The Genius of Sanatana Polity and Statecraft: Decolonising Indian Governance

The Genius of Sanatana Polity and Statecraft: Decolonising Indian Governance

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s vision of and eulogy to the Indian Civil Services in his inspirational speech on April 21, 1947 to the first batch of the Indian Administrative Services needs repetition if only to underscore how farsighted he was:

Your predecessors were brought up in the traditions in which they … kept themselves aloof from the common run of the people. It will be your bounden duty to treat the common men in India as your own. [Emphasis added]

It was a truly rousing and heartfelt speech. It was also a challenge to the best men to see whether they could scale the Mount Everest or just Nandi Hills. Fortunately, a sizeable chunk took up the Sardar’s challenge and showed what the Sardar’s “steel frame” was really capable of contributing towards nation-building. Until at least the mid 1970s, there were any number of IAS officers who were also scholars and culturally learned. Fast forward, a decade later, the downward transformation was as swift as it was brutal and criminal. Recent history is witness to the undeniable living reality that the steel frame has transformed into a moth-eaten hollowness. Indeed, it is inconceivable that brazen “politicians” like Lalu Yadav, D.K. Shivakumar et al couldn’t have gotten away with their venal marauding of both the exchequer and public conscience without being ably assisted by the bureaucracy.

Nirad C Chaudhuri echoed[i] Sardar Patel as recently as in 1997 when he remarked that

…what disappeared from India with the going away of the British had created remained, intact in all its features and above all in its spirit… The immense noisy crowds that greeted the end of British rule in India with deafening shouts of joy on August 15, 1947, did not recall the old saying: they thought nothing of British rule would survive in their country after the departure of the White men… They never perceived that British rule in India had created an impersonal structure…. a system of government for which there was no substitute. In this system, the actual work of government was carried on by a bureaucracy consisting of the highest British officials together with a hierarchy of officials whose lowest but the most numerous personnel was formed by the clerks. Actual initiation of government action was in the hands of the men in the lowest position, viz, the clerks… the basic character of the Indian bureaucracy as it is now: ‘Theirs is a solid, egocentric, and rootless order, which by its very nature, is not only uncreative, but even unproductive. Its only purpose is to perpetuate itself by inbreeding, and ensure its prosperity. Government by such a bureaucracy can by itself be regarded as a decisive sign of decadence of a people in their political life.

The common feature of both the Sardar and Nirad Chaudhuri’s observation is just one word: rootlessness; in other words, psychological and cultural colonization. In practical terms, if there’s any institution that needs to be urgently decolonized today, it is the Indian Administrative Services (I use this term in an all-encompassing sense to include all the Civil Services like IFS, IPS, etc). Many learned Civil Services officers have themselves written and spoken at length about the need for reform in the Civil Services. But the word they’re looking for is not “reform” but “decolonize.” I would also dare add the following to this: the state at which the Civil Services is currently in, reform is simply impossible.

We can also regard this issue with a bit of historical data pertaining to said colonization.

Rule by Theory

One significant consequence—indeed, a defining feature—since India became a democracy in name is something that I call Rule-by-Theory. Under Nawab Nehru’s extended dispensation of darkness, softcore Communism was the theory that ruled India. Till she lifted the Emergency, Indira Gandhi opted for a slightly hardcore version of the same Communism. And Rajiv Gandhi didn’t have a clue about anything. After his demise, the country was pretty much in free fall except for some breaths of fresh air under P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

But what has remained common for the last sixty-odd years is the selfsame Rule-by-Theory. Or to be more specific, Rule by Western Political Theories, which are completely at odds with the millennia-old genius of Sanatana polity, statecraft and governance. What has worsened the situation is the untested implementation of said Rule-by-Western-Theories. And nowhere is this defect more glaring than in the near-obliteration of the time-tested system of the Gram Panchayat, which had largely remained untouched even by the most oppressive Islamic tyranny. Although the Gram Panchayat system exists only in name, its original sturdiness has perhaps been irretrievably lost. In other words, the form of democracy that India adopted after 1947 centralized political power in New Delhi to such an appalling extent that even state governments were reduced to the status of supplicants. As an example, let’s look at an illuminating if not tragic account[ii] of the deliberations over the Panchayat Raj system in the Constituent Assembly.  

  • I want to ask whether there is any mention of villages and any place for them in the structure of this great Constitution. No, nowhere. The Constitution of a free country should be based on ‘local self-government’. We see nothing of local self-government anywhere in this Constitution. This Constitution as a whole, instead of being evolved from our life and reared from the bottom upwards is being imported from outside and built from above downwards. A Constitution which is not based on units and in the making of which they have no voice, in which there is not even a mention of thousands and lakhs of villages of India and in framing which they have had no hand—well you can give such a Constitution to the country but I very much doubt whether you would be able to keep it for long.
  • We cannot have a strong Centre without strong limbs. If we can build the whole structure on the village panchayats, on the willing cooperation of the people, then I feel the Centre would automatically become strong.
  • Dr Ambedkar boldly admitted, and the members of the Drafting Committee do concede that in this Constitution there is no provision for establishing Panchayat Raj…When there is no such provision, it can never be the Constitution of India… If the village is to be discarded, someone can also boldly demand that this Constitution be discarded.

Unprecedented Concentration of Political Power

Some conclusions are inescapable from this. At no other time in the millennia-old civilizational history of India—even under the vast and sweeping monarchies of the Mauryas, the Guptas and the Vijayangara Empire—was political power concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority in a single city: New Delhi. Such concentration of political power is not only alien to the Sanatana spirit, it is a crime against this spirit. Indeed, this centralization and concentration of power is the chief reason for the growth of regional and caste-based parties in just about thirty years after we attained freedom. For example, from the “Dravidian” parties up to say the Telugu Desam Party until recently, it was common to hear their leaders drop such grand public utterances about “taking our fight to Delhi.” Think about what that means. Think about what this kind of “democracy” has done to Bharatavarsha and her Sanatana civilisational continuity.

Rajyashastra is Subservient to Dharmashastra

In the Sanatana tradition, what is known as politics was always subservient to Dharmashastra. In a way, Rajyashastra (polity, statecraft, governance, administration) was a mere subset of Dharmashastra and couldn’t be divorced or separated from it. Politics, economics, etc were worldly subjects to be regarded as mere tools and implements that facilitate a human being’s continuous quest to attain spiritual liberation. Which is why politics was constrained by the tenets of Dharma, and it is Dharma which guarantees spiritual freedom to the individual. All other freedoms are meaningless without spiritual freedom. In the Sanatana conception, this spiritual freedom of the individual received primacy because the collective actions and remembered traditions guided by this spiritual freedom is what gave us civilizational continuity.

Consider these words[iii] by the iconic D.V.G.

no matter how far India progresses in the achievement of….material wealth, there will always be numerous other countries as competition… our desire…to be equal to England, Germany, America, and Russia in material acquisitions…is itself an adventure. It’s our duty to attempt such things so let’s do it.

But the one field which doesn’t present any such competition is culture: specifically, the spiritual culture of India. This spiritual culture is the best and the finest of India’s wealth. If we don’t account for or neglect this spiritual culture, there’s no other area which India can take pride in. Forget pride, there is indeed no area where India can become useful to the world.

But think about what these Western political theories, democracy etc have become today, in the lands of their origin: they have become instruments to manipulate the public mind. Indeed, even the notion of the term, “public conscience” has all but been eliminated in public discourse in the West.  

From the Vedic period up to the 18th century, there was an intimate and a kind of deeply personal relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Indian polity represented perhaps the greatest lived example of what is today known as “last mile delivery of governance” and such other fashionable verbiage. The level of decentralization in governance was truly unparalleled. Every village, the last unit of administration was self-contained. Villagers really didn’t have a reason to step out of their confines for any matter concerning their daily needs.

Genius of Decentralisation

Indeed, history shows us that the genius of Indian polity can best be observed in our village setups. In a manner of speaking, the village was the physical manifestation of the proverb that “you can create your own world wherever you are.”

Speaking at a very high level, what do institutions like Gram Panchayat, Sabha, Samiti, Mahanadu, Oor, Parishad etc really mean? For a fairly detailed treatment of this topic, refer to my essay on the Mackenzie Manuscripts. In any case, these institutions were later refinements of the original administrative and governance systems that existed in the Vedic period: Arajaka, Bhaujya, Vairajya, Samrajya, Maharajya, Swaarajya, etc. Roughly speaking, these refinements were brought in practice during the Mauryan rule and continued in a largely unbroken fashion until the Mughals. Thus, in Northern India, we had administrative units such as Rashtra, Ahara, Janapada, Desha, Vishaya, and Bhukti. Their equivalents in Southern India were Rajya, Pithika, Ventte, Vishaya, Seeme, Naadu, Hobli, Valanad, Mandalam, Naad, Aimbadin, Melagaram, Agaram, Chaturvedi, Mangalam, Kuttam, and Palayapattu.

See another facet of the indivisibility and unity of India?   

But in the realm of practical life, these were intimate institutions that kept our extraordinary civilization alive and unbroken in the daily life, customs, festivals, and consciousness of Indians for hundreds of generations. Only in the rarest of rare cases was punishment actually enforced at the level of the village because there was an unspoken and interiorized understanding among people that even a minor disruption in these systems would bring down the whole edifice. The fabled inscription at Uttaramerur (near Kanchipuram) is one of the extant records that testify to this kind of near-perfect administrative decentralization.

Maharaja, Samrat and Chakravartin

The Sanatana conception of a Maharaja, Samrat or Chakravartin also offers tremendous illumination. The Taittiriya Samhita, for example, lists what is known as the Dasharatni (Ten Gems). These were ten top administrative officials (Purohita, Rajanya, Senani, Suta, Gramani, Kshatriya, Sangruhitr, Bhagadhugh, Akshaavapa, and Parivrukti), whose permission was mandatory in order to ratify the King’s coronation. Only after the King took the following vow (Vrata): “I will protect Dharma,” was he pronounced as being officially coronated. But there was an even more practical and profound side to this. Let’s hear it in the words[iv] of the gem of a scholar, Dr. Srikanta Sastri:

Because there is the Law of the Jungle [Matsya Nyaya] in this world, the [institution] of King was created in order to uphold and maintain peace. The King who enforces the power of punishment using Dharma as his guide is compared to Mahavishnu who preserves order in the world. However, it is completely in violation of the spirit of the Dharmashastra to regard the King as having the Divine Right to rule.

At once, the King was the combined embodiment of the following: he was the leader of the society, the commander-in-chief during wartime, the Chief Justice who would dispense justice after free, frank, and open consultation with wise men, and not folks who had risen to high rank owing to mere technical or subject competence. In the Sanatana conception, dispensing justice was to be done with an attitude of Soumanasya (Pleasantness of mind) as a verse of the Atharvaveda (30: 5-6) says beautifully. When we regard this from another perspective, the genius of Bharatavarsha becomes evident: this is an attitude, outlook, and temperament towards life juxtaposed on the complex tapestry of statecraft and polity. Which is why for the major part in its long history, Bharatavarsha had very few instances of dictators and tyrants. However, every Muslim Sultan or Nawab was a despot and tyrant almost without exception.

One can cite examples of numerous such Samrats but I’ve considered Harshavardhana here. Harshavardhana divided the income derived from his personal landowning into four parts. He gave one part each to:

  1. Take care of Government expenses
  2. Fund the salaries of high-ranking Government officials
  3. Patronise scholars, Vidwans, Pandits, poets, artists etc.
  4. Charity

More than a thousand years later, the warrior-queen and Raja-Rishika, Ahalyabai Holkar followed the same tradition of Harshavardhana. Indeed, they followed the warning in the renowned aphorism, Rajaa Kaalasya Kaaranam, which simply means this: that political system is despicable which loots people without first solving their economic problems.

I leave the gentle reader to draw their own conclusions.  


More fundamentally, recall how we address a long and distinguished line of luminaries – Manu, Brihaspati, Ushanas, Parashara, Bharadwaja, Vishalaksha, Vatavyadhi, Baahudantiiputra, Katyayana, and Chanakya – who first laid down the philosophy of Sanatana statecraft: as Rishis.


[i] Nirad C Chaudhuri: Three Horsemen Of The New Apocalypse. Emphasis added.

[ii] Dharampal: Panchayat Raj And India’s Polity

[iii] D V Gundappa: Jnapaka Chitrashale: Vaidikadharma Sampradaayastharu: DVG Kruti Shreni: Volume 8: Nenapina Chitragalu – 2:  (Govt of Karnataka, 2013). Upasamhara. Emphasis added.

[iv] Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri: Bharatiya Samskruti. P. 203. Emphasis added.

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