Column by U Mahesh Prabhu
The Arthashastra was written by a person often clad in a saffron robe – Chanakya. He didn’t take a direct role in administration and appointed people to get the things done. It is likely that he was the first ‘kingmaker’ known in human history. Over two thousand years ago, he exemplified the life of a Vedic seeker. He lived in the world, worked to make it better, yet never took anything for himself. Like a lotus flower in a dirty pond, he lived untouched by the temptations of life.
Chanakya knew the world could be a better place with a strong set of nations living harmoniously with each other. He thought it evil for one man to rule the world and was critical of Alexander ‘The Great’ and his mission to conquer the world. Living in a hut outside the palace, he guided the king and his courtiers in building a great kingdom. Once his mission was accomplished, he retired into the forest as if the empire and its accomplishments meant nothing to him. But, clearly, he wasn’t the only one to choose the path of living a fruitful life and eventually renounce everything. Many Vedic rishis did the same in the past.
In the Ramayana is the story of Rishi Vashishta, who mentored young princes of Ayodhya and eventually guided King Ram later in his life. The book also mentions Rishi Vishwamitra, who was a king himself. These great sages who renounced the world and its desires were revered by the kings of their times. This is because, while they were infused with the highest knowledge, they had no desires for themselves and posed no danger to the kingdom.
All that was important to them was the greater good of humanity. Misleading kings would yield them no benefits, for they never had a personal agenda of their own. The kings before whom the world bowed, bowed in turn to these hermits with complete humility. And, therefore, these rishis were revered by all in the kingdom.
Education in Vedic India was all about mentoring, not just a transfer of knowledge or information. Kings took great interest and made considerable efforts to find good teachers for their princes. Since these rishis were not interested in worldly pleasures, money meant nothing to them. The princes had to work hard to impress these hermits before becoming acceptable for their tutelage. Stripped of their royal clothing, they had to dress as commoners and work like peasants in the hermitage. Often, the princes who had the best mentor became the best ruler. History can testify to this fact.
Because these rishis were clad in saffron, the colour of Agni or the sacred fire, the men in saffron have been respected in India – even to this day. True, there were imposters then, as there are today, but there were never saffron-clad men in courts or places of sensual enjoyment – like today. Saffron was a symbol of renunciation, selflessness and, above all, the greater good. It was preposterous for a person with personal ambition and vanity to wear saffron. Those saffron-clad men never sought a following for themselves, yet they were followed in words and deeds by all who revered them.
As time passed and people lost interest in altruistic ideals, the number of such rishis dwindled. Yet, the respect they commanded continued to remain alive in the minds of the masses. Eventually came self styled gurus who claimed moral superiority by their appearance and following, not by their own accomplishments. They too commanded some respect and got people to believe in them. Chanakya saw this as a way to control the masses. He goaded them by the fear of being exposed.
Chanakya devised an advanced system of human intelligence-gathering in which operatives wore saffron to deceive the masses. There were instances when, before sending in the army to raid a village, for example, these pseudo-renunciates were sent first to make a prophecy of doom in order to create chaos in the minds of the people and in the enemy army. Often, such strategies were wonderfully effective since they resulted in surrender without a fight – saving countless innocent lives. A great care was taken to ensure that these saffron-clad people never went rogue, as they were carefully watched. These saffron-clad spies proved to be an effective weapon in the game of psychological warfare.
So what’s the difference between a saffron-clad rishi and a saffron-clad mole (spy), especially when both had knowledge of the Vedas, the sciences and spoke wisely? Well, it’s plain and simple. Rishis are selfless beings who do all they can for the greater good without an iota of selfishness – they are hermits, bereft of desires and ambitions with no need for vanity. The opposite is true of the spy. He wears a saffron robe to attract attention; he thrives on publicity as, without it, he is likely to perish. He’s not a hermit and is often seen enjoying the company of people to avoid loneliness. While rishis work for the greater good, these imposters work towards serving their own selfish ends.
Rishis and their imitating moles played a great deal in building the nation. Earlier, empires were built with great help from saffron clad spies. But there have been times when these moles overstepped their boundaries to dethrone rulers and serve their own selfish ends instead. But a true rishi has never left his hermitage, his vision and his ideals for mere personal gain. Rishis are often compared to the ocean, not just for their wealth of wisdom, but for their self-restraint; oceans don’t often transgress their shores.