Hindu Political Thought. India, with an area as extensive as Europe minus Russia, and with a large and diverse population, has had an active political history. The existence of autonomous oligarchic city states is recorded in the earliest Hindu tradition. As early as the fourth century B.c. a Hindu empire was established which included a more extensive territory than the present India.
In the following centuries kingdoms and empires rose and fell, warfare among the various principalities was almost constant, and frequent attempts were made by ambitious rulers to unite India into a world empire. State systems were not long-lived, and dynastic revolutions were numerous. The political development of India resembled in many ways that of Europe, and was marked by a growing political consciousness and by the creation of a considerable amount of political philosophy.
In contrast to the other Oriental political systems, the Hindu states were not theocratic, Religion in India did not dominate politics. The state wag independent of the church, and the priests did not interfere in administration. The dictates of religion were limited to principles of moral guidance for ruler and subject alike. Because of this condition, political speculation was permissible and was able to reach advanced conceptions. Political philosophy was recognized as a distinct field of knowledge, created an extensive literature,? and was considered by some of its founders the most important of sciences.
Hindu political thinkers viewed the original nature of man as essentially selfish and wicked. They agreed with the Church Fathers and with Hobbes, rather than with Locke and Rousseau, in considering the state of nature a condition of violence, injustice, and the rule of might. They had no rosy conceptions concerning a Golden Age or a Garden of Eden. In the absence of authority, they believed that the stronger would devour the weak like fishes in water,and this figure of the struggle for existence, known as the logic of the fish, frequently recurs in both political and popular literature.
To prevent this condition, authority and punishment were required. Law, supported by force, was necessary to prevent private violence, to safeguard property, and to secure justice. The state arose, therefore, because of needs growing out of the original nature of man, and its authority rested upon its ability to coerce and to impose penalties. The Hindu theory of sanction and punishment corresponds closely to the majestas of Bodin, the summa potestas of Grotius, and the modern concept of sovereignty .
According to Hindu political thought, authority was personified in the ruler of the state, but the ruler as a person was subject to restraint and able to punishment as was every other individual.? Hence the dilemma of royal power in Hindu theory. The king was possessor of sovereignty.
He presided over and regulated the state, bringing evil doers to justice and correcting abuses. On the other hand, the possession of this power was dangerous to the ruler. If he exercised it wisely, it was conducive to the greatest good of the people, but if he exercised it thoughtlessly or arbitrarily, he was himself liable to removal and punishment. Hindu thinkers usually advocated active resistance to arbitrary authority.
They justified revolution and frequently put the theory into practice. One of their greatest political writers said the unity of opinion possessed by the many is more powerful than the king. The rope that is made of many threads is strong enough to drag the lion.
In order to prevent unwise and nasty action, the ruler was expected to take advice from the best minds and to associate with himself a council of ministers. The Hindu theory thus upheld a limited rather than an absolute monarchy, and a system of checks and balances was favored.
Many Hindu writers upheld democratic institutions, popular assemblies, communistic undertakings, and personal liberty. The ideal of human brotherhood and of personal equality was frequently expressed. Buddha, in the fifth century B.C., was a staunch supporter of democratic views, taught the people that their prosperity depended upon the maintenance of their popular local assemblies, and carried on an active propaganda against monarchy.
Although Hindu ethics assigned a low place to the military virtues and taught a pacifist fatalism, Hindu political thought was often decidedly militaristic and sometimes Machiavellian. It emphasized the values of preparedness, praised the military virtues, frankly based political authority upon force, and extolled the judicious use of guile and secret diplomacy. The military aspects of Hindu theory resembled the Lycurgan creed of Sparta, the Bushido of Japan, and the modern doctrines of Treitschke.