Madhava-Vidyaranya: The Consummate Polymath

The Vijayanagara Empire pioneered not only Hindu cultural renaissance but also re-energized administrative, political, and economic conditions of the era. Under Madhava-Vidyaranya’s guidance, time-tested concepts of Hindu polity were brought back into currency along with much needed innovations. So effective was his model that three hundred years later, the famous Shivaji, influenced by the Vijayanagara model, instituted the अष्ट-प्रधान (council of eight ministers) concept for his own administration.

Madhava was of the opinion that though dharma did not change in spirit, its external manifestation or implementation could vary according to the time and place of practice. This clearly shows that he was not a श्रद्धा-जड (one whose intellect has been dimmed by blindly following religious precepts). Hence he could retain the essential dharmika nature of the administration while making sure that it did not stagnate. His polity, wonderfully enunciated in the Vyavahara-Madhaviya, emphasized a form of monarchy with ample control by a council as a safeguard against an uncontrolled dictatorship. Having seen the positive impact of the concepts of the Supreme, fear of sin, and the idea of the after-life, he knew that mere legislation could not bring about the well-being of the people. He therefore emphasized introspection and conscientious actions at all levels of society. While supporting the four-fold technique of political strategy (साम-दान-भेद-दण्ड), he maintained, along with ancient luminaries such as Chanakya, Kalidasa, and Manu, that any invaded region or country should not be pillaged or subjected to ignominy – but that the local leaders were once again to be reinstalled. The local way of life or culture of the invaded was to be left untouched.

Such an 'invasion' was known as dharma-vijaya. One cannot but contrast this with the marauding hordes of Islam or the proselytizing pastors of Christianity that changed, nay completely destroyed, the culture of anything they could not understand. The glorious, but now extinct cultures of Greece, Rome, the Mayans and the Incas bear testimony to this bigoted attitude.

Madhava's profound mastery of the theoretical underpinnings of dharma enabled him in addressing practical considerations. For a harmonious society, for example, he knew that dereliction of duty had to be punished without regard to the class of a person. For example, in those days, entire groups of brahmanas were dependent on the ruler for sustenance. In return, the brahmanas would excel in learning and then teach the rest of society. Madhava held that even if a few of a group of such dependent brahmanas were found to be unjust, or worse, not given to study, that entire group had to be punished. He boldly stated that a society that showered its beneficence on such “drone” brahmanas (or teachers) was worse than a society that worshiped thieves. Such a statement shows his unbiased attitude towards his own class of birth. He emphasized that crimes had to receive appropriate punishment. Even members of the royal circle or finally the king himself were not exempt from this rule. Such an impartial outlook and love of truth increased the respect of the king and that of the people towards him and his actions.

Madhava partitioned topics of governance into three classes – those for which the king was responsible (राजायत्त), those handled by a council of ministers (सचिवायत्त) and a class that had to be handled by both (उभयायत्त). He gave great importance to the assembly of citizens, the council of ministers and the dharmashastriya perspective on matters. The government had to exercise care and restraint while collecting taxes – considering both short and long term benefits to its citizens. He gave examples of the garland maker (मालाकार) and the coal vendor (अङ्गारकार) from the Mahabharata to illuminate the method of taxation:

Kanika told Dhrtarashtra, "मालाकारोपमो राजन् भव माङ्गारकोपमः" – “Be like the garland maker, O king, not like the coal maker.”

The coal vendor goes to the jungle, cuts down trees, burns them, and sells the result as coal. The problem here is with the depletion of the source of taxation. Once the jungle got destroyed, how would the coal maker continue in his business? On the other hand, the garland maker goes from plant to plant, plucks a few flowers here and there, ensuring that the plants continued to flourish, yielding him more flowers in the future. The king, according to Madhava, had to be more like the garland maker in getting tax from his subjects while ensuring that they were not unduly troubled, thereby guaranteeing their favors as well as his future sources of tax.

Madhava meticulously enumerated laws and the legal system. He explained how disputes of both civil and criminal categories could be handled by utilizing the services of responsible citizens across caste distinctions. He recognized the importance of a good panchayata system at the village level. The four-fold system of handling disputes – धर्म, व्यवहार, चरित्र, and राजशासन – is noteworthy. 'Dharma' as a dispute-handling method, referred to the method wherein the parties to a dispute, bound by a mutual agreement, consented to an appointed arbiter to solve their case. When the judges listened to the arguments of either side and took decisions based on dharmashastras, the method used was designated 'vyavahara.' When both the disputants and judges were not clear about the solution from a dharmashastra perspective, known precedents were used to judge the case. Such a method was known as 'charitra.' When none of these three methods worked, it would be brought to the attention of the king who would then pass legislation to settle the dispute. This was known as 'rajashasana.' This system was refreshingly varied and different from resorting to theology or scripture blindly. It should also be noted that while the system exhibited variety by encouraging local traditions of law such as the panchayata and other clan/tribe specific practices, it endeavored to place all of these practices on the sound foundation of generally accepted principles.

While the above were found in his works, there is abundant epigraphical evidence of Madhavas’s agricultural reforms. The government itself would offer land to farmers via lease for tilling (known as shraya). The state encouraged rejuvenation of barren and misused agricultural land by constructing tanks and gardens. The leaders of twelve important professions were appointed to look after the welfare of each village. The professions were that of the accountant, village-head, the blacksmith, the carpenter, the barber, the washerman, the goldsmith, irrigator, the potter, the village messenger, the village security, and the purohita. These twelve are recognized by the Urdu term 'barabaluti.' That the originator of this scheme was Madhava is known from traditional sources. This scheme is indeed gram-svaraj – administrative autonomy at the village level. Inscriptions show that this system – reminiscent of a democracy – was strongly established.

Even those belonging to 'backward' classes such as the barber-class and the shepherd-caste were ensured a role in administration without consideration of 'lower' and 'upper' castes. (For example, the Belmanje inscription of 1418 CE informs us that the city administrator of Mangalore was Naganna-Vodeya belonging to the barber caste). Merit held precedence over birth or social class. Persons belonging to any caste could take up high administrative roles as well as agriculture, commerce or advanced study. The boundaries of varnashrama did not prove to be an iron clad system. That there were inscriptions against dowry (Kovilur inscription of 1382 CE) show the extent of the society’s progressive thoughts.

Decentralization was a key characteristic of ancient Indian administration. To face the onslaught of Muslims from the surrounding areas, the people of the region had to unite under a central banner. In such a situation, there was every possibility of losing decentralization in administration. In light of this, it is praiseworthy that the duo of Madhava and Sayana retained this key feature of Indian administration.

Madhava-Vidyaranya’s advent happened when it was needed the most. From the earlier episodes, we see that he not only succeeded in creating an effective bulwark against military and religious imperialism but ensured that the empire and its people continued to prosper by driving time-tested but effective administrative practices at all levels. This wonderful verse by D V Gundappa captures the contribution that Madhava-Vidyaranya provided to the times:

ಹೊಸ ಚಿಗುರು ಹಳೆ ಬೇರು ಕೂಡಿರಲು ಮರ ಸೊಬಗು
ಹೊಸ ಯುಕ್ತಿ ಹಳೆತತ್ತ್ವದೊಡೆಗೂಡೆ ಧರ್ಮ
ಋಷಿವಾಕ್ಯದೊಡನೆ ವಿಜ್ಞಾನಕಲೆ ಮೇಳವಿಸೆ
ಜಸವು ಜನಜೀವನಕೆ – ಮಂಕುತಿಮ್ಮ
– ಮಂಕುತಿಮ್ಮನ ಕಗ್ಗ ೫೨೨
“The tree indeed shines when endowed with old roots and new shoots
Similarly does dharma with time-tested theory and new innovation.
When Science and Art are in harmony with ancient Wisdom,
Do people win in life, Mankutimma”
(Mankutimmana Kagga, verse 522)

To be continued...

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Engineer. Lapsed blogger. Abiding interest in Sanskrit, religion, and philosophy. A wannabe jack-of-all.