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Updated: September 3, 2011 19:27 IST

Money mania

Pradeep Chakravarthy
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The temple at Tiruvottiyur. Photo: V. Ganesan
The temple at Tiruvottiyur. Photo: V. Ganesan

Even centuries ago, swindlers could not get away easily with their booty. Lawmakers today can be inspired by that.

Counting numbers has never been a strong point of mine; the only time I didn't feel ashamed of it was when, a few months back, newspapers carried the loss to the nation from the CWG and Spectrum scandals. My mind boggled with the number of zeroes and sums of money I doubt I will ever make in my life! The politicians had made me a fool and I wasn't comfortable with that. All our politicians are never at a loss to describe the greatness of our country and our wonderful heritage in their speeches and promises. They live or work in stately monuments that echo our history and culture. What do our ancient texts and history say about corrupt public servants, I asked and the precedence is clear.

Our oldest text on statecraft is the Arthashastra of Kautilya (circa 2nd century BC and popular till the 12th C). Corruption was prevalent in his time and Kautilya lists more than 30 types; quite a spectrum, they are! He, however, has his feet firmly on the ground and reminds us that fish swallow water and bees cannot resist tasting a little bit of honey; likewise those who handle public money do tend to be corrupt or at least have a strong temptation. He does, however, give strict punishments!

Closer home, from former minister Raja's mother tongue Tamil (a language his party champions ceaselessly) is the great work Tirukural, couplets of advice on how we should live our lives. Tiruvalluvar minces no words on frowning upon corruption: gathering wealth through fraud is like storing water in a mud pot that has not been baked (66), he says. Our ancestors seemed to deal with corruption much more quickly and strictly. Several temple inscriptions in Tamil Nadu talk of charges of corruption, embezzlement of temple or state treasury and how and what justice was meted out.

In most cases, at least going by inscriptions, trials were done in one sitting, perhaps over several days but within a few months. Trials were through witnesses and, in some rare cases when the gathering in the village was a small one, everyone in the assembly was allowed to share their point of view.

Punishments were severe and our lawmakers today can certainly get some inspiration here. The higher the position (in the 10th to 14th century that meant caste as well) the stronger the punishment. Those found guilty were asked to pay back the money, sometimes with interest even if it meant mortgaging their property. A temple in the Thanjavur district has an inscription where the village accountant was found guilty of embezzlement. Not only he but all his descendants were barred from holding similar positions. Social ostracism was another punishment and families may have even been forced to leave the village due to shame and compelled to do so.

The most pertinent example comes from the temple of Tiruvottiyur, north of Chennai. The inscription from the Chola period records how, in an audit by the king, the elected members of the village committee that were responsible for testing and certifying the purity of gold had not performed their job correctly. The trial established their guilt. Their private property was auctioned off, the penalty collected and the remainder given back to them.

In the last few years of intensely learning more about Hinduism and leadership research, one striking similarity I have seen is something relevant to people like you and me who should do our bit to improve India, people like Anna Hazare and of course all those in this country who have received a bribe (sadly they can be found not just among public servants but among employees of companies too) is that change starts not with people around us but within ourselves. Hindu texts (and indeed all other religious texts) are obsessed with exhorting us to be better human beings and leadership research consistently finds that leadership by example is really the bedrock for corporate success. Both also warn us against focussing on the content much more than the speaker and hopefully supporters to the cause will not deify the representatives of civil society but enable them by action. Going on to Twitter and Facebook to support this storm of protest against politicians who have shamed us is easy, fast and trendy. Does that alone answer our conscience? What have we done to be accepted as moral authorities in a society starved of role models today?

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