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How ancient Indians decoded the mathematics of democracy

CultureHow ancient Indians decoded the mathematics of democracy

One hundred percent is the whole of humanity. From its first recorded history, human society has continually experimented with methods of governance. An isolated individual can live on his own terms, as can those who implicitly follow him. But the moment there is a conflict with a person or a group of people, there emerges the need to find a way of solving it. Physical violence as a measure of who is mightier may seem to be an easy and immediate way of settling the issue. But this certainly is not the best way to do it, and ancient texts in India affirm this. These texts show that society over time evolves a certain set of laws or rules to contain its own fault lines into containable (ie societally manageable) proportions. Governance is based on the imperative of ensuring that these laws are adhered to peacefully.
Human societies have tried out Autocracy, Monarchy, Communism, Socialism, Capitalism and variants and admixtures of the above. Any philosophy whether political, economic or social will collapse if basic human nature is not taken into consideration while applying high flown concepts. Every system has its inherent strengths and weaknesses. To be able to extract the best and successfully apply it on to human societies is a mark of success of the processes of governance, especially in a democracy that is intended to be rule “for, by and of” the people.
Charles Darwin taught that Survival of the Fittest is the norm in Nature. That it is the living being best endowed with resources, adaptability, resourcefulness, intelligence and physical capabilities which has the advantage over the rest of those who lack this. India’s ancient (and alas no longer remembered) wisdom teaches us that life on Planet Earth can be made better and more simplified were human beings, who are at the apex of the food chain, accept that they are part of the natural world, rather than seek to be its controller. Or worse, seek to modifier beyond recognition the natural universe surrounding them. A phenomenon that was very visible in Europe and North America but which is now active in full force (or ferocity) in China. The moment humankind or a segment of it crowns itself the king of all that is surveyed, the first step away from the preservation of the natural environment gets taken. The flora and fauna surrounding humans becomes the host on to which our species assumes parasitical rights. They all become expendable in an incessant war to keep human beings as being, in a sense, superior to nature. This is what the ancients repeatedly warned should not happen, calls for rationality that went unheeded even in the land of their birth.
The natural selection of who or what living being should continue its DNA pool makes sense. It may be observed that in a pack of lions, it is the healthiest, most hardworking of the lionesses who kill prey for the whole pride. Usually it is the Alpha male who gets to eat first. As gender equality has not yet reached lions, the lionesses do not protest over this. The cubs and the lionesses eat next. Some meat is left over for the aged members of the pack. Further bits are left for scavengers such as the eagles and hyenas.One can notice a rough kind of kindness to those animals and birds within the immediate surroundings. Such concern, it may be noted, usually comes best (or often only) on a full stomach. Were the fables and texts of the ancients made available in our currcula rather than remain forgotten, such needed wisdom would no longer be alien to our hundreds of millions of potentially wonderful young minds.
The ancients were emphatic that human beings are given both rights and responsibilities. These two are inextricably interlinked. To artificially break them apart is to court “unnaturalness” and consequently disaster. Merit has to be recognized for what it is. With such recognition just rewards too, must in an equitable system automatically accrue to those with merit. This is what the ancients taught, and not just in India, as even a cursory reading of (for example) ancient Greek philosophy can testify. It has now become fashionable in certain circles to downplay the importance of merit in reward and authority, ostensibly to ensure greater equality.When there is no equality in the entire gamut of Creation, to insist on that in an absolute sense may be problematic. All than a human society can and must offer should be equality of opportunity and not an elusive equality of lifestyle in all its accoutrements. The latter should not be pressed in such a manner that the former gets lost in practice.
The two main systems that came in vogue millennia ago are variants of Democracy and Authoritarianism.
Directly pitted against each other, both these systems try hard to prove that each is the best for human life. These days, we are seeing this play out on the world stage, as China challenges the world’s most powerful democracy, the US. Disregarding the teachings of the ancients, many times, empirical observations are ignored for the sake of rhetoric. It may be good to remember that generally speaking, about 5% of the population will always do the right thing, 10% of the population will do the most convenient thing and that the remaining 85% follow whichever side seems to be winning. If the “most convenient”(usually the most personally rewarding no matter what the societal or governance implications) seems to have the upper hand, it is this model that will be acquiesced to by the majority, if not always actively followed. Which is why the imperative of ethics and respect for nature and for our fellow members of society for the survival of a healthy society needs to be emphasized from an early age in school and at home including through use of ancient texts that make this point over and over more vividly than several of its modern counterparts.
We were taught millennia ago that clarity of goals for a society is very important.The way to reach those goals have to be thought of, discussed, agreed upon and implemented. Discussion and argument are fundamental to progress. Democracy is that system which best promotes this. Yet within Democracy there is a dangerous core which does far worse things than blatant dictatorship. This core calls itself representative of “the silent majority”. As the phrase implies, the presence of the “silent majority” is very much there. But because of their inertia and indifference this silent majority in authoritarian states plays a supporting role the preservation of Dictatorship. It is definitely not that this group would prefer to lean towards the ideals of Autocracy. In fact, they are likely to be silently horrified at the net result of their (in) action in seeking a change from authoritarianism to democracy. Hell, as the saying goes, is paved with the best of intentions or with the sound of silence.
The minimum wages act became law in a State where a young man was employing a hundred and fifty women for a monthly salary of Four Hundred and Fifty rupees per month.They were sewing nighties, underskirts etc on his sewing machines. Once they had finished their designated work, the gentleman did not mind their taking in their private work and stitching it on hismachines.The new law stated that he pay each of the women a minimum salary of Six Hundred Rupees each per month. This was not financially possible for that man. Despite the women imploring him that they would take their normal Four Hundred and Fifty Rupees salary, yet give him a receipt for Six Hundred Rupees, the man was forced to shut shop. From earning their Four Hundred and Fifty Rupees, the monthly income of a hundred and fifty ladies became zero. When the Democratic Party in the US pushes for a national minimum wage rather than leave it to local conditions, it is making stronger the dependence of the US economy on China while claiming to do the opposite.
A national minimum wage unrelated to local conditions was the result of an altruistic idea that the women employees should get a (doubtlesslywell deserved) pay hike of one hundred and fifty Rupees per month. The intent of such laws cannot be faulted. What was not taken into account was the effect. The young who are removed from the handmade carpet industry (for their smaller fingers are more skilled at weaving intricate patternson the wool ) need to be ensured nourishment and access to education. Shutting away their only source of income (sometimes for anentire family) may lead them in desperation to some illicit and dangerous fields of activity. Policymakers need to look before they leap, as those who may become disadvantaged by policies that are for the present difficult to implement will usually be the most vulnerable.
All this happens because of a lack of awareness of the ground situation. The vast majority of children are free from adult prejudices. Those who are in direct control of their circumstances must take a look at the practical fallout of each of their decisions. The young should not be put through a wringer which seeks to turn them into bonsai adults all too soon. Nature makes no sudden leaps, as Mao Zedong discovered (and ignored) in his Great Leap Forward or Stalin earlier in his headlong rush to convert an agrarian society into an industrial wonder in the brief period of a decade, at the expense of millions of lives.
Great religions and their practitioners have lived together peacefully for centuries. Yet it is the fringe element of most groups which grab the microphone and urge their kind of people to clash even and hurt. The true followers of all religions advocate peace and tolerance towards each other. This needs to be emphasised from a young age in schools and homes, and in the latter, all children must have the opportunity to enter and study. When so many criminal laws were passed or retained from the colonial period, why making education less than universal seems to have been ignored (at least in practice) for many decades after Independence is beyond comprehension.
The teachings of sages point out that democracy is healthy when the people are active in participating in it, not just once every few years at the ballot box, but in making their preferences and needs continually known to those elected to govern. This is the essence of the participative democracy that every country that seeks to be anchored in the 21st century needs to make the norm. Given the spread of knowledge and the accessibility to it especially through the digital medium, such a transformation is within reach, certainly for the democracies. It may be remembered that seeing to it that no group of people were left “out of society” was possible in many parts of the World, where an assumed democracy has sadly become an inert majority manipulated by vested interest groups.
Thiruvathira Tirunal Lakshmi Bayi is XII Princess of the erstwhile State of Travancore

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