Monday, December 13, 2010

Aryavarta and the Beginnings of Democracy

Recently, I had a wonderful discussion revolving around the socio-political context of the Aryavarta Chronicles, in particular, ‘Govinda’. As is often the case with such conversations, the best part was being forced to think about (and sometimes even defend) some of the things I’ve said or written.

In this instance, the question was simple enough - Why do I talk about the times of the Mahabharata as a period of change, which spurred on the beginnings of democracy. The answer, however, was a lot more complex than I bargained for, but one worth sharing here:
In the historical sense, the Epic Empire formed represents a period of consolidation. Like all Empires, this one too breaks up into smaller fragments, but this time, there’s a difference. From an economic perspective, these fragments are not the usual, inefficiently small splinter kingdoms; on the contrary, they are large enough, and also in some sense of shared social identify cohesive enough to stand united as nations. And so began the era of the maha-janapadas – nation-states.

From a political, even philosophical point of view, however, the change that happened was probably more discreet, but also more fundamental and powerful.

At the end of the day, behind all the good-versus-evil masala of the Mahabharata, there hides the fundamental question of who was, in effect, the legal ruler of the Aryavarta Empire – A question that arose not just from motives of ambition, or issues of primogeniture and descent, but also very simply, competence and efficiency.

This may seem a rather obvious point of order for us, today; but in the Epic Empire, it was a novel, even controversial proposition. Kings ruled because they’d been chose to rule by the Gods – it was a matter of divine right. To question their competence, therefore, was to question the judgment of the Gods, and perhaps worse, the judgment of the scholar-seer hierarchies that served as the moral conscience-keepers of Aryavarta. As a narrative, therefore, the Mahabharata is much more than a tale of feuding brothers – it’s actually a story of how existing power structures were questioned, even torn down, as the notion of sovereign accountability began to take hold.

Hidden also in that rather precious phrase – sovereign accountability - are many subtle political implications, the first of them being the idea that even a divinely-appointed sovereign is subject to a delicate balance of power, duties, and limitations. From this arises the corollary premise that such a sovereign may indeed fail at meeting those duties, given his or her limitations – the notion of inefficiency, or even incompetence. And that brings us to the third premise – an actionable one: What if the sovereign is indeed an inefficient or incompetent ruler, as it were? The answer: Let’s get a better ruler in his or her place.

I don’t mean this in the modern Theory of State sense, where the basis of governance stems from the notion that the sovereign can be replaced by a sort of legitimate revolution, and that the right to revolt against a sovereign who doesn’t serve the people remains basic, and vested in the people. Rather, what I’m trying to get at here is the slow dilution of the idea that Kings, by virtue of their divine right, are infallible, even invincible.

Admittedly, when one got rid of a King in ancient Aryavarta, his replacement was likely to come from among his immediate kin – a setting that made for wonderful conspiracies and conspiracy theories, both. Furthermore, one didn’t really call for elections or referendums in the modern sense. It was also highly unlike that a commoner – one of the jagaranyaja - would rise to rule. Admittedly, hierarchies, class conflicts, and power politics all remained just as rampant as they’d been under a system of pure monarchy by divine sanction.

Despite all that, there was a sense of the vox populi, of a shift in philosophy. No longer was it the destiny, or even the raison d’etre, of the people to serve their king; but rather, the idea that perhaps rulers now existed to ensure the well-being of their people had finally root.

And there we have it – the change in the centrality of identity. The beginning of the sense of ‘We, the people…’ This notion of common popular identity would then bind the people together into units of governance based on such identities, or ‘nationalities’ – leading to the rise of the maha-janapadas. It wasn't democracy as we know it today, but it was the beginning – an indispensable beginning.

From a story-teller’s point of view, I’d like to believe that it perhaps was the beginning of a dream. Govinda Shauri’s dream.


Vidura said...

Great Beginning ! Looking forward to hearing more !

Krishna Udayasankar said...

Thanks, Vidura!

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