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Ancient Indian Texts Critiqued State Violence Even While Upholding Use of Legitimate Force

An excerpt from Upinder Singh’s Political Violence in Ancient India, looking at various theories of state violence in ancient texts.

An Indian policeman pulls concertina wire to lay a barricade on a road during a curfew in Srinagar July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Danish Ismail - RTSHIRO

An Indian policeman pulls concertina wire to lay a barricade on a road during a curfew in Srinagar July 12, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Violence is inherent in the state. A major function of political ideology is to legitimize state violence in its general as well as specific forms and to present it as necessary, justified force. But what is considered legitimate force by the state may be considered unjustified violence by those against whom it is targeted. In ancient India, the perspectives of rebels or victims of state violence rarely appear in the historical record, so there are no counternarratives. However, the distinction between necessary force and violence is not entirely dependent on whose point of view we are considering. Even state perspectives recognized the need to define this boundary and the difficulties in doing so.

The fact that the problem of violence, including political violence, is debated in so many ancient texts is a firm counter to the claim that India did not have a tradition of moral philosophy. The proclivity for philosophizing about politico-moral matters is most vividly on display in the Mahabharata, but it is also present elsewhere. The discourse is frequently embedded in metaphysics, especially in ideas of merit and demerit, sin and evil, karma and rebirth. A metaphysical grounding is not unique to Indian political thought—for instance, politics, ethics and metaphysics are linked in Plato’s thought. The fact that the Indian tradition recognizes both an absolute morality as well as a contextual, instrumentalist one is not unique either….Perhaps what is unique is that the Indian tradition simultaneously accepts both kinds of morality and discusses the tension and conflict between them. Even more unique is the intensity and longevity of the discussion of violence and nonviolence, both at the individual and the political level, which is not found anywhere else in the world.

Upinder Singh
Political Violence in Ancient India
Harvard University Press, 2017

I have identified three overlapping phases of early Indian kingship—foundation (circa 600 BCE–200 BCE), transition (circa 200 BCE–300 CE), and maturity (circa 300–600 CE). All three phases generated powerful and highly influential political ideas, which became important parts of the technology of political violence. From the time of the emergence of early historic states, there was an increasing recognition that kings were not ordinary men and that because of their duties, could not be expected to follow the usual ethical norms. The king was viewed as having a special relationship with force and violence, as a preeminent controller, manager, and, when necessary, perpetrator. We have seen the connection between the growth and systemization of state violence and increasingly sophisticated attempts to mask, invisibilize, justify, and aestheticize it in various ways. While the political ideas can be anchored in their historical contexts, a variety of views, grounded in different genre-related, disciplinary, ideological, religious, philosophical, and authorial perspectives, existed at any given point of time. Sometimes, ideas anticipated events. For instance, the idea of empire in early Vedic texts was expressed well before large, powerful empires appeared on the scene. Even more striking is the fact that Kautilya’s idea of the omniscient, omnipotent state in the Arthashastra was way ahead of his age; such a state did not exist in historical time but in the author’s political imagination.

The king was especially associated with punishment, which was understood as retribution for transgressions and crimes. The king’s just punishment was considered necessary for governance, the maintenance of order, and the prevention of chaos. However, the dangers of excessive harshness or unfairness in punishment were also recognized. Unlike in ancient Greek thought, we do not encounter the idea of the reformative potential of punishment. However, the references to the periodic ceremonial release of prisoners suggest that the king had powers of forgiveness and absolution. A measured approach was also advocated in relation to taxation. The contractual idea of the king’s right to a share of the people’s produce as wages for the protection he offers them is accompanied by warnings against excessively harsh exactions.

The transformation of the brutality and violence of war into something else, its justification, and its celebration were important aspects of political ideology. The Mahabharata expresses a range of reactions to war, from strident justification to lament. But except for Ashoka, war was considered a natural part of politics. The Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jaina traditions do not proscribe warfare. The theoretical perspective is matched by political practice. Kharavela, the model Jaina king, did not eschew war. Ashoka, the model Buddhist king, propagated nonviolence and gave up war, but his warning to the forest people indicates that even he recognized that absolute pacifism was not possible in the political sphere. Kautilya and Kamandaka adopt a largely pragmatic approach, urging caution and calculation, although the latter had pragmatic as ethical sensitivities against war.

The interface between the state and the wilderness, which must have been marked by a great deal of violence, produced a profusion of vivid images and reactions. The forest is many things in different texts, but four aspects are highlighted in the political response, and actual or potential violence are implied in all four. The first is the forest as a rich economic and military resource, discussed in great detail in the Arthashastra. The second is the forest as a place of exile for political rivals, reflected in the epics. The third is the forest as a site of the royal hunt, an activity considered both emblematic as well as problematic, which features in the epics, political treatises, and kāvya. The fourth, and most problematic aspect, is the forest as the abode of people who posed a violent political threat to the state, an idea reflected in the political treatises, but ironically, best exemplified in Ashoka’s stern threat to the forest people in his anti-war thirteenth rock edict. The violence of the centuries-long encounters between states and forest dwellers was subsumed within complex representations which also contain certain positive elements, especially associated with the forest āśramas of the ṛṣis.

Upinder Singh

Upinder Singh. Credit: Twitter

There is no single “Indian” theory of kingship or of political violence. There are several ideas that emerged from an intense dialogue across intellectual and religious traditions and as responses to the realities and challenges of political praxis, framed within the demands and conventions of different genres. There was a dharma and an artha view of kingship. But these generated a variety of models, including hybrid ones, all of which ultimately upheld the need for the king to use necessary force to maintain and strengthen his position. While Rama of the Ramayana represents a dharmic king associated with filial piety, compassion, and an aura of perfection, Yudhishthira of the Mahabharata is a tormented figure, drawn towards renunciation and not really an impressive role model at all. Kautilya’s king is a ruthless power-seeker who places political and material gain above all else. Kamandaka, also a representative of the artha view, is more sensitive to the ethics of nonviolence.

The dharma view of kingship placed strong emphasis on the king’s duties. These include upholding a social order in which everyone knew their place and followed their prescribed duties — the dharma of the varṇas and āśramas in the Brahmanical tradition. The Buddhist and Jaina traditions too had the idea of a hierarchical normative social order, although the Brahmana did not stand at its apex, and the highest values were represented by the renunciatory sphere, where the usual social distinctions became irrelevant, at least theoretically. The king’s duties were not confined to the maintenance and perpetuation of a social hierarchy. They included delivering justice, protecting the people, and preventing the onset of mātsya-nyāya – the social chaos arising from the strong preying on the weak. In the ideal state, where kings upheld the social order, meted out justice, and protected their people, especially the weak, all force used by the king in order to discharge these duties was necessary force; it was justified and legitimate. But it could be argued that this was not the case if the king failed to discharge one, some, or all of these duties. We have seen… that the Mahabharata states that a cruel king who does not protect his people and robs them in the name of taxation should be killed by them as though he were a mad dog. Such statements can be read as a warning to kings rather than as an exhortation to regicide; but a window for questioning the king’s potential violence was implicit in the dharma view of kingship. The artha view of kingship too invoked the above-mentioned duties of the king, although its main focus was on the king’s augmentation of his power and his subjects’ prosperity. The carefully calculated force required to attain these ends was considered justified and legitimate; anything beyond this was excess and could be counter-productive. So both the dharma and artha views of kingship distinguished between necessary, legitimate force and unnecessary, illegitimate political violence, recognizing the problem of tyranny and oppression. The king’s use of necessary force was ultimately upheld, but the elements of doubt and critique were never completely obliterated.


Excerpted, with permission, from Political Violence in Ancient India by Upinder Singh.