Lack of Interconnections
Romila Thapar
PERSPECTIVES ON POWER: INDIA AND CHINA by P.V. Pillai Manohar Publication, New Delhi, 1978, 230 pp., 45.00
July-August 1978, volume 3, No 1

The subtitle to this book explains the precise perspective, namely, an analy­sis of attitudes towards political power in the two countries between the seventh and second centuries B.C.

This is clearly an ambitious undertak­ing, for it is easy enough to compare superficial similarities but more difficult to assess the historical mainsprings of particular patterns. Such comparative studies require considerable expertise and familiarity with the sources and illuminat­ing insights which can be tested by recourse to more detailed studies. Per­spectives on Power does not quite measure up to this. Furthermore, it reads as two distinct essays with few interconnections. Nevertheless, the two essays, even if not illuminating, do raise some interesting points.

The more obvious similarities as emphasized in this study have often been listed before: relatively small states end up as the nuclei of major imperial sys­tems, the rise of Confucianism in opposition to the established belief system and the intellectual justification of aggression and total political control. Up to a point these are features which are common to nascent periods of power and empire in many parts of the ancient world. What are equally significant in comparative studies are the dissimilarities, the examina­tion of which provides a worthwhile focus.[ih`c-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”block” ihc_mb_who=”unreg” ihc_mb_template=”1″ ]

In the first part of the book the theore­tical status of the king as defined in the Dharmasutras is discussed and particularly the interplay of the Regnum and the Sacerdotium, the moral order and the temporal order. There follows an elabora­tion of the idea that the Sacerdotium remained above and beyond the Regnum. The reign of Ashoka Maurya is seen as an attempt to give primacy to the Regnum. Subsequent to this the Manu Dharmasha­stra takes a somewhat different position as compared to the earlier Dharmashastra literature. Buddhist theory is seen in opposition to the shastric tradition and in the context of the role of Ashoka Maurya, assumes added significance. What the author fails to explain however is that whereas in the post-Mauryan period, Buddhism was more prevalent, nevertheless, the Manu Dharmashastra reverts substantially to the earlier shast­ric tradition. Had there been an attempt to relate the theory more closely to the historical context, the interconnections may have provided more meaningful insights, as for example, the degree to which Buddhism as a heterodoxy was seen as such in the middle Ganges Valley, the core region from which the imperial idea emerged.

A fuller historical understanding of the period may have precluded a some­what narrow definition of certain con­cepts. Ashoka’s nonviolence is counter-­posed with the concept of the Kshatriya and his duty to fight. But the concept of the Kshatriya was by no means merely that of the warrior. By the fifth century B.C. the status of the Kshatriya as a member of the ruling lineages in a system of chiefships and as a landowner was equally, if not more, important. It could equally plausibly be argued that the emphasis on nonviolence marked the termination of the Kshatriya as war­rior.

The change in the concept is not limi­ted to the Buddhist tradition alone but is evident in the literature deriving from the shastric tradition as, for instance, in certain sections of the Mahabharata. The injunction to the king to protect the Varnashramadharma has less to do with the Kshatriya as warrior and more with the interlocking of Varna with the state.

In the Chinese case the discussion cen­tres round the evolution of Confucianism and the challenge to it by Legalism which is seen as an approximate parallel to the shastric relationship with Buddhism in India.

Among the dissimilarities in the count­ries, the absence in the one case of the Varnashramadharma is emphasized. The latter is seen as an obstacle to the growth of absolute and despotic temporal power. This is suggested as a partial explanation of why China tended to evolve towards a centralized, bureaucratic state and pre­sumably India did not.

Romila Thapar is Professor of Ancient Indian History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow.