These are frustrating times. True, there are big things that put India on centre stage, such as the Prime Minister’s visit to China. But there are also petty things that shame us. We have farmers whose sense of honour makes them commit suicide when they are unable to repay their debts—and we have a minister in Haryana who calls them “cowards”. We have a film star who runs his car over destitutes sleeping on footpaths, killing one—and his friend condemns footpath sleepers as irresponsible law-breakers. We have a police officer in Delhi who throws a brick at a scooterist because she wouldn’t quietly pay him a bribe. He was punished because he was caught on camera. Hundreds of others who see bribe-taking as their birthright escape because their superiors do not care.
It would be a fatal mistake to dismiss these as stray incidents as those in power tend to do. In fact, this has nothing to do with who is in power. It is the culture of our times. It is so deeply rooted that even Narendra Modi, for all his determination and iron will, is unable to bring it under control. Consider the case of the IAS whistleblower Ashok Khemka. He was hounded by the Congress government—and then, inexplicably, by the BJP government as well. Obviously things happen behind the scenes, and obviously they cannot be clean things.
For those of us who are mere tax-payers not entitled to know the goings-on behind the scenes, perhaps the only way forward is to dream of the values that once lent glory to our culture—and hope that one day those values will return to give meaning to our lives. Everyone talks of the greatness of our Vedic past, but how many take the trouble to understand the principles that sustained that greatness? Actually it is not difficult to understand those principles and values because they have been spelt out in simple terms by Vyasa in a scene featuring Narada, the sage of the gods. As Narada entered, Yudhishtira and his brothers stood up and bowed low. Then,
“How are you, Yudhishtira?” enquired Narada. “Do you put the six kingly qualities of cleverness, readiness, intelligence in dealing with enemies, memory, knowledge of politics, and devotion to ethics to good use? Are your seven principal officers, the governor of the fort, the commander-in-chief, the chief justice, the chief of police, the royal physician, the political advisor and the chief astrologer loyal to you? Is it your policy to be neutral to strangers and to kings who are neutral to you? Have you good teachers to instruct the princes and army officers in dharma and the various sciences? Is the priest you honour humble, pure, respected, charitable and forgiving?” (P Lal’s translation).
The emphasis, clearly placed by the sage, was on devotion to ethics, loyalty, dharma and familiarity with various sciences. Above all, he underlined the importance of “the priest” being pure and forgiving, as well as humble and respected. How many of our robed priests today—whatever be the religion they profess—are humble and respected and forgiving? How many are pure?
Narada did give expression to some values that would shock us today. After asking whether women are protected in Yudhishtira’s kingdom, he says, “I hope you trust them with no state secret.” There are also the usual paeans to Brahmins as in, “Are wise men and Brahmins respected? You know such respect brings rewards?” Many scholars have argued that sexist and brahminic axioms in the epics are interpolations. But that debate should not divert attention from Narada’s projection of kingly duties as an extension of ethics. In the wisest and most important part of his interaction with the Pandavas, he asked: “Do you stay away from all the 14 vices of kings —hedonism, atheism, anger, rashness, procrastination, not consulting the learned, laziness, nervousness, following only one man’s counsel, taking the advice of mercenary friends, abandoning a settled plan, revealing state secrets, financing unproductive projects, and acting on sudden impulses?”
That question encapsulates a vision of politics and civic life at its noblest, a projection of dharmic values no one can disagree with. But how many of those who claim to promote Vedic virtues can face the queries of Narada? How many of our politicians know that they are in fact negating the values they profess? The praja can only hope that our heritage will survive the opportunists who abuse it.