Articles and Commentaries |
July 1, 2024

Rājadharma: The Bhāratīya Notion of Welfare State

Written By: Vandana Sharma ‘Diya’

Since ancient times, civilisations have recognised the need to regulate individual behaviour and social conduct to prevent anarchy and chaos. In the Bhāratīya Paraṁparā, this regulation found expression in the concept of Rājadharmạ, or the duties of a ruler, which emphasised the integration of temporal power with spiritual wisdom for the collective welfare. Ancient Bhāratīya thinkers, guided by practical concerns rather than abstract theorisation, envisioned political governance to promote universal well-being. They emphasised the importance of a ruler adhering to the principles of dharma (duty) and śāsana (regulation) to ensure peace, progress, and prosperity for all beings. The ideal of Rājadharmạ, exemplified by figures like Śrī Rāma, emphasises the holistic welfare of the entire cosmos, transcending narrow notions of material prosperity. It stresses the symbiosis of political power with spiritual wisdom, wherein governance is not merely about enforcing laws but also about upholding moral values and accountability.

Through a synthesis of dharma and śāsana, a ruler is expected to serve and protect the people selflessly (niṣkāmabhāva), ensuring their happiness and well-being (sarvabhūtahita” and “lokasaṅgraha). In modern times, the concept of Rājadharmạ remains relevant as societies strive for inclusive development and universal welfare. By embracing its principles of duty, responsibility, and spiritual wisdom, nations can aspire towards a more just, equitable, and harmonious world order. This research article aims to explore the concept of Rājadharmạ, or the duties of a ruler, within the Bhāratīya tradition, highlighting its integration of temporal power with spiritual wisdom for collective welfare. Through an examination of ancient Bhāratīya thinkers, it elucidates their emphasis on practical governance rooted in principles of dharma (duty) and śāsana (regulation) to ensure peace, progress, and prosperity for all beings.

Since the dawn of civilisation, there has been a recognised need to regulate human social conduct alongside individual behaviour. Humanity, both cooperative and selfish by nature, has grappled with instincts of cooperation and conflict, necessitating the establishment of order to prevent anarchy (arājakāta) and a “rule of the jungle” (matsyanyāya). For the preservation and advancement (yoga-kṣema) of communal life, social and political governance becomes imperative to prescribe and enforce order. Ancient Indian seers and sages envisioned order at the core of reality, known as ‘ṛta’, finding its expression in temporal power as ‘an authority’ (law) and ‘in authority’ (those who wield power). This temporal power (kṣatra tejā) was seen as subordinate to and tempered by spiritual power (Brahma tejā), ensuring its purpose served the greater good. In general, power (Śakti) must be imbued with wisdom (Śiva) for benevolent outcomes. Political governance, prone to perversion and corruption due to its overpowering nature, requires spiritual discipline, hence termed ‘Rājadharma’ or ‘Dandanīti’. These terms reflect the spiritual orientation of political power, engineered for universal peace, prosperity, and well-being.

Lord Rama, exemplified the exercise of political power in a spiritual manner, projecting his rule as an ideal of a welfare state, termed Rāmarājya, a Sarvodaya state. The suffix ‘sarva’ extends beyond human society to encompass the welfare of the entire cosmos, including animals, forests, and rivers. The underlying principle is that the universe is a habitat for all existences, animate and inanimate, sharing the same divinity and living together with mutual care and sharing. In good governance, everyone is treated as having both intrinsic worth and instrumental value, viewed not solely as an end or means but as both simultaneously. In communal life, coexistence and interdependence prevail, fostering reciprocity and mutual support among all elements of the cosmos, encapsulating the ideal pursued in an ideal state, thereby realising a genuine welfare state.

The ancient Indian thinkers on political affairs were primarily driven by practical governance concerns, eschewing abstract theorisation in their reflections. Neither in ethics nor in politics did they indulge in pure speculation; instead, they meticulously discussed the minutest details of state administration for the well-being of all beings (prajā). Various treatises, apart from the well-known epics and scriptures like Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata, Purāṇas, and Dharmaśāstras, delve into polity and state administration, with references to now-extinct Arthaśāstra treatises. Unlike modern trends advocating rigid theories or ‘isms’, ancient Indian literature lacks such formulations. Instead, it offers subtle discussions on practical aspects of governance, aiming to guide rulers in day-to-day administration after providing them with education and training. These discussions are based on concrete experiences and pragmatic considerations, avoiding empty generalisations and pure abstractions.

Indian thinkers recognised the importance of bridging the gap between theory and practice, emphasising that the ideal must be achievable from actual experiences. This ideal, termed puruṣārtha, integrates the end (sādhya), means (sādhana), and modalities (itikartavyatās), ensuring that the end is beneficial, the means are conducive, and the modalities are accessible. In this approach, theory is not divorced from practice but interwoven with it in a dialectical relationship. Ancient Indian literature emphasised practical wisdom over abstract theory, employing empirical observation, analysis, and deduction methods and leading to the development of treatises on politics rather than political science.

While classical Bhāratīya political thought does not explicitly present a theory of the welfare state, it is rich in welfare ideals that serve as guiding principles for governance. The literature is abundant with profound concepts emphasising collective well-being, permeating political and cosmic organisation. These principles, integral to every ruler’s mandate, suggest a holistic approach to welfare that transcends mere governance, encompassing human existence and cosmic harmony. This comprehensive approach to welfare, deeply ingrained in ancient Indian political thought, is truly inspiring.

The entire Bhāratīya thought, across all its domains of reflection, is rooted in the fundamental belief that the cosmos is a divine manifestation with an inherent purpose and value. From ancient texts like the Puruṣa sūkta of the Ṛgveda to modern thinkers such as Vivekananda, Śrī Aurobindo, B.G. Tilak, and Mahatma Gandhi, this idea of a divine purpose permeates the philosophy. It is believed that the universe exists, sustains, and culminates in a state of supreme well-being and bliss, often referred to as Amṛtatva, Brahmatva, mokṣa, or nirvāṇa. All human endeavours, organisational structures, and the cosmic process itself are directed towards this end. Concepts like ‘svasti’ and ‘śivam’ signify the pursuit of universal well-being and bliss. Additionally, concepts like ‘śubha’, ‘sukha’, ‘śānti’, and ‘maṅgala’ express the ideals of goodness, happiness, peace, and auspiciousness inherent in Bhāratīya philosophy. The Vedic seers emphasised the well-being of the entire cosmos, as evidenced by the famous ‘Śāntipatha’ from the Yajurveda Saṃhitā (36.17, Vājasaneyi Madhyadina śukla), which underscores the holistic welfare of all beings:

“aum dyauḥ śāntir antarikṣa śāntiḥ pṛthivī śāntir āpaḥ śāntir auṣadhayaḥ śāntiḥ vanaspatayaḥ śāntiḥ viśvedevāḥ śāntiḥ brahma śāntiḥ sarva śāntiḥ śāntir eva śāntiḥ samā śāntiḥ reḍhi”[i]

(May there be peace and prosperity in the outer and inner space, on earth, in the waters, in the life-giving vegetable kingdom, in plants and trees, in the cosmos, in the entire reality, everywhere and at all times. May there be peace and prosperity. Peace and prosperity alone (never otherwise). May everyone attain and experience peace and prosperity.)

Every human activity- both individual and collective- has to be geared to realise this goal of peace, prosperity and perfection. The Ṛgveda (V.51.15) says, “ Svasti pantham anucarema sūryācandramasāviva.” All puruṣārthas (conscious and wilful human efforts) and all prayers and propitiations to supra-human agencies aim at this. There is a tacit realisation of inadequacy of human effort and the need for supra-human support or divine help. “Sanno kuru prajābhyah” (Let there be welfare of the entire creation), beseeches the Vedic seer. Even though the Sramana tradition opposed this mind-set, the Indian psyche remained unaffected. The point is that since the entire cosmos has inevitable and natural teleological orientation there is a deontological injunctive-ness in social, moral and political spheres to make a conscious attempt at pursuance of the good and the right, to follow the path of ‘Ṛta.’ The pursuit of this ideal was a collective endeavor, evident in countless prayers for unity and shared well-being found throughout Bhāratīya literature, particularly in the Vedas. The thinkers of this land prioritized the welfare of the entire cosmos, shaping human behavior, social structures, and state activities towards the common good and prosperity. The ideal of all thought and conduct was:     

sarvo vai tatra jīvati gaurasvaḥ puruṣaḥ paśuḥ|

yatredaṁ brahma kriyate paridhirjīvanāya kam||[ii]

(May humans, animals, birds and all other existences coexist in peace and there is room for every life.)

It is to be noted that the guiding principle of the statecraft and political organisation and administration has to be welfare of the people and well-being of the cosmos and there is no incompatibility between the two. This was the ideal of a state depicted in the Rāmāyaṇa and practiced by Rāma, the King of Ayodhya. Even the Śrīmadbhāgvatam states:

na aham kāṅkṣye rājyam na svargam apunarbhavam

kāṅkṣye duḥkha tr̥ptānām prāṇinām artanāśanam.

(I do not desire kingdom, nor heaven, nor even liberation from rebirth.

What I desire is the cessation of suffering for all living creatures.)

There can be no better ideal of welfare state than the one propounded here. The word ‘rājan’ in one of its etymological meanings stands for a ruler who pleases the people and makes them happy. Another word ‘nṛpa’, a synonym of it, conveys the idea of the ruler as a protector and sustainer of people. Kauṭilya extends this idea covering the entire world. He points out that a ruler has to be well versed in Arthaśāstra apart from other background studies and the objective of Arthaśāstra is to deal with protection and well-being of the entire universe. He writes, “Pr̥thivyā labharthe palane ca yavanty arthaśāstrāṇi purvācāryaiḥ prasthāpitāni prayatnena samhṛtya ekaṁ idam arthaśāstram kṛtam.” He explicitly maintains that in the happiness of people lies the happiness of the ruler and in what is beneficial to the people lays his own benefit. To quote:

praja sukhe sukham rājñaḥ, prajānām ca hite hitam|

nātma priye hitam rājñaḥ, prajānām tu priyam hitam||[iii]

(In the happiness of the people consists the happiness of the ruler, and in what is beneficial to the people, his own benefit. What is dear to him as an individual is not really beneficial to him as a ruler. What is dear to the people is really beneficial to him)

A ruler has to be the preserver of order both temporal and spiritual. He is therefore referred to as ‘Dharmagopta’. He is not the creator of the order but only propagator (dharma pravartaka). He has to uphold the law and order and therefore he is called ‘dandadhārta’. This he has to do for peace, progress and prosperity of the people in just and fair manner. He has political power that acquires legitimacy only in so far as it promotes human happiness and enriches life. Manusmṛti (VIII.14) states:

dandah śāstī prajāḥ sarvāḥ, danda eva abhi rakṣati,|

dandah suptesu jagarti, dandah dharma vidur budhāḥ||[iv]

(It is public order that regulates people. It protects and secures them. It keeps awake in the midst of slumbering. The wise regard it and dharma as one and the same)

Kautilya also maintains that daṅda is needed to promote proper and equitable distribution of social gains, and for material prosperity and spiritual enhancement. He writes, “Ānvīkṣikī trayī vartanam yoga-kṣema sādhano dandah. Tasya nitir dandanitiḥ. Alabdha-labhārtha labdha-parirakṣinī rakṣitāvivardhinī vr̥ddhasya tīrthāsu pratipadini.[v]

The concepts of yoga-kṣema are of particular significance in this context. They stand for preservation and furtherance of natural resources and also their just and equitable distribution. It is the duty of a state to ensure this. It is noteworthy that this is a forerunner of the idea of ‘Sarvodaya.’

The Indian treatises on polity are full of need for danda and also for the regulations for the dandadhṛta. For smooth, efficient and planned functioning of any organisation there is a need for norm-prescription, norm-adherence, norm-enforcement and punitive measures for norm-violation. So, to ensure norm-conformity there is a need for an authority of law and a person who is in authority.  An authority is impersonal law but the person in authority is the ruler, a person or a body of persons, who execute and ensure law-abidance. ‘An authority’ is autonomous but a person ‘in authority’ is subject to rules and regulations. ‘An authority’ has intrinsic worth but ‘a person in authority’ has instrumental value to rule out anarchy and to ensure peace and justice. He is appointed for the sake of maintenance of law and order. For this he may build up institutions and introduce systems. But in all this he is duty-bound and therefore he has to abide by some rules and regulations. The ‘rāja’ also has a dharma, a law-abiding status. He must know his dharma and must have a will and ability to abide by it. In the Mahābhārata we have a very apt, telling and succinct account of this idea in the oath to be administered to a ruler at the time of his appointment when he is advised to protect the people lawfully and never to act in an arbitrary manner. He is required to take a solemn vow to observe dharma and to make people observe dharma in a free and fearless manner. The wording of the oath is as under:

pratijñāṁ ca varohasva manasā karmāṇā girā|

palayiṣyāmy ahaṁ bhāumam brahmaiti eva ca sakṛta||

yaś ca tatra dharma ityukto dandanīti vyapāśrayaḥ|

tamasaṅkam kariṣyāmi svavāso na kadācana||[vi]

(Make a promise, and with your mind, deeds, and words, I shall protect the earth as per my oath. Wherever the duty of righteousness and the policy of punishment are in place, I shall root out darkness. I shall never reside in a place where there is disgrace.)

Dharma has cosmic sphere of operation. It sustains the entire cosmos and all beings. It has both constitutive and regulative roles. It constitutes the life-force and sustaining power. The entire cosmos is dharma-bound and therefore the ruler also is dharma-bound. Rājadharma is double-edged. It puts desirable restraints on the public so as to enable them to realise their puruṣārthas but at the same time it makes the person in authority subject to restraints. The person in authority is not to enjoy power and privileges but to discharge duties and responsibilities. He cannot be immune to accountability and oblivious of his obligations.

Śukrācarya, a great political thinker of yore, maintains that the ruler is both a servant and a master of the people. Therefore, he has to protect the people as master by virtue of law and serve them by virtue of his wages. He writes:

svabhāga-bhṛtya dāsyatvam prajānām ca nṛpakṛtaḥ|

brahmānā svamirūpastu palanārtham hi sarvadā||[vii]

(The ruler serves and protects all living creatures in his country. However, he should always act as a Brahmin)

There is not only an insistence on proper education and training of the ruler, but it was also made mandatory that the state power (kṣatra teja) should be seasoned and tempered by spiritual power (Brahma Teja). To ensure that the state acts for the welfare of the people and to eliminate the despotic behaviour of a ruler, In Indian thought, politics was never devoid of dharma and was treated as a means to general well-being. As stated earlier, Rajadharma is double-edged. It puts desirable restraints on people’s behaviour, but at the same time, it makes the rulers responsible and accountable by restraining them. A symbiosis of dharma and śāsana is the cornerstone of a welfare state. No one can be a good ruler without being well-trained in dharma and śāsana. There cannot be a separation of politics and spirituality. Political power acquires moral legitimacy only when it is seasoned with spirituality. Only then can it serve its avowed goal of cosmic well-being. Genuine welfare is not the material well-being of a particular section of human society but the holistic welfare of the entire cosmos. It is spiritual welfarism that includes and also transcends material welfarism. This is the true meaning of raja dharma, which may be taken as a concept, theory, viewpoint, or course of action, but in whatever form it is understood, it has great potential for universal good.

 

Conclusion

It can be concluded that from the dawn of civilisation, a need arose to regulate human social conduct alongside individual behaviour. The human inclination toward cooperation and conflict necessitated the establishment of order to prevent anarchy and chaos. Social and political governance became imperative to prescribe and enforce order for the preservation and advancement (yoga-kṣema) of collective life.

The concept of Rajadharma, or the duty of a ruler, has its roots in the ancient Bhāratīya civilisation. The seers of that time envisioned a system where temporal power (kṣatra tejā) was subservient to and tempered by spiritual power (Brahma tejā) to serve the desired purpose. This was a response to the overwhelming nature of political governance and its susceptibility to corruption, thus leading to the development of the concept of Rajadharma or Dandanīti.

The legendary Bhāratīya ruler Śrī Rama exemplified political power exercised with spiritual wisdom, portrayed as an ideal of a welfare state in the epic Rāmāyaṇa. Following Mahatma Gandhi, this concept is referred to as Rāmarājya, a Sarvodaya State aimed at the welfare of the entire cosmos. This welfare extends not only to specific sections of human society but encompasses the entirety of existence.

The Bhāratīya treatises on polity emphasise the role of the ruler in upholding Rajadharma. They stress the need for daṅda (punishment) and regulations for its implementation. Smooth governance requires norm prescription, adherence, enforcement, and punitive measures for violations. An authority of law is essential, but the person in authority, typically the ruler, must adhere to rules and regulations. The ruler’s duty, encapsulated in Rajadharma, entails serving as a preserver of order, subject to accountability and obligations.

Rājadharma operates within a cosmic sphere, sustaining the entire cosmos and its beings. It imposes desirable restraints on the public and rulers, emphasising duties and responsibilities over power and privileges. The ruler is viewed as both a servant and a master of the people, entrusted with protecting and serving them.

Furthermore, integrating political power (kṣatratejā) with spiritual wisdom (brahmatejā) ensures genuine welfarism, encompassing the material and spiritual well-being of the cosmos. This holistic approach transcends material welfare to embody spiritual fulfilment and universal harmony. Therefore, the ancient Bhāratīya notion of Rājadharmạ encapsulates the ideals of a welfare state, where principles of duty, responsibility, and spiritual wisdom guide governance. This concept, rooted in pursuing universal good, remains relevant and holds great potential for fostering harmony and prosperity in modern societies.

 

Author Bio: Dr. Vandana Sharma ‘Diya’ is an Assistant Professor, Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. She is also a Member of the Central Board of Film Certification, Govt. of India and Fellow with Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla and a Researcher with Kedarnath Dhama, Ministry of Culture. She is a Former Fellow of ICPR, ICSSR, Ministry of Education.

 

References:

[i] Yajurveda, 36.9

[ii] Atharvaveda 8.2.25

[iii] Arthashastra., 1.19

[iv] Manusmriti.,7.18

[v] Ibid, 1.4

[vi] Mahabharat., 7.58.115-6

[vii] Shukracharyaniti (Here the word Brahmin means the one who is established in Sattvic acts, thoughts, speech and ways of leading his life.)

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