Democracy through Vedic lens

We are not supposed to be affected by politics but that’s not the reality of our situation. Even our Communications Ministry issued a statement after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol a week ago. Rather than avoiding the issue or plunging into virtual battles head first, which is even worse, let’s try to make sense of what’s going on from a Vedic perspective.

First thing we will notice is that “democracy” is not part of our vocabulary. It’s not found in Srimad Bhagavatam, which is our go-to text on how a society should be organized. Why? There are descriptions of Kali yuga there but democracy did not deserve a mention. My answer is that democracy is not a thing. It’s something we imagine as important but to the outsider, like to a Vedic historian looking at developments of society through the ages, it’s practically invisible.

We know how Bhagavatam talks about leaders who would rob their followers blind, how leaders would feed on the population. Well, modern democracy does that already, but so do dictatorships. Does it make a difference? Here is a radical idea – the only thing that exists is people who have power to control others. When they exercise this power responsibly *we* feel it as democracy, and when they do it irresponsibly *we* feel it as dictatorship and tyranny. The only difference is in *our* perception. And then we pass our feelings and perceptions as reality.

One might object that democracies have elections, but so do countries *we* call dictatorships. As I’m typing this, there are still protests going on against “Europe’s last dictator”, the man who won the elections with support of 80% of the population. Or we can put out an argument that Singapore is a one party dictatorship while Singaporeans definitely do not feel like they live in one, and that their governing party is made of fine, sane, and outstanding individuals. This brings me back to my first point – the only thing that matters is how the power is wielded, not how it is obtained.

I can cite the case of King Vena in support – it didn’t matter how he came to power, it only mattered how he ruled. It didn’t matter how he was removed, it only mattered that he was. It didn’t matter how his successor was installed, it only mattered that finally there was a king to control the rogue elements in the society.

In modern society, we are preoccupied with how transitions are accomplished, not with the accomplishments of the rulers. We believe that there is a perfect connection between how the rulers are selected and how they behave afterwards. It makes sense, in general, but it’s not an absolute rule and it’s definitely open to abuse by professional electioneers. In the big picture, focusing on the process of selecting the ruler rather than on the ruling itself looks strange, especially if there is a stipulated requirement that a ruler can’t stand for re-election after a certain period of time.

Srila Prabhupada’s position was that perfect kings would rule so nicely that no one would want to change them. We can latch onto the word “kings” here but that would be missing the point of having a perfect ruler, which is the key. Why should it matter how the perfect rule was achieved? King or no king, president or prime minister – what matters is what they do when in office.

Kaunteya Prabhu, I never thought I would agree with him on anything, recently collected Srila Prabhupada’s quotes in praise of democracy (ISCKONnews). In that collection Srila Prabhupada also spoke about monarchies being outdated. This is certainly unusual, but it makes perfect sense if we focus on what is important, on how the rulers rule, not on how they come to power. Today’s monarchies do not produce qualified individuals but democracy does, or rather might produce qualified rulers – there are plenty of misfires in democratic elections, too. It’s not so important how and where, it’s important that rulers are qualified, which is certainly in agreement with Srila Prabhupada’s general line on this.

Okay, with this point out of the way, let’s move on qualities of the leaders. There are many of those and our heads might start to spin, I don’t even want to start listing them but go straight to what matters most – honesty. Why? Because it’s the last pillar of religion in Kali yuga. When I was growing up it was an unquestionable requirement, today it’s optional and everybody has settled on politicians being liars so in a lot of situations honesty is not even expected. Ten-twenty years from now people might even stop asking for that because it will become in short supply not only among our leaders but among general population, too. I’m not talking about people lying to each other, I’m talking about something far more fundamental – people lying to themselves.

Even today people already admit that everyone wears a mask, and not of the medical kind, but an image of themselves they try to project outside. They cannot be just themselves, they need to project a different image, and that’s lying. Moreover, they start to believe in this new identity of theirs and so they don’t know what’s true and what’s false about them anymore. Externally, it manifests as hypocrisy, which means observers can spot radical changes in one’s behavior and attitudes and so lose trust in that person’s words or promises. This tears at the very fabric of society, even at the family level, where some hypocrisy is already expected at big family gatherings where people would rather pretend for a few days than show their real faces.

Back to democracy – without honesty, without that last pillar of support, it cannot possibly bring any positive results. Artha and kama cannot come without dharma, after all. It’s impossible. Dharma is that which sustains and there will be no sustenance without dharma. This is where we should focus our attention as devotees when analyzing government related events.

The immediate problem is that both sides in the US presidential election, which still occupies the news right now, accuse each other of lying. This brings me back to the point of feelings I mentioned earlier – we believe that what we perceive is the reality and we believe in infallibility of our perception. We, even as devotees, often state with absolute certainty that “this person is a liar” or that “these people are fascists”. Somehow it doesn’t strike us as odd that absolutely everyone says exactly the same thing about their opposition. What’s worse, people do not see how they change their opinions and approve today what they denounced yesterday, or denounce that which they approved before.

When we read the news we are naturally expected to take sides and declare one party righteous and the other demoniac, but that shouldn’t be our position. We should rather take the Vedic view and judge people and parties according to their adherence to dharma. We will soon discover that hypocrisy is all pervasive and taking sides in the absolute sense would be a wrong thing to do. In some ways each party is being honest, too, but the moment they sense your support they’d ask you to support all kinds of nonsense as well.

How can we navigate this? First of all, by being honest ourselves. We should not let our minds carry us away in support of or in opposition to either of the sides. We should not identify ourselves with their lies about themselves. They’ll claim a lot of things, but we should become “guru” – heavy and unmoved by these lightweight considerations. Why do I call them lightweight? Because they are in the mind and mind is a notoriously flickery substance. Mind is feather-like in presence of even the slightest wind of emotions. It easily invents new images of ourselves and perpetuate our hypocrisy. If we identify with the mind then we won’t notice that today it’s in one place and tomorrow in another – because the mind uses only itself as the point of reference. If something feels good it’s right and it doesn’t matter where this “right” is located – it’s always put front and center.

It’s only when we step away from this mental platform that we start to notice how hypocritical it looks to someone who doesn’t fly around with out mind but stays grounded in one place. This “someone” should be our intelligence, our ability to discriminate between what is right and what is wrong, what is important and what is not – regardless of how our mind feels about it.

The intelligence isn’t super steady either as our understanding and categorization of the world changes, too. Beyond the intelligence are our moral values and it’s better if we become grounded in those. With time we will discover that moral values are evolving, too. Practical example – attitudes towards homosexuality. I think people of my age can remember times when we considered it despicable. Today its existence doesn’t bother us anymore. So now we have to look beyond morality, too. In Vedic terms morality is expressed as our false ego – one step above intelligence. When speaking about it this way it becomes clear that one day we should discard it, too, but, as far as our reaction to politics is concerned, keeping our intelligence steady and our moral compass right should help us navigate that treacherous sea already.

I could compare it to oceanic liners or to aircraft carriers – no matter how strong the waves are, these things are just too big to be seriously affected. They know where they are, they know the maps, and they know their course. Similarly, by stepping away from the mental platform we should find enough gravity to pass through or, if necessary, to go around political turmoil, and, when asked about it, judge it from the perspective of dharma rather than constantly shifting perspectives of mundane wranglers who would easily overlook their real benefits in favor of whatever occupies their minds right now, like elections or retribution for past wrongs or perceived necessity to save the future from their political opponents.

If we are asked for our opinion on what the world should be saved from – at the moment people should be saved from their own minds, nothing else, and everybody is eligible, not just people from the other side in politics.

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