dharma. His son’s attentions were diverted to pleasure and his grandson was the terrible Vena. Vena is described in Bhishma’s narrative as “a slave of wrath and malice,” who “became unrighteous in his conduct towards all creatures.” The seers of the age killed Vena, and from his limbs, drew two sons: Nishida and Prithu.

Prithu emerged well-versed in everything a king needed to know and proceeded to be the first king. Bhishma tells Yudhisthira:

“That high-souled king caused all creatures to regard righteousness as the foremost of all things; and because he gratified all the people, therefore, was he called Rajan (king). And because he also healed the wounds of Brahmanas, therefore, he earned the name of Kshatriya. And because the earth (in his region) became celebrated for the practice of virtue, therefore, she came to be called by many as Prithvi. The eternal Vishnu himself, O Bharata, confirmed his power, telling him, ‘No one, O king, shall transcend thee.’ The divine Vishnu entered the body of that monarch in consequence of his penances. For this reason, the entire universe offered divine worship unto Prithu, numbered among human gods.”

The story of the first king is a story of perfection in decline, necessitating the establishment of a regulating order and is reminiscent of Western social contract theories. The difference is that the king here is a divine creation mandated to rule by a divinely created code, and whose performance is monitored by one section of society. The key word in this story is ‘righteousness,’ often the translation of ‘dharma.’ It is the decline of ‘righteousness’ that prompts the need for code and king, and it is in his unswerving commitment to righteousness that Prithu betters his predecessors.

Reflections on the meaning of ‘dharma’ have been the main work of this civilisation but in the Puranic stories that make up the most accessible part of Indian political tradition, the state of ‘dharma’ in a given polity or age is measured by the degree to which varnashrama dharma is observed/preserved. In Bhishma’s story, for instance, the rishis who have drawn Prithu forth, advise him: “O puissant one, know that Brahmanas are exempt from chastisement, and pledge further that thou wouldst protect the world from an intermixture of castes.” Dharma lay in individuals complying with the social matrix of varnashrama dharma which was the human equivalent of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Today, we abhor the iniquitous hierarchies of caste and value the longevity, mobility and opportunity that have altered life-stage options. Therefore, the old understanding of what needs to be valued and enforced by our political community is irrelevant.

The challenge is to read the same stories and find lessons more in keeping with our lives and values today. Bhishma’s story impresses upon us the importance both of having a code and of enforcing it. But maybe there is a lesson to learn in the fact that Brahma’s original unimaginably long and exhaustive code was shortened several times before it was deemed usable. The story says this is because people’s understanding was not the same as before; but perhaps we can also see it as a sign that ‘less is more.’ In post-colonial India, we have turned to the law as panacea—through amendments or new laws—but after more than sixty years, we still live with most of our problems from corruption to gender violence to inequality of opportunity. Perhaps one practical takeaway is to legislate less and enforce more. After all, enforcement of this code was Prithu’s first commitment.

Before Prithu, many who were offered the king’s job turned it away, preferring spiritual pursuits. Then there was Vena who was so venal that the earth could not bear him. So the king who is non-pareil is a person who is neither ascetic nor utterly driven by self-interest. Given the cynical, anti-corruption, anti-politician mood of the day, anyone who seems like a renunciate receives the benefit of the doubt, it is useful to know that it is the person who wants to engage with the world who is declared ‘king’ in this story, not the one who walked away in the first place. Today’s lynch-mobs are neither as brutal nor as effective as the rishis who dismembered Vena, but perhaps that is just as well, since few could pass the same ethical tests.

How did Prithu interpret his enforcement mandate? As soon as he was anointed, he leveled the rocky primeval earth and made it habitable. Every element, spirit and species showered him with resources and wealth for “gratifying the needs of religion, profit, and pleasure” and in his reign there was both abundance and variety of food for every living creature. As the earth yielded to his clearing and cultivation, so did waters solidify and mountains make way for him. “That high-souled king caused all creatures to regard righteousness as the foremost of all things; and because he gratified all the people, therefore, was he called Rajan (king).” Bhishma points out to his grand-nephew: “O king, thy kingdom should always be protected by the aid of the science of chastisement. Thou shouldst also, by careful observation made through the movements of thy spies, protect it in such a way that no one may be able to injure it. All good acts, O king, lead to the good (of the monarch). The conduct of a king should be regulated by his own intelligence, as also by the opportunities and means that may offer themselves.”

In other words, for Prithu, being a king meant making it possible for living creatures to inhabit the earth by making it habitable and using its resources for their needs. But the point to note is that Prithu’s subjects are all living creatures, not one or the other species. He receives from all and disburses to all, underscoring the interdependence of all life-forms—an idea that has resonance both for today’s ecological crises and for international relations. Prithu’s actions were driven by ideals and values rather than expedience, and enforcement is not coercion but “chastisement.” The king also stays informed, so this is no vacuous, well-meaning person who blunders into good deeds, but someone who makes a point of gathering information and using it thoughtfully and strategically. In our time this may be read as saying the king (or government) must prioritise rule of law and sustainable and equitable development.

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