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Ignorant Teaching The Blind: Problem with the Parable

To rebut shallow readings of Harishchandra story no external logic, data is needed Answers are in the criticism itself.

Advertisement for First Indian movie, ‘Raja Harishchandra’, appeared in Bombay Chronicle on 3rd May, 1913.

Advertisement for First Indian movie, ‘Raja Harishchandra’, appeared in Bombay Chronicle on 3rd May, 1913.


ndian ignorance of Bharattantra (the classical Indian political system that governed India) is so colossal that it only be seen when ‘respected’ writers expound on Indian classics in mainstream media – from a position of total ignorance and bias.

From Darkness

Take this. We have today a post on Raja Harishchandra which is being faulted for all the values that it stands against.

Below is an excerpt.

Fifty generations have been told to emulate the virtuous monarch. In order to keep his word, Harish Chandra was prepared to endure the worst possible misery. The nobility of this is emphasised in every retelling. Gandhiji, for example, loved the story and, certainly, he lived by this principle of accepting extreme personal hardship in the pursuit of his moral principles.

What is not emphasised is that Harish Chandra was also prepared to put other people through equally great misery, without consulting them, in order to keep his word. He ruined his family and humiliated his wife by forcing her to strip in public (that particular theme has always fascinated Indians). Apart from the patriarchal assumption that his wife and son were disposable goods, he thought his word outweighed his responsibilities as a family man.

We are not told what happened to the kingdom’s per capita income in the period between his abdication and the divine intervention. Perhaps the place prospered. Perhaps not. Either way, Harish Chandra handed over executive responsibilities and the state’s resources to someone with unknown competencies when it came to making executive decisions, or managing state finances. As an absolute monarch, he did not, of course, consult his subjects on the regime transfer.

The story also contains a raft-load of caste stereotypes and biases. Brahmins are good; Kshatriyas are good; corpse disposers are dirty, unless they are gods or Kshatriyas in disguise. The biases and assumptions offer fascinating insights into the social structure of ancient India: absolute monarchy, absolute patriarchy, caste rigidities and a twisted code that placed personal honour above the well-being of the family, or of entire kingdoms. In itself, this would be only of historical interest.

The scary thing is that Harish Chandra’s behaviour is cited as being worth emulating in 21st-century school textbooks. The negative externalities of his behaviour are ignored even in the modern versions of the story. Caste and patriarchal prejudices are reinforced, and the concepts of democratic consultation and consensus are conspicuous by their absence.

By contemporary moral standards, Raja Harish Chandra was a monster. He should have broken his word and taken whatever punishment the Maharishi handed out, sooner than cause this sort of harm to his family. Nor should he have disposed of state resources in this irresponsible fashion and placed the lives and fortunes of all his subjects in potential jeopardy.

Moral standards change. When you read an old story, you have to cherry-pick the moral lessons you should imbibe from it. Unfortunately, as a nation, we seem to have internalised all the wrong lessons from Raja Harish Chandra.

His laudable commitment to the truth and to keeping his word has fallen by the wayside. But the monumental self-absorption and absolute indifference to the well-being of others that he displayed characterise both our public and private behaviour.

The parable also supposedly teaches us to rely upon divine intervention. Raja Harish Chandra beggared himself and abdicated responsibility for the state’s resources. Only divine intervention put things right again. We emulate him as best we can, by playing ducks-and-drakes with our public finances. Unfortunately, divine intervention is not that reliable when it comes to fixing fiscal deficits.

via Devangshu Datta: The problem with the parable | Business Standard.

Usual Stuff …

The writer of this post, Devangshu Dutta (DD), makes the usual five points.

  1. Rigid caste system
  2. Absolute monarchy
  3. State-controlled economy
  4. Slavery
  5. Self-absorbed Indians

To see how shallow DD’s reading of Harishchandra story is, no external logic or data is needed. All the answers are in the criticism itself.

Caste System: If Raja Harishchandra could from a king become a chandala to a king again, how rigid was the caste system?

In which society, in the history of the world has a king become a king again after having come down in his life to a lowly status as a chandala?

Rajas & Nawabs: What are the marks of absolute monarchy? Grand palaces, monuments, costly wars, humongous treasuries, over-taxed peasants groaning in misery, oppressive police and soldiery, et al.

How many such elements do we find in Indian history for 4000 years after Raja Harishchandra?

From Indus Valley-Saraswati Basin cities till Mughal India how many monuments do we find? Over-taxed peasants make an entry after Mughal India and the British.

Royal Patronage: It may come as a surprise to DD that the ‘Indispensable’ State was not the engine for Indian economic activity till about 100 years ago.

While economies in the Rest of the World depended on royal patronage, Indians had unfettered right to land and gold. Even currency and coinage were not controlled by the kings. So much for DD’s silly argument of ‘absolute’ Indian monarchs.

This ensured that local and national economy did not depend on royal patronage or initiatives.

Unlike in the ‘modern’ ‘free market’ or socialist economies.

Slavery: Slaves have no control over slavery.

From capture to death, slaves have no control over their destiny – and this loss of liberty has State protection. Indian classics have many stories how kings became ‘dasas’ and later freed themselves from the position of ‘dasas’.

Dasas controlled their servitude – whereas slaves cannot. Indian legal texts expounding Bharattantra have no laws that give State protection to slave-owners. India remains the only society in history that has never given legitimacy to slave owners. It appears that slave owning societies were described as asuric societies.

In fact, there is no Indian word for slaves – except imported words.

Self-absorbed Indians: From Matthew Arnold to Max Muller, we have seen how colonial Britain has painted Indians as inward looking.

Factually, from the Indian woman who was the inn-keeper at Babylon to the Yogi who met Socrates, Indians have travelled the world over. Indians are the second largest diaspora in the world today – after the Chinese. Unlike Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama who were sponsored by the State, the Indian diaspora has spread across the world at their own risk –

Without State sponsorship.

The skeptical and unbelievers, will have counter-arguments – which is a valid position. But DD’s post seems to show that as far as Indian classics go …

In modern India, we have the blind leading the ignorant.


  1. Ramesh
    September 9, 2013 at 5:34 am

    Insightful post as usual. But the author u have quoted Anurag does have a point. The tendency of Indian states or kingdom or praja or family (whatever) becoming a part of the moral / spiritual experiment their leader happened to be undertaking: Harishchandra (his family & kingdom) / Dashrath / Rama (Ayodhya) / Yudhistra ( brothers / wife / kingdom) / and last but not the least India or Hindus to be more specific bcoming a victim of Mr. Gandhis’ “experiments with truth and non-violence”

  2. September 9, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    The tendency of Indian states or kingdom or praja or family (whatever) becoming a part of the moral / spiritual experiment their leader happened to be undertaking: Harishchandra (his family & kingdom) / Dashrath / Rama (Ayodhya) / Yudhistra ( brothers / wife / kingdom)

    I wonder on what basis you make this claim. My own reading is that Bharattantra ensured that the subjects-praja were unaffected by the personal struggles of the rulers. I have not read any account of how Hastinapur or Indraprastha suffered due to regime-changes – from Pandu, Dhritharashtra, Yudhishthira or Duryodhana.

    So, I am unclear if that was the big issue. Yes, there are descriptions of how well-regarded Dashratha, Yuvraj Ramachandra, Yudhishtra were.

    But did the kingdom suffer?

    last but not the least India or Hindus to be more specific bcoming a victim of Mr. Gandhis’ “experiments with truth and non-violence”

    This comment reveals more about modern Indian defeatism rather than about Gandhiji.

    Gandhiji died before the modern Indian republic was born on January 26th, 1950. Everything that modern India did was quite contrary to what Gandhiji suggested. But anyway, it has been 65 years since he has died. It is pathetic to blame a man who has been dead for 65 years.

    Anyway, this comment also implies that Gandhiji single-handedly ended British colonialism and shaped India – which is good Congressi propaganda. You need to take a 2ndlook at all these points.

    More importantly, you seem to imply that Gandhiji’s (or Nehru’s /whosoever) India has been a failure.

    I wonder why you say this.

    Why not see the trajectory of the four diners who sat down at the ‘banquet’ and decided Indian sub-continent’s future in 1947.

    Britain – From the WWII victor to a Perennial Loser ; on the verge of becoming a Third World country – in a short 70 years.

    USA – From Super-Power to Super-Debtor. (Of course, only the Ghost of USA was at this banquet).

    Pakistan – Ruled by the erstwhile Muslim rulers of India.

    India – From Ship to Mouth … and now.

    Third largest economy, largest private gold reserves in the world, owner of rare technologies in space, nuclear, defence.

  3. Ramesh
    September 11, 2013 at 9:30 am

    welcome to Anuraag Sanghi’s cloud cuckoo land

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