The Dharma of Governance

A ruler must know when to step aside. S/he must know when to step down. S/he must rule according to Dharma so as to be just and keep the people happy. Most importantly, a ruler must lead by example…

By Dr R.N. Gopee

It is a story of long, long ago, going back thousands of years, told and retold countless numbers of times since, and that will continue to be narrated to avid audiences as long as the mountains and the hills exist. In known human history, it is unique, one of its kind with no parallel.

Who can imagine being offered a rich kingdom on a platter and refusing to accept and be crowned as its king, as the rightful successor to the aging incumbent, his father, which was the tradition in that land? And it was to fulfill a duty towards his father, who had pledged to grant two boons to his stepmother at a future time. She felt the moment had come, and put forward her request: that instead of his elder (step)brother her own son should be made king and the former go away for fourteen years to the forest.

The elder brother duly made his way to the forest with his wife. But when the designated younger brother (who had been away when the decision was made), along with two other stepbrothers went to the forest to try and persuade their elder brother to come back and take his place as king, the latter refused categorically. Instead, he offered the crown to the younger brother who in his turn declined as a mark of respect to his elder brother as well as to abide by the hoary tradition of the land.

Then an adviser who wanted to ingratiate himself vis-à-vis the future king stepped in, and told him that ‘we should be guided in all our actions not by any notions of what is right and just, but by what is pleasant and comfortable to us. Man’s life is short and it is foolish to forego its pleasures for the sake of such illusions as truth and righteousness.’

The future king listened patiently. Then he replied: ‘I am sorry that my father entertained at his court such a false adviser as you. From time immemorial, our sages and scriptures and traditions have declared that Truth is the foundation of the universe, that Truth is God, and that Truth should be followed at all cost. And I hold to that Truth. Kings and rulers, more than other men, should set the example of following Truth whatever the consequences. For sovereignty is conferred on some men, not for the enjoyment of wealth and power, but for the maintenance and extension of Dharma, which is eternal and inviolable. I am more concerned with leading men along this way than with ruling the kingdom. I have given my word that I will step aside – and I must and will keep it.’

That elder son was Rama, the Prince of the Kingdom of Kosala, whose capital was Ayodhya. His younger brother Bharat made him accept that he, Bharat, would act as his regent for the kingdom and would place Rama’s sandals on the throne until such time as he came back and was crowned as king.

And this is exactly what happened when Rama came back. Under his rule the kingdom prospered and everybody was happy, what is referred to as Ram Rajya – the rule of Rama.

Many leaders often allude to Ram Rajya either when they are campaigning or when they are invited to talk in certain forums. From their track records afterwards, it is evident that they soon forget about it, in other words preach but not practise the essential lessons that should have been learnt from Ram Rajya. They are:

  1. A ruler must know when to step aside.
  2. S/he must know when to step down.
  3. S/he must choose advisers wisely.
  4. S/he must rule according to Dharma so as to be just and keep the people happy.
  5. Most importantly, a ruler must lead by example.

It is not necessary, and it will be tedious as well, to cite examples which show that these lessons are followed more in the breach that in the observance. There is also a systemic issue, because in the Westminsterian parliamentary system, for example, there is no limit to the number of terms a leader can serve. And they are therefore tempted to hold on to power till they are forced out. Here we have from time to time heard about limiting the mandate to two terms, as is the case in America, but no action has followed. It’s not as if it’s the best of all worlds in America at the moment – which is true practically in all countries for that matter! – but at least there is the possibility of institutional change by law.

In certain other countries, aspirants greedy for the permanent enjoyment of wealth and power have tweaked the constitution of their countries in order to stay on, and resistance has been accompanied by violence – such as in West Africa, in Burundi. Currently this is the scenario in Belarus, where the ruler has voted himself in so to speak for the sixth time in 25 years! And in these countries, it is the adversaries and the people who suffer, often brutally.

History is replete with examples of kings and autocrats or dictators who have assassinated or eliminated not only rivals but even their own kith and kin – fathers, brothers, wives, sons.

That is why, as Dr David Frawley aka Vamdev Sastri advocates: ‘It is important that a regard for the universal Dharma is brought into both our personal lives and into our societies. Otherwise our civilization may continue to flounder and is unlikely to find peace or harmony with life. This is a matter first of all of upholding Dharmic principles and practices in how we live and think. The work begins with each one of us.’

And what is this Dharma? It comes from the Samskrit root ‘dhri’ meaning ‘to uphold’, and refers to the spiritual, ethical and natural principles that uphold the entire universe which extends from the infinitely small to the infinitely large – microcosm to macrocosm; it is implied that dharma is to be found at all levels. It is the software which maintains the harmony of both the totality and the individual, which are complementary and interdependent.

It is that which upholds, nourishes, sustains, integrates, strengthens, and unites, and thus ensures the overall well-being of the individual and society. It follows, therefore that all that tends towards peace and harmony constitutes Dharma, is dharmic. Contrarily, everything that takes one away from peace and harmony – and gives rise to conflict – constitutes adharma, is adharmic.

If leaders and rulers were to analyse themselves sincerely and intelligently in this prism, it would not be difficult for them to chart the way ahead for their own good, for the people’s and the country’s good. And it is never too late to apply the principles of Dharma – indeed it is even more necessary when things are going  wrong because of earlier misguided or adharmic decisions.

We desperately are in need of Ram Rajya, rule according to Dharma. But merely saying it is not enough.


* Published in print edition on 15 September 2020

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