A History of Himsa – Joseph McQuade

Political Violence in Ancient India

by Upinder Singh

Harvard University Press, 616 pp., 2017.



Shortly after independence, India’s first government, led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, designated a graphic representation of the lion capital of the Sarnath pillar as the official emblem of India. The pillar was one of many erected by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who embraced Buddhism after a deadly battle, leading him to  discourage animal slaughter and violence during the third century BCE. The emblem, a symbol of Mauryan political iconography, also signalled the new Indian nation-state’s commitment to the non-violent principles that Mohandas Gandhi had exemplified during the independence struggle. In the wake of Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu extremist, the decision also served as a rejection of the more militant wing of nationalist politics that had provided the main counterweight to Gandhi and Nehru’s non-cooperation movement through the early twentieth century. The symbolic adoption of the Ashoka capital and its framing of India as a country rooted in a deep and ancient history of non-violence was premised upon two historical erasures. The first was the role that revolutionary violence, called terrorism at the time, played in the defeat of British imperialism in India. The second was the long and deeply embedded intellectual genealogy of political violence that permeated India’s ancient history and traditions.

It is this second erasure that Upinder Singh takes to task in her well-written and deeply researched book, Political Violence in Ancient India. In this book, Singh charts an intellectual history of political violence in India from 600 BCE to 600 CE, presenting a complex and multifaceted portrayal of kingship, force, and state-formation that has been sorely missing from contemporary scholarship on both India’s ancient history and Indian intellectual history – and indeed global intellectual history – more broadly. In this sense, the title of the book is a bit misleading – while the book certainly does draw out a nuanced and layered intellectual history of political violence, it also does much more, elaborating extensively on theories of kingship, just rule, religion, politics, and the relationship between humans and their natural environment.

The book is divided into five chapters – the first three chronological, the final two more thematic in nature. The first three chapters examine a range of textual responses to the relationship between violence (himsa) and non-violence (ahimsa) from the foundations of India’s state structures to their maturity in the middle of the first millennium CE. While some reference is made throughout the book to earlier precursors such as the Harappan civilization and the Vedic corpus, the book’s analysis begins in earnest with a close reading of the early Buddhist, Jaina, and Brahminical texts, as well as Ashoka’s edicts and the classical epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

The second chapter focuses on the transitional period from 200 BCE to 300 CE and examines the competing yet interconnected approaches represented by dharma (order) and artha (prosperity) perspectives on kingship and violence. This chapter deals with Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a political treatise that is often anachronistically referred to as India’s version of The Prince, despite the fact that Kautilya predated Machiavelli by more than a thousand years. The chapter also consults a range of lesser-known sources that include the Manusmriti, the Buddhacharita, and the Jataka as well as a series of plays and inscriptions. The third chapter builds on the previous two by demonstrating how earlier ideas of violence and kingship came to be appropriated and reimagined within the context of a more established political order under the Gupta and Vakataka rulers of the mid-first millennium CE. The sources consulted for this section include inscriptions by these rulers and other  notable works that include the Nitisara and the Panchatantra, both of which are brought to life in a fascinating way in Singh’s narrative.

While the first three chapters set the stage by establishing Singh’s archive and outlining the contours of broader textual debates and discussions surrounding violence and politics in ancient India, each of the final two chapters brings together the entirety of this corpus in analyzing the two themes of war and wilderness. In both cases, Singh refrains from neat conclusions or a simplistic reading that would posit a single essentialized “Hindu” – much less “Indian” – approach to war or the wilderness. In the chapter on warfare, we see the contrasting views presented by various texts and, indeed, contrasting interpretations within each text. Gandhi famously interpreted the Bhagavad Gita, a central book within the Mahabharata, as promoting the philosophy of ahimsa, while the same text was widely read by twentieth century revolutionaries as justifying the use of force to achieve  political goals. As Singh shows, political theorists in ancient India – including Buddhists and Jainas famed for their emphasis on nonviolence – viewed war as a legitimate and inevitable function of kingship, while simultaneously seeking to constrain a monarch’s ability to wage unfettered warfare against his adversaries.

Singh’s discussion of the wilderness is perhaps the most interesting, as well as the most innovative, part of this book. The wilderness, defined broadly as comprising forested or unsettled tracts of lands across the subcontinent, is the backdrop against which the violence of the state acts itself out upon three distinct but interconnected groups: forest people, animals, and the natural environment. Singh does an excellent job of tracing the variety of ways in which the king’s relationship to these three categories simultaneously legitimized and discouraged the use of political violence in different contexts. Ashoka, while advocating a significant reduction in the killing of animals and promoting a largely vegetarian ethical imperative for members of his court, simultaneously made explicit threats against the forest people who lived at the peripheries of his jurisdiction. In the ancient world, cities and forests often existed side by side, meaning that relatively autonomous forest communities presented a unique challenge to state sovereignty while simultaneously occupying spaces rich in desirable natural resources, creating high potential for resource-based conflict. Similarly, in the Mahabharata hunters in the forest are typically portrayed negatively due to the supposedly polluting nature of their livelihoods, with several characters sustaining curses as a result of hunting mishaps. By contrast, the Ramayana contains several favourable portrayals of forest people such as the Nishada king Guha, but despite its strong sympathy towards animal characters it also provides some justification for the trapping and killing of animals in the discussions surrounding Rama’s killing of Vali.

The breadth of material that Singh is able to weave together in this book is truly impressive, covering epics, religious tracts, political treatises, edicts, plays, fables, inscriptions, and coins over a twelve-hundred year period. Unfortunately, the breadth of this material does paradoxically result in one of the few drawbacks of the book – its relative inaccessibility to general readers. Though the book is compellingly written and covers a subject with great appeal to interested non-specialists, the variety of sources that Singh draws upon and the relatively sparse grounding of the intellectual history within a more prosaic, nuts and bolts history of ancient India mean that a reader unfamiliar with the historical period covered might have trouble keeping up. Chapters four and five do provide more historical context than the others, but this comes relatively late within the narrative, and the first three chapters, while fascinating, do not provide sufficient context to pull in readers unfamiliar with at least the broader outlines of India’s pre-modern history.

Having said that, for anyone with even a passing familiarity with India’s ancient history, this book reinterprets familiar material in new and interesting ways, as well as drawing on less familiar sources to flesh out an impressively rich portrayal of ancient Indian political thought. Ultimately, Singh concludes that while violence was not any more prevalent in ancient India than it was in comparable civilizations such as the Achaemenids, the Greeks, or the Chinese, there is also no reason to believe it was any less prevalent. While somewhat  self-evident to some scholars of the ancient world, this notion is profoundly important given the frequent deployment of India’s supposedly pacifist past by figures ranging from British colonizers to Gandhian satyagrahas to Hindu nationalists determined to assert a muscular international clout in compensation for what they see as a humiliating history of subjugation and defeat.

While Singh is realistic regarding the important distinctions between ancient and modern statehood (the coercive power of the modern state being something that Kautilya could only have dreamed of), she does nonetheless provide important insights into the role of political violence in modern Indian society, particularly when it comes to the Indian state’s fraught relationship with its tribal or forest communities. Just as the forests of ancient India represented a key site of economic extraction, supplying the state with lumber, minerals, and war elephants, today’s corporations work hand-in-hand with the government to gain access to profitable mining and drilling contracts in India’s forested regions, sparking conflict with adivasis, Maoists, and ethnic minorities seeking to protect their traditional lands. Now, as then, political violence and the state remain inextricably intertwined.   

Joseph McQuade is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies in the Munk School of Affairs, University of Toronto. He completed his PhD in History at the University of Cambridge in 2017 as a Gates Scholar.