Chapter 14: Some Philosophical Aspects
of Hindu Political, Legal and Economic Thought
The Hindu political, legal and economic thought is included in the Mahăbhărata,
Dharma-Shăstras (of which Manu-Smriti, hereafter Manu, is the
most important), Nîti-shăstras or the science of state-craft (of which
the Shukra-nîti-săra, hereafter Shukra, is the most elaborate), and Artha-shăstras
(of which Kautilya's Artha-shăstra is the most popularly available
today). The following ideals summarize some of the ancient Hindu views of the
political, legal and economic systems which evolved in India over several
- Man is potentially divine, but is the victim of his ignorance, passions
and immoral tendencies, created by his own past actions (karma). An
ethical and just state is necessary to help man to overcome his sinful and
immoral tendencies. "If the king [state] did not vigilantly inflict
punishment on the guilty, the stronger would have roasted the weaker like
fish." (Manu 7.2)
- Dharma (morality or righteousness) is the cornerstone of a just and
equitable state. Dharma preserves the individuals and the society.
The oft-quoted axiom is: "Hunger, sleep, fear, and sex are common to
all animals, human and sub-human. It is the additional attribute of dharma
that differentiates man from the beast." Thus, the political philosophy
(danda-nîti) of the state must be grounded in dharma. In
ancient literature, the righteous king (state) is believed to be dharma
itself, created by God for the protection of all beings. (Manu 7.3 and
- In personal life dharma is expressed as virtues and duties. In the
political life dharma is expressed as the just and equitable laws
which restrain evil and promote virtuous life. In the Hindu polity,
politicians are required to inspire virtue and loyalty to the laws of the
state by their own examples. In Hindu legal literature the word dharma
conveys the same meaning as the words ethical, reasonable, and
equitable in Western legal literature.
- Dharma (morality), artha (wealth), kăma (enjoyment),
and moksha (spiritual perfection) constitute the four ends (catur
varga) of Hindu religious life. However, both the Mahăbhărata Shăntiparva
15.3 and Manu 2.224 include only dharma, artha and kăma as
the three basic values (tri-varga) on which social and political
philosophy should be founded upon.
- Since ancient times Hindus have recognized that since moksha, and
the paths leading to it, differ from one religious path to another, the
state must not interfere with an individual's spiritual life. At the same
time, the state must not allow violation of the basic laws of morality.
Thus, Hindu tradition demands strict social morality, but provides freedom
of thought and choice in ultimate matters. This forms the basis for the
consistent pattern of the secular outlook of Hindus in religious, social and
political matters all throughout their history.
- Hindu social thought rejects the views that dharma alone, or dharma
and wealth alone, or wealth and enjoyment alone are the most important
values for human life. The predominant view of Hindu social thought is that
all three values (dharma, wealth, and enjoyment) must be harmoniously
cultivated for pursuit of happiness. (Manu 2.224)
- The assignment of duties should be in accordance with merit and the
ability to perform the work (guna-karma) (Shukra 1.38). The
foundation of an ethical state depends upon the selection of honest and
efficient administrators and their level of training in particular jobs.
- "The king [state] should behave in three different ways: like the
[pleasant] autumn moon to the learned, like the [scorching] summer sun to
the enemy, and like the [moderate] spring sun to the subjects." (Shukra
- Harmlessness is the highest dharma, but for protection of life,
property, and dharma, the state may resort to violence, if necessary
under given circumstances. (Mahăbhărata Shăntiparva, 15). "I would
rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she
should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own
dishonor," declares Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace.
- The Hindu system of justice stresses that the persons administering
justice should be knowledgeable in the methods of logic as described in the Nyăya
school of Hindu philosophy. Nyăya includes methodology based on
logic to evaluate arguments and/or evidence for and against a defendant in
order to ascertain the truth. An unimpeachable character, knowledge of the
law, training, and knowledge of logic are the basic requirements for the
administration of justice.
- Capital punishment violates the Vedic injunction against taking any life.
- Both Manu and Shukra prescribe heavier punishment for those in higher
social positions and who violate their duties. "Where an ordinary
person is fined one coin, a judge should be fined one thousand coins."
- The right to life logically leads to the right to wealth, since wealth is
needed for the maintenance of life itself. Dharma provides the
ethical means for earning one's wealth.
- The ancient Hindu political, legal and economic theories point to a
continued tradition of a strong central government under a king (state). The
authority of the government was vested in a council of ministers, who were
selected based on their character and merit. Dharma was the
cornerstone of the political and social theories of ancient India.
- The village was the unit of the ancient Hindu society. Village life was
viewed very favorably, as is clear from the saying, "It is impossible
for one to attain salvation who lives in a town covered with dust." 25
- The Hindu instinct that goodness and virtue warrant sympathy and
reconciliation with other forms of thought and belief is best expressed in
the following words: "The greatest contribution to posterity made by
the Hindu tradition was the broad-mindedness, sympathy, and tolerance of
different viewpoints exhibited almost alone in India amongst the civilized
communities of earlier day.25
- "When Egypt persecuted the Jews, when racial and communal conflicts
disfigured the history of Babylon and Nineveh, when, later on, we see that
the slave states in Greece and Rome formed the basis of those marvelous
cultures, and when in medieval ages the baiting of Jews alternated with the
baiting of Roman Catholics by Protestants and vice versa, we had the
spectacle in India of unfailing hospitality to foreign religions and foreign
- "What country can show anything like the treatment of the Parsees,
who, flying from oppression in their own country of Persia, asked for and
obtained succor of the wise west-coast king [in India], to whose protection
and active encouragement of their faith and tradition the Parsees ultimately
owe their dominant position in India today?" 25
- Hindus say, "samavăya eva sădhuh," meaning
"Concord is the supreme good." Thousands of years ago, Hindu sages
declared that dharma (righteousness), ahimsă (non-violence), dayă
(compassion), abhaya (fearlessness) and recognition of the unity of
existence are the supreme virtues for mankind. Today these ideals form the
fundamental charter of the United Nations organization.