I recently completed a reading of a condensed English translation of the Indian epic The Mahabharata. This is not the first time I have engaged with a version of the text, but it does happen to coincide with a building desire to write a post on three interesting examples of leadership from the 20th Century.
This comes with the realization that three of my favorite state leaders and revolutionary cliques from the 20th Century-a century that more often than not resembles an utter breakdown of leadership and the most dramatic examples of state failure-all share a similar journey to the Pandava Brothers in the Mahabharata.
An incredibly brief summary of the political-military main story arc of the work follows. Two branches of a royal family reigning in the ancient state of Kuru begin to struggle for the future of the throne. The treacherous and decadent Kauravas use a variety of clever (but sometimes too-clever-by-half) schemes to attempt to murder, and then exile the Pandava branch. The Pandavas, humiliated, wander in the wilderness where they acquire numerous allies, weapons, and skills during multiple adventures. Most importantly, they acquire the patronage of the god Krishna. When the Pandava’s return to claim their kingdom, they begin with negotiations. The Kauravas refuse to give an inch, quite literally, and declare war. Given the greater levels of empathy and thinking the Pandavas have learned in their exile, they, especially Arjuna, have a crisis of conscience on the eve of the battle. Is it worth it to fight in this rotten world? But Krishna, serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, gives him a pep talk about duty and dharma (the Bhagavad Gita) about how he is involved in forces far greater than himself and his family connections (among other things) and has no choice but to act. He is here now with a job to do. You can always renunciate when the job is done. A massive battle is fought leading to immense slaughter and the eventual triumph of the Pandavas who claim back the kingdom entirely.
The implication is that the kingdom is now better and more justly governed. After several decades this golden age fades, it is the last gasp before the Kali Yuga, the age of degeneration which, by implication, recorded history belongs to. The heroes of old are gone, and they leave only their examples until the cycle begins anew.
If you want a more interesting summary see Wes Cecil’s excellent lecture on the philosopher’s view of the text.
The three state leadership cliques this most resembles in the 20th Century follow in chronological order:
1. The founding of the Turkish Republic:
At the end of the First World War the defunct Ottoman Empire became a puppet rump state with most of its territory going to be carved up between the victorious Allied powers. Though hardly bothered by the loss of the rebellious Arab provinces, the well educated clique of military officers that had been long advocating reforms of state saw even the chance for a Turkish state to survive start to vanish. Britain occupied Istanbul and the surrounding straits, France took Iskenderun, and Greece wholesale invaded hoping for massive territorial annexations in Anatolia and Thrace.
These officers, under the command of Mustafa Kemal, the best Ottoman general of the war, organized a rival government in Ankara to the puppetry of the Sultan in Istanbul. They hoped to gain at least a guaranteed territorial integrity for the Turkish homeland of the state. But when the Sultan declared them traitors they declared a rival republic from their new base. Kemal halted and then decisively crushed the Greeks, swept west to cause the British occupation to flee along with their puppet government, and moved to abolish the Sultanate-and soon after-the attached caliphate as well. What followed was a new reign that swept aside over a century of Ottoman decay for a state that prized development, education, and modernization. Anatolia and Turkey, about to be obliterated in 1919, had bought itself a new lease on life against the odds.
Then of course the Kemalists, Turkey’s Pandavas, left the stage and Erdogan eventually arrived, ushering in the Kali Yuga.
2. Communist Yugoslavia:
The state of Yugoslavia was also formed in the aftermath of World War I, though it was originally a monarchy. The fragile new state was an attempt to unite all Southern Slavs who had been traditionally been divided by the Austrian and Ottoman Empires and their traditional sectarian divisions. When this state faced joint invasion and occupation by Axis Italy and Germany it was quite literally carved up and under German influence, the Croatian Ustasha embarked on a massive genocide of Serbs and Bosnians. Surely, such a young and weak state could never be reformed now?
Two dueling partisan bands formed, the more conservative Chetniks and the left wing Partisans. Josip Broz Tito’s Partisan’s turned out to be the far more clever and tough of the group and managed to eventually convince both western and eastern Allies to direct the lion’s share of aid to them. Once they had undermined the Chetniks enough to be secure, the Partisans began retaking the hills and outlying regions, leaving Axis forces increasingly in isolated urban areas. They had in fact liberated most of the country by the time the Soviets arrived, who helped clean up much of the remainder of forces around Belgrade. This success meant that Yugoslavia would not become a satellite Soviet state and retained a large degree of independence from the beginning.
Tito’s partisans became the new government of a socialist Yugoslavia, which rose like a phoenix from the ashes. The state made enormous, if unfortunately ephemeral, gains in reconciliation after thoroughly purging fascists from the war. Considering the context, this was no small matter in one of the most devastated states of World War 2. It made far more lasting gains in the realms of female empowerment, human development, and making a previously minor country a major diplomatic player on the world stage which held influential sway in the Non-Aligned Movement.
But just a bit over a decade after Tito’s death the old and ever-present tensions would tear the state apart again. With the coming of Slovene and Croatian separatism as well as Serb chauvanism, the Kali Yuga would descend upon the Southern Slavs.
3. Post Genocide Rwanda
To say that Rwanda spent most of the Twentieth Century as an incredibly troubled nation would be to barely scratch the surface. Colonization by Germany and then Belgium, who both propped up an unsustainable system of built in ethnic strife gave the nation an already bad hand after independence. The revolution in the 60s removed the Tutsi aristocracy from power but did little to remove still existing tensions. The new government made many enemies and the Rwandan Patriotic Front became an exile army and government which made allies with Uganda and served in the Ugandan Bush War.
Meanwhile, back home, the crumbling situation took the government in famously genocidal directions. Like the Croat Ustasha, the Hutu radicals took to ferreting out rumored weak links by waging a no-holds-barred campaign of extermination against the Tutsi minority and anyone opposed to their rule. But while they bloodied their machetes against the defenseless, the RPF, battle hardened and unified by their exile, swept in and against the odds disposed of the government.
Since that time tiny Rwanda has made enormous strides in recovery, development, and re-orienting its foreign relations. It has become arguably the most powerful state in Central Africa and one still working hard to abolish official ethnic division. Time will only tell what the real results will be, but the fact that they have made it here from the 90s is nothing less of a miracle.
What are the recurring themes of these (and more) examples and the journey of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata?
1. In-group solidarity (such as Ibn Khaldun’s assabiyya) is made in adversity and exile, and can be a more effective tool of revenge than numbers. All three of the above real life examples were against the odds and against entrenched power. When Krishna was approached by both sides of the coming Kurukshetra War he could not deny either, despite his preference for the Pandavas, for he can deny no one that seeks his aid. He offered himself to one side and his army to another. This makes him much like a symbol for the vagaries of fate and power. But Arjuna chose wisely, and chose Krishna himself over his armies. This would be the linchpin of victory in the coming war.
2. The only way to stave off political degeneracy and reactionary ossification, at least awhile longer, is to have a political upset in the form of a dramatic upheaval or bloodletting. The necessary reforms and re-organization of the ruling classes can only occur with the extermination of the miscreants, be it through exile, prison, or death. This may include fighting former friends and allies. No doubt, Kemal, Tito, and Kagame all had moments where they, like Arjuna, paused before taking the necessary action. But the balance of forces were moving in games more relevant than individual feelings and there was no choice but to see it through.
4. Women too will get their revenge. Much like Kaurava rule in Kuru, where they tried to humiliate and denigrate Draupadi only to have her enthroned and washing her hair in the blood of her enemies, the women of these three former reactionary regimes would go on to have an elevated position in the new governments. The Turkish government made enormous strides in female education and enfranchisement, as did socialist Yugoslavia (where women had fought with the partisans as equals of the men). Rwanda in turn has gone on to surpass all other nations of the present in percentage of female lawmakers.
All of these lessons and more are worth keeping in mind as we enter into an era of ecological catastrophe. After all, those of us who live in the Anglo-American sphere of things have been dwelling in the Kali Yuga for many decades now insofar as leadership is concerned.