Literature and Politics
D.V. Gundappa or DVG as he was affectionately called in Karnataka continues to remain one of the colossuses in the state. He was an embodiment of a rare kind of spiritual strength that was both multi-faceted and all-encompassing. There was perhaps no subject that he didn’t touch and turn it into gold. He was perhaps the last rishi in the truest sense of the word: he voluntarily embraced poverty and consciously avoided any kind of power or pelf, and routinely rejected awards and honours that came his way. He was a poet, essayist and dramatist and is mostly renowned for his magnum opus, Manku Thimmana Kagga, dubbed as the Bhagavad Gita of Kannada, which is running into newer and newer reprints more than 30 years after his death.
Perhaps it was the overwhelming success of Manku Thimmana Kagga or perhaps the force of his personality, or for whatever other reason, a significant aspect of DVG has been forgotten. He was first and most of all a political philosopher in the mould of the ancient Indian seers who wrote the Dharmashastras. It is also accurate to describe him as one endowed with the temperament of the ancient Greeks and Romans who produced such copious amounts of high political philosophy.
Like his other work, DVG’s writing on politics runs into a few thousand pages and bears the same hallmarks of simple lucidity, an astonishing breadth and depth of erudition, and unbeatable originality.
The following are some excerpts from his 1950 essay titled Does a Politician Need Literature? The original is in Kannada.
Literature is that which shakes the heart. Any sentence reading which causes an indescribable movement in the heart, which opens up a new vista of experience—that sentence can be called literature.
Our country has recently attained freedom and adopted democracy as the choice of Government. Is literature capable of providing any assistance in this new circumstance?
Those who are well-versed in the nature of both politics and literature aver that good literature is the natural ambrosia that tempers the equally natural poison of politics, and that that is the only function of literature vis a vis politics.
Politics is the agglomeration of the likes and dislikes of lakhs of people. In politics, one man’s sweetness is another man’s bitterness; one man’s garland is the other man’s noose. Thus the political life is one of a perpetual clash between mutually conflicting and competing interests. Is it therefore surprising that in such a life, the basest and the vilest human impulses come to the surface more often than not? The basic nature of politics is the unrelenting assault of selfishness.
This peccancy is more pronounced and more visible in a democracy. Democracy essentially implies that everybody has a say in everything, and that everybody interferes in everything because by definition, all are equal in a democracy. Everybody has the right to aspire for any position or authority. Because everybody is a citizen, everybody is a Government official in one form or the other. Therefore, it is a given that if something good has to ensue from the assumption of such authority, the person who desires it must have the wisdom and the discrimination to sift out the good from the bad.
Because the well-being of the state is on every citizen’s shoulder, it becomes the first duty of the citizen to make himself deserving of the authority he aspires to wield. The first qualification in this direction is to consciously cultivate the notion of, and realize the nature of justice and fairness. It is the study of literature that enables the possession of this qualification.
There is yet another danger in democracy. In a democracy, the person who wishes to emerge victorious must compete to win the support of the maximum number of people (votes). And there are inevitably a large number of victory-aspirants who stake a claim for this support. In this competition, there is again, inevitably, the element of self-praise and the criticism of the competitor. In this process, all the dirt and impurity hidden in the heart of such people will gush forth in an unstoppable torrent. And so the questions emerge: is this humility? Is this dignified behaviour? The power-aspirant knows that it isn’t. However, he also knows that without indulging in such base behaviour, victory is impossible. Thus, the incessant obsession with votes hardens the character and personality of the politician; it causes embarrassment to his near and dear ones, and it erodes whatever is left of his culture and refinement in speech and manners.
However, whether we like it or not, this has become the reality of the competitive politics of today. In such a situation, is it possible for a politician to redeem himself of this dirt that invariably sticks to him?
The answer is yes, and it is literature that makes it possible…the world of the poet and the litterateur is the world of words; the world of the politician is the visible world of the masses of people. But for this difference, the dealings of the litterateur and the politician are pretty much the same. Both must possess the same qualifications: oneness with the people, insight into the hopes and fears of humans, and the ability to think about the welfare of the people.
From this perspective, all of us can agree on the fact that the study of good literature is like a preface for the activities of a politician. He who has not studied the story of Nala, he who has not felt the pain of Nala’s longing, he who has not felt compassion for Damayanti’s plight, he who has not studied the Ramayana, he who has not contemplated on Bharata’s sacrifice, he who has not studied the Mahabharata, he who has not bowed his head before Bhishma’s loftiness, he who has not experienced the plight of Dharmaraya, he who has not felt the tragedy of Duryodhana’s sad end in Ranna’s Gadayuddha, he who has not laughed uproariously at Kumaravyasa’s depiction of Uttara Kumara…what largeness of heart can such a person have? What would be the extent of their nuance on any given subject? What height can the soul that hasn’t burnt in the fire of high literature, that hasn’t swum in the waters of poetry, attain? Such a soul can only bask in the illusion that the basal darkness of the forest of instinct is a grand palace. Its vision is that of the sleepy-eyed; its ears are wooden ears and its speech is a stammer. And the politics it practices is the politics of chaos.
Literature is but one of the forms of human life. The other form is politics. The imagination of the poet and the writer gives expression to various vagaries and delicacies of life through words. The politician attempts to do the same through various systems and institutions of public life.
The lives of great politicians and leaders are first-hand evidences of this fact. England’s Gladstone took inspiration from Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and others. Lincoln derived his inspiration from the Bible and Shakespeare. Mazzini took his from Dante. One can cite several such examples.
We mustn’t forget the fact that the classics of world literature have had politics as one of their key focus areas. The Vedas have had Rajarishis (Statesman-Sages) as prominent figures—Harishchandra, Divodasa, Janaka, and Vishwamitra…the main theme of our epics—Ramayana and Mahabharata—has been politics. Equally, Plato’s most celebrated work, The Republic is a treatise on politics. Plato and his disciple Aristotle are the founding fathers of political philosophy. Key portions of the Bible deal with stories of Kings. Several of Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedies are centred on kings. Politics was the key theme of renowned poets like Milton, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Burns. The corpus of work by such eminences as Burke, Carlyle, Mill, and Maculay deals almost entirely with politics and they are invaluable treasures of the English language. In other words, these writers and poets have themselves in a way, claimed politics as their property. Indeed, Shelley himself said it best when he said that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
The study of literature is thus a prequalification for political life. It is the peak of nobleness amid the din of everyday street-level political sloganeering which often clouds judgement and blurs the line separating right and wrong. Both the citizen and the politician must essentially not lose sight of this peak if they don’t want to go astray. The person who tries to practice politics without passing through the refinery of literature is akin to a blind man holding a rifle. Equally, public service without the aid of literature is similar to a dumb person serving a feast in a dark room.