The Dharmic Ideal Of Governance–A Contemporary Perspective

In a holistic perspective, polity can not be studied in isolation but has to be viewed as an organic part and self-expression of the collective consciousness and culture of the people.  The deeper spirit of a political system can be understood fully only when it is viewed in the larger background of the society in which it grew up and the unique and central ideals and master-motives of its culture.  One of the central ideas which shaped the ancient Indian civilisation, and  the Indian concept and practice of governance, is the idea of Dharma, disseminated into the society through scriptures, mythology and texts, dharmasastras.  This article examines the socio-political principles derived from this ideal of Dharma in a contemporary perspective.

The Ancient and Modern Ideal of Dharma

In fact, every socio-political system evolved by man proceeds from a particular reading of Dharma which means Laws of Life or Nature or some aspect of it and to regulate life according to this perception.  Ancients perceived a moral Law and Order — which is primarily a subjective law of justice, beauty, reason, goodness and harmony— governing life in Man, Nature and the Universe.  Their idea of human development is to tune the inner and outer life of Man with the rhythms of this universal Law.  The path chosen to realise this ideal is  a  moral, cultural, religious or spiritual education and training  with  a predominant  stress on character-development and a social-order in which each individual  contributes  to  the common good of all according  to  his  inborn capacity and temperament and fixed function in society.

On the other hand the motives of the modern social order spring from a different reading of Dharma.  It is based on the scientific and rational perception of the laws of the physical and biological dimensions of Nature.  This conception of Nature by science is changing.  In the early days of modern science, Darwin’s law of struggle for existence, natural selection and the survival of the fittest, and its economic counterpart in the capitalistic philosophy of Adam Smith, was the dominant paradigm.  These two perceptions fixed the idea that promotion of individual and organisational self-interest in a “free-market” competitive economy as the best motive and condition for the progress and prosperity of the society.   The social consequence of capitalism is  a frantic scramble for wealth in which the  most  vitally  or economically  efficient survives, prospers and dominates and  the  inefficient and unproductive are either eliminated or to play the second field.  And since in our modern age it is Technology — engineering, and management technology–that holds the key to economic, material and vital efficiency,  productivity and  strength,  the  emergence of Technology as the  source  of  economic  and political power and the dominance of the technological elite.  In society,  it took the form of the emergence of the technical, executive, managerial and the specialist  professional  class  as  the ruling  elite;  In  the  economy  the dominance of the technologically advanced nations like Japan, West Germany and US  as the economic super-powers of the world; in polity, Nations advanced  in military technology like US, Russia and China emerging as the political super-powers of the world.

However with the advent of the new science of Ecology, there is a new reading of Nature different from that of Darwin.  According to this new vision of Nature, Darwin’s struggle for existence is not the entire law of Nature, but only a subordinate or secondary or sub-law of an overarching principles of cooperation and partnership.  For example, Fritjof Capra, after elaborating the ten principles of ecology, concludes that general shift from domination, quantity, competition and expansion to quality, cooperation and partnership is an essential part of the shift from the mechanistic to the ecological paradigm.

Similarly, after the collapse of communism and the subsequent disastrous financial muddle in capitalism, many thinkers in the west are seeking for a “third way” other than or beyond the troubled “isms.”  For example, a distinguished management thinker, Mintzberg, argues in a thoughtful article in Harvard Business Review that what we need toady is neither too much of governmental control as in communism nor too much of free enterprise as in capitalism but a balanced development of all the organs of the society like government, business, NGO’s, health and education.  Here comes the importance of the ancient Indian approach to governance which can provide some useful clues for evolving a human-centric and organic approach to governance.

The Human Face of Governance

In the Indian perspective, the external, secular life of the world and all its activities like economics or politics is only a means for the inner growth of human being towards their spiritual destiny.  Based on this central idea, architects of ancient India made a great attempt to create a society and a polity built on psychological and spiritual principles of human development.

The first principle is the ideal of Dharma.  This Indian concept of Dharma can be perceived or interpreted at different levels.  In a developmental or evolutionary perspective, Dharma is all ideas, aims, motives, ideals,  values and standards of conduct which are in harmony with the higher laws of life and therefore lead to the mental, moral and spiritual development of humanity.

The second principle is the classification of human being into four-types.  The first one is the Mentor-type who lives predominantly in his intellectual, ethical or aesthetic being seeking for knowledge, values, ideals, and the art of right living.  The second type is the Marshal who lives mainly in his will and vital force seeking for power, mastery, success, expansion and achievement.  The third type is the Merchant who lives in his emotional or relational and pragmatic mind which seeks for mutuality, harmony and an efficient, pragmatic dealing with life.  The fourth is the Worker who lives in his physical being with a natural instinct for hardwork and service.

The third principle is that each individual has to be provided with an occupation which is in harmony with his typal nature, called as swadharma.  According to Indian thought, when an individual performs his swadharma governed by corresponding values and with the right moral and spiritual attitudes, it leads to inner growth of the individual in the psychological and spiritual realms.   When this inner growth expresses itself in the outer life it leads to excellence in work.  When all the individuals in a community live and act in harmony with their swadharma it leads to a similar elevation in the collective life.  When these four types of humanity express themselves in the outer life it creates the four orders or organs of society, each with a specific mission or function which is in sync with its typal nature.

The mission of the Mentor is to shape the organ of Culture and work for the intellectual ethical and spiritual development of humanity.  The main function of the Mentor is to discover or rediscover, preserve, interpret and disseminate and establish Dharma in society through education, scholarship, learning, research, religious and spiritual ministry and creative thinking.  This work of dharmic elevation of society requires a higher intuition beyond the rational mind and can be done perfectly only by a Rishi, the seer or sage who lives in the spiritual consciousness.  So the Mentor should not remain satisfied with an intellectual understanding of Dharma.  He has to evolve or progress towards Rishihood through an inner moral and spiritual discipline.  He has to develop the suprarational intuition and awaken the spiritual self in him.  But this may take time and until he attains this spiritual consciousness, he must be humble enough to sit at the feet of a Rishi or Guru who has this higher consciousness and think, live, act and work under his constant guidance.

The mission of the Marshal is to lead Polity and enforce Dharma in society.  The main function of Marshal is to protect, organise and enforce Dharma in society though a firm, effective and beneficent exercise of political, administrative, legal and military power.  If the function of Mentor is to establish Dharma in the mental atmosphere of the community, that of the Marshal is to do the same in the economic, social and political life of the community.  The other aspect of the Marshal dharma is to ensure justice and order, patronize art and culture, protects the weak against the strong and defends the political sovereignty of the nation or community against foreign invasion.

The mission of the Merchant is to organise the Economy and create prosperity for the society through efficient and honest production and charitable distribution of wealth.  Trade, commerce, industry and philanthropy are the social function of the Merchant.  And finally the mission of the Worker is to serve other section of the society by providing the physical labour and energy needed for the material realisation of Dharma in society.  The Worker includes all that large mass of humanity which doesn’t have the power, wealth, knowledge, qualities or skill needed to raise to the higher levels of social hierarchy in other sections of the society.

The other important idea behind this Indian social order is that the outer social organization or hierarchy must reflect the inner psychological hierarchy within the human organism.  In Indian psychology the consciousness of the Spirit or the Self beyond Mind is the highest level of the inner hierarchy in man.  Next comes the rational, ethical and aesthetic faculties of the Mentor and the will and vital-force of the Marshal, more or less in the same level.  Then comes the faculties of the Merchant and in the lowest level, that of the Worker.  If the outer social organisation has to reflect this inner hierarchy then those who are united with the consciousness of the Spirit, the Seer and the Sage, have to provide the overarching vision, values and ideals to the society.  The Mentor and the Marshal types, representing the highest intelligence and will of the community, under the higher guidance of the seer and the sage, will provide the top leadership to society.  The Mentor with his mental and ethical power shapes the cultural life of the community.  The Marshal with his vital energy and will, sitting in positions of power in Polity, will enforce the Vision and Thoughts of the Sage and the Mentor in the outer life.  In the lower levels of the hierarchy, the Merchant will organize and manage the Economy, and the Worker will give the material form to whatever that is conceived or created by the Mentor, Marshal or the Merchant.(1)

The Aim of Government

Thus, in this Indian conception, Culture shaped by the Mentor, Polity led by the Marshal, Economy organised by the Merchant, and the Labour- force made of the Worker are the four major organs of the human society.  The aim of government is to ensure that each organ of the society functions according to its dharma in a mutually complementing harmony with other organs of the society and the society as a whole is functioning according to the universal Dharma of humanity.

The function of political leadership is to organize the four orders of the society into a harmonious whole centered around the values and ideals of Dharma.  In this conception of government, the king or the political sovereign has no right to interfere with the individual and communal liberties of people who live in harmony with the Dharma.  He can only interfere when there are deviations of dharma or resolve conflict or correct injustice.  The following interesting episode from a story in an  Indian text illustrates this point.  A queen tells her husband, the king, “You are the master of your land and the people.  You must take complete control of your people.”  And the king replies: “No, my dear queen, I am the master of only those criminals who deviate from Dharma.  Those who follow Dharma are their own masters and I have no right to interfere in their life.”(2)

Another important point to note here is that economic and social progress, which is the modern ideal of government or development, is not the main core of the Indian ideal of government or development.  The Indian ideal of development has two aspects: for the individual, it is inner progress towards the spiritual aim of life in the path of Dharma; for the collectivity, it is social harmony and material and moral wellbeing of the community and provide an outer framework for the inner progress of the individual.

Lessons for the Present

The main emphasis of most of the present paradigm of government is on economic and social development measured interms of Gross National Product or Percapita income or infrastructure development in health, education etc.  Even some of the new concepts in development like the Human Development Index or Gross National Happiness are predominantly external in its approach.  Human development or happiness is sought to be achieved mainly by creating a better infrastructure or more benign management of the external environment and not by an inner development of the human being.  The Indian approach to governance provides an alternative approach based primarily and truly on Human Development from Within Outwards.

This Indian approach or ideal may not be perfect.  In a more integral perspective, the Indian paradigm of government has flaws in conception as well as in execution, which we will discuss in greater detail in our subsequent article.  But it provides the basic principles and a framework for creating a new paradigm of government where the main emphasis will be not on economics or politics but on education and human development.  In other words, in this Indian paradigm a large part of the governmental and national resources and creative energy of people will be consciously directed towards evolving a dharmic system of education and human development.

The main pillar of this alternative paradigm will be a system of education with an emphasis on self-knowledge, character-building, values and spiritual growth.  One of the main aims of this education is to help the individual to know his unique and deeper nature, temperament, aptitude and capabilities, swadharma, and find an occupation which is in harmony with his swadharma.   This education should not be confined to the classroom but has to be diffused into the workplace, family and the community.  Here we use the word “education” in the broadest sense to include all kinds of learning which happens through thought and action, art and literature, mass-media, culture, life experiences, direct interaction between teacher and student and many others.  For example, in ancient India, mythology and the wandering religious teacher were forms of mass-media which imparted religious education to the masses.

There is one more lesson we have to learn from this Indian paradigm of government; it provides some useful clues for organising the psychological energies of people in such a way that it flows according to its natural instincts towards constructive activities.  When we carefully examine the problems facing the modern society, we can see the relevance of this Indian Insight.  One of the major reasons for the much wasteful chaos, friction and conflict in contemporary society is the lack of a clear perception of the social dharma by the different sections of the society.  The Merchant sections of the society are more interested in building powerful global corporate empires with political influence than on honest and clean creation and distribution of wealth. Most of the Marshal’s attention is focused on promoting economic development rather than on social justice and a balanced development of all the sections of the society.  Most of the creative  energy of  the Mentors are concentrated in realising the utilitarian values of  the industrial-commercial culture  of  the  Merchant  like  profit,   productivity, efficiency and technology and very little of it is going to the true Mentor function of cultural and spiritual elevation of the race through disinterested pursuit  and  dissemination of higher values.

The  Indian  ideal of social organisation is to  create  the  right condition  and  environment inwhich these four psychological forces  in  human bein—- individual and collective—- find their appropriate self-expression in work and in society leading to both inner and outer progress for the individual and the community.  And a major function of the Government must be to motivate the creative energies of the various sections of the society to flow in channels which are in harmony with their respective swadharmas. The advantage of this Indian approach is that it leads to a balanced development of the society with minimum wastage and maximum efficiency in the utilisation of the human creative energies.

M.S. Srinivasan



  1. Sri Aurobindo, Foundations of Indian Culture, p.111-112
  2. Panchatantra

Courtesy: Chartered Secretary

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