A KEY LINK TO UNDERSTAND both the theoretical and practical functioning of politics and statecraft in ancient India up to the destruction of the Classical Era is not to view it from the prism of what is known as democracy. While we can find contemporary terminological equivalents to adequately describe and analyze various aspects of Hindu polity, we must have a vivid picture of its practice. The chief sources that enable us to get this picture include epigraphs, language, literature, writers on Rajyasastra and Dharmasastra, numismatics and what are derisively dismissed as “oral legends.”
It is also incorrect to somehow “prove” that democracy existed in ancient India—i.e., the sort of democracy that has been in vogue for roughly the last three hundred years. At best, it can be said that some practices and elements familiar to us today did exist back then. But in this case, the parts do not make the whole. It is akin to saying that all creatures that have wings are eagles.
A reasonable definition of ancient Indian polity and statecraft is that it was a Circumscribed Monarchy where the power of the king was constrained by a Council of Ministers. Every writer on Indian polity from Manu onwards held that a good administration was one where the King and the Council of Ministers were mutually afraid of each other, and in turn, all of them were afraid of public opinion. For more details on public opinion in ancient India, see the essay series linked below.
Unlike contemporary democracies, the ruler had to compulsorily be a warrior first and an administrator next. Among other things, good administration was defined as a powerful method of preventing war and winning it if it occurred despite solid administration. Almost every royal fiat had to be whetted by the Council of Ministers before execution. In turn, these top echelons kept a hawk-like vigil on the daily life of the people, generously rewarding their good conduct, service, fidelity to tradition, and punishing faults and crimes in a timely fashion. Although this system eventually thawed and was vandalized to the point of extinction, its foundational features remained intact in the DNA of our people even after India attained a questionable independence. To quote the memorable words of the stalwart of epigraphy R. Narasimhacharya, these features contained in our historical records “bear testimony to the prowess, piety, generosity, patriotism and toleration of our princes and the people.”
P.K. Telang also describes this system beautifully:
But this does not mean that the system was perfect in all respects. There are numerous instances that show conflicts between the King and the Council of Ministers.
An early instance of this conflict occurs during the rule of the daring and indomitable Śaka ruler, Rudradamana I of the Western Kshatrapa dynasty. He placed an ambitious proposal to repair the dam of the Sudarshana Lake at Junagadh. After much deliberation, his Council of Ministers shot it down because it was cost-intensive. But Rudradamana had given his word to the people. And so, he rebuilt the dam using his personal money or privy purse.
Ministers were able to wield such extraordinary clout owing to their selection process, detailed for example, in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. Before being appointed, they were subject to rigorous tests which were above and beyond their scholarship, talent, skill or experience. These tests had everything to do with their personal character, foremost of which was absolute integrity and absolute loyalty to their land. This is the fabled fourfold Kautilyan test:
1. Religious allurement
2. Financial enticement
3. Sexual temptation
4. Inducing physical threat
Depending on which tests the aspirant passed or failed in, portfolios would be allocated. For example, if a candidate failed in all tests but passed the test of sexual temptation, he would be placed in charge of “pleasure grounds” or brothels. The candidate who passed all the tests would be appointed as the Prime Minister.
It is precisely this element that is missing in our IAS, IPS, IFS and other high-level recruitment processes. Thus, it is unsurprising that a barely-disguised, one-man breaking-India force like Harsh Mander still roams around scot-free.
These tests apart, appointments to ministerial offices entailed these qualifications:
A solid training in the arts including music, drama, poetry, etc.
A thorough mastery over grammar
Impeccable and exquisite handwriting
A cultivation of vision and foresight
Health, vigour and enthusiasm
Basic or advanced military training
A demeanor that exuded dignity, poise, composure, charm, and wit
Round-the-clock availability to everyone including the lowest classes of people
A genuine attitude of affection and warmth towards all classes of the society
Ruthlessness sans personal hatred when dealing with criminals
Purity of life by not missing the key elements of Achara and Vyavahara such as performing the prescribed Dharmic rituals, festivals, Vratas and doing regular Daana.
The Mahabharata has a beautiful set of verses that gives perhaps the profoundest list of qualifications and qualities a minister must be endowed with.
Oh Rajan! Take care that your ministers should be men well-versed in the Sastra of politics and the application of the six gunas: noble birth, devout, bereft of faults, good politicians, clever lawyers, and learned in history. They must be skilled to read the unwritten signs and intentions (Ingitajnana) like an open book. They must fully know what should be done and when. They must be heroic and strong. They must well-born and well-bred, keen witted, and must succeed in all works that they undertake. They must be experts in the art of warfare and in the strengthening of forts in order to make them impregnable. They must be deeply learned in the Dharmasastras, they must be broadminded and show mercy in situations that elicit it. They must be wise, endowed with foresight and must command the wisdom to circumvent all future dangers and must have the inner strength to face and subdue the present threats. They must keenly anticipate the motives of their foes and friends alike. More vitally, they must learn how to deal with indifferent and lazy kings who act purposelessly and must guard their secrets, standing firm like rocks. O King! These ministers must be strictly Dharmic, generous and immune to all temptations. In a word, such ministers are strong and fit, like patient cows, to bear the burden of the state upon their backs.
The history and culture of the Indian people and their civilization is an inspiring, sublime, and exalted kaleidoscope pieced with lovely patterns of the lives and legacies of such ministers. From the immortal Kautilya to the true, contemporary Ratna of Bharatavarsha, Sir M. Visvesvarayya. If one Kautilya, one Darbhapani, one Vidyaranya Swami, one Thimmarasu and one Visvesvarayya could sculpt the fortunes of and bring light, prosperity, and joy to an entire Rajya, imagine what an entire cabinet of such light-givers can do.
Small wonder that Kautilya and other Hindu writers and lawgivers recommended that the King should follow the Prime Minister as “a student follows his preceptor, and a son his father.” In a superb feat of creativity, the Kannada blockbuster movie, Sri Krishnadevaraya brings this feature vividly alive in the scene where Prime Minister Thimmarasu slaps the newly-coronated emperor Sri Krishnadevaraya several times in a row. The Raya’s response: “I understand that there is an intrinsic message of virtue and warning in your slaps. It only shows the depth of your affection towards me.”
We believe further commentary on this point is superfluous.
The original theory and practice of an optimal harmony between the King and the Council of Ministers has taken perhaps the worst-ever battering after India adopted an unsettled democracy. By concentrating all power in his own person, Nawab Nehru became the contemporary symbol of this battering. By surrounding himself with flatterers and barely-hidden criminals, he became their puppet and they fattened themselves on India. Thus, while in the public eye he was the unchallenged leader of the country, the true story was being played out behind the scenes on a day-to-day basis. In the Emersonian sense, this was the story:
Perhaps we wait in vain for the day when the elusive IAS reform process will recover and incorporate these time-honoured Sanatana precepts of statecraft and governance.
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