In what is uncharacteristic in the world of scholarship, uncharacteristic since scholars rarely gesture to the gaps in their own work, Upinder Singh points out that her book Political Violence in Ancient India is the end product of what she perceived as a big absence in the formidable repertoire of research that carries her name. After completing A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India (2008), itself the culmination of decades of research and teaching, she felt she had completely missed ‘a fundamental element that was implied in Ancient India’s entire political narrative—violence’. Thus began her journey into reading and rereading a great gamut of works produced across some twelve hundred years or so. There are texts, there are epigraphs, there is archaeology and there are coins. More remarkable than the breadth of her reading is how closely she has read these sources in order to reap a rich harvest of ideas which are woven together to produce the first book to offer an integrated study of ancient India’s perceptions of, and attitudes to, political violence.
This book is much more about ideas of political violence and nonviolence and less about the practice or incidents of violence. At the same time, ideas here are frequently placed within the vector of actual practice. An example of this is how ‘violence jostles with piety’ in the archaeological landscape of Rajagriha, the first capital of the Magadha state, in the sixth century BCE, where the presence of the Buddha and Mahavira is palpable in the very space where male members of the ruling family were fairly consistently killing off their fathers. Again, nearly a thousand years later, when a cleaned up or what Singh calls an ‘aestheticized’ version of kingship had been consolidated, while the ruler was widely projected as a protector of his people and of dharma, here were real kings like Shashanka and Mihirakula who were violently anti-Buddhist and a carnage of sorts had also left its material imprint on religious establishments like the Dharmarajika stupa at Taxila.
This and much more helps us understand the realities of political power in antiquity—and, it is necessary to emphasize the historical space of antiquity. This is because in the buzz around the book, an inordinate space has been devoted to how it strikes a contemporary chord. This is true, but overemphasizing its relevance in present political times has had an unintended consequence which is that there has been an inadequate appreciation of what is one of its fundamental achievements: to highlight the sophistication and complexity of ideas in ancient India and to reveal that these ideas also have a history. Ancient India is not stuck in timeless archetypes and discourses. Nor are Vedic texts the intellectual fountainhead of all that is consequential. While the Vedic texts contain the earliest expressions of Indian political ideas they are not particularly concerned by the violence of war. It is from the sixth century BCE, that violence, nonviolence and renunciation became among the most powerful and debated ideas in Indian culture.
It is from that time onwards that religious traditions were frequently in conversation with each other. As the book reveals, the connections between renunciation and nonviolence were central not only to Buddhism and Jainism but also within the Brahmanical tradition as seen in the Dharmashastras. There are similarities too between religious traditions and the world of mahakavyas—renunciation as a political value is there in the Jaina tradition of great kings turning their backs on power and the Raghuvamsha of Kalidasa where renouncing kingship is a desirable virtue. The same text sometimes strains, as the book highlights, because of its engagement with various modes of political being. The Mahabharata is a magnificent example of this, wrestling constantly with the question of justice and violence, all to be expected in a text marked by unceasing bloodshed and yet, where nonviolence is described as the greatest dharma. There is a remarkable ruler like Ashoka with his two ideas of empire—one political and the other moral with the moral including all living beings, especially animals. There is the give and take in the world of symbols across kingly edicts and numismatic imagery. The very animals—elephant, humped bull, lion, and horse—on Ashoka’s pillar capitals are those that are stamped on early coins. So, even while coins do not bear the figure of the king, these may well have been seen as marked by his authority. All these conceptualizations are framed within ideas that are specifically ancient: the concepts of merit and sin, the relationship of the cosmos and the beings that inhabit it, and a great deal else.
Upinder Singh’s book is worth reading not only for the ideas that it discusses, but equally for the stories it tells, where such ideas are frequently embedded. It tells many great ancient Indian stories concerning kingly life and perceptions of it, and tells them well. The world of animals imitating the human political community is among the most arresting and enjoyable takeaways from it. This is especially true of the Panchatantra tales, where humour is powerfully deployed to poke fun at kings and their crazy ways, shorn as Singh says, of their ‘pious platitudes’. That the oppressed at least had humour at hand means that the audiences that enjoyed those stories must have been a lot like us with our love for Laxman’s ‘Common Man’ and for stand up comedy shows like ‘Aisi Taisi Democracy’ that are evenly irreverent against all those who matter in the present political dispensation. This delight at jokes which are at the expense of the powerful makes one feel a sense of affinity with and affection for the people of ancient India.
Ideas about political violence, thus, are not only those that are stamped by the perspective of kings. How these appeared from the standpoint of the oppressed also figure here. I imagine that this exploration of how different groups experienced the king’s power, can be pushed even further. I was struck by the fact that in their experience of political power, the animals in the realm of kings and the heroines in their encounters with kingly heroes can sometimes appear to be in a similar situation. To me, the vulnerability of Shakuntala in relation to King Dushyanta in Abhijnanasakuntalam, bears much resemblance to the helplessness of the deer that the same king as the hunter was aiming to kill before he met Shakuntala.
One leaves the book with a sense that there is no one idea of kingship and violence but only one consistent faultline. That is the long shadow of the reality of political violence over all that men (not women) imagined in relation to it as also sanitized its ruthlessness, perhaps, to justify its existence.
Nayanjot Lahiri is Professor of History at Ashoka University, Sonepat, Rai, Haryana.