India has achieved another dubious distinction. It has slipped in hunger index and is now at 102 among 117 countries survived. Though one can argue that the ranks of different years cannot be compared owing to change in the parameters by which the ranking is arrived, the fact that India is below even Pakistan and Bangladesh by many ranks in 2019 should sober most of us. We have the habit of glossing over the grave issues like poverty and malnutrition. Politicians know how to divert our attentions from their failures. One way to do so is to talk about imaginary scientific achievements of our ancestors.
Many a time, we find one politician or another, coming up with absurdities that is sure to draw our attention. Instead of discussing the issues that matter, the public starts discussing whether the various weapons used in some age-old war was a nuclear weapon or not, or whether Lord Ganesha acquired his elephant head as a result of plastic surgery. The people who make such statements aren’t fools. They use diversion as a strategic political manoeuvre.
While one can continue to debate about Arjuna’s arrows being nuclear-tipped missiles or not without reaching any useful conclusion till the apocalypse arrives, the things that matter like starvation would have taken a turn for worse. There is nothing wrong in learning lessons from our ancient past, provided you choose wisely the stories you wish to learn from. Mahabharata discusses the idea of kingship and the dharma of the ruler at many places in its varied versions.
Rantideva was a king in the Bharata dynasty. Famine strikes his kingdom and people starts dying of starvation. The king opens the royal granary for his starving people and soon, the palace runs out of food. However, Rantideva would eat only after he is sure of no one starving in his kingdom. For 48 days, the king and his family had nothing to eat, as Rantideva had shared whatever food his soldiers could forage with his starving subjects.
On the 49th day, the king finally has some food and water to share with his family members. As he is about to eat, a hungry Brahmin appears. The king gives away his share. Then a commoner appears, and the king gives away his wife’s share. A starving Chandala appears at his gate and he gives away his son’s food. There is no food left, but there is some water. The family decides to quench their thirst and wait for another day for food. A thirsty dog appears, and the king gives away his share of water. A thirsty crow comes, and his wife’s share of water is given to the bird.
A drop of water is only left for his son, when a thirsty ant appears. The king asks his son to give up his drop of water for the ant, for it is the dharma of the king to ensure not even an ant goes hungry. When the king is offered heaven for his noble deeds, the king refuses it, saying, his dharma is to be with his people at the time of crisis and not to seek heaven for himself.
Yet, Rantideva is not considered the noblest king in Mahabharata, but only as an average ruler. After becoming the King of Hastinapura, Yudhishthira gives away alms to lakhs of Brahmins and poor people, and earn their wholesome praise for his charity. He boasts to his brothers that now he is equal to Rantideva in doing his Rajdharma or the duty of a ruler. Krishna says Yudhishthira is only a below-average ruler and to illustrate his point, he sends Yudhishthira to Mahabali. When Yudhishthira reaches Patala, the abode of Mahabali, he finds the king doesn’t give any alms. Yudhishthira is surprised and asks Mahabali why Krishna considers him the ideal king, even above Rantideva or Yudhishthira.
Mahabali answers, ‘If there are lakhs of Brahmins ready to accept your alms, how dreary their financial situation would be? And if the Brahmins themselves are in such a condition, how dreary the situation of common people in your country would be? The dharma of king is to ensure that no one needs alms. Rantideva’s compassion, though admirable, only solves the problem of hunger temporally and hence he is only an average king. He is a noble man, but an average king. Your charity only promotes laziness and so you are worse than him.
Your charity is done for your popularity. You love the praise of those who take your alms and your rule ensures that there are many who are desperate enough to take your charity. Without such people, you have no existence. Hence, you aren’t doing your dharma of a ruler and deserve to be known as a below average ruler. In my kingdom, I have empowered everyone, and I don’t find anyone who is willing to accept my charity or anyone else’s. Maybe that is why Krishna called me the noblest ruler. The worst are those rulers who have countless starving people in their country and are indifferent to their plight.’
Instead of searching for nuclear missiles in Mahabharata, if our politicians learn such lessons about Rajdharma from our ancient scriptures, India would have been a far better place to live in. We have been independent for the past seven decades and we have had many political leaders of different political parties ruling us. If India is ranking so low in the hunger index even now, one shouldn’t have any doubt on which category of rulers they fit in. Tackling hunger is the primary dharma of any ruler. If the rulers can’t be a Mahabali and ensure justice, equality and empowerment to all, our rulers should at least strive to be a Rantideva. A little compassion towards our people would do our country a lot of good. Until we tackle the scourge of hunger and ensure no child in India goes to sleep on an empty stomach, the patriotism we espouse is a hollow firstname.lastname@example.org