How a Marathi play represents the crisis of Indian democracy today

Today, the Supreme Court has stayed the house arrest of activists by four weeks and has refused a special probe. The Supreme Court bench was hearing the petition by Romila Thapar and others. The petition says, "The singular reason for the spate of arbitrary and motivated arrests is to silence the voice of dissent, particularly those who speak for the poor and marginalised. This targeting is aimed at maligning these human rights defenders, lawyers and activists but also to malign the progressive ideas and human rights ideology that they espouse." In a 2:1 verdict, the judgement said that the arrests were not based on dissent. 

A couple of centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates too was sentenced to death, allegedly for corrupting the  minds of the youth in Athens. His pupil, Plato, had written "The Apology of Socrates", narrating Socrates' defense. We publish an extract from Makarand Sathe's play "The Man Who Saw the Sun", first written and performed in Marathi and now translated into English by Shanta Gokhale and Sathe. In times when the Pune police is arresting human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and academics, we will realise that Socrates is representative as much of the Indian present as he is a representative of the Greek past. Will the courts of the world's largest democracy make the same historical mistakes like the courts of the most advanced democracy of the time, the Greeks made?



PLATO: Sure. But you still haven’t moved from the society and State to the individual.

[Alcibiades is staring hard at Socrates’ feet.]

SOCRATES: The individual, like the three elements of society…[Notices where Alcibiades is looking] Why are you staring at my feet like that?

CRITO: There he goes interrupting. Sodden with drink as always.

ALCIBIADES: You are always ragging me. But look at his foot. He’s hurt himself. It’s a huge wound. Must have bled profusely.

CRITO: Nothing new there. Socrates will insist on walking barefoot and so hurt himself. It’s been happening for seventy years. Who will change his ways? Will you tell him to wear shoes?

[Phaedo comes running in, looking frightened.]

PHAEDO: I’ve just heard the news Socrates. There’s a conspiracy against you. A case will be filed tomorrow in court. Dreadful charges are going to be made against you.

ALCIBIADES: Like not wearing shoes?

PHAEDO: Idiot. Stop joking. You should have got wind of this news before. What’s the use of being around in the Senate? Listen to the charges against Socrates. He lives a sinful, unrighteous life. He leads the youth astray. He is a heretic who rejects the gods of the State. He worships other gods.

ALCIBIADES: These charges are not only false, they are idiotic. This is a conspiracy, nothing less. They want to destroy him. If they had to charge him, it should have been for not wearing shoes.

CRITO: These are serious charges for which the punishment is death.

PLATO: Is the news true?

PHAEDO: It’s from the innermost circle. We need to move quickly. We must meet people who are sympathetic to us. In Athens, there’s nothing that can’t be achieved with money and contacts.

PLATO: True. Once the wheels begin to spin, it’ll be difficult to stop them.

CRITO: I’ll collect some money. At least… [Notices Socrates who is calm] Say something Socrates.

SOCRATES: To do anything like this is to become one of them.


SOCRATES: I’m a citizen of Athens. I accept this. So I must obey its laws. I must face the charges in court. The charges are false, aren’t they?

CRITO: False? It’s a conspiracy. A conspiracy is false by definition. It is driven by motives other than justice. Why obey laws then?

SOCRATES: Crito, I am not so stupid as to not understand what a conspiracy is.

CRITO: [A little abashed] That’s not what I meant.

PLATO: But we must do something, mustn’t we?

SOCRATES: I’ll give myself up to them tomorrow. I always knew this would happen one day. There have been attempts like this before. This time it looks as if they’ll succeed in taking it all the way to a trial. [Pause] Anyway, we were speaking about society and the individual.

CRITO: Socrates…

SOCRATES: [Ignoring him] Do you remember the three elements of society?

PLATO: Yes. You spoke about them.

SOCRATES: Therefore, the individual too must be made up of the same three elements. If we cannot prove that, we will have to re-examine our ideas about society and justice.

[Two soldiers enter and take Socrates away. Crito and Phaedo follow them. Xanthippe is seen looking after them for a few moments. The lights dim gradually. When the lights come up again One, Three and Four have entered. Plato and Alcibiades stand in a corner.]

ONE: Death for such charges? What was wrong with these Greeks…

THREE: Nitwit.

ONE: Nitwit? No. Vengeful.

THREE: You are a nitwit. Not the Greeks. To lead youth astray and not to worship the gods that the majority of people worship are very serious charges. These things can overturn any government in any age. Governments will always condemn people like that to death.

ONE: This is dreadful

THREE: Politics isn’t a game you idiot. [Referring to Two] Your are under the mistaken impression that you can keep the core of your life untouched while you play politics in the remaining space. You share this belief with this liberal friend of yours

FOUR: True. That’s how it always is. That is what we can do. And all governments fear precisely this. They file cases against us, true or false.

PLATO: [To One, Three and Four] That is what happened. Socrates was arrested the following day and a case was filed against him. [To Alcibiades] And do you remember how Socrates responded to the charges in court? Socrates stood before the jury speaking in a plain, unadorned language—in Athens where rhetoric is considered the highest virtue.

[Socrates stands on the other side of the stage. He begins his defence. The audience is the jury. By the time the whole stage is lit, Socrates is standing alone on it.]

SOCRATES: Citizens of Athens, I don’t know how you were affected by the words of my accusers, but they almost made me forget who I was—so persuasively did they speak. But with all this they have not uttered a word of truth. I was really amazed by one statement they made—when they warned you to be on guard and not allow yourselves to be deceived by the force of my eloquence. My eloquence!

Um…by eloquence if they mean the force of truth then I admit I am eloquent. I won’t speak like an overenthusiastic young orator, in ornamental language. I don’t know how to speak like that. But you will hear from me truth—the complete truth. I will defend myself in my accustomed manner. Like I do anywhere else…at my house, with my friends, at parties. I have only one request, do not judge me because I will speak in plain language, since I am convinced of the justness of my cause. Please allow me to do so. I am now more than seventy years of age and appearing for the first time in the court of law. I am quite a stranger to the language of this place. Treat me like a stranger speaking in his native tongue. I request you to discount the manner in which I am speaking, which may be or may not be good, but think only about the truth that my words speak of. Let the speaker speak truly and the judge decide justly, that’s how it should be, in the court of law.

I would like to start my defence in a manner different from what I believe is normal. Because I believe that I have two types of accusers. One who have accused me here, in this court—Anytus, Meletus and Lycon; and the second type who accuse me outside this court. I am more afraid of the latter… They are far more dangerous…who began accusing me when you were children, telling of one Socrates, who speculated about the heavens and above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause. These people are many, and you have heard their accusations when you were young, when your minds were more impressionable, and when there was no one to counter them. Hardest of all, I do not even know the names of these accusers. I must simply fight with their shadows in my defence. I will start with them.

They accuse me of teaching the youth, and many other things I have already mentioned. You must have seen comedies written by Aristophanes. He is one of them. He introduced a character in his plays that he calls Socrates, who he depicts as saying that he walks in air, and who talks about Science. These are matters I do not know anything about. Many of you have heard me talk. Have you ever heard me talk about these matters? You can judge for yourselves in this regard. I do not need to tell you about them.

They say I teach and take money for that. I really believe that it is very honourable if somebody was really able to instruct mankind and receive money for the instruction. Many people do that. If I had such kind of knowledge I would have been very proud, and conceited. But the truth is, I have no knowledge of that kind. Then what can I teach and how can I ask for money in return?

I daresay Athenians, that some of you will say, ‘Okay Socrates, but what is the origin of these accusations, which are brought against you? There must have been something unusual that you have been doing? All these rumours and this talk about you would never have arisen if you had been like other men. Tell us then, what is the cause of them, for we do not want to judge hastily.’ And I regard this as absolutely fair. I will tell you the cause. This reputation has come to me due to a certain sort of wisdom that I possess.

What kind of wisdom? The kind of limited wisdom that can be attained by humans. To that extent I am inclined to believe that I am wise, whereas the persons of whom I was speaking have a super human wisdom, which I fail to describe, because I do not have it myself. Here, men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to say something extravagant. For the words that I speak will not be mine, I will refer you to witness the God of Delphi. He will tell you about my wisdom. You must have known Chaerephon. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very bold and hasty in whatever he did. He went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether [at this point there is commotion in the jury]—please, please don’t interrupt me now—he asked the oracle to tell him whether anyone was wiser than I was, and the answer came there was no man wiser than Socrates. Chaerephon is dead, but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth in what I am saying.

Why do I mention this? Because I am trying to explain to you why I have such a bad reputation. When I heard the answer I said to myself, what can the God mean? For I knew I had no wisdom. I had never claimed to be wise. What then can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? He is God, he cannot lie. After long consideration I thought of a method of tackling this question. I realized that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the God, with a refutation in my hand. I could say to him, ‘Here is a man wiser than I am, but you said I was the wisest.’ Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation for wisdom, and observed him—his name I need not mention, but he was a politician, a man in power. When I asked him some questions, and I talked to him I could not help thinking, that this person, who was thought to be wise by many, and still wiser by himself, was not really wise at all. When I tried to tell him that he was not really wise, he started hating me. So I said to myself, ‘Well, although neither of us is wise, I am better off than he is, for he is not wise but thinks that he is, whereas I, even though I too am not wise, I at least realize the fact.’ Then I went to another one who had still higher pretensions to wisdom… And my conclusions were exactly the same. I just managed to create one more enemy.

Then I went to one man after another. I was aware of the enmity I provoked. But I had to consider the word of the God. I had to find the meaning of the oracle. And what was the result of my mission? I realized that the men most in repute were invariably foolish, and that the others less esteemed were really wiser and better. I made Herculean efforts to test the oracle. I went to poets. Tragic, romantic, comic, all sorts. They can hardly talk about and explain the meaning of their poetry. Then I went to artisans. Because they were good workmen, and because they knew about the things they manufactured, they thought that they had all the knowledge that one can have. The other thing that I managed through this inquiry, is that I ended up creating many enemies. But on the other hand and more importantly, I was able to find the meaning of this oracle. I came to know, that humans can never have true knowledge, and that only gods can be truly wise. Amongst men, he is the wisest, like Socrates, who knows that he is not really wise. In this way I go about this small universe of ours, obedient to God, from person to person—who is supposed to be wise, and show him that he is not wise. These efforts of mine take all the time I have, and I am left with no time to give either to any public matter or to any concern of my own. And that is why I am left in utter poverty.

There is another thing I must tell you at this point. Many young men who are rich and who have not much to do gather around me on their own accord. They like to hear the pretenders being examined by me. Then they often imitate me and proceed to examine others. Let me tell you that there is no dearth of those who need to be examined. Those who are examined by them, instead of getting angry with themselves, after knowing that they are not wise, get angry at me. They say, ‘This confounded Socrates, this villainous misleader of youth.’ If somebody asks them, ‘Why, what evil does he practice or teach?’ They have nothing to answer. Then they take refuge in the ready-made and arbitrary charges, which are customarily used in such conditions. They do not like to confess that their pretence to knowledge has been detected. They are numerous and ambitious. In a way those who have charged me in this court are, in fact, only their representatives— Meletus, Anytus and Lycon. Meletus represents poets, Anytus represents craftsmen and politicians, and Lycon represents rhetoricians. And this, O men of Athens, is the truth, and the whole truth. If you conduct an inquiry of your own, you will come to the same conclusion—these charges have come about due to prejudice and hatred.

I have said enough in my defence against the first category of my accusers, those who speak outside the court. Now I turn to the second—those who have actually challenged me in this court. Meletus is their leader. He calls himself a good man and true patriot. I request the court, his charges against me be read again—

MAN: [Comes forward and reads] Socrates is a sinful man of evil habits. Socrates leads youth astray from the path of righteous living. He does not believe in this city’s gods, but creates his own gods instead.

SOCRATES: These in short are the charges against me… Meletus is an evil man. He will take a man to court out of sheer malice. He is not in the least interested in the matter for which he has done so. For him it is only mockery. That is what this man is like. I shall prove it now. I request that Meletus be brought in for cross examination.

[Meletus enters and sits on a chair.]

SOCRATES: Meletus, do you feel, deep down, any heartfelt concern for the future of our youth?

MELETUS: Yes. The matter is of great importance to me.

SOCRATES: You have accused me of corrupting the young and claim to have knowledge of their future. Therefore, can you state here who is responsible for improving their future? Everybody present here is interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter.