Off With Their Heads

British Library
‘Kusa and Lava defeating Bharata, Lakshmana, and the monkey army’; from the Razmnamah, a Persian translation of the Mahabharata, 1598

In September 1673, Vijaya Raghava, the last king of the Nayaka dynasty of Tanjavur, in the far south of India, sauntered forth from his palace in a final, suicidal confrontation with enemies from the city-state of Madurai who had broken through the ramparts and entered the royal fort. Vijaya Raghava was eighty years old; his white hair was so long that his eyebrows had to be held up by golden wires so he could see. Strapping his sword over the gleaming jewels that covered his body, he threw himself into battle; but when he saw the enemy soldiers raising their (rather primitive) muskets to shoot at him, he cried out to their commander, “Order your men to fight only with swords and spears. Do you want to know why? Because a man who dies from some lousy bullet shot from a distance has no hope of entering heaven.” The Madurai general obliged, and Vijaya Raghava, calling out the name of his god, was cut down by the sword. There were reports that he was seen at that moment entering the god’s temple at Srirangam, some forty miles away, and merging into the stone image of the deity.1

In the late seventeenth century, firearms were still something of a novelty in many parts of India. As we see in this story, they were regarded with disdain by warriors whose lives were shaped by a much older heroic ethos and who thought that shooting “some lousy bullet” was cowardly and unworthy. Such old-fashioned Indian warriors were not alone in this belief in the early modern world; the Egyptian Mamluks may have lost Egypt to the Ottoman Turks in the sixteenth century because of a similar attitude, as the great Mamluk historian David Ayalon famously argued.2 The seductive benefits of dying in battle, including being embraced at once by the beautiful dancing girls of the gods, were well known in ancient and medieval India; whole communities, such as the Rajasthani Rajputs, spent their lives seeking this glorious culmination. In Rajasthani epic, some of these warriors, afraid they might fail to achieve their goal, are said to have cut off their heads in advance and gone into battle without them or holding them under their arms, just in case.

Anyone who has accepted at face value the notion that India, as a civilization, from ancient times up till Mahatma Gandhi, was devoted to an ideal of nonviolence should read Upinder Singh’s monumental Political Violence in Ancient India. Even a few pages will suffice to dispel the illusion. Indian history is as bloody as anywhere else’s. As Singh writes with stark simplicity: “A peaceful state never existed in South Asia.” She documents some three millennia of more or less…

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