Dharmic Concept Of Nation And Citizenry
The Dharmic tradition for governance and rule has been a system of monarchs and ministers administering and protecting their kingdoms. The remnants of royalty throughout modern India and Nepal gives evidence of the prominence that kings and queens held in Hindu civilization. Sinha  writes that pre-modern Hindus’
…socio-cultural background taught them to see everything through religious glasses…. The king did not enjoy either powers of a priest or the status of an expounder of sacred law, but his sanction or approval was needed for all major religious work.
The view was that a monarch was granted a divine right to rule over their kingdom, and this right was backed by support of holy people and the citizenry. It is important to note that kings who abused this privilege to rule have been ousted from their thrones. As an example of this, we can take the story of King Nahusha.
Having been kidnapped as a child, and subsequently abandoned, Nahusha was found by Rishi Vashishta. Nahusha was raised as a disciple by the rishi, and earned divine weapons through penance, eventually killing the asura who had kidnapped him from his parents. Through his martial skill, Nahusha became appointed as Indra. In this post, he became increasingly arrogant and progressively lost any of his redeeming virtues. His fall came when he touched Agastya Muni with his foot, and was cursed to turn into a serpent. Nahusha was ousted as Indra and stripped of any right to rule by a holy man.
In Dhana Nanda, king of Pataliputra, we see an example of how a learned man again ousted a king abusing his power and authority to rule. Dhana Nanda was a greedy king who had a love of wealth and gold. He used his wealth to fund his massive military, which he used to extort his citizenry to fill his treasury. Despite his large military, Dhana Nanda would not defend his borders or his citizens from foreign attack. This abuse of power is what caused Chanakya to take the vow to overthrow Dhana Nanda.
So, the Dharmic concept of divine right to rule differs from the European concept (where despot monarchs were often not ousted, despite abuse of power). Further, Sinha says that the Dharmic concept of “state has its origins in Dharma itself… (so) it was expected to work for the final goal of existence.” This concept is not found in the modern world religions, where the monarch’s main goal is to aid the citizenry’s journey to moksha. So then, it makes sense that rishis and other renunciates were afforded such a high position in society: this group of people had forsaken worldly possessions and pleasures in search of moksha. This same group of people were tasked with advising the monarch and correcting the administration when it veered away from the benefit of its citizens.
This is the main reason why monarchs were the most generous patrons of mandirs, which were centers of devotion, and also served the community in other ways. Prosperous mandirs would serve food to the needy (as many still do today), educate and employ local citizens, and serve as community centers for the locality.
Contemporary Example: Nepal
There are very few kingdoms today, and the few present mostly serve ceremonial roles. The last Hindu kingdom was Nepal; the Communist led government abolished the monarchy in 2008. Nepal’s recent history has a period known as the Rana Period, which presents another example of ruling figures abusing their power and being overthrown.
The Ranas were ministers to the Nepali monarchy and held absolute control of the government, the monarch being relegated to a figurehead role prior to the 20th century. The Rana family were the hereditary prime ministers of the country, so were able to consolidate power and influence very easily. In the 1930s, His Majesty King Tribhuvan (reigning from 1911 – 1955) backed a populist movement in an unsuccessful attempt to remove the Ranas from power. Furious that the king would try to depose them, the Ranas declared and crowned H.M. Tribhuvan’s grandson as king.
There were massive protests throughout Nepal eventually leading to a negotiation between the Ranas and H.M. Tribhuvan, who had taken refuge in Delhi. An agreement was reached, resulting in the formation of a new government under leadership of H.M. Tribhuvan where an elected legislative body would be given equal power as the Rana family. Returning to Nepal, H.M. Tribhuvan declared an end to the Rana family’s power. Shortly after formation of the new government, the cabinet was dissolved and the reigning Rana prime minister was replaced by B.P. Koirala.
Ironically, B.P. Koirala’s brother G.P. Koirala would suggest the king to step down in 2007. G.P. Koirala led the government in abolishing the monarchy, stripping it of its powers, and nationalizing many of the monarchy’s possessions.
While the series of events seem to be cut and dry, there was a decade-long (1996 – 2006) civil war before the Communist parties took control of the nation and the monarchy was deposed, which had been their goal. This decade saw shootouts between the rebels and the Nepali police force in cities and towns, bombings, mortar attacks, and human rights violations. In tightly knit communities, Communist influence seems to have been minimal. However, in areas where there was constant social turmoil (whether between towns, or between townspeople) the Communist influence was very visible.
Though largely undocumented in news publications, cases of bribery and extortion were common during this period. Also common were threats to comply, kidnappings, mutilations, and outright murder of those who resisted the revolution.
It is clear then, that the majority of the country was forced into accepting the Communist party rule. Unfortunately, there were not enough systems in place to ensure fair elections. There were many instances of voters forced to support the Communist party. So Nepali citizens gained a representative government, which claims to have their best interest in mind, but has proven to be just as inept at social and infrastructure reform as the Ranas had been.
As social media makes its way into rural Nepali life, the question arises whether Nepali citizens will think critically about the things they see or blindly share every post they come across. According to the Global Economy , Nepal has a declining record of performance in multiple areas (since 1996): rule of law, government effectiveness, uncontrolled corruption, etc.
Cellular technology presents a unique opportunity for Nepali citizens to voice their thoughts, organize, and hold the current government responsible to the standards, which every government should be held to.
The Need For Impartiality
In the United States of America, we do not live in a monarchy. We live in a representative democracy, where we elect representatives who will best represent our views in the legislature and other branches of government. Here in the USA, we don’t have rishis and other revered figures who can depose malevolent rulers. Communist revolution is not the way that US citizens change our government. We do it by engaging in conversation, and voting. So how are the verses and examples discussed above relevant to us?
As Hindus, we are naturally inclined to contemplation of many viewpoints and varieties of thought. A selectively misrepresented Vedic verse says that the truth is one, but the wise call it by different names:
इन्द्रं॑ मि॒त्रं वरु॑णम॒ग्निमा॑हु॒रथो॑ दि॒व्यः स सु॑प॒र्णो ग॒रुत्मा॑न् ।
एकं॒ सद्विप्रा॑ बहु॒धा व॑दन्त्य॒ग्निं य॒मं मा॑त॒रिश्वा॑नमाहुः ॥
Indram Mitram Varunam-agni-maahurathau divyaha sa suparnau gurutmaan
Ekam sadvi-praam bahudhaa vandantyagnim Yamam Matarishvanamahuh
The full verse lists many Vedic deities (eg. Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, etc) and then states that the truth is one and the sages call it by many names. Putting aside the modern exploitation of this verse by missionary groups seeking converts, let us briefly discuss how this verse epitomizes the diversity of thought inherent in Dharmic culture.
When we hear “Hindu” today, we think of a singular monolithic culture, the followers of which all believe in the same thing. This is a common and understandable misunderstanding, because that is how most world religions are portrayed. However, if we look closer, we see that Hindu culture is actually many belief systems with shared values and practices coexisting in the same space.
The predominant Hindu belief systems today are Vaishnav, Shaivite, and Shakti traditions. Some also include Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs in this group, depending on the individual’s definition of “Hindu.” It is unheard of, I think, for these traditions to have violent clashes against each other for the cause of religion. This is in stark contrast to Christianity and Islam, the schisms of which have been causes of internal conflicts (see: Thirty Year’s War, the Huguenot Rebellions, the United Kingdom’s war with Ireland which continues to this day, the Sunni-Shia divide, etc.).
There were debates held by intellectuals on the merits of each system, with the defeated side accepting that their arguments were inferior (see: Adi Shankaracharya, who engaged in multiple debates throughout India), but no stories or historical evidence of a sect physically attacking another sect because of their beliefs differed. What other methods were used to peacefully join the large variety of beliefs into coexisting communities is a topic worth researching because it could surely offer the modern world some wisdom.
Multifaceted Nature Of Perception
Fostering diversity of thought is in the best interest of society, not just locally but across the world. Large corporations encourage diverse teams because it strengthens the workforce through the variety of thoughts and experiences. Similarly, encouraging and embracing diversity of thought is beneficial to society. Whereas a monolithic thinking group would have trouble coming up with solutions, a diverse society is able to formulate solutions much easier.
An individual’s perspective is shaped by their upbringing (all five W’s, eg. who, what, when, where, and why), their experiences in adulthood, their friend group, etc. Two siblings could grow up together but would have different perspectives because they experience life in minutely different ways. These perspectives are what bring diversity of thought. However, these perspectives also serve as hindrances from understanding others.
Let’s try to understand this through a parable, the story of the blind men and the elephant (the origins of which are in Dharmic texts) is an excellent example. A group of blind men come upon an elephant. Never having seen or heard of an elephant, each one touches a specific part of the elephant and attempts to draw conclusions as to what it could be he’s stumbled upon. One touches the trunk, and claims that the elephant is a snake. Another touches an ear, and claims that the elephant is like a large fan. Another yet touches a leg, and claims that the elephant is like a tree. Each is describing only that which they experience, without bothering to examine the entirety of the elephant.
Some exaggerated examples of perception bias are the hot topics of firearms and immigration. Someone who grew up around firearms would have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to ban them. Someone who grew up surrounded by immigrants of all nationalities would have a hard time understanding why they should be deported. There are nuances, which themselves have further nuances, various merits, as well as demerits. None of the topics present in national conversation will be brought to a complete close the way that present discourse around them is structured.
So then, we see that Hindus are empowered by our heritage to listen to ideologies that may differ from the ones we are comfortable with, and calmly consider the merits and demerits of those ideas. Should we not then apply this same concept to modern political discourse? We’ve already discussed how our ancestors envisioned a citizenry and it’s governing body. Granted, we no longer have monarchies that protect us with absolute authority, our governments are elected. In an ideal representative democracy or republic, the educated citizens should elect officials who will bear in mind the best interest of their constituents.
In Chapter 5 of the Chanakya Neeti , a compilation of advice by Chanakya, he says:
Infatuation is the biggest disease and greed is the worst enemy of an individual.
Anger is the most damaging fire and among all possessions knowledge is supreme.
Traditional media, independent media, social media all seem to promote specific brands or personality, and ultimately promote specific ideologies. With many companies collecting and leveraging big data, which allows firms to track user browsing/spending habits and formulate directed marketing plans, it becomes increasingly difficult to get information that gives a clear picture of reality. Social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc.) will show posts that are similar to your browsing habits, search engines also do something similar. This makes it very easy to be caught in an echo chamber, where ideas we already agree with are the ones that seem to be shown to us. We become obsessed with what we see, and convince ourselves of that being the singular truth.
Instantaneous backlash on social media for any number of topics has become increasingly common because we don’t stop to get all the evidence and perspectives of any given situation. This is especially prevalent in developing situations where all the information is not available right away. By calmly and rationally analyzing ideas presented by all sides involved in a discussion, we remove the fog of bias that often clouds our judgement.
It is also our duty as Hindus to take in information from all perspectives, do our due diligence in research, and verify what we’re being shown is in fact the truth. Having gathered information from all perspectives and not being swayed by our inherent bias, only then should formulate our own thoughts. It is intellectually dishonest, and a betrayal of our heritage, to automatically disavow ideas simply because of it being proposed by someone who we categorize as being from the “other side of the aisle.”
In an increasingly polarized society, it is also our duty as Hindus to introduce the technique of rational analysis and independent formation of thoughts and ideas. Blindly following what is told to us by traditional and non-traditional media, politicians, or any other influences only divides society. The way forward in national discourse should include an analysis of a wide variety of perspectives and an admission of “I was wrong” should the analysis of all available information yield the truth as something which is counter to prior held beliefs. It is a mark of a mature society which accepts it’s faults and works to overcome them.
- Arjun Pandava
- Sinha, B.M. (1992, January). Religion’s Place in the Politics of Ancient India. Retrieved from https://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=891
- The Global Economy. Nepal Economic Indicators. Retrieved from https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/Nepal/
- Chanakya Neeti. Simple Rules for a Fulfilling and Happy Life. Retrieved from https://chanakya.brainhungry.com/