Yogakshema: The ancient Indian concept of Good Governance


India is observing ‘Good Governance Day’ today. The concept of good governance is qualitative in nature, and is intimately connected with the concept of the welfare state.

‘Governance’ basically refers to the process of framing rules, decision making, and implementation of those decisions, such that a society, a country, or an organization is sustained and taken forward towards progress. A UN document defines ‘Good Governance’ as being participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and follows the rule of law.

Yogakshema– the goal of good governance

In India, the concept of the welfare state and good governance is very old and an exposition of them can be found even in their oldest scriptures of the Vedas. Thus, Shukla Yajurveda (6.31) includes a prayer wherein a ruler prays thus: “let my subjects be satisfied, my herds be satisfied, my people be satisfied, let not my people be needy.

Similarly, Manu Smriti (7.3) says that without a proper ruler (i.e. government), the anarchy will result in citizens living in fear and thus, Kingship (i.e. government) was instituted for the protection of the subjects. This is further attested in the Mahabharata (Shanti parva ch.58) which declares the protection of subjects as the ‘cheese of kingly duties’ and then includes the various factors of good governance, ranging from punishing the criminals to supporting meritocracy, from ensuring security to enabling financial transactions, as the means for ensuring this ‘protection of the subjects.’

In other words, ‘Yogakshema or the welfare of the people was the ultimate goal of any ruler or government and good governance was the means to achieve it. But, this exposition of Yogakshema and thus of good governance was not limited to the material (social, political, and economic) welfare of the people, but included spiritual and moral well-being as well.

Thus, writing about the Indian conception of Yogakshema as expounded by Kautilya, M M Sankhdher notes: “Kautilya over-reached the modern concept in that his Yogakshema aims at an all-round development, material as well as spiritual, of the society as well as of the individual. It involves the well-being of the poorest of the poor. The Kaultiyan state, we are told, ensured freedom, happiness, prosperity, and full-fledged development of human personality. Yogakshema demanded a higher moral consciousness both at the elites’ and at the common people’s levels.

Dharma – the basis of good governance

The concept of ‘Yogakshema cannot be perceived in isolation. Welfare is driven by human actions. But, all human actions do not by default lead to happiness and welfare. Thus, Gita (16.24) says, one should learn to differentiate between the actions that ought to be performed and those actions that ought to be avoided. And this division of actions into obligated and prohibited is in turn rooted in the concept of ‘Dharma.’

Dharma which literally means ‘that which upholds’ refers to all those actions which will cause material welfare, happiness, and spiritual upliftment of an individual in the human context. And these Dharmic actions have been enjoined as duties upon each person so that by their performance an entire society or a country achieves overall welfare and development. Thus, Yogakshema of a nation is directly dependent upon the performance of Dharma (i.e. Dharmic duties) by each individual starting with the head of the state.

Governance being the prerogative of the government, and the head of the government being the most important person who drives the whole governance mechanism, his performance of his duties, and his adherence to Dharma becomes the most vital element for achieving Yogakshema of all citizens. Thus, the popular saying stated ‘yatha raja, tatha praja’ (As is the king, so are the subjects). An able administrator who strictly adheres to Dharma will implement proper measures to ensure the welfare and progress of the people, whereas an incompetent Adharmic ruler will push the nation into chaos and suffering.

Also Read: Why duty-based rights narrative is essential

The head of the government cannot and should not act according to his whims and fancies. His sole purpose and duty is to implement good governance by adhering to the principles of Dharma so that the overall development of his citizens is achieved. Atri Smriti (verse 28) says that punishing the wicked, honoring the good, enriching the exchequer by just methods, being impartial towards the litigants, and protecting the kingdom are the five yajnas i.e. selfless duties to be performed by the ruler. Mahabharata (Shanti Parva Ch.90) says that a person becomes a King for protecting Dharma and not for acting capriciously. Similarly, Manu Smriti (7.27) says, a ruler who uses his power of ruling in a proper way, i.e. for the welfare of his citizens, will achieve all desires, wealth, and spiritual merit. On the other hand, a ruler who misuses his power for his selfish reasons will end up in destruction.

In other words, an incompetent and Adharmic person should never occupy the seat of the government. For this reason, the Hindu scriptures stress again and again regarding the required competencies of the kings. Kaultiya’s Arthashastra (1.19.39), for example, states that a ruler’s happiness lies in the happiness of his subjects, in their welfare his welfare, whatever pleases him (personally) he shall not consider as good. Whatever makes his subjects happy, he shall consider as good. He also lists receptive mind, firmness of purpose, and training in all activities of the government as some of the qualities of a King. Similarly, Mahabharata (Shanti Parva Ch.90) says that a king should never abandon righteousness and should always be rooted in it. On the other hand, Manu Smriti (7.30), declares a person who is weak, ignorant, greedy, without discrimination of right and wrong and attached to sensual desires as being unfit to govern.

Hence, Dharma in its twin roles of duties and righteousness is the very basis of ensuring good governance and welfare of everyone. The government and the people involved in the governance are mere enablers who implement principles of Yogakshema. Thus, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4.14) calls Dharma as the king of the kings and states there is nothing superior to Dharma.

Elements of Good governance

Though, good governance is a qualitative term, it can be analyzed using certain parameters which can give definite information regarding the state of governance. The World Bank determinates of good governance include factors like political accountability, transparency, democracy, legal framework, an independent judiciary, importance to the rule of law, effective administration, and cooperation between the government and civil society.

Most of these factors could also be observed in the ancient Indian concept of good governance and Yogakshema. Arthashastra, for example, deals extensively with law and order, political and bureaucratic accountability, the establishment of the rule of law and elaborate legal framework, prevention of corruption, human resource management and meritocracy. Similar issues of law and order, the judicial system and the delivery of justice, punishments for the offenders, etc. have been elaborated in Manu and other Smritis as well.

Summarizing the elements of good administration based upon ancient Indian scriptures, Aruna Goel lists following elements:

  1. Openness in the sense of having wide contact with the people administered.
  2. A sense of justice, fair play, and impartiality in dealing with men and matters.
  3. Sensitivity and responsiveness to the urges, feelings, and the aspirations of the common people.
  4. Securing the honor and dignity of the human being, however humble he or she might be.
  5. Humility and simplicity in the persons manning the administrative machinery and their easy accessibility.
  6. Creating and sustaining an atmosphere conductive to development, growth, and social change.
  7. Honesty and integrity in thought and action.

In addition to these, the Hindu scriptures stipulate the rulers to carry out actions that cause spiritual upliftment of the society and create a social condition wherein people can freely practice their social and spiritual duties. The heads of the governments are obliged to serve its citizens, both materially and spiritually. Thus, the kings of the old supported various Brahmanas who dedicated their entire life to performing religious and spiritual duties and the rulers themselves indulged in charity, rituals, and other spiritual works. Manu Smriti (7.43) says that the ruler himself should be well learned in Vedas and other spiritual scriptures apart from learning about governance, etc. that are necessary to rule. Thus, the ancient concept of Good governance did not create a separation of secular and spiritual aspects of life. Dharma, which upholds life, was the guiding beacon of good governance and it catered to the welfare of all aspects of society – sacred and secular.

Comparison between Dharmic and modern Western models of good governance

The ancient Indian model of good governance, which can be more properly called as a Dharmic model of Yogakshema, contained within itself most of the elements that are present in the western models prevalent today. But, the glaring difference is in the fact that Yogakshema model perceives welfare in a wholesome integral manner, whereas the modern models perceive development as a secular activity that involves the accumulation of wealth without any reference to ecological, ethical, and sacred aspects of an individual and the society.

Thus, elements of ethics and spirituality play no role in Western models, whereas they are very central to Yogakshema model. The western models further create a distinction between religion and secular affairs which is largely rooted in the fact that European nations where secularism had developed had severely suffered from the regressive and anti-science temperament of Semitic religions. India, which has always existed on the foundation of Dharma, never faced any necessity of creating artificial exclusive categories of sacred and secular. Thus, the Yogakshema model perceives governance in a more integral manner catering to all aspects of society.

The Yogakshema model not only enables the society to raise its overall quality of life on the mundane level but also assists to raise the level of consciousness on a universal level. It aims to provide full freedom for every citizen to carry out his Dharmic duties without hindrances so that everyone can attain overall welfare and happiness in their lives. This it does by positioning the entire process of good governance and welfare state on the firm foundation of ‘Duties.’ This duty based narrative ensures that welfare state is not a privilege, not an entitlement that could be misused the way it is being misused in the modern rights-based narrative.

Instead, the welfare state and good governance are made the prerogative of every citizen and the ruler’s sole purpose is to serve his citizens, and he is bound by same obligations, same duties as his citizens. The only difference between a ruler and a citizen is that the magnitude and scope of those duties in case of the ruler is many times greater than in the case of citizens.

This stress on personal duties in the Yogakshema model naturally translates into the emphasization on ethics. In fact, ethics like truth, honesty, non-injury, etc. have been enumerated as Samanya Dharma– universal duties in Hindu scriptures. On the other hand, though professional ethics is stressed in the modern models of governance, ethics as an obligation or duty are still missing.

M M Sankhdher, who examines this difference between Yogakshema and modern welfare state models comments: “There are conceptual differences between the modern welfare state and Yogakshema…the distinctive features of Yogakshema, such as, Dharma, versus religion, selectivity versus universality, duties versus rights, self versus ego, self-employment versus state-employment, above all the role of family in welfare.”

Thus, Yogakshema model of Good governance has better vision and definite advantages over the model models of governance. It is high time that India government realizes the effectiveness of Yogakshema model and bring them into practice.