In previous ages – or just in previous centuries – kingdoms were ruled by kings; kings with real executive power, not just ceremonial heads of state: “Formerly everywhere, all over the world, the monarchy was prevalent.” Srila Prabhupada says, “Even up to date some of the countries, they are maintaining monarchy, but only in name actually; the monarch has no power. So monarchy is good so long the king is as ideal as Bharata Maharaja, Rshabhadeva, Maharaja Yudhisthira, Maharaja Parikshit, Lord Ramachandra.” (Lecture on SB 5.5.28, Vrindavana, 15 Nov 1976.)
A key statement, demonstrating interdependence: “monarchy is good so long the king” is ideal as the great saintly rulers of the Indian past. A system – any system – is only as good as the people populating it. A political system – any political system – that gives unchecked power to the ruler is only as beneficial to the state as the degree of enlightenment and qualification of the ruler. If the ruler is despotic and irreligious, better to limit his power through a mechanism of checks and balances.
The Puranas are replete with examples of rajarishis, saintly monarchs. Srila Prabhupada says: “An ideal king thoroughly trained by culture and devotional service with the martial spirit makes a perfect king. Such a personal monarchy is far better than the so-called democracy of no training and responsibility.” (SB 1.8.43, purport) Such statements tempt many devotees to conclude that – today, in the twenty-first century – monarchy is still the preferred political system, the system Srila Prabhupada would support and promote. But there are conditions in Srila Prabhupada’s statement. He is talking about an “ideal king thoroughly trained by culture and devotional service” – not about any dummy with a crown on the head.
It’s important to note that Srila Prabhupada also explained that monarchy degraded and practically vanished: “Because in this age kings have such demoniac propensities, monarchy is abolished by the laws of nature in every country” (SB 4.26.6, purport) In other words, monarchy is not finished simply due to historical dynamics; it’s directly “the laws of nature,” that determined its demise. Srila Prabhupada was of course aware of the few monarchies surviving here and there on the planet, but obviously those are pale reflections of the Vedic monarchies; empty shells. Therefore Srila Prabhupada concludes: “Monarchy is out of date now.” (Conversation, New Vrindavana, 9 June 1969) How I wish that devotees would update themselves on this one! When the topic came up, Srila Prabhupada reiterated:
“Ramesvara: Krishna conscious government must be monarchy. A real Krishna conscious government.
Prabhupada: No. Why monarchy? You can continue democracy, but the legislators should be first-class men who has knowledge, not these rascals.
(Conversation, Allahabad, 15 Jan 1977)
“Continue democracy”? But didn’t Srila Prabhupada say that democracy was demon-crazy? He did; and more than once; but he said many more things. For instance, here he writes to an ISKCON leader in America: “If somehow or other we can convince the majority of the United States population to take to Krishna-consciousness then the whole world will become Krishna-conscious. This is a fact. The United States is the leader of all other nations. You simply educate the people in this Krishna-conscious philosophy and then there will be no difficulty in capturing the government. In your country there is very good system of democracy. As we have seen just recently the people, as the common people have so much power, that they were able to get down this Nixon, who is obviously a rascal. So if we can simply convince a good majority of persons then they will automatically want a Krishna-conscious leader.” (Letter to Rupanuga, 18 Dec 1974)
So, “very good system of democracy”; because, at least: 1. if people become devotees, they can choose spiritually qualified leaders; 2. people have the power to remove – through elections or other legal means – corrupt leaders, as they did in the case of President Nixon in 1974, the year of this letter.
So, back to the central idea of interdependence, the necessity to test existing conditions before recommending a way forward in the matter of political systems or anything else. Monarchy is good only when the conditions are there for it to function properly, not as an absolute idea, independent from times, territories or candidates.
Srila Prabhupada writes to another American ISKCON leader: “your countrymen are more or less independent spirited and lovers of democracy. So everything should be done very carefully so that their sentiments may not be hurt. According to Sanskrit moral principles, everything has to be acted, taking consideration of the place, audience and time.” (Letter to Tamal Krishna, 13 Oct 1969)
The “Sanskrit moral principles” – or niti-sastra – do not recommend blind devotion to anachronistic conventions that are notserviceable anymore. But let’s spend a few more words on democracy, because most ISKCON devotees in the world live and operate in democratic systems; and fine-tuning our understanding of democracy is therefore relevant.
Since at least the time of Plato, western thinkers were aware of the shortcomings of democracy. Plato complained that democracy followed citizens’ impulses and were typically run by fools. Besides its classical faults, democracy today can hardly compete against the virtual takeover of thecorporations investing billions into influencing lawmakers. Also, present democracy struggles to resist the demagoguery of populist manipulators. Srila Prabhupada, painfully aware of the shortcomings of democracy, says: “Any rascal can secure votes by some arrangement, and then he becomes the head of the government. The candidates are bribing. They are cheating. They are making propaganda to win votes. Somehow or other they get votes and capture the prime posts. This system is bad.” (Conversation, New Vrindaban, 24 June 1976).
Srila Prabhupada also says:”The common man is allowed to vote. He has no knowledge, and he’s voting. This is most condemned process.” (Conversation, Mayapur, 14 Feb 1977.)
In a similar vein, World War II British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, said: “The best argument against democracy is afive-minute conversation with the average voter.” A short chat is sufficient to reveal that the man and woman in the street hardly have any clue of the realities at the governmental, financial, military, ideological, industrial or geopolitical level – what to speak of being sufficiently aware of philosophical and ethical dimensions. How can common people, subject to the relentless propaganda of the few that somehow secure financial backing, wisely decide on who should run the country? How can they vote for the right persons when the vested interests promote, through expensive media campaigns, only candidates supportive of their gains? How can people make reasonable choices while caught in the thunderstorm of fake news and mock promises? And how can candidates be candid about what the country really needs while fearing the public’s rejection of any uncomfortable truth and unwelcome austerity? Nonetheless, Churchill also said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
So, both Plato and Srila Prabhupada would agree that the best form of government would be by qualified, detached, enlightened kings; but, if unavailable, democracy at the very least prevents brutal tyrants from establishing themselves as lifelong dictators. So, with all its faults, democracy still seems the best available system; the system ISKCON should embrace and work within, where it exists, without unrealistically fantasizing on resurrecting Vedic monarchy.
Srila Prabhupada says: “If you can make the people Krishna-conscious, then everything will be taken care of automatically. Because the democracy is there. So if they vote for a Krishna-conscious person to become president and prime minister, then everything will be saved. So that means you have to create the voter Krishna-conscious. Then everything will be right. That should be one of your aims, the Krishna-conscious movement. The government is still is under the control of the public. That’s a fact. If the public becomes Krishna-conscious, naturally the government will be Krishna conscious.” (Conversation, Bombay, 6 Nov 1970)
Mature, healthy varnashrama ideas can’t remain anchored to sentimental,obsolete notions. Because a political system was working five-thousand years ago, it doesn’t mean it would work now. Nostalgically clinging to romantic but impractical beliefs is a sure way of messing up varnashrama.
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