Saturday, June 03, 2006

Cintamani Government

What's the cintamani (pronounced chindamani)? Read on!

Saturday's Washington Post has a fascinating article about Iranian President Ahmadinejad's style of governance. He's emphasizing retail politics, dragging along his cabinet for tours of the countryside, promising to help petitioners with a loan or a pension. And in Tehran he runs a customer complaints bureau:

"Each day we get between 130 and 150 requests," said Hamed Alizadeh at the walk-up window at an office in Tehran, set up around the corner from the modest townhome that symbolized Ahmadinejad's personal integrity during the campaign.

Labeled "President's Public Relations Office," the window receives hand-delivered letters from 8 to 5:30 six days a week. Alizadeh, part of a constituent service staff of 200, runs a highlighter over each essential passage, fills out a form for the relevant ministry, then hands the citizen a phone number to call after 10 days.

The requests can be amusing, he said: One woman wanted the president to find her a husband. But seven in 10 ask for money. The president's visit to Iran's poorest province, Sistan and Baluchistan, brought 200,000 letters alone.

"Everybody is saying he will actually solve the problems, so I've come all this way," said Ashraf Samadi, 47, who borrowed $320 from neighbors for the 16-hour bus ride to Tehran to deliver her letter in person. She wanted funds for a son's failing kidney and a daughter's wedding. "Is there any chance of seeing the president himself?" she asked.

The reporters wonders whether the PM can live up to his promises, and contrasts his reputation for kindness in Iran with his ferocious fire-breathing rhetoric towards the United States. Surely one of these must be just a show, the reporter implies. Not at all. Tradition lives: Ahmadinejad is following the old Iranian and Turco-Mongolian tradition of government by generosity.

The Persian historian Juvaini, in his History of the World Conqueror (one of the truly great works of pre-modern history writing, by the way) described how after displaying His wrath in the harsh campaigns of Genghis Khan (r. 1206-1227), the Almighty deigned to display mercy in the reign of his son Ögedei (r. 1229-1241):

After God Almighty . . . had tried His servants upon the touchstone of calamity and melted them in the crucible of tribulation . . . it became necessary in accordance with both reason and tradition that the treasures of the mercy of God -- great is His glory! -- should again be opened up and the ease and comfort of His servants again provided for (p. 179).

The Great Khan Ögedei was famous for his generosity, of which Juvaini told in 49 famous anecdotes. A typical example:

There was a person in Qara-Qorum [the capital of the Mongol empire] to whose affairs weakness and poverty had found their way. He made a cup out of the horn of a mountain goat and sat upon the highway and waited. When he saw the Khan's retinue in the distance he rose to his feet and held out the cup. The Khan took it from him and gave him fifty balish [a kind of ingot of silver]. One of the scribes repeated the number of balish [out of incredulity] and the Khan said: 'How long must I ask you not to deny my bounty and begrudge petitioners my property?' And to spite the censorious he commanded the sum to be doubled and with those balish he made that poor man rich. (p. 223)

And another:

At the time Shiraz [a city in modern southwest Iran] had not yet submitted, a person came from that place and bending his knee spoke as follows: 'I have come from Shiraz, because of the fame of the Emperor's generosity and goodness; for I am a man with a family and have many debts and little backing; and my petition is for 500 balish, which is the amount of my debt.' The Khan ordered his officials to give him what he had asked for and to add the same amount again. They hesitated, saying, 'To add to what he asked for is extravagance, if not ruination. He answered, 'Because of our fame this careworn wretch has traversed many mountains and plains and experienced hot and cold; and what he asked for ill not meet the expenses of his journey hither and his return home, nor will it be sufficient to cover his debt. . . How can it be considered just that a poor man after travelling so great a distance should return disappointed to his family and children? . . .' The poor man returned home rich and joyful, and with the Emperor there was left fair fame in this world.

Of course such generosity had to be paid for -- where did the money in the treasury come from?
The eleventh century Wisdom of Royal Glory, written in Turkish wrote:

The prince should be generous, yet keep a humble heart and quiet demeanor. It is through generosity that the prince acquires a good name, and it is through his name and fame that the world becomes secure. He then attracts troops who crowd about his standard, and with these he attains his goal. Here is how a successful warrior has put it: O brave one! strike, take, and give to your men. Be generous, give gifts, entertain with food and drink. And when you lack, then strike, take, and give again. The valiant man never lacks for wealth . . . (p. 107).

So that is government: you conquer and raid other people and distribute the largesse to your own people. Striking terror into the West and making it pay tribute is a key link in his ability to pay off the debts he owes to the poor of Iran. But revenue is not entirely external:

What need for a prince to hoard up treasure? Wherever he has ready troops, there treasure is at hand. Troops are needed to maintain the state, and wealth is necessary to pay the troops: a prosperous people is neede to attain this wealth, and for the people to be prosperous, you must maintain justice. If any one of these is lacking, all four are left behind: and when this occurs princely rule disintegrates (p. 107)

And while every other official needs to be generous, the treasurer must not be:

[The treasurer] ought to be close-fisted rather than open-handed. Then the treasury won't be squandered. Liberality is a find thing in its place, but not with another man's money! (p. 132).

He must not drink wine but must practice self-restraint . . . If he drinks, he will be too liberal with your money, scattering it about freely without receiving the equivalent. It is better for the treasurer to be rather niggardly and to keep close watch over your money (p. 131).

The prince, the khan: he alone must win the gratitude of the people (and the army) by giving gifts.

Yet there is always the danger, that taxation will not keep up with the ruler's generosity. In Ögedei's reign, North China was the great source of money, which was distributed to the more turbulent areas of the Middle East. The stories about Ögedei in China are not one of heroic generosity, but of grinding taxes and profiteering. In 1240, facing treasury shortfalls, Ögedei overrode the protests of his Chinese adviser Yelü Chucai, and allowed his Turkestani treasurer and tax farmer Abdu'r-Rahman to double (in one year!) the annual tax-quota for North China, from about 44,000 pounds of silver to about 88,000.

In ancient India, this problem of generosity outstripping revenues was well known -- and there was a well-known solution: the cintamani (pronounced chindamani) or wishing jewel that magically grants unending wealth. All your government problems are over!

This solution appears in a collection of famous jataka stories, or tales of the Buddha's previous lives. Many of them were popular legends or beast fables (including one hilarious Calamity Jane story) with the hero re-identified as a previous incarnation of the Buddha. The search for the cintamani is the center of two virtually identical tales: the longer "Great Charity Goes to Sea" and the shorter "Prince Virtuous."

Like the Buddha, the prince* goes out to see the world. His father has the world swept clean of misery, but the prince meets wretched people anyway:

As the procession proceeded it came to a group of people who were dressed in rags. Holding broken vessels, they cried out in a loud voice: 'Give us anything! Anything!' When the prince asked them the cause of their misery, some said they were homeless orphans without families, others said they had been long ill, still others said they had been reduced to begging because robbers had stolen everything they had (Sutra of the Wise and Foolish, p. 165).

The prince goes on to see all the sinful ways in which people make a living: butchers slaughtering animals, farmers plowing the fields (which exposes the worms so that they are killed by birds), hunters who had netted birds, and fisherman pulling fish out of the water.

The prince thought, 'Alas, it is because these people are poverty-stricken that they have no way to live except by killing. When they die, they will fall into the three evil states [hell beings, hungry ghosts, or animals] and go from darkness to darkness. How will they ever be liberated?' (p. 149)

He goes to his father and asks him for money to relieve their sufferings. His father replies, 'Son, it is only for you that I have gathered together all my jewels and treasures. How then can I deny you this? Make whatever gifts you desire.'

Great Charity then made a proclamation to all the people: 'Come! Gifts will be given.' Then the people, monks, brahmins, beggars, the starving, the sick assembled and filled the space outside the city to overflowing. . . Those who wanted clothing were given clothing. Those who wanted food were given food. Those who wanted jewels, gold, silver, lapis-lazuli, horses, carriages, parks, dwellings, or animals, were given them (pp. 149-50).

When a third of the treasury has been depleted, the treasurer (stingy, of course) comes to the king and complains, but the king protests that he loves his son.

Later, when two-thirds of the treasury was gone, the keeper again spoke to the king: 'My lord, your son's giving alms has left only a third of your treasures. What am I to do?' The king replied: 'I myself am unable to prevent my son from giving gifts. If you know what to do, do it.' Then the keeper of the treasury locked the doors of the treasure house and went about his business.

The beggars are left empty handed and Great Charity/Prince Virtuous thinks: 'This must be according to my father's orders. It would not be right to totally deplete his treasury and I shall find some other means of aiding beings.' Then he began to ask people what one did to obtain endless wealth. Some told him that one might become wealthy by raising cattle. Others recommended agriculture. Still others advised trade with distant countries. Some said that it would be well to go to sea in seach of jewels and the cintamani (p. 150)."

His parents are distraught, but the prince insists and eventually he goes in search of the cintamani.

What if a government found the cintamani? What if money grew on trees? Well, for now, it isn't growing on trees, but it is coming out of wells for Ahmadinejad. And if that money fails, there is always nuclear tribute from foreign lands, a device tried earlier by Kim Jong-il.

*Technically, Great Charity is the son of a rich brahmin, while Virtuous is a prince. But the whole story seems to make a lot more sense with the hero as a prince, so that's how I'm going to tell it.

Update: See also here for Ghazan Khan's take on generosity.

Labels: , , , , ,