11 March 2012

Mattagngnu: the importance of determining appropriateness

The commentary on the Pagnamakkanuvattanasutta (‘First on the turning of the wheel’) in the Raja Vagga (discourses referring to kings) of the Anguttara Nikaya (Numerical Discourses) that I began a few weeks ago was interrupted by the need to respond to some tendentious comments by Human Rights Watch.  I return this week to the third attribute that a Chakravarthi or ‘Universal King’ is endowed with, according to Siddhartha Gauthama, our Budun Wahanse, that of mattagngnu.
Mattagngnu’ refers to appropriateness or a sense of proportion, the right amount or correct dosage in all matters pertaining to governance.  This I believe is of particular significance in the spheres of law and development in today’s context, both in Sri Lanka and in the world. 
‘Knowing limit’ is the key to this element of the Sutta.  This is not as easy as it seems.  It requires, first of all, a sound understanding of all relevant factors.  It requires sound judgment.  Wisdom needs to be applied to all deliberations.  Facts need to be considered dispassionately.  Prejudices need to be retired or suspended.  The yesterday, now and tomorrow relevant to the matter, or the thun-kal dekma, have to be factored in.  The leader, in other words, should ‘read’ the moment at hand in terms of its antecedents and evaluate each option in terms of possible consequences. 

For example, a leader who treats a problem without considering the history it evolved from increases the possibility of failure and moreover renders the future vulnerable to unpleasant and unintended effects of the chosen course of action. If a more here-and-now example is required, treating the ‘ethnic-conflict’ (so-called) by considering only the configuration of forces at the present time and the ‘prerogatives’ of political expediency without taking into account the genesis of the problem and the veracity of all relevant claims in terms of historical, geographical, demographical and economic realities, can very well generate further rupture down the line.  That’s what misdiagnosis does. 

‘Knowledge,’ a leader has to keep in mind, is not value-free. It is often fettered by ideological baggage.  A leader is often handicapped by a felt-need of advisors, aides and loyalists to keep him/her happy.  The leader is often kept in the dark and operates blindly, believing erroneously that all is well and that the information provided is reliable and true.  When knowledge is lacking, deciding ‘limit’ becomes arduous and error-prone.  A lack of humility, likewise, can stop a leader from reminding him/herself that the sum total of human knowledge is just a speck of dust compared with the universe of our ignorance.  ‘Mattagngnu,’ therefore imposes upon ruler a need to equip him/herself with mechanisms that cut through these clarity-compromising impediments.  Such a leader would constantly guard against censorship and self-censorship, deception and self-deception and seek ways of circumventing the twin curses of ignorance and arrogance. 

A reasonable understanding of the weight and contour of all relevant or at least the most pertinent factors is a necessary but not sufficient condition for making decisions that enhance overall profitability.  This is where mattagngnu comes into play.  Perhaps comment on a couple of examples would help shed light. 
Let’s begin with law or the dispensing of justice, the latter referring to word as well as spirit.  Suraj Randiv bowling a no-ball to give India a win in a match that was lost in all but name and simultaneously denying Virendra Sehwag a century (he was 99 not out) was legal but violated ‘sense of justice’.  What is important is that the word should celebrate the idea of equality.  No one should be above the law and everyone should be equal before the law.  The law should not be referenced and applied selectively.  Violation of law should be met with punishment appropriate to the infringement.  Notions such as ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ and ‘due process,’ as well as adequate corrective mechanisms to safeguard against error such as the right of appeal all fall into the ambit of ‘appropriateness’. 

A leader who abides by the principle cannot punish one person for theft while letting another person get away with it. Neither can such a leader be arbitrary in determining severity of punishment.  Punishment as well as punitive action should follow reason and not emotion. Neither should political convenience be a determining element.  There should be clarity at all stages of the process and the decision as well as the justification should be open to scrutiny.  A leader cannot demolish a house claiming that an occupant is hiding a gun therein, reducing everything to rubble and killing or maiming other occupants who are innocent of any such infringement of the law.  There should be adequate proof and moreover the accused should be offered a chance to defend him/herself against the charge.  A leader cannot bomb one such house (even if this can be justified based on the fulfillment of the above criteria) and leave another house (where an occupant guilty of the same ‘crime’ is resident) untouched.  That’s arbitrary, selective and in clear violation of the principle of mattagngnu.   
‘Development’ is a discourse, a set of ideas (and indeed an ‘ideology’) and a practice in the modern world where mattagngnu has been cast aside as irrelevant, obstacle and irritant.  Sense of proportion is a notion that is either footnoted (grudgingly) or is largely absent(ed) in/from the development discourse.  The prerogatives of ‘modernity’ took for granted that things past are irrelevant and indeed needed to be erased altogether. History and heritage were made to take a backseat.  What mattered was what was at hand.  Traditions and customs were considered relevant on in terms of their market value.  ‘Irrelevanced’ simultaneously was the ‘future’.  Whereas some cultures extrapolated seven generations into the future to ascertain the worth of a particular course of action, ‘modernity’ and modernist development paradigms was far less far-seeing and utterly impatient. The future could wait, it was thought.  Saving for a rainy day was out of question. The value of all things was ascertained in the marketplace.  Tomorrow would take care of itself, it was thought.  It was the era of the ‘er’.  BiggER. BettER. TallER. RichER.

The lack of concern for appropriateness is clearly shown in the mindless mining of all resources and until very recently the callous disregard for the impact on the environment and therefore the overall health of the planet.  We are pushing countless species to extinction.  The seas have been over-harvested.  We are champions of desertification.  We are running out of carbon fuels.  In short, the earth’s capacity to regenerate and renew itself has been severely compromised.  We have precipitated natural disasters and scripted our own tragedies as well.  We have not only abandoned that thing called ‘sense of proportion,’ we’ve lost our bearings as well.
Development was in an almighty hurry.  We ran along.  At breakneck speed. We are panting now.  We’ve run out of steam. Running out of petroleum. Running out of answersto the problems we’ve created.   A leader cannot run away. He/she must stand and fight.  That fight cannot be won if the leader refuses to acknowledge, among other things, that modernism and the modernist drive got the dosage all wrong.  We took more and more and didn’t think of giving back.  We were so fixated on ‘the moment’ that we forgot about the future.  We borrowed so much from our children, their children and generations yet unborn that we may very well have condemned them to impoverishment. 

Our leaders, in the matter of development, have shown that they’ve not factored in mattagngnu in their deliberations.  Neither did the development gurus. Nor those who made careers out of development – academics, NGO operators, advisors and other blueprint-makers.  
Any standout leader needs to be sober. Mattagngnu is a quality that exemplifies sobriety.  Be it in constitutional enactment, application of the law, designing development, imposition of taxes, granting of subsidies, exercising presidential prerogative or any other governance element, the leader who has the wisdom to exercise restraint and determine appropriateness will stand tall. Others can stand tall too. Not for long. 

Sabbe aatta bhavantu sukhitatta.  May all beings be happy.