What happens when industrialists renege on loans, politicians play dirty with the people who elect them and real estate companies dupe home buyers who trust them? They are all breaking one of the founding principles of all civilisations, apart from breaking the law, of course. They are in breach of contract with the people they gave their word to.
Ancient societies believed that when contracts come apart, they shatter trust and bring chaos. Thus gods were invoked as witnesses to enforce agreements and treaties. Among the oldest recorded treaties in the world is the one signed around 1380 BC between two clans from Asia Minor, the Hittites and the Mittanis. The tribes, inhabitants of a region that falls within the borders of modern-day Syria, called the Vedic gods to witness their treaty of peace. Among the many gods mentioned in the order areMitra, Varuna, Indra, and Nasatya (the Ashvin twins).
The gods laid much in store by the word of men, stepping in with grim punishments to those who welshed and profusely rewarding those who did. In the Rig Veda the duo Varuna-Mitraare entrusted with the order of the universe. They are sometimes joined by Indra and together, they ensure that the wheels of cosmic and human realms keep turning.Among epic heroes, one of the strongest upholders of contract is Bheeshma who swears to celibacy so that his father can marry again. He keeps his word and is rewarded with the power to choose the time and place of his death.
Mithra,as a Persian and Roman god, is an upholder of oaths; the Vedic Mitra (the debate on whether the two are one or derived from each other continues) stands for contracts and friendship. Both ensure that the pact between kings and men and between gods and kings are kept.
In the Vedic pantheon, Varuna works along with Mitra to keep the order of the universe.He has been depicted as a large black-hued deity dressed in flowing robes in many ancient texts. Perhaps Varuna’s appearance, distinctly different from later day gods such as Brahma and Vishnu, hints at his links with the world of asuras. Many scholars believe that the duo belonged to an older pantheon where the lines between devas and asuras were not as neatly drawn. Or, the two could represent the Vedic version of Greek Titans such as Hyperion and Cronos.
The point is that the concept of contracts as the bedrock of civilisation is as old as time. The Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia consists of 282 laws and nearly half the code deals with matters of contract. It talks about wages to be paid, terms of transactions between kings and warriors and so on.
Contracts were perhaps considered essential glue when homo-sapiens started building the first, rudimentary units of society. In many cultures the sun god presided over contracts; Greeks and Romans considered Mithra as a sun god. In the Babylonian line-up, Shamash the sun god is also the god of justice and he is supposed to have dictated the code to King Hammurabi. The Nasatyas or the Ashvins who stood witness to the Hittite-Mittani peace treaty are Vedic gods of light.
The sun was perhaps best suited to dispense justice given its power to shine through darkness. Its light stood for clarity and order. In the Upanishads, order is the preserve of the wind, for it is considered to be the divinity that never rests. In the wind rests the law and order of the world, according to the Brihad-Aryanaka. Interestingly, the Rig Veda too reflects a similar belief with Varuna (the god of wind) appointed as the god of contracts.
A contract in legal parlance is an enforceable agreement between two or more parties with mutual obligations. The Indian contract Act 1872 is among the oldest pieces of legislation today and according to the legal fraternity, age has not withered its appeal. The principles of the Act are timeless, many experts writing on the subject have said, but it needs to keep up with the changing nature of businesses. While that may be true, enforcement still seems to be a problem as is evident from the chaos around us. Be it the refugee crisis in Europe, the Vijay Mallya-banks imbroglio, or the corruption scandals that companies and governments are roiled in across the globe – these are all cases of contracts come undone. In these days of fragile contracts, who will stand guard over promises men make to each other?