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 continuous warfare as well as the ever-present coercive and punitive violence of the state. But in some sense, this work by one of India’s finest historians—the author of what is by far the best work of historical synthesis we have from the subcontinent3—is more about India’s present than about its long past. Perhaps that is always true of good historical thinking.

How, then, did the pious image of a nonviolent India arise? We can always blame the Mahatma for this, even though Gandhi’s principle of satyagraha, literally “holding fast to the truth”—his name for nonviolent resistance to evil—was intended to be no less coercive, in its own way, than the overt use of force. Gandhi thought his method, based on an optimistic notion that human beings can be refashioned by example to become better than they usually are, was applicable anywhere there was severe, systemic oppression. He was wrong about that. Satyagraha works only when the opponent is at least minimally susceptible to large-scale protest informed by universal ethical values. It could never have been successful in Nazi Germany or, for that matter, in many other ruthless regimes. It is an entirely modern political concoction, the result of Gandhi’s experiments and improvisations in his South African days. Still, Gandhi was able to draw upon ancient roots in the Indian sources for a theory and practice of nonviolence. Such an ideal was, indeed, articulated early on and claimed a certain visibility in the culture.

Thus we have the king Ashoka, of the Maurya dynasty—the first large-scale state system in India, in the third century BC—who tells us in a set of autobiographical inscriptions reproduced on pillars, boulders, and walls throughout South Asia that after a bloody war he led against Kalinga, today’s Odisha on the eastern coast, he decided to renounce violence, or at least most forms of violence, forever. In his own words as they appear in the inscriptions:


When Devanampiya Piyadassi [that is, Ashoka] had been consecrated eight years, he attained victory over the country of the Kalingas. One hundred and fifty thousand men were captured and deported, one hundred thousand were killed there, and many times this number died. After that, now that the Kalingas have been taken, Devanampiya is devoted to the ardent practice of dhamma, desire for dhamma and the teaching of dhamma. This is on account of the remorse [anusocana] of Devanampiya over the victory over the Kalingas.

Dhamma, or dharma in Sanskrit, means for Ashoka something like “ethical conduct.” A major component of it is compassion (dayā) for living beings and the vow not to harm them. In this, Ashoka is close to early Buddhism, which has always claimed him as one of its great patrons. Remorse is probably the rarest of all conscious emotions among kings and politicians of any period or persuasion; its mention in these inscriptions speaks to the distinctive timbre of this royal voice.

Nonetheless, the Ashokan inscriptions are by no means unequivocal in their ethics. Notice that in the above passage, remorse only filters upward to the king’s mind “now that the Kalingas have been taken.” Practical politics still take precedence. Ashoka is also not above threatening to punish or even kill the forest peoples at the edges of his kingdom if they fail to obey his orders (to be nonviolent, for example—Rock Edict 13). He struggles to make the royal kitchens vegetarian, though two peacocks and a deer are still cooked for him each day. But to his credit it is his express hope that his sons and grandsons will refrain from military campaigns—or if they do go to war, that they should “take pleasure in mercy and inflict little force or punishment.” He tells us that only conquest through dhamma—perhaps including conquering one’s own self—can bring real satisfaction.

Some of these texts, as Singh says, can be classed as political propaganda by a relatively weak king in need of support from an institution like the Buddhist community of monks, the sangha. Incidentally, later Buddhist tradition describes Ashoka as at first a sadistic megalomaniac whose character was largely transformed when he happened to meet a monk, Samudra, who had survived severe torture in one of the king’s prisons. Ashoka’s consequent conversion to Buddhism did not prevent him, however, according to the tradition, from executing tens of thousands of people who had the misfortune of belonging to some other religion (including the Jains, the main theoreticians of nonviolence in ancient India). One lesson to be learned from the Buddhist legends is that Buddhism was, almost from the start, profoundly political at its very core, as we can see even today in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia.

Singh is right to claim that the Ashokan edicts represent “the starting point of mainstream classical Indian political thought,” even if many of the major texts on kingship and politics composed a little later seem strongly at odds with the moral stance articulated in these inscriptions. Such is the case, for example, with the Arthashastra, the classical Indian “Book of Statecraft” attributed to the theorist Kautilya (his name appropriately means “crooked” or “crafty”). Singh’s introduction to this subtle, always astonishing book, one of the most interesting ever composed in India, contains a wild understatement: “Kautilya…is not squeamish about the use of all force and killing that are necessary to protect the king and kingdom from internal and external enemies.” Not only is this hyper-Machiavellian theorist not squeamish; he inhabits a dog-eat-dog kingdom (“fish eat fish” is the usual Indian metaphor) in which no one is above suspicion and everyone is vulnerable to sudden assassination by the vast shadowy army of secret agents and informers that keeps the state going; ruthless utility in such cases overrides all possible ethical scruples. A principle of unabashed craftiness driven by self-interest applies to all levels of political life; truthfulness is seen, in general, as a mostly irrelevant virtue (or even a fault), although a prince should be trained in logic or “critical inquiry”4 and might thus be expected to know that there is such a thing as truth, in marked contrast to various leaders today.

Patrick Olivelle, who has recently given us a magnificent translation of the Book of Statecraft, dates the text in its present form to the second century AD, though its core materials are considerably older. Both the core and its later editorial redactions are saturated with violence as a necessary, organizing principle of political life. “The most striking aspect of Kautilya’s potential state is that it is an extremely intrusive one and this intrusiveness involves the use or the threat of force,” Singh writes. Yet even here we find an assertion that what is called mantra—deliberation, wise counsel, intelligent analysis—is ultimately more effective than the exercise of brute force (or royal power, prabhu-shakti). Note that this conclusion is entirely pragmatic, not rooted in moral considerations.


It is a moral quandary, though, that dominates the great 100,000-verse-long Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, whose central hero—the tormented king Yudhisthira—can’t make up his mind whether to fight for his stolen kingdom at the cost of cataclysmic destruction or to turn his back on politics forever and go off to meditate and do yoga in the wilderness. In effect, his dilemma is insoluble: the world cannot survive without kingly violence, but the price of such action is always too high. If we think of the epic as providing a vast laboratory for social experiment or as shaping an enduring public space, then it is important to note that the ideal of a life that does not inflict violence on anything alive occupies a point in the deep center of Indian political sensibility, whatever the realities of any given historical moment may have been.

That ideal owes much to the Jain monks who first articulated it clearly in its most extreme form: ahimsa, refraining from violence, is meant to guide the monk or nun in all his or her actions and thoughts; the entire world—including stones, air, and water—is alive with living beings, and harm inflicted on any of them will inevitably rebound onto the actor, coloring his inner being with a sticky black residue that will pursue him through many lifetimes. Gandhi, who grew up in the Jain stronghold of Gujarat on the western coast, was no doubt aware of this way of thinking.

One could go further back in time and seek the origins of such ideas in the extreme sensitivity to violence and suffering evident in the later strata of the Vedic canon (from the early centuries of the first millennium BC). For Vedic thinkers, all that lives survives by consuming other living beings. Humans, too, have a hungry fire burning in their bellies; they have to sacrifice other creatures to that fire every day if they are going to stay alive. Sacrifice thus provides a root paradigm for existence itself, and it is no wonder that, according to the Veda, the world was created in a sacrificial act of one kind or another—either the destruction of a primordial enemy or the self-dismemberment of the original all-encompassing deity who, fragmented, becomes the universe. Both cases are heavy with consequential violence, perhaps capable of being healed, in the latter case by ritually recomposing the shattered god in the sacrificer’s mind and in the altar of bricks that he builds. Without violence there is no world; insofar as there is a world, it is a broken one, entropic and continually subject to widening gaps, discontinuities, and devastating wounds.

We can also find, in many historical South Asian settings, voices raised in overt or thinly veiled protest against both sacrificial and military violence. The Buddhists mocked the cruelty and what they considered the false causality built into Brahminical sacrificial rites. Thinkers from the orthodox Mimamsa school of ritual exegesis went to great lengths to persuade themselves that sacrificing an animal, as the Veda recommends, should not be classed as violence; the fact that they felt it necessary to argue this itself indicates a certain embarrassment. Sometimes protest emerged from within a milieu ostensibly shaped by heroic values (as it does in Book 24 of the Iliad). Among the ancient Tamil poems of war, often savage in tone, there are moving laments for dying warriors such as this one, by the poet Ponmutiyar, speaking in a mother’s persona:

we would bring him milk, and if he didn’t feel
like drinking it, we’d raise a stick, without anger,
to scare him, and in truth he’d be afraid.
Oh aching heart,
that same boy who has killed many elephants
gray as dust, this boy from a line of warriors
who fell in battle long ago, lies on his shield
and says, “I don’t feel the wound
or the arrow that caused it.” His hair
is like a horse’s mane, his beard
far from full.

It’s hard for us to read this poem without hearing an undertone of sorrowful skepticism about the point of all these battles; the Tamil tradition, however, classes it, in the colophon, as an example of steadfast perseverance and the topos of “slaying in heaps.” Perhaps the scholiasts couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge the overwhelming pain of youthful death in war.

Upinder Singh’s book is something like an encyclopedia of Indian violence. Pages roll by as the body count rises, with more and more examples drawn from royal inscriptions, Sanskrit literary works,6 and theoretical treatises like the Arthashastra and later handbooks on niti, practical wisdom. The sheer weight of the evidence would lead any reader to conclude that India was and probably still is a very violent place indeed. However, the modes and categories Singh suggests have a tendency to run together; perhaps the blanket conclusion is unwarranted. At the very least we have to distinguish normative political violence, always present in state formation, state expansion, and interstate conflicts, from what we might call violence for its own sake. This latter sort of violence is understood as imparting yashas, a blinding white glory, to the hero, and is felt to be somehow beautiful—a notion that may require a little explication.

No one who has been to war is likely to think of it as suffused with beauty. Nonetheless, descriptions of the battlefield in all premodern Indian literatures clearly delight in depicting scenes of gore (often said to resemble the beloved battles of the boudoir, or vice versa). One of the first books I read from classical Tamil was the twelfth-century masterpiece by Cayankondar, Kalinkattupparani (The Kalinga Campaign), which describes an expedition from the southern Chola kingdom to the Odisha coast, far to the north. My teacher, the great Tamilist John Marr, though he didn’t much like this grisly work, insisted that his students read it as a sample of the Tamil taste for the lurid, the surreal, and the grotesque.

The book is not without its whimsical moments: after the battle, the headless bodies of slain heroes dance on the battlefield together with the hungry, carnivorous demons about to devour them; the latter have even set up a field kitchen where they can cook a nourishing broth of blood, brains, flesh, fingernails, horses’ teeth, and other delicacies. However, like any other Indian society, these demons have social divisions, particularly pronounced in relation to their diet: there are Jain ghouls who eat only one meal a day and must have their soup strained to remove any defiling hairs; their Buddhist colleagues, given to abstract intellection, will eat only cooked brains.

‘Five-faced Shiva’; painting from Mandi, Punjab Hills, India, circa 1730–1740

For poets like Cayankondar, war can be radically aestheticized and, at the same time, parodied. Perhaps there is a deeper theme here, one explored by the intrepid anthropologist Margaret Trawick in what is, in my view, the most creative analysis of South Asian violence that has appeared in recent years.7 Trawick worked in northeastern Sri Lanka at the height of the civil war, from 1997 to 1998, when the Tamil Tigers ruled the northeastern coast and were fighting the Sri Lankan army. She lived among these warriors and quotes them at length. She observes a conceptual affinity in Sri Lankan Tamil culture between warfare and play, vilaiyattu, in the sense that combat can be seen as a game without fixed rules, something perhaps akin to the game of dice that, in classical Indian thought, is the main preoccupation of the god Shiva. Trawick is talking about war as an idea that might color or shape the actual, inevitably traumatic, experience of the combatants. Some of the interviews with the Tiger soldiers that she records could come straight out of the playful, often ironic verses of the Kalinkattupparani; for that matter, the Mahabharata also asserts that soldiers go dancing into battle.

No one should assume that the notion of violence as play can broadly characterize or meaningfully explain the endemic warfare of South Asian history. One significant mode of South Asian violence that this notion leaves out is that of fanatical sectarian acts of slaughter. There is still a prevalent, rather romantic view that South Asian civilization is distinctive in its propensity for religious tolerance. I can only wish that this view were true—and I hasten to say that there were and are cultural zones in the subcontinent where a remarkable tolerance of religious diversity has, for long periods, been the norm.

But to be fair to the historical record, we have to take seriously such works as the Telugu Basava-puranamu, a hagiography of the reformist founder of the Virasaiva or Lingayat sect (twelfth-century Karnataka).8 The militant devotees of the god Shiva who figure in this work—probably the most violent book I have ever read—are only too eager to kill their Jain enemies along with any other human beings who are not prepared to accept the burning conviction that Shiva, in a particular guise, is the one true god. It seems that monotheism naturally generates such a wish. Tamil traditions also revel in descriptions of how the kings and poet-saints of the early medieval south impaled thousands of Jain unbelievers in the city of Madurai. Whether such sources reflect a particular historical reality or not is an open question; but there is, unfortunately, no dearth of evidence for bloody sectarian, interreligious, intercommunal conflict throughout South Asia over the last millennium or so. The scourge is still active today.

So we have a history of more or less continuous violence and, at the same time, a conspicuous civilizational strand proclaiming the superior value of ahimsa, a nonviolent way of being. And we know that the Mahatma reaffirmed this ideal and succeeded in galvanizing millions to political action based upon it. Did Gandhi internalize in his Gujarati childhood the Jain ideal of noninjury to all that lives? Did he know something of Ashoka’s renunciation of warfare? Perhaps. We should, however, bear in mind that Gandhi’s favorite book was the Bhagavad Gita, a section of the Mahabharata in which the god Krishna works hard to persuade the hero Arjuna, who is depressed at the thought of the coming apocalyptic war, that a hero’s duty is to go into battle and, in general, to act without being attached to the results of his action. Gandhi, of course, had his own way of reading this book. The more immediate sources of his political methodology were, however, the later Tolstoy, Thoreau, and other Western figures. Perhaps it doesn’t much matter how he arrived—mostly by trial and error—at the methods that we now associate with his name.

There remains, however, a nagging historical question: Did Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns play a major part in driving the British out of their Indian colony, as we are supposed to learn, for example, from Richard Attenborough’s popular film on Gandhi? Many modern historians tend to doubt this. The British had their own good reasons for ending the imperial adventure in the changed international climate after World War II. What, then, are we to make of the Gandhian legacy in independent India, hardly an exemplary embodiment of peace, selfless renunciation, and tolerance?

Some years ago I gave a lecture in Ahmedabad about the Israeli peace movement Ta’ayush, which has adopted Gandhian methods in resisting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. My audience of Gujarati intellectuals and activists, including Achyut Yagnik, one of the last truly effective Gandhians in India, reacted bitterly. “Gandhi and the Gandhian way,” they said, “are totally dead in Gujarat.” “Yes,” I said, “but he has been reborn in the Palestinian village of Bil’in on the West Bank.” Gandhian-style protest in Bil’in, by the way, was ultimately successful in forcing Israel to return a huge chunk of village land that had been stolen by settlers and the army at the time the so-called Separation Wall was built. As I have said, and as Gandhi repeatedly showed in particular campaigns, consistent nonviolent political action that is driven by true ethical goals may well be a particularly effective form of coercion within a political arena not entirely indifferent to moral considerations.

Upinder Singh’s enormous study is focused on political violence in India; and yet it inevitably pushes us beyond the political to the deeper ethical problems bound up with violence. For example: Is it really possible to separate political violence from social violence, as when one group is severely repressed or persecuted by other parts of society? Gandhi’s sometime ally, sometime nemesis, B.R. Ambedkar, the great champion of the Dalits (once called the Untouchables) and one of the architects of the Indian constitution, thought the two domains were inextricably intertwined. Ambedkar also clearly distinguished between violence and the idea of force, which he understood as being constituted by a strong paradoxical tension between an emancipatory impulse toward freedom and movement and a reactive and constraining impulse toward repression.9 Ambedkar sought an even more radical kind of nonviolence than Gandhi’s, a forceful, revolutionary egalitarianism that he identified with the deeper meaning of ahimsa. This view is alive and well in Indian intellectual circles, though increasingly overshadowed in the political sphere by an ever more virulent communalism, useful to the state in its Kautilyan mode.

I once asked Jyotirmaya Sharma, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Hyderabad and an eminent historian of modern Indian thought, whether he believed Gandhi still mattered in an India that has obviously left him far behind. He said that what mattered was not the practical legacy of nonviolent political action but rather the still-vital moral idea of nonviolence in the Indian public sphere. I think he is right about this. We should never underestimate the subversive and causal potency of an idea, or of an ideal.

In this respect, India, despite most of its history, may indeed constitute something of an exception among modern nation states. Upinder Singh concludes her somewhat lugubrious volume by suggesting that the unique feature of Indian civilization is the simultaneous presence, throughout the centuries, of both an objective and absolute moral vision and an instrumental, situational theory of political action. Along with this mixture of ethics and practical necessity, we find the “intensity and longevity of the discussion of violence and nonviolence, both at the individual and the political level.”

Singh thinks that this ongoing, volatile discourse is not found anywhere else in the world with such intensity. One may well doubt this conclusion. But there is still something hopeful to be said about the long-standing, lucid formulation of ahimsa in Indian texts and, to some extent at least, in documented practice. This ideal was never the mainstream, not even in Gandhi’s time, but neither did it ever lose its potentially unnerving power over South Asian minds.