Vedic utopia

Print edition : November 11, 2016

THE crux of the book under review can be summed up as follows. “Democratic government is, in fact, of the people; it is however, not run by the people, nor does it usually work for the people. And since people’s hopes and aspirations remain unfulfilled and extreme inequality prevails in the distribution of societal resources, justice suffers.” In other words, representative democracy has only brought about suffering, inequality, alienation, oppression, discrimination, deprivation and injustice in the world.

The authors, Ramashray Roy and Ravi Ranjan, both political scientists, have drawn from the ideas and thoughts of E. Voegelin, Peter T. Manicas, Alasdaire MacIntyre, Filippo Burzio, Max Weber, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben, and also from Gandhi’s critique of Western democracy. The authors, however, ultimately find a panacea for all problems of modernity and democracy in the Vedas, particularly the Rig Veda. The title of the book might well have been “Modernism, Democracy and Well-being: A Rigvedic Perspective”.

The authors contend that democracy has failed to promote human well-being. According to them, there are two kinds of well-being. One is the well-being of the psyche, involving good care of the soul. The other is material advancement, or what Gandhi calls “bodily comfort”. In other words, the sole fulfilment of “bare life” dominates in democracy along with an almost total eclipse of all ideas of good life. The mere quest for wealth, power and prestige constitutes the bare life of men. This started happening when democracy emerged in the late 18th century as human beings became self-defining subjects, that is, the autonomous self emerged. Good life focusses on the good care of the soul, and it is only possible when men are devoted to the service of God. Good life is only possible through the restoration of individuals’ wholeness ( sarvata) by attuning the soul to the divine. A severing of the connection with the divine occurred with the passage of Christianity and with the emergence of enlightenment rationality. The authors contend that an exclusive concern for material well-being, which is the outcome of modern democracy, is at the root of the dilemma that mankind faces today.

In a democracy, intense competition for access to and control of scarce societal resources leads to what Hobbes calls “war of each against all” or what Alasdaire MacIntyre describes as “civil war carried on by other means”. This situation makes each individual the enemy of the other.

The authors point out that the Lincolnian understanding of democracy as a political institutional arrangement has remained a tantalising ideal without substance. They quote Filippo Burzio to underscore this point. As Burzio points out: “In a democratic whole we must make a distinction between three diverse elements: (a) a reality, that is, rapid circulation of elites, (b) a desire, that is, equality, and (c) an illusion, that is, direct government by the masses.” So Lincoln’s characterisation of democracy conceals the wide gap between ideal of democracy and its practical manifestations.

In contemporary democratic systems, political power has, in reality, shifted to the representatives of the people. The elected representatives make collective decisions. Hence, the authors argue that democracy has been robbed of its noble purpose of making it possible for the people to rule. This leads to alienation.

What happened to democracy since its appearance is what Peter T. Manicas refers to as “the victory of democratic ideology over democracy”. It is democratic ideology, not democracy, that rules over the destiny of the people in the world today. The authors argue that the emergence of modern self-defining subjectivity released the individual from all traditional constraints placed upon her/him and made her/him the centre of experience as well as the agent of the regeneration of institutions. This was the inevitable consequence of the snapping of human beings’ connection with the divine ground of being, or the de-divinisation of the world. This squeezed out the spirit from social lives and social relations. The result was a jettisoning of the idea of Homo religious and replacing it with the idea of Homo laborans, the autonomous, secular individual. Having lost spiritual moorings, individuals emerged as homo economicus and their material needs received primacy. Iris Murdoch characterises this situation as “broken totality” when the divine connection is severed and individuals emerge simply as narrow beings, acquisitive and possessive.

The authors then emphatically state that “democracy as a form of government that should aim at freeing men from political and social enslavement and from economic exploitation paves the way for gilding their slavery”.

Most of these criticisms against modernity had been brilliantly and beautifully summarised by Karl Marx one and a half centuries ago: “On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces which no epoch of human history had ever suspected.

“On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors of the latter times of the Roman Empire. In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and over working it. The new-fangled sources of wealth… are turned into sources of want…. At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seems to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, stultifying human life into a material force” (Marx’s speech at the anniversary of The People’s Paper).

Gandhi & democracy

The chapter titled “Gandhi’s Critique of Democracy” delineates Gandhi’s opposition to modern democracy. Gandhi did not reject democracy; he rejected democracy afflicted by the adverse consequences flowing from the conjunction between modern ideas and industrial civilisation. For Gandhi, the abandonment of the idea of the spiritually attuned and awakened individual was the root cause of the rise of what he called satanic civilisation.

The authors quote Gandhi: “The electoral process too proves to be not an effective instrument of expressing real public opinion. In a society where large-scale illiteracy prevails, the voters cannot be expected to express informed rational choice about issues and candidates.”

What, then, explains the defeat of the Congress in the post-Emergency election in almost the entire north of the country with its large-scale illiteracy, or its victory in Kerala where even at that time literacy levels were enviably high? If illiteracy really undermines the objectives of democracy, the solution is not to put democracy on the back burner but to make people literate.

The authors seem to believe in a one-to-one relationship between industrial civilisation (read capitalism, for this more apt term is rarely used in the book) and democracy. It should be pointed out that though democracy has become established in the capitalist era, it was not brought about by the design of the capitalists. Goran Therborn forcefully argued in the late 1970s that it was the organised working class, not capitalists, that had played a crucial role in European democratisation. Capitalists were initially opponents of democratisation and fought against the democratic rights of the common people. Popular pressure played a pivotal role in the rise of democratic institutions (See Vivek Chibber’s book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, pages 147-148).

Capitalism, in fact, does not need democracy to function. It is equally at ease with monarchies, with totalitarian regimes and with all hues of autocracies as long as profit maximisation is not hampered. Human suffering, inequality, alienation, exploitation, oppression, injustice, deprivation and so on have been the consequences of capitalism. Village republics

However, that is not what the book suggests. It suggests Gandhian village republics.

The idea of village democracy is described quoting Gandhi’s own words: “Village swaraj is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its vital wants and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is necessary …. Each village’s first concern will be to grow its food crops and cotton for its cloths…”

Or, as Gandhi told Louis Fisher in 1942: “There are seven hundred thousand villages in India. Each would be organised according to the will of its citizens, all of them voting. Then there would be seven hundred thousand votes and not four hundred million. Each village, in other words, would have one vote. The villages would elect their district representatives and the district administrations would elect the provincial administration and these, in turn, would elect a president who would be national chief executive.”

But the democracy based on Gandhi’s idea can be realised only by individuals who have undergone a transformation of the heart. Which agency is going to bring about this self-transformation? Is it possible to establish an island of village republics in today’s capitalist ocean where global dependence on labour and market is a reality?

Besides, urbanisation has been a worldwide phenomenon and a large part of the population lives in cities nowadays. Reality, diverse and polyphonic, cannot be replaced with abstractions.

A.M. Shinas is an Assistant Professor of History at the K.K.T.M. Government College, Kodungallur, Kerala.