How is it that in our current political scene we are so bound to either praise our leaders beyond reason or deride them without understanding? After all no one is altogether good or altogether bad. The Buddha taught that in every respect the Middle Path is the best way of Dharma. Few try and balance the credits and debits—either of one’s life or that of others.
Among Hindus no god is beyond critical analysis and comment. This makes the Hindu worship of their multitude of gods very complex. “Anthropomorphic” it is called—when gods and goddesses resemble humans in speech and deed and represent particular qualities. The level of individual awareness determines whether a Hindu sees a god or goddess in every natural manifestation, worships his chosen version of God, realises that all gods are manifestations of One God or, even in the ultimate analysis, concludes that it is the Atman in every sentient being which is part of the Great Spirit. All concepts flow progressively in the one direction. Yet it is this realisation and the acceptance of multiple ways to achieving release from life that makes for tolerant indifference and accommodation to other ideas. But it also makes them weak to resist stronger religious and totalitarian ideologies, which deny this pluralism and have only one way—their way.
When asked by author Monica Felton on why Asians are more tolerant about religion and politics, Rajaji answered, “That is a judgment which Western people often make but it is not altogether true. The religions of Asia are much older than the religions of the West and age gives a certain sense of security, so people can afford to be more tolerant.” So it is with individuals themselves—wisdom tempers belief.
On one level, the passionate worship of idols illustrates the abandonment of reason and extraordinary faith of the believer. Yet the idol is but a symbol and when the symbol takes on a significance greater than the reality, it indicates a need for balance. What is worshipped is not so much the material object of the idol but what it manifests. Worship of idols is not just confined to those of stone, metal or wood—or even of lakes, rivers, mountains and the sea itself. This iconic worship can be practiced by people who believe in a sacred text whose very material existence and integrity they defend as much as the concepts and ideas contained in it.
But worshipping kings and heroes? The ancient heroes of the epics have been mostly men who have triumphed over chaos and restored order. They have been exalted as god-like and were worthy of worship through the ages. But surely everything that kings like Chandragupta, Ashoka, Krishna Deva Raya, Raja Raja Chola, Akbar or Shivaji did was not unadulterated goodness. Kings and rulers had to protect the people and the good of the state and while doing so violence and injustice could have occurred. An account of their credits and debits may restore balance in our estimation of their roles.
Similarly, contemporary heroes—important for their continued effect on the present— such as Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Patel, Rajaji and Maulana Azad were men of their age. They made their compromises, deals and mistakes and yielded to temptations as much as they showed courage, endurance and honesty. Are we to judge them only on one level? Are they to be envisioned in black and white or are we to see all the colours that they were made up of—with subtle shades of the spectrum?
As Rajaji told Felton: “In a country where people worship images as gods, it is natural that they should treat the inheritor of a great tradition as a god. Our people are not naturally very critical, and they need to worship.” As time passes there is a hollowing out of our political leaders and historians work to make them into men and women that they were; with their human virtues and failings.
A leader who sees himself or is seen as a god or god-like is a disaster imposed on his people. Perhaps it is to retain power that an aura of invincibility and infallibility is promoted. But in the end, time and events damage or destroy the myth.
And then there are leaders exalted after their death by their admirers as saints, prophets, gods, etc. This post-mortem exaggerated reputation that is thrust on them by their acolytes is defended and advocated by them even by extreme measures which their hero may not have approved in his lifetime. This indicates the need for people to rely on the extra-natural.
We are a people of an ancient civilization which has seen too much chaos in the past millennium. We identify strongly with our culture, religion and social habits. What we need are leaders grounded in reality and aware and appreciative of the needs of the people and what is possible. These have to be leaders who plan incrementally and proceed with caution and not take everyone on a path of their own making. There is too much to be lost compared to uncertain gains that have unintended consequences.
Success for a leader should mean that he has managed to initiate and manage change without causing alarm and confusion. That what he proposes must rest within the realm of the possible and within the understanding of the people.
Too often and for too long we have been subjected to ideologically-motivated change. We are confused and alarmed with change that questions and undermines our ancestral beliefs, identities, preferences and prejudices. We need leaders who understand this and who can reduce the negative effects of change while promoting acceptance of the better aspects of it. We do not need gods, kings or heroes. We just need honest and wise men and women with practical experience grounded in the land and its people
Dean of Studies and Head, Centre for Telangana Studies, MCR-HRD Institute of Telangana