Dharma most assuredly is the soul of our Civilization, and Satya is its source, but for Dharma to survive, it too must be practical, especially this late in the Kali Yuga. Just as Yudhisthira required not only a Bhima and Arjuna to protect him, but even the astute and pragmatic Sri Krishna, so too does Dharma require Niti.
The word itself is very much part of our vocabulary today even in this “Modern” India. Rajniti, Dandaniti, Chanakya Niti, Vidura Niti, Sukra Niti are all commonly known, if not properly understood. They are typically grouped under Niti Sastra (“Science of Policy”). But to limit it to the aggrandised term “policy” would be a disfavour to the common man. That is why Niti is also found in earthy aphorisms and rural sayings like Saamethas. Niti is also often translated (and mistranslated) as “ethics”. Therefore, the time has come to reiterate and reassert its full meaning and wide application. It was not meant merely for political actors and power players. It is not solely the realm of Kings and Queens. Niti is useful for the every day average person as well. In the present time, there are those who seem to believe that you can either be good or bad, righteous or practical, practice Rajdharma or Rajniti. But once again, binary thinking and false dichotomies are clouding judgments. Let us clarify.
Niti (“Neethi”) in a word is: Lesson. Its root word “Ni” means to guide or enable.
Niti is not improper or immoral, but amoral principles for practical living. Hence we have the Lessons or Principles of Chanakya, Vidura, Sukra, and of course Politics. The precepts are meant to be pragmatic to ensure survival and success. The outcome and application, as with a sword, is determined by the wielder of Niti. Niti is not meant to promote immorality or reward evil, in fact, in the hands of the good, it is highly useful and beneficial for society as it encourages common sense and sensible living. It is just focused purely on pragmatism and effectiveness, morality being a consideration of the wielder of Niti. Niti, therefore, protects the innocent and naïve from the diabolical. After all, the Chanakya of the well-known Chanakya Niti, himself raised a good and Dharmic Emperor to the throne in the name of Chandragupta Maurya. Evil pursues the execrable. Fools care only for the sensual, but the Wise care for the sensible. It is not for nothing that Niti has been described elsewhere as “wise conduct of life“. That Niti Central went belly up could be no greater commentary on the “Modern” Hindu, and where his priorities lie, as he is more interested in generating hits, retweets, and trps either for adversarial media, or only himself.
Niti, therefore, is meant to be a stiff dose of realism giving lessons for woolly-headed idealists, narrow-minded ritualists, hidebound traditionalists, and childish hedonists (leave aside our uncultured “global”ists). Ideals are great, but not to the the point of lemmings off a cliff. Ritual is important, but not to the extent that it becomes the only consideration. Tradition is critical, but not to the brink of societal survival. And pleasure is good, but not to the point of hedonism. Rather than emphasising a single one of these aspects, Niti harmonises all of them pragmatically, and preferably, for the cause of Dharma. After all, Evil cares not for Dharma, and has no qualms about breaking it, let alone Achara, to pursue its selfish Aims. As Duryodhana said:
Fighting such an evil while following every single traditional rule of Rajadharma down to the micro-level is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. To defeat a Shakuni you need a Sri Krishna.
As Yudhisthira showed at the game of dice and as Rajputs showed in the non-game of total war, when the enemy is cheating, you can’t expect to follow all the rules to be Satya Harishchandra. Even if you don’t pay, your subjects and womenfolk and descendants do (as does your reputation and place in history). That is the value of Niti: to prevent or reduce the probability of death and dishonour…particularly for the good and especially the grihastha. That is why it is so tragic to see Rajputs of the medieval era, time and again, reject Niti to defeat common enemies, but then misuse it to rationalise cooperation with foreigners to survive. Niti is not for use only after defeat or even before, but to prevent defeat.
In fact, due to opportunism and ignorance, the gulf between Rajadharma and Rajaniti has grown so great, that people view Rajdharma as pie-in-the-sky and Rajniti as a fact of life. But the reality is, they are in fact meant to be joined at the hip. Rajniti makes Rajdharma possible; Rajdharma makes Rajniti purposeful. Rajaniti when deployed purely for selfish or familial gain, will always lead to backstabbing or infighting. This is because Rajadharma gives an order to be preserved and a harmonious living to be promoted.
Rajaniti knows no order (except big fish eats little fish), but only provides principles and methods to win. So if each idiot (no matter how young or old, stupid or cowardly, qualified or unqualified) thinks he deserves to be king, he will employ Rajaniti to individually benefit but collectively destroy his society in the process. This is why so many medieval Turkic kingdoms in India were plunged into brutal, Game of Thrones style succession battles, replete with brief rulers. There was no Rajadharma to guide them as any could be king. Studies are good. Study of Niti is better. Study of Dharma is best of all.
Rajadharma emphasises both seniority and competence. Prince Bharata of Ayodhya would have been an excellent king (and indeed governed Kosala well as Rama’s representative), but Rama was the true king as the eldest and rightful heir (his greater strengths aside).
Correspondingly, King Bharata of Hastinapura disinherited all of his sons, because they were all prodigal wastrels given to hedonism, and therefore, unfit for the throne due to their incompetence. Both qualities matter. In earlier eras, nobility of birth also made the third prime qualifier, but with so many broken noble houses today, it is nobility of character that has become more important.
Some of course, in recent years, have skipped the requisite progression. They forget Rajadharma, but pursue Rajaniti. Or more dangerously, they forget Kutaniti but pursue Kanikaniti. This is what happens when you have impractical or blindly ambitious people enter the realm of politics and statecraft, where they do not belong.
Strategem without Strategy is like arming without aiming. Strategy helps us understand when to employ Strategem. Politics gives us a function for Strategy. And Governance is made possible through Politics. Rajadharma is about Governance and Statecraft, not just petty politics. Politics without strategy is the simplistic thinking of raising up A to tackle B, or backstabbing “when my chance comes”. Such short-sightedness may get you power, but it won’t help you pass it on, or in most cases, even keep it. Therefore, aspiring members of the future elite or proverbial mantriparishad must first master the proper progression of precepts:
Just as there are sources of Dharma (Shruti, Smriti, Purana), there are sources of Niti. These include the Puranas again, but also the Panchatantra and Chanakya Sutras among others (such as the Niti Satakam of Bhartrhari). Sources for Kutaniti include the Hitopadesa and the Arthasastra. Correspondingly, students should pursue studies in that order: 1. Panchatantra, 2. Chanakya Niti 3. Hitopadesa 4. Arthasastra. These provide the foundation for Niti and Kutaniti respectively. While manuals on Pure strategy may be prioritised in the future, and manuals such as Manasollasa, pursued following after, in the present time, the bedrock of Civic study should be rooted in these four. When the Arthasastra is quoted by those without proper understanding of the Panchatantra or Chanakya Niti, we have amateurs leading us to catastrophe.
Basic Niti not only helps us understand Kutaniti, but also helps us implement Rajadharma, as ruler or citizen. Whether it is the Treatise of Brihaspati or the Treatise of Kautilya, the Arthasastra is the foremost text on Rajadharma for our time because it encompasses not just Governance or Politics, but also Political Economy, and the elements of Strategy. Not only its uses for those who study it, but even the qualifications for those who have access to it, must be properly understood.
Niti teaches us even the first rules of politics, even as a child. The story may involve animals or simple villagers, but we learn such lessons as “Every dog has its day” or “Silence is Golden”. This is also why time and again we have advised Hyperactive Hindus to “Shut up, Listen, and Learn”. This is not a new lesson, but comes directly from Nitisastra, only packaged for the modern moron.
Furthermore, there have been arthabhramas (errors of understanding) that have crept into modern parlance. Dharmayuddha is a prime example. The time has come to standardise. Dharmayuddha is often referred to in the Sastras as merely war conducted according to honourable custom. But this, as we know from the Mahabharata, is incorrect. Dharmayuddha is war to restore Dharma. When Evil has put the very survival of Dharma at stake, it mandates the participation of all Indic (and especially Dharmic) Rajas to join together for the common cause of restoring Dharma (as was done on the Kurukshetra) or ridding Bharatavarsha of foreign invaders (as was, in effect, done at the Battle of Rajasthan). It also necessitates the relaxing of the traditional rules of warfare, meant mainly for wars between Dharmic kings.
What is referred to as Dharma-yuddha is better classified as Achara-yuddha (referred to elsewhere as Manava-yuddha). That is, war conducted according to proper custom and ritual, for the traditional aims of Kings. This refers to wars conducted among Indic kings in the normal course of life, where non-combatants are respected, and rules of and for warfare are observed. Kautilya then refers to Kuta-yuddha (“Crooked War”) as war that uses the crooked methods of Kutaniti (Strategic thinking). The aims may be just, but the methods may be unchivalrous. But this has now become the Total War conducted by the adharmic rulers outside India, and who occasionally cropped up within India. It has become the de facto Asura-Yuddha mentioned in the Sastras as being used by barbarians. We live in a time when barbarians-in-spirit have gained access to sophisticated weaponry used without thought for civilian life. We experienced this with this British. Total War knows no rules, uses any strategy, and its only Morality is Victory. Dharmayuddha rejects Asurayuddha but requires Kutayuddha, which is the application of Kutaniti.
When the proper customs and practices among Kshatriyas were loosening even in the Dvapara Age (i.e.unjust killing of Abhimanyu), how can Bharatiyas foolishly expect everything to be practiced to the letter today? It is one thing for Rajputs to follow customs when facing other Rajputs, but downright stupidity to do so when facing off against non-Indian kings, even if Rajputs were in their employ. This is the value and importance of critical and strategic thinking over subject-matter expertise,and Niti is the foundation for this. Indeed, it is the difference between a Raja and a Raja-putra.
No one doubts the proficiency at arms or even valour of Rajputs, but war and kingship also necessitates adapting to circumstance and putting aside personal pride to protect ones praja and desa. That is why Chhatrapati Shivaji and Maharaja Ranjit Singh are rightfully celebrated. They recognised that circumstances had changed, and the prime directive, indeed sacred duty, of kings was to protect their subjects (especially womenfolk).
Apad Dharma not only permits but requires the breaking of Achara, so as to protect the blamelessly innocent from the diabolically evil. At a time when knowledge is power, it is not Sastra or Suhstra, or Sastra and Suhstra, but even Sastra as Suhstra. The question of where to define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour is the intersection of Niti and Dharma. Shivaji defined it as all’s fair game except a woman’s honour, and that was how he ensured his soldiers did not become the very Asuras they were fighting.
When non-combatants and even women and children are enslaved and executed, when truthful philosophers who promote virtue are murdered and mocked, when the sacred animal that secures civilised life is slaughtered for sport and savouries, what greater sacred duty can there be for a King, his Ministers, and his Lieutenants than to unburden the Sacred Earth?
That is the difference between a mere Raja or Samrat and a Chakravartin. The Raja is only concerned with his own Bhoga (enjoyment) or entry into Svarga (material heaven); the Chakravartin realises Moksha lies in protecting his subjects, and rejects not only Bhoga, but even Svarga itself.
But before one can become a Chakravartin…Before one can become a Raja or Mantri, or even respected Praja…One must first master Niti: The practical, everyday principles of life. Niti helps us not only read situations, but read characters, and understand motivations. Just as crimes are determined by intent, virtue determined by selflessness, so too are people determined by nature and character. Niti helps us understand motivations and psyche so we can understand if Dharma or Apad Dharma, is required. Whom to trust, whom to avoid. When to follow, when not to follow. When to stop, when to go. All of these are determined by Niti. And this, more than anything else, is what is missing among Bharatiyas today. Ironically, some of the same personalities who talk of the Panchatantra fail to recognise subversives in their own ranks. This is because they recite Niti, but don’t apply it. Niti begins with the simple question: Kah Labhate? Cui Bono?
But who has time for such questions when there is gyaan to give. The fruit has been removed and only the husk of “Rajneeti” is given for rogues and wretches to utilise for stupidity or increased follower counts. In place of critical thinking, we have coaching centres. In place of philosophy, we have “philognosis”.
At present, we have unprincipled gyaanis who cite the letter of the Dharma so they can give sanctimonious lectures to feel important and gain influence, then break Dharma completely when their own survival or ambition depend upon it. This is selfishness. What we need are Dharmic Men and Women of Principle, who use Niti to know when to follow the Dharma to the Letter, but for the greater good, know when to bend it in rare circumstances. This is selflessness. It is the difference between a Drona and a Sri Krishna. That is the value of Niti.
It is time for good and responsible citizens to regain their senses and understand that Achara is not the prathamo Dharma, but preservation of Dharma is. When Dharma is preserved, you can pursue Achara and Kulachara without fear for your fruitive rewards.
Restore Dharma first, and restore Sense by studying and teaching Niti.
- Prasad, Rajendra. A Conceptual-Analytic Study of Classical Indian Philosophy of Morals. New Delhi: Concept. 2008. p.6
- Roy, Kaushik. Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare in South Asia: From Antiquity to the Present
- Rangarajan, L.N. Edit, Kautilya. The Arthashastra. New Delhi. Penguin.1992
- Vidura Niti.