India’s dharmic democracy has ancient roots

The Ukrainian crisis has fractured the world into separate blocs. On one side, we have autocrats ruling their countries with complete control of the state, economy, and media. On the other side, we have democratic nations that guarantee freedom and liberty to their people. During the Ukrainian conflict, India has struck a balance across these two blocs to protect its national interests. However, make no mistake: India’s democracy has deep civilisational roots. We have developed our own unique dharmic democracy. We cherish our freedoms and will always oppose autocracy.

Democratic systems have emerged after thousands of years of experimentation with different governance arrangements across the world. Well-functioning democratic systems reflect four core principles: A wide variety of inalienable human rights; rule of law, including equality for all before the law; separation of powers across the legislature, executive, and judge creating a system of checks and balances; and accountability to the public. Each of these principles is vitally important, but it is the interlocking nature of these principles that assures justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity.

India’s democratic system is founded not on Western Enlightenment thought, but on our own ancient beliefs. As Bhishma tells Yudhishthira in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, which was repeated by Chanakya in the Arthashastra: “The happiness of the ruler lies in the happiness of his subjects. It is not what the ruler likes that matters, but only what people like.” This thinking is further elaborated in the Ram Rajya concept, as articulated by Mahatma Gandhi: “The ancient ideal of Ram Rajya is undoubtedly one of true democracy in which the meanest citizen could be sure of swift justice without an elaborate and costly procedure.” Moreover, B. R. Ambedkar declared: “Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha.”

The first democratic principle of inalienable human rights flows directly from the most important moral virtue in Indic civilisation: Ahimsa or strict non-violence. Respecting living beings leads inevitably to human rights because by practising ahimsa we give everyone the freedom to live and worship as they want. Thus ahimsa is directly linked to the foundational Western concept of liberty. Following ahimsa gives everyone liberty since we cannot coerce anyone. Taking away someone’s freedom is a violent act and therefore against the ahimsa principle. Interestingly, in the original copy of the Constitution, Part III, which deals with the Fundamental Rights, opens with an illustration of Lord Ram with Sita and Lakshman — a clear allusion to the Ram Rajya ideal of true democracy.

Moreover, among global civilisations, the Indic civilisation is unique because it is fundamentally based on freedom of thought and belief systems. One of the most famous lines in the Rig Veda says: ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti — there is one truth, sages call it by many names. Each individual is free to pursue the eternal truth in their own way – in fact, these choices shape their karma and lead to their moksha; Every person has to seek their own salvation or liberation. The Bhagavad Gita exemplifies how individuals must interrogate their rights and duties, exercise their own free will, and then decide on their conduct. Accordingly, we have always celebrated pluralism and abhorred fanaticism.

Similarly, our dharmic traditions, in particular our commitment to Raj Dharma, have defined our unyielding commitment to the second democratic principle of the rule of law. No matter how rich or poor, weak or powerful, we are all enjoined to follow dharma. The Arthashastra states: “It is power and power alone which, only when exercised by the king with impartiality and in proportion to guilt either over his son or his enemy, maintains both this world and the next. The just and victorious king administers justice in accordance with dharma (established law), sanstha (customary law), nyaya (announced law), and vyavahara (evidence, conduct).” Our constitution, various laws and regulations, and settled case law define Raj Dharma.

Indian society has always believed in the separation of powers, the third democratic principle. While ancient Indian states were usually kingdoms ruled by monarchs, these rulers relied on assemblies of nobles to validate and approve their decisions. Historical research suggests that most of northern India had republican states for the entire Buddhist period. Priests have also had significant influence on the conduct and decisions of monarchs throughout Indian history. Thus, feudal power was circumscribed not just through Raj Dharma, but also through the checks and balances introduced through assembly and priestly power. Judicial systems were also well-established in Indian society both during the ancient period as well as in medieval and modern periods. Chanakya devotes Books 3 and 4 of the Arthashastra to the judicial system, laying out in great detail how civil and criminal law should be maintained through magistrates and judges.

Finally, transparency and accountability are hallmarks of democratic systems. In our constitutional system, this is enforced through legislatures, periodic elections, and a watchdog media. Our ancient wisdom, as laid out in the Mundaka Upanishad, has always emphasized the importance of truth-telling: “Satyameva Jayate – truth alone triumphs.” Those who wield executive power have to tell the truth about their actions. They have to truly serve the needs of the people and not use disinformation to perpetuate their rule. Dharma requires the truth, not propaganda.

India has always followed the eternal values ​​of ahimsa and dharma. The two are also interlinked through the Bhagavad Gita phrase: ahimsa paramo dharma. Thus our civilisational heritage inexorably guides us to a humanitarian ethos and a dharmic democracy. As the world is torn asunder into opposing blocs, ahimsa and dharma inspire India to be a beacon of pluralism and democracy.

Jayant Sinha is the chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance in Parliament and a Lok Sabha MP from Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. Views are personal


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