Ancient India's political history is based on violence: Historian Upinder Singh on new book

‘Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru helped create the myth of a nonviolent ancient India while building a modern independence movement on the principle of ahimsa. But this myth obscures a troubled and complex heritage: a long struggle to reconcile the ethics of nonviolence with the need to use violence to rule,’ states the summary of historian Upinder Singh's new book, Political Violence in Ancient India, published by Harvard University Press. In an interview with Firstpost, Singh explained the ideas she explored in her book, and her findings in documenting ancient Indian political thought for the past 1,200 years.

You have admitted in interviews already and in the book that political violence as a subject is something most historians – including yourself – have missed in the context of India. Why do you think that is? Has the approach been conservative or should I say derivative of the popular narratives already exist?

 About eight years ago, I suddenly realised — and it was really like a flash that went through my head – that in spite of having studied, taught, researched and written about ancient Indian history for over 30 years, I had not realised that this history was shot through and through with enormous violence. I had always ‘known’ the details — that there were wars, power struggles, conflicts between the state and forest people, class and caste oppression, crimes and punishment, violence within the family, etc.. But there are ways and ways of knowing. The realisation that hit me in a very powerful way eight years ago is that the entire political history of ancient India is based on political violence.

A question that bothered me was: Why had this violence been so invisible to me till then? My search for an answer to this question led me to think about the nonviolent aspects of our freedom struggle, Gandhian nationalism, and about how this may have been one of the reasons. The fact that I had not recognised political violence as a major issue in ancient Indian history is also because the state’s violence is has always been accompanied by increasingly sophisticated attempts to camouflage and mask that violence. The fact that we often do not notice it shows the success of that masking. Thirdly, there are fashions in history-writing. At one time, Indian historians mainly wrote political histories; later, they started writing more and more about social and economic structures and processes. I think that the history of ideas is the big challenge now. We need to find new ideas to investigate and explore. Ancient Indian history is a gold mine of exciting ideas which we need to know more about, that the world needs to know more about. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg.

Upinder Singh

Upinder Singh

We — and that includes historians — are all conditioned by our times. Sometimes we do not realise how much this is so. There is a close connection between what is happening in society all around us and what we look at in the past, and how we look at it. For example, the famous political thinker Hannah Arendt was a German-born Jew, who fled to America to escape the violence of Nazi Germany. It is not a coincidence that she wrote a great deal about power, totalitarianism and evil, and a very important essay titled ‘On Violence’. There was a very close connection between her personal experience, the history of her times, and her writings. Under the shadow of the spiraling violence within our country, world-wide terrorist networks, and the ever-present threat of a nuclear holocaust, we are becoming more and more sensitive to the problem of violence. As a result, I think that historians will write more and more about this subject. And I think that intelligent readers too will want to read about these issues because they want to, need to, understand them to make sense of the times we live in.

You narrow in on Gandhi and Nehru, as the mythmakers behind the idea of a non-violent history. Would that also give new meaning to accounts written by the ‘outsider’, those that are easily rejected? And why Nehru and Gandhi alone, what makes them so crucial to understanding this fresh view?

Actually, I do not say in the book that Gandhi and Nehru ‘created’ the myth of a nonviolent ancient India. I say that they ‘helped create’ this impression or myth. Gandhi and Nehru were aware of the elements of violence in Indian history. But they were idealists who wanted to emphasise those values that were important during India’s struggle against British rule. Nonviolence was a crucial part of Gandhi’s personal philosophy and political strategy. The choice of the Ashoka’s Sarnath capital as the symbol of the Indian nation reflects the triumph of the Nehruvian view of history and his aspirations for India’s future. In my book’s Introduction, apart from Nehru and Gandhi, I also mention Savarkar’s and Ambedkar’s views on ancient India. And there were many others.

The main reason why I talk about these men and their ideas is that I wanted to understand how the idea or impression of a nonviolent ancient India was created, and the various ideas about history that were circulating at the time. I saw that different understandings about violence and nonviolence in ancient India lay at the heart of the powerful ideologies of modern India. At one stroke, this connected my investigation of violence in ancient India with more recent times, giving it an immediacy, a contemporary connection. My book begins with the idea of Ashoka in the 20th century and ends with the idea of Ashoka in the 21st century. In between, I talk about the historical Asoka of the 3rd century BCE.

I explain in my book that the idea of a nonviolent ancient India is actually an over-simplification of an important and more complex point — that ancient Indian intellectuals, religious leaders, writers and thinkers thought, talked and wrote about the tension between violence and nonviolence more intensely and continuously than those anywhere else in the world. I want my book to show readers that although ancient history happened so long ago, it is tremendously important and exciting. I have tried to bring out the colourful richness, diversity and depth in the ancient debates about political violence in general and about punishment, war and the forest in particular. I have tried to carefully explain the ancient texts and their ideas, narrate the many interesting stories that they tell, so that interested general readers can experience and enjoy their flavour and ideas.

Upinder Singh's Political Violence in Ancient India

Upinder Singh's Political Violence in Ancient India

You present a very interesting perspective of associating the peaceful Buddhist and Jain schools to the violence surrounding them at time, as sort of a reflex. Can you tell us what this violence was like, who were behind it largely, and what were the motivations at that time?

Buddhism and Jainism are religions which greatly emphasise nonviolence — Jainism more so than Buddhism. But this deep sensitivity towards nonviolence was rooted in a deep experience of violence. If ancient Indians living in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE were very nonviolent, why would the Buddha and Mahavira have to go on and on talking about ahimsa? It follows logically, and there is in fact plenty of evidence for this, that violence of various kinds was rampant during that period. Kings fought many bloody wars. Royal succession was often marked by violent conflict. Animals were killed in Vedic sacrifices. There was inequality and oppression on the basis of class, caste and gender. There were crimes such as theft and murder, and so on.

There is a close connection between what is happening in society around us and what we look at in the past, and how we look at it

It is curious that although early Jainism and Buddhism represented powerful voices against violence, they did not really make a powerful anti-war statement. In the Pali texts, when Ajatashatru’s minister Vassakara comes to the Buddha to ask him for advice on how to defeat the Lichchhavi confederacy, the Buddha does not say that Ajatashatru should not fight. Instead, he gives the minister some indirect advice on how the king could win that war! In ancient India, as today, religious thinkers and intellectuals often had close relationships with people in power. They realised that absolute nonviolence was not possible in politics. New religious movements often start by questioning the status quo but go on to support it. In fact, I have argued in my book that religious leaders, thinkers and poets played important roles not only in highlighting, discussing and debating violence, but also in justifying and legitimizing it.

We know that Buddhist and Jain kings fought many wars (except for Ashoka), and boasted of their victories. If we think in the long-term, we can see that the history of Buddhist countries is full of violence, sometimes extreme violence. Think of the violence that has marked the history of Sri Lanka and the Japanese role in World War II. And think of the Buddhist-majority country of Myanmar, in which the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, have not only been persecuted, but forced to leave their country and become refugees. In the case of all religions, at all times, we need to make a distinction between what religions preach, and what their followers actually do.

The book will also bring fresh focus on the widely popular image considered true of Mughal rulers. Is that fresh focus warranted? Can you give an example and reason why?

I think that apart from the influence of Gandhian nationalism, another factor that was behind the idea of a nonviolent ancient India was the idea of a violent medieval India. Some people seem to think that violence appeared on the scene with Muslim rulers. There is the idea of a peaceful ‘Hindu period’ versus a violent ‘Muslim period,’ the idea of the ‘peaceful Hindu’ versus the ‘violent Muslim.’ This sort of idea has been kept alive and is regularly fanned by right-wing groups and political parties. People need to move beyond political propaganda and simplistic myths and need to think intelligently about history.

As my book shows, ancient Indian texts are full of descriptions of violence of various kinds. Let me give a few examples. The Rig Veda is pervaded with war. The big Vedic sacrifices such as the Ashvamedha are full of violence against men and animals. The Mahabharata describes a terrible 18-day war in which thousands of soldiers were killed every day; there were only seven survivors on the Pandava side and three on the side of the Kauravas. The description of the battle at Kurukshetra should not be read literally, but we know for a fact that the kings of ancient India were constantly fighting bloody wars. Conflicts with forest tribes were common. Ashoka said that he would not fight wars (after the Kalinga war), but he warned the forest tribes that he would not hesitate to use force against them. This same Ashoka, who talked so movingly about nonviolence and compassion did not abolish capital punishment. The Arthashastra gives gory descriptions of various types of torture, some of which must have been in vogue. Oppression and violence is a part of ancient Indian social history, in the treatment of lower classes, lower castes, and women.

Ancient Indian texts are full of descriptions of violence of various kinds

Once we recognise that violence of various kinds has been a significant part of ancient Indian history — in fact of the history of all people at all times — we will realise that the coming of Muslim rulers did not transform a nonviolent ancient India into a violent medieval India. There is no such thing as Hindu warfare and Muslim warfare. There is no such thing as a nonviolent war. When it comes to political violence, the forms, intensity, technology and ideologies vary. But violence is inherent in all states, no matter what the religion of the ruler is. The recent attempt to erase the Mughals from Indian history is misplaced and absurd. It grabs headlines, but it shows a very poor understanding of history.

How important in all of this becomes the role of the artisan, the writer, the poet, the dramatist and so on, especially in the case of Brahmanical or Hindu texts? Is the contradictory narrative in these texts at its extremes in comparison to the similar Buddhist and Jain? 

Artists, poets and intellectuals played very important roles in creating and disseminating political ideas. Because we do not have many biographical details about them, they are often shadowy figures. But if you look at their work carefully, you can identify their point of view. As I have shown in my book, Indian ideas travelled beyond India to other parts of Asia. For instance, we see the influence of the ideas of Kalidasa, Arthashastra, Dharmashastra, Mahabharata and Ramayana in Southeast Asia. Artistic ideas also travelled. So Indian artists and writers had important roles to play in the history of political ideas at a global level.

If we compare Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jaina thought, there is internal diversity within them. There are differences between them, but there are also some similarities. For instance, while ahimsa is central to Jainism and Buddhism, it is also there in Brahmanical texts that list nonviolence as part of the dharma that applies to all people. It is the conversations within and across traditions and genres that make the history of political ideas in ancient India so very interesting. There are so many different voices and perspectives that give us food for thought. We need to understand that questioning, reasoning, discussing, analysing and debating are the hallmarks of a vibrant, sophisticated culture. The dying out or stifling of these things would amount to the death of the mind and of our cultural tradition.

Perhaps the most interesting idea in the book — at least to me — is the tenuous relationship between the state and the forest or those who inhabit it, something that continues till date in the narrative of the naxals. How was this idea stitched, to always suit the state’s intended picture — in the case of ancient and mythic texts?

Actually, the chapter on the wilderness is also my favourite part of the book! We have only recently started thinking about the environment, but ancient Indian texts talk about the forest, its animals and its people continuously, almost obsessively. So there was a very deep awareness of the forest, and it was seen in many different ways. In dramas, it is a beautiful place where lovers meet, where noble rishis live, and where kings hunt. In the Arthashastra, the forest is above all a source of economic resources and elephants, which were very important in war. In the epics, it is a place of exile and is full of danger, adventure and evil rakshasas. The Ramayana shows an extraordinary empathy for animals, for example in its description of the reciprocal love between Rama and the vanaras. In the Buddhist Jatakas, the Buddha is often born as a wise forest animal, for instance, as an elephant or a deer. The Panchatantra stories seem very funny to us, but I have shown that they are actually very violent: the crafty talking animals are constantly giving advice on how to kill and not be killed. The forest is all this and so much more.

For the state, the forest posed a political challenge. Ashoka gives a stern warning to the forest tribes that they should not provoke him, and the Gupta emperor Samudragupta claims that he had made all the forest chieftains his servants. We have to fill in many blanks, but it is clear that such conflicts were an important part of ancient Indian history. Naxalism is just a recent part of a much longer and very complex and troubled history of violent conflict between the state and the forest.


Published Date: Oct 29, 2017 10:25 am | Updated Date: Oct 29, 2017 12:01 pm


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