Thought for the Day - Akhandadhi Das

Good morning. Does this week’s debate on House of Lords reform demonstrate the best or the worst of British politics? Or just the incredible difficulty amending a system of two-tier government that some say “works in practice but not in theory.”

This isn’t a new quandary. In the 19th century, the renowned Orientalist, Max Muller, suggested that Eastern thought might shed light on the subject. In particular, he liked the Vedic idea of ancient India that there are four distinct powers at work within all human societies. He referred to them as Intellectual power; Government and military power; Commercial power; and workforce power. A happy and progressive society is the harmony of all four powers.

And to this day, the big issues continue to be how to balance the tensions between these competing powers; whether it’s big business and the workforce; government regulating banks; or how government itself is supervised by what or by whom?

The Vedic principle is that the power of government is balanced by the powers of all three others – people politics, economics and independent wisdom. Although rulers take full responsibility for their decisions, they are to be guided by the council of honest brahmanas - free-thinking intellectuals having knowledge, experience and good character. And, who were useful whatever the question. One king consulted his team for advice on how to break a religious fast by a certain time without eating before an important guest had arrived. Answer: just drink water.

Crucially, to maintain credibility, they had to be independent and to serve all other power groups equally without vested interest. The Mahabharat relates the sorry tale of the brahmana, Drona who failed to speak up or curb the unjust actions of the state because he felt bound by being employed by the crown.

The Vedas joke that it’s not easy getting consensus from a group of free-thinking intellectuals, because each of them try to establish their reputation by having different opinions from everybody else.

But, at their best, there is the example of the sages of Naimisharanya who assembled to address the big issues of their day, way beyond the immediate concerns of government. Their vision was far-sighted and encompassed the needs of everyone. And, they campaigned to protect the moral and human values that get eroded in the fracas of everyday life.

I’m imagining these sages of yore looking down on the Westminster scene and muttering into their long white beards: Yep, you really do need an independent second chamber, but how to set that up constitutionally is another matter. It’s a conundrum as old as human society. So, if you’re enjoying the debate about Lords reform - expect lots more of the same.

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