Read more from the Being Truly Human September 2013 Newsletter
Extracts from an article by Phiroz Mehta taken from volume 86 of Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 1944
Continued from part 1
There is evidence from the Atharva Veda (III, 4), the Aitareya Brahmana (I, I4), the Taittirya Brahmana (I, 5 and 9), the Ambattha Suttanta of the Buddhists (I, 113), the Arthasastra of Kautalya (I, I3), and the Mahabharata (Rajadharma Parva, Chapter 67), that several if not all of the earliest Aryan states may have had a republican pattern of government. Elective chieftainship was in vogue. The chief, chosen from among the best warriors, enjoyed kingly estate; but the people wielded the right to expel him, and subsequently to recall him if they so desired. This system proving cumbersome and insufficiently effective for the maintenance of security, it gave way to the establishment of an institution of select ladies on the eldest of whom it was the duty of the chief priest to beget a prince. This prince had to live a celibate life and rule the state in accordance with the will of the people’s assembly. But soon these princes were fighting for the right to marry and to found dynasties. In some states the priests gave in and saved their other privileges, while other states experienced civil war, which ended disastrously for the priests. We have hints of this in the Rigveda (X, 124, 8; X, I74); and in the Atharvaveda (VI, 87 and 88), the dependence of the sovereign’s power on the faithfulness of the assembly is emphasised.
But when a millennium had swung past, there existed in Aryavarta great kingdoms with hereditary monarchs whose autocracy was controlled by a select inner Cabinet and by a slightly larger body consisting of the principal Ministers of State; and the powers of these governments, though they could not be constitutionally checked, were effectively limited, often enough, by a vast self-governing democratic society below. Local government in a real sense has been a vital characteristic of living India through millennia.
Such, in brief, was the political and social background offered in that first Aryan millennium by the great kingdoms which had developed all over Northern India to those thinkers who ascended the peaks of Transcendental philosophy and left us the legacy of the Upanishads and of the Samkhya philosophy. It was an age of intellectual glory. Yet it is significant that these profound thinkers first left their everyday world and retreated into forest hermitages before they made their solitary ascent. Despite their high level of civilisation, all was not well in those great kingdoms. And when that age culminated in the spiritual splendour of the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha, the supreme fact which impressed the keenest observer of his age was the overwhelming ubiquity of suffering in man’s life. The Enlightened One ministered unto his fellow men, and his teaching has moulded the destiny of man more profoundly than man cares to admit.
The story of Siddhartha Gautama tells us he was a prince who for twenty-nine years was well guarded from the knowledge of pain, grief, sickness and death, and who, through his royal father’s especial care, was steeped in every conceivable earthly happiness. But the inevitable happened. Siddhartha saw pain, grief, sickness and death. Seized with the overmastering passion to solve the problem of human sorrow, he made the Great Renunciation — of his wife and child whom he loved so well, his princely estate, his worldly happiness — and wandered far and wide, seeking wisdom. Dissatisfied with what the sages of his day had to teach him, he at last looked within himself. Enlightenment dawned on him. With it came that mental serenity, that ineffable peace which he called Nirvana. He wondered for some days whether the wisdom he had won could or could not be given to men and women. Compassion triumphed, and the Buddha taught thereafter for five and forty years all who came to him.
On individual effort and individual realisation he laid the emphasis, rejecting the authority of the priesthood, and the efficacy of ceremonies for individual salvation. He denounced the cruel limitations imposed by the formal observance of some caste rules. He pointed out that whatsoever emphasised the distinctions between one man and another merely increased egoism, and destroyed the growth of true individuality. The desire for asserting this ego, the illusory “I am”, the fleeting external garb mistaken for the true self, was the root cause of suffering, said the Buddha. As long as man made the mistake of regarding this ever-changing illusory manifestation compounded of matter, sense and mind as the stable, permanent reality, an unchanging “I am”, all his desires would be ego-centred, would conflict with the desires of some of those around him and inevitably beget sorrow. Such a man would always be the slave of the childish “I wish; I like; I want”, always at the mercy of his appetites and urges. All desire which was unexamined, undisciplined, unfaithful to the truth of life was the source of sorrow; and the cessation of such desire meant the extinction of sorrow and the beginning of true happiness through pure action. For this, it was necessary to look within.
Continued in part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6 and part 7
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