Last week while travelling one picked up a book. One has been looking for it for a few years after reading very laudatory reviews. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” [Vintage- 2011] by Yuval Noah Harari is quite different from Arnold Toynbee’s twelve volume Study of History depicting the rise and decline of 23 civilizations or Jacob Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’ which became a celebrated television series or Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Glimpses of World History” written between 1930-’33 from various prisons which are in the form of 196 letters written to his daughter in lucid style on the history of humankind. Harari has a unique style making the book extremely readable.
One was going through the pages that trace the history of how ‘order’ or governance emerged removing chaos and confusion about 4000 years back by leaders of men or kings and emperors who established nations. Harari writes, “In 1776 BC Babylon was the world’s largest city. The Babylon empire was probably the world’s largest with more than a million subjects. It ruled most of Mesopotamia, including the bulk of modern Iraq and part of present day Syria and Iran. The Babylonian king most famous today was Hammurabi. His fame is due primarily to the text that bears his name, the Code of Hammurabi. This was a collection of laws and judicial decisions whose aim was to present Hammurabi as a role model of a just king, serve as basis for a more uniform legal system across the Babylonian Empire, and teach future generations what justice is and how a just king acts.”
Harari calls the Code of Hammurabi as one of “the two myths” which continued to influence lawmakers. Harari asks, ”How can myths sustain entire empires? We have already discussed one such example. Peugeot. [there is an entire chapter on Peugeot, the iconic car manufacturers and their brand Peugeot SA with the emblem of the Peugeot lion. He concludes that Peugeot is only a figment of our collective imagination as it is not a physical object but a legal entity.] Now let us examine two of the best known myths of history: the Code of Hammurabi of 1776 BC which served as a co-operation manual for hundreds of thousands of ancient Babylonians; and the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 AD which serves as a cooperation manual for hundreds of millions of modern Americans”.
The year 1776 may be an accidental number before and after Christ. But the Code of Hammurabi of the BC vintage has been a great landmark in human history, laws, and above all the rights of man. The Code was probably the first to give guidelines to the rulers how to conduct themselves. First of all it acknowledges the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods- Anu, Enlil and Marduk and their blessings on Hammurabi to make justice prevail in the land.
“Hammurabi’s Code” according to Harari, ”asserts that Babylonian social order is rooted in universal and eternal principles of justice dictated by the gods. Principle of hierarchy is of paramount importance. According to the code, people are divided into two genders and three classes: superior people, commoners and slaves, Members of each gender and class have different values…..” Of course we cannot compare the values of Hammurabi’s time to modern day democracy and contemporary values. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge the creation of such a code, which enabled the following generations to accept social justice and rights; adopt them with suitable modifications and as per the demands of the times. Harari in fact states that, “Like the Code of Hammurabi, the American Declaration of Independence was not just a document of its time and place- it was accepted by future generations as well.”.
As one was reading Harari’s “Sapiens”,by a sheer coincidence an old friend sent the link of a very interesting article by Murali Manohar Joshi, a former President of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a former Union Minister, Lok Sabha MP from Kanpur, and presently a member along with other veteran leaders like L K Advani, in the present Prime Minister’s Marg Darshak Mandal.
The article by Joshi, is published in the February 2018 issue of a magazine “Power Politics”. It was sheer curiosity that prompted me to go through the text. And lo and behold, it dealt with the concept of ‘order’ leading to governance by a ruler. The erudite scholar that the Kanpur MP, well versed in ancient Indian scriptures and mythology is, very cogently explains how a ruler should conduct himself based on three texts viz. Valmiki’s Ramayana, Vyasa’s Mahabharata and Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’, though the first is a ‘kavya’ or poetry. The article is titled, “How Rulers Must Conduct: Lessons from Ancient India”. The examples and events cited from each one of the texts, one thought has great contemporary relevance to the political realities of today. If you want to know how our ancient Kings conducted the business of governance you need to go through the texts. In fact Joshi in his introduction mentions that the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Arthashastra, “can be considered as the iconic sources for understanding India’s political tradition and basic of governance”. The examples explained are too lengthy to be reproduced here. So here are some excerpts from part of the highlighted texts:-
The Ramayana is, “a strong votary of righteousness in a king [state] who should observe sadachar [ideals of good conduct]. He should govern according to the principles of eternal law [sanatana dharma]”.
Further people’s participation “in frank discussion on important matters related to the state by the people was treated as basic for a righteous governance by the king”.
“The goal of the king, or of a state is the protection of all living beings with kindness towards them and that is the highest dharma, The Raj dharma of the king [state]”.
“The state, according to Mahabharata, was created to protect the weak, the poor, the exploited, the helpless, and the oppressed from the strong. That the large class of the weak is only able to survive because of the power of the king and this is an important aspect of Rajdharma”.
“The king to create social and economic conditions not only of freedom from fear but more positively of human flourishing, where the individual is enabled to come into the fullness of his, or her, being. Ahimsa can be realized only in a society where trust, friendship, and caring – the elements of human bonding, individual and social-exist. Protection has, in the Mahabharata, the wider meaning of creating conditions of personal and social bonding. That is the function of the king or of the state.”
“The protection of the life and dignity of women is the primary aim of governance and Mahabharata in unequivocal terms state, ‘A king in whose kingdom crying and wailing woman are forcibly carried away in front of their sons and husbands who cry and wail in vain, one feels that there is no governance……”
“For providing good governance, Arthashastra recommends that the state apparatus should be well organized and efficient. A king can create such a situation only with the help of others. Just as one wheel alone cannot move a chariot, the king as a single person cannot run the state, therefore, the king should appoint advisors, counselors and ministers to advise and help him……”
As one went through the entire eight page article by Murali Manohar Joshi many questions arose. Is it just a simple informative article drawing attention to mythological texts to highlight how they are related to realpolitik? Or is the article a critique of today’s style of governance? Or is the author treating the piece as an indictment of the omissions and commissions of the present leadership? Is there an echo of what Atal Behari Vajpayee reminding a chief minister of Rajdharma after serious riots, while explaining what Rajdharma is?
Is there an element of disappointment in the author in the present dispensation not going in for frank discussions on important matters of the state? Isn’t there daily reporting in our media of wailing women and helpless men? Aren’t there allegations of just one or two people taking all decisions and a dormant group of advisors and counselors? Joshi’s article one feels, has raised many questions and the answers to them would depend on individual perceptions. Whatever those may be the importance of our mythologies and ancient texts and in the ethical solutions they offer may have answers to many of our vexed problems of governance. Like the Code of Hammurabi as elucidated in Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ almost as mythology which had lasting impressions on lawmakers, Murali Manohar Joshi reminds people in power to draw inspiration and guidance from our mythology and ancient texts!