“Political Violence in Ancient India” by Upinder Singh


The Indian stand up comedian Anuvab Pal jokes that Gandhi gave the mantra of nonviolence or the message of “Don’t Fight” to the people who did not want to fight in the first place. Gandhi recognized the reluctance and laziness among the Indians to fight against the British. Well, that’s one theory.

The other comes from the founding fathers of India’s freedom struggle and the makers of India’s Constitution and independent India: that nonviolence is deeply rooted in Indian philosophy, political praxis and ethos. The national emblem of India, the Sarnath pillar, for instance, comes from Emperor Ashoka who renounced war and helped spread Buddhism (and its core message of nonviolence) all over Southeast Asia.

Since Gandhi’s satyagraha, the philosophy of resisting nonviolently, there has emerged a notion that India has a nonviolent, pacifist political tradition. This is a notion that has been celebrated by many, not least other founding fathers Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

Others like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (whose nativist, right-wing ideology inspired Gandhi’s assassination), while not questioning the narrative of a non-violent past, nevertheless have taken nonviolence to be cowardice and responsible for the subjugation of India by the British.

It is best left to a historian to investigate the basis for the glorification of India’s association with nonviolence. Upinder Singh, the Professor in History at University of Delhi, has attempted a systematic study of various sources of ancient Indian history in her book Political Violence in Ancient India to explain how misplaced mainstream Indian investments in history are.

It is best left to a historian to investigate the basis for the glorification of India’s association with nonviolence.

Political Violence in Ancient India, Upinder Singh
Political Violence in Ancient India, Upinder Singh

Singh studies the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, plays by renowned poets like Kalidasa and Bhasa, political treatises by Chanakya/Kautilya and Kamandaka and several epigraphic and numismatic sources to gather an understanding of the intellectual context of nonviolence between 600 BCE and 600 CE. Chanakya’s Arthashastra is anachronistically called Machiavelli’s Prince and Kamandaka’s Nitisara theorize politics, the art of governance, and related issues of war, punishment, and the character of the king. If the civilizational roots of India lie in absolute abstinence from violence since these early times, then there ought to be representations that can be cited as evidence of nonviolence as quintessential Indian outlook. Singh details the nuances of the debate around the issues of war and even examples of attitudes towards animals and hunting to argue that contemporary


political appropriations illustrate how ancient symbols and ideas are frames into which all sorts of meanings can be poured, regardless of their historical foundations or veracity.


Gandhi was inspired by the Bhagvadgita in his commitment to the principle of nonviolence but the same text can also be interpreted to glorify the idea of war. Singh writes:


The idea of a peace-loving, nonviolent India exists, persists, as part of a selectively constructed and assiduously cultivated national self-image in the midst of a society pervaded by social and political violence. It lives along with the memory of the three great ideologues of nonviolence in ancient India—Mahavira, the Buddha and Ashoka. But the amnesia toward the contexts of intense social and political conflict and violence in which these thinkers emerged and with which they engaged of ten reduces them to simplified stereotypes, invoked from time to time for self-congratulatory rhetoric or political gain.


Buddha’s nonviolence is much more about renunciation than a political strategy—hence suicide and self-immolation by the Tibetan monks who protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Ashoka in one of his edicts upholds vegetarianism and gives away that except for the deer and the peacock, no other animals are killed for food in the royal household. So much for giving up meat!

The problem with looking at the past to selectively seek continuity with the present is illustrated by another joke—this one about the Taj Mahal, relevant because debate around the history of this monument has been making the headlines in India recently. The joke asks why the Taj Mahal is called a symbol of love in the light of lesser known facts about it such as Mumtaz was Emperor Shah Jahan’s fourth wife (out of seven).  Just as the notion of love changes according to time, class or religion, the definition of nonviolence changes to accommodate food habits or to exclude necessary action by the state or its attitude towards punishment. Modern India, as a legacy of Gandhi’s and Nehru’s exercise in nation-building, has a lot to confront and debate when it comes to identifying the complexities of what constitutes violence.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.