The Violent Origins of the Land of Ahimsa

Upinder Singh’s Political Violence in Ancient India revolutionises the way India understands its past.

The idea of India being a “peaceful” land is a surprisingly recent one.

Ironically, it first emerges after a series of brutal and hard-fought British wars. Somehow, within a space of roughly a hundred years from the defeat of Tipu Sultan and the Western-drilled Maratha “wall of iron and fire” at Assaye – which even the future Duke of Wellington (the man who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo) described as “the bloodiest for the numbers that I ever saw” – the concept of India as a land of supine Orientals who were constantly conquered by everyone from the Greeks to the British – had taken hold and was actively promoted by the imperial machine.

While this myth might have been seen by the British as a way to justify their own conquest of the subcontinent, they did not seem to have considered another of India’s most ancient traditions: its extraordinary intellectual diversity and flexibility. They found the tables quite deftly turned by Mohandas Gandhi, who took this very idea of Indian “weakness” and developed it into the philosophy of “ahimsa” – based on a selective reading of certain Hindu scriptures. While the scholarly foundations of this idea are as dubious as the British idea of India as a land of weaklings, its political efficacy was indubitable. Against the might of the world’s largest colonial power, peaceful resistance and rallying public opinion was the only way to secure Indian independence.

Ironically, modern India has stuck to the idea of ahimsa as a fundamental aspect of our civilisation despite wars, riots, hangings, and any amount of political and non-political violence.

In Political Violence in Ancient India, Upinder Singh takes these two conflicting ideas and places them in a rigorously researched historical and literary context. The picture that emerges is not of a land of unwilling warriors, or of a land where violence was frowned upon. By shattering the foundational myth not only of the British conquest but also the Independence struggle, Singh brings us to a powerful reckoning with the history of the subcontinent and the broader question of what it means to be Indian.

From the Buddha to Samudra-Gupta

From almost the first instance of settled states in the subcontinent, there is a clear recognition of the moral problem of violence against human beings. As James Scott has argued in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, violence and State formation went hand-in-hand. It was simply impossible in early human societies – which were widely dispersed and had access to a wide variety of food sources – to force people to settle down and cultivate a single crop. It was even harder to get them to voluntarily give up a portion of the surplus in return for protection.

Unless, of course, one happened to run an extortionate protection racket – i.e. the early State. Without violence, civilisation as we know it would not exist. Supriya Nair presents an interesting discussion here.

While many of early civilisations addressed the moral bankruptcy of political violence with a simple expedient – constructing the King as the fount of all legal authority – ancient India took a more interesting approach.

Precluding Rousseau and Hobbes by almost 2,400 years, Gautama Buddha, the Enlightened One, argued that the duty of the king was to uphold the social order. This idea was massively popularised by Ashoka Maurya, the self-proclaimed messiah of the concept of dhamma and of political himsa and ahimsa. In his inscriptions, the Mauryan emperor declares his preference for nonviolence while candidly accepting the necessity for violence in order to hold his empire together.

As the Mauryan empire declined, India entered a new era of political fragmentation. Singh argues that the Brahmanical intellectual tradition incorporated Mauryan and Buddhist ideas of political violence in this formative period.

The Mahabharata, for example, can be seen as a contrast between the unitary “I am the law” rule of Duryodhana (who probably represents the ancient Aryan model of kingship) and the more ambiguous “I uphold the law/dharma” rule of Yudhishthira. Yet the Mahabharata also abounds with contradictions, sometimes proclaiming ahimsa as the supreme dharma, sometimes proclaiming following one’s karma as the supreme dharma (which can also be seen as a subtle rebuke to Buddhist and Jain monasticism). It ends with a cataclysmic war which practically extinguishes the Kuru clan, revealing a deep understanding of the moral grey areas involved in the use of violence.

As Sanskritisation spread Brahminical culture across the subcontinent, this “dharmic” conception of kingship and the acceptability of political violence spread with it. In the flourishing intellectual culture of ancient India, however, this raised almost as many questions as it provided answers. It is this tradition of questioning, of dissenting opinions, and of new interpretations that form the substance of this work.

Political Violence in Ancient India sets out to illustrate this process of intellectual development, while simultaneously providing vital historical and literary context. As a result, the arguments presented by ancient texts can be understood as the authors would have intended them.

The book is comprised of different “eras”, starting from the ideas of the Buddha in roughly 600 BCE and ending with the “mature” phase under the late Gupta Empire in 600 CE. Each era is discussed extensively using literature composed within the period. Every text is presented with fascinating discussions that examine every facet of the work. Once this overarching philosophy of political violence is established, Dr. Singh applies these ideas to warfare and to violence against the wilderness.

The deepest current in this flow of ideas is this: that there is “acceptable” political violence, and there is “unacceptable” political violence. Ahimsa is a laudable goal, but upholding the social order is more important. Gandhi and the British would be shocked by this revelation, as would many Indians. Yet by accepting that we have historically been no less warlike than any other human civilisation, and by understanding how our ancestors attempted to address the moral quandaries inherent in the use of violence by ancient Indian states, a new forum for debate on modern India’s political and moral outlook can be established.

In terms of its interpretations of texts alone, or of its discussion of the socio-economic processes of Indian history, or even of its portrayal of the intellectual development of the philosophy of violence, Political Violence in Ancient India is a pathbreaking work. The fact that it does all three while simultaneously remaining both erudite and readable establishes it as an instant classic – one that will be discussed and debated for years to come.

About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.