Violence as a way of life


Manu S. Pillai in LiveMint:

If ever there was a man who was attentive to the tribulations of kings, that man was Kautilya. While there might have been several minds invested, across spans of time, in the composition of his Arthashastra, Kautilya’s manual of statecraft was a model of exactness to guide the hands of power. Thus, for instance, for relatively more ordinary varieties of criminal offence, the punishment suggested is “tearing apart by bullocks”, but for the singular error of romancing the monarch’s wife, things could only end with the seducer “cooking in a big jar”. Torture, in general, was to be perfectly timed, with meals in between for the torturer and the subject of his attention, though exceptions of format could be made if the criminal in question were a Brahmin—so while a regular sinner might discover parts of his body set on fire, one with the sacred thread wasn’t permanently charred, keeping his life, but losing his eyes.

Kautilya’s treatise is one of the many sources from ancient times that Upinder Singh studies in her authoritative new book, Political Violence In Ancient India (Harvard University Press). It is an unembellished title and the language of the book follows this pattern, offering a 1,000-year overview of how violence and its philosophical corollary, non-violence, were treated and reconciled by thinkers many centuries ago. So while some hagiographies might show Ashoka roasting his brother and rival for the Mauryan throne and slaughtering 18,000 Ajivikas before his evolution into a crusader for peace, the fact is that we don’t really have reliable statistics for how (or how many) people died in political settings all those ages ago. The book, therefore, is necessarily “a history of ideas”, which studies intellectual responses to violence, from sources such as the Vedas to the plays of Bhasa and Kalidasa, alluding to Harappan remains as well as to the times of the Guptas.

Singh sets out, in a very balanced fashion, to challenge a basic principle many of us have, over years of schooling and nation-building, systematically absorbed: that India has been an eternal beacon of non-violence and harmony. The truth, as the author demonstrates, is as complex as the other truths of life. For what we see is the emergence of non-violence as an ideal mainly among Buddhists and Jains, subsequently adopted by Hindu sources as well, but always with a parallel understanding that in the practical universe of economics and politics, involving masses of people, non-violence is a principle that cannot always be upheld. So we find even Ashoka struggling to persuade his palace establishment to accept a fully vegetarian kitchen, as much as we encounter Eastern oligarchies, sites evidently of greater political confrontation than the monarchical West, welcoming Buddha’s doctrine of peace and offering patronage without irony.

More here.