Among the many gifts the West appears intent on bestowing upon the rest of the world – such as TV, burger bars, pop music etc — democracy is perhaps top of the list. We cherish our democratic institutions and are prepared to endure great pain and difficulty, sacrificing our soldiers and heaps of cash, to ensure that voting is embraced in far flung places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Even, it seems, when they don’t really want it anyway.
The recent elections in Afghanistan were very poorly subscribed, with many polling stations remaining more or less empty. At a gathering on polling day of many tribal leaders from all around the country a Sky journalist asked them why. They unanimously responded by saying that they were happy enough with their own way of doing things and resented Western interference. This, they said, was the general view of the people.
Nevertheless the voting went ahead and a leader was elected, one with which the West no doubt hopes to ‘do business’. But what of democracy? So called power to the people. Does it really work? Certainly it is not propounded by the Vedas, where theistic monarchies are the general model encouraged. They are hardly in fashion these days, but is democracy that much better?
Apparently so, as it seems we are free to make a choice about who rules over us, and we are unlikely to select candidates who look like they will make life unpleasant. Well, who at least promise us very sincerely that they won’t.
How free though is our choice? Obviously we must form our views based upon the available information, and that is often presented by those who would seek our vote. Consider this from Herman Goering. “Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
There spoke a man who knew a bit about manipulating public opinion. And have things changed? Constantly we encounter a barrage of ‘news’, views and ‘expert’ opinions, all of which shape our outlook and hence who we choose as our leaders.
Which is fine if our outlook is enlightened and we are able to recognise a truly qualified person, one who will lead us on to the promised (by them) land of milk and honey. But how well are we making that call? Are the politicians and leaders who culled our votes living up to our expectations? How often are we disappointed?
Winston Churchill once said, “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” This was a point Srila Prabhupada often made. Leaders must be selected by the most qualified persons in society; those who know the goal of life and how to attain it. In Vedic society, although the feelings of the people were not ignored, it was always the pure-hearted sages and Brahmins who were chiefly consulted in matters of who should lead the state. Prabhupada said, “if you ask a criminal or a drunkard to vote for a leader then what can you expect?”
It is a bit like asking a young child to vote for his parents. Most kids would like a mum and dad who let them more or less live on chips and chocolate, take very few baths, chill out all day and never attend school. What a life. But mum and dad know better, and in the same way the state leadership, according to Vedic wisdom at least, should also know what is best for the citizens.
Great sages know that life has a higher purpose than simply satisfying the bodily senses like the animals. They know that true happiness comes from realising our spiritual nature as eternal parts of the Supreme. And they know that real care for others is demonstrated not by indulging them with whatever they immediately want, but by training them toward the goal of ultimate and everlasting peace and happiness.
Perhaps in the absence of too many enlightened seers we are safest sticking with democracy for now, but whether elected by the people or selected by the spiritually advanced sages, leaders have a grave mission to perform. Prabhupada says, “The kings or the executive heads of all states must fulfill the mission of human life, which is to make an end to all miseries of material conditions.”
And chief among those conditions of misery is repeated birth and death. So let’s see, whose manifesto promises to end that?