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StateCraft From Mahabharata And The Modern Context

It occurred to me that we are pulled so far away from our own history and heritage that all we know is interpretations of translations of our primary sources. If we could even go to the translations, we would still gain much insight of our past. Without knowing our past, our minds float like rootless lilies in a muddied pond and thrown hither and tither with each forceful wave spiraling out, every time one stone is thrown.              

                This contention that we must not learn our histories simply because it is not tabulated is a myth. Greek history by Herodotus is also not a very factual statement, nor is Roman history by Livy.  That is the way how history was written in ancient times. Times could change suddenly, empires destroyed and survival required one to write history wrapped in mythical stories. Still, if one has the patience to skim through it, there is immense wisdom lying underneath the waterbed waiting to be discovered. The books we left unread being told by our academicians as mythologies and fictions, relying on their interpretations of the translations they read themselves; we shut ourselves to our past knowledge as a society. A society with faith in its historic greatness cannot be enslaved. Getting us stand with our collective backs turned to our own roots served this political purpose as we were ruled by people much less numerically than the local inhabitants. What is sad is that this derision of our history continues even today.

Mahabharata, for instance, I have always read as a story of two warring clans in the History.  That of course, is the main story. But Mahabharata, like most Hindu epics is an excellent example of layered writing, with multiple side-stories running about. Most narrations merely focus themselves on the main front story and in process, discredit and kill the side stories. It is these side-stories which hide in their numerous layers and patterns, great insight into our past, which could be brilliant lessons for the future, illuminating the foggy path which lies in front of us.

When it comes to Statecraft or the laws of governance, we glance westwards to Roman Philosophers, Western Thinkers and more often than not, to a wily Machiavelli. When reading Mahabharata, I came across a brilliant chapter which gives lessons in Statecraft.  Our ancient claim to statecraft is limited to Chanakya Niti, which brilliant as it is, stands lonely while our teachers and students reach out for Roman philosophers to understand the principles of governance. Ancient Sage Narada, who has been sadly caricatured in our movies, takes the centre-stage in Sabha Parva, Chapter V of Mahabharata. As the Pandava King, Yudhisthira, the righteous one, is appointed as the King, he seeks guidance from the learned Sage Narada. What Narada says is so true that it remains relevant even today and makes a very interesting reading.

Narada, the eternal wanderer, travelled across the nations and here offers the knowledge he collected from most well-run states to the freshly appointed King Yudhisthira of Indraprastha (Modern Delhi). He beings asking Yudhistihira –

“Do you have enough finances to help your kingly duties -Yagya (Education in modern Context), Daan (Citizen Welfare in current reference) and Defence? “ -

A worried ruler, short of resources is prone to enter into evil alliances (Srilankan Port development deal with China and CPEC could be an example and also skewed trade deficit which even India has with china could take lesson from this) and will not be able to run his state properly. As they say today, Good economics is good politics. Remember Sage Narada said it first. An independent, self-reliant, economically-viable nation is the first step and foremost necessity to the making of a self-sustained sovereign state.  Yagya , I have here equated with education and academics because during the early Vedic days of spiritual and philosophic search which was undertaken by our ancestors, living in scarce population amid the unfriendly and wild forests, Yagya, with fire lit in the middle, was a way to get these thinkers together to discuss, debate and deliberate upon existential questions. It would be folly to look at the term Yagya as a mechanical ritualistic practice. In this one hymn, Narada defines the basic necessity and fundamental task of the state and also illustrates how strong finances are essential for the state to be able to fulfil these basic duties.

Narada further says-

“Do you, O Great King, treat the three Varnas (Brahman, Vaishyas and Shudras) equitably, with a liberal and moral way of governance, just as our ancestors did?”

Here Narada refers to three working classes, Brahmins referring to the academicians, artists and intellectuals, Vaishyas referring to those involved in the works of state and commerce, and Shudra performing labour intensive work. This hymn does not indicate anything hereditary nor does it indicate the precedence of one caste over the other. Narada commends equitable and just treatment to all the three classes. Forget castes, this is critical for any state to be run well that all the three classes- The bureaucracy and mercantile class, the intellectuals and academicians, and the Working-class are all treated in a just and equal manner. Western thinkers in their zeal of colonizing Eastern thoughts and spirit, have changed Varna to Caste and often used the description of the Varna (Occupation based, and not defined by Birth). As dynast decided to protect occupational fiefdoms, Varna quickly took the shape of caste. Even considering the oft-quoted reference of various parts of Brahma from where various Varna’s emerged, Hindu thought did not consider one body part superior to the other and in all probability, the description merely indicates the equivalence of all Varnas and nearness to the creator, all being parts of his being.    

Next he says –

“In the greed for money, do you forego Dharma (morality and righteousness); in pursuance of Dharma do you forego commerce; in the pursuit of luxury do you forego both Dharma and Commerce?”

He illustrates the need of balance. He cautions to king to not be trapped in any one of the mentioned occupation. The king ought to pursue all of them in perfect balance. The king must not shun spirituality and Dharma for Capitalistic endeavours. Development and Dharma must not stand in contradiction to one another and for the sustenance of the nation, a balance has to be driven between the two.

“O innocent Yudhisthira! Do you use six characteristics of a King, with seven mechanisms to constantly evaluate and improve on the fourteen critical arms of the state?”

The six characteristics of a good ruler, Narada refers to here, are – Exceptional Oratory, immense Enthusiasm, Rational thoughts and objectivity, Awareness of heritage and history, Vision for the future, Policy and administrative understanding.

Seven mechanisms mentioned here are- Mantra (referring to discipline and practice, skill development), Aushadh (Healthcare), Saam (Recognition), Daam (Compensation), Dand (Rule of law, fear of punishment), Bhed (Security apparatus and intelligence).

Fourteen Critical Arms of State- Nation, Durg (National Establishments, Buildings and monuments), Rath (Transport), Hathi (Armoured vehicles), Ghode (Artillery), Sainik (Infantry), Anta:Pur (Internal Politics), Ann (National reserves – Funds and Foodgrains), Ganana (Data and Statistics), Shastra (Constitution and Academics), Lekhya (Accounts), Dhan (Treasury and Finances), Asu or Forces (Armed Forces).

With the broad outline of the features that are essential part of the making of a statesman, and the means with which he or she can keep track of key 14 components of the government managed well for the times of peace and war.   Narada then proceeds to further detailing of how the tasks of Governance out to be performed, breaking them further down to the level of activities and tasks.

Narada Says, which comes from the role of Sabha and Samiti of Atharva-Veda:

“Hope you do not deliberate on critical matters alone, nor should you discuss the matters of importance with too many people and risk confidentiality of the matter.”

Narada then speaks specifically on commerce:

Do you quickly facilitate commercial endeavor which tends to bring more profit with lesser investments? Do you ensure that the state does not put hindrances in the path of such initiatives?”

In modern context, think of Ease-of-doing-business and incentivizing innovation, as what is reflected here in this hymn.

“Hope that the working class, the laborers and the farmers are not suspicious of you and unaware of your work. Do you keep an eye on their employment and welfare? Hope they do not fall in and out of your favor from time to time? Any great progress can only happen with support of all sections.”

It is very important to ensure that the state has consistent policy towards the working class and ensures that the policy is communicated well to the people so that they are no longer suspicious towards the state.

“Do you ensure that you compensate the armed forces appropriately and without delays? Delays in compensation cause distress and unrest among the ranks and can cause huge disasters.”

In any large state, the ruler rules through a council of Ministers who are in turn supported by a system. Ministers and/or officers cannot be allowed to operate in the manner which is in contradiction to the defined State policy, whether it be the case of rogue Minister or that of Coalition compulsions. Narada warns the king to be watchful and says-

“Among your employees, hope you do not have someone who pursues his independent policies, and who runs the arms of the state as per his one interests.”

The learned sage supports a system of incentivizing initiatives when he asks:

“Do you give incentives and additional benefits to your men who outperform and excel in their work?”

There have been much deliberation regarding the veterans and martyrs of late. Interesting, the unrest is fanned by those who scrapped Sainik Pay Commission and OROP. Narada says:

“O Foremost Bharat! Those who happily sacrifice their lives for the sake of the state, do you protect their children and take care of them?”

Read this in the context of Seventh Pay commission, OROP and Tuition fee for the dependents of Veterans debate.

Narada also defines the disciplined behavior for state employees and bureaucracy.  He says:

“Ensure that your officers do not waste away the first part of the day which is marked for Dharma in Gambling, Drinking, lazing off and other such evils.”

Remember how the dimpled dynast is known to begin his day late and how the bureaucracy jumped in outrage when Narendra Modi deployed biometric attendance system in Government offices?

On agriculture, I have found the references to rainwater conservation even in other books of ancient times like Vishnu Purana. In Mahabharata too, Narada considers this a part of basic duties for the ruler in India, always troubled by vicissitudes of nature.

“Have you constructed large ponds for the farmers and citizens? Hope your people are not solely dependent on rainwater for agriculture?”

We have in all the years of independence almost forgotten this Vedic wisdom which is most attuned to our land and our climate. Old lakes are dying and new lakes are not being constructed, even after deaths and devastation of droughts every year. Do we know that Bundelkhand was known for huge man-made lakes in Vedic times. Those who unfortunately ruled India for great deal of Thousand years, had such a passive relation with this land that not much development work was undertaken and most past work faded into history. This will put the ambitious river-linking project in context. 

Again considerate of the significance of agriculture, Narada adds:

Do you see to it that your farmers are not suffering because of poor seed quality? Do you support the farmers by offering loans at One percent Interest?”

Narada also touches upon a just and effective judiciary. When I read this, I am definitely reminded of the outrage after 2G verdict which let off everyone owing to poor prosecution. He says:

“O best of the men! Do you see to it that any evil thief who is apprehended red-handed is not let-off unpunished by corrupt officials out of greed?”

He however warns against unrestrained state harassment when he asks:

Hope your ministers are not heeding to conspiratorial voices and watch with suspicion a poor man who has suddenly come into riches purely on account of intelligence and hard work and your officials do not harass first generation entrepreneurs.”

We have been hearing the stories of good Samaritans in often appreciated and often ridiculed Mann ki Baat of Prime Minister Modi. Says Narada:

O King! Do you take notice of someone who goes out of the way for public welfare? Do you recognize such people and praise and honour such men in public gatherings?”

These books are full of such wealth of wisdom. Unfortunately, we have been so away from our history and heritage that we have not been able to appreciate them in the full. India today stands at a cusp of re-invention. We are poised to claim our place in the sun. Agenda-driven academicians have for long taught us that our ancient books are nothing but myth. They are the same people who created the myth of India as the land of snake-charmers. It is time to get rid of their faulty assessments and discover our history and resurrect our national pride. Let us read and let us try reading from the Primary sources.


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