Published:  12:48 AM, 12 November 2017

A tryst with fury

A tryst with fury Political Violence in Ancient India by Upinder Singh, Publisher: Harvard University Press, Publication year: 2017

Pratap Bhanu Mehta illustrates the shadow of themodern myth of non-violence in an ancient and ruthless tradition, depicted by the author

Orlando Patterson once argued that the Greeks were conceptually obsessed with freedom in part because of slavery. In a similar vein, one could argue that in India the conceptual obsession with non-violence is a way of acknowledging the pervasive reality of violence. In both cases the centrality of a value is an acknowledgement that reality veers in the opposite direction. The sustained reflection on non-violence is actually a deep acknowledgment of the reality of violence.

Indian texts are obsessed with the reality of violence: texts like the Satapatha Brahamana are obsessed with the problem of "containing" violence; even for Gandhi, who is often accused of giving India a misleading self-image of violence, the obsession with ahimsa was a way of acknowledging how violence is always ready and close at hand.

Upinder Singh's erudite, engaging and compelling book takes one entry point into the problem of political violence in ancient India: the problem of kingship. It is not a reflection on the problem of violence in general; nor is it an empirical study of violence. 

But it is a landmark study of thinking about and representations of political violence in ancient India. It ranges over a wide range of sources: the epics, literary texts, texts in the Arthashastra tradition, and more creatively, representations of violence in epigraphic evidence and art. There is no comparable study that brings together these sources in one synthetic gaze and the result is impressive.

The book is organized in two different ways. The first three chapters are chronological, and organise material from 600 BCE to 600 CE in three phases. The foundations deal with early Buddhist and Jain text, Ashoka's rein and the Mahabharata and Ramayana; the transition phase from 200 BCE to 300 CE deals with the Arthashastra, Dharmashastra, plays, later Buddhist texts and inscriptions of several kingdoms; and the maturity phase deals with the Guptas and in literary texts, including Kalidasa.

The second mode of organization in chapter four and five is more thematic. They deal with two kinds of violence: violence in war and the taming of wildernesses. It is possible to quibble about an occasional translation or interpretation. I am not convinced, for example, that the Kautilyan state was omniscient and omnipotent. Quite the contrary, for Kautilya violence is necessary because everything is always contingent and liable to spin out of control.

But the chapters on war and wilderness are, in some ways, the most dazzling in the book. One of the interesting asides in these chapters is the persistent puzzle: despite the fact that there were so many invasions from India's Northwest, there are almost no details on Indian analyses of these wars.

The chronological schema in the book from foundations to maturity is more a schema that refers to the maturing of state forms rather than the maturing of thought. In many ways the existential and literary treatment of the dilemma of kingship in the texts in the foundation period remains far more profound than what follows later. But as the nature of states and empires gets more complex, so do the sources of political violence and the instruments to respond to them.

The book is stunning on these taxonomies. You begin to see the emergence of a tension between older vocabularies of the problem of violence that focused largely on the qualities of the king, to a problem of balancing between different forms of power. But the theme that remains common is the abiding tension between the intellectual legitimation of non-violence on the one hand, and the dire necessity of violence on the other.

No ideology quite escapes this tension, and even Buddhism and Jainism succumb to the violent imperatives of kingship. The real issue in intellectual history has not been the question, "which traditions promote ahimsa?" A more fruitful question is: How do traditions define necessity? How do they draw boundaries of consideration? This book is a vivid and detailed account of that question.

It is tempting to conclude, as Upinder Singh does, that there are no coherent theories of violence or just war in the Indian tradition - there is instead a complex and insightful assemblage of elements that get reconfigured differently. But Indian political theory is hardly unique in this respect. Almost no political thought has a "coherent" theory of violence; arguably Christianity or Kant end up in the same position of condoning it, despite themselves.

The challenge about violence is that the world is ethically irrational and veers out of control. What you get in this book is a fascinating intellectual and literary history of a culture wrestling with the problem of kingship, making its peace with violence, and finding its most powerful intellectual resources unable to cope with the depth of evil in the world.

The reviewer is an author and taught political theory at Harvard, and briefly at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University).The write-up has also appeared on

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