We must not glorify ancient India… but learn from it: Historian Upinder Singh

Historian Upinder Singh speaks on why thinkers in India have for centuries engaged with the problem of violence, the limits of the ancient tradition of debate and her new book.

Written by Seema Chishti | Published:October 29, 2017 12:00 am
ancient india, india, culture india, india mythology, historian, upinder singh, historian upinder singh, historian india, indian express, indian express news Upinder Singh, historian and author of book ‘Political Violence of Ancient India’. (Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

Why did Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi emphasise so much on non-violence in Indian history?
Nehru thought deeply and wrote a great deal about history. He was fascinated by the two ancient icons of non-violence — the Buddha and Ashoka. As a boy, he had read Light of Asia, Edwin Arnold’s poem about the Buddha, and was greatly moved by it. He saw Buddhism as a social reform movement and was attracted to Ashoka because of the king’s benevolence, cosmopolitanism and renunciation of war. Although Nehru was aware of the existence of social inequality and political and social conflict in the past, he thought that this history was marked by a high degree of social harmony. This is because his quest was to discover the positive spirit of India and how she fitted into the modern world.

Gandhi, too, was aware of the violence in Indian history. But he saw India as a truly spiritual nation, which since ancient times, had offered the world a unique understanding of life and the world. He considered the principle of non-violence as one of the many great ideas that India had given to the world.

Would it be wrong to characterise ancient Indians as a pacifist lot?
There is no reason to believe that ancient Indians in general were pacifist. There were some thinkers and religions (such as Buddhism and Jainism) that attached great value to non-violence. But as I show in my book, (Political Violence in Ancient India, Penguin), even Buddhism and Jainism recognised that kings could not practise ahimsa in absolute terms. The discussion of non-violence seeped into other traditions as well. While the Mahabharata reflects the tensions between violence and non-violence, the Arthashastra, with its focus on calculated but ruthless political gain, is not particularly bothered about non-violence. The important thing to note is that there is no typical ‘ancient Indian’, and there is no single ‘ancient Indian’ mode of thought.

Is it possible to grade how violent each era was? If yes, was ancient India more violent than medieval/modern?
I would prefer to avoid impressionistic generalisations. For ancient and medieval times, we do not have statistics. My book is not about how much violence there was in ancient India; it is about how intellectuals understood political violence, with special reference to punishment, war and the forest.

The frequent wars within the subcontinent in ancient and medieval times do not happen today, but the theatres of violence seem to have increased. There are border conflicts, insurgencies of various types, the threat of terrorism, the fear of communal flare-ups, violent crimes, and various forms of social violence. While the modern Indian state has several instruments to control violence, these can be subverted to serve the interests of those in power. The potential of the state for instigating large-scale violence has increased enormously. Another big difference is that today, with incessant media coverage, the violence in the world enters our homes on a daily basis.

You speak of a famous debate in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where Gargi’s relentless questioning of Yajnavalkya ends with him asking her to desist, lest her head fall off. How does the notion of the argumentative Indian hold in this context?
There is a long and strong tradition of debate in ancient India, and that is certainly something we should try to hold on to in our own troubled times, when there are serious challenges to the freedom of expression. At the same time, we should not over-idealise the past. The ancient Indian debates were largely among upper class men, for upper class men. Gargi is one of the few spirited exceptions. The Buddha, too, sometimes imperiously refused to answer certain questions. So while there was debate, there were also limits to debate.

Ancient texts like the Mahabharata don’t see non-violence as an absolute value. How does that compare with other cultures? 
In the Mahabharata, the idea of dharma as an absolute coexists with the idea that dharma is contingent on context. While non-violence is recognised as part of the dharma for all, the Kshatriya warrior Arjuna must fight in the dharma-yuddha, even if it involves killing friends, teachers and relatives. The persistent attentiveness and sensitivity towards the issues of violence and non-violence is quite unique to Indian culture. In ancient Greece, non-violence does not appear as a desirable moral virtue; in fact, there is no word for it. In ancient China, the Mohists advocated disarmament, and Lu Buwei talked of righteous warfare. But in India, there was a continuous, intense, centuries-long engagement with the problem of violence and non-violence. This was connected with the great value attached to renunciation, which made a powerful impact in the religious and political spheres.

What gave birth to Buddhism and Jainism, faiths for whom non-violence is a defining credo?
Jainism is older than Buddhism, and it places much greater emphasis on non-violence because it sees the world as permeated with life. The Buddha, Mahavira and many other thinkers of the 5th/6th centuries BCE lived during a period of transition from a tribal society based on kinship to an urban, state society in which class and caste had emerged. It was a time when animals were killed in yajnas. It was also a period of incessant, bloody wars between the various states and between states and forest tribes.

The subcontinent was a place of confluence and conflict. Was there an Indian idea of how diversities could co-exist?
What we call “India” today, was for centuries a mosaic of states and cultures, brought together politically at various points of time through empire-building and nation-building. If we want to look towards ancient India to find inspiration for our times, we need to avoid glorifying it and must try to understand its complexities. But certain ancient ideas have a relevance, especially in the context of preserving the multi-religious and multi-cultural nature of our society.

We can look towards the political ideals of ancient texts, according to which a ruler must be wise, educated, self-controlled, should not use excessive force, should not fight unnecessary wars, and should listen to good advice. He should distinguish between his personal interest and what is good for his people.

Ancient texts are unanimous in the view that the state exists to maintain order, to prevent the strong from preying on the weak, and to protect and give justice to the praja. The praja is a collective that includes all people, not just a section. The Mahabharata upholds monarchy and the use of necessary force in politics. But it sanctions regicide if the ruler is cruel, does not protect his people, or robs them in the name of levying taxes. The border between legitimate force and violence is debated. This debate must be kept alive. Further, during the period I have analysed in my book (c. 600 BCE-600 CE), kings generally extended their patronage towards a variety of religious establishments, regardless of what their personal religious beliefs might have been. I think that this was responsible for the lack of major religious conflicts during this period. We can learn from all this.

When I was in school, there used to be a rather boring chapter in our history books about ‘unity in diversity’. I think that we need to find new, creative ways of expressing that very important idea. Ashoka’s idea of samavaaya is a good starting point. It does not mean “tolerance”, which suggests that you simply put up with people who are different or think differently. Samavaaya means concord, a positive attitude of talking and listening to others, trying to understand them, and respecting their point of view.

The caste system held so many people down to such demanding work for thousands of years. How much violence must it have taken to eventually lead to such a ‘stable’ but unequal system? 
Quantification is difficult. For ancient times, we usually get a view from the top — from elites, the power centres, the intelligentsia. Rarely do ancient texts give us the point of view of the subordinated, oppressed or marginalised. We have to carefully read between the lines to try to hear the voices of the victims of oppression and violence.

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