Rudrangshu Mukherjee reviews Political Violence in Ancient India by Upinder Singh


Indian historiography is not especially rich in the history of idea. This is even more true for the history of India’s ancient past than for more recent epochs. Thus Upinder Singh’s new book, intended as a foray into the history of political ideas in ancient India, is a pioneering attempt. It seeks to puncture the myth perpetrated by leaders like Gandhi and Nehru in their various writings that non-violence was embedded in Indian tradition and culture.

Singh’s book is also an essay to analyse political processes that provided the context for an enduring and rich discourse on political violence between 600 BCE and 600 CE. She draws on a corpus of texts — inscriptions, literary and discursive texts — to illuminate and substantiate her arguments. The result is a book with a layered and complex argument which will make readers rethink their views about ancient India, its political praxis and the project to theorise that praxis.

Shattering myths

A large degree of force and coercion — read violence — is embedded in the functioning of any State, be it a kingdom or a republic. Between 600 BCE and 200 BCE, as kingdoms and empires emerged in parts of India, the necessary presence of force in a state was recognised, but these texts also discussed how this necessity could be measured, justified and mitigated. Singh emphasises that in these discussions there was one consistent voice that championed non-violence as a way of life for a king and other lesser human beings. This was, of course, the voice of Ashoka. But even that remarkable monarch, as Singh points out, warned the forest people that violence could be used against them; he refused to abolish capital punishment; and did not disband his army even after his epiphany following the conquest of Kalinga.

During the period 200 BCE to 300 CE, continuities from the previous period notwithstanding, there was a greater engagement with the idea of royal power, and kingship and governance came to be discussed from a variety of perspectives. An important element in these new discussions was ‘a new equation of the king with the religious domain’ as was noticeable in coins and inscriptions. But this growing association only facilitated the justification and the ‘masking’ of the violence embedded in kingship and the exercise of royal power.

The middle of the first millennium saw the discourse on political violence become more nuanced. One view held that for the survival and the furthering of royal power, force was necessary. Singh calls this the artha view. Another argued that force was required to secure the king’s glory and fame. This is the dharma view. There existed in some texts intermediate views that advocate greater caution and sensitivity towards political violence. Though the discourse on political violence was largely tilted in favour of justifying it, Singh is careful to draw out elements of doubt and dissent — and indeed of critique — that remained and refused to be silenced.

War as a last resort

A special feature of a king’s quest for glory was war for conquest. This entailed violence and killing. Most texts upheld war and it was seen as a necessary accompaniment of kingship, but this was not an unqualified endorsement of large scale violence. War was often seen as a last resort. Even the epic, the Mahabharata, that celebrates dharma yudha, a just war, sees non-cruelty as the highest dharma and sees war as bringing forth intense pay to losers and victors alike. One has only to recall the tragic scenes of the Stree Parvan to note the ultimate futility of war in human affairs. But this in no way diminishes the importance of war in the discourse and the practice of kingship in ancient India. Here again, Singh reiterates the uniqueness of Ashoka’s moral critique.

Hunting spaces

Another aspect of royal glory was the royal hunt which brought the raja into the wilderness and the forests and the people, who inhabited these spaces. Without in any way diminishing the novelty and the astuteness of Singh’s analysis of the wilderness as a site for political violence, there is some scope to question the almost unbroken line she draws between the ‘insurgencies with strongholds in the forest tribal belts’ and the challenge they pose to the Indian state today and the ancient Indian violent political conflict between the state and the forest. The dissimilarities — political, ideological and the nature of the violence — are far too many to posit a continuity.

The book is necessarily, because of the source material, confined to kingship and the discourse on royal power. This is perhaps where its views and those of Gandhi and Tagore who saw the ancient Indian past as being essentially non-violent are at different historical registers. Both Gandhi and Tagore preferred to see Indian history in terms of the quotidian life of the common people, where the absence of violence was noteworthy, rather than as the narrative of kings out to conquer and hunt. The premises are radically different.

Differences apart, Singh’s book displays a sheerness of touch in the way she interprets her sources and through them constructs a cogent narrative. This book will stand the test of time.

Political Violence in Ancient India; Upinder Singh, Harvard University Press, ₹999.

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