Mudraraksha is a secular Sanskrit play, about the Nanda minister Amartya, who refuses to join the Mauryan Empire.
The ‘Aam Aadmi’s’ (common man) and liberal Indian’s recent travails against Das Elite and Fatwa-mentalists, have widely been highlighted. The sight of political parties, formerly encased in La Parliament, outdoing each other at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar or protesting against the ‘fatwa-mentality’, appears a novel phenomenon. But this tradition of secular democracy and public discourse is ingrained into the fiber of the Indian Republic. We are nation of ‘Argumentative Indians’, going back to the pre-Mauryan times. We were born in the republics of Magadha, Vaishali and Kapilavastu. Where the Buddha walked and Amrapali, the intellectual courtesan took on the Mauryan emperor Ajatshatru, who wanted to conquer her Vrijji republic.
The conflicting weltanschauungs (worldviews) in the Indian subcontinent, were not as much between conflicting religions or creeds, but between the republics (Jana–padas) and the monarchies (Rajyas). These republics teemed with diverse sects and schools of thought, which competed against the ‘dharma-sastra’ strictures of the Rajyas. There were the Shramana wandering ascetics and the Vedics; the Ajivika fatalists; the Charavaka atheists; the Samkhya rationalists; the Nyaya logicians; the Yogi self-discipliners; the Vashaisheka atomists, and so forth. All these – and the Jains and Buddhists too. Dialectic discourse and public debate were an integral part of these republics. They continue to manifest, albeit dramatically – in Delhi, the Pataliputra of the present.
On the other hand, the Rajya worldview ordained the ‘Divine rights of Kings’ and the hegemony of purohit-mantri (priest-courtier) class, to ‘maintain order and prevent anarchy’ (as elucidated in Chanakya’s Arthashastra). The current scenario in the Indian republic, echoes this centuries-old tussle.
As Romila Thapar states in her classic book ‘Early India‘: ‘It was from the jana-padas, that the founders of the two most heterodox sects of India were born. Mahavira of Jainism from the Vrijji republic and Siddhartha (later known as the Buddha) from the Sakya republic’. According to Thapar, the republics ’were less opposed to individualistic and independent opinion, than the rajyas and ready to tolerate unorthodox views’.
The great Greek scholar-diplomat Megasthenes, who eventually settled in Pataliputra, writes of the widely prevalent republics surrounding ‘the greatest city in the world’. What is now modern Bihar and Odisha, was surrounded by a confederacy of secular republics – each with its own elected government, beliefs and political system. This culture was well captured in the classic secular literature of the time, as the poignant Nanda minister, Amartya in ‘Mudra-rakhsasa’. He was a real historical character and a great proponent of the republics. He stood opposed to imperial ambitions of the Mauryas. The ‘Mudrarakhsa’ play outshines ‘Julius Caesar’ in many ways, with its complexity and profundity. Amartya is almost a Brutus-like character, torn between his idealism and dedication to his republic, whom the wily Chankaya (perhaps the Cassius of the play) lures into joining the Mauryan monarchy.
Similarly, Jawaharlal Nehru, in his path breaking ‘Discovery of India’, shows this poignant breakdown of the Magadha republic. How Chanakya, the great proponent of the rajyas and his protégés, overtly and covertly opposed and decimated the ‘naastic, atheist, anarchist’ republics. They saw these as disrupters of the’ divine order’.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen also addresses this in his ‘The Argumentative Indian’. He states that the republican, rational and agnostic traditions of India were under-represented through history. How the British ‘overemphasized the spiritual, mystic and religious aspects of India, while downplaying the rational and scientific ones‘. Ironically, this was happening in 16th century England, while India’s Emperor Akbar was propagating the separation of ‘church’ and state. This was part of his Din-e- llahi system, in the world’s most prosperous and cosmopolitan state at the time.
Hence, we should celebrate this legacy, which despite its drama and foibles , represents a tradition older than our existence. And so it continues.. the Mauryas vs. the republics. The Amartyas and Aam-rapalis vs. the Princes. But no matter what anyone may say – and however dysfunctional – Aam-rapali’s Republic still lives, beneath the streets of Delhi.
By Lehar Zaidi
Image Source:By Sanjitchohan1 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, By Defined by the Indian government as national emblem (www.supremecourtofindia.nic.in) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons