Trevor Leggett

Literature & Zen Site


The Prime Minister's Quandary

Here is an example from the first half of the twentieth century. It concerns one of the states in India which were ruled by princes, under the umbrella of the Commonwealth. The young ruler of this state had appointed a remarkable man as his prime minister. This was originally a brilliant scholar who had decided to serve his state by going into politics. He studied in Britain and then America for several years. When he returned, his policies, enthusiastically supported by the prince, began to transform the state.

He set himself to tackle the periodic cholera epidemics, from which this state, like others, suffered. The true solution was to improve sanitation, and in the meantime he proposed compulsory cholera inoculations for the whole population. He was able to show how these had cleared up the problem in other areas, but he met opposition from some of the ultra‑conservative Brahmins.  They admitted the force of the figures which he gave, but they said that it was contrary to the ancient traditions. If adopted, they argued, the results would ultimately be disastrous.  Those who wished could be allowed to have the injections, but to impose them by law was absolutely wrong. The prime minister knew that if these highly respected Brahmins advised against it, few would risk their displeasure.

The ruler, and some foreign advisers, were at a loss what to do. Some recommended using the force of the law, others thought the plan would have to be postponed till the objectors (and thousands of others) died, perhaps of cholera.  Both these plans had been tried in other states, but had not worked well.

The prime minister felt he was beginning to hate the orthodoxy which seemed so mindless. He was a man of meditation, and he now went much deeper into it. In the silence of his soul, one day he had a strange experience; he felt he had become one of those pandits. He found himself fearless of death for himself, and wanting to save others from the cholera epidemics. He would co‑operate in improving knowledge of hygiene among the people. But he was firmly set against bringing in this foreign technique of inoculation so totally against the tradition of the ancient texts. He knew that it might very well save some lives, but the cost would be a breach in the sacred tradition. If that breach seemed to give some benefits, there would be other breaches and still others. In the end the people would become like the Westerners, always restlessly moving about like people who were looking for something they had lost, or trying to remember something they had forgotten. The foreigners had no peace, though they had some material advantages; the ancient Indian tradition did not give so many material advantages, but it did give peace. Those who died would be born again. Even the foreigners recognized that in India people could live and die in peace; the foreigners lived in constant anxiety in spite of their wealth, and they were terrified of death.

Adhyatma-teachings goes further into these traditions.