'We need to distinguish between what politicians say about our history and what history is'
Historian Upinder Singh talks to Sonia Sarkar about her new book, an engaging exploration of our consistently violent past
- Published 12.11.17
Professor of History at Delhi University, and daughter of the former Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh, Upinder Singh is just out with her new book, Political Violence in Ancient India (Harvard University Press). The book examines the representation of kingship and political violence in epics, religious texts and treatises between 600 BCE and 600 CE. But it rings with relevance to our present. Over green tea and kaju barfi at her campus home in North Delhi, Singh chats about her father whom she doesn’t see “leaping headlong into hectic political activity” in future; her next possible writing project — about the religious and cultural connect between India, Sri Lanka and the rest of Southeast Asia; but mostly about her new book, its revelations about India’s violent past and the need to read history for what it is, instead of trying to appropriate it. Excerpts:
Q The essential question that comes to mind upon reading Political Violence in Ancient India is: have we been living in a bubble all this while? Are Indians, actually, inherently non-violent in nature?
Many Indians have a perception of their early history as being exceptionally non-violent. I was aware of the violent details, the wars between different kingdoms and the oligarchies, the class and caste conflicts, but I had not made note of it as a historian. Then one day, I saw The Nitisara by Kamandaka, written between 500 and 700 CE, lying on my shelf. It was about political violence. One thing led to another, I looked at Ashoka's inscriptions, I read Kalidas, all these texts said a lot about this issue. Violence was so pervasive in ancient India that it was not possible for me to tackle violence in general. So I decided to focus on the political domain.
Q The book has a contemporary relevance, coinciding as it does with the ongoing instances of political violence across the country.
When I was writing the book, I was not consciously thinking of the present, but now that it is out, I am much more aware about the contemporary relevance of this issue. People have become aware and worried about it and that makes them interested in finding out what was happening hundreds of years ago.
QThe chapter, The Wilderness, goes into the very harsh punishments prescribed in ancient India for those violating royal herds. It notes that anyone who killed or stole cattle from the king's herd, or incited someone else to do so, was put to death. Were there no juridical methods to deal with crimes then?
That bit is from the Arthashastra, wherein Kautilya is describing an ideal state and how justice should be delivered. This included capital punishment, especially for crimes that involved the property of the king. We don't know to what extent such justice was administered. Kautilya talks about a judicial apparatus when it comes to deciding civil and criminal crimes. But he also sees the king as someone who holds the power in the administration of justice. It is important to remember that these texts - Arthashastra, Manusmriti - are theoretical works; actual practice must have varied.
QRamayan and Mahabharat are war-centric. What do they tell us about our past? Was any of it real?
Many people want to know if these things actually happened. Whether Ram and Sita, the Pandavs and the Kauravs existed, if the wars at all happened and when. It's impossible to prove if they happened or they didn't. But there is some historical basis to these epics. There were some characters and events and then over time, these literary epics came to be woven around them. But you cannot read them literally; there is poetic imagination at work. It's not really important to try to fix the exact date when the events may have taken place. Even if they have no historical basis, that does not take away the great cultural importance they have.
Q The book talks about how Ram's story became part of BJP's Hindutva agenda and communal polarisation tactics. Does this epic cast a shadow on contemporary Indian politics?
Of course, it does. There is a continuing close relationship between the past and the present. But many of our current political platforms are based on the distorted presentation of the past. The popular discourse continues to be impacted by the political propaganda and dubious historical interpretations. We need to distinguish between what politicians are saying about Indian history and what Indian history is all about.
Q So you are saying there are deliberate attempts to distort Indian history?
Yes. History has always been political. But the past few years, there has been an alarming rise in distortion and manipulation of history - whether it is an attempt to rewrite history texts at the school level or police university syllabi.
Q You have observed that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru helped create the myth of a non-violent ancient India while building an Independence movement on the principle of non-violence. Was this required?
There were several factors that led to the creation of this impression that non-violence is somehow deeply rooted in the Indian psyche. Both Gandhi and Nehru had an understanding of the diversity of Indian history. Gandhi was aware of the element of violence in texts such as the Mahabharat, but he considered the Bhagwad Gita a work about non-violence. Nehru spoke about how Indian history is marked by a great degree of social harmony. By choosing the Lion Capital that originally graced the Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath as the official emblem of independent India, both connected modern India with Ashoka and Buddhism. So at the time of national movement, it is not surprising Gandhi and Nehru were trying to emphasise values they thought were important for Indians of their own time and for future. I think, there is an emphasis on non-violence - what they were trying to do was to create a source of inspiration rather than a deliberate falsifying of India's past.
Q And this idea of non-violence, as you see it, is now being consciously and systematically challenged by a new politically inspired aggressive idea of Indian-ness, which is more in line with (Vinay Damodar) Savarkar's thought?
If you look at Savarkar's Six Glorious Epochs Of Indian History, you'll see he has no admiration for Ashoka. There is no emphasis on non-violence as a positive value in the entire discourse. He seems to think non-violence is a weakness in the face of foreign aggression. I am connecting all this with present-day Hindutva. There is aggressive Hindutva, an attempt to build an idea of aggressive Indian-ness. I don't see this as an answer; it is part of the problem.
Q Why is it important to admire or even know of King Ashoka?
Ashoka is an important historical figure to engage with in the atmosphere of potential communal violence that we live in. He was a Buddhist ruler living in a multi-religious empire. He laid emphasis on religious dialogue and how people of different religions should respect each other, which is relevant in our times.
Q You write that war is an important metaphor in Buddhism and Jainism. How do we connect this with the violence that Buddhist monks have unleashed in Myanmar and Sri Lanka?
If you look at the early history of Buddhism, there is an extreme emphasis on non-violence. No religion remains true to its original principles. When Buddhism becomes associated with the state, there is violence. Also, Buddhist texts talk about persecution of monks, but religious conflict was not rampant in the period I am talking about because no religion had succeeded in capturing the state.
Q There is an impression that Islam, which expands on the basis of proselytisation, is the harbinger of violence in India. What is your analysis?
My book illustrates a great deal of political violence in ancient times, even before Islam came in. It's not that violence made its appearance in India with the Turkish invasion.
Q And now BJP leaders are saying the Taj Mahal was built by "traitors".
All these controversies are based on chauvinistic ideas and Hindu-Muslim polarisation. For a historian, this increasing appropriation of his-tory and using history to fuel one's own political agenda is distressing. A lot of these controversies are about those who want to propagate the Hindutva way of Indian history. Historians have to find ways of effectively challenging these views.