Busted: Myth of our non-violent past

Upinder Singh at Kalam on Monday. (Bishwarup Dutta)

Victoria Memorial: Ancient India is fraught with violence but we tend to associate the period only with harmony - three historians busted a few myths about our past at Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, co-organised by Victoria Memorial Hall in association with The Telegraph, on Monday.

Historian Upinder Singh's book - Political Violence in Ancient India - kindled a stimulating discussion on politics and religion in ancient India between the author and fellow historian Mukul Kesavan. They were in conversation with Tapati Guha Thakurta.

Singh's book begins and ends with Ashoka and the various symbols of Buddhism that were adopted by Nehruvian India as epitome of peace and non-violence.

But according to the author, no era can be termed as absolutely non-violent. Even Ashoka after his repentance was still violent to some forest tribes, she said. "Violence is contextual in every era. However, the concept of renunciation emerges strong in our interpretation of ancient India," Singh added.

The author shared with the audience how her book generated an interest among readers given the escalating violence in today's world. "Violence was a fundamental strategy in the politics of ancient India too," she said. Singh added how dharma was not the same as religion, but a more complex phenomenon in those times.

Her book touches on the different textures of politics practised during the period. Dharma or ethical view of politics was propagated by Yudhisthir in the Mahabharata and the artha or more pragmatic view of politics was propagated by Kautilya.

Kesavan chipped in how we have not been able to critically assess ancient history. "Epics should be treated only as ideological repositories," he said.

The discussion veered to the historicity of Indian epics. "Both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana may be based on some incidents but we should not take them literally. There is no way we can prove if a certain character existed or when a particular war was fought. But the epics should be read to understand the ideas, values and the impact on culture of a particular era," Singh said.

The historians discussed the relationship between violence and non-violence, morality and ethics and how religion and politics together unleashed violence in ancient India. They stressed that even the Harappans were also not as peace-loving as perceived.

Ancient India was also replete with competition between religious philosophies.

"Religious competition goes back to 6th Century BC. Budhhist and Jainism texts are often critical of each other. There was also healthy competition among philosophers to win a king's patronage.... Buddha himself was never aloof from politics," Singh said, highlighting various aspects of violence and its boundaries.


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