This is a reflective piece on what is a democracy and what would a Dharmic democracy mean. By Dharmic, I do not necessarily refer to either a Hindu democracy or just ethics in a rationalist’s point of view. Dharma, for me, is that which upholds the multiplicity of realities of existence with its inherent reflexive tendencies, as highlighted here. I believe that not only should democracy be a political democracy, but also an economic democracy, as highlighted here, and even a spiritual democracy, as I shall deliberate on, in this article. This is the comprehensive democracy, a truly Dharmic democracy – a Dharmocracy, that I speak of here, under the umbrella of the recently formulated conceptual twin-umbrellas of ‘Satyavad‘ and ‘Satyashrama‘.
Kalidasa, the great poet of ancient India, writes: “प्रायेण सामग्र्यविधौ गुणानां पराङ्मुखी विश्वसृजः प्रवृत्ति” which means ‘the nature of the creator is not to give all virtues in their completeness‘. Not one, even the brightest and most talented of all, has all the virtues and qualities and intelligence that may help mankind attain optimum levels of existence. Therefore, in synergy, in harmony and in working together, is the key to progress and sustainable lifestyle. This idea has been the cornerstone of the Indic civilisation and forms the basis for a spirit of democracy and tolerance that remains to this day. Democracy is also seen in nature. The red deer of Eurasia live in big herds and spend most of their time either grazing or ruminating. Scientists have recently found that the herds move only when at least 60% of adults stand up, thereby ‘voting’ by their feet and action.
Among bees, queen bees are mainly egg-laying members, with the hive being run mainly by worker bees and drones. It is interesting how bees are democratic too! When scout bees perform a waggle dance to pitch future nesting sites, dozens may compete in trying to sway the colony’s decision. They even ‘headbutt’ any scouts that obstinately continue dancing for a less popular site! What a caucus! Cockroaches, pigeons, African buffaloes and baboons are also seen to have their ‘democratic practices’. One, thus sees, that democracy is not just a human construct but way more entrenched in nature. The confluence of intentions, ideas and orientations of individuals in a natural, organic way is then truly what reflects the truths of nature and its constituents. In fact, I may venture so far as to say, that it may represent the conception of absolute truth as well, as I shall deliberate on in the final section of the article.
Democracy has been an integral part of human society since times immemorial. The Indian subcontinent and the Greek civilisation were two of the earliest such cases, where democratic ideals and structures were established. Democratic republics called Mahajanapadas sprung up in ancient India before the 6th century BC, before the birth of Gautama Buddha. Vaishali, in present-day Bihar in India, was the first of these republics, and these republics had systems like the Gana and Panchayat systems, the latter being still used to this day! In 4th century BC, the Greeks wrote about the Sambastai and Sabarcae states in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan respectively, saying that their ‘form of government was democratic and not regal’.
Not only was this idea of democracy a part of society but even some scriptural pieces of evidence point to this. The Rig Veda, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures, speaks about ‘Samjnana‘, specifically in Hymn 191 of Mandala 10. Samjnana means the collective consciousness of the people, and the hymn has the following words
“सं गछध्वं सं वदध्वं सं वो मनांसि जानताम |
देवा भागं यथा पूर्वे संजानाना उपासते ||
समानो मन्त्रः समितिः समानी समानं मनः सह चित्तमेषाम |
समानं मन्त्रमभि मण्त्रये वः समानेन वोहविषा जुहोमि ||
समानी व आकूतिः समाना हर्दयानि वः |
समानमस्तु वोमनो यथा वः सुसहासति ||”
which translates to
“Assemble, speak together: let your minds be all of one accord,
As ancient Gods unanimous sit down to their appointed share.
The place is common, common the assembly, common the mind, so be their thought united.
A common purpose do I lay before you, and worship with your general oblation.
One and the same be your resolve and be your minds of one accord.
United be the thoughts of all that all may happily agree.”
The verse is about how the collective mind is what the individual mind must pay its homage to, as the source from which it derives its potency. The Veda also talks about how people should gather in their assembly (संगच्चद्ध्वं – Samgachchaddhvam) and speak there in one voice (संवदद्ध्वं – Samvadaddhvam), in a union of minds (संमानः – Sammanah), of hearts (समचित्तं – Samachittam), of policy (समन्मन्त्रः – Samanmantrah), and of hopes and aspirations (अकुति – akuti). This democracy was, however, not just one of imposition but also one that depended on the ‘inner unity’ of its citizens and their emotional and even spiritual integration. This is why I shall be speaking of spiritual democracy as well, later in the article, for a truly Dharmic Democratic model. The democratic principle was at work in different spheres of public life in ancient India, be it political, social, or cultural.
Even when there was a monarchy, often it was a restricted, limited or constitutional monarchy, so that the monarchy was based on consensus and disparate groups, guilds and people working together. It was based on decentralisation and local autonomy, and these two concepts are crucial for my understanding and conception of democracy.
Historically, this also led to political fragmentation and weakness, when invaders attacked the Indian subcontinent, but the model under a unifying umbrella, such as the Guptas and the Rajputs, with their vassal kings, and local administrative models, were successful for centuries. While these systems were built on social identities and associations such as कुल – “Kula” (clan), श्रेणी – “Sreni” (guild) and जनपद – “Janapada” (state) over the years, it is the sentiment and not the implementation necessarily, which is noteworthy. The Mahabharata also mentions some republics called Samghatagana. Such republics often came together in republican unions (sanghas) such as those of the Yadavas, Andhakas, Kukuras, Vrishnis and Bhojas.
Buddhist and Jain texts also refer to many republics and republican confederations such as the Vajji (Vriji) that consisted of 9 Lichhavi, 9 Mallaki and 18 Gana Rajyas of Kashi–Koshal and other states. It is said that Mahavira’s death saw condolences from 36 republics of this Vriji confederacy. The introductory portions of the Cullakalinga Jātaka and the Ekapaṇṇa Jātaka mention that the Licchavis had 7,707 ‘Rājās’, who were usually male heads households, belonging to the Kshatriya Varna, with the ultimate authority resting with these rajas, who met each year, to elect one of their members as the supreme ruler, and a council of nine to assist him. The Sakha republic was where Buddha belonged to and around 80,000 households constituted the ‘republic’ which had a Parishad (parliament, of sorts) of 500 members with a Raja (supreme ruler or more of a president). After the sixth century, democratic organisations started to decline and monarchy came to prominence.
In the western world, the term ‘democracy’ first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens. The word comes from demos, “common people” and Kratos, “strength”. Led by Cleisthenes – the ‘father of Athenian democracy‘, Athenians established what is generally regarded as the first democracy in 508–507 BC. Cleisthenes is referred to as “the father of Athenian democracy”. Athenian democracy was a direct democracy, and it had two features:
All eligible citizens, (that excluded women, slaves and foreigners, besides non-landowners and men under the age of 20) were allowed to speak and vote in the assembly, which set the laws of the city-state.
Today, we have reached a point, where most countries in the world are democratic. This is a natural consequence of the historical evolution of mankind towards a form that is based on a balance of representation and consciousness. Democracies are crucial for achieving equality for oppressed groups and communities by giving people who would otherwise be excluded from politics, (such as the Athenians did and so did the Indians for centuries), the ability to vote for the policies and people that they believe in. Only democracy allows all groups, regardless of identities such as race, gender identity, class or sexual orientation, to participate in politics on an equal footing, and thereby constitutes the sum total of all, mentally, socially and politically.
A major way in which democracy reflects Yugdharma – the prevailing code of society, is by reflecting the subjective and age-based mooring of Dharma. The Yugdharma of the days of the Mahabharata or the Plantagenet dynasty is not the Yugharma of today. While LGBTQ+ rights and even women suffragette may have frowned upon even a century back, it is an accepted facet of human society today.
Since elected representatives have an incentive to remain in power, they appeal to public opinion to remain popular, and thereby mirror the beliefs of the people since it ensures that that the majority of citizens’ beliefs are reflected in national policies. Also, this functions as a crucial check on people in positions of power, since if they act in an unpopular or unethical way, they will likely be voted out of office in the next election.
When it comes to Dharmic models of democracy or Dharmocracy, if you will, I feel that a system that will go quite well with what I see as the most Dharmic form of government: collaborative e-governance and democracy—a system that mixes elements of representative and direct democracy. That allows the common man to propose, formulate and stand by ideas for the welfare of society. A system that involves the common man in the decision-making process, without compromising on the quality of the policies and decisions made. This is done through a tiered system that involves all the stakeholders: representatives, private sector, independent organisations and think-tanks, and the common man, coming together on a virtual platform. Under this system, proposals for policy or law can be put forth by individuals or groups, vetted by experts (who also inform the masses and the representatives of the nuances of a suggested policy), and then voted in.
In a direct democracy, each citizen would be required to vote on each policy issue each time. This could overburden most people and not allow for the pursuit of activities and interests as per their Swadharma, their innate interests, tendencies and abilities. Therefore, in a truly Dharmic system, the citizens should be able to delegate responsibility to trusted representatives, to vote on their behalf, on those issues where they lack time and/or interest and/or knowledge and understanding. Though these representatives vote on the individual’s behalf, the final voting power must remain with the voter at the ground level.
Just as politics based on democracy is most reflective of Dharma, economic democracy is similarly reflective of it too. In such a model, the decision-making power for the economic future of a community will be given to its constituents. In such an economic democracy, a key element is the decentralisation of power, giving the freedom to make economic decisions to its stakeholders, possibly by adopting a worker-owned cooperative system and by the use of local resources for the development of the region. This will be a decentralised economy, where self-sufficient economic zones are created and organised, as per a set of predetermined conditions in each of these socio-economic units, with associated councils.
Given the need for subsistence with dignity for any material and spiritual progress, it is crucial to safeguard basic universal amenities. A Dharmic system will guarantee basic education services (from the age of 6–18 years, with provisions for higher and adult literacy education with subsidies and prioritised investments at the discretion of Councils, based on local or national priorities for education and retraining), universal healthcare, (that provides health care and financial protection to all, with the level of public-private involvement decided by the Councils, with a nationally maintained maximum charge and income-expenditure ratio for the various facilities), social housing (provided by the councils with housing associations for those who apply to their respective council for housing, with the economically disadvantaged preferred for allocation), and a universal basic income, (in the form of community currency, with every member of the community given a minimum basic income each month, payable at certain local businesses or organisations, which are selected by the council democratically, with only those specific businesses and organisations able to convert this currency into actual money).
In a system that is reflective of democratic economics and economic democracy, I would like the cooperative model of business and enterprise to be preferred, so that the workers and stakeholder have greater say in the functioning and profit of the enterprises. I envision most businesses, particularly those producing essential requirements of subsistence, such as housing and agro-sectors, as operated as cooperatives.
Businesses that are too small for cooperative management and that produce non-essential goods can be run as private enterprises, while very large-scale industries and key/strategic industries can be run as public utilities, with a primarily no-profit, no-loss basis. Though the specific implementation can be varied, the principle of joint ownership by the people of businesses and enterprises is something a Dharmic model would definitely have, along with leaving space and freedom for individuals to express their liberty and freedom.
The taxation system must be based on promoting social justice and liberty. For starters, the imposition of Wealth Tax on the extremely rich is a must. Another measure that can promote income equality, economic growth and human resource parameter attainments is that of Progressive Taxation on income tax. Other taxes such as Corporate Tax and Inheritance Tax can be imposed as decided upon by the local councils.
Also, personal taxation on income tax for individuals below the poverty thresh-hold must be removed completely. When it comes to wages, the national government/authorities and local councils must decide on the wage-bracket (with a minimum and maximum wage) for each kind of occupation, with additional benchmarking levels being incentivised and awarded on completion by wage-perks on a minimum amount, (that is decided by the council economic boards based on the price of basic necessities and amenities besides those universally assured). Workers must be valued and recognised for their unique contributions, and society benefits from every worker’s productivity.
The last major thing I feel will be a part of any Dharmocracy, would be a system of social capital. Much like corporate bodies have the whole culture of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), one needs to actively bring this down to the individual level, with what I would like to call as Personal Social Responsibility (PSR). A system wherein social capital is the bedrock of society as much as financial capital is. This could be with a way in social capital, if there could be a formal and physical way of assessing that, is transferred between individuals and actively endorsed in the process.
I know that people will speak of the subjectivity involved, but here I am not highlighting the nitty-gritty as much as I am seeking a cultural change that makes it good, fashionable even, to be truly and honestly compassionate, caring and altruistic. We can even use technology to also facilitate this idea of an ‘economy of social capital’. Some may say that this may take away from the selflessness of altruism or care for society. I do not think so, till there are checks and balances to keep endorsements, (on a certain charitable act or initiative) measured and anonymous, and that the large picture and importance of the social capital is highlighted.
The final point in this essay is that of spiritual democracy, which I feel is so important. What do I mean by spiritual democracy? Being spiritual and someone who sees himself as a seeker of the Truth (Satya) -some would call it God– in the Universe, I feel that the spiritual emancipation of the individual is of utmost importance. While I call this Satya, others may call the One as Allah, (the Christian) God, Ahura Mazda or Ishwar.
It is in the belief that there are infinite paths to infinite realities, (that comes together in the Truth), as Sri Ramakrishna used to say, that forms the bedrock of my conception of spiritual democracy. Much like in a political democracy, each individual has the right to practice, experience, realise, share and believe in the path he/she/they want to. Even if they seek to be atheists or agnostics, and seek to look at the world in a naturalist manner, that is their path to their truth, which is perfectly valid as well. I personally feel that the laws of nature and the universe are manifestations of the greater truth that I speak of, and yet would actively like to facilitate the space for people to not make that connection if they want not to. Just like in an election, where one can opt for ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA), we must have a spiritual NOTA if an individual so feels it.
A point to note here is that the spiritual life of a man can never be the life of religious sects or of the intellectually philosophised or of spiritual movements alone. The true spiritual life begins within the individual when he perceives the importance of it and begins to realise what spiritual experiences and values are. I personally feel even the battles out there, the good and the bad, are in fact reflections of the battles within, as discussed here.
Only an individual self-revolution can bring that about, and there must be space for that. It is only through this self-revolution that the realisation of the oneness of humanity with the universe and all its forces can be had, as best characterises spiritual experiences. It is tragic that today even though many countries are proclaimed to be secular, the politics and religions in the land are inextricably intertwined. Majoritarianism is increasing and narrow divisions based on religion and sect are coming to the fore. I feel that this can never be the democratic way, without the spiritual freedom and democracy that has to be present.
Spiritual democracy requires that members of any particular religion or faith must examine, through the prism of their conscience and spirituality, the teachings of their religious leaders. Much like we scrutinise the nuances of policies and agenda of leaders and parties in a democracy, one must do something similar in the realm of spirituality. Spiritual democracy entails the examination of any specific precept to see if it is a central tenet to the faith concerned and to see how the faith can come from within and not imposed.
It is the ultimate decentralisation of religion, faith and spirituality, to the individual, so to say, that can truly embody spiritual democracy. Scepticism and honest questioning of dogmatic or ritualistic elements of the faith that go against one’s conscience or faith or internal moral and spiritual compass is very much a part of this spiritual democracy in the Dharmocratic model. Things like the Babri Masjid and Triple Talaq must not only make for just a political debate but should also be negotiable and deliberated upon in a spiritual debate. It is only through such a debate that the essential oneness of the Universe, in essence, in the Truth, in the One, can be realised, and from that place, from that understanding alone, can we all rise as one.
This is the final level of democracy that I feel is required in this age and something that spiritual pioneers in schools of thought such as Vedanta have expounded for ages. I would like this to be a cornerstone of the holistic development model that I would like to see coming out of my conception of Dharmocracy.
In this article, I have tried to highlight a comprehensive framework for democracy on multiple levels – political, economic and spiritual, and I feel the implementation of this can only lead to more harmony, progress and cooperation in humanity. It is only when the collective consciousness and concerted efforts of mankind come together on these levels that I feel mankind will truly have evolved into a new age, of sorts. A Dharmic age, if you may!