Five hundred years ago, a visionary leader ruled over a vast empire that covered all of southern India. Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara was called the Emperor of War and Letters for he ruled with both brawn and brains. The citizens he governed were incredibly diverse; his people were of different faiths, classes and ethnicities.

The king himself was a shudra by birth, the son of a Tulu warlord who nonetheless received a rigorous Brahmanic education and went on to reign as a fearless warrior, celebrated poet and political genius. Krishnadevaraya was the perfect embodiment of the age-old paragon of a kavi-raja or poet-king. He was an enlightened monarch who could balance brute force when necessary with real compassion when needed. And so, for leaders around the world today, his life and his wisdom are timely reminders of how one charismatic leader can shape a dynamic world.

As a patron of the arts, and a consummate poet himself, Krishnadevaraya composed the Amuktamalyada, a renowned epic poem in classical Telugu about the Tamil saint Andal. In his masterpiece the king embedded some eighty verses on raja-niti or statecraft.

While drawing on older ideas from Indian political theorists (Kautilya in Sanskrit, Baddena in Telugu) the king refreshed well-known political tropes with his lived experience as a sixteenth century statesman. His political vision is profound and fresh; and it touches upon some very contemporary issues like diversity, inclusion, communalism, disease and poverty. Indeed, the story of Krishnadevaraya’s time is much like our own, thereby making his insights on good governance strikingly relevant to today’s most pressing global challenges.

In his introductory verse on political ethics, Krishnadevaraya sets out his overarching vision of government as a symbiotic, affective relationship between sovereign and civil society. The king and his people are one entity; and together they constitute the body politic, a holistic organism that must work collectively to alleviate the suffering of the neediest parts of society.

A king must listen to the cries of the destitute
and care for their needs.
whilst never entrusting such serious matters to cowards.
He must always be ready to protect his people,
for if a king keeps the welfare of the people in his heart
the people will care for the welfare of the king.

“AM IV.204-5”

A dharmic king’s political directive was clear: always act with compassion towards your citizens. For a true leader like Krishandevaraya, this was in fact a matter of personal duty. In one verse he describes how a noble king should protect his people from the six deadly plagues (AM II.43). Of these six, only one relates to invading enemies; the other five concern natural disasters: flooding, drought, and infestation by rats, moths and locusts.

A king’s righteous behaviour normally keeps these troubles at bay, but when plagues do strike, the king must mitigate the suffering caused to his people by generously donating funds from the royal coffers.

The king however is not the sole person in charge of governance. Power flows down from him, through ministers, generals, vassals, lords and officers. Nonetheless, keeping all of them in line was the king’s responsibility. Here is one sharp verse regarding the unfortunate plight of refugees and the nefarious actions of local politicians:

The people are suffering and fleeing the country!
The officials don’t call them back, they just think,
“Now we can sell off all their cattle and grains,
and then we’ll use their houses for firewood!”
When a king commands such jackals of war,
Even conquering the whole world has no glory!

“AM IV.237”

When politicians turn into jackals, they become war profiteers in search of personal gains, but eventually their devious deeds will lead to naught. Dominating people, forcing them to leave the country and stealing their resources is not dharmic. In fact, Krishnadevaraya advises that refugees from foreign lands be offered asylum: “When drought, sickness and calamity force foreigners to seek refuge, give them shelter in your own country.” (AM IV.245) This was the way of a truly righteous king, for his only true dharma was to safeguard the health and welfare of all his people.

In an extended prose section, Krishnadevaraya waxes on about the pitiful state of sixteenth century Indian politics. He laments over an age of moral impoverishment, a time when unethical officers are on the rise and good governance is in decline. He praises the dharmic kings of yore and bemoans the selfish behaviour of modern leaders and ministers. But this is the Kali Yuga, and moral decline is to be expected. Krishnadevaraya adds: “The life of a lawful king remains unfulfilled unless and until he relieves the misfortunes of his people…but in this modern age, and in times to come, will civil society really have enough power?”

No matter how bleak his assessment may have been, Krishnadevaraya maintained a hopeful and positive outlook. This is how the king summarises his position: “Be ever mindful and maintain control, don’t disregard the things you hear and see. Protect the good and punish the wicked whenever you can, but when you’re powerless, take solace in god. For when you act without selfish motives, everything will fall into the palm of your hand. This is the way, for a lawful king always acts with dharma as his beacon!” (AM IV.285)

But if this medieval king felt so strongly about government’s moral decline in the sixteenth century, what would he think of today’s global political landscape?

In many ways Krishnadevaraya would see that not much has changed in five hundred years: politicians are still crooked, religious figures are dishonourable and businessmen are greedy. As one of the world’s first truly global leaders, Krishnadevaraya was the first Indian king to address modern issues like multiculturalism, urbanisation, globalisation and immigration. Indeed, Krishnadevaraya’s problems were quite similar to our own; the sad problem for us now is that we have forgotten the culturally specific theories and strategies of our past.

Whereas Krishnadevaraya and other premodern Indian rulers naturally drew on political wisdom derived from an Indian context, the leaders of many modern nations like India have typically adopted a Western model of industrialised capital development. As a country, and as a people, we are still trying to squeeze our Indian ways of being into a foreign model of a democratic nation-state.

The key to India’s future is remembering her past; and remembering that past in a balanced way – by shying away from exaggerated histories rooted in issues of identity politics and cultural pride, and by focusing squarely on the richness of our cultural heritage in a scholarly, impartial and productive manner. Like many colonised people, we as Indians have forgotten our own history, and we have allowed it to be written primarily by those who see India from the outside. Reclaiming that history for ourselves in a balanced way will lead to a true awakenings

By carefully looking back into our past we are sure to find solutions to many of our most pressing challenges. When we decolonize our minds and transcend the identity politics of what a modern nation constitutes, we may see a future India that lives up to her ancient ideals of inclusion, diversity and unity. We may in fact hold within our past a new way of being that embraces a truly interconnected sense of our planetary humanity.

The Sanskrit root ni means to lead, guide and govern. From it derives the word neta, a leader, and also the word niti, ethics. A true leader like Krishnadevaraya is one who leads by example: yatha raja, tatha prajah – as the king, so the people. And so, when a leader acts with righteousness and compassion, the people will follow, and all of society will flourish.

Raya Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara

Srinivas Reddy is the author of Raya: Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara, published by Juggernaut Books.