Published on 6th March, 2020, in The Economic Times
Across religious scriptures, we come across the concept of balance of power in the unlikeliest of spaces. We hear of charismatic kings who control people (at least warriors) that enable them to wrestle power and make themselves overlords of a kingdom. But how does one maintain balance with these kings? How do you prevent them from becoming dictators?
The balancing force always came through spiritual authorities. It was the job of a prophet or a priest, who had direct access to God. The conversation between the spiritual and the temporal has been the basis of balance of power. This must be kept in mind especially now, when we see the legislative power of the country dominated by a single political party. And simultaneously the balance of power that was supposed to be maintained by the judiciary and by the media is crumbling and a single force is becoming authoritative, making it dangerous. Let’s see how a similar situation is explained in the Puranas.
In the Bhagavata Purana, there is the story of king Vena who plunders the earth causing great distress to the earth goddess. So, the rishis come together and, using a magical formula, transform blades of grass into missiles to kill him. This is clearly a story of an assassination. We are told that the body of the king is then churned by the rishis. The negative element is sent to the forest where it can live on as awild animal or as a wild person. The positive element of civilization is churned into a new king called Prithu.
Prithu then is given a bow of kingship: an indicator of balance, by the gods themselves. Thus, the rishis intervene in the misbehaviour of the kings.
The relationship of ‘raja’ or Vedic king and ‘rishi’ or Vedic sage is a recurring theme in mythology. In the Rig Veda, kings like Divodasa and Sudas rely on sages and their chanting to bring divine power into their lives. A king did not believe his power came from himself but that it came through the gods. We find Vishwamitra, Vashishtha talking constantly to kings like Dasharatha. In the Mahabharata, rishis like Sanat Sujata go to Dhritarashtra to stop the war; they are unfortunately unsuccessful. Such engagements maintained a balance of power. It restrained kings from crossing the line.
We find the same idea in the Bible. In the Bible, the prophets were connected with God and spoke to man. Through the prophets, kings were advised how to function. The prophets propped up kings, prophets pulled them down. King Saul is made king by Samuel, but when he disobeys the word of God, he is rejected and replaced by David. David falls in love with another man’s wife called Bathsheba. Then another prophet Nathan calls him out for his misdemeanour. David was punished for adultery and not allowed to build the temple of God, which he so aspired to do. Instead his son Solomon built the temple.
The same idea is found in the Islamic world. In India, when the Delhi Sultanate came into being, the Delhi Sultans often sought the help of Sufi saints for power. For example, when the Mongols besieged Multan, the local Sufi Sheikh, Bakhtiar, gave an arrow to the ruler Kubacha with instructions to let it loose into the darkness against the army of unbelievers. In the morning, the Mongols were defeated. Thus, the king’s success was seen as coming from spiritual guidance.
This idea, in its earliest form, is seen in the Zoroastrian tradition where the king is related to the divine realm through the tree of immortality. In early days, the king and priest were one and the same, but the separation came about to ensure balance of power.
Nowadays, politicians are often connected with gurus, but here the guru functions as the vote bank, providing a vast source of power to the king. He is not functioning as the balance of power calling truth to power. He is instead subservient to the king. There is a pretence of a relationship between the spiritual and the temporal. Just as secular institutions failed at maintaining balance of power, so have these self-proclaimed spiritual institutions.