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  • Ayush Kumar Singh

Dharma as a rule of law: In Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata

Ayush Kumar Singh,

Netaji Subhash University

Abstract

We think rule of law as a western construct, but actually it is not, this is relatively new concept for the west, even before magna carta which is considered as first bill of rights, we have something as “Ram Rajya” which is considered as an idea situation where there is a presence of rule of law, where king was also bound by law, where law was above everything, in Mahabharata also there is mention of Dharma quite a lot where both king and his subject is bound by dharma and those who deviated from the path of Dharma faced the consequences, so our Bhartiya Sabhyata was already following rule of law, so the phrase rule of law is surely western but the concept is Bhartiya and this research paper will comprehensively analyze this topic and also the relevance of dharma in present times.

Introduction 

When we talk about the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, people think that these are just mythological texts that teach us morality.Actually, there is a lot more we can learn from these two epics. They are considered Itihasa, which loosely translates as history, but Itihasa has a wider connotation than what we understand as history nowadays. This is another topic of debate—whether the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are Itihasa or just mythological texts. Without delving into this debate, there are several proofs to show that they are Itihasa. For the purpose of this research, I will consider these two as Itihasa. Let's start by understanding what Itihasa is in the first place, because to understand things from the Bhartiya perspective, we first need to put things into perspective.

"इतिहासपुराणाभ्यां वेदं समुपबृंहयेत्”

This shloka means that Itihasa and Puranas complete the interpretation of the Vedas. The Bhartiya notion of Itihasa is far wider than the Western notion of history. The word "history" is not a translation of Itihasa. The primary difference between the term itihasa and western notion of history is the purpose, the purpose of western history is to study the past objectively but the purpose of Bharatiya itihasa is to understand the deeper meaning and concepts of life, like philosophy, law, governance, politics etc. In Bharatiya itihasa the events are just packaging in form of stories, the main idea is to learn deeper things and that's why there are so many interpretations of Ramayana and Mahabharata, the events are mostly similar in all the text but interpretation is personal and everyone finds different meanings in different instances. So looking at Ramayana and Mahabharata, with the lens of western history would be unfair. It is important to look into it from Bhartiya's perspective. Now, when we get the lens and when the heart is at the right place, let me tell you why I choose these two texts namely Ramayana and Mahabharata as a base for this particular research on the topic of rule of law,which is believed to be a western construct? So the reason why I choose Ramayana and Mahabharata as a base because we all are at some points of our lives have known about Ramayana and Mahabharata, these two texts are in very popular discourse, but we know these texts as a story and take some morals values from it but we go into the depths of these text, it will be humongous task to talk about everything and it is not humanly possible to extract all the learnings in a single paper, so being a law student and someone who is enthusiastic about constitution and administrative law, I would be going deep into the topic of rule of law, which concerns with both constitution and administration.The rule of law is a cornerstone of any welfare society, the basic concept of rule of law is that law is above all, even the king is also bound by the rule of law and must not work for his selfish interest rather work for the welfare of the society and people. So this notion of rule of law, can be traced back to treta yuga, when lord Rama became the king of Ayodhya, that period was considered as Ram Rajya, Mahatma Gandhi also talked lot about Ramayana and Ram Rajya it is an ideal examples of a state following rule of law. We find similar instances in Mahabharata, in vana parva in Mahabharata there is shloka “Dharma eva hato hanti, dharmo rakshati rakhshitaha” it means those who destroys dharma, dharma destroys them and those who protects dharma, dharma protects them and this is what exactly happened in the Dharma yudha happened in kurukshetra, and dharma is nothing but the rule of law, those who are following the rule of law finally became Victorious. So all this aspect of rule of law will be explored deeply.

Ram Rajya:- The epitome for rule of law.

“रामराज्यवासी त्वम्, प्रोच्च्रयस्व ते शिरम्।

न्यायार्थं युध्यस्व, सर्वेषु समं चर।

परिपालय दुर्बलम्, विद्धि धर्मं वरम्।

प्रोच्च्रयस्व ते शिरम्, रामराज्यवासी त्वम्।”

You live in Ram’s kingdom, hold your head high.

Fight for justice.

Treat all as equal.

Protect the weak.

Know that dharma is above all.

Hold your head high,

You live in the kingdom of Ram.

This shloka, which can be called a preamble for Ram Rajya, clearly encapsulates the principles on which the kingdom of Rama was based. This is what makes Lord Rama “maryada purushottam.” The word “purushottam” is made from two words: “purush and “uttam”. The former means a man, and the latter means best of all, so Rama was the best of all men because he was someone who followed “maryada”, which means limitations and restrictions. Considering he was a king who could impose limitations and restrictions on himself, the limitations were set by law. This is exactly what the rule of law means: that the king also has certain limitations and restrictions on him. This infers that the king is also bound by “dharma” as this shloka clearly mentions “dharma” is above all. For the sake of clarity, let's now compare the parallel between the Western rule of law and the Bhartiya notion of “dharma”.

When we look at the Western concept, it was based on a divine theory. According to this theory, the king is believed to be the representative of God, which is why it is believed that the king can do no wrong. This theory almost gave arbitrary power to the king to rule according to his whims and fancies without considering the welfare of the people. This theory was criticized by Edward Coke in the case of Thomas Bonham v College of Physicians (1610) 8 Co Rep 114 (Dr. Bonham’s Case). Justice Coke held, “when an act is against the common right and reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it and adjudge such act to be void.” This statement prioritizes the rights of common people and ensures that they are upheld through common law, meaning judge-made law by judicial pronouncements, preventing the king from making arbitrary laws. This forms the base for the rule of law and judicial review. Furthermore, Justice Coke said, “no freeman shall be deprived of his freehold or liberties or his free customs but by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” These pronouncements by Justice Edward Coke challenged the monopoly of the king and the concept of the king being the representative of the divine. This judgment became the cornerstone for the development of the rule of law in the West. It can be fairly called the base for the theory of the rule of law propounded by Professor A.V. Dicey.

The theory of the rule of law by A.V. Dicey has three components:

1. Absolute supremacy of law

2. Equality before the law

3. Predominance of legal spirit

To understand these concepts, let's refer to specific instances from the “Uttara Kanda” of the Ramayana, which is the most controversial part. Pseudo-intellectuals and pseudo-liberals use it to criticize Lord Rama, who was a perfect king, wonderful son, loving brother, and illustrious human being. The question arises about how he was as a husband. Analyzing this aspect will help us understand the rule of law.

Lord Rama was deeply in love with his wife, Goddess Sita. In Valmiki's Ramayana, several times Lord Rama said, “Tvama bina, swarga api na rochayate.” This shloka means, "without you, I don't even have an interest in “swarga”." He literally crossed oceans for her. In a time where polygamy was common practice for all kings, Lord Rama took a vow of monogamy. These instances show how good he was as a husband. However, one incident makes us question him as a husband. After Lord Rama, along with Goddess Sita and his brother Lakshmana, returns to Ayodhya after the “Yudha Kanda”, Lord Rama takes charge as king. A washerman comes to his court and questions his decision to take back his wife, Goddess Sita, who lived in Ravana's confines for a considerable period.

Despite Lord Rama's complete belief in the chastity of his wife, he sends her away in a pregnant state. This makes us question, is this fair? When viewed from Goddess Sita's perspective, it is not. However, from the perspective of the king and the rule of law, it is significant. Firstly, the washerman questioning the king shows that even the king is bound by law and accountable to his people. Secondly, Lord Rama did what was right according to the law of that particular time, not what he personally wanted. This was a painful decision for him, but he had to take it because, although he knew about Goddess Sita's chastity, there was no way he could prove it. This is the curse of being a leader who places the rule of law and societal welfare above all. Similar examples can be found in the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Gautam Buddha.

This incident shows that in Ram Rajya, law is above all. Lord Rama kept the spirit of law above the spirit of love and family, demonstrating the predominance of the legal spirit. The washerman questioning the king shows equality before the law, indicating that all three principles given by A.V. Dicey were already present in Ram Rajya. This is why contemporary leaders like Gandhi, Golwalkar, and Savarkar talked about Ram Rajya. To understand the relevance of Ram Rajya in present times, we need to analyze their views.

Gandhi’s views on Ram Rajya were based on equality, universalism, and non-violence. Golwalkar observed that all the gods carry weapons, emphasizing that it is important to fight evil to maintain “dharma”. Savarkar’s view of Ram Rajya was mostly based on practical aspects. In one discussion with Gandhi, where Gandhi said that sacrifice, love, and justice can bring Ram Rajya, Savarkar disagreed, stating that Ram Rajya came by killing Ravana. Savarkar was very practical, while Gandhian Ram Rajya was more like a utopia, far from practicality.

Let's analyze these opposing views in detail.

Gandhian Ram- Rajya

The Gandhian Ram Rajya was based on truth and righteousness, Gandhi envisioned Ram Rajya where King and pauper get's the same rights there are many instances in Ramayana we can find that Lord Rama never discriminates when he met Sabri, Sabri selected some berries that were tasted by her for sweetness Ram ate it with utmost love and respect and according to present times Sabri was dalit, so called lower cast. Lord Rama left his kingship without a moment of remorse, just to follow his father's orders. This shows the utmost sacrifice and how keen followers of rule Lord Rama was and these are the ideals Gandhi promoted. Lord Rama always felt other people's pain and worked for them without letting his personal gain come in between. This should be the ideal of our present leadership. They must learn from Lord Rama, the Gandhian concept of Ram Rajya was not at all about Hindu Rashtra it's about equality among all and society which must be based on morality. In the concept of Ram Rajya by Gandhi as analysed by Subhash Sharma, there are predominantly 3 world views

  1. Economic world view:- where the gap between rich and poor is not that much wide and every one is prosperous and the distribution of wealth is significantly equal.

  2. Humanist-Materialistic world view:-  This view is mostly based on “pratipalaya durbalam” which means protecting the weak this is what  law does in the society where there is no law which we call as lawless society there what happens is basically “Matsayanyay” which means big fish will eat the small fish, basically survival of the fitest. But in Ram Rajya the concept which was followed is not “matsaynyay” it was based on rule of law and social justice.

  3. Transcendentalist worldview :- See when basic needs were taken care of people move towards transcendental view that's spirituality and knowing who they actually are and then we as “the question” who am I? and what is the purpose of my life?.

But world is not this simple, let's us remember we haven't got independence alone by Gandhian ideas, these all worldviews are good in an utopian society which is conflict-less there is no such society exist So, there are many more leaders who believed in the idea of armed rebellion and Savarkar also said that for bringing Ram Rajya it is necessary to kill Ravan, his brothers and his army, same in Mahabharata when all attempts to stop the war failed the war was the only way to defeat Adharma and bring back dharma again.  So this is a more practical aspect of Ram Rajya which was proposed by leaders like Golwalkar and Savarkar.

Savarkar Ram-Rajya

As opposed to Gandhian view on Ram Rajya the Savarkar views differ on various factors Savarkar focused more on cultural identity and historical pride rather than the spritual and moral views of Gandhi, the Savarkar view of Ram Rajya is a subset of his views on Hindutva according him Hindu is not about a religion, it's a territorial identity this we can in the Savarkar own word

आसिंधु सिंधु-पर्यन्ता यस्य भारत-भूमिका ।

पितृभूः पुण्यभूश्चैव स वै हिंदुरिति स्मृतः ।।

"Which literally means the person who regards this land of Sindu as his father-land, where his ancestors lived and the holy-land and respects this land as cradle of culture and civilization is a Hindu. Ram is the civilization identity and Ram Rajya is embedded and rooted in the broader philosophy of Hindutva. He propagated the idea that the strong civilization identity comes from a strong sense of historical unity and having common heroes. Ram and Ram Rajya are the best ideals to follow, and he used all this as a tool to bring Bhartiya people together and to fight with injustice of the East India Company.

The Savarkar view on violence is starkly opposite from the view of Gandhi. According to Savarkar, violence played a key role in bringing Ram Rajya. The goal of both Gandhi and Savarkar is the same; both respected each other as leaders, but their means are different. Savarkar saw violence as a necessary means for bringing Ram Rajya and achieving sampoorna swaraj. Savarkar's views are more practical and not utopian.

Both leaders are great, yet they have different views, and both views are important depending on the time. Lord Ram is very loving, caring, and always depicted as smiling and joyful — that's the Lord Rama which Gandhi talked about. When necessary, he fought for what is right. So, the character of Ram is all-encompassing; there is so much to unpack, and everyone sees him differently, and everyone is right in their own way.

But one thing which everyone talks about and also my biggest takeaway is rule of law. He always did what is right and followed the rule of law, being dispassionate about his decisions as a king but very passionate and loving as a person. That's why Ram is 'Maryada Purushottam', and there is so much to learn from Lord Rama. Now let's move to our next topic which is Dharma, i.e., rule of law in Mahabharata.”

Mahabharata and discourse of rule of law.

"Mahabharata is way more than an epic; there is a comprehensive discourse of dharma in Mahabharata. It's a treasure trove of law, strategy, political insights, etc., and these things are still relevant in present times. At the center of all these thoughts is Dharma. The Dharma is a core philosophy, and the most accurate translation of the word Dharma is rule of law, as I stated earlier. So, let's see how the rule of law is present in Mahabharata.

Firstly, dharma is a binding force which binds society, people, and the king. This is parallel to the concept that law is above all; here, dharma is above all, and the king is also bound by dharma. The concept of dharma aims at ensuring social justice, equality, and the protection of individuals within the society. All these goals can only be achieved by keeping law above individuals, and that's the parallel we can draw between dharma and rule of law.

Secondly, Mahabharata talks about rajdharma. The core concept of Raj dharma is basically that the king is also bound by dharma; the king cannot rule according to his whims and fancies but according to the rule of law. This protects states from becoming anarchic and maintains social order according to dharma.

The war of Mahabharata is also not just called a “yudh” (war); it's called a Dharma yudha — “fight for rule of law”. This concept is in parallel with jus ad bellum and jus in bello in modern international law, which says that in some conditions wars are justified and it's important for maintaining world order.

Mahabharata also talks about “dandniti”, which means the concept of punishment and reward. So, to maintain dharma, punishment and reward are very necessary, but dharma talks about these rewards and punishments must not be arbitrary; they must be based on the rule of law.

In essence, the Mahabharata's concept of dharma serves as the foundation of the rule of law, and we will see several examples from Mahabharata to understand this concept comprehensively. So let's delve into it:-

Dharma in Yaksha Prashna

In Mahabharata, Yaksha Prashna occurs in Vana Parva. The yaksha, a guard of a lake, tests Yudhishthir, the eldest Pandava, by asking several questions. One of the questions was, what is Dharma? Yudhishthir answers that dharma is very comprehensive and complex; it is inexplicable in some way but in a subtle way, it is a balancing power between conflicting duties and taking tough ethical decisions. He further states that reason is of limited use without foundation. This discourse shows that dharma is there to interpret; there is no definite definition. But this definition can be interpreted as a “balancing power”, so rule of law is also a “balancing power” — a balance between several things like rights of the people, duty of a king, and the balance between Sadharana-dharma and Sva-dharma.

Sva-dharma and Sadharana-dharma

In Mahabharata, there are frequent contrasts between Sva-dharma (individual duty) and Sadharana-dharma (universal duty). These concepts are illustrated through various instances. Let's take an instance where there is a dialogue between Draupadi and Yudhishthira during exile. Draupadi urges Yudhishthira to fight with Kauravas by invoking kshatriya (warrior) dharma, but Yudhishthira says that this exile is because they lost the game in Rajya Sabha (king's court), and this punishment they are receiving is for their own actions. Therefore, fighting is not Dharma right now. Here, we can see the different views of dharma. Just as with law, dharma is based on interpretation.

To understand this more profoundly, let's also consider the example of Bhishma. Bhishma took an oath that he would never become a king and he would remain celibate. He always adhered to his oath, but actually, for protecting his Sva-dharma, he ignored Sadharana-dharma.

Now, let's consider one last example from Udyog Parva. When Lord Krishna went to persuade Duryodhana to avoid war by offering five villages to the Pandavas, Duryodhana refused. Later, Lord Krishna explains the negative consequences of war, but Duryodhana fails to understand. Then Lord Krishna further elaborates that dharma protects happiness and harmony in society and selfish actions lead to destruction. This is what rule of law does — what Lord Krishna said about dharma.

These examples from Mahabharata make it clear that the rule of law is not a Western concept; it is purely a Bhartiya (Indian) concept and is ingrained in both Ramayana and Mahabharata.”

Literature review

"This literature review is based on five books: four books from Amish Tripathi's 'RamChandra series' and one book by Gurcharan Das, 'Difficulties of Being Good'. These books comprehensively explore the concept of dharma in ancient times and how they remain relevant in present times as guiding principles for law, justice, and governance. They provide examples and themes to establish the interplay between modern law and ancient legal jurisprudence related to the topic we are discussing: how the concept of dharma is more or less similar to the rule of law. Although the concept of dharma is wider and the scope of the rule of law is narrower, there are lots of parallels we can draw between these two. So now, without further ado, let's delve into reviewing the relevant literature.

First, let's start with Ramayana. In Amish Tripathi's Ram Chandra series, it's a wonderful and nuanced exploration of dharma and how dharma shapes society, law-making, political decisions, views, and the philosophy of society. Now, let's delve deep into each of the four books of the Ramchandra series and see what they can offer and how our knowledge of dharma and the rule of law can be enriched by them.”

Scion of Ikshvaku:

In this particular book, the author focuses on the key character of Ramayana, none other than Sri Ramchandra himself. He is the personification of law and justice. In one instance in the book, when Lord Rama encounters a thief who stole food to feed his starving family, instead of punishing him, Rama offers him employment. This illustrates that the duty or dharma of a king is not only to enforce the law but also to understand the root cause and work for the well-being of society at large. This emphasizes that compassion for other living beings and a holistic approach towards developing the social fabric, with compassion at the center, are integral to dharma. Another example is when his father sends him into exile just before he is about to become king; Rama happily obeys his father's decision, demonstrating his integrity and his commitment to following dharma. This makes him "Maryada Purushottam". He always adheres to his principles, even in the face of adversity.

Sita:Warrior of Mithila

In this book, the author focuses on Goddess Sita's compassion and valor. In the complete Ramayana, all characters are overshadowed because it is about Lord Rama; the word "yana" means journey, so Ramayana means "journey of Rama". Therefore, every theme and character revolves around Lord Rama. However, in this book, the author focuses on Goddess Sita. There are instances where the governance excellence of Goddess Sita can be seen. For example, she negotiates with neighboring nations to maintain alliances, demonstrating political maneuvers based on mutual respect and compassion. Balancing the interests of both nations, not just her own, shows a deep understanding of dharma. This understanding is also reflected when Mithila faces a potential civil war; she handles the situation by prioritizing the citizens' interests above all, which is the core of Rajdharma and rule of law.

Ravana: The Enemy of Aryavart:

From Lord Rama and Goddess Sita, we learn what dharma is and how it shapes society for the better. From Ravana, we learn the consequences of not following dharma and walking the opposite path. There's a famous saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but power doesn't corrupt those who keep dharma as their foundation. Ravana, due to his arrogance of power, thought he was invincible and blatantly violated dharma. When he abducted Goddess Sita, many tried to reason with him, but his arrogance blinded him to reason. He continued on the path of adharma, where selfish interests override the well-being of people and society, with disastrous consequences.

War of Lanka:

This is the final book of the Ramchandra series, focusing on the war between Rama and Ravana, good versus evil, light versus darkness. This book emphasizes how Lord Rama always adheres to fair means in war; even on the battlefield, he upholds dharma. Eventually, he triumphs, sending a message that no matter how powerful adharma may seem, it can never defeat dharma. Dharma is above all.

Dharma: Difficulties of Being Good:

This wonderful book by Gurcharan Das explores how the discourse of dharma remains relevant in present times. The Mahabharata is multifaceted, encompassing all human emotions and ethical dilemmas. It presents moral choices where there are no clear right or wrong answers. Let's take Karna, for example, a favorite character from Mahabharata. He remained loyal to Duryodhana because Duryodhana supported him when everyone else opposed him. Even after knowing Duryodhana stood for adharma, Karna supported him. Whether he was right or wrong, that's for you to decide. The same applies to Bhishma and others who, for different reasons, supported adharma. They chose Sva-dharma over Sadharana-dharma. Right or wrong is subjective; everyone is entitled to their view. These perspectives, problems, and dilemmas are inevitable in all social structures. Understanding Mahabharata can help us address these issues sensibly, with dharma at the heart of social, legal, and political decisions. This will lead to a more dharma-conscious and dharmic society, beneficial for everyone. Dharma brings balance, harmony, peace, and bliss, and I hope we move towards a more harmonized and peaceful society.

Conclusion 

This whole research clearly signifies that though the term "rule of law" is a Western term, the concept itself is not. Sanatan Sanskriti and Sanatan literature represent an unexplored treasure trove with much to unpack across all areas of study, including science, literature, mathematics, philosophy, law, and more. This research paper focuses on one aspect of law — the rule of law — and one aspect of Sanatan literature, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata.

This study proves the thesis that many concepts we attribute to the West actually have their roots in our Sanatan Dharma. It's fascinating as a law student to delve deep into these aspects. I thoroughly enjoyed writing this paper, and I believe you will thoroughly enjoy reading this wonderful exploration of the rule of law in Mahabharata and Ramayana, complete with numerous stories, examples, and cited authorities.

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