Two hundred and twenty years ago, the King of Cochin, Rama Varma IX, decided to build a new capital in Thrissur. But there was a problem. The site identified was a teak forest, which surrounded the famous Vadakkunnathan Temple of Lord Shiva. The forest was considered the holy locks of Lord Shiva, the presiding deity. The temple priests and devotees objected to the king’s plan, but the young king marched with his army from his capital of Tripunithura to Thrissur and camped outside the teak forest.
The worried devotees pleaded with the king. But Rama Varma wanted to clear the forest. As a last resort, the oracle of the temple came running out with his ceremonial sword and started his frenzied dance. The oracle was supposed to speak the deity’s mind. In a dramatic proclamation, the oracle cursed the king and ordered him not to cut the holy locks of Shiva. The king remained unmoved. He watched the feverish dance of the oracle who started injuring himself by slashing his forehead with the blunt edge of the ceremonial sword. With a derisive smile, the king watched the histrionics of the oracle. When the oracle reached near the King, with a sweep of the royal sword, he cut off the head of the oracle.
Rama Varma went on to build the city of Thrissur by riding roughshod over the will of the people with the brute power of his sword. For such acts, he was revered in history as a strong administrator and earned the title Sakthan Thampuran or the strong-willed ruler.
I was born in Tripunithura and studied Engineering in Thrissur. Even now, after over 200 years, people talk in awe about Sakthan Thampuran. There is nothing unique about these towns. Indians love their despots.In any casual talk, one comes across people who talk in a dreamy voice about the good old days when the British ruled or when so and so Maharajah ruled. We know very little about our past, but are so proud of it. In a recent survey conducted by a prominent daily, it was seen that a majority of Indian youth preferred military dictatorship instead of democracy. This has been the trend for the past few years. Any one observing social media comments can see that Indians consider democracy a bane.
Indians secretly yearn for a strong leader, an avatar who would come and wipe away all the problems. All the ills of society are attributed to the corrupt politicians who populate our democracy, forgetting that it is we who have chosen them.
Middle class India has always adored strong, decisive leaders because they are the closest we would get to tyrants and despots. Democracy sits lightly on us. We are yet to appreciate the great power it has bestowed on us. Maybe it is the power that is frightening us. For years, middle class had grovelled before its superiors, whether they were Mughals or the British.
Unlike many other contemporary cultures, there was no divine right of King in India. Though many Hindu, Buddhist or Jain kings were despots, they never had absolute power. But Islamic invasion changed everything. It also destroyed Buddhism. Buddhist universities provided universal education and were centres of egalitarianism and scientific studies. The Islamic conquest destroyed kingdoms that supported Buddhist centres of learning. What took its place was a new religion, masquerading as Brahmanism. It had little in common with the Upanishadic religion. Unlike Buddhism, it did not depend on a king’s patronisation, but was based on rituals and individual contribution as dakshina or fee. Casteism rigidified as a result, because ritual purity became the most important aspect.
The Bhakti movement took route to counter the brutality of casteism. It also taught many generations of Indians to surrender to God and fate. The Bhakti literature urges absolute surrender to God’s will. The speculative, agnostic, questioning, debating culture of India, where a Chandala could stop Adi Shankara and question him on his wrong understanding of Adwaita was long forgotten. The rigidification of caste became progressively heartless by the time British rule peaked.
Humiliated by the racial discrimination he faced on the outside, man became a despot in his household and demanded abject surrender from the family. The priests demanded abject surrender to the Gods and to themselves. Each caste became an oppressor of the caste below him, thus snuffing out the possibility of a revolution and social upheaval. Social revolution happens when there is one oppressor class and an oppressed class. It cannot happen where every class is oppressed and oppressor at the same time. All these trained Indians to sub-consciously appreciate and feel secure under a tyrant.
To such a society, universal suffrage and democracy is a cultural shock. We cannot accept the fact that in democracy, all of us have equal rights. The fact that the votes of our driver, maid, watchman, the homeless, the people who had never mattered, count as much as ours in an election makes us insecure. This fear drives us to think that a father figure, who would take decisions for us, punish us at his will and protect us and keep the younger siblings and servants at check would be a better option. But thanks to democracy, we are living in one of the best periods of history where every citizen has a voice. It has been 70 years we have enjoyed so much freedom and we should give it a fair chance.
Author, columnist, speaker