It’s been seventy years since the commencement of our constitution on 26 November 1949. From that day, India became Sovereign, Democratic, and Republic. Since the very word ‘democratic’ enshrined in the preamble of supreme law of the land that is the Constitution of India. What does Democratic stands for, does this mean mere conducting of election every five years in which we all responsible adult citizens of India vote for a candidate and we form, in Lincoln’s words, ”government of the people, by the people, and for the people”?
But that is what J. J. Rousseau calls it in the context of England. He says, “The people regard itself as free, but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing”. Rousseau may not be completely true but Rousseau unveiled one important thing that is mere participation in election can’t be what we can call a democratic way of life.
How can we understand democracy then? A way of doing this is to look at ‘the culture’- the culture of India. The culture I am gesturing toward is the culture of arguments, heterodoxy, deliberation scepticism so on, and so forth. If we want to understand the roots of democracy in India, we need to be familiar with this culture and tradition of India. To understand this, one can look at the ancient Indian epic Ramayan written by Valmiki.
There was a character named Jabali. He was a learned Brahmin priest and an advisor of Dasharatha, he unsuccessfully tried to persuade Rama to give up his exile, using rational arguments based on nihilism. He stated that those who give up artha (material pleasures) for the sake of dharma suffer in this life and meet extinction after their death.
Similarly, if one looks at another Epic Mahabharat, in Bhagvat Gita(part of Mahabharat) one side, there were doubts in the mind of Arjun, when he was standing in the battleground of Kurukshetra, he was concerned about the bad consequences of the war and he was stuck in a moral dilemma of killing his cousin brothers and teachers, who were there as his adversaries. On the other side, Krishna emphasized on doing one’s duty.
Although this tradition is dominated by men, women are not absent completely. For example, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we are told about the famous ‘arguing combat’ in which Yajgyavalkya, the outstanding scholar and teacher, has to face questions from the assembled gathering of pundits, and here it is a woman scholar, Gargi, who provides the sharpest edge to the intellectual interrogation.
Interestingly, Yajgyavalkya’s wife Maitreyi raises a profoundly important motivational question when the two discuss the reach of wealth in the context of the problems and predicaments of human life, in particular, what wealth can or cannot do for us. She importantly remarks, “What should I do with that wealth by which I do not become immortal?”
Another instance of arguments and dialogue can be traced in the reign of Akbar, the great. He tried to create a new religion- Din-i-illahi in 1582. He intended to merge some of the elements of the religions of his empire, and thereby reconcile the differences that divided his subjects. Similarly the great Ashoka, after being victorious in the war of Kalinga, realized the misery of war and it’s bad repercussions, thereafter he became Buddhist and propagated Buddhism. He ruled his empire through peace and tolerance and focused on public works and building up the empire rather than expanding it.
If one looks at the origin of Buddhism as religion, it originated in opposition to the caste hierarchy present in the Hindu religion in which people are unequal by birth because of the caste they are born in. Buddhism challenged this compartmentalization of the human race. At the time of Ashoka, there was a Buddhist council, in which people from different religions participate to resolve issues through deliberation.
What is the point of explaining all these moments of history and mythology? The purpose is to unravel the roots of democracy in India’s culture. We have officially become democratic after the adoption of the Indian constitution, but democracy is not new to India. There has always been a tradition of dissent, counterarguments, dialogue, deliberation. The voice of Jabali might not be dominant, Arjun was persuaded by Krishna to follow his Dharma. But these voices refuse to be obliterated and can always be seen in one form or another and that is what makes the Indian culture a culture of democracy.