Purpose and Function of Government
According to Mahabharata
By Stephen Knapp
You could say that it was the Vedic culture that is the origin of genuine democratic thought and governance. Villages especially were ruled by committees or sanghas that arranged a government through discussion, based on the principles outlined in the Vedic texts. The Vedic literature explains that democratic institutions are shaped by the spirit of tolerance and freedom of thought. Therefore, a unique feature of Vedic practice is that while Hindus worship God and call Him by different names, at the same time they revere everyone else’s understanding of God as well. This is the foundation of real secularism and democracy.
As the President of India, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, once correctly said: "In 3000 years of our history, people from all over the world have come and invaded us, captured our lands, conquered our minds. From Alexander onwards, the Greeks, the Turks, the Moguls, the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Dutch, all of them came and looted us, took over what was ours. Yet we have not done this to any other nation. We have not conquered anyone. We have not grabbed their land, their culture, and their history and tried to enforce our way of life on them. Why? Because we respect the freedom of others. That is why my first vision is that of FREEDOM."
This is the freedom which the Vedic culture always promoted, which is that of the individual and one’s freedom of thought, and freedom to pursue one’s happiness without infringing on others, and the means to follow one’s own spiritual predilection. This was understood because the Vedic premise is that of the "Big Picture," which is that everyone is coming into this human form of life with different levels of consciousness, and, thus, different needs to continue in their own evolutionary development from whatever level they are on now. This is why the Vedic system offered many ways through which a person could be involved and yet progress to a higher level of consciousness, and, yet, have the freedom to do so in whatever way is best for him, without, again, infringing or inflicting one’s own views on everyone else who may not necessarily be on the same level or have exactly the same outlook. This has always been what was viewed as a fair use of social norms and governance, as guided or curbed by the Vedic standards, and which also seems to be a rare commodity in many areas of the world today.
If anyone really understands the Vedic tradition and the latitude of philosophy and acceptance in the ways for making spiritual progress, he or she knows that a prime emphasis within it is the promotion of freedom for the individual. Part of the Vedic tradition is that everyone can pick up the process wherever they feel best, or where it is most appropriate for them to learn the lessons they most need to continue on their spiritual journey. Therefore, when it comes to any governing system, it also promotes and preserves the ideal of individual freedom.
This makes it clear that the basic principles of democracy were embedded in ancient Indian civilization and its religions long before they occurred in the West. Whereas democracy in Europe was born in the people’s struggle against the dominance of the Church and its ruthless rulers. Democracy involves freedom of personal expression and liberty in one’s pursuits, especially for one’s happiness and personal development to attain one’s highest potential. And all along, this has been the purpose of the Vedic system of personal and social development. The Vedic system has always offered lots of individual freedom for the individual to pursue such evolutionary progress. Other cultures and religions have often shown a very limited form of freedom, tolerance, and latitude for acceptance. The point is, that in the Vedic system, there are different paths to reach God, just as there are different ways or paths to reach the top of the mountain. This may be through Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Mantra Yoga and so on, all different Dharmas to reach self-realization, but all connected at the same time. However, as you go higher, differences between them are reduced. In this way, also, the closer one gets to the purpose of the Vedic system, or goal of life, everything becomes more clear, including the way we view each other and how we can assist each other along the way. Thus, this is the type of democracy that is naturally inherent in the Vedic system of governing society. Therefore, in conclusion, we can simply say that ancient India is where we can find the origination of democracy. So, yes, even today India is the seventh largest and second most populous country in the world, with more population, one constitution, one national elected parliament, etc., making it the largest democracy as well.
In this line of thinking, Dr. Will Durant states in Case for India: "Let us remember further that India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit, the mother of Europe’s languages; that she was the mother of philosophy; mother of mathematics; mother through Buddha of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother through the village community of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all."
Professor Jabez T. Sunderland writes in India Under Bondage: "Ethnological, linguistic and other forms of historical research make it clear that the democratic and republican institutions of Europe and America, actually send their roots to Asia and especially to India. India is the natural home of liberty, of democratic government and of self-government. Where did our colonial town-meeting system come from? Our historians trace it to England, and beyond that to Germany. But they cannot stop with Germany. To find they are obliged to go to Asia and especially to the village republics of India. Thus, India proves to be, in a sense, the Mother of Republican America." (Niranjan Shah, India is Mother of Self-government and Democracy, India Tribune, November 7, 2009)
We can find in the Atharva Veda the early principles to be followed by the king with respect for the will of the people, and to maintain the means for protecting Sanatana-dharma for everyone. However, Chanakya established the idea that if the king oppresses the people and disregards Dharma, the people can revolt, dislodge him from power and install another king. Thus the king could not be a dictator, but was subject to review as well. Villages were found to have their own democratic system with locally elected elders established to maintain law and order.
The Vedic civilization had great thinkers and was also the origin of many additional political ideas. For example, Kautilya, popularly known as Chanakya Pandit, in his Artha Sashtra, set up principles that are still used today by such organizations as NATO. He was the first to emphasize the need for the numerous kingdoms in Aryavrata (ancient India) to unite and operate with the interests of one community under a central governing authority. He set down the principles of the role of the leaders or king, advisors, and the basics of foreign policy, along with internal security and non-corrupt administration. But the main basis of the duties of a king or any ruler was outlined in the Vedic texts, some of which had more information than others, as we will see next.
Such texts as the Mahabharata has an abundance of information on the duties of government and the king or ruler. More than we could provide here. But by studying the following information, which is a concise and summarized explanation on how the government and its rulers should function, as provided in the Vedic texts, we will understand how they expected things should be done at the time, and how our present governments are inefficient in various methods of operation that they employ, or in what should be the idealistic foundation upon which they build the country. We should also be able to perceive how to improve them. Furthermore, these Vedic principles that are found in the ancient Mahabharata and other Vedic books are applicable for any leaders, whether they be local, state or national.
First, before any ruler should take any position of authority, there should be a proper constitution which the king or leader must follow and upon which the whole village or country, depending on the case, must base itself. This constitution must outline the real purpose of government and the ruler of the country, and from which should not be diverted, and, in this case, to protect Dharma and all those Truth seekers who follow the principles of Dharma. Dharma means the path that helps bring and maintain harmony, balance and peace, both individually and socially, and the Truth which can free us from illusion and bring us to the topmost reality.
By studying this information we will understand how our present governments are inefficient in various methods of operation that they employ, or in the idealistic foundation upon which they build the country. We should also be able to perceive how to improve them. Furthermore, these Vedic principles that are found in the ancient text of the Mahabharata are applicable for any leaders, whether they be local, state or national.
First, before any ruler should take any position of authority, there should be a proper constitution which the king or leader must follow and upon which the whole country must base itself. This constitution must outline the real purpose of government and the ruler of the country, which is to protect Dharma and all those Truth seekers who follow the principles of Dharma. Dharma means the path that helps bring and maintain harmony, balance and peace, both individually and socially, and the Truth which can free us from illusion and bring us to the topmost reality, the spiritual strata.
PURPOSE OF GOVERNMENT
The government’s purpose should first be outlined in order to establish the direction it will take for the citizens of the country. This is the reason for having a constitution. It is explained that the main objective of the constitution of the country must be for the protection of Dharma and the propagation of righteousness among the subjects according to the law of Dharma. The citizens must know how to live in an atmosphere of goodness or with a sattvik mindset [that which is in the mode of goodness and is beneficial for everyone].
A constitution must be written only after a thorough review of the holy Vedic texts which contain a universal standard for spiritual development and an uplifting society. Only such a constitution in which Dharma is protected can there be the manifestation of a progressive country. By progressive we mean in consciousness where humanity is reaching their highest potential in growth, maturity, morals and spiritual knowledge and awareness. In the Vedic standards this is called Ramarajya, or the kingdom of Lord Rama’s rule of righteousness. This is considered a time when the ruler, namely Lord Rama, worked for everyone’s ultimate benefit, and everyone cooperated together in progressive harmony. When the constitution and the country are based on righteousness, the probability of it being affected by calamities, crime and discontent are low. But a country devoid of righteousness (Dharma) is lifeless, like a corpse, meaning that the deterioration of such a country is practically guaranteed. Without the preservation of Dharma through educational programs, then the positive future of the state is destroyed. It may go through the motions of existence, but its real purpose, values, and heart are empty. The citizens themselves will become like hollow shells compared to what they could be if they could reach their true potential in a spiritually advanced society. This is the importance of following the path of Dharma and that the rulers observe and protect it.
HOW THERE BECAME A NEED FOR A KING
In ancient times, king Yudhishthira asked how there ever came to be a need to have a king. He asked: “How did the word ‘RAJAN’ come into use when a king is addressed? A king is like any other human being on the earth. His body and limbs are like those of anyone else. His understanding and his senses are similar to those of many others. He has the same joys and griefs, the same number of years to live on the earth, like anybody else. How then did it happen that he is considered different? This world is made up of men who are far superior to him in intelligence, bravery and all accomplishments. And yet, this one man rules the others: though they are superior to him. Why should it be the rule that one man is worshipped by all the others?”
Bhishma replied: “I will tell you. In the beginning there was no king. There was no punishment. These two were not needed then. Men were all righteous and each man protected the other. As time passed on, however, the hearts of men began to be invaded by errors. Once error enters the heart, the mind gets clouded and the sense of right and wrong begins to wane. It was even so with the men of distant times.
“Covetousness was the first guest in their hearts. When covetous-ness came into life, men began to want things which did not belong to them. The next passion to be born was lust. Lust can never exist alone. It has to have a companion and so wrath came into existence. As soon as these terrible passions found places in the hearts of men, righteousness had to beat a hasty retreat. Along with this confusion happened another great calamity. The Vedas disappeared. Righteousness was completely lost to the world. The gods were then overcome with fear. They went to Brahma Pitamaha [great father] and said: ‘Look on the world you have created, my lord! It is threatened with destruction. Please save it and save us!’
“Brahma assured them that he would find a way. He then composed a treatise of a hundred thousand lessons. He treated [on the subjects] of Dharma [righteousness], Artha [economic development], Kama [sensual enjoyment] and Moksha [spiritual liberation]. He dealt with them in great detail. He formulated the rules for chastisement. The main features of this treatise on chastisement dealt with punishment of two kinds: open and secret punishment. It treated of conservation of wealth by traders and merchants, growth of penance of the ascetics, destruction of thieves and wicked men. There was a branch dealing with all the religious observances, and another dealt with the extensive subject of legislation and the behavior that is expected of counselors, of spies, of secret agents, envoys, and conciliation. All the many ways and means by which men may be prevented from deviating from the path of righteousness and honesty were described in it.
“After composing it, Brahma said: ‘For the good of the world and for the establishment and propagation of Dharma, Artha and Kama I have composed this. Assisted by chastisement this will protect the world. Men are mostly led by chastisement and so this treatise will be called Dandaneeti.’
“It was studied and abridged by several of the gods, the first of them being Shankara. Finally, when it was to be given to the world, Sukra of great wisdom thought of the brevity of the life of men on earth and made the work much shorter. It contained just a thousand lessons. The gods then appeared before Vishnu and said: ‘Lord! Indicate to us a man on the world who deserves to be superior to the rest’.
“Narayana said: ‘I will enter the body of one man and he, as well as all those who are born in his line, will be lords of the world’.
“There was a king called Vena. From his right arm was born a man who was like a second Indra [King of heaven] in his looks and godliness. He was born with a coat of mail and all the weapons. He was proficient in all the arts and the Vedas. The rishis made him the ruler of the world. Sukra was his priest. There was current among men the feeling that he was the eighth son of Vishnu himself.
“His name was Prithu. He made the surface of the earth level. Vishnu and the deities assembled to crown Prithu king. The earth took a form and came to him with tributes of gems and jewels. Prithu milked the earth in the form of a cow and made her yield seven kinds of crops for the food of all living creatures. He made all men regard Dharma as the foremost of all things.
“Because he pleased all the people he was called ‘RAJAN’. Because he healed the wounds of afflicted people he was called ‘KSHAT-RIYA’. And again, because the earth became celebrated for the prevalence of virtue during his reign, she was called ‘PRITHIVI’.
“Vishnu entered the body of that monarch. A pure man, when his punya [karmic merit] becomes exhausted, descends from heaven to earth and is born as a king. Such a person is indeed great and is a portion of Vishnu on earth. He has a heritage of divine intelligence and he is superior to all the others. He is established by the gods and he is not to be slighted. This is the reason why the world cannot command him but he can command the world. This is why the multitude has to obey his words of command though he is like anybody else.”
In this regard, even the great Greek philosopher Plato recognized that the ideal ruler or administrator is the philosopher king. In such ancient cultures found in North and South America, or Egypt and Japan and many others, it was the sun that was worshiped and was considered the ultimate ruler. The king was considered the earthly representative of the sun, and his dynasty was the solar dynasty.
It is a fundamental principle of government that the authority of the ruler is ultimately derived from God. The form of government that is the oldest, most prevalent down through the ages, and most widely found around the globe is that of the divine monarchy. These were found in India, China, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Sumer, Ur, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Sudan, in ancient Greece, as well as in Scandinavia and Celtic Europe. In all these civilizations the king was spoken of as divine representatives.
Thereafter, Yudhishthira asked: “What are the principal duties of the subjects?”
Bhishma responded: “Their first duty is to elect a [properly qualified] king and perform his coronation. For the sake of the treasury, the subjects should give one fiftieth of their animals and precious metals and a tenth part of their grains. From among them they should choose those who are proficient in the use of weapons, and help the king in the maintenance of the army. A fourth part of the merits of the people will go to the king and a fourth part of their evil also. A disciple behaves with humility in the presence of his preceptor. Even so a subject should humble himself before his king. A king who is honored by his subjects will naturally be respected and feared by his foes.” 1
ANARCHY WITHOUT A PROPER RULER
As the morality of humanity declined through the ages, the need for proper rulers became increasingly evident. As it is further explained, when there is no ruler or proper administrator over a country, there will be anarchy in the region. In this regard the Ramayana (2.67.18) says: “In a state without a king the wealthy are insecure. Even farmers and cowherds cannot sleep peacefully with their doors open.”
So the above description is a sure sign of improper leadership, or when a ruler has no ability to handle the situation in the appropriate way. When there is an abundance of crime and thievery, then the wealthy are especially vulnerable because those with less or who are in need will look at them with envy. Of course, the poor are even more vulnerable because they have little means to defend themselves from marauders and vandals who come through to do as they wish. Thus, the property of the weak will be forcefully taken away by those who are more powerful or clever. And the abduction of women will become common. Without good leadership, then even the police will not come forward to protect the people in an efficient manner. Furthermore, on a social level, religious principles will disappear, relationships like marriage will begin to become extinct, and crime and chaos will manifest even in the areas of business, banking, agriculture, and health care or pharmaceuticals. Even a simple and peaceful life will be increasingly difficult to find. This is further elaborated in the Ramayana (2.67.17):
“In a state where anarchy prevails a group of young women embellished with gold ornaments do not go to the garden in the evening for recreation.” This may have been the sign of anarchy in the times of the Ramayana, but where I live in Detroit a group of women simply do not go out, embellished with gold or not. And in Africa and other parts of the world , the same situation is there that if any women are seen, they are vulnerable to rape, torture and murder. Is this not anarchy? So, according to these descriptions from the Vedic texts, a country with a crooked ruler where anarchy prevails is as good as a country with no ruler at all.
“No soul is peaceful in a state without a ruler. In such a state men exploit one another like fish who swallow each other.” (Ramayana 2.67.31)
So a good government and qualified leader is essential for a progressive society. But who is a good leader?
WHO CAN RULE THE COUNTRY
In the Vedic system, a king is called a Raja. This means one who shines. But it also means one who rids his subjects of obstacles. This indicates that only one who ideally considers the welfare of his subjects should be a king or ruler.
If the ideal king follows the laws of Dharma, then the people will also follow. (Mahabharata abbreviated as Mb.12.75.4) This also means that if the king is unrighteous, he will have little ability to lead people and keep them from crime and dishonesty. They will follow his own character. Thus, as rulers become more and more crooked, the same character will naturally trickle down to the general populace. This illustrates why corruption is so rampant today. The only way to escape from this situation is to have moralistic and righteous leaders, if there are any who can be found.
Crowning an ideal person as a king is the chief duty of a nation because eventually if a state is without a proper administrator, it becomes weak and subject to the attack of its enemies. (Mb.12.67.2) This means that a dynamic country and the code of punishment for wrongdoers can only blossom with strong leadership. When the code of punishment deteriorates or when rulers begin to behave unjustly, then corruption will spread unabated. Consequently people will become unhappy and social unrest will increase.
The nurturing of the subjects, and displaying the means to endow them with happiness and contentment, protecting the righteous, and giving the citizens the means of prosperity and to punish the wrongdoers, are the chief duties of a king. (Vishnusmriti)
“The kingdom of that monarch who looks on while a Sudra [those who are unqualified or ill-trained for positions of rulership] settles the law, will sink (low), like a cow in a morass. That kingdom where Sudras are very numerous, which is infested by atheists and destitute of the twice-born (inhabitants) [those born a second time by spiritual knowledge], soon entirely perishes, afflicted by famine and disease.” (Manu-samhita, 8.21-22)
Recognizing the Character of a Proper Leader
The prime protector of the citizens in the Sanskrit language is called a Kshatriya. This word means warrior, but primarily as one who protects people from kshat or unhappiness.
Such a Kshatriya is said to display the characteristics of bravery, courage, vigilance, charity, the ability to display his prowess, and not retreating from battle. (Mb. 6.42.43)
A proper kshatriya has the ultimate duty to protect all beings (Mb. 12.120.3) along with fostering the righteous, destroying those who are cruel, and not fleeing from the enemy. (Mb.12.14.16)
Kshatriyas should take up their weapons only to protect others, such as individuals and the community at large. (Ramayana 3.10.3)
However, a Kshatriya who does not display his strength according to his capacity due to fear of losing his life deserves to be called a thief. (Mb.5.134.2)
A Kshatriya must exhibit the appropriate conduct toward his subordinates. He can exercise control of the other classes in society and is thus called a statesman. He thus must exhibit impartiality in executing his duties without favoritism or disdain toward anyone. He must have consideration for the benefit of all. He naturally must personally follow the laws as set by others. He must be able to punish evildoers regardless of their own status or position in society. He must be willing to seek counsel from others who are able to advise him.
A Kshatriya’s own spiritual progress is determined by his ability to protect the saintly and destroy evildoers.
Philosophers have stated that a warrior who is brave enough to be killed on the battlefield acquires the state of an ascetic who has been devoted to the practice of yoga. In other words, he attains heaven after this earthly life.
Again it is emphasized that only the rulers who can always protect the righteous and drive away the evildoers should be crowned as king. The entire universe lives on his support. (Mb.12.78.44) The strength of the downtrodden and the desolate lies in the king. (Ramayana 7.59) This means that those who are poor depend on the king for their welfare. Without that they are forever doomed to poverty and without condolence.
A Qualified King Must Be Self-Controlled
“A wise man should learn good behavior, good words and good acts from every side, as a gleaner collects grains of corn from the field abandoned by the reapers. Virtue is preserved by truthfulness: learning by application: beauty by cleansing the body: high lineage by good character. Mere lineage, in the case of one whose behavior is not good, cannot command respect. A king or a man who envies another’s wealth, beauty, might, high lineage, happiness, good fortune and honor, suffers from an incurable disease. Good behavior is essential to man. Intoxication of wealth is much more to be censured than wine; for a man intoxicated with prosperity can never be brought to his senses unless and until he meets with a fall.
“Like the moon during the lighted fortnight, calamities increase for him who is a slave to his senses. The king who wishes to control his counselors before controlling his own self, or the king who wishes to subdue his adversaries before controlling his counselors, fights a losing battle, losing his strength. A king should first subdue his own self, regarding it as his foe. He will then never fail to subdue his counselors and later his enemies. Great prosperity waits upon him who has subjugated his senses, or controlled his soul, or who is capable of punishing all offenders, or who acts with discernment, or who is blessed with patience.
“One’s body is the chariot: the soul within is the driver; and the senses are its steeds. Drawn by those excellent steeds when they are well trained, the wise man pleasantly goes through the journey of life in peace. The horses, however, if unbroken and incapable of being controlled, lead the unskilled driver to destruction in the course of the journey. Many evil-minded kings, because of their want of mastery over the senses are ruined by acts of their own, lust for kingdom being the cause of their sin.” 2
The Strengths Kings Should Have
“Kings are said to have five different kinds of strength. Of these the strength of arms is considered to be the most inferior kind. The acquisition of good counselors is regarded as the second kind of strength. The acquisition of wealth is the third kind of strength. The strength of birth which one naturally acquires from one’s sires and grandsires is the fourth kind of strength. That, however, by which all these are won, and which is the foremost of all kinds of strength, is called the strength of the intellect.
“Illustrious and mighty kings have ruled this mighty earth so full of wealth and glory and joy. All of them have become victims of the Universal Destroyer. They went away leaving behind them their kingdoms and their immense pleasures. The son, brought up with anxious care, when dead, is taken up and carried away by men to the burning grounds. With disheveled hair and with piteous cries they cast the body into the funeral pyre as though it were a piece of wood. Others enjoy the wealth of a dead man while birds and fire feast on the elements of his body. Only two things go with him to the other world: his merits and his sins. Throwing away the body, relatives, friends, and sons retrace their steps like birds abandoning the tree without flowers or fruits. The man cast into the funeral pyre is followed only by his own actions. Therefore should men, carefully and gradually, earn the merit of righteousness.” 3
Yudhishthira further asked: “How should a king behave?”
Bhishma answered: “Righteousness is the watchword of a king. Nothing is greater than that in this world. A righteous king can easily conquer the entire world. His counselors should all be pure in heart and pure in mind. Malice should have no place in the heart of a king. His senses should be perfectly under control. He should use his intelligence and he will then be glorious: swelling in greatness like the ocean fed with the waters of a thousand rivers.”4
Characteristics That A King Should Possess
“Poison kills but one man: so does a weapon. But wicked counsels destroy an entire kingdom with kings and subjects. The highest good is righteousness. The one supreme peace is forgiveness. Supreme contentment is knowledge. Supreme happiness is benevolence. A king can easily become great by doing just two things: refraining from harsh speech and disregarding those that are wicked. Three crimes are considered to be terrible: theft of another’s property, outrage of another man’s wives and breach with friends. Three things destroy the soul: lust, anger and covetousness. Three are essential: a follower, one who seeks protection and one who has come to your abode. These should be protected. A king, although powerful, should never confer with these four: men of small sense, men that procrastinate, men who are indolent and men who flatter. Five things have to be worshiped: father, mother, fire, the preceptor and the soul. Six faults should be avoided by a king who wishes to be great: sleep, drowsiness, fear, anger, indolence and procrastination. These six should not be forsaken: truth, charity, diligence, benevolence, forgiveness and patience. A king should renounce the seven faults [which are women, dice, hunting, harshness of speech, drinking, severity of punishment, and waste of wealth]. Eight things glorify a king: wisdom, high birth, self-restraint, learning, prowess, moderation in speech, gifts given with discrimination, and gratitude. This human body is a house with nine doors, three pillars, and five witnesses. It is presided over by the soul. The king who knows this is wise. These ten do not know what virtue is: the intoxicated, the inattentive, the raving, the fatigued, the angry, the starving, the dejected, the covetous, the frightened and the lustful.” 5
Further Descriptions of the Character and Duties of a King
Here is the advice given for one to be a proper Dharmic king:
Bhishma was immensely pleased with the humility and eagerness of Yudhishthira. He smiled at him and said: “My child, I am only too eager to tell you all that you want to know. A king’s first duty is to worship the gods and the brahmins [those spiritually advanced individuals who are meant to work selflessly for the spiritual upliftment of all others]. A king should essentially be a man of action. You might have heard from many that destiny rules a king. It is a fallacy in reasoning if you think so. Destiny does play a part. I grant that. But without action a king can never help destiny to play her part. Destiny is powerful but action is equally powerful. Both are potent. But to me, it seems that action is the more potent of the two. It is action which shapes the destiny.
“The next equally important duty of a king is Truth. If you want to inspire confidence in the minds of your subjects, you should always be truthful.
“All accomplishments find a home in a king. His behavior should be above reproach. Self-restraint, humility and righteousness are qualities which you have to look for in a king if he has to be successful. He should have his passions under perfect control.
“Justice should be the second nature of a king. There are three more things which a king should cultivate. He should know how to conceal his own weaknesses carefully. By weakness is meant the weaknesses in his kingdom. He should take the trouble to find out the weaknesses in his enemies and he should be very careful to be secretive about his plans.
“A king’s conduct should be straight forward. Another danger for a king is mildness. He should not be too mild. He will then be disregarded. The subjects will not have enough respect for him and his words. Again, he should avoid the other extreme. He should not be too fierce because then the subjects will be afraid of him, and that is not a happy state of affairs.
“A king should know the art of choosing servants. He should have compassion as part of his mental make-up, but he should guard against too forgiving a nature. The lowest of men will take advantage of him and his nature if they are considered weak.
“Alertness is a great necessity for a king. He should study his foes and his friends too, incessantly.”
“Skill, cleverness and truth are all three necessary in a king. Old and fallen buildings and living-houses should be renovated by him if he has to win the good opinion of his subjects. He should know how to use his powers in inflicting corporal punishments and fines on miscreants.”6
A KING MUST PROTECT HIS SUBJECTS
Time and again the Mahabharata and other Vedic texts stress that a ruler must be able to protect and care for the citizens. This is done in a variety of ways, which are briefly explained in the many quotes that follow. But if a ruler cannot look after his subjects with concern and firmness, then it is obvious that such a person is unfit to continue in any position of leadership. As it is described:
“Having thus arranged all the affairs (of) his (government), he shall zealously and carefully protect his subjects. That (monarch) whose subjects are carried off by robbers (Dasyu) from his kingdom, while they loudly call (for help), and he and his servants are quietly looking on, is a dead and not a living (king). The highest duty of a Kshtriya is to protect his subjects, for the king who enjoys the rewards is bound to (discharge that) duty. (Manu-samhita 8.142-144)
“A king should protect his subjects just as a pregnant women nurtures the foetus in her womb.” (Mb.12.56.44) In this way, as a pregnant woman sacrifices her own interests for the sake of the child in her womb, so also a king should be able to give up his own interests to address the needs of the citizens.
“Just as a father helps his son rise over a crisis, so also a king should deliver his subjects from difficulties.” (Bhagavata Purana 11.17.45)
“If a king is too gentle, then people disobey him. And if he is authoritarian they fear him. Hence, depending on the situation he should be authoritarian or gentle.” (Mb.12.140.65)
“Keeping the subjects happy on this earth itself is the code of righteousness (Santana-Dharma) of a king.” (Mb.12.57.11)
“Punishing evildoers, honoring the righteous, enriching the treasury lawfully, deciding the cases of petitioners, and protecting the nation are the five sacrificial fires (yajnas) or spiritual duties of a king.” (Atrismruti 28)
“The king who nurtures his subjects on the best possible way is certainly knowledgeable in righteousness. Why does such a king require penance? Why at all does he need to perform sacrificial fires?” (Mb.12.69.73)
The feeble and downtrodden, blind, dumb, crippled, orphaned, old, widowed, diseased and distressed should be provided with food, clothing, medicines, shelter, etc. (Mb.12.86.24)
Provisions of facilities such as lakes and water canals, distribution of seeds, control of rodents, elephants, and those things which destroy harvests, augmenting farming by developing meadows for cattle to graze, etc., are all part of the assortment of ways meant to be overseen by the king and his government for the protection and continued development of the citizens.
“A king must consider that his first duty is to his subjects. He should guard them as a mother guards the child in her womb. Will any mother have thoughts of pleasing herself when her child is in her womb? All her thoughts will be bent only on the child and its welfare. Even so, a king should subordinate his desires and wishes to those of his subjects. Their welfare should be his only concern.”
“The best king is one whose subjects live in freedom and happiness as they do in their father’s house. Peace will be theirs, and contentment. There will then be no wickedness, no pretense, no dishonesty and no envy.
“The very core of a king’s duty is the protection of his subjects and their happiness. It is not easy. To secure the happiness of his people he should use diverse methods.” 7
One of the primary functions of a ruler is to oversee and design the development of his country, and one of the means he uses for this is taxes. But how he collects tax must be systematic and with proper consideration of his subjects. As it is described: “Just as a bumble-bee sucks nectar from flowers without harming them, so also a king should collect money from his subjects without hurting them.” (Mb.5.34.17)
“Just as a bumble-bee sucks nectar from flowers delicately without harming the plant so also a king should collect money by levying taxes on his subjects, without hurting them. One who milks a cow does not milk it dry but takes care to see that some milk is left for its calf. Similarly a king should levy taxes on the people carefully after considering that they will be sufficiently provided for.” (Mb.12.88.4)
“Like a leech, a king should gently take money from the state by levying taxes. A tigress lifts its cubs with its teeth yet does not harm them. Similarly a king should levy taxes on his subjects without causing them distress.” (Mb.12.88.5)
“O king, it is the ruler’s great folly if despite taking one sixth of the income of his subjects he does not nurture them like his children.” (Ramayana 3.6.11)
“It is said that a king who without protecting his subjects takes one sixth of their income (in the form of taxes) acquires their sins.” (Mb.1.213.9)
“A king should become a gardener, not a coal manufacturer. A gardener takes care of plants to obtain flowers and fruits from them. Similarly a king should guide his subjects towards prosperity and then secure one fourth of their income from them in the form of taxes. A coal trader uproots a tree and then chars it completely. A king should not uproot his subjects likewise plundering their wealth totally.” (Mb.)
“Just as one who cuts off the udders of a cow with the hope of getting milk never acquires it, so also a state in which taxes are levied inappropriately, thus harrassing the subjects, does not prosper.” (Mb.12.71.16)
“Most of the authors of the Smritis have stated that taxes should not be levied upon the Brahmanas (priests) who have mastered the Vedas. This is because the king gets one sixth of the merits acquired by a Brahmana following the righteous path.” (Vishnu Dharmasutra 3.26-27)
The point is that it is the duty of the king to support and look after the worldly and spiritual needs of learned Brahmanas, ascetics and scholars and teaching institutions. This would augment a king’s prestige. The king would treat them with a great respect since they are meant to assist in the preservation of Dharma and social balance whereby the whole society can work in harmony and continue their spiritual development by which all can be content and happy. .
“The king should levy taxes, but they should never be so high as to hurt the subjects. He should know how to milk his kingdom. He should be like a bee gathering honey from the flowers. He should be a leech which draws blood mildly without the victim being conscious of it. He should behave like a tigress with her cubs while handling his subjects: she catches them with her teeth and yet never hurts them.” 8
Therefore, the king must also adopt the attitude that he is the servitor of the citizens. A crooked government must fear the citizens who will sooner or later revolt against a dishonest leader. Otherwise, what value is there in the citizens paying high taxes to a crooked leader who is not ruling them properly, and not being able to protect them, either militarily, economically, educationally, etc. A leader is meant to get a salary from the taxes collected only when he or she can do the proper job. Otherwise the taxes collected for such purposes are wasted.
Use of the Treasury
The main purpose of how a king is meant to use the treasury is also explained: “The treasury of a king is meant for the protection of the army, his subjects and of righteousness (Dharma). If it is used for these purposes, it will prove beneficial. On the other hand, if the treasury is misused, it will prove disastrous. Should the king use the royal treasury for his wife and children and to fulfill his own sensual pursuits, it will bring him unhappiness and he will attain hell.” (Shukraniti 4.2.3-5)
The ruler must use only his personal account for any of his own interests, but must never divert any administrative accounts and finances for inappropriate purposes. Not only will he accrue the bad karma that will take him to hell, but often his own life, private and political, along with the future of his subjects and country, becomes doomed in due time.
“The king should remember that his treasury should always be full. Supervision of the work of all his officers should be done by the king himself. He should never trust the guardians of the city or fort implicitly.” 9
Defending the Country–Being Aware of the Enemy
In protecting the citizens from obstacles, overseeing the safety of the country from enemies is certainly a prime concern that must be addressed by the ruler. Herein it is further advised:
“O king, it is neither written on one’s countenance nor engraved in words that so-and-so is an enemy or a friend. The one from whom one experiences harassment is termed as an enemy.” (Mb.2.55.10)
“Despite being feeble those who are cautious are not slain by the enemy, as against this is a powerful one who is not vigilant about the enemy is annihilated even by a weak enemy.” (Mb.12.138.198)
“Even if an enemy is weak when its strength rises, even a powerful man cannot afford to ignore it.” (Mb.5.9.22)
“Even if one is powerful one should not consider a weak enemy inferior because though a flame is small it is sufficient to burn, and even a minute quantity of poison is enough to snuff out life.” (Mb.12.58.17)
“In this world there is nothing more dangerous than being inadvertent. All wealth deserts such a careless individual and then he has to face catastrophes.” (Mb.10.10.19)
Dealing with an Enemy
Once an enemy has been recognized, there are specific ways of dealing with them, according to one’s position. “One should befriend an enemy by conciliation with a false air of friendship but should fear him constantly like a snake that has entered the house.” (Mb.12.140.15)
“One should speak (to the enemy) meekly but should actually be heartless. One should speak with a smile but never reveal one’s true nature by performing a harsh act.” (Mb.1.140.66)
“One should win the enemy’s trust by convincing him with valid reasons and after sometime when his position becomes unstable, one should attack him.” (Mb.12.140.44)
Lord Vishnu told the deities before the churning of the ocean of milk, “O deities, to accomplish a great task, you may even have to befriend the enemy. Do that and once you accomplish your mission, just as a rattlesnake swallows rodents, destroy the demons.” (Bhagavata Purana 8.6.20)
“A king who does not annihilate his enemy will not gain fame on this earth, will not acquire wealth and his subjects too will remain insecure. Even Indra was accorded the status of Mahendra after he slew the demon Vritrasua.” (Mb.12.15.15)
“A person who foolishly disregards a flourishing enemy is totally vanquished by it, akin to an ailment in its terminal stage.” (Mb.2.55.16)
“One should not let an enemy realize one’s weaknesses. However, one should certainly find out the enemy’s weaknesses. Just as a tortoise keeps all parts of its body hidden beneath its shell, a king should keep all the strategies of the state a secret and should be careful about his weaknesses.” (Mb.12.140.24)
“One who trusts an enemy and sleeps peacefully after making a truce with the latter is akin to a man sleeping on a treetop who wakes up only after he falls down.” (Mb.12.140.37)
“One does not acquire the great Lakshmi bestowing governance (Rajalakshmi) without striking the enemy at its strategic points, exhibiting tremendous valiance and without slaying the enemy like a fisherman kills his catch.” (Mb.12.140.50)
“When the enemy becomes weak, wise men do not hesitate even for a moment to destroy it. An enemy should be slain specially when it is facing a calamity. If a clever one annihilates an enemy in such circumstances, not only is he called righteous but he also becomes famous.” (Mb.8.90.71) An enemy in this regard is also considered to be an enemy of Dharma, the destruction of which destroys all means of peace and stability in society. Thus, Dharma must be defended at all times.
Sri Krishna to Yudhisthira explains: “O Dharmaraja, vanquisher of enemies, so long as you continue to reconcile with them (the enemies of the Kauravas) they will continue to rule your kingdom.” (Mb.5.73.8)
“Despite being intelligent, if a king does not attack his enemies, then like a non-venomous snake he will always fall prey to his enemy.” (Mb.12.58.16)
“If one finds an enemy who deserves to be killed, then one should never let him go.” (Mb.5.38.29)
“Just as a debt keeps growing even if a fraction of it is unpaid, if the lives of your enemies are spared, then because they have been insulted, in the future they will generate terror just as neglected diseases become dreadful later.” (Mb.12.140.59)
“Even if the enemy who charges with a weapon on the battlefield is a scholar of the Vedanta, a king who observes righteousness (Dharma) should wage a righteous war and defeat him.” (Mb.12.56.29)
“One should speak to him (the enemy) sweetly both when contemplating an attack on him and also during the attack. In fact, even after the attack one should show sympathy and grief and shed tears as well.” (Mb.1.140.56)
“One should not fight several enemies alone. One should resort to the four methods of reconciliation, compromise with money, breaking the amity of allies and punishment appropriately and annihilate them one by one. Even if very powerful, the wise should never make the folly of fighting several enemies simultaneously.” (Mb.3.52.22)
“Do not attempt to swim across when the opposite bank is beyond one’s reach. Never seize anything that will later be snatched away by someone else. Never dig at something which cannot be uprooted. Never strike one who cannot be beheaded.” (Mb12.140.69)
“A king should first win over his own mind, then it becomes easier to gain victory over his enemy. How will one who has not won over his own mind vanquish his enemies?” (Mb.12.69.4)
“A king should be wise in dealing with six problems. The first is making peace with a foe who is stronger. The next consideration is making war on one who is equal to him in strength. Invading the country of one who is weaker in his next problem. He should use his discrimination when he makes a decision about these things. He should be prepared to seek protection in his fort if his position is weak. The most important work of a king is to cause dissensions among the chief office-bearers in his enemy’s country. He should have clever spies at his service and find out the secrets of the enemy. He should bribe and cajole the officers of the enemy and win them over to his side.
“A king should be pleasant in speech. He should have about him men who are all like him in nature and in noble qualities. The only difference between the king and his officers should be the white umbrella. 10
“He [the king] must produce disloyalty among the people in a hostile country and he must have friends and allies there.
“He should amass troops, and this should be done in secret. A king can never protect his kingdom by candor and by simplicity. A king should be both candid and crooked. He must employ crookedness and wrong acts when he wants to subdue the enemy. All these things should be concealed behind a candid and open exterior.” 11
The king is expected to have control over his mind and senses if he is to have control over his enemies and subjects. He must rise above the influence of the six defects, namely desire, anger, greed, pride, and the desires for fame and happiness. Otherwise both the king and his kingdom are doomed. We have often seen that rulers who exhibit weaknesses, whether toward women, liquor, gambling, or hunting and other vices which stem from desire; or other unbalanced mindset regarding criticism, misappropriation of money, or being overly cruel with punishment, etc., all of which originate from excessive anger and pride, lead to a downfall or disaster. Thus he must avoid these issues and weaknesses in order to rule pleasantly over his subjects.
In this age of Kali-yuga, rulers in any part of the world fail to lead properly because they are filled with their own weaknesses and unable to control their own minds and senses properly. The leader must be focused without the distractions of the senses, or the tendency to give privileges to political groups because of an attraction to the money they offer. When the senses of a ruler are controlled, then the state can become prosperous in all aspects and as a result, wealthy. When the ruler is not able to control his senses, then the citizens suffer the results of a leader who is too easily swayed and distracted with the result of a lack of impartial justice and leadership. Thus, the government itself becomes the home of corruption and thieves. When the leader becomes a thief, then the citizens become beggars.
The army is, of course, the main agency through which the king handles enemies. Herein are a few statements in how the army must be guided, not necessarily by the king himself, but through farsighted military leaders.
“A military organization functions best if it is well guided. The army is blind and ignorant. Hence farsighted leaders should guide it appropriately.” (Mb.2.20.16)
“Soldiers brimming with enthusiasm for battle is the prime sign of achieving victory.” (Mb.6.3.75)
Responding Rather Than Reacting
Herein it is explained that any response by a king to an enemy or someone in the world who should be curbed should be done after a well thought out plan, rather than merely by an emotional reaction, which is often based on an impulsive and prideful basis rather than wisdom and focus.
[As Bhishma said to Yudhisthira] “Great men do not express hostility towards those who insult them all at once. Nevertheless they display their prowess gradually, with time.” (Mb.12.157.10)
DUTIES OF A KING IN DISTRESS
There are times and circumstances in which a ruler will find himself in a weaker position than another, or in comparison with an enemy. Thus, the situation may dictate a different strategy for the survival of the country, or for maintaining peace among neighboring countries. In this regard, Bhishma explained: “I will tell you about the duties of a king when in distress. A foe then becomes a friend, and a friend will most probably turn out to be a foe. Circumstances will so conspire that the course of human actions becomes uncertain. This is where intelligence comes to one’s rescue. It helps you to decide whether one should make war on the foe or make peace with him. It all depends on the time and place, and, at times, it is even necessary to make friends with the enemy. You should make friends with intelligent men who are desirous of your welfare. If your life cannot otherwise be saved, then you should certainly make peace with the enemy. If you are foolish enough not to consider this, then you will never succeed in achieving things for which everyone strives so hard. A king, who makes a truce with the enemy, and quarrels with his erstwhile friends after considering the situation to the utmost, its pros and its cons, will certainly be able to succeed.
“Friends should be examined to the utmost before accepting them as friends. Foes should be well studied and their strength and weakness known. Friends appear as foes, and foes assume the guise of friends. When friendly compacts are undertaken, it is not possible to be sure if the feelings of the other are really friendly or if it is just selfishness which prompts him to accept the pact. The words ‘friend’ and ‘foe’ are, after all, relative terms. A man considers another to be his friend so long as he is assured that his interests are safe; so long as he is sure that it is profitable for him to do so. If he is sure that this state of things will continue as long as the other man is alive, he allows the friendship to continue for life.
“Self-interest [the instinct to survive] is the most powerful factor in the life of everyone. The entire world is pivoted round only this one factor and it ever revolves around it. No one is dear to another unless there is some gain involved. No affection is evident unless there is a motive of self-interest. One man is popular because he is very liberal-minded, another because he speaks sweetly and a third because he is very religious. Generally it is the rule rather than the exception that a man is dear because of the purpose he serves: nothing more. The friendship terminates as soon as the reason for the friendship dies.
“An intelligent man should know when to make peace with a foe. Remember, when two persons who were once enemies become friends it is obvious that each is only biding his time when he can get the better of the other. The wiser of the two will necessarily succeed. The policy is that, while you are afraid of the other man, you should appear as though you are not. You should appear as though you trust him implicitly and all the time you should be mistrusting him. When the time demands it you should make peace with your foe and at the earliest opportunity you must wage war. This rule should apply even for a friend.” 12
A KING SHOULD TRUST NO ONE
Unfortunately, a king or ruler, due to his position, must be careful regarding who he trusts. There may be so many who are envious, or who are enemies set to take over the ruler’s position, or who are enemies who wish to take control over the country. Thus, placing trust in the wrong people can have devastating effects. Thus, confidentiality must be observed in many areas of the ruler’s activities. Future plans must not be jeopardized by allowing too many or the wrong people to know too much.
“A king should be careful not to place implicit confidence in anyone. His innermost thoughts must be concealed from even his nearest and dearest and he should not tell anyone about his decisions.” 13
“One should always attempt to make others trust in oneself. However, one should not trust others.” (Mb.12.138.195)
“One should acquire the trust of others but should never trust anyone. O King, never trust even one’s own son completely.” (Mb.12.85.33)
“One should not undertake a mission depending on another’s strength as opinions of two people generally do not match.” (Mb.2.56.8)
In determining what kind of person a king can trust, Yudhishthira asked: “Nothing, not even the smallest act can be accomplished by a single man. He has to have assistance. This is all the more true when one thinks of ruling a kingdom. So much of it depends on the minister of the king. Tell me, what are the characteristics of a minister and his duties? Which kind of man deserves the king’s entire confidence?”
Bhishma replied: “A king has friends and these can be classified into four types. The first is the man whose object coincides with that of the king. The second is the man who is devoted to the king. The third is one related to the king by birth. The fourth is one whom the king has placated by gifts. There is a fifth and that is a righteous man who firmly serves one and not both sides. He belongs to the side where there is righteousness. To this man the king should never confide plans which are in danger of being disapproved. A king who wants to be successful has to be righteous and unrighteous too according to circumstances. And so, he cannot be too careful in regard to these friends. A wicked man may appear to be honest and an honest man is likely to become dishonest. No man can always be of the same mind all the time. No one should be trusted completely. Entire reliance on the ministers is not wise. And again, a want of trust is also wrong. A king’s policy, therefore, should be trust as well as mistrust.
“A king should fear his kinsmen as he would death himself. A kinsman can never bear to see the prosperity of the king. At the same time, a king without kinsmen is unfortunate indeed. The policy is: mistrusting them at heart, but behaving with them as though he trusts them completely.”14
A KING SHOULD TAKE COUNSEL
The power of government should be overseen and monitored by different people or organizations because if only one person or class controls it, it will create a monopoly that generates fear and suspicion in the general mass of people. Furthermore, a ruler is never meant to make unilateral decisions without counsel as this leads to tyranny and dictatorship.
[Rama asked Bharat] “Do you take decisions by yourself or do you seek the counsel of several others? Does your policy get published much before it is implemented?” (Ramayana 2.100.18)
A ruler, no matter how clever or intelligent he may be, is never meant to make decisions on his own without consulting his ministers. It has been seen time and time again that any leader who draws his own designs without consultation with his advisors is soon on his way to ruin.
As it is explained: “The one who judges the strength of the enemy and that of his own state, who contemplates intelligently on the present status, growth and destruction of his army and that of the enemy’s army and suggests the required measures for the welfare of his master can truly be called a minister.” (Ramayana 6.14.22)
“A king should be proficient in the art of choosing honest men to hold important offices.” 15
Character of the Legislators
Yudhishthira asked: “What should be the characteristics of the legislators, the ministers of war, the courtier, and the counselors of a king?”
Bhishma responded: “The legislators should be men who are modest, self-restrained, truthful and sincere, and they should have the courage to speak what is proper. The ministers for war should be those who are always by the side of the king. They should be very brave. They should belong to the higher caste, and be learned and affectionate to a fault as far as the king is concerned. A courtier should be of high lineage. He should always be honored by the king. He should be a man who has the king’s interests always at heart. He should never abandon the king whatever the circumstances may be.
“The officers of the army should again be of high lineage, born in the country of the king; possessed of wisdom, great learning, and beauty of form and features. They should be of excellent behavior, and they should be devoted to the king.” 16
The Need for Secrecy
“Both poison and a weapon kill only one person at a time, but discrepancy in a king’s plan becomes the cause for destruction of all the subjects along with the king.” (Mb.5.33.45)
“Just as a peacock maintains silence in autumn, so also a king should always keep his policies a secret.” (Mb.12.120.7)
[Sage Narada explains to Yudhisthira] “The main cause for victory of a king is secret counsel.” (Mb.2.5.27)
A ruler must hear of the intentions and actions of the people, both within and outside his country, and of both honest and dishonest people. Not that this is expected to take away the rights of the people, but only so the king will understand how things are going on amongst his subjects. By understanding the intentions of the citizens, a king can propose proper plans to his legislators for counsel. Herein it is explained: “A king keeps an eye on his subjects through his spies.” (Mb.5.34.34)
“It is said that spies are the support of a state and secret counsel is its strength.” (Mb.12.83.51)
A KING SHOULD UNDERSTAND
CHARACTERISTICS OF A WISE MAN AND FOOL
The Mahabharata also explains how a king should understand the characteristics of both a wise man and a fool. This would also have an affect on the character of the king. This is from the Vidura-neeti section of the Mahabharata in which Vidura addresses King Dhritarasthra.
Vidura said: “I will tell you what a wise man should be like. A man should aspire for the higher things, ideals, in life. The assets of such a man are self-knowledge, exertion, forbearance and steadiness in virtue. Such a man is wise. Neither anger, nor joy, nor pride, nor false modesty, nor vanity, can distract him from his purpose. His actions are always done with the thought that they should serve both the worlds. Desire does not tinge his actions. Honest deeds delight him and he loves what is good. He is unaffected either by honors or by slights. Like a lake in the course of the river Ganga, he is calm, cool and unagitated.
“On the other hand, the qualities of a fool are also easy to enumerate. Scripture is a closed book as far as he is concerned. He is vain: he is proud and, when he wants to have something, he will never hesitate to employ unfair means. He has a knack of desiring what he has no right to desire. Those who are powerful make him envious. Let me tell you about a peculiar attribute of sin. One man commits a sin and several reap the fruits resulting from his sin. But in the end, the sin attaches itself ONLY to the one man, while those many who enjoyed the fruits of his sin escape unscathed!
“A wise king should discriminate the TWO with the help of the ONE. He must control the THREE by means of the FOUR. He has to conquer the FIVE. Know the SIX. Abstain from the SEVEN and be happy. By ONE is meant the intellect: by TWO, right and wrong: by THREE friend, stranger and enemy; by FOUR is meant gift, conciliation, disunion and severity: by FIVE the senses: by SIX, treaty, war, etc.: by SEVEN, women, dice, hunting, harshness of speech, drinking, severity of punishment, and waste of wealth. This means that one should know how to discriminate between right and wrong by the use of the intellect. Friend, foe or stranger can be won over by one of the four: gift, etc. The senses must be under control and a king should he familiar with treaty, etc., which are essential. The seven have naturally to be avoided if a king aspires to be wise.” 17
DEALING WITH CRIMINALS
There is definitely a need for a king and ruler in any position to take a stern stance on criminals. Outlaws and wrongdoers are a prime source for fear and disruption in the lives of honest citizens. So, they must be dealt with firmly. However, the king must also be of sound character or he will not possess a mental disposition in which he will be able to take a proper or powerful stand against such criminals. This is why from the very start, a suitable king must be put into office and not someone who is ill-suited for the position.
“Whether he be punished or pardoned, the thief is freed from the (guilt of) theft; but the king, if he punishes not, takes upon himself the guilt of the thief.” (Manu-samhita 8.316)
“But men who have committed crimes and have been punished by the king, go to heaven, being pure like those who performed meritorious deeds.” (Manu-samhita 8.318)
If one who has acted unrighteously is slain, then it does not amount to unrighteousness [for the slayer]. (Ramayana 2.96.24)
No sin arises out of killing a terrorizing enemy. On the contrary, pleading before it for mercy or tolerance is unrighteous and a stigma on one’s reputation. (Mb.5.3.21)
One who has to protect his subjects should not hesitate if sometimes he is compelled to be a little cruel or to perform slightly wrong actions in order to protect them. (Ramayana 1.25.18)
Purpose of Punishment
Without punishment in the universe, the subjects would have become extinct, just as big fish in the water swallow the small ones, powerful people would have destroyed the weak. (Mb.12 15.30)
Due to fear of punishment some animals do not devour each other. If people are not protected by the experience of punishment, then they would bring about darkness through the destruction of each other. (Mb.12.15.7)
It is punishment alone which disciplines all subjects and protects everyone. It remains vigilant even when all are asleep. That is why learned men have opined that punishments are what maintains Dharma. (Mb.12.15.2)
Everyone keeps themselves under control because of the threat of punishment. A basically pure individual is rarely found. It is the fear of punishment that makes one act properly and perform the task allotted to him. (Mb.12.15.34)
If there was no protection by the means of punishment, then everything would be reduced to ashes, all rules would be violated and no one would own anything. (Mb.12.15.8)
Learned men consider that it is punishment that brings unethical people onto the righteous path and punishes those who are uncivilized because of its two characteristics of control and meting out punishment. (Mb.12.15)
When the punishing authority is highly efficient, people are very cautious. Hence, a king should keep all beings in his control through the code of punishment. (Mb.12.140.8)
“Punishment should be given to offenders according to the immensity of the offence. The wealthy should be fined and their property should be confiscated, while loss of liberty should be the punishment for the poor offender. Wicked conduct should be punished by inflicting corporal punishment.” 18
CONSEQUENCES FOR THE KING
A ruler can never do whatever he wants, whether it be in acting overly harsh, or in not being firm and decisive enough, or in being too liberal and soft. There are always consequences if a ruler does not act appropriately or if he neglects his duties. If he proves to be unfit, he is and must be rejected by the people. But there are also karmic consequences for someone who is a ruler but does not govern the people with a spiritual regard. For example, it is explained that a king who levies taxes on his subjects without teaching them about righteousness (Dharma) has to suffer for their sins and loses his opulence. (Bhagavata Purana 4.21.24) This is why, especially in this age of Kali-yuga, it is said that hardly any ruler attains anything but a dark future after death. Unable to direct his subjects properly, or even being infected with crooked desires himself, a ruler is forced to endure a hellish afterlife because of not being able to lead his subjects properly or allow them to be trained in the ways of Dharma. Such understanding of Dharma is what frees them from sinful life, and which also frees the king from accepting one-sixth of the reactions of his subjects.
“An arrogant king in whose kingdom innocent people are tormented by evildoers loses his fame, longevity, fortune and a meritorious place after death.” (Bhagavata Purana 1.17.10)
“Undoubtedly a king who does not perform his duties toward his subjects regularly goes to hell, a place which is devoid of air.” (Ramayana 7.53.6)
“A king who (duly) protects (his subjects) receives from each and all the sixth part of their spiritual merit; if he does not protect them, the sixth part of their demerit also (will fall on him). Whatever (merit a man gains by) reading the Vedas, by spiritual practice, by charitable gifts, (or by) worshiping (God), the king obtains a sixth part of that in consequence of his duly protecting (his kingdom).” (Manu-samhita 8.304-5)
“A king who protects the created beings in accordance with the sacred law and smites those worthy of corporal punishment, daily offers (as it were) sacrifices at which a hundred thousands (are given as) fees.” (Manu-samhita 8.306)
“A king who does not afford protection, (yet) takes his share in kind, his taxes, tolls and duties, daily presents and fines, will (after death) soon sink into hell. They declare that a king who affords no protection, (yet) receives the sixth part of the produce, takes upon himself all the foulness of his whole people. Know that a king who heeds not the rules (of the law), who is an atheist, and rapacious, who does not protect (his subjects, but) devours them, will sink low (after death).” (Manu-samhita 8.307-9)
“The subjects reject a king whose administration is faulty.” (Yogavasistha 6.84.27)
“None, not even his kith and kin rush to the rescue of a king who behaves cruelly (with his ministers, etc.), pays them very low emoluments, behaves arrogantly, is conceited and secretly harms people in times of a calamity.” (Ramayana 3.33.15)
“Even if the one who harasses living beings is cruel and a sinner becomes the master of all the three regions, he does not remain in power for long.” (Ramayana 3.29.3)
“The king who does not organize a network of spies (to get news about the kingdom), or does not grant the subjects an opportunity to express their woes to him, who is controlled by others (whether by women for sense enjoyment or by political groups), is rejected by the people just as elephants abandon a river seeing the mud in it.” (Ramayana 3.33.5)
The Manu-samhita (7.46-52) also explains that “For a king who is attached to the vices springing from love of pleasure, loses his wealth and his virtue, but (he who is given) to those arising from anger (loses) even his life. Hunting, gambling, sleeping by day, censoriousness, (excess with) women (or illicit sex), drunkenness (intoxication), (an inordinate love for) dancing, singing, and music, and useless travel are the tenfold set (of vices) springing from love of pleasure. Telling of tall tales, violence, treachery, envy, slandering, (unjust) seizure of property, reviling, and assault are the eightfold set (of vices) produced by wrath. That greediness which all wise men declare to be the root even of both these (sets), let carefully conquer; both sets (of vices) are produced by that. Drinking (intoxication), playing dice (gambling), (illicit connection with) women, and hunting (unnecessary killing and eating of animals), these four in succession, he must know to be the most pernicious in the set that springs from love of pleasure. Doing bodily injury, reviling, and the seizure of property, these three he must know to be the most pernicious in the set produced by wrath. A self-controlled (king) should know that in this set of seven, which prevails everywhere, each earlier-named vice is more abominable (than those named later).”
MORE DUTIES OF THE KING
Yudhishthira asked: “What other special duties should a king discharge?”
Bhishma replied: “A king should first know how to bring himself under subjugation. When he has achieved this he should then try to subdue his foes. The conquest of the five senses is considered to be the greatest victory. It is only such a king that is capable of conquering his enemies.
“A king should have an immense number of soldiers in his forts, cities, frontiers and all important spots.
“A king’s thoughts, actions, decisions and spies should be kept secret from everyone, specially the enemy. His spies should look like imbeciles. Or they should seem as though they are blind and deaf. They should be capable and they should be wise. The king should ascertain that before employing them. They should be hardy, able to bear privations like cold, heat and hunger. The king should set spies on his counselors, on his friends and even on his sons. His spies should be strangers to each other. The moment a king realizes that his foe is stronger, he should strive to make peace. If he is sure of his strength, he should collect a large army and march against the person who has no allies and friends or who is engaged in war against another. The king should know how to take them by surprise. He should not hesitate to afflict the kingdom of the enemy with weapons, fire and poison.
“The king should take a sixth of the income of his subjects. This is for the maintenance of the army for their protection. A king’s subjects are his children. But he should guard against compassion while punishing them for their wrong behavior.
“Honest men who are absolutely trustworthy should be appointed to administer justice. The state has her strong foundation only upon the proper administration of justice.
“There need be no doubt whatever about the truth that it is the king that makes the age [or yuga] and not the age which makes the king. When a king rules relying entirely and strictly on the science of chastisement, Kritayuga or Satyayuga, the foremost of ages, is said to set in. Righteousness is prevalent during Kritayuga. Unrighteousness does not even exist then. The earth yields crops without even waiting to be tilled. Herbs and plants grow luxuriantly and in abundance. Diseases are not found at all and all men live long. The seasons are all delightful. There is peace and nothing but peace on earth. When the king relies on three of the four parts of this Dandaneeti [the treatise of a hundred thousand lessons composed by Brahma that deals with the subjects of Dharma (righteousness), Artha (economic development), Kama (sensual enjoyment) and Moksha (spiritual liberation)] Tretayuga sets in. A fourth part of Dharma is gone and an equal portion of Adharma sets in. The earth does yield crops but she waits for the tillage. The herbs and plants need to be nurtured. The yield is not spontaneous. When the king follows the Dandaneeti only by half, the age that sets in is Dwaparayuga. [At that time] Righteousness is diminished by half and the void is filled up by unrighteousness. The earth, even when tilled, yields only half her crop. When the king ignores the edict of Brahma and begins to oppress his people, the age is Kali. Unrighteousness becomes rampant and nothing of righteousness is seen. The world becomes the home of anarchy. Diseases appear and men die prematurely. The clouds do not rain in season and the crops fail. The king is the cause of the yugas.”
Yudhishthira again asked: “Of whose wealth is the king said to be the lord?”
Bhishma replied: “The Vedas have declared that the wealth of all persons belongs to the king, with the exception of the brahmins. The king’s duty is to support all the brahmins.” 19
A KING’S PRACTICE OF WORSHIP
Without a doubt, a ruler must also practice the ways of Dharma like anyone else. He is not free to avoid it or do without it. Besides the basic ways of Dharma that have been discussed, here are a few more that are outlined in the Mahabharata:
Yudhishthira asked: “The path of duty is very long. It has a hundred branches. Tell me, what are the duties that have to be practiced?”
Bhishma answered: “The worship of mother, father and preceptor: these are the most important duties. Attending to this duty fits a king to acquire great fame and the heavens. These three should be worshiped and their commands should be obeyed implicitly. They are like the three fires that have to be worshiped daily. Serving the father helps one to cross this world. Serving the mother transports him to the heavens. Serving the preceptor one attains the region [the heavenly planetary system] of Brahma.” 20
“The person, to whom the gods ordain defeat, has his senses taken away from him and it is because of this that he stoops to ignoble deeds. When the intellect becomes dim and destruction is near, wrong, looking like right, strikes the heart firmly. The clouded intellect causes defeat.
“Ablution in all the holy spots and kindness to all creatures: these two are equal. Perhaps kindness to creatures surpasses the former. As long as man’s good deeds are spoken of in this world, so long is he glorified in heaven.
“The gods do not protect men taking up clubs in their hands after the fashion of herdsmen. Unto them they wish to protect, they grant intelligence. There is no doubt that one’s desires meet with success in proportion to the attention he pays to righteousness and morality. The Vedas never rescue a deceitful man from sin. Gold is tested by fire: a well-born person is tested by his deportment: an honest man by his conduct: and a brave man is tested during a season of panic: he who is self-controlled, in times of poverty: and friends and foes are tested in times of calamity and danger. Sacrifice, study, asceticism, gift, truth, forgiveness, mercy and contentment constitute the eight different paths of righteousness. The first four of these may be practiced from motives of pride but the latter four can exist only in them that are truly great.
“Do that during the day which may enable you to pass the night in happiness; do that during the eight months of the year which may enable you to pass the rainy seasons happily. Do that during youth which may ensure a happy old age: do that during your whole life here which will enable you to live happily in the hereafter.
“Untying all the knots of the heart by the aid of tranquility, mastering all the passions, observing true religion, one should learn to regard both the agreeable and the disagreeable like his own self. One should not return the slanders or reproaches of others. Strange to say, when a silent man suffers these reproaches, it is the slanderer that is consumed and the virtues, if any, of the slanderer find a home in the other man.” 21
These are just a few of the additional ways of continuing to travel the road of Dharma. And within this article is the brief guidelines of how a king should conduct himself and how a government must act for the benefit of the people.
Mahabharata is abbreviated as Mb throughout the article.
1. Mahabharata, translated by Kamala Subramaniam, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1982, pages 710-12
2. Ibid., pages 354-355
3. Ibid., page 357
4. Ibid., page 714
5. Ibid., page 354
6. Ibid., pages 708-709
7. Ibid., pages 709
8. Ibid., page 709
9. Ibid., page 709
10. Ibid., page 709
11. Ibid., pages 709-10
12. Ibid., pages 715-16
13. Ibid., page 709
14. Ibid., page 712-13
15. Ibid., page 709
16. Ibid., page 714
17. Ibid., page 353
18. Ibid., page 714
19. Ibid., pages 712-13
20. Ibid., page 715
21. Ibid., pages 355-6
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