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What the ruler and the ruled owe one another


We owe it to ourselves and to each other that there be something like Dhamma, a constitutional morality that guides us all

The Arthashastra is not the only source of political thinking in India. Another tradition exists from which we can learn much, which is as relevant in our own, very different context of popular rule (democracy) as it was in ancient times.

I am thinking here of a tradition in which the idea of the Chakravartin, the wheel turner, is of great significance. The wheel that these great rulers turn is the wheel of Dharma or Dhamma (law inspired by morality) — just as the Buddha turned the wheel of Dhamma in the religio-philosophical sphere, just so the Chakravartin turns it in the political sphere. The turning of the wheel is a metaphor for a radical restructuring of the world in accordance with a politico-moral vision. The king launches an entirely new set of political and administrative measures inspired by public morality and becomes a normative ruler — the just ruler who brings peace and prosperity to his subjects. If he conquers other kingdoms, he does so not by physical force but by moral appeal. People submit to his rule not from coercion but voluntarily, out of respect for his adherence to the principles of Dhamma.

The Asoka template

The king who first embodies the idea of a moral ruler or the ‘normative king’ is none other than Asoka. Before him, or before he turned his back on the tradition of physical conquest and violence to become the Chakravartin, the rightness or wrongness of actions was determined solely by the king himself. The law was not applied consistently or uniformly but in an extremely partial and arbitrary manner. Thus, Rajas often rewarded or punished their subjects to serve their own idiosyncratic moral sense or personal interests. But now, by fashioning the idea of Dhamma, Asoka detached his personal views from what is morally right. By submitting to what is morally right, he sought to save himself from acts that he might come to regret later, to tame the institution of kingship itself, to limit his own absolute power.

If Dhamma is a higher moral principle above not just the ruled but the ruler too, then we have within our midst not just what the ruled owe their rulers, but, in turn, what the ruler owes the ruled. The politico-moral order stands above the king, at least partially. The head of the family is as much part of it as his wife and children are. Likewise, the king is part of the political order just as much as his subjects are. And just as all members of the family owe something, though not the same thing, to each other, just so the king owes something to his subjects though qualitatively different from what the subjects owe him.

What the subjects owe to the king and his officials is obedience to his commands. But these commands are not his personal whim but flow from Dhamma itself. Furthermore, the Asokan Pillar Edict 7 clarifies that compliance to Dhamma must arise largely from nijjhattiya (persuasion), not solely from niyama (legislation). And we can be persuaded only when something makes sense to us; when what is commanded accords with what one understands Dhamma to require. Everyone must follow Dhamma out of an inner disposition to comply, with one’s conscience, as it were. In short, rule by Dhamma may also be viewed as an attempt to transform brute power into moral authority — commands are followed because they are seen to be good, not merely because the ruler so commands.

This does not exhaust the political dimension of Dhamma, however. For it must also include what the king owes his subjects. Pillar Edict 6 elaborates what this is: lokassa hitasukhaye (welfare and happiness of all living beings in this world), and hereafter in swarga (heaven). According to Pillar Edict 4, the king's officials owe something to the subjects too — samata (impartiality), viyohala or vyavahar samata (impartiality in the social domain) and damda samata (impartiality in the domain of retributive punishment).

In the reign of Dhamma, the king is not just a ruler but a leader, one who leads his subjects by example. Apart from being a father to all (important in that context), Asoka tried to be one who saw further and clearer than others, sometimes a teacher, sometimes a healer; always, a moral exemplar.

Lessons for today

What is the takeaway from this ancient conception of Dhamma-inspired Chakravartin? Not the idea of kingship (or the rule of one man), of no value in a democratic republic. Nor the idea of the ruler as our father, our ‘maibaap’. In a democracy, we rule collectively; at least as equal citizens, we rule and are ruled in turn. But even our own rule can become arbitrary, where power is exercised by popular whim rather than by predictable, stable norms emanating from collective reflection. So, the takeaway is that we owe it to ourselves and to each other that there be (a) impartial rule of law which checks abuse of popular power, saving us, the people, from acts that we might come to regret later and that binds even those we have temporarily chosen to govern us; (b) something like Dhamma, a constitutional morality — justice, tolerance, freedom, equality and civic friendship — that guides us all, the ruler and the ruled. And our elected representatives owe it to us that they be not merely rulers but moral exemplars, faithful adherents themselves of the rule of law and constitutional morality. The Chakravartin tradition remains a valuable resource for our democratic republic.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 11:14:48 AM |

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