By W A Wijewardena –
Child’s guide to Ranilnomics: Part III
Aseni, whiz kid of economics, and her grandfather, Sarath Mahatthaya, are in conversation about economics of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, tagged Ranilnomics. In this episode, they talk about how the principles laid down by the Buddha as Lichchavi good governance principles can be incorporated in his economic policy.
Aseni: Grandpa, President Ranil Wickremesinghe is famous for quoting the Buddha whenever he makes a public address. In his address to Parliament in early August, he ended it with a quotation from the Buddha urging Parliamentarians to be a light to themselves. In a statement issued on the 2022 Vesak Day, he, as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, called for using Buddha’s teachings practically to liberate the country of uncertainty.
Earlier in 2015, addressing the Japanese Parliament, National Diet, recalling how JR Jayewardene quoted from the Dhammapada in San Francisco Japan Peace Treaty that hatred does not end hatred, he ended his address with a quotation from the Buddha that even when thousands candles are lit with a single candle, its life does not get shortened. There are many more such instances. But has he taken the Buddha’s wisdom on governance and economy into his policies?
Sarath: Unfortunately, no. That is not a fault of Ranil because the economic policies pursued by modern governments do not reckon those prescribed by the Buddha. Hence, he may quote the Buddha, but when it comes to practical application of the Buddha’s teachings, his policymakers do not make Buddha’s economic prescriptions. But it does not mean that the Buddha has not spoken of the economy and economic policies.
Aseni: But Ranil has been making public statements that he will be emulating the governance principles followed by the Lichchavi Clan, a kingdom made up of individual republics. Doesn’t it mean that he could still implement those economic principles if he wants to do it?
Sarath: Yes, he is noted for making those statements. Lichchavi’s is just one of the eight republics of the confederation of the republics known as Vajji. Hence, it is more relevant to call the principles pronounced by Ranil as The Seven Principles of Non-decay practiced by Lichchavi Clan, called Sapta Aparihani Dhamma, practiced by Vajjis. These principles have been well explained by the Buddha to Elder Ananda in the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta.
As I told you, Vajjis are rulers of a system of republics and, therefore, in modern terminology, the head of the republic can be called the President. He just presided over the meetings of Vajjis and did not have powers which other members did not have. Therefore, he is one among equals. The Sapta Aparihani Dhamma which they practiced are in fact good principles of governance which Ranil can practice as he has pronounced many times. If all the people follow these principles, there is no need for a constitution to safeguard the rights of the people. Hence, it is in the interest of the country if he chooses to practice them upholding its spirit.
Aseni: What’re those principles, Grandpa?
Sarath: They can be called the great principles of governance practiced by the great rulers at the time of the Buddha.
The first principle is that the ruling clan should have frequent well-attended meetings to discuss and make decisions relating to the affairs of the state. The second one says that they assemble peacefully at those meetings and disperse also peacefully once the decisions have been made conducting their business of governance in concord or amicably. What this means is that there is no room for discord or fighting. But for people to behave in concord, the President of the Republic should recognise and appreciate what his critics will say and extend to them a hand of peace. If he tries to punish them, it will breed discord and lead to decay.
This was the common wisdom which people held in ancient India. For instance, as quoted by Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda drawing on Greek historian Plutarch, when Alexander, the Great, visited an Indian Sage called Dandamis in Taxila, he asked the Sage to resolve several riddles. One of these riddles was ‘how one can make oneself loved and respected’? The answer given by Dandamis was straight and well-revealing. He had said, that if you have enormous powers but if you do not inflict fear in others, then, you are loved and respected. It is said that this answer had changed the life of the young military campaigner.
He had questioned himself what he was attaining by inflicting fear in other people, not-loved and not-respected, but condemned outrightly. He had changed his military campaign and started his return journey to Greece after taking Dandamis as his advisor. On the way back, Dandamis had died followed by the death of Alexander. But this is a good example for any ruler who thinks that he can survive by inflicting fear in others. He will not only lose his kingdom but also love and respect of citizens. Not even the most brutal dictator can survive without love and respect.
Aseni: That’s wonderful. What Dandamis had told Alexander, the Great are applicable to any ruler or even the head of a family. They’re universal and valid for all times. Then, what’re the other principles, Grandpa
Sarath: The third principle relates to laws. The Vajjis had never abolished old laws and enacted new laws arbitrarily. They had always followed the old customs. In the present day, laws are arbitrarily enacted abolishing existing ones leading to much chaos in society. Just look at Sri Lanka’s constitution. How many times has it been amended arbitrarily? Still there is no solution because it has been done without thinking just to suit the people in power. That has been the main source of the present economic and political calamity in Sri Lanka.
The fourth principle is different from the above and it talks about the respect which one should have for elders. The Vajjis had been showing respect, honour, esteem, and veneration toward their elders and also considered it worthwhile to listen to them. An elder in ancient India meant not elderly by age but by a lot of experience, maturity and wisdom. Good governance requires people to make decisions in consultation with others, especially those who are wise and erudite. The Indian Guru Kautilya who wrote The Arthashastra 300 years after the Buddha had advised the king that he should seek the opinions of advisors together and individually because each person may have a different opinion. He also laid down the condition that advisors should not give advice that only pleases the king; even if the king does not like a particular piece of advice but giving that advice will be in the interest of the king or the country, he should give that advice to the king.
But to make this effective, the king should have humility to listen to others who may give wise advice though it may not please his ego.
Aseni: What it means is that it is in the interest of a king to be associated with people who will speak the truth even when the king does not like it. That is a good principle of governance. What are the other principles which Lichchavi had been following?
Sarath: The fifth one is about the use of the powers of the rulers to harm others. This has been presented as the need for refraining from causing harm to women, the defenceless in Indian society during the Buddha’s time. The principle says that the Vajjis had refrained themselves from abducting women and maidens of good families and from detaining them. Though women are specifically mentioned here because of the specific conditions in ancient India, it should be made applicable to all citizens in a republic. As the Buddha had preached, Vajjis had been progressing and not decaying because they refrained themselves from unlawful detentions.
Kautilya further elaborated this in the case of a monarch in The Arthashastra. He said that, I quote, a king who observes his duty of protecting his people justly, according to law, goes to heaven, unlike one who does not protect his people or inflicts unjust punishments, the quote ends. Here, the reference to ‘his people’ mean all the people in the kingdom and not a select group. Kautilya further says that the king who flouts this requirement will ruin his kingdom by his own injustice. This is a principle which many rulers tend to forget once they are in power. But its consequences are catastrophic to the whole country.
Aseni: I see that these ancient laws of justice are equally valid for today. What are the other principles that were followed by Vajjis?
Sarath: The sixth one is concerned with the need for respecting different faiths and places of worship. The Vajjis had been showing respect, honour, esteem, and veneration toward their shrines and should continue to make the offerings to them as had been practices in the past. The seventh one is about the need for protecting the religious leaders whether they have been living in the state or not. The observation of these seven principles of good governance helps a ruler to inculcate discipline in himself as well as in those who are around him. It is a must for the progress of a nation.
Aseni: True. What this means is that President Ranil Wickremesinghe should incorporate these seven principles in his good governance code. But it is also important that all his ministers, state ministers, parliamentarians and senior officials should be made aware of them.
Sarath: True. Not only should they learn of them. They should also practice them not as a duty but in the true spirit of good disciples. This is because it is easy to preach about good practices, but it is difficult to make it a part of one’s life. This is the more difficult challenge faced by him. If he fails in this venture, his policies will also fail.
Aseni: I agree. He is like an acrobat walking on a tightrope. The economic crisis in the country is so acute today that it is like a time bomb ticking every second. Time is running out for him. But still, he cannot ignore the establishment of a good governance regime in the country. That is because good governance and acting in concord with all those in society, whether they are friends or foes, is the foundation for a sustained growth in the country. I think if we fail today, we will fail forever, Grandpa.
Sarath: Yes, good governance is the foundation of sustained and quality growth of a country. It enables a country to make all the citizens owners of economic policy, just like those in the republics run by Lichchavi. When they become policy owners, they also become equal sharers of the output that is being made by adopting those policies. But there are three other governance requirements that should be adopted. Without them, just following Vajji principles won’t do.
Aseni: What are they, Grandpa?
Sarath: They have been the focus of attention by the international community today. You might say that the international community does not matter because we are a sovereign country. But true sovereignty can be enjoyed by Sri Lankans if and only if Sri Lanka is doing well in economic terms. Since Sri Lanka is bankrupt in every respect, we have been driven to the state of beggars and everyone knows that beggars are not choosers. Hence, those scriptures passed by the international community cannot be ignored anymore.
One such scripture is that Sri Lanka should honour human rights when dealing with citizens. Another is that Sri Lanka should observe the rule of law, that is, it should apply laws equally to all the citizens. The third is that Sri Lanka should establish an effective mechanism for the eradication of waste, bribery, and corruption. These three pillars are essential pillars of any good governance regime. We can ask the international community to mind their own business. We do not have that luxury anymore because we are dependent on the handouts to be passed by them. If these handouts dry out, Sri Lanka will be a nation of the dead. Hence, these are serious matters that should be a part and parcel of Ranilnomics.
Aseni: Thanks, Grandpa. I have a good learning outcome today. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has been pronouncing again and again that he is following the Lichchavi principles of good governance. But they should more appropriately be called Vajji principles. It is a good strategy because if he can follow them, Sri Lanka will be able to build a nation of concord, appreciating and respecting each other. But that should not be limited only to a pronouncement. It should be acted on by incorporating them to his policy and then getting all those ministers, state ministers, parliamentarians, and senior officers supporting him on board. Though it is difficult, it is not impossible if he first sets an example by practicing them. But without them, Sri Lanka cannot think of attaining a sustainable and quality economic growth.
*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at email@example.com