Thursday, November 09, 2017

It was not easy to be a king in Buddhist and Brahminical traditions

After a long time, there is no attempt to extrapolate contemporary concerns on to the past

By Upinder Singh
Harvard University Press; Pages: 598; Published: 2017; Price: Rs 999

It would be very sad if this lovely book which takes you through two millennia of Sanskrit, Pali, Buddhist, Hindu, literary creations, political treatises, and inscriptions from all over India and across south-East Asia is confined to its title. Historian Upinder Singh starts off with the thesis that Nehru and Gandhi, no, not Nehru-Gandhis, have created the myth of non-violence during the Freedom Movement as something inherent in the ancient history of India, and how this was not really the case. Singh has been bold enough to put forward the thesis in the inflammatory ideological situation in the country, where right-wing Hindutva proponents flex their useless muscles – they do not know the seriousness and subtleness of the debate on violence in ancient India which is the central theme of the book – and the liberal-secularists are taken aback by the proposition and in all their ignorance and naivete ask, “Is that so?” So, everybody wants to read through the book to find more about political violence in India – assassinations, coup d’ etat, wars, abductions, destruction. And more importantly, each side wants to confirm its own preconceptions and prejudices. The right-wing, with Savarkar’s Hindutva thesis at the back of their mind, are keen that non-violence is not the creed of Hindu India. They will be disappointed. First, because there is a Jain-Buddhist India, and there is post-Vedic Brahminical India – in terms of literary sources – and each was influenced by the other in many ways. The Mahabharata, Arthashastra and Manu Smriti are post-Buddhist texts and they are grappling with Jain-Buddhist ideas. So, ancient India is not really Hindu(tva) India. It was a complicated India thousands of years ago as it is now. The liberals will have a tough time squaring their secular circle because there is tradition and religion inextricably intertwined along with politics and aesthetics and ethics.

There is plenty of political violence in ancient Indian history and Singh had covered that ground in her admirable textbook of ancient Indian and early medieval history which was published in 2007. Here she is doing something that is different and fascinating. She rummages through the literary sources and foregrounds the debate about violence in its widest political sense. What she is really referring to is political power, which is based on violence. The evidence that she presents is breath-taking and delightful. She looks at the real challenges that the ancient Indians considered in relation to political power, which at that time rested in the idea of kingship. The Buddha’s sermons speak of the righteous king who follows the dhamma, and when a king chooses to follow his own dictates, however right, there would be disorder. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana offer their own versions of the righteous king. But the Buddhist view does not close the door on doubt. She quotes from the Samyutta Nikaya, where the Buddha is shown to be wondering: “Is it possible to exercise rulership righteously: without killing and without instigating others to kill, without confiscating and without instigating others to confiscate, without sorrowing and without causing others to sorrow?”

After surveying the Ashokan edicts under the playful rubric, “Ashoka and His Piety Propaganda”, she sums up the Mauryan emperor’s achievement: “Ashoka’s dhamma was a new idiosyncratic synthesis that was rooted in the king’s personal faith in Buddhism but bore the strong stamp of his own reflections on the fundamental goals of life and power. Metaphysics, ethics and politics were combined in a unique way, and the resulting synthesis was propagated through a single-minded, zealous, and elaborately organised propaganda campaign. Ashoka’s was a radical and audacious aim – the moral transformation of all mankind.”
The problem of political power is stated in a complex way in the Mahabharata. Bhishma tells Yudhishtira: “Should there be no king in the world, no one to wield the royal rod of force upon the earth, then the stronger would roast the weaker on spits, like fish. We have learned that peoples without kings have vanished in the past, devouring each other, the way fishes in water eat the smaller one.” The modern reader would be reminded of the Hobbesian state of nature. What Singh has done is to remind the reader that these issues have been debated earlier with much seriousness in India in those far off times.
The more interesting aspect of the issue is the reluctance of the good man to take up political reins. Bhishma narrates the story of how Manu, the mythological First Man, refused to be the ruler when asked by Brahma, the Creator: “I am afraid of cruel [kroora] acts. For kingship is an extremely difficult task, especially among men, who are always prone to wrongful behaviour.”

The book is structured in an interesting fashion, starting with Foundations, going on to Transition, and to Maturity, and then taking a turn to War, to The Wilderness. Singh gets back to the same main texts and other inscriptional sources which she has chosen under the different rubrics. The most interesting and innovative of them is The Wilderness, and here she shows major writers and protagonists longing for the forest and the nature to escape the burden of political leadership. Both Yudhishtira and Rama long to get away to the quiet of the forest and live in the forest and its peaceful nature, and they are persuaded by their brothers and wives that it is not right to run away from duty, and that one can retire to forest only after fulfilling the duty due from a prince. She describes the burning of the Khandava forest in the Mahabharata and the cruel manner of the killing of the animals. She does not rationalise, and she does not offer an apology. She reveals the context as it was stated in the epic. In the footnotes, she takes note of the fact, Mahabharata is referred to as “Itihasa” or history, and Valmiki’s Ramayana is known as “kavya” or literary composition.

It is in the chapter on The Wilderness, that she refers to discussions in the Sanskrit texts about the merits and demerits of hunting, which should surprise and bewilder the modern sceptics who have the tendency to believe that it is only during the modern era that all the sensible questions came up for consideration. She quotes Kamandaka, the author of Nitisara, saying, “These are said to be the benefits of hunting [but] that is not acceptable. Due to its inherent evils of taking life [dosah pranaharith] it is a great vice [vyasanam mahat].”

Then she cites from Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntala. One of the inmates of the Kanva ashram tells king Dushyanta who enters the ashram with his bow drawn to kill a black antelope, “Therefore, replace your well-armed arrow. / Your weapon is designed for the protection of those in distress. Not for the killing of the innocent.” In the same play, after quoting the lament of the vidushaka or the clown, Singh quotes the senapati or army commander singing the virtues of hunting: “The body becomes light and agile for activity, the waist attenuated due to the reduction of fat;/ The heart of animals as they experience fear and anger, is observed; / It is the highest glory for archers when their arrows hit a moving target; / Falsely is hunting is said to be a vice [vyasana]; where is there a comparable amusement.”
Singh practises the scholar’s scrupulosity of respecting the integrity of the texts and contexts she is citing. She does not extrapolate modern perspectives when quoting and discussing the older sources. It gives the reader a glimpse of the sense of the times that are under discussion. This is a strong enough reason to read the book because she makes it possible to connect with the intent and context of the texts that she is citing. While talking about the Manusmriti, Singh says, “Like the Arthashastra, the Manusmriti also enjoys a certain notoriety. It is often seen as upholder of the oppression of lower classes and women, but it is actually a complex text that defies simplistic characterization. It contains a variety of ideas as well as many contradictory statements that have to be understood in the specific context in which they are made.”

There have been quite many contemporary interpretations of ancient India and its thought systems. Singh allows the texts to stand on their own, and despite her preferences – she has a soft corner for Kalidasa, and one of the few contemporary historians who recognises the grandeur and gravitas of the poet’s Raghuvamsha – she allows the reader to connect with the authors and characters of the ancient texts. She cites Bhasa’s – an eminent pre-Kalidasa playwright -- play which give counter-arguments to the ideal hero and Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa, a realistic portrayal of political power dilemmas based in history and not in mythology. One of the remarkable achievements of this book is the weaving in inscriptions in south-east Asia pointing to the fact as to how Indian political ideas travelled abroad.

Fellow-historians are likely to cross swords with Singh with some of her emphases and her rejection of the idea that the whole of post-Buddhist Brahminical texts, especially the Dharma Sutras, are a response to the Buddhist doctrines, without denying that there was quite a large element of counter to the Buddhist ideal of renunciator and the positing of the counter-ideal of the king who does his duty by the polity. She recognises that Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha deals with the issue of the king renouncing his duties in favour of a successor, and that political succession remains problematic. But it is the general reader who will derive maximum pleasure from reading this book because he or she will get acquainted with the literary treasures of ancient India as never before.

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