Medieval wisdom of modern relevance

Medieval wisdom of modern relevance

By RAZIUDDIN AQUIL | 9 April, 2016
Written during political flux, Sa’di’s work gives valuable insights on themes relevant even today.

Thirteenth-century Persian poet, Sa’di Shirazi’s classic twin-volume Gulistan (Rose Garden) and Bostan (The Orchard) offer anecdotes (hikayat) in prose and poetry comprising words of wisdom, including political advice on responsibilities of rulers and examples of good or bad governance. Written in a period of political flux caused by violent emergence of Mongol hordes, which created widespread anxieties and horrendous bloodbath, Sa’di’s work provides valuable insights on a whole gamut of themes and issues relevant even in modern times.

Politically, good work will be remembered for posterity and history, bad will be mocked and forgotten.

MEEK SUBMISSION TO THE WHIMS OF THE RULER: One of the stories is about ministers of ancient Persian king Anushiravan, the just, who were once discussing an important affair of state, each giving his opinion.

The king did likewise and the renowned philosophically-oriented sage and minister Bozorgmehr concurred with it.

Later, the ministers privately inquired: “What merit have you discovered in the opinion of the king above so many other observations of wise men?”

Bozorgmehr replied: The culmination of the affair is unknown and it depends on the will of God whether the opinion of others will turn out to be right or wrong; it was better to agree with the views of the king so that if it turned out to be wrong, we may, on account of having followed him, remain free from blame.

The poet observed: Searching for an opinion contrary to the king’s/Means washing hands in one’s own blood/Should he in plain day say it is night/It’s better to shout: Lo, the moon and seven-sister cluster of stars!

The message was that counsel from political advisers could be misleading, especially in a context where rulers wanted only yes-men around and did not entertain any critical appraisal of their work. Both the above-mentioned emperor and minister were renowned figures and yet were not free from sycophancy and arbitrariness.

REFRAINING FROM AGGRANDISEMENT: Another account relates that once some game was being roasted for Anushiravan, during a hunting party, but salt was not available. When a servant was being sent to an adjoining village to bring some, the just emperor ordered that payment should be offered, else it might become a custom and the village ruined.

When asked what harm such a small demand could do, the wise ruler replied: Foundation of oppression was small to begin with, but extortionists would increase it manifold and it would reach unbearable levels.

The poet said: The ruler allows five eggs to be taken by force/His soldiers grill a thousand chickens.

However, these kinds of abuses do not last. There can be violent rebellions with popular support or a coup with divine help, ensuring a just political alternative emerged, catering to people’s needs and ensuring peace and security.

CONSEQUENCES OF TYRANNY: It is narrated that one of the kings of Persia had tyrannically seized his subjects’ possessions and oppressed them so violently that they were forced into exile.

Population diminished, prosperity of the country suffered, and treasury became empty.

One day, Firdausi’s eleventh-century epic Shahnama was being read out in the monarch’s assembly, the subject being the reign of ancient king Feridun.

It was clear that people enthusiastically supported him and he gained the throne with no treasure, land or retinue.

The tyrant wanted to know from his minister the reason for this popular support for rulers such as Feridun. The minister replied: The ruler must be just so that the populace may assemble around him, and show clemency so that they may live in safety under the shadow of his governance; you possess neither justice nor clemency. Displeased with the candid remarks of the minister, the king promptly sent him to prison.

Soon, his cousins rose in rebellion to reclaim the usurped kingdom of their father.

The people tottering under the king’s cruelty supported the rebels till the tyrant lost and legitimate successors took possession of the state.

The poet advised: Be at peace with people and sit safe from attacks of enemies/Because the people are the army of a just monarch.

CONCLUDING SUGGESTION: An unjust king asked a divine what was the greatest kind of worship. The latter replied: for you, the best is to sleep for some time during the day so as not to injure people at least during the period you are in slumber!

I saw a tyrant sleeping during the day/I said: he is seditious, it’s better that he sleeps/But he whose sleep is better than wakefulness/Is better dead than leading such a bad life.

It is important for rulers to heed such advice so that they may be remembered for being sincere in their attempts to work for the common weal.

(Adapted from English translation of Sa’di’s Gulistan by Edward Rehatsek, Tehran: Peyke Farhang, 1998).


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