Public Opinion in Bharatavarsha in a Pre-News Era: A Delightful History of 5000 Years

Public Opinion in Bharatavarsha in a Pre-News Era: A Delightful History of 5000 Years

Public opinion was always a great force in politics throughout the history of India dating back to the Vedic period. We present a brief history of how public opinion was gathered, and the impact it had on kings and empires. This is a largely overlooked chapter of Indian history.

The word Rajan (or King) means one who can keep the people contented. Power and authority vested in the king implicitly rested on the sanction, goodwill and consent of the people. The ultimate right of the people—or collective will—as the sole arbiters of the kind of government they wanted was recognized. This recognition was given concrete and practical form in two restraints on the power of the King:

1. The primacy and supremacy of Dharma as the guiding force of the State.

2. The counsel of the Wise people whose gentle but firm persuasion kept the king from committing excesses.

Then there was the third restraint as well: public opinion. In our own time, public opinion has almost been exclusively associated with the media, especially after the advent of the printing press. It appears that the invention of the printing press has nearly obliterated the historical memory of how public opinion was formed before its advent.

Public Opinion in Bharatavarsha in a Pre-News Era: A Delightful History of 5000 Years
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In India, public opinion has always been a force to reckon with since the era of the Vedic kings. This essay narrates the rather delightful history of public opinion from that ancient period roughly up to the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire.

Narada, the Maharshi of Public Opinion and News

The impulse for news is innate in human nature. News, not in the sense we’re familiar with today, but news as understood as a hunger for learning new or unfamiliar things in the world.

In the Indian tradition, Narada is regarded as the World’s First Journalist. However, calling him a mere journalist would be doing injustice to and severely limiting his genius. Our tradition rightly regards Narada as a Maharshi. He did not merely transmit news but worked actively towards stirring action. Unlike our understanding of journalism, Narada’s journalism was not passive reportage. He drew the attention of our Gods, Sages and Kings (thank you, Dr. David Frawley!) to evils occurring in various worlds and spurred them to destroy such evils. But for Narada, we would not have had Narasimha.

This is the great lesson Narada teaches us: the herald of the news cannot pretend to be unattached from the consequences of his news. This is also perhaps the greatest hoax of what is uncritically known as objective journalism. The legendary DVG puts it best:

In the present day, we require this Naradaesque duty. But then, there is no Narada today. News reporters and journalists need to fill his place. However, if Narada were to come to our present world, there is every reason to doubt whether he would enjoy the same reverence as before. This is because in our time “independent thinking” has replaced Narada.

A blunter and a more honest assessment of contemporary journalism is yet to be made.

The Vedic Era

In the Vedic era, the election of the king was in the hands of the people. Dr. K.P. Jayaswal’s brilliant Hindu Polity contains rich descriptions of this electoral process. Suffice to say that every village, town and city had public halls (akin to the modern Town Halls). The village folk and townsfolk would regularly meet there to discuss issues of public importance. These halls also served as the location for general social gatherings. Vigorous debates were held. Local and non-local issues were sorted out after heated discussions that sometimes lasted for weeks. These halls were also venues for verbal contests. The Tattiriya Brahmana has a brilliant verse which encourages young men to actively participate in public assemblies and speak their mind on social and national issues without fear.

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The King studiously compiled reports of all such debates and generally followed the current of public opinion. More importantly, he would consult the prominent and wise people in his kingdom before implementing a policy that he felt would go against public opinion.

These foundational principles endured throughout our history as we shall see.

Epics and Puranas

In fact, the force of public opinion became stronger as India evolved politically. As monarchy became the dominant system of political organisation, public opinion became institutionalised from the very top. Nowhere was the king more cautious and fearful than in appointing his successor.

Srimad Ramayana is a classic case in this regard. Dasharatha invited the heads of all the villages in his kingdom and placed his proposal in full public view: do I have your consent for nominating Rama as my successor? After they heard it, the chiefs went away and formed a separate assembly to discuss the matter. Here, they dissected Dasharatha’s proposal threadbare by discussing Rama’s qualities, character, and competence, and compared notes with one another on what they had heard about Rama. Finally, they reconvened before Dasharatha and said they had no objection to Rama. The gratified father and monarch said to them with folded hands, “I accept your verdict.”

Narada Maharshi
Narada Maharshi

Then we have numerous instances of the fabled Mithila King, Janaka whose respect for public opinion bordered on reverence.

The world-renowned story of Yayati is another illustrious case in point. When Yayati announces that his youngest son Puru would be his successor, there is great uproar. The Paura and Janapada—representative bodies of the State—strongly oppose the king’s decision on the grounds of Sastra and usage: the eldest son must be the successor. Yayati goes to extraordinary lengths to convince them of the wisdom of his choice by quoting other equally-respected Sastric injunctions. The Paura and Janapada leaders finally agree after being convinced in this fashion.

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The Mahabharata goes a step further. The Shanti Parva makes the following recommendation: the king should send secret agents and loyal spies throughout the kingdom to ascertain whether the conduct of his government on the previous day has or has not met with public approval. Further, they should ascertain whether his conduct has or has not met with the approval of people in rural areas. There should be no divergence between what has met with approval in the Capital and what has met with approval in the villages.

However, there were downsides to such a system of seeking the “perfect” public opinion. Without going into too many details, the most unfortunate consequence of trying to please everyone was Sri Ramachandra who parted with his queen and his dear wife Sitadevi. Although his trust in her was unshakeable, he decided to sacrifice her to please a loose-tongued and petty-minded citizen.

To be continued

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