Introduction CHAPTER ONE Foundation CHAPTER TWO Transition CHAPTER THREE ▪ Maturity‌‌‌


CHAPTER FIVE The Wilderness Conclusion


Preface and Acknowledgments

MY HISTORICAL INTERESTS have been rather varied. After my initial research on the history of ancient and early medieval Orissa on the basis of epigraphic sources, I moved on to write about different themes including Ashoka, the epigraphic and archaeological profiles of Buddhist sites, aspects of ancient Indian social and economic history, the early history of Delhi and its suburbs, and the history of Indian archaeology. I expressed many of my ideas about India’s early past in A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century (2008), which was addressed to both university students and general readers. Shortly after that book was published, I was struck by a realization that during my decades of teaching, researching, and writing on various aspects of ancient Indian history, I had completely missed a fundamental element that was implied in its entire political narrative—violence.

This is when, one day, I absentmindedly reached out for a nondescript red- bound book that had lain, unnoticed and unread, on a dusty bookshelf for years

—Kamandaka’s Nitisara. I had even forgotten I possessed it. I turned its pages, first curious, soon riveted. I went on to publish my first paper on ideas of kingship, violence, and war, comparing Kamandaka’s approach with that of Kautilya. From here, I turned to Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha, a work I had long loved for its beautiful poetry, but now recognized as a rich repository of political ideas. I then returned to Ashoka’s inscriptions, which I thought I knew well. This time they spoke to me in a very different way, and I saw in them a connected political philosophy. As I delved into the Nitisara, Raghuvamsha, and Ashoka’s

inscriptions, I was especially interested in their ideas related to kingship, empire, war, and violence, and also in the manner in which these ideas intersected with their historical contexts.

This book represents an expansion of those initial inquiries, drawing on many more sources, situated within a continuous and comparative historical framework, in order to build larger arguments. While I had, over the years, acquired considerable experience dealing with epigraphic sources, writing this book gave me the opportunity to engage with texts such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Jataka, and Panchatantra. This made writing this book a wonderful voyage of discovery.

My interest in the problem of political violence and the interface between political ideas and practice was accompanied by another realization—of the need for histories of India that looked beyond India. Many of the texts discussed in this book traveled widely, and an exploration of their travels, transformation, and influence requires moving beyond the subcontinental frame, especially into Southeast Asia. Apart from drawing attention to the circulation of ideas in the ancient world, this wider frame also makes it possible to situate ancient Indian thought within a comparative context, enabling us to recognize cultural connections as well as cultural difference in the political ideas of the ancient world.

The history of ideas requires crossing not only spatial boundaries but also temporal ones. My book begins in the twentieth century and ends in the twenty- first because many of the texts discussed here have inspired varied reactions and interpretations over the centuries, and will probably do so for a long time to come. The fact that ancient ideas and symbols continue to be invoked in modern India makes a historical understanding of those ideas and symbols extremely relevant, indeed essential. Another reason for connecting the seemingly remote past with the more immediate present is the hope that a critical engagement with ancient Indian political thought can perhaps help us reflect on the problem of escalating political violence in our own time, whichever part of the world we may live in.

This book is the result of several years of thought and work. Among the many scholars whose works are cited in the endnotes and bibliography, I am especially indebted to those who have published the text and translations of the many

works discussed in this book. The names of the translators have been cited wherever I have used quotations from their works. Where no citations are attached to translated passages, the translations are my own.

Several people helped in different ways during the research and writing of this book. In Delhi, Dilip Simeon, P. K. Datta, Mahesh Rangarajan, Navnita Behera, and Naina Dayal shared ideas and reading material. In Leuven, Idesbald Goddeeris offered friendship, while Mark Depauw, Willy Clarysse, Stefan Schorn, and Alexander Meeus introduced me to writings on classical Greek and Hellenistic thought. Thomas Trautmann, Patrick Olivelle, Arlo Griffiths, Victor

H. Mair, and Hans T. Bakker provided valuable long-distance suggestions and readings. Jan Wisseman Christie graciously gave me access to her Register of the Inscriptions of Java. Pankaj Tandon was kind enough to provide many useful articles and images of ancient Indian coins. Rukun Advani offered sound and sensible advice at several critical junctures.

My friends Seema Alavi, Parul Pandya Dhar, and Nayanjot Lahiri have been constant companions and sources of encouragement during the highs and lows of writing this book. My younger son, Raghav, too, has been a sensitive supporter throughout the process. As with my other books, my husband, Vijay Tankha, has been friend, critic, sounding board, and editor, and I owe him special thanks.

I also owe thanks to the reviewers of this book, whose excellent suggestions helped greatly in the final revision of the text. Finally, I would like to thank Sharmila Sen, Heather Hughes, and the entire Harvard University Press team for their support, efficiency, and meticulous hard work, which have resulted in this publication.

Note on Transliteration

IN ORDER TO MAKE this book accessible to a wider audience, and to strike a balance between specialist and nonspecialist readers, transliteration conventions and diacritics have not been used in all cases.

Names of people, places, and texts have been spelled phonetically, without diacritics, except where they are a part of quotations or titles of articles or books.

Diacritics have not been used for Tamil words.

Important non-English special or technical terms in Sanskrit or Prakrit are usually given with diacritics and in italics. The exceptions are words that occur very frequently in the text, such as dharma, dhamma, sangha, Brahmana, Kshatriya, and so on. These have been spelled phonetically and are given without diacritics or italicization.

Chronology of Dynasties

THE CHRONOLOGY OF ancient Indian dynastic history is highly debated. Absolute dates are few. The approximate dates of the major dynasties and some of the rulers discussed in this book are given below.

Early dynasties of Magadha: c. sixth–fourth centuries BCE Haryankas (including Bimbisara, Ajatashatru) Shaishunagas


Alexander’s invasion: 327 / 326 BCE

Mauryas: c. 324 / 321–187 BCE

Chandragupta (c. 324 / 321–297 BCE) Bindusara (c. 297–273 BCE)

Ashoka (c. 268–232 BCE) Shungas: second–first centuries BCE

Pushyamitra Shunga: second / first century BCE

Chedis / Mahameghavahanas

Kharavela: first century BCE / first century CE Indo-Greeks / Indo-Bactrians: second–first century BCE Shaka Kshatrapas (Kshaharata and Kardamaka branches):

first–second century CE

Rudradaman (second century CE)

Kushanas: first–early fourth century CE Satavahanas: first–third century CE

Ikshvakus (of Vijayapuri): third–early fourth century CE Guptas: c. 300–600 CE

Chandragupta I (c. 319–335 / 350 CE)

Samudragupta (c. 335 / 350–370 CE) Chandragupta II (c. 376–413 / 415 CE)

Vakatakas (Nandivardhana and Vatsagulma branches): third–early sixth century CE

Pravarasena II (c. 400–450 CE) Prabhavatigupta as acting ruler (c. 405–419 CE)

Huna invasions and rule: fifth–sixth century CE Toramana


Chronology of Texts

THE DATES OF most of the major texts discussed in this book are highly debated. Given below, for ready reference, is the conservative time range within which their composition is usually placed:

Buddhist Tipitaka: c. 500–300 BCE Mahabharata: c. 400 BCE–400 CE Ramayana: c. 400 BCE–400 CE Arthashastra: c. 300 BCE–200 CE Manusmriti: c. 200 BCE–200 CE Bhagavadgita: c. 200 BCE–200 CE Bhasa’s plays: second century CE

Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacharita: first / second century CE

Ashokavadana: second century CE

Jataka: third century BCE–third century CE Kamandaka’s Nitisara: c. 400–700 CE

Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntala and Raghuvamsha: fourth / fifth century CE

Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa: fourth / fifth century CE

Panchatantra: third–fourth century CE

Brihatsamhita: sixth century CE


ON A WARM DAY in late July 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru introduced the new national flag to the Constituent Assembly of India. It was a tricolor with three bands— saffron on top, dark green at the bottom, and white in the middle, with a navy- blue twenty-four-spoked wheel (cakra) in the center. In the emotionally charged debate that followed, various members of the assembly rose to speak, explaining how they understood its symbolism and asserting the allegiance of the social or religious group they represented to the new flag.1 The wheel in the center could represent the Gandhian spinning wheel, the sun’s rays, the wheel of time, even eternity. But Nehru was unequivocal that it represented the wheel on the abacus of the Sarnath lion capital of the great Maurya emperor Ashoka and the teaching of the Buddha. The ideas associated with these two great men of ancient India had traveled to distant parts of the world. Hence, for the prime minister designate, the wheel symbolized the aspirations of the new republic to attain a place of prestige among the community of modern nations.

A more direct, unambiguous and complete incorporation of an Ashokan

symbol occurred a few months later, when the capital of the Sarnath pillar was adopted as the national emblem.2 This beautiful sandstone capital (see Figure 1), with an intense polish that endows it with a dark metallic sheen, once crowned a pillar inscribed with the emperor’s message to the Buddhist monastic order. Artistically the most splendid and iconologically the most elaborate of the Ashokan capitals, it consists of four lions sitting back to back on a circular abacus, which has an elephant, horse, humped bull, and lion carved in high relief. The abacus rests on an inverted lotus. The majestic, still repose of the four crowning lions contrasts with the animals moving clockwise on the abacus, separated from one another by wheels. The discovery of fragments of a wheel nearby suggests that the Sarnath lions may have once supported a wheel.

  1. Translating the three-dimensional stone capital into an image suitable for reproduction on a flat surface required selection and editing. In the national emblem, only three of the four crowning lions are visible; the fourth must be imagined. And only two animals—the bull and horse—can be seen on the abacus, separated by a wheel, with traces of wheels visible on the two sides. Since the abacus lion is badly damaged, this was the most aesthetically pleasing view. But there was a very significant addition. In the national emblem, below the abacus, written in the Devanagari script, is the legend Satyameva jayate (Truth alone is victorious).3 These words from the Mundaka Upanishad united the complex symbolism of the Ashokan capital with an even more ancient philosophical tradition. The motto selected for the Lok Sabha, the lower house of elected representatives of the Indian parliament, was Dharmacakra- pravartanaya (for turning the wheel of dharma). As the Buddha had done in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, so it was hoped, would modern parliamentarians promote the cause of righteousness.

    These combinations of images and words created a highly charged political

    iconography that connected the new Indian nation with its ancient past. Dharma, a powerful idea with a complex history, variety of meaning, and a subject of prolonged and intense disquisition in Indian political thought for centuries, stood at the center. Although complex and open to multiple interpretations, the central motifs of the national flag and national emblem privileged Buddhism and the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, both associated in the popular imagination with nonviolence. It was no coincidence, and in fact fitting, that a country that had achieved nationhood predominantly through nonviolence, adopted emblems that had strong associations with this very principle.

    Modern India’s Search for Her Ancient Roots

    For several decades prior to Indian independence, Indian intellectuals and political leaders had turned towards ancient India, trying to understand her, seeking inspiration and solutions for their contemporary concerns.4 The search for ancient civilizational and intellectual roots resulted in the creation of not one but several historical narratives. The sources of inspiration and the interpretations varied radically, although they also intersected at certain points. The issues of violence and nonviolence featured prominently in all of them.

    Nehru probably knew more about Indian history than any other political leader of his time. The Discovery of India is a history of India from ancient times till the 1940s, into which the author wove his personal history and the nationalist aspirations of his age.5 Nehru saw in Indian culture a strong impetus toward synthesis, absorption, and rejuvenation. Despite the existence of caste and social inequality, he thought that India’s history was marked by a high level of social harmony and a lack of conflict. The remarkable continuity and stability of this culture were the result of the ideas of detachment and penance, an extreme tolerance of others’ beliefs, and the centrality of dharma, with its focus on duty. With his occidental education and temperament, Nehru was greatly influenced by the western idealization of Buddhism. He was also fascinated by the Mauryas and their great empire. Above all, he was attracted by Ashoka’s cosmopolitanism, renunciation of war, and assiduous pursuit of his people’s good.

    Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s understanding of Indian history was an

    integral part of his political thought and practice. Gandhi engaged in an original and creative manner with a variety of religious traditions and with the concepts of dharma, sacrifice (yajña), nonviolence (ahiṁsā), and renunciation, which had been intensely discussed and debated by Indians over centuries. Interpreting the old concepts in new ways and adding to them the ideas of love of humanity and service, he created a powerful new intellectual and philosophical synthesis that formed the foundation of his anticolonial and nation-building agenda.6 For Gandhi, modern capitalist, industrial civilization was based on greed, selfishness, exploitation and a great deal of violence—against the self, the other, and nature. Although aware of the elements of violence in Indian thought and

    history, he saw India as a nation that offered the world a unique understanding of life and the world, one in which the principle of nonviolence stood out. The Bhagavadgita was a text that inspired many nationalists and revolutionaries who argued for an aggressive, even violent, response to colonial rule. But Gandhi read it as a manifesto of nonviolence.7 According to him, the Bhagavadgita rejects all acts that cannot be performed without attachment, and by implication, this extended to killing, lying, and dissolute behavior. Hence, if one lived one’s life according to this text—which Gandhi claimed he himself did—one was bound to practice truth and nonviolence. By using nonviolence as a philosophy and strategy to overthrow the British empire, and by linking it to the ancient Indian intellectual and philosophic tradition, Gandhi created the impression that nonviolence was rooted in a unique way in the Indian psyche.

    Bhimrao Ambedkar is another important political figure whose political agenda was strongly embedded in an interpretation of ancient Indian history. The Buddha and His Dhamma, published posthumously in 1957, gives his reading of Buddhism and ends with prayers for the return of the Buddha to his native land and for the spread of his teaching. Ambedkar saw the Buddha as a rationalist and social revolutionary and Buddhism as a panacea for the problems of India’s oppressed scheduled castes. Elsewhere, he presented the “Untouchables” of the twentieth century as descendants of Buddhists of ancient times, who had remained steadfast in their loyalty to their religion and who had been reduced to a deplorable social position due to the machinations of the Brahmana class. Buddhism and Marxism both gave a powerful call for social equality, but Ambedkar argued that Buddhism was superior because it advocated peaceful, democratic means to achieve this end. Ambedkar was against violence, but conceded that absolute nonviolence was impossible. Even the Buddha would have justified violence, were it required for the attainment of just and justifiable ends.8

    There were many other political understandings of ancient India. In Vinayak

    Damodar Savarkar’s reading of Indian history, violence and war were necessary and laudable Hindu responses to foreign aggressors. Hindu warfare was based on lofty principles of righteous war (dharma-yuddha). In Savarkar’s Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, nonviolence is an effete and negative value; its practitioners have no place in the list of glorious epochs.9 The stars of this

    history are aggressive men who freed their people from the shackles of foreign domination. In Maurya history, king Chandragupta and his Brahmana minister Chanakya are lauded for their aggressive empire-building, which led to the first glorious epoch in Indian history. Ashoka, on the other hand, is described in negative terms. According to Savarkar, his over-zealous propaganda of Buddhist principles such as nonviolence caused enormous harm to the Indian political outlook.

    Although there were many different ideas of ancient India, it was the idealized Nehruvian model of the ancient Indian past—one in which Buddhism, Ashoka, nonviolence, and cosmopolitanism had pride of place—that were reflected in the national flag and more so, in the national emblem. This model affirmed the nonviolent ideology of Gandhian nationalism and projected a set of aspirations for India’s future. But it was based on a very selective reading of India’s ancient history. As will be argued in this book, there is no doubt that the history of ancient India, as that of other parts of the world, was marked by considerable violence of various kinds. The extent of this violence has usually been either underestimated or ignored. And yet, violence and nonviolence were subjects of lively debate in ancient Indian thought over the centuries, and this debate was marked by an intensity and diversity that was unparalleled elsewhere in the ancient world. This book is an exploration of the questions about and debate over one kind of violence—political violence.

    Words and Meanings

    Can a distinct political domain be identified in ancient Indian thought? The answer to this question, and one that allows us to proceed further with this inquiry rather than end it when we have scarcely begun, is that ancient Indian thought does, in fact, identify and discuss a number of distinct issues related to power, kingship, governance, and the state, which can be identified as “political,” even though it often casts the political on a social, metaphysical, and moral canvas. The political domain was recognized as the subject of specialized study, referred to variously as daṇḍanīti, arthaśāstra, and nītiśāstra.

    The English “violence” is generally used to refer to actions involving physical force that is intended to injure, harm, or kill. Definitions of “nonviolence,” on the other hand, have been strongly influenced by Gandhian nonviolence as a strategy of resistance against British colonial rule. This is clear from the two elements that form part of dictionary definitions of the term: One is the use of peaceful means, and the second refers to the goals to which these peaceful means are directed—namely, to bring about purposeful political or social change. Several aspects of such definitions can be questioned. For instance, the exclusive association of violence with physical force is limiting, as it rules out other possible forms of violence, such as that manifested in word or thought. Second, while intention and goals are often central to the discourse on nonviolence, we can also conceive of situations where the expressions or practice of violence or nonviolence are ends in themselves.

    If violence is to be understood as the use of force or the infliction of injury that is considered in some way unjustified, excessive, illegitimate, or morally wrong, it cannot carry universal or unchanging connotation. In our own times, there are intense and often acrimonious debates on war, torture, terrorism, animal rights, vegetarianism, abortion, suicide, and euthanasia. The violence involved in these acts is often framed within a discourse of rights—the rights of civil society, noncombatants, the individual, animals, the fetus, and others. When modern western conceptualizations of the problem of violence are compared with ancient Indian ones (such terms are problematic because the conceal much heterogeneity), the latter seem to be framed within a very different and culture- specific set of epistemological and metaphysical ideas related to the nature of the

    cosmos and the beings that inhabit it; the goals of human existence; the concepts of merit and sin; and the relationship between the self, the other, and the larger social order. At the same time, there are also some meeting points, for instance, in the distinction between ends and means, and the interconnection of violence, law, justice, and order. But rather than essentializing, simplifying, and comparing “Indian” and “western” perspectives, this book argues that the long and intense intellectual engagement with the problem of political violence in ancient India demands attention and needs to be understood in all its diversity and nuances on its own terms, as it unfolded in its changing historical contexts.

    Ancient Indian lexicons contain several words for force, violence, and injury. The most important one is the Sanskrit hiṁsā, which shares with the English word “violence” the idea that the force inflicted or the injury caused is excessive, unjustified, or unethical. It is interesting that the antonyms—the Sanskrit ahiṁsā and the English “nonviolence”—both create a positive value through the negation of something negative (hiṁsā, violence).10 Ahiṁsā is sometimes understood as a desiderative indicating a non-desire to harm or to kill. However, it should more accurately be understood as referring to the absence of the causing of injury (including killing), usually to another, either human or animal, corresponding in a broad sense to the connotations of the English “nonviolence.”11 But this is the “classical” meaning that ahiṁsā eventually came to acquire. The word has a history. In Vedic ritual texts, it occurs only in the dative form and means “for the safety or security of.”12 Apart from ahiṁsā, another important compound with a negative prefix is ānṛśaṁsya, which is especially conspicuous in the Mahabharata. While it overlaps in meaning with ahiṁsā, ānṛśaṁsya has more abstract connotations of an attitude of non-cruelty and compassion (although acts, intentions, and attitudes are, of course, connected). There are two interpretations of the relationship between ahiṁsā and ānṛśaṁsya. One is that ānṛśaṁsya is a further, amplified form of the idea of ahiṁsā. The other is that it is something less than ahiṁsā, reflecting a realization of the impossibility of absolute nonviolence, and the positing of the more practical goal of practicing compassion.13 Both points of view have merit, and ānṛśaṁsya can perhaps paradoxically be seen as both something more and something less than ahiṁsā.

    A problem in dealing with the issue of violence is that ancient Indian texts

    abound in apparently paradoxical and contradictory statements. For instance, what does the Manavadharmashastra (also known as the Manusmriti) mean when, in the context of animal sacrifice, it asserts that hiṁsā that is sanctioned by the Veda and is well-established in mobile and immobile creation should definitely be understood as ahiṁsā?14 The text is clearly distinguishing between what appears to be violence and what is true violence. The implication of such a statement (similar ones are made in many other texts as well) is that means have to be considered in relation to ends. In contexts where injuring or killing another can be established as necessary, meaningful, or even beneficial, it should not be considered violence at all. So words and ideas related to violence and nonviolence can be understood only through a contextual analysis, an exploration carried out through the following chapters of this book.

    Argument and Its Limits

    Disciplinary boundaries existed in ancient India, but knowledge and ideas flowed across them. For instance, the texts on dharma and polity share the ideas of the goals of human life (three or four in number, known respectively as trivarga or caturvarga) and duty based on social class and life stage (varṇāśrama dharma), the theory of rebirth, and the consequences of action (karma).15 The boundaries between philosophy, metaphysics, and political thought were permeable, and there seems to have been dialogue between political and medical treatises. Literature displays great receptivity to ideas from all disciplines and drew freely from them.

    Amartya Sen has written about the loquaciousness and argumentativeness of Indian culture.16 Dialogue and debate are certainly important parts of the Indian intellectual tradition. Of course, the arguments that are recorded in the texts are largely those of upper-class males; the voices of others have to be teased out with great difficulty. Many ancient Indian texts are polysemic; multiple ideas, sometimes contradictory ones, jostle with each other within a single text. This is partly because of their complex compositional and transmission history, but it also tells us something about the nature of the ancient Indian intellectual tradition. Vitriolic debate and diatribe are present in systems of thought that view themselves in oppositional terms; but within traditions, what is visible is a tendency to juxtapose different views, rather than to reject and replace them. For instance, the Dharmashastra texts, which elaborate on the culturally important concept of dharma, had a certain in-built flexibility of perspective that belied the rhetorical assertion of the universality and timelessness of dharma. The fact is that in many texts, the frequent appeal to tradition and consensus is a veneer that conceals very divergent views.

    But there were limits to flexibility and argument. In a famous philosophical

    debate in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, in which many matters related to the self, universe, gods, and spirits were raised, when a woman named Gargi pressed on relentlessly with her questions, the sage Yajnavalkya eventually told her to desist from asking any more, lest her head fall off. The Buddha, too, sometimes imperiously admonished persistent interlocutors and abruptly ended discussions on tricky doctrinal issues, leaving them unresolved. When the intensity of

    argument and dissent could not be contained within the boundaries of a particular tradition, new traditions were born. Buddhism, which very self- consciously positioned itself as a counter to Brahmanism, is an example of this.

    The issues of violence and nonviolence in general as well as in the political sphere in various textual and religious traditions have been touched on in several scholarly writings.17 But many questions remain. What are the various Indian approaches to political violence? How is the violence of the state and against the state understood? Is there a purely political response to the problem of violence, or are the perspectives always tied up with metaphysics or religion? How do different traditions and textual genres talk and respond to each other? Are we looking at radical differences in attitude, or is there an element of cultural consensus? Is there a relationship between the historical incidence of violence and the intensity of discussion of the issue? What was the impact of religious doctrines that emphasize nonviolence and compassion on the practice of political violence? To what extent can we distinguish between elite and popular responses to the issue? Comparison is useful, and the ways in which the ancient Indian intellectual tradition dealt with the problem of political violence can be fruitfully compared with other ancient cultures such as those of Persia, China, and Greece.

    Kingship and Political Violence

    Violence lies at the heart of the state. Dominant control over the mechanisms of force was an important aspect of the transition from pre-state to state societies. The control, threat, and perpetuation of violence were essential to the origin and the sustenance of state structures. In the context of the modern nation-state, powerful voices have described the changing technologies of state violence and how the acceptance and justification of this violence have rendered it almost invisible. The relationship between politics, sovereignty, and the power to dictate who may live and who should die has also been persuasively delineated.18 The escalation of the actual and potential violence of the modern state toward its own citizens, other states, and the environment; the threat posed by transnational terrorist networks; voices that justify, invisibilize, or question these various kinds of violence; and the search for new kinds of political, social, and environmental security and ethics all make an exploration of political violence in its general and specific aspects a matter of enormous contemporary relevance. The search for new ways of understanding these issues involves rejecting the privileging of the modern and the western in histories of ideas and institutions, and an attentiveness towards their premodern, non-western trajectories.

    Political violence in ancient India can be approached from two perspectives—

    one is to investigate the actual incidence of such violence in its various forms; the other is to examine how the problem posed by this violence was dealt with at the intellectual level. The two issues are, of course, closely related. The fact that various kinds of violence are woven into the fabric of ancient Indian history is evident from incessant inter-dynastic and intra-dynastic power struggles, warfare between states, and violent encounters between the state and forest people. It is evident in the celebration of the royal hunt, where the killing of animals of the wild became symbolic of the king’s political prowess and mastery over nature. It is also evident in the detailed discussions of punishment, especially for political crimes such as treason. The quantum of different kinds of political violence in ancient India cannot be charted in the form of a graph, because statistics simply do not exist. What is of much greater interest and importance is how the problem of violence was discussed and debated, and the relative value attached to its opposite—nonviolence—in the political sphere. As this is a historical

    investigation, it is grounded in political history and in a discussion of political processes, including the theory and practice of kingship, which was the central political institution of ancient India. This institution had a dominant role in controlling, perpetrating, defining, justifying, and even attracting political violence.

    This investigation of ancient Indian kingship is quite different from what can loosely be described as the traditional Indological / philological approach.19 While offering perceptive insights and drawing attention to Indo-European parallels, that approach has tended to focus on early Brahmanical texts, the religious aspects of kingship, and the meanings embedded in royal ritual. It has tended to essentialize and homogenize kingship, dharma, and religion, and has rarely taken into account the full variety of perspectives, political realities, and historical contexts. Such problems are also visible in the writings of social anthropologists. Louis Dumont speaks of ancient Indian kingship as becoming increasingly “secularized,” with the political sphere of force eventually emerging as separate and distinct from the sphere of values. The king reigned over the sphere of artha (here, secular power) while the Brahmana priest / purohita (royal chaplain) reigned supreme over the higher sphere of dharma.20 The king– Brahmana relationship has also been described by J. C. Heesterman as an irresoluble problem: The king desperately needed the Brahmana to legitimize his power, but the Brahmana was supposed to avoid associating with the king. The situation was made more complex by the existence of an independent, renunciatory sphere that lay outside the social one. The Brahmana’s authority stemmed not from his being a “priest” but from his representing the values of the renouncer.21 As for kingship, it remained “suspended between sacrality and secularity, divinity and mortal humanity, legitimate authority and arbitrary power, dharma and adharma.22

    But the Brahmana dharma experts’ view of kingship cannot be described as the “Indian view.” And is there even a single Brahmanical view? As we shall see, Brahmana political theorists such as Kautilya paid lip service to dharma but were not really bothered by supposedly “irresoluble” problems. The “dharma view” of politics was countered by an “artha view,” and there were several positions in between these two extremes. Further, expressions of the ideology of kingship in texts or inscriptions should not be mistaken for the historical realities

    of the institution. This is the error made, for instance, in the theory of “ritual kingship,” which is part of the idea of the segmentary state model, which has been applied to the Pallava and Chola states of later times.23 The institution of kingship can be understood only by situating it historically at the intersection of ideology and practice.

    In histories of ancient India, the fantasy of a powerful, highly centralized Maurya empire (c. 324–187 BCE) was replaced many decades ago by the idea that the empire had little effectual control beyond its metropolitan and core areas. In the case of the Gupta empire (c. 300–600 CE), the theory of Indian feudalism (since then, much critiqued) described this period in terms of political, economic, and social fragmentation.24 The reaction against state-centric histories emphasized that the rhythms of social, economic, religious, and cultural change did not correspond to the chronologies of dynastic history. In the larger historiographical shift of focus from political narrative to political process, political ideas generally took a back seat and were usually mentioned in passing as a legitimation strategy. Political violence was scarcely noticed, let alone analyzed.

    Anthropological models are useful while tracing the transition from tribes and chiefdoms to kingdoms and empires. But historians have often been all too preoccupied with searching for centrally recruited standing armies and bureaucratized land revenue systems, evidence of which is rarely clear or forthcoming in the available sources. Finding new ways of thinking about ancient states and empires means moving beyond the extremes of “statist” and “non-statist” histories. It means recognizing the existence of “autonomous spaces” within state structures.25 It means moving toward a more flexible understanding of ancient political systems, one that takes their conceptual universe much more seriously. In recent years, political ideas, repackaged as the “political imagination,” are once again in the limelight.26 Ancient polities were active, dynamic creatures with distinct ideas about themselves. What they did and said and the material traces they left behind are all germane to how we understand them.

    Given the inherent differences in the nature of our sources, the profiles of politics and political ideas that they offer are not necessarily congruent. Attempts to simplistically corroborate the evidence from one source with that of another

    have to be replaced by a more sophisticated intertextual analysis, which studies these sources in their detail and totality, taking into account the demands and conventions of genre, recognizing their specific perspective and representational nature, and identifying elements of consonance as well as dissonance in their testimonies. Further, the history of ideas has to be firmly anchored in history; the complex interaction between political ideas and practice has to be tracked carefully, chronologically, historically, over the centuries. Vast as it is, a subcontinental canvas is not enough, because as we shall see in this book, certain texts and ideas traveled to other parts of Asia, and even beyond. Cross-cultural comparison is useful, not necessarily to establish genealogies, affinities, and analogies, but to help sharpen our understanding of what was historically and culturally unique.

    The time is ripe for an approach that combines a focus on political history, on process, and on thought, and looks at the rich content and dynamic role of political ideas within and beyond the political sphere. Such an approach raises many questions. How are political ideas, especially those related to political violence, expressed in different kinds of historical sources? How did certain ideas become influential and pervasive parts of the cultural matrix, cutting across the particularities of specific states to inhabit and pervade a larger geopolitical sphere? What was the role of political thought in creating civilizational space? How can we identify and then accommodate in our discussion political ideas and practices that remained marginal or are only dimly hinted at in our sources? How can violence and reflections on violence enhance our understanding of ancient Indian political processes? How can we break out of the insularity of Indian history while discussing Indian political ideas? What is the place of ancient Indian political thought in the context of the ancient world? Does this exploration have something of value for understanding the problem of political violence in our own time?

    The Investigation

    This book is a history of ideas. The focus is on the ways in which violence in the political sphere featured as an issue of discussion and debate in ancient Indian political discourse during the period circa 600 BCE—600 CE.27 Exploring the intellectual engagement with the problem of political violence opens a window to the larger conceptual universe of ancient states. And yet, political thought cannot be understood unless it is anchored to its historical context, telling us not only what the ideologues of empire thought, but also what rulers were actually doing. Therefore, this book is also a political history in which political ideas are given a central place. The main focus is on kingship and on the relationship between kingship and violence at a general level as well as specific ones. It should be emphasized right at the outset that the ancient texts do not necessarily situate all the issues discussed in this book within a frame of political violence. My aim is to investigate the arenas of internal and external state action that involved the use of force, punishment, or killing. Whether or not these were seen as equivalent to violence within the ancient Indian tradition remains to be seen.

    Although I touch on the protohistoric background, taking into account the

    Harappan civilization (circa 2600–1900 BCE) and the political ideas in the Vedic corpus (circa 1500–500 BCE), my main interest is in the historic period, and within this, in the period between circa 600 BCE and 600 CE. The first three chapters give an integrated overview of the theory and practice of kingship and empire over these twelve hundred years, with special reference to how the problem of political violence was addressed. This is done on the basis of a detailed analysis of certain texts, inscriptions, coins, and artistic representations, which I see as dynamic, interacting, and important elements of the past, whose impact often transcended the specific time and place of their production. As the period discussed in this book generated an enormous range of material, all of which cannot be analyzed in detail, I have singled some out for special attention. While I have focused on the major Brahmanical and Buddhist texts, the equally important Jaina texts are discussed in a more general way. Similarly, although evidence from South India has been drawn into the discussion, there is a more detailed treatment of the northern intellectual and cultural traditions.

    The titles and time frames of the first three chapters correspond to three

    overarching and overlapping phases of political processes. Chapter 1, “Foundations,” circa 600–200 BCE, deals with the emergence of early historic states in north and central India and, more especially, the Maurya empire. Chapter 2, “Transition,” circa 200 BCE–300 CE, deals with a momentous period that was marked from the point of view of political history by the violent end of the Maurya dynasty and its replacement by the Shunga dynasty; a series of invasions from the northwest, which led to the establishment of the kingdoms of the Indo-Greeks, Pahlavas, Shakas, and Kushanas in parts of northwest and north India; the Chedi kingdom in Orissa in the east; the Satavahanas in the Deccan; and the Ikshvakus farther south. Chapter 3, “Maturity,” circa 300–600 CE, covers the period that was dominated by the Gupta empire in the north and the Vakatakas in the Deccan, and when state formation spread to many other parts of the subcontinent. The mid-first millennium has been taken as the terminum ad quem of the discussion in this book because by that time, most of the key elements of what can be described as the classical Indian model of kingship and politics (subject to some degree of spatial and temporal variation) had emerged. The issues discussed in Chapters 13 include ideas of state and empire; theories of the origins and nature of kingship; violence and nonviolence in religious and political thought; the dharma of the king; the relationship between the king and the gods; power and renunciation; politics and emotions; and the relationship between governing the state and governing the self. The discussion of justice, punishment and the use of force against adversaries within the kingdom highlights attitudes towards force and violence within the state.

    The dates of most of the texts discussed in this book are matters of continuing debate, and their composition often spilled over across more than one phase. Given this important caveat, I have accommodated my main textual and epigraphic sources into three overarching phases in the following manner:

    Chapter 1: Foundation (circa 600 BCE–200 BCE) early Buddhist and Jaina texts

    Ashoka’s inscriptions Mahabharata Ramayana

    Chapter 2: Transition (circa 200 BCE–300 CE)

    Arthashastra Manusmriti Bhasa’s plays

    Buddhist texts: Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacharita; Ashokavadana; Jataka

    Inscriptions of Kharavela, Rudradaman, Satavahanas, and Ikshvakus

    Chapter 3: Maturity (circa 300–600 CE) Vakataka and Gupta inscriptions Kamandaka’s Nitisara

    Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntala and Raghuvamsha

    Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa Panchatantra

    Chapters 4 and 5 shift the focus outward to two specific aspects of the political sphere, which saw continuous and overt conflict and violence—the state’s involvement in warfare against other states, and its age-old conflict with the wilderness and its human and animal inhabitants. The time frame of both these chapters is from circa 600 BCE to 600 CE, and I examine some of the sources discussed in the first three chapters, along with some new ones, exploring their treatment of war and the wilderness. Chapter 4, “War,” discusses issues such as the place of war in statecraft, war, and dharma, the heroic ideal, the code of honor, righteous war, critiques and pacifist arguments, the aestheticization and celebration of war, doubt and lament. These form the important ideological underpinnings of the violent internecine warfare that marks the political history of this period. Chapter 5, “The Wilderness,” examines the relationship between the state and the wilderness, exploring the classifications of the forest, its place in larger normative schemes, the exploitation of forest resources, attitudes toward forest people, animals as political symbols, and the royal hunt. The larger argument is that violence or the threat of violence formed the basis of the state’s complex interface with the forest.

    The Epilogue examines the long-term impact of the ideas discussed in the five chapters, the travels and circulation of certain influential Indian political

    texts and ideas beyond the subcontinent, and the extent to which the Indian debates on political violence spread to other lands. The book closes with a reflection on the questions with which my interest in exploring political violence in ancient India began. When and to what extent did ancient Indian discourse on political violence succeed in making it invisible, essential, even desirable? How do the debates on political violence in ancient Indian thought make us think differently about India’s ancient history? To what extent do these debates constitute a resource for reflecting on the problem of political violence not only in the ancient world but in our own time?



    RAJGIR’S MEMORIES go back over two and a half millennia. Located in a densely forested valley encircled by seven undulating hills, the landscape of this sleepy town in eastern India is picturesque enough. But ruins and legends alert us to other, momentous associations. In ancient times, there was a city here, known by many different names. While Girivraja (the enclosure of hills) points to its hill- girded location, Rajagriha (the abode of kings) announces it as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha. There are spots connected with the legendary king Jarasandha and the god Krishna, as well as the early historic kings Bimbisara and Ajatashatru. The Buddha is said to have spent many months meditating on “Vulture’s Hill.” The first Buddhist council, held soon after his death, is supposed to have been held in a hall in front of the Sattapanni caves. Rajagriha is also believed to be the birthplace of the twentieth Jaina saint (tīrthaṅkara), Muni Suvrata, and the twenty-third Jaina saint, Mahavira, is said to have spent many a monsoon month here. An inscription and relief carvings of Jaina saints in the Son Bhandar caves indicate that Jaina ascetics lived here in the third and fourth century centuries. So Rajagriha was not only the capital of ambitious Magadhan kings who used violent means to enhance their political power. It was also associated with thinkers who emphasized renunciation and nonviolence.

    The earliest states included kingdoms (rājyas) as well as oligarchies (gaṇas or saṅghas). If the city of Rajagriha epitomizes the former, Vaishali represents the latter. The sway of the powerful Vajji confederacy, of which the Lichchhavis were the foremost members, lay north of Magadha, across the Ganga, stretching into the Nepal hills. The capital Vaishali was located along a major trade route that linked the Ganga valley with the lowlands of southern Nepal. Monarchies and oligarchies must have differed in military organization and patterns of land ownership.1 But the most obvious and striking difference was the fact that in the

    oligarchies, power was shared among a group of proud aristocrats instead of being in the hands of a single king. Among the Lichchhavis there were many who went around proclaiming, “I am king, I am king!” Mahavira was born at Kundagrama in the Vaishali suburbs, and he and the Buddha are believed to have spent many rainy seasons in the city. A hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the second Buddhist council was held here. Vaishali also has epic connections. In the Ramayana, Rama, Lakshmana, and the sage Vishvamitra are said to have come here before going to the court of king Janaka, where many princes were to vie with each other for the hand of the beautiful princess Sita.

    During the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, cities and states emerged in a belt stretching from Gandhara in the northwest to Anga in eastern India, extending into central India and the Deccan. Buddhist and Jaina texts and the Brahmanical Puranas give lists of the sixteen great states (mahājanapadas) that included kingdoms and oligarchies (see Map 1).2 Violence jostles with piety in the political narratives of the early historic period. Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jaina texts give accounts of the personality of rulers, their matrimonial alliances and their wars. While they differ in detail, it is significant that all three traditions engaged with political history, sought to establish claims over the most powerful kings, and denounced those they thought inimical to their cause.

    MAP 1 The sixteen great states

    From Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India from the Stone Age to the 12th Century; Courtesy: Pearson India Education Services Pvt. Ltd.

    We hear of violent succession conflicts involving assassination, patricide, and people’s revolt. The military capabilities and cruelty of certain kings are commented on. For instance, Bimbisara, king of the Haryanka dynasty of Magadha, has the title “Seniya” (one who has an army). Perhaps he replaced or supplemented the old hereditary warrior elite by recruiting a large standing army. According to Buddhist tradition, Bimbisara was killed by his son Ajatashatru at the instigation of the Buddha’s wicked cousin Devadatta; Ajatashatru later sought absolution for his crime through confession to the Buddha. The four

    successors of Ajatashatru are also described as patricides. However, Jaina tradition describes Ajatashatru’s successor, Udayin, as a devoted son, a follower of Jaina teachings, and given to pious acts such as fasting.

    The Haryanka dynasty is said to have ended when the people drove out its last king and elevated a minister named Shishunaga to the throne. Shishunaga’s dynasty met a violent end—the king and his sons were killed and made way for the Nanda dynasty. Mahapadma, the first Nanda king, is described as having attained sole sovereignty and destroyed all the Kshatriyas.3 This suggests that he asserted himself over the hereditary warrior elites and achieved an element of political paramountcy. Dhanananda, the last Nanda ruler, is described as militarily powerful, rich, greedy, cruel, and unpopular. Brahmanical texts talk about the low social origins of the Nandas and Mauryas, suggesting that the power of the old military aristocracies was broken by men from below, who succeeded in wresting power through the use of force and went on to extend their political control through aggressive and extensive military campaigns.

    Our exploration of political ideas and practice in the historic period properly begins in the sixth century BCE. However, in order to understand the evolution of these ideas, it is necessary to go back to texts that were composed between the second and the first half of the first millennium BCE—the Vedas. The ideas in these texts form a prelude to classical Indian political thought.

    The Vedic Prelude

    The Vedic world is pervaded with conflict, war, and violence. The powerful and virile god Indra, who quaffs the intoxicating soma drink and smites his enemies such as the serpent demon Vritra with his thunderbolt, represents the strong masculine warrior ethos that pervades the Rigveda, the oldest of the four Vedas.4 In the hymns of the Rigveda, the people who call themselves the āryas battle fiercely and incessantly among themselves and against other people whom they call dāsas and dasyus. Embedded within the liturgical hymns to the gods, explanatory ritual treatises, and philosophical tracts of the Vedic corpus are the earliest expressions of Indian political ideas and elements of an abstract political theorization.

    The Rigveda has the idea of a principle called ṛta that governs the closely related orders of nature, the gods, humans, and sacrifice (yajña). The word “dharma” also occurs, but not in the sense that it acquired in later times. In line with its derivation from the root dhṛ, which means to support or maintain, it is associated with foundation—of the world and all beings; a foundation created by and for the sacrificial rituals, associated with certain gods and with royal authority. In later Vedic texts, the frequency of the word “dharma” decreased and its connotations shrank; it came to be especially connected with kingship and with the royal consecration ritual known as the rājasūya.5

    The later strata of Vedic texts introduce the idea of a hierarchy of four hereditary social classes known as varṇas—Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. A cosmogonic hymn refers to a primeval sacrifice in which a giant named Purusha was the victim. This sacrifice produced many things, including the planets, seasons, and animals.6 Invoking powerful body symbolism, the Brahmana is described as being born from Purusha’s mouth, the Rajanya (a synonym for Kshatriya) from his arms, the Vaishya from his thighs, and the Shudra from his feet. In later times, the four varṇas came to be associated with a specific range of functions—the Brahmanas with Vedic learning and sacrifice; the Kshatriya with war and ruling; the Vaishya with agriculture, animal husbandry, and trade; and the Shudra with serving the upper three varṇas and performing various menial tasks. Varṇa remained the cornerstone of Brahmanical social discourse for many centuries, long after the basis of social

    identity had moved toward class and caste.

    Although rooted in a milieu of tribal warfare, early Vedic texts contain the ideas of extensive conquest, political paramountcy, and empire.7 In the later strata of the Vedic corpus, we see the tribal or clan chieftain (rājan) metamorphose into a hereditary king, his power eventually eclipsing that of the tribal assemblies. It has been suggested that the Kurus of Vedic texts represent the first state in India.8 The changes that eventually led to the emergence of monarchical states were closely connected with the emerging varṇa hierarchy and developments within kinship relations and the household.9 Apart from the ceremony known as the abhiṣeka, wherein the king was anointed with the sprinkling of water, the complex symbolism of sacrifices such as the rājasūya, vājapeya, and aśvamedha included rites of regeneration and fertility, with the king standing at the center. They also involved the ritualization of political contest and violence and distanced the king from his kin and from the larger social and political community. The latter two sacrifices symbolically elevated the king to a position of a paramount ruler.10 The composers of Vedic texts understood the complexities inherent in the relationship between the sacerdotal and secular realms of power and authority, known respectively as brahma and kṣatra. These were associated in the divine realm with the gods Mitra and Varuna and in the worldly sphere with the Brahmana and Kshatriya. This relationship involved hierarchy, complementarity, mutual dependence, tension, and conflict.11

    Kings and chieftains usually appear in Vedic texts as warriors and rulers, as protectors of the Brahmanas and of their people, and as performers of sacrifices. But in the Upanishads (which are part of the Vedic corpus) the propounders, interlocutors, and receivers of the secret doctrine were not restricted to Brahmana sages; they include Kshatriyas and kings. It has been argued that the speculative mysticism of the Upanishads was inspired by the idea of absolute and universal kingship in the Rigvedic hymns.12 This new philosophy emphasized a certain kind of esoteric knowledge, which was the path to liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth known as saṁsāra. It centered on the ideas of the eternal self (ātman) and the world soul (brahman). Although there are a few references to nonviolence (ahiṁsā), Upanishadic philosophy was essentially indifferent toward such issues.13 The knowledge that

    these philosophers sought and struggled to describe was beyond ethics. It was concerned with the inner, not the outer, world.

    It has been suggested that Vedic sacrifice presents a “reform” of ritual practice, replacing the cyclical spirals of contest and violence and the oscillation of the sacrificial ritual between the settlement and the wilderness with a new, linear scheme. On the other hand, there is unequivocal evidence that Vedic ritual represents a masculine martial ideology that justified, promoted, and directed violence against people outside the tribe.14 While unperturbed by the violence of war, the ritualistic texts display some concern about violence in the sacrificial arena. They deal with the problem by sacralizing, justifying, modifying, and euphemizing this violence, for instance, by eliminating the practice of human sacrifice and offering vegetal substitutes for animal victims.15 The method of killing animal victims through strangulation so that they did not cry out seems to have emanated from the same concern. The Upanishads and Aranyakas discuss, debate, redefine, and interiorize sacrifice. Nevertheless, the precept of nonviolence is not central to the Vedic tradition.

    Debates on violence and nonviolence accelerated and expanded with the emergence of early historic states and of private property in north India in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. These debates swiftly moved out of the sacrificial and ascetic arenas into other, larger domains, especially the political and social, and became the focus of a cultural conversation that to some extent cut across religious and sectarian divides. As we shall see further on, another culturally very important term—dharma—also had an interesting journey, moving from the ritual domain to the political and ethical domains. Questions were asked about the origins of kingship, the duties of the king, and the relationship between kingship and violence.

    The Renunciatory and Ethical Turn

    The sixth and fifth centuries BCE are the most fertile period in the history of ancient Indian thought. Philosophers debated the nature of life and the world with unprecedented and unparalleled vigor. The Buddha and Mahavira are the two best known because they are associated with religious traditions that are still flourishing today. Jainism is older than Buddhism; its origins are contemporaneous with Upanishadic thought. Rejecting Vedic sacrifice and the Brahmanas’ claims to religious and social superiority, the teachings of Mahavira and the Buddha announced a break with the Vedic tradition. A significant aspect of these movements was a new, decisive way of looking at the relationship between power and knowledge, one that posited two poles of king and renouncer and declared the superiority of the latter over the former. From this time onward, renunciation became one of the most powerful and intensely debated ideas in Indian culture.16 So did nonviolence.

    Where precisely are the beginnings of the critique of violence and the

    corresponding valorization of nonviolence in the Indian tradition to be located? There are three answers to this question. One identifies the origins of the “nonviolence school” within the Brahmanical Vedic fold. Another sees it as emerging from a non-Vedic stream of thought, exemplified in non-Vedic asceticism and renunciation in general or in Buddhism and Jainism in particular. A third approach is to see nonviolence as an idea that developed more or less simultaneously in the Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jaina traditions. The arguments hinge to some extent on the chronology of the early texts, which in turn, is connected with the date of the Buddha—a subject of continuing debate. The dating of the early texts remains a slippery slope.

    Asceticism is known to the Vedic–Upanishadic tradition and must have been debated within Brahmana circles. Elements of renunciation were also (eventually) built into the classical prototype of the ideal Brahmana.17 But this was after the “renunciatory turn” of the sixth century BCE. Jainism and Buddhism (and other sects like the Ajivikas) rejected the Vedic tradition and sacrifice and advocated salvation through lifelong celibate renunciation. By creating a monastic order for monks and nuns, they gave the renunciants who joined these orders an institutional organization and a strong sense of community


    Jainism and Buddhism also introduced an extended, powerful, and systematic discourse on ethics, one in which nonviolence toward all beings was central. Nonviolence was an important part of practice for both the monastic and the lay communities, although it was recognized that the laity could not practice it as strictly. The primary concern was with the negative passions and motivations that led the perpetrator to engage in violent acts and their impact on his or her karma.

    In early Buddhism, the distinction between wholesome (kusala) and unwholesome (akusala) acts was based on the positive or negative motivations that lay behind such actions. Wholesome acts were those motivated by nonattachment, friendliness, and wisdom, while unwholesome acts were those motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion.18 Killing living beings was an unwholesome act. Along with sexual intercourse, theft, and false proclamation of superhuman powers, it was one of the most serious offenses (known as pārājika offenses) that could be committed by a monk or nun. The result of such transgressions was permanent exclusion from the order. Acts of killing are graded according to the size and virtue of the victim, the intensity of the desire to kill, and the amount of effort used by the perpetrator.19 The prohibition against violence was accompanied by an emphasis on the positive quality of friendship or loving kindness (mettā) that should be followed toward all beings, an attitude that is considered as having enormous power. The Metta Sutta tells us:

    Just as a mother would protect with her own life her only son, so one should cultivate an unbounded mind towards all beings and loving kindness towards all the world.20

    Nonviolence (ahiṁsā) was the first vow for members of the Jaina monastic order as well as the laity. The Jainas followed the principle of nonviolence with greater ardor than any other religious community because of their unique understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature. The universe is seen as inhabited by sentient beings ranging from humans with five senses to tiny organisms called nigodas that have single senses and whose life lasts for a fraction of a second. Apart from humans and animals, it is believed

    that plants, the earth, water, fire, and air are pervaded with sentient beings. Harming organisms with different numbers of senses has different value. Thus, harming an animal is more serious than harming a single-sense nigoda.21 Injuring living beings causes suffering to the victim as well as to the person who causes the injury. The laity were supposed to avoid harming beings that possessed two to four senses, but Jaina monks were supposed to take great care not to cause injury of any kind even to single-sense beings. They were also prohibited from thinking negative or exploitative thoughts about any being. Unlike their Buddhist counterparts, Jaina monks, nuns, and laity were supposed to observe strict vegetarianism.22 At the same time, the Jainas developed an elaborate practice of the voluntary embrace of death; this was considered highly praiseworthy and not as suicide or violence toward the self.

    When seen in the light of the Jaina view of reality, the principle of nonviolence becomes impossible to practice in absolute terms. Living beings are everywhere. How can one avoid harming or killing them? This problem was dealt with by classifying and qualifying violence in various ways. This includes distinguishing between causing involuntary injury and intentional harm; violence in self-defense, or in protection of the lives of monks or nuns. In the third century Uttaradhyayana Sutra, Harikesha, an untouchable who became a monk, is said to have been viciously attacked by Brahmanas when he was on his alms begging rounds. A deity intervened and beat up the Brahmanas. This is presented as an instance of necessary violence. Later Jaina texts debated various issues, including whether an omniscient person was capable of committing violence and whether the performance of worship (pūjā) in the course of building temples or involving offerings such as flowers and fruits should be considered violence. The responses to such problems include an emphasis on minimizing (rather than eliminating) violence; weighing violent acts against their outcome and benefits; and distinguishing between different levels of violence (external and internal) and different levels of truth—a mundane and a higher soteriological one.23

    During circa 600–300 BCE, a section of the Brahmana intelligentsia invented

    a new and highly influential discipline called Dharmashastra, devoted to an explication and discussion of dharma.24 The earliest texts of the Dharmashastra corpus are known as the Dharmasutras. It has been suggested that leaving aside two references in the Chhandogya Upanishad, nonviolence as an ethical precept

    appears for the first time in the Brahmanical tradition in these texts.25 The Dharmasutras connected dharma with the appropriate way of life and duties of the four varṇas and four life stages (āśramas), connections that were to remain a cornerstone of Brahmanical social ideology for centuries. The āśramas comprised the stages of brahmacarya (celibate studenthood), gṛhastha (the householder stage), vānaprastha (partial renunciation), and saṁnyāsa (complete renunciation). This was originally visualized as a voluntary system, involving a choice between four alternative life paths that a male belonging to the upper three varṇas could adopt. In its later, classical form, the āśrama scheme became a model of four consecutive life stages, with the householder becoming the central figure.26 The idea of nonviolence (ahiṁsā) features in the theory of the four life stages. The brahmacārin (celibate student) was supposed to avoid causing injury to living beings. The gṛhastha (householder) was supposed to perform the “five great sacrifices” (pañca-mahāyajñas) in order to expiate for the injury caused in various daily activities. These five great sacrifices, first mentioned in later Vedic texts, were sacrifices only in name and consisted of the study and teaching of the Veda (brahma-yajña), offerings to the ancestors (pitṛ- yajña), offerings made into the fire (daiva-yajña), oblations to all beings (bhūta- yajña), and honoring guests (manuṣya-yajña).27 The purpose of these sacrifices, which were supposed to be performed every day by members of the upper three varṇas, is explained in later texts as atonement for the injury or death caused to life by the householder in the course of his daily routine in five places—the hearth, grinding stone, broom, mortar and pestle, and water jar.28 This indicates an awareness of the problem of violence in everyday life and the use of ritual to atone for it.

    The vānaprastha (partial renunciant) was supposed to be compassionate. The

    vows of a saṁnyāsin (renunciant) included avoiding injury to creatures through thought, word, or action. The fact that the saṁnyāsin was supposed to stay in one place during the monsoons and the regimen prescribed for him (for instance, walking with one or three staffs and straining his drinking water to avoid injuring any creatures) suggest an incorporation of Buddhist and Jaina monastic rules.29 When we consider this along with the importance of ahiṁsā in Buddhism and Jainism, it is clear that the idea of nonviolence was strongly connected with renunciation. Nevertheless, there was always the larger question

    of the extent to which conventional moral imperatives (including ahiṁsā) remained relevant when one had attained the highest spiritual goal, namely liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

    The incorporation of renunciation into the Brahmanical tradition occurred not only through the formulation of the classical āśrama scheme, but also through the articulation of ideas such as that of internal renunciation (in the Bhagavadgita); and through the positing of equivalences and associations between renunciation and the performance of certain sacrifices, vows (vratas), and acts of penance (prāyaścitta).30 As mentioned earlier, elements of renunciation were also woven into the model of the ideal Brahmana.31 But the incorporation of renunciation into the Brahmanical fold was never complete, unequivocal, or unproblematic.

    Over the following centuries, renunciants practicing different forms of disengagement from society appear as important figures in Indian cultural discourse, and the conflict between the life of the householder and renouncer and between the king and renouncer were debated vigorously. There are many questions: How did the debates on violence and nonviolence evolve and what were the different points of view? Was the focus on the consequences for the perpetrator or the victim or both? Was the ancient Indian “nonviolence lobby” concerned more with killing animals rather than with killing human beings? And what were the implications of the discourse on renunciation, violence, and nonviolence for the exercise of political power?

    Kingship in the Jaina and Buddhist Traditions

    The royal and Kshatriya elements are strong in both Buddhism and Jainism. Like Rama of the Ramayana, Siddhartha is said to have belonged to the Ikshvaku lineage. The Jaina tradition describes twenty-one of its twenty-four saints as belonging to this very lineage. Mahavira and Siddhartha both belonged to ruling families of lesser oligarchic states—Mahavira to the Jnatrika clan and Siddhartha to the Shakya clan. Apart from Mahavira, the Jaina saints Parshvanatha and Arishtanemi also belonged to royal families.32 The life stories of these great men are marked by their emphatic rejection of royal power and worldly life in order to embark on a quest that culminated in their attainment of supreme knowledge. Buddhism and Jainism united and raised the relationship between kingship, renunciation, and nonviolence to a new level; they made it a central issue, one that continued to provoke and perplex Indian intellectuals for centuries. Kingship was firmly situated within the larger context of dharma, a term used by Buddhists and Jainas to refer to the totality of their respective doctrines.33

    It cannot be a coincidence that the philosophies valorizing nonviolence initially flourished on oligarchic soil in eastern India. Was it because of the fact that these areas were less brahmanized than areas to the west and therefore open to free thinking of various kinds? Was there greater sympathy and support toward the ethic of nonviolence in the oligarchic east because of a significantly higher incidence of violence of various kinds? Did the fact that Mahavira and the Buddha belonged to the ruling class give them greater exposure and therefore greater sensitivity toward violence? It is ironic that the arch perpetrators of violence—namely, kings—extended support and patronage to Buddhism and Jainism. Whether this reflects a special awareness of the problem of political violence, or whether the ethic of nonviolence was not an important part of the impact of Buddhism and Jainism on political culture are issues that need reflection. In any case, the new philosophies did not remain confined to oligarchies, eastern India, or ruling elites. They—especially Buddhism—spread like wildfire all over the subcontinent, where they came to enjoy considerable royal as well as nonroyal patronage.

    In terms of social status, Buddhism and Jainism see the Kshatriya as superior to the Brahmana. Both traditions have the idea of the great man (mahāpuruṣa),

    who can be either a world victor or world renouncer. But neither tradition leaves any doubt that the status of a great king comes nowhere close to the achievement of one who has attained supreme knowledge. The world renouncer decisively trumps the world victor. The early texts of the Jaina canon are difficult to date but deserve careful study. The Jaina tradition is more pronounced than the Buddhist in its pro-Kshatriya and anti-Brahmana stance. Mahavira is said to have initially been conceived in the womb of a Brahmana woman named Devananda. But at the orders of the god Indra, the embryos in the wombs of Devananda and the Kshatriya queen Trishala were exchanged, because great men, including cakravartins (paramount kings) and arhats (those who had attained enlightenment), could not possibly be born in low, poor, or Brahmana families.34

    The Jaina tradition gives a list of great kings and cakravartins who renounced kingship and attained perfection, some of them even becoming tīrthaṅkaras.35 King Nami of Mithila attained enlightenment while a king and renounced the world, creating an uproar. The god Indra came before Nami and urged him to return to his palace and worldly life. He urged him to be a true Kshatriya—to fortify his capital, augment his riches, build palaces and fine buildings, punish wrongdoers, subdue his enemies, perform great sacrifices, and feed ascetics and Brahmanas. But the royal sage rebutted each and every argument. He was firm in his resolve to turn away from kingship and from the world.

    “Pleasures are the thorn that rankles, pleasures are like a venomous snake; he who is desirous of pleasures will not get them, and will come to a bad end at last.”36

    The core of the Pali Tipitaka of the Buddhist Theravada school was composed between the fifth and third centuries BCE. This corpus of texts abounds in mention of mythical as well as historical kings. The latter appear as interlocutors, patrons, givers of gifts, and followers of various philosophers. Although the Buddha taught a doctrine of detachment, Buddhism was never detached from the political sphere. On the contrary, from its very inception, it was obsessed with the ideas of kingship and paramountcy. The Buddha is described as being on good terms with contemporary monarchs such as

    Bimbisara and Ajatashatru of Magadha and Prasenajit of Kosala. Bimbisara was an especially generous patron, gifting the bamboo grove of Veluvana to the sangha (the Buddhist monastic order), and the Buddha is said to have made several monastic rules in response to his requests. Bimbisara is also a model king: enjoying widespread fame, he is righteous and lawful; a friend to Brahmanas, householders, town and country folk; a meticulous follower of the Buddha’s teaching; and devoted to the Buddha, dhamma (the Pali form of “dharma,” here to be understood as comprising the doctrine taught by the Buddha), and sangha.37 But apart from references to specific kings, early Buddhist texts also theorize about the origins and nature of kingship, and it is to this theorizing that we now turn.

    The Wheels of the World Victor and World Renouncer

    As indicated at the beginning of this book, the wheel (cakra) is a multivalent symbol with deep roots in the Indian cultural tradition. We hear in many texts of the cakravartin, the great paramount king, whose chariot wheels roll everywhere unimpeded, and who is victorious over the four quarters of the earth.38 Buddhism made the idea of the cakkavatti (the Pali form of the Sanskrit cakravartin) and his wheel central to its politico-ethical discourse. Jaina texts also talk about the cakravartin, the great emperor who follows the wheel and brings the whole earth under his sway without indulging in violence.

    In early Buddhist texts, at any given time, there can be only one Buddha and one cakkavatti in the world, and both have their own wheel. The two wheels reflect an important division of labor and complement each other; they can also follow each other sequentially.39 Both the Buddha and the cakkavatti are charismatic men whose greatness is visible in the thirty-two signs that can be seen on their body.40 In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha, who is on the verge of death, finally replies to his disciple Ananda’s repeated, anxious inquiries about the practical matter of his funeral. He tells Ananda that his post- cremation remains should be treated like those of a cakkavatti—they should be placed in a stupa (funerary mound) built at the crossroads, and those who went there and made offerings of garlands, perfumes, or colored paste would be rewarded with enduring benefit and joy.41 But unlike the funerary remains of great kings, the bodily relics of the Buddha and the stupas they were embedded in became places of cultic worship and pilgrimage. These relics were coveted, distributed, and redistributed; they became objects of competition, contention, and conflict. Although there are frequent parallels between the cakkavatti and the Buddha in the Buddhist tradition, there is never any doubt about the Buddha’s superiority. This is because he had attained salvation and taught others how to do the same. The raison d’être of the cakkavatti is to implement the Buddha’s dhamma in his realm. Dhamma—the Buddha’s teaching—is the king of the cakkavatti king.42

    Early Buddhism associates the cakkavatti with the seven treasures (ratana): the wheel, elephant, horse, jewel, woman, landed householder, and the counselor

    / adviser.43 The seven treasures of the cakkavatti are further correlated with the

    seven treasures of the arhat, which lead to enlightenment: mindfulness, discrimination of states, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.44 While the king’s power and authority are proclaimed through the seven treasures and ceremonial insignia (such as the flag, conch, throne, and umbrella), the Buddha does not require any outer paraphernalia as advertisement.

    The wheel of power could merge into the wheel of dhamma only by abandoning, renouncing everything that political power involved and entailed. A cakkavatti could match a Buddha only if he renounced the world and attained enlightenment—that is, if he became a Buddha. Three Buddhist dialogues (suttas) are of special importance in understanding the development of early Buddhist ideas of kingship and empire—the Agganna Sutta, Mahasudassana Sutta, and Chakkavatti Sihanada Sutta. The king’s victories, dhamma, and punishment figure in these.

    The Agganna Sutta in the Digha Nikaya takes us back to a time long ago when there was water and darkness everywhere and describes the systematic fall of beings from a state of perfection, due to their greed and arrogance.45 At some point in time, theft, accusation, lying, and punishment made their appearance. The beings assembled and lamented this situation and decided to appoint one man who would punish those who deserved punishment; in return, they would give him a portion of their rice.

    “Then, monks, [the Buddha said], those beings went to the one among them who was the most handsome and good-looking, most charismatic and with the greatest authority and said, ‘come, being, (you) criticize whoever should be criticized, accuse whoever should be accused, and banish whoever should be banished; we will (each) hand over to you a portion of rice.’ He agreed (and did as they asked); they (each) gave him a portion of rice.”46

    This ruler was given the designation Mahasammata, which means “the Great Elect,” or “one who has been elected or appointed by the people.” Another term that came to be used for this kind of man was Khattiya (Kshatriya), “lord of the fields.” Mahasammata seems to have been a word that referred to the Kshatriya

    class in general as well as to the king in particular. The third term to appear was rājā, which, the Buddha explained, means one who brings enjoyment to people according to dhamma. Having explained the origins of kingship and the Kshatriyas, the Agganna Sutta explains the origin of the other three varṇas and the community of renunciants on the basis of their aptitudes and actions. The Buddha emphasizes that

    “for those who rely on clan, the Kshatriya is the best in this world;

    (but) the person endowed with wisdom and (good) conduct is the best in the whole universe.”47

    The constant refrain in this dialogue that the dhamma is the best thing in this world and in the future leaves no doubt that it is not the king, but dhamma, that reigns supreme.

    The Agganna Sutta has been seen as a self-conscious Buddhist rejoinder to Brahmanical ideas of cosmogony and social order, marked by elements of satire and irony. In describing the regression and fall of beings, propelled by the vices of greed, arrogance, lust, and sloth, it emphasizes the negative human propensities from the point of view of Buddhist ethics and doctrines. Kingship is described as a manmade institution based on the pragmatic need for the maintenance of order. The king is endowed with charisma and authority— qualities that are, significantly, also associated with the Buddha. There is the idea of a social contract between the king and the people—the king levies taxes in return for the maintenance of social order and prevents transgressions against private property. The king of the Agganna Sutta is primarily a punisher.

    More influential than the idea of Mahasammata were the ideas of kingship described in two other dialogues in the Digha Nikaya—the Mahasudassana Sutta and Chakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, where two ideas appear in combination: that of the cakkavatti (world victor) and the dhammiko dhammarāja, the righteous king who rules according to morality. The great king has an extensive empire but is also benevolent and just. The rod of force is replaced by the wheel. B. G. Gokhale argues that this was the Buddhist solution to the problem of the overwhelming power of the king.48 The state was made a moral institution.

    The Mahasudassana Sutta is set in a grove of sal trees in Kusinara, just before

    the Buddha’s demise.49 The Buddha tells his disciple Ananda that Kusinara was once a great city named Kusavati, ruled by a great king named Mahasudassana. On a certain auspicious day, a magnificent wheel treasure with a thousand spokes appeared before him. The king followed the wheel with his fourfold army as it rolled in the different directions. Wherever the wheel stopped, kings welcomed Mahasudassana and invited him to rule over them. The king responded with a message of Buddhist piety, instructing his new subjects to refrain from taking life, taking what was not given, sexual misconduct, lying, consuming strong alcoholic drinks, and over-eating. One by one, the other six treasures then appeared before Mahasudassana.

    The king reached the heights of power and opulence but started wondering about the karma that had made him so powerful, and concluded that it consisted of three kinds of actions: liberality, self-control, and abstinence. He stood at the door of the great gabled chamber in his palace and exclaimed:

    “May the thought of lust cease! May the thought of ill-will cease! May the thought of cruelty cease! Thus far and no further the thought of lust, of ill- will, of cruelty!”50

    He sat on the golden couch, and detaching himself from the objects of the senses and unwholesome mental states, he attained, one by one, the four meditative states (jhānas). He emerged from the gabled chamber, transformed.

    Thus he stayed, spreading the thought of loving-kindness, above, below and across, everywhere, always with a mind filled with loving-kindness, abundant, magnified, unbounded, without hatred or ill-will. And he did likewise with compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.51

    Mahasudassana continued to rule over 84,000 cities, with all the trappings of power, foremost among which were the seven treasures, but he took care of the needy, and reduced his entourage of 84,000 elephants to 44,000. Thus he ruled for hundreds of thousands of years.

    The next decisive turning point occurred when queen Subhadda decided to go and meet her husband, whom she had not seen for a long time. She went to his Dhamma palace accompanied by a fourfold army and female attendants. There

    was another threshold moment: as the queen stood leaning in the doorway, she saw the king lying on a golden couch. Fearing that he was dead or dying, she reminded him of his royal possessions and urged him to want to continue to live. The king denounced her words and told her that she should urge him instead to abandon desire and longing. The queen sorrowfully obeyed, and Mahasudassana died peacefully. Mahasudassana was none other than the Buddha himself in a previous life. Even then, at the height of his power and wealth, he had turned his back on kingly life and desire. Kingship was not enough.

    While the Mahasudassana Sutta describes a pious cakkavatti king who turns his back on power, the Chakkavatti Sihanada Sutta tells us what happens when a king does not follow the prescribed path, especially when he decides to think for himself.52 It tells the story of the lineage of a king named Dalhanemi. Like Mahasudassana, Dalhanemi was a righteous king who established security in his domain and ruled for hundreds of thousands of years. He attained victory over the entire earth up to the oceans through dhamma, without the use of force, and had over a thousand heroic sons. He possessed the seven treasures, foremost among which was the wheel. One day, Dalhanemi saw that the wheel treasure had slipped from its position. The king recognized this as a sign that he did not have much time to live, and handing the reins of power over to his son, he became a renouncer. Seven days later, the wheel vanished. The new king went to Dalhanemi, now a royal sage, and asked him for advice. Dalhanemi told him that if he performed the duties of a noble wheel-turning monarch, if he ruled according to dhamma, the wheel would reappear. He urged his son to prevent crime, give property to the needy, consult ascetics and Brahmanas, avoid evil, and do what was good. The king followed this advice and the wheel treasure reappeared.

    During the reigns of the six successive kings, the slipping, vanishing, and

    reappearance of the wheel was repeated. But something different happened during the reign of the seventh king. When the wheel treasure disappeared, the king grieved, but he did not go to his father to ask him about the duties of a wheel-turning monarch.

    Instead, he ruled the people according to his own ideas, and, being so ruled, the people did not prosper so well as they had done under the

    previous kings who had performed the duties of a wheel-turning monarch.53

    Going against the advice of his ministers, he fulfilled his duties only in part—he protected his people, but did not give property to the needy. This led to poverty, theft, capital punishment, and killing. People’s lifespan and beauty decreased. The vices of lying, speaking evil of others, adultery, harsh speech, idle chatter, greed, hatred, false opinions, incest, and deviant practices made their appearance. Morality disappeared. Evil and violence prevailed everywhere.

    The story now shifts to predicting future calamities and brutal behavior. When things will reach their nadir, the Buddha predicts, some beings will decide to turn back the tide of vice. With increasing virtue, lifespan and beauty will increase. A king named Sankha will come to rule in Ketumati (the future name of Varanasi) as a cakkavatti monarch, and a Buddha named Metteyya (Maitreya) will be born. King Sankha will become a renunciant under the guidance of Metteyya.

    All three dialogues—the Agganna, Mahasudassana, and Chakkavatti Sihanada Suttas—refer to the king as a Kshatriya. Mahasammata is an abstract kingly figure, and we are not given any details about his life. Mahasudassana rules for a long time and eventually turns his back on political power. The descendants of Dalhanemi have to face the consequences of not following all the tenets of dhamma and ultimately return to the trodden path. But the future king Sankha will renounce the world under the tutelage of Metteyya Buddha. Renunciation is ultimately essential, even for the truly great king. Nonviolence is not emphasized.

    Buddhism and the Problem of Political Violence

    Nonviolence (ahiṁsā, avihiṁsā) is one of the cardinal Buddhist precepts. It applies to monks and laypersons and therefore, also to the king. The idea of violence includes that which is physical, verbal, and mental. The bodily conduct that causes unwholesome states to increase and wholesome states to diminish includes being murderous and bloody-handed, prone to inflicting blows and violence, killing living beings, and being merciless to them. Verbal conduct that causes unwholesome states to increase includes harsh, hurtful, offensive, or malicious speech and creating discord. Unwholesome mental conduct includes covetousness, ill-will, hatred, and thoughts of harming or killing.54 On the other hand, righteous conduct that is in accordance with dhamma causes the diminishing of unwholesome states and the increase of wholesome states.

    Here someone, abandoning the killing of living beings, abstains from killing living beings; with rod and weapon laid aside, gently and kindly, he abides compassionate to all living beings.55

    The imperative to adopt righteous conduct and to avoid negative conduct is based on the consequences of actions that are determined by the laws of karma. A person who has negative propensities, who is prone to anger and hostility, who kills living beings and is violent, murderous, or merciless toward them, who injures them with his hand, clod, stick, or knife, suffers an unhappy afterlife, marked by deprivation, even hell. If born in a human body, he is sickly, ugly, uninfluential. One who abstains from killing living beings, lays aside rod and weapon, and is gentle, kind, and compassionate, enjoys a happy afterlife, and if born as a human, is long-lived, healthy, beautiful, respected, and influential.56

    Benevolence to all beings, including humans and animals, is part of the Buddhist ideal for all, whether monk, nun, or layperson, including the king. Buddhist texts frequently critique the killing of animals, especially in sacrifice. In the Kutadanda Sutta, we see the Brahmana Kutadanda all set to perform a great sacrifice—700 bulls, bullocks, heifers, he-goats, and rams are tied to the sacrificial posts, ready for slaughter. The Buddha arrives on the scene and tells him the story of a king named Mahavijita who wanted to perform a grand sacrifice but was dissuaded by his chaplain, who explained the many

    imponderables involved and convinced the king to instead perform a bloodless sacrifice in which there was no violence toward animals or humans.57 The Buddha goes on to reveal that he was that chaplain in an earlier birth. He adds that there are other kinds of acts that are simpler and more efficacious than yajña (sacrifice), such as giving gifts to ascetics; providing shelter for the monastic order; taking refuge in the Buddha, dhamma, and sangha; and following the Buddhist precepts. Redefining yajña, he asserts that attaining enlightenment is the highest sacrifice. The Brahmana realizes the futility of the bloody sacrifice that he was about to perform and releases all the animals.

    The Samyutta Nikaya explicitly raises the issue of political violence. We are told that once, when the Buddha was living among the Kosalans in a small hut in the forest in the Himalayas, he wondered:

    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 sorrow?58

    The evil being Mara, through his powers, read this thought in the Buddha’s mind, and approached him, urging him that he (the Buddha) was indeed capable of exercising such rulership on account of his spiritual powers.59 But the temptation did not work. In the Buddha’s musings, we see a direct recognition of the problem of political violence; the story suggests that a king cannot, in fact, rule without engaging in violence.

    In theory, the great cakkavatti was victorious everywhere through justice, without the use of weapons.60 But, as we shall see in later chapters, the Buddhist tradition recognized the difficulty—in fact the impossibility—of a king ruling without the use of force. How were kings to deal with the problem of political violence in the light of an ethical code that emphasized nonviolence? We are fortunate in having an answer to this question in the edicts of an emperor who was a devout follower of the Buddha’s teaching—Ashoka.

    Ashoka and His Piety Propaganda

    The expansion of the Magadhan empire, which began under the Haryanka, Shaishunaga, and Nanda dynasties, culminated in the fourth century BCE under the Mauryas (circa 324 / 321–187 BCE), who created the first virtually subcontinental empire in Indian history. The military foundations of this empire were laid by Chandragupta, who came to power soon after the invasion of northwestern India by Alexander of Macedon (circa 327 / 326 BCE), and Chandragupta was followed by his son and successor, Bindusara. But the first two Maurya rulers have been eclipsed in fame by the third king, Ashoka (circa 268–232 BCE).

    Apart from archaeological remains, coins, and references in Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jaina texts, the principal sources for the Maurya period are Megasthenes’ Indica, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, and Ashoka’s edicts. Generally considered the ambassador of the Hellenistic king Seleucus Nicator to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, Megasthenes actually may have been associated with Sibyrtius, the Macedonian satrap of Arachosia.61 His Indica is a lost text, known only through citations in later works such as the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Sicilus, Geographica of Strabo, Anabasis of Arrian, and Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder. Kautilya’s Arthashastra is a normative political treatise traditionally considered as belonging, at least in part, to the Maurya period, but as its composition seems to extend into the early centuries CE and since it marks a significant and innovative advance in the development of Indian political thought, it will be discussed in the next chapter. Here, we will concentrate on the most reliable contemporary source for political ideas and practice under the Mauryas—the emperor Ashoka’s words inscribed on stone.

    The king is most frequently known in his edicts by his epithets devānaṁpiya,

    which means “dear to the gods,” and piyadasi, which can be variously translated as “he who looks upon at that which is beloved / dear / auspicious,” “he who looks affectionately or amiably,” or, given the unstandardized usage of the time, “one who is dear to look at.”62 The Prakrit “Asoka” (of which “Ashoka” is the better-known Sanskritized form), which literally means “without sorrow,” occurs in only four inscriptions and is considered the king’s personal name.

    Ashoka’s inscriptions represent the earliest corpus of royal inscriptions in the

    Indian subcontinent, and in this respect, are an important political innovation.63 Writing was probably known in the subcontinent from about the sixth or fifth century BCE, and it is possible that some of the pillars considered “Ashokan” actually predate him (the king mentions having had his edicts engraved on preexisting pillars).64 However, there is no doubt that Ashoka initiated a massive, sustained policy of epigraphic proclamations.

    Ashoka saw himself as an enlightened and energetic new-age monarch who would leave an indelible mark on history. He was keen that the impact of his thoughts and words should transcend time. Historians have classified his inscriptions into minor rock edicts, major rock edicts, separate rock edicts, major pillar edicts, minor pillar edicts, and cave inscriptions. The messages embodied in the edicts were not considered specific to a single place as individual and sets of inscriptions are repeated in several places. The rock edicts usually occur in broadly similar sets of fourteen edicts, except at Dhauli and Jaugada, where rock edict 13 is replaced by separate rock edict 1 and 2.65 The pillar edicts usually occur in sets of six, except for the Delhi-Topra pillar, which has seven edicts. Internal chronological references indicate that the minor rock edicts were the earliest, followed by the major rock edicts, and then the major pillar edicts; the cave inscriptions and minor pillar edicts were inscribed at various points in time. Most of the inscriptions are in the Brahmi script and in dialects of Prakrit, which remained the language of political power in the subcontinent for several centuries before it was eventually replaced by Sanskrit. Mansehra and Shahbazgarhi in Pakistan have sets of rock edicts in the Prakrit language and Kharoshthi script. The northwestern part of the empire (which included areas of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan) also yielded one Greek, four Aramaic, one Greek–Aramaic, and one Aramaic–Prakrit inscription.66 The single most important thing that Ashoka’s edicts talk about is dhamma (Prakrit for “dharma”), which is here best understood as virtue or goodness. The emperor wanted everyone to think, hear, and talk about dhamma. He sought to make dhamma central to public discourse all over his empire, and even outside it. The Aramaic inscriptions use the words dāta and qšṭ in place of dhamma; the Greek term used is eusebeia.67

    Ashoka propagated his dhamma messages in written form at multiple key

    points in the empire, at places that had a long-term importance on trade routes

    and in the religious and / or political landscape (see Map 2). The major rock edicts are distributed mostly along or near the margins of the empire. The pillar edicts are concentrated in north India. They seem to have been associated with Buddhist monasteries and were often located near urban centers and along trade routes. The minor rock edicts have the widest distribution, with a notable clustering in the Andhra–Karnataka area in the south. They are generally found in more remote hilly areas, at sites that seem to have had an older cultic significance. The places where Ashoka’s edicts were inscribed were all “happening places.” But given the presumably low literacy levels of the time and the fact that the inscriptions were often made on the surface of rocky outcrops or high up on pillars, far beyond eye level, they would have been difficult to read, whichever language and script they were written in.

    MAP 2 Locations of Ashoka’s inscriptions

    From Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India from the Stone Age to the 12th century; Courtesy: Pearson India Education Services Pvt. Ltd.

    The epigraphic form of Ashoka’s dhamma message coexisted with documentary forms maintained in administrative offices. Further, the many references in the inscriptions to speaking and hearing the dhamma message indicate that it also circulated in oral form. In fact, the oral dhamma propagation machinery set up by Ashoka was potentially much more influential and effective than his words on stone. The need to have the edicts inscribed at various places was to provide multiple permanent, indelible reference points, mainly for the propagation of dhamma by Ashoka’s officials, as well as for his successors.

    Officials, including a special cadre of dhamma officers (dhamma-mahāmātas), which was established thirteen years after Ashoka’s consecration, were instructed to spread the king’s dhamma among the people.68 The king himself moved around the countryside, incessantly instructing his subjects in dhamma. Minor rock edict 1 tells us that he had spent 256 nights (or days) on tour, no doubt busy spreading dhamma. The time he must have spent roaming around his empire, giving dhamma lectures, and his steadily increasing obsession with making his subjects—indeed the whole world—good must have made Ashoka impatient with the routine affairs of governance.

    While Ashoka’s inscriptions represent a new and powerful attempt at imperial communication, the king was not really trying to speak directly to his people. The audience of the edicts consisted of three parts—the direct audience (high- ranking administrative officials); the indirect audience (the mass of the emperor’s subjects), who were expected to receive their king’s message via various intermediaries, largely in oral form; and the future audience (posterity). High-level official cadres in most parts of the empire were evidently familiar with the Prakrit language and Brahmi script. In the northwest (which had come under Persian and Greek influence in the preceding centuries), Aramaic and Greek were the languages of a multilingual officialdom.

    The personality of ancient Indian kings is usually difficult to identify behind their carefully crafted epigraphic masks. Ashoka is an exception. The frequent use of the first person and the strong personal tone in his Prakrit inscriptions leave no doubt that they were not composed by an inspired ghost-writer but represent the emperor’s ideas, desires, and commands, tempered occasionally by a candor and self-reflectiveness that mitigates their increasingly authoritarian tone.69 Ashoka’s edicts give us a unique insight into the emperor’s mind. We can actually follow his thoughts as he reflects on and agonizes over issues related to kingship and morality over his long, thirty-six-year reign.70 Although he occasionally invoked ancient tradition, Ashoka saw himself as an innovator, as a great king who had ushered in a new era, intervening in and reversing a long course of human depravity and moral decline. The absence of a genealogy in his inscriptions shows that he was not interested in looking back. He looked forward to his successors following his new model of kingship.

    Historians have drawn the rough contours of Ashoka’s empire on the basis of

    the distribution and content of his edicts.71 The northwestern limit of the edicts extends to modern Afghanistan, the eastern limit to Orissa, and there is a dense clustering of the minor rock edicts on the Andhra–Karnataka border in the south. Ashokan inscriptions and the archaeological evidence of the spread of a deluxe pottery known as Northern Black Polished Ware indicate Maurya contact, but joining the dots of the outermost limits where the edicts have been found does not necessarily give us an area within which there was prolonged or effective Maurya political, military, or fiscal control. The king seems to have had a multitiered administrative hierarchy in the capital with several provincial centers; the level of actual political and economic control exercised by the central and the provincial administrations must have varied considerably. This is in spite of the fact that Ashoka’s style of governance had a significant peripatetic quality, with the king, his various officials, and inspection teams constantly on the move.

    Ashoka describes himself as “king of Magadha” and mentions his capital city, Pataliputra, conveying a sense of territoriality. He boasts of the vast extent of his political dominion.72 He had an idea of political borders, distinguishing his own political realm from that of adjacent kingdoms.73 In the south, the “borderers” included the principalities of the Cholas, Pandyas, Satiyaputras, Keralaputras, and Tamraparni (Sri Lanka). The emperor’s geopolitical awareness extended westward beyond the subcontinent to northern Africa and the Mediterranean lands. In the northwest, there was the Yona (Greek) king Antiyoka and beyond him, the lands ruled over by Turamaya, Antikini, Maka, and Alikasudara.74

    Even if we ignore the collective testimony of the later Buddhist textual tradition, several of Ashoka’s inscriptions unequivocally indicate his affiliation with Buddhism. In minor rock edict 1, the king tells us that he had been a lay follower of the Buddha’s teaching for over two and a half years, but confesses that he had initially not made much progress. He goes on to say that since a little over the past year, he had drawn closer to the Buddhist sangha and that gods and men had come to mingle due to his zealous efforts.

    Soon the king was addressing the sangha and giving it commands.

    Piyadasi, the king of Magadha, greets the members of the sangha, and hopes that they are in good health and comfort. You know, sirs, how deep

    is my reverence and faith in the Buddha, the dhamma, and the sangha.75

    This minor rock edict goes on to state that what had been said by the Buddha was well-said and describes the Buddha’s teachings as the true dhamma. It lists six Buddhist sermons on dhamma that Ashoka wanted the laity and monks and nuns to listen to and reflect on. There is debate about the identification of the six texts. But there is no doubt about the close resemblance between the code of conduct prescribed in the edicts and that prescribed for the laity in the Buddhist Sigalavada Sutta. The king reveals (rock edict 8) that his dhamma tours began after his pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Ashoka’s allegiance to Buddhism is also displayed by the minor pillar edicts at Lumbini (the Buddha’s birthplace) and at the site of a stupa dedicated to Buddha Kanakamuni at Nigali Sagar. The imperious tone of the “schism edict” (minor pillar edict 1), warning monks and nuns against creating dissension in the sangha, indicates the authority Ashoka exercised over the Buddhist monastic order.76 But what was the impact of Ashoka’s Buddhist leanings on his political ideas and practice, especially when it came to the issue of violence?

    Goodness and Nonviolence in the Moral Empire

    Ashoka had two ideas of empire—one political, the other moral, with the latter encompassing the former. His conception of his constituency extended beyond political subjecthood to all living beings (pāṇas, jīvas, bhūtas), including both humans and animals. His claim that his campaign of dhamma-vijaya (victory through dhamma), which consisted of propagating and inculcating virtue and goodness among people, had been a resounding success everywhere indicates that the moral empire required no political, geographical, or territorial specification or circumscription. The edicts oscillate between issues related to the political and moral empires, but there is no doubt that ultimately, it was the moral aspect of both the individual and the state that Ashoka considered most important.

    The edicts occasionally touch on practical issues such as taxation and the administration of justice, but Ashoka was not as interested in such things as he was in morality. He boldly made morality the cornerstone of his political agenda

    —inscribed lists of virtues on stone, reiterated them in far-flung areas, and set up a massive propaganda machine to propagate them. His welfare measures—the provision of medical treatment, the planting of herbs, trees, and roots for men and animals, and the digging of wells along roads (rock edict 2)—and his dhamma-propagation activities extended into the kingdoms of other rulers. This clearly indicates that Ashoka thought his moral jurisdiction extended far beyond his political domain.

    Buddhist legend presents us with an exceptionally violent man, Ashoka the cruel, who was transformed into a pious Buddhist king (this will be discussed in the next chapter). Ashoka’s own inscriptions suggest a more gradual movement toward Buddhism and the practice and propagation of dhamma. But one of the inscriptions—rock edict 13—does highlight a transformative moment—a terrible war that was fought in Kalinga in eastern India, eight years after Ashoka had been consecrated.77 The eventual result of the king’s somber reflection on this event was his renunciation of war and his resolve to spread dhamma far and wide. The edicts announce Ashoka as the prophet, exemplar, and propagator of dhamma; officials and subjects must follow his orders and his behavior. An elaborate apparatus involving the king, regular officials, and the specially

    created cadre of officials known as the dhamma-mahāmātas was set up for the propagation of goodness. The king was obsessed, and the entire state machinery catered to his obsession.

    Ashoka recognized the close connection between the individual and society and between virtuous dispositions and actions. While the dhamma of his inscriptions can be understood as goodness or virtue, the imperative to pursue it endowed it with the sense of duty.

    Obedience to mother and father is good. Generosity to friends, acquaintances and kin, and to Brahmanas and renunciants [samaṇas] is good. Abstaining from killing living beings is good. Spending little and owning little is good.78

    Ashoka explains the gift of dhamma as including

    proper courtesy to slaves and servants, obedience to mother and father, generosity to friends, acquaintances and kin, as well as to Brahmanas and renunciants, and abstaining from killing living beings. In this respect, whether one is a father, son, brother, friend, acquaintance, relative or neighbor, one should say “This is good; this should be done.”79

    Putting together the statements scattered across the edicts, we get a clear sense of Ashoka’s idea of dhamma. It included qualities such as self-control, purity of thought, liberality, gratitude, firm devotion, truthfulness, and purity. It also included behavior that was appropriate to certain key social relationships: obedience to parents; respect for elders; courtesy and liberality toward Brahmanas and renunciants; courtesy to slaves and servants; liberality toward friends, acquaintances, and relatives; moderation in expenditure and possessions; and guarding one’s speech. While much of this may have been part of a common pool of ethical ideas circulating at the time, the king’s insistence on courtesy toward slaves and servants must have had an astonishingly radical ring in the hierarchical society of third-century BCE India. And in such a society, the sight or even the news that the king was constantly moving out of his palace and mingling with the masses must have created amazement. But the most amazing news of all must have been the king’s repeated announcements, enunciated

    through the oral and written word, that everyone, whether high or low, could attain heaven by following dhamma. Although the Buddha and Mahavira had said this sort of thing earlier, this was the first (and the last) time that an emperor was making such announcements. Ashoka was a political prophet of soteriological socialism.

    Nonviolence (avihiṁsā, anālambhā) toward all living beings was a central aspect of Ashoka’s dhamma. Interestingly, animals are singled out for special mention in this regard. Major rock edict 1 talks about the killing of animals in three contexts—in sacrificial rituals, popular festivals, and the royal kitchen. Hinting at some opposition to the king’s attempts to impose vegetarianism in the royal household, it tells us that at the time when the inscription was written, only three animals were being killed in the royal kitchen—two peacocks and a deer, and the deer not regularly. The edict ends with the emperor expressing his hope that even these three animals would not be killed in future. The emphasis on nonviolence was accompanied by the advocacy of a positive attitude of caring. Ashoka asserts that the appropriate conduct toward all living beings includes gentleness (sayama) and compassion (dayā).80 Nonviolence was transformed into a central positive principle of personal conduct and the emperor’s political agenda.

    But why should a person follow dhamma, and why should the state promote

    it? The answer lies in the ideas of merit (puṇya) and demerit (apuṇya), mentioned frequently in Ashoka’s edicts. Because of the law of karma (not specifically mentioned, but definitely implied), following dhamma leads to the accumulation of merit, beneficial results in the next life, and the attainment of heaven. Not following it means falling prey to grave danger, sins,81 and demerit. It is presumed that individuals desire to achieve heaven and happiness in the next life. This can be done by governing the self—that is, by cultivating a certain kind of character and positive dispositions—and by engaging in actions arising from these, thereby accumulating merit. The king has an obligation to help his subjects—actually all beings—achieve these goals. It is a debt he owes them.82 So goodness is not only the concern of an individual, but also a concern of the state.

    Ashoka’s dhamma was rooted in his personal faith in the Buddha’s teaching. There is an overlap between the tenets of the edicts and the dhamma prescribed

    for the laity in Buddhist texts. Nonviolence, which was an important part of the ethical code prescribed by the king, was also important in Buddhism. But while the Buddhist inspiration cannot be denied, the range of Ashoka’s dhamma injunctions is not identical to the prescriptions for the laity in Buddhist texts, nor is it exclusive to the Buddhist tradition.83 The key metaphysical ideas underlying Ashoka’s politico-moral discourse (rebirth, karma, merit, heaven) and an emphasis on social ethics cut across sectarian and religious lines. Resonances can just as easily be seen with the Jaina tradition. The fact that Ashoka himself did not consider dhamma to be exclusively connected with a particular sect is clear from his statement that all sects (pāsaṇḍas) have in common an emphasis on self-control and purity of mind (rock edict 7). This idea is taken further in rock edict 12, where the king expresses his desire that there should be a growth of the essentials (sāra-vaḍhī) of all sects and that an atmosphere of concord (samavāya) should prevail. This cannot be described as a narrow “religious tolerance.” It was an earnest plea for positive and open-minded religious dialogue and concord.

    While the cultivation of virtues and self-control are emphasized in many early

    Indian traditions, Ashoka made governance of the self the cornerstone of his political philosophy. Although Buddhist legend heralds him as a paradigmatic Buddhist king, his inscriptions tell a more complex story. He did not seek to create a Buddhist state but a dhammic, moral, one. And yet, as we shall see, even in this moral state, ethical principles could not be implemented in an absolute form; they had to be tempered by political pragmatism. This applied to political violence as well. As will be discussed in Chapter 4, Ashoka renounced warfare after the Kalinga war, but this did not rule out the use of force against recalcitrant people who lived on the borders or in the forests.

    Justice and Capital Punishment

    Although his edicts do not clearly distinguish between the administrative and dhammic domains, in several places, we see Ashoka grappling with the practical problems of governing a vast, variegated empire. Addressed to high-ranking officials, the separate rock edicts at Dhauli and Jaudgada in eastern India and Sannati in the south provide the clearest statement of Ashoka’s view of the chief problems that lay in the way of good governance, and also the solutions.84 Separate rock edict 1 deals mainly with justice and prisoners. Separate rock edict 2 talks about the need to instill confidence among the unsubdued borderers, pointing to the problem of incomplete pacification and consolidation. In these inscriptions, the king speaks of various means he had adopted to spread dhamma and asserts that instruction was the principal one, although he recognizes the gap between instruction and implementation. The exhortations and warnings to his officers urging self-regulation are accompanied by a pragmatic deterrent— quinquennial and triennial surveillance tours by the king and the provincial governors.

    In rock edict 13, Ashoka urges his sons and grandsons to aim at victory

    through dhamma (dhamma-vijaya) rather than military victory (this edict will be discussed in detail in Chapter 4) and to take pleasure in exertion and hard work. If they could not abjure war completely, he urges them to be merciful and moderate in their use of force or punishment. Here, Ashoka establishes a connection between punishment and war, both of which involved political violence, one internal, the other external.

    The numerous references to prisoners in Ashoka’s edicts draw attention to the existence of the institution of the prison, probably a recent invention. Rock edict 5 expresses concern for the welfare of prisoners and speaks of the dhamma officers distributing money to prisoners who had children, and releasing those who were aged or had committed crimes due to being misled. Pillar edict 5, which for the most part deals with animals and lays down injunctions against the injuring and killing of certain animals at certain specified times, ends with a statement that the king had ordered the release of prisoners (bandhana-mokha) every year until the twenty-sixth anniversary of his consecration. The implication is that imprisonment and its attendant curtailment of freedom

    involved cruelty to human beings, and that this type of cruelty could be mitigated by ordering a periodic release of prisoners. Such releases, in fact, seem to have been a part of the model of benevolent kingship in ancient India.

    Ashoka’s inscriptions also dwell on the problem of unjust punishment. Separate rock edict 1, addressed to city officers known as the nagalaviyohālakas, refers to people suffering as a result of unfair imprisonment (bandhana) and harsh treatment and exhorts officials to deal with all such cases with fairness and impartiality. Justice is discussed in greater detail in pillar edict 4, which concerns the duties of officers known as the rājūkas. The main point emphasized in this edict is that the rājūkas should discharge their duties vis-à-vis the handing out of rewards and punishment fairly and fearlessly, and that they should ensure impartiality (samatā) in judicial proceedings and punishment. It should be noted that justice and impartiality are important aspects of the idea of the righteous king (dhammiko dhammarāja) in early Buddhism.85

    The assertion that the king has entrusted the people directly to the care of the rājūkas may be an allusion to certain intermediary officials having been removed. Ashoka exhorts the rājūkas to understand what causes the people pleasure and pain, and instructs them to be just in meting out punishment and to do their job fearlessly, confidently, and well. This could imply either that judicial officers were subject to pressures of various kinds, or that there was a problem because of the conflict between nonviolence (a tenet of dhamma) and the fact that they were on occasion required to inflict violence in the administration of justice. The king also orders the rājūkas to obey officials known as the pulisāni, who were evidently keeping an eye on them. The analogy used for the rājūkas in this edict is that of an experienced wetnurse (dhāti), one associated with affectionate feminine care and nourishing, which complements the paternalistic sentiment expressed by the king in other inscriptions. In fact, the rājūkas and the king are described as having the same goal—to ensure the welfare and happiness of the people entrusted to their care in this world and the next.

    For a king obsessed with nonviolence, the discussion of the most extreme kind of punishment—the death sentence—raises some expectations that are swiftly belied. In pillar edict 4, Ashoka says:

    My order goes so far as to grant a three-day respite to prisoners who have

    been convicted and sentenced to death. During this period, their relatives can plead for their life to the officers. Or, if there is none to make the plea for them, they [the prisoners condemned to die] can bestow gifts or undertake fasts to secure their happiness in the next world. For it is my desire that even when their time is over, they should attain happiness in the next world and that the various practices of dhamma such as self-control and the distribution of gifts, should be promoted among the people.

    The three-day respite has been often cited by historians as an indication that Ashoka did not abolish the death penalty and that there were, therefore, serious limits to his commitment to nonviolence.86 Apart from enabling the convict to undertake last-minute measures to try to attain happiness in the next world, the edict suggests a context in which execution swiftly followed sentencing and in which even a three-day reprieve was a significant concession. In effect, Ashoka sought to temper the violence inherent in capital punishment in three ways: by exhorting judicial officers to be fair; by ensuring that there should be time and opportunity for a last appeal before the execution of the sentence; and if this appeal failed, by granting the condemned man an opportunity to prepare for his next life.

    The nature of the laws does not form part of this discussion of justice; the focus is on fairness and moderation in the application and execution of the laws. There is a recognition of flaws in the justice delivery system and the announcement of the introduction of certain ameliorative measures. The king projects himself as a maintainer of justice and simultaneously distances himself from the inevitable instances of injustice, for which the responsibility is placed squarely on his officials.

    At the end of the day, Ashoka essentially saw both the problems of governance as well as their solution primarily in psychological terms. Officials were urged to convince the people of his paternalistic benevolence (“all men are my children”) and that the king loved them like himself; that they should not fear him; that they should have confidence in him; that they should expect happiness and not misery from him; that they should practice dhamma; and that by doing so, they would attain happiness in this world and the next. Reassurance is tempered with firmness in the king’s reference (in the second separate rock

    edict) to his will and unshakeable resolution and his warning to the borderers that the king will forgive that which can be forgiven (similar to his warning to the forest people in rock edict 13). And yet, although Ashoka saw the problem of political consolidation and its solution primarily in psychological terms, at the same time, he pragmatically put in place a surveillance machinery to ensure compliance, and had no hesitation in threatening to use force against those who did not fall in line.

    Ashoka’s Legacy

    Asoka’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 organized propaganda campaign. Ashoka’s was a radical and audacious aim—the moral transformation of all humankind.

    Looking at Ashoka in the context of near contemporary Achaemenid and Macedonian kings, we see some similarities but much difference. The Achaemenid king Darius had multilingual inscriptions couched in the first person inscribed on rocks. These inscriptions project him as a great king, proud of his lineage, who had received kingship from the great god Ahuramazda. He is a paramount ruler over people of many lands, to whom many kings render tribute. He is virtuous, self-controlled, righteous, benevolent, a maintainer of order, a great builder, a bestower of justice and peace, and an enemy of false beliefs.87 He demands obedience to his law, and dāta, the word used for this law in his Aramaic inscriptions, is one of the words used in place of dhamma in the Aramaic edicts of Ashoka (the other one is qšṭ). But Darius also boasts of his military prowess and skill. He proudly details his crushing and killing of numerous rebels, describes his many military conquests, and mentions taking many prisoners of war. The relief on the Behistan rock portrays Darius with his foot planted on the prostrate rebel Gaumata as Ahuramazda looks on. Also part of the scene are captive rebels, their hands tied behind their backs and ropes around their neck. The conception of kingship conveyed through these words and images are strikingly different from Ashoka’s.

    The interests and ambitions of the Macedonian king Alexander also seem to

    have had little in common with those of Ashoka. Alexander’s indefatigable desire for conquest swiftly became legendary. Less known are his extraordinary “last plans,” recounted by Diodorus,88 a wish-list that the Macedonian Assembly immediately annulled on the ground that it was too ambitious and impractical. These plans included the assembling of one thousand warships for a campaign against Carthage and the western Mediterranean; the building of a road for

    military purposes across north Africa; the construction of a series of harbors and arsenals; the completion of the pyre raised for Alexander’s friend Hephaestion; the building of six huge temples in Greece and Macedonia; and making a magnificent tomb for his father, Philip, which would outshine the pyramid of Gizeh. The most ambitious item on the list was the founding of new cities and the exchange and transplanting of populations between Europe and Asia. So Ashoka was not the only ancient king who had wild or grandiose ideas. But his ambitions were very different from those of his near contemporaries. In his ostentatious rejection of war and his vigorous attempts to inculcate a universal culture of piety, Ashoka appears a misfit in the ancient world.

    What about his place in the long-term Indian tradition? Although Ashoka certainly stands apart in the candid confessional style he chose for his edicts, his obsession with explaining and propagating dhamma, and his rejection of war, in several respects he represents the starting point of mainstream classical Indian political thought. He plucked dhamma or dharma out of religious discourse and made it a central political and social issue. He made a bold attempt to assert and emphasize the moral foundations of royal authority and empire, connecting it with the good, happiness, and heaven. He posited a close connection between the governance of the state and the self. And he seriously engaged with the problem of violence and conflict in the political and social spheres, presenting the state as a primary mediator.

    In doing all this, Ashoka may have played a decisive role in changing the connotations of that all-important word, “dharma.” Patrick Olivelle has suggested that the Buddha took over the concept of dharma with its strong royal associations (along with other royal symbols) from the Brahmanical tradition and gave it new ethical content, also using it to refer to his doctrine. Then, Ashoka came along and talked extensively about dhamma in his edicts. It was his appropriation of the word and his injection of new ethical content into it that transformed it into a central cultural concept, which the Brahmanas were forced to take note of by inventing the disciple of Dharmashastra.89 For the Buddhists, dhamma stood for the word and the teaching of the Buddha, who was its authoritative source. The Brahmanas had to scramble about and come up with their own version of dharma and to identify its source. They did this by creating an enormous authoritative corpus of texts that dealt specifically with the subject


    Compelling as this hypothesis is, it depends to a great extent on the chronology of individuals, events, and texts. If the Buddha is placed in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE and if the composition of the earliest Dharmashastra texts also goes back to this period, and Ashoka appears on the scene afterward, the hypothesis collapses. However, there is no doubt that in the long run, the “classical” Indian understanding of dharma emerged out of an intense cultural conversation between different religious, philosophical, and intellectual traditions. As an influential participant in this conversation, Ashoka played a significant role in the evolution of the idea, especially through his public propagation of the idea of a strong connection between kingship, the soteriological goals of the individual, and social ethics.

    Ashoka can also be seen as foundational with respect to ancient Indian royal religious policy. He recognized the problem of sectarian conflict and dealt with it through exhortation and action, projecting himself as a king who stood above sectarian distinctions. Although an ardent Buddhist, he urged respect for various sects, as well as for Brahmanas and renunciants. He enlarged the stupa of a Buddha named Kanakamuni, and after visiting Lumbini, he declared certain tax exemptions for its inhabitants. But he also granted a cave in the Barabar hills to the Ajivika ascetics. His religious patronage was multidirectional and not constrained by his personal religious beliefs, and women of the royal household had the freedom and authority to make pious gifts. In all these respects, Ashoka’s political thought and practice can be seen as foundational to the Indian political tradition. But his denunciation and renunciation of war and his massive piety propaganda campaign were radical by the standards of not only his, but any, age.

    Kingship in the Sanskrit Epics: The Mahabharata

    Dharma and kingship swiftly became topics of earnest and intense discussion and debate in ancient Indian texts, including the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The Mahabharata is traditionally attributed to Vyasa and the Ramayana to Valmiki. The epics are many things. They are dramatic stories, powerful purveyors of religious ideas and social values, and highly influential political texts. Political conflicts among kin are common to both. The plot in both involves a violation and restitution of the principle of primogeniture, but in strikingly different ways—in the Mahabharata through a violent fratricidal war, and in the Ramayana through a model of filial and fraternal obedience. The epics evolved over several centuries, probably between circa 400 BCE and 400 CE.90 Many scholars see them as heroic tales composed by bards, which at some point passed into the hands of Brahmanas. But the reverse has also been suggested; according to Alf Hiltebeitel, the Mahabharata was composed from the start as a written text by “out-of-sorts” Brahmanas, and later passed into the hands of bards.91

    The narrative and didactic elements in the epics are closely interwoven. The didactic statements, especially those on dharma, are highly contextual. So we have to take into account not only what is said, but also the narrative frame, who is talking to whom, and when. The two texts are aware of each other’s stories, and boons, curses, vows, karma, and dharma are features of both. Both contain an interweaving of heroic and religious elements. Both claim that reading or hearing them has the potential of conferring great material and spiritual benefit. Over the centuries, the Mahabharata and Ramayana lent themselves to a vast number of remoldings and retellings that existed in multiple forms—oral, written, and performative; they traveled far beyond the geopolitical boundaries of the subcontinent, extending into various parts of Southeast Asia; and their influence stretches from ancient times down to the present.

    The heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata belong respectively to the two great legendary royal lineages of ancient India—the solar and the lunar lineages, known as the Suryavamsha and Chandravamsha. In the totalizing dynastic theory of the epics and Puranas, all kings are ultimately descendants of the mythical Manu Vaivasvata. Manu is said to have had nine sons and a daughter,

    Ilā (or a son, Ila, who was transformed into a woman, Ilā). The descendants of Manu’s son Ikshvaku constituted the solar lineage (Rama and his family belonged to this lineage) and the descendants of Ilā’s son Pururavas constituted the lunar lineage (the Kurus belonged to this lineage). Time is visualized as cyclical, each cycle (mahāyuga) consisting of a succession of four ages, or yugas

    —Krita, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali—marked by a systematic decline in dharma, leading to the ultimate dissolution and recreation of the world.

    Although they have a specific historical setting, the epics also possess a certain universality. They are stories about human relationships, primarily those associated with kinship. They invoke and evoke the deepest human experiences and emotions—love, friendship, anger, ambition, jealousy, and grief. Historically, they have also functioned as powerful political texts, dealing with perennial issues of authority, entitlement, conflict, war, and violence. It is this universality that made it possible for the epics to settle into very diverse cultural niches and has given them their enormous appeal in South and Southeast Asia.

    The Political Landscape

    The Mahabharata, a voluminous, encyclopedic, and complex text, consisting of over 100,000 verses, abounds in ambiguities and contradictions. The central story is set in the Kuru kingdom, located in the Indo-Gangetic divide and upper Ganga valley with its capital at Hastinapura. It revolves around a dispute over their patrimony between two sets of cousins, the five Pandava brothers and the hundred Kaurava brothers. After losing in a gambling match, the Pandavas face exile for twelve years in the forest followed by one year which they have to spend incognito. Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, refuses to give the Pandavas their share of the kingdom and the conflict spirals into a terrible war between the cousins and their allies. The Pandavas ultimately win, and the eldest, Yudhisththira, becomes king. The Mahabharata deals extensively with dharma and kingship; it discusses violence and war with unprecedented directness and detail from multiple perspectives, blending old values with new doubt and questioning.

    The Mahabharata is both a foundational text and a transitional one. It oscillates between two religious worlds—that of Vedic gods and the new supreme gods, Vishnu and Shiva. Although it describes itself as the fifth Veda, it reflects new cultural and religious values, which were to be developed further in the Puranas. Performing sacrifices was still important, but a new idea of an intimate god–human relationship based on devotion (bhakti) was taking shape.92 Heaven was still a coveted goal, but it seems inferior to practicing the great yoga of final release, through which one can know the ultimate reality, brahman.

    At the core of the Mahabharata are issues related to kingship, the Kshatriya warrior class, and the relationship between Brahmanas and Kshatriyas. The text connects an old-world warrior ethic with new political concerns related to empire and governance, and adds new religious elements to them. It combines a belief in the decrees of fate (daiva) with an assertion that human effort (utthāna, pauruṣa) is not only important but essential. The fact that war and its consequences have to be reflected on and debated indicates that the time of the warrior who fought valiantly and unquestioningly unto death had passed.

    The strong dialogic element in the text was ideal for conducting debates on politics, life, death, heaven, merit, release, and many other aspects of the human

    condition. The epic recognizes that the problems of power and violence demand pragmatic as well as philosophical and moral answers. The Mahabharata does not always give one answer to a question; it gives several alternatives. There is a lack of certainty in the minds of the major characters when they are faced with dilemmas, and they often make their decisions after agonizing deliberations with others. Are complex issues resolved? To some extent they are, in the choices that the characters eventually make, in what they actually do, and in the outcome of their actions and decisions. And in a sense, they are not resolved, and cannot be, because, as the epic never tires of telling us, dharma is mysterious (guhya) and subtle (sūkṣma); there are no quick or easy resolutions or solutions to the most fundamental problems of human existence. In its discussion of serious moral dilemmas within its narrative frame, the Mahabharata contains a rich discourse on moral philosophy.93

    The political landscape of the epic has many kingdoms and tribal oligarchies

    (gaṇas), but the predominant focus is on monarchical states. Kingship is not always simply inherited; it can be contested and lost; it has to be fought for and reclaimed through prowess, strategy, and violence. Kinglessness is equated with anarchy. The similes used to describe a kingless state include metaphors involving eating. Bhishma tells Yudhishthira,

    “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 the water eat the smaller ones.”94

    A land without a king is weak; it is overrun by barbarians (dasyus); the social order of the varṇas is overturned; free men are enslaved; livelihoods perish, and there is famine; life is unsafe because theft, plunder, and rape are rampant; there are no sacrifices or Vedic study. If there were no kings, humankind would perish and the world would descend into hell.95 The king is necessary to prevent social violence and anarchy.

    In the Mahabharata, there are kings and paramount kings. The epic contains a great deal of discussion of statecraft and is replete with an elaborate political

    vocabulary, which is also found in the Arthashastra (this will be discussed in the next chapter), with which the epics overlapped chronologically. These discussions are especially concentrated in Books 12 and 13—the Shanti Parva (The book of peace) and Anushasana Parva (The book of discipline)—which contain a long, rambling conversation between Yudhishthira and his grand-uncle, the great warrior Bhishma, conducted on the battlefield while the latter lies dying on a bed of arrows.96 There is mention of the seven-limbed kingdom (saptāṅga-rājya, sapta-prakṛti) as well as of the eight-limbed state, whose eighth limb is not specified.97 The kingdom is a mighty organization and cannot be ruled by one man alone; a king needs good retainers and officials. Ministers, officials, and courtiers must possess certain qualities and should be frequently subjected to tests of loyalty. Kinsmen are a source of strength as well as danger. The king must zealously protect himself and the other elements of the state, and must strike a balance between suspicion and trust. There are many references to spies. Good policy (naya) is distinguished from bad policy (apanaya). The king must use the four expedients (upāyas)—namely, conciliation (sāma), gifts (dāna), force (daṇḍa), and creating dissension (bheda)—and should adopt the flexible policy of reeds (vaitasī-vṛtti). The Mahabharata also talks about the six measures of interstate policy—namely, peace or making a treaty (sandhi), war (vigraha), staying quiet (āsana), marching (yāna), seeking shelter (saṁśraya), and the dual policy (dvaidhibhāva) of simultaneously pursuing peace with one ruler and waging war against another. While political paramountcy is an important concern in the Mahabharata, the term cakravartin occurs only eleven times in the voluminous work.98

    The epic is not concerned with the nitty-gritty of administration. Its main focus is on kings, their kin, members of the royal household, allies, and enemies. Noble birth and lineage are central, and there is much recounting of the history of royal lineages. Like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata emphasizes that primogeniture is an inviolable right. Yudhishthira is the rightful king because he is the eldest. This emphasis may reflect a historical situation in which this right was, in fact, not always acknowledged or implemented. The text makes a pitch for the unification of diverse scattered Kshatriya lineages and for the restoration of a unified hereditary warrior class, but within a hierarchical framework of one paramount ruler lording it over many subordinate kings. The Mahabharata war

    has to be fought so that the eldest prince, Yudhishthira, can become king. But it has to be a war involving all kings, in order to leave one unquestioned paramount king.

    The Pandavas’ claim to their fair share of the kingdom is not an ordinary scramble for power; it is part of a larger cosmic endgame. It is necessary for the creation of a new, righteous world order from the annihilation of an older one.99 We are told that after the Brahmana Parashurama had wiped out all the Kshatriyas, not once but twenty-one times, Kshatriya women approached ascetic Brahmanas to produce offspring, and a new breed of Kshatriyas was born from this Kshatriya–Brahmana union. Kshatriya rule was restored on earth, and the social order of the four varṇas was also restored. But demons, deprived of their sovereignty by the numerous defeats they had suffered at the hands of the gods, took birth in increasing numbers on earth as humans and animals. Some of them were born as kings who oppressed their realms in innumerable ways. The earth beseeched the god Brahma for succor, and he ordered all the other gods and celestial beings (the gandharvas and apsarases) to use portions of themselves and take birth on earth. The Pandavas and certain other characters of the epic took birth as partial incarnations of various deities. The Kaurava prince Duryodhana, on the other hand, was born from the evil Kali (a personification of the evil fourth age, Kali); his brothers were all demons (rākṣasas), born among men. Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas, was an incarnation of Shri, the goddess of sovereignty. So the cataclysmic political conflict of the Mahabharata is actually part of the age-old gods-versus-demons conflict. But although this epic (like many other Brahmanical texts) exalts kings as gods on earth, it also deals extensively with very real problems of kingship, especially the problem of violence.

    Kingship, Punishment, and Order

    Apart from being a story of kings, the Mahabharata theorizes a great deal about the institution of kingship. The Shanti Parva offers two accounts of the origins of kingship. The first account begins in the age of perfection, the Krita age, when there was no king, no government, and no punishment because they were not required; everyone guarded each other in accordance with dharma.100 But men fell prey to error and confusion, and this led to greed and desire, and a decline in dharma. The performance of the sacred sacrificial rites waned, and the Veda disappeared. Alarmed by this, the gods approached Brahma, who composed a treatise in a hundred thousand lessons on dharma, artha, and kāma, which dealt with everything, including the various aspects of statecraft (nītiśāstra). Realizing that the text was rather vast and human life short, the work was systematically abridged by the god Shiva and then by the sages Brihaspati and Kavya, the preceptors of the gods and demons respectively.

    However the problem of extreme social disorder required something more

    than a good book. It required a pragmatic institutional solution. So the gods approached Vishnu, asking him who should rule over humans. Vishnu produced a mind-born son Virajas, who was followed by his son and grandson. But these three did not want to rule. Ananga was next in line and ruled well; he was followed by his son Atibala who was unfortunately addicted to vices. Then came Vena, enslaved to sensual pleasure, who did not discharge his duties properly. The sages killed Vena (rather dramatically) by stabbing him with blades of sacred kusha grass. Then they churned his right thigh, out of which emerged an ugly man named Nishada, who was told to make himself scarce because the sages did not think him suitable material for a king. Then they churned Vena’s right hand,

    and from that came a man who looked like another Indra. He wore armor, had a sword strapped on, and had a bow and arrows. He knew the Vedas and their auxiliary texts, and was a master of the Veda of the Bow. The entire policy of administering the rod of force [daṇḍanīti] had lodged in this best of men.101

    He had a mind that understood dharma and artha and he sought the advice and

    guidance of the gods and the sages. This man is not named, but from references elsewhere in the epic, we know him to be Prithu. Vishnu entered this man and decreed that no one would surpass him. Gods and sages instructed him, and he was consecrated king. Endowed with excellent qualities, Prithu ruled well.

    While the gods and sages play important roles in this story, it is the gods and people who play important parts in the second account of the origin of kingship in the Shanti Parva.102 In order to deal with social anarchy, violence, and insecurity, the people came together and made agreements (samayāḥ) among themselves. They agreed to get rid of violent, aggressive men who stole, violated women, and performed other such evil acts. However, they were unsuccessful in doing this. So, in great torment, they went to Brahma and begged him to appoint a king who could protect them and whom they would honor in return. Brahma chose Manu, but Manu did not take up the task immediately. His reasons are interesting:

    “I am afraid of cruel [krūra] acts. For kingship is an extremely difficult task, especially among men, who are always prone to wrongful behaviour.”103

    The people urged Manu not to be afraid and reassured him that the sin incurred by his cruel deeds would go away. They also made him an attractive offer—they would give him one-fiftieth of their cattle and gold, and one-tenth of their grain; soldiers skilled in war would follow him everywhere; and one-fourth of the merit earned by the people would go to him (there is no reference to their demerit rubbing off on him). Manu accepted this contractual arrangement and proceeded to go around the earth, suppressing the wicked and making them perform their duties.

    In the first Shanti Parva story, there are three kinds of kings—those who do not want to rule; those who indulge in sensual pleasures and rule badly; and good kings who rule well. It is significant that the Nishada, who represents the forest people, although summarily dismissed, is an integral part of the account. The second story has a reluctant king who is afraid of the violence inherent in kingship, and whose reluctance to rule is overcome through a social contract between the king and his subjects. When compared with the Buddhist accounts of the origins of kingship, there are a few similarities and several differences. In

    both cases, there is the idea of a fall from a primordial age of perfection, a contractual idea of kingship, and an emphasis on the king as a punisher and maintainer of the social order. But Buddhist texts emphasize the centrality of the Buddha’s dhamma, righteous and extensive victories, and the wheel, while the Mahabharata emphasizes the role of the gods and sages. The political vocabulary of the Mahabharata is also far more elaborate and sophisticated than that of the early Buddhist texts, and its engagement with the problem of political violence is much more detailed and direct.

    Dharma and Doubt

    Dharma is many things in the Mahabharata. He is a god, who subjects his son Yudhishthira to several tests. Dharma as righteousness is what distinguishes humans from animals; it is a way of living and doing; it is one and many. The epic makes a powerful attempt to relate kingship with a morality and duty that is peculiar to the political sphere—rāja-dharma (the dharma of the king). The Mahabharata abounds in discussions of dharma, and comments frequently on its subtlety. However, the overall emphasis of the narrative is that one must understand one’s dharma—essentially that of the varṇa that one is born into— and strive to follow it, no matter how unpleasant it may be and how much unhappiness it may bring. The sources of dharma include the Vedas, perception, and the conduct of wise men. Apart from the fact that it makes for order and stability in society, the cost-benefit analysis for the individual is clear and simple: Following dharma leads to heaven; not following it leads to hell. The Mahabharata talks about and affirms the importance of dharma from the vantage point of a perception of its decline. This is not surprising, because the events of the epic straddle the last two of the four world ages, Dvapara and Kali, when dharma stands on two feet and then one, moving toward its nadir before the cyclical dissolution and recreation of the world. Dharma is connected with truth (satya), not so much in its conventional sense as in the more important sense that the significant spoken word—such as the vow, curse, or oath—must come to pass, an idea that is also connected with fate.

    The problem is that dharma is not always self-evident. The two principal exponents of dharma in the epic are Bhishma and Krishna. The Shanti and Anushasana Parvas contain Bhishma’s very long death-bed orations on dharma to Yudhisthira. Krishna delivers a philosophically rich sermon (the Bhagavadgita) on the dharma of a warrior to Arjuna on the eve of the war, and holds forth on dharma at various other points as well. But while most of the dharma experts are men and women belonging to the circle of sages and royalty, there are others—for instance, a merchant, a hunter, and a snake. It is ironic that in spite of the presence of so many experts, there is constant debate on the subject, and dharma is frequently ignored and transgressed, especially during the war.

    Perhaps the most important aspect of the Mahabharata’s discussion of dharma is its demonstration that there are several dharmas. Dharma (used in the singular and the plural) is often said to be eternal and universal, but we are told that the dharmas of different ages vary. There is also the idea of āpad-dharma, dharma in time of emergency, when all kinds of departures from the norm are justified. As many as thirty-nine chapters of the Mahabharata are devoted to this subject,104 and it is mentioned elsewhere as well. Bhishma emphasizes the importance of good judgment as the basis of legitimate departures from the norm. In extreme circumstances, even radical departures are justified. For instance, the sage Vishvamitra is said to have committed no wrong when, starving in a time of famine, he stole and ate some dog’s meat from the house of an untouchable Chandala, disregarding the latter’s horrified remonstrations.105

    Dharma is frequently associated with the varṇas and the āśramas, but there is also a dharma of sages, of forest people, even of mlecchas. Mleccha is a catch- all term that includes tribal groups and foreigners and is often loosely translated as “barbarian.” But it should be noted that there was considerable flexibility in the concept; attitudes toward these people ranged from condescension and marginalization to accommodation and assimilation.106 Apart from the dharma applicable to the four varṇas and to specific sorts of people, there is a dharma that applies to all, known as sāmānya dharma, or sādhāraṇa dharma. This includes virtues such as not getting angry, truthfulness, sharing, forbearance, begetting children on one’s wife, cleanliness, freedom from malice, rectitude, supporting one’s dependents, honoring guests, and performing the śrāddha ceremonies for the ancestors. Self-knowledge (ātma-jñāna), nonviolence (ahiṁsā), and compassion (ānṛśaṁsya) also figure in the list.107 But this dharma applicable to all is not as important as the dharma of the varṇas and āśramas.

    While the Mahabharata frequently emphasizes that dharma consists in following the duties of one’s varṇa, it also asserts on several occasions that the highest dharma consists of nonviolence (this will be discussed farther on) or in controlling the senses and focusing the mind. Toward the end of the Shanti Parva, the uñcha vow is described as the highest dharma. This consists of living a life of extreme frugality, on food acquired through gleaning, that is, gathering grain. The explanation of these apparent contradictions is the fact that the epic offers two alternative models of life—one engaged with the world, the other

    detached from it. Although it repeatedly emphasizes the importance of performing one’s varṇa-dharma, it frequently talks about the dharma of liberation from the cycle of rebirth (mokṣa-dharma), which requires true knowledge, control of the senses, and complete detachment.

    Along with seemingly endless ruminations on dharma come powerful critiques, which highlight the fact that following dharma may lead to suffering, unhappiness, even death. As the wheel of his chariot sinks into the ground at a critical point in the battle, Karna (the Pandavas’ brother, born to Kunti out of wedlock and reared by a charioteer and his wife), who fights on the Kaurava side, rails in anguish against dharma:

    “Dharma experts have proclaimed that dharma always protects those who honor it. But my low dharma is not protecting me today, in spite of my devotion to it.”108

    The King’s Dharma

    The king’s dharma is rooted in his varṇa-dharma, that is, in the dharma of the Kshatriya warrior. But while there are some overlaps (for instance, both require protecting the people), the former includes many additional elements. In the events leading up to the war and during the war itself, it is the dharma of the warrior that predominates in the Mahabharata. Toward the latter part of the war and after it is over, the focus shifts to the dharma of the king. When Bhishma delivers his discourse on kingship to Yudhishthira while lying on a bed of arrows at Kurukshetra, that battlefield is converted into a classroom where wisdom about a king’s dharma is imparted. The fact that this lecture occurs in the Shanti Parva (The book of peace) suggests a connection between peace and the art of ruling.109 The king is described as the chief protector, maintainer, and exemplar of dharma. The dharma (the plural form of the word is also sometimes used) of the king is the most important of all dharmas, because it is their basis; it is necessary for the fulfilment of the goals of human existence (dharma, or righteousness; artha, or material gain; and kāma, or sensual pleasure) and for the maintenance of order and stability in the world. So the dharma of kings encompasses all other dharmas just as an elephant’s footprint engulfs the footprints of all other creatures.110

    Yudhishthira personifies an important concern of the Mahabharata—to ground kingship in dharma—in a very literal way. He is Dharmaraja (the king of dharma), the son of the god Dharma, and the king who, after the war, inherits and rules the unified Kuru realm. He successfully goes through three rounds of dharma tests (administered by his father, the god Dharma), and at the end of the epic, is lauded for this adherence to dharma. His major lapse is the deceit he practiced in order to kill his teacher, the great warrior Drona, and the epic presents his act as a transgression.111 Yudhishthira’s connection with dharma is rather complex. He is not an exemplary knower or practitioner of dharma, but rather one who is racked with doubt about it. In fact, he seems to have more uncertainties than any other character about what his dharma is, and he rails against it on several occasions. But he is also a key interlocutor whose questions about dharma and kingship are especially important because he is the would-be king who eventually becomes king. It is Yudhishthira’s dilemmas and questions

    that allow other people—especially Bhishma—to explain the king’s dharma.

    Bhishma explains the qualities and duties of the ideal king through the use of vivid similes. These include a very detailed analogy between the king and a peacock, which begins as follows:

    “Just as a peacock’s tail has feathers of many colours, so should a king who knows the Laws [dharmavit] display many forms—sharpness, deviousness, indomitability, truthfulness, and rectitude; standing in the middle of all of them, relying upon his mettle, he reaches a comfortable position. He should take whatever coloration would be good for some particular affair. Even his very delicate affairs succeed when a king can take on many different forms.”112

    There are other interesting analogies. The king should be like a pregnant woman who forsakes her lover and devotes herself to the care of her child.113 His job is like that of a washerman (rajaka)—both have to remove blemishes, the king from his kingdom and the washerman from clothes.114 The qualities of the ideal king include being true to his word (satya), rectitude (ārjava), and willingness to make sacrifices for others (tyāga). He should honor and protect Brahmanas, perform sacrifices, and proffer gifts. He should possess the qualities of kindness and compassion (ānṛśaṁsya, dayā, anukampā, anukrośa) toward all creatures. Toward the end of the Mahabharata saga, Yudhishthira’s feelings of kindness and compassion (ānṛśaṁsya) are reflected and emphasized in his refusing to abandon a dog (which is actually the god Dharma in disguise) in order to reach heaven. Perhaps the most important of all royal qualities is vinaya (self-control, discipline). There is an important connection between the king’s control over himself and the self-control of his officials and subjects. The king must be able to control others, but he can do so only if he can control himself. In fact, Bhishma states that vinaya (discipline, self-control) is the greatest principle of kings.115

    Bhishma’s discourse on kingship in the Shanti Parva distinguishes the personal from the political sphere, asserting that the king must be guided by his dharma, and not by his self-interest. The etymology of rājā is “one who pleases the subjects” (rājā rañjayati prajā).116 The great king Sagara had banished his

    own son Asamanjas because the latter had tormented the townsmen; the king’s subjects were dearer to him than his son.117 The king is the maintainer of dharma. The most important aspect of his own dharma is the protection of the people through dharma and the promotion of dharma, artha, and kāma. He must guard varna-dharma, deśa-dharma (the duties of different countries), and kula- dharma (the duties of different clans), thereby preventing the onset of chaos.

    The king should have compassion for his subjects, prevent the strong from preying on the weak, and prevent social violence and chaos. Like the spring sun, he should be both gentle (mṛdu) and harsh (tīkṣṇa), especially in matters related to taxation and punishment. The need for moderation in taxation is brought home through the use of many analogies. The king should be like a bee that sucks the nectar from flowers gradually. Just as a cow whose calf has sucked too much of her milk cannot do much work, similarly, a land that has been over- milked (over-taxed) cannot work. The paternalistic role of the king is frequently mentioned. The best king is one in whose kingdom people move about fearlessly, like children in their father’s house. There is also the idea of the king owing a debt (presumably to his subjects). The king’s duty to protect sometimes extends beyond his subjects toward all beings (sarva-bhūtāḥ).118

    The king of the Mahabharata acquires merit and heaven by protecting his subjects and ensuring their welfare. The transfer mechanism of merit and demerit is described thus: A king who protects his virtuous subjects gains one- fourth of the religious merit earned by them; one who does not protect virtuous subjects incurs their sin (pāpa).119 Those who help the king in protecting his subjects also earn a share in the subjects’ merit. Not only is protecting his people a way of attaining merit, it is the most efficacious way—a king gains one hundred times more merit by doing this than by following the sequence of the four stages of life or by living the life of a renunciant in the forest.120

    In his long lecture on kingship, Bhishma also discusses the administering of punishment (daṇḍa).121 He tells Yudhishthira that the royal rod was created by the god Brahma for the protection of the world in order that people would perform their proper duties. Daṇḍa is the origin of kingship, and everything depends on it. Using violent imagery, Bhishma describes it as a terrifying monster with many arms, legs, tusks, and eyes. Daṇḍa inspires fear in people, and this fear prevents them from killing one other. The king’s punishment is

    essential to prevent extreme social violence.

    But the king’s use of force in punishment must be measured and in accordance with proper judicial principles. Punishments should be systematic and proportionate to the crime; they can include censure, imprisonment, fines, banishment, bodily mutilation, and death, although banishment, corporeal punishment, and death should not be inflicted for minor infringements.122 If they commit wrong, no one, not even the king’s close kin and associates, should be spared from punishment. There is a connection between the king’s proper administration of justice and his afterlife. It is a simple one: A just king goes to heaven; an unjust one goes to hell.

    In line with the discussion of dharma in times of emergency (āpad-dharma), the king is permitted to do use fair or foul means to protect his person, people, and treasury when they are in danger. This includes seizing wealth from others, violence, and killing. Unlike others, who, in time of distress, can adopt the profession of another varṇa, the king cannot fall back on another vocation.123 He has no option but to be king.

    Kingship, Dharma, and Unhappiness

    Although the good guys ultimately win the war and the kingdom, the Mahabharata story is a very unhappy one. There are places where the pursuit of dharma is described as leading to various rewards, including happiness. But the narrative of the epic suggests the precise opposite. There is no happiness in store for the Pandavas, at least not in this life. Arjuna is the archetype of the skillful and dutiful but unhappy warrior. Yudhishthira is the archetype of the dutiful but unhappy king. Dharma seems to be irreconcilable with happiness, but then maybe happiness is an impossible goal.

    Although the struggle and desire for kingship underlie its entire narrative, Yudhishthira berates kingship:

    “I have not wanted the pleasures of kingship [rājya-sukha]. I have not wanted kingship, even for a second. I accepted kingship for the sake of dharma, but there is no dharma in it. Therefore I have had enough of kingship where there is no dharma. And because of my desire to follow dharma, I will go to the forest. There, in the fresh wilderness, having laid down the rod of force [daṇḍa], having attained mastery over my senses, as a sage living on roots and fruits, I will worship dharma.”124

    Yudhishthira’s statement that he has not wanted kingship even for an instant is not, strictly speaking, true. What he means is that he did not want kingship out of lust for power or luxuries but because it was his right (according to the rule of primogeniture). The main reason for his balking at being king and frequent threats to go off to the forest is that he recognizes, more than anyone else, the moral problems in the exercise of kingship and is not willing to easily accept instrumentalist reasoning and justification. He sees a conflict between dharma and kingship and is especially troubled by the violence that is inherent in the exercise of power. Yudhishthira ultimately emerges as a good king but not a perfect one; his chief imperfection is his vacillating and indecisive nature.

    The epic recognizes that even good men and good kings can fall prey to vices. It speaks of the four royal vices—drinking, gambling, womanizing, and hunting

    —which were to become topics of discussion and debate in ancient Indian political discourse. None of these activities was considered inappropriate in

    moderation; they became matters of concern when they veered into excess and addiction. And when that happened, they were no longer the king’s personal problem but a larger political problem that could have drastic consequences for the political system as a whole. Among the royal vices, the Mahabharata dwells most of all on gambling, and after that, on hunting. At various places in the epic, Krishna, Vidura, and, ironically, even Yudhishthira, dilate on the evils of gambling. Yudhishthira’s addiction to dicing and the fact that he had made a vow never to refuse to play lead directly to the disaster that unfolds. Even though he knows that the Kauravas will use trickery to defeat him in dicing, Yudhishthira wagers and loses all his riches, possessions, city, country, land, brothers, and wife to them. His defeat in the second dicing match leads to the Pandavas’ long exile.

    Duryodhana, evil and violent from his childhood, is the prime example of a bad man who is so overcome with jealousy and anger, and intoxicated with his own sense of entitlement and power, that he does not heed the repeated counsel of his kin and advisers to make peace with his cousins. He is a villain, even if he occasionally rises to some heights of nobility, especially just before his death. And yet, Duryodhana is not portrayed as a bad king. His killing is justified not on the grounds of the nature of his rule, but mainly by the fact that he had refused to give his cousins their fair share of their patrimony.

    After the rout of the Kauravas in the war, in Book 9 of the epic, an exhausted and wounded Duryodhana enters a lake and solidifies its waters. He refuses to come out from hiding, even when taunted, though eventually he does emerge to fight Bhima with clubs, a duel in which he is ultimately killed. The hiding in the lake is a curious episode, in which Duryodhana’s magical powers are on display.125 In fact, in its portrayal of the two major protagonists, Duryodhana and Yudhishthira, and the defeat of the former by the latter, the Mahabharata announces a significant change in the ideology of kingship. Duryodhana seems to represent an older idea of kingship in which brute force and the magico- religious powers associated with kingship are prominent. Yudhishthira represents a newer idea of kingship, in which politics struggles to come to terms with dharma, with ethics. If Yudhishthira often strikes us as weak and vacillating in his commitment to dharma, it is only if we think of dharma as a clear and absolute norm, which it never was. We get a dramatically different picture of

    Yudhishthira’s commitment to dharma when we compare him with Duryodhana, who does not seem to be bothered in the least by dharma-related dilemmas. With Yudhishthira, concerns with political ethics are here to stay. But the Mahabharata shows us that there can be no perfect king. It presents the many grey areas of political power, in a manner that is quite different from the Ramayana, and even more different from the strong idealization of kingship that we see in early Buddhist texts.

    The Problem of Violence

    The Mahabharata is pervaded by relentless violence. Apart from the main war, which is described in gory detail, there are many other battles. After the war, the Yadavas kill each other down to the last man, and even the god Krishna meets a violent death. It is ironic that one of the most violent stories in the ancient world contains a great deal of reflection on the problem of violence and much praise of nonviolence. This seems to have seeped in from the larger cultural milieu in which critiques of violence had made a strong impact. Buddhism and Jainism must have contributed in a major way toward the creation of such a milieu.

    The two important words in the epic’s treatment of the problem of violence are ahiṁsā and ānṛśaṁsya. Mukund Lath suggests that ānṛśaṁsya was a new word and idea and was much more important in this text than ahiṁsā.126 Ahiṁsā (nonviolence) was the ideal for the renunciant, and was impossible to practice in absolute terms while living a worldly life. Ānṛśaṁsya (Lath understands it as including goodwill, empathy, and fellow-feeling), on the other hand, was an ethic for worldly life. Both terms are mentioned as the “highest dharma” in the Mahabharata. Many other things are also mentioned as the “highest dharma”; these include truth, the Veda, following one’s spiritual teacher, honoring guests, and wealth. But, as Hiltebeitel points out, ānṛśaṁsya occurs most often, and like ahiṁsā, it too is discussed contextually and is not an absolute. It is expandable, emanates from the heart and emotion, and has much more positive connotations than ahiṁsā.127 However, in spite of all this, neither ahiṁsā nor ānṛśaṁsya constitutes the central message of the epic. To some extent, this is due to its inherently multivocal nature; the Mahabharata cannot be reduced to a single, central message. It does not lay down absolutes; instead, it recognizes the tensions between different alternative imperatives and perspectives.

    So it should not really come as a surprise that the Mahabharata abounds in contradictory statements about violence and nonviolence. As mentioned earlier, nonviolence is part of the dharma for all varṇas and on several occasions is described on as the greatest dharma (ahiṁsā paramo dharmaḥ).128 It is also said to be the highest form of self-control, liberality, austerity, sacrifice, strength, friendship, happiness, and truth.129 Practicing nonviolence and other virtues leads to heaven. An ideal Brahmana should not perform violent acts.

    Compassion and its variants (pity, sympathy, gentleness) are virtues that a king should possess. Yudhishthira, devoted to dharma, is described as ever free from cruelty (nityamānṛśaṁsya).130 The Bhagavadgita mentions nonviolence (ahiṁsā) as part of a list of virtues that comprise knowledge (jñāna).131

    But the epic is quite emphatic in asserting that an excess of a predilection for nonviolence is disastrous for a king. Bhishma warns the vacillating Yudhishthira of too much compassion:

    “Nothing great can be achieved through pure compassion [ānṛśaṁsya]. Further, people do not hold you in much respect for being gentle, self- controlled and excessively noble and righteous, a compassionate and righteous eunuch.… The behavior you want to follow is not the behavior of kings.”132

    His message is blunt and simple:

    “Be the king, win heaven, protect the virtuous, kill the wicked.”133

    Further, Bhishma tells Yudhishthira, absolute nonviolence is impossible. Nobody in the world has a livelihood that does not involve doing some amount of violence (hiṁsā). Even a sage wandering in the forest commits violence, so what is there to say of the king whose job it is to protect all creatures?134 The conversation between the Brahmana Kaushika and a hunter is even more instructive. The hunter works in a slaughterhouse and takes the Brahmana home. When the latter criticizes his occupation, the hunter states in a matter-of-fact way that it is his hereditary profession, and therefore his dharma. He also points out philosophically that life inevitably involves killing—even walking on the earth destroys creatures.135 While his birth as a hunter is ultimately revealed to be the result of wicked deeds performed in a past life, the bottom line is that one does not incur sin by violence that is connected to one’s hereditary calling.

    As mentioned earlier, one of the accounts of the origin of kingship in the Mahabharata has Manu not wanting to be king because of the cruel deeds he would have to perform while discharging his duties.136 What was the king to do? Arjuna tells Yudhishthira that the king’s force (daṇḍa) is necessary for the welfare of the world. In every action, there is both right and wrong. Kings do not

    attain glory without killing their enemies. All living creatures inflict some kind of harm on other creatures.

    “Beings live upon beings, the stronger upon the weaker. The mongoose eats mice, then the cat eats the mongoose, the dog eats the cat, a wild beast eats the dog, and a man eats all of these.… Everything here mobile and stationary is the food of life.”137

    While the Mahabharata from time to time lauds nonviolence as a didactic principle, the main story and the discourses on kingship leave no doubt that the king must not, cannot, practice nonviolence. The dominant view in the epic is that violence that is necessary to the performance of one’s hereditary calling, and therefore one’s duty, is justified. Absolute nonviolence is absolutely impossible. It is especially impossible for a king.

    How can a king with a conscience deal with the inevitability of political violence? Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that a kingdom is the worst scene of killing and a gentle man would not be able to bear it.138 Yudhishthira is tormented by this—since the king kills many people while engaged in war, kṣatra dharma (the dharma of a Kshatriya) is surely the most sinful of all dharmas. Bhishma seems to implicitly accept this point, but goes on to explain that this sin can be driven away by protecting the people and making them prosper, performing sacrifices, giving gifts, and through asceticism.139 So the violence inherent in kingship cannot be avoided, but it can be neutralized and atoned for.

    The epic does, however, distinguish between wanton, uncivilized violence and considered, necessary force and violence. There are violent people such as the dasyus and wild Ashanas (apparently a fierce tribe), who live a life marked by cruelty and violence (krūra-vṛtti).140 This uncivilized, wanton violence is qualitatively different from the necessary violence involved in inflicting punishment (daṇḍa) and the violence / anger (ugratva) that is the Kshatriya way.141 The god Krishna is one of the arch proponents of necessary violence throughout the epic. The filling of the royal treasury requires killing, and some collateral damage is inevitable, just as when a tree has to be cut for making a sacrificial post, other trees that lie in the way are also cut and fall.142 The king’s force is necessary, justified by its ends of maintaining order in the world.

    At the same time, there are warnings that the excessive violence of the king can lead to justified violence against him. Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that a king with a violent nature (sāhasa-prakṛti) perishes. Dharma and artha abandon the king who tolerates unrighteousness. A king who goes by the advice of wicked men who do not follow dharma strictly is a slayer of dharma and should be killed by the people. Such a king perishes, along with his associates. The arrogant king who does as he pleases, who does not pursue material gain, is destroyed swiftly, even though he may have conquered the whole earth.143 Even more blunt is the following statement:

    “A cruel king, who does not protect his people, who robs them in the name of levying taxes, is evil [Kali] incarnate and should be killed by his subjects. A king who, after declaring “I will protect you,” does not protect them, should be killed by his people coming together, as though he were a mad dog.”144

    So, in extreme circumstances, where the king violates his dharma in relation to his subjects, the Mahabharata sanctions regicide.

    The most powerful philosophical response to a whole range issues related to dharma, violence, war, and renunciation in the Mahabharata occurs in the Bhagavadgita (Song of the Lord), also known as the Gita. The Bhagavadgita is part of the sixth book of the epic, the Bhishma Parva; it is an important part of the great epic and also has a distinct identity within it.145 Usually dated between circa 200 BCE and 200 CE, it is assigned by a more recent study to the first century CE.146 The text has a dramatic narrative frame. The war is about to begin when Arjuna, surveying the enemy array in front of him and seeing his close kin, teachers, and friends in its midst, lays down his arms and declares that he will not fight. It is left to his charioteer, the god Krishna, to explain why he must indeed fight and to convince him to do his duty as a warrior.

    The Bhagavadgita is philosophically very rich and has inspired a great number of translations, commentaries, and interpretations.147 It weaves together strands from the philosophies of Samkhya, Yoga, and Vedanta with the ideas of duty and religious devotion (bhakti). The text can also be seen as Brahmanism’s response to Buddhism, a response marked by the acceptance and absorption of

    some Buddhist ideas (such as impermanence and suffering) as well as a strong rejection of others (such as the denial of the soul).148 The Bhagavadgita reconciles many seemingly irreconcilable elements, including dharma and mokṣa (deliverance from the cycle of birth and death). Its idea of karmayoga emphasizes the eternal nature of the ātman (self) and the importance of following one’s varṇa-dharma; it is the fruits of actions and not actions themselves that are to be renounced. And although Krishna’s long discourse to Arjuna is aimed at urging him to pick up his bow and enter what is going to be a violent, bloody war, the detached warrior must ultimately give up attachment to force (bala), along with his sense of ego, pride, desire, anger, and covetousness.149

    The relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita formed the model for a new relationship between devotees and the great god in early Hinduism.150 The text contains different ideas of god—an impersonal cosmic god who is the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the world, as well as a god who is immediate and worthy of devotion. These reflect monolatry—the worship of a god as the supreme god without denying the existence of other gods. This kind of religious belief coexisted in early Hinduism with polytheism and monism. Krishna is partially present in various aspects of the cosmos. He descends to earth from time to time and leads his devotees to liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. He is one among many gods, but he is the greatest among them all. This idea of a supreme god has important implications for the theory of kingship. Devoted subordination to a supreme god limits the power of the king but also empowers him. It is a reciprocal relationship. God and king are distanced from ordinary people as well as connected to them in a unique way.

    Why does Krishna address his soteriological discourse to Arjuna and not to

    Yudhishthira, the would-be king? It has been suggested that Arjuna is a temporary stand-in for the king.151 Another view is that the Bhagvadgita represents a response to the idea of absolute royal power (personified by Duryodhana) and announces that the king is both dependent on and responsible to the great, all-powerful god.152 However, Arjuna seems to stand primarily for the quintessential warrior and devotee. Even if the Bhagavadgita theology can be extended to the domain of kingship, we should remember that it was one of

    many ideas on the subject that exist within the Mahabharata.

    Kingship and Renunciation

    In a text whose central narrative is about a terrible war fought for the sake of a kingdom lies a frequent, powerful pull toward renunciation. Bhishma renounces kingship and takes a vow of lifelong celibacy out of devotion to his father Shantanu. But the tension between kingship and renunciation is best brought out in the character of Yudhishthira. Yudhishthira, who epitomizes dharma and kingship, spends a great deal of time after the war grieving about the enormous loss of life it has caused and over his own responsibility for the violence, especially for the killing of his kin. He frequently threatens to give up kingship and go off to the forest to take up a life of renunciation, and has to be repeatedly dissuaded from doing so.

    The tension between kingship and renunciation comes to the fore in a Pandava family conference soon after the war.153 Yudhishthira bitterly berates Kshatriya dharma and his desire for the kingdom, which has led to a violent disaster in which so many parents have lost their sons in the prime of life. He says that he wants to hand over the kingdom to Arjuna and retire to the forest. Arjuna tells him that he should not be weak, that he should fulfill his duties as king and perform the aśvamedha sacrifice. Bhima joins in and asks: What was the point of everything if Yudhishthira was going to ignore the dharma of kings and give everything up? Renunciation was all right in one’s old age or in a time of trouble, not now. Arjuna pitches in by helpfully offering a new definition of renunciation. He narrates a story about the god Indra, which shows that the highest form of asceticism consists in performing the duties of a householder and eating the remnants of food served to others. Yudhishthira’s twin brothers, Nakula and Sahadeva, and wife, Draupadi, are also against the idea of his retiring to the forest and urge him to perform his duties toward his subjects and Brahmanas. The bottom line is that for Kshatriyas and kings, renunciation as life’s final stage in the āśrama scheme is acceptable, but renunciation adopted in the prime of life is not. The sage Vyasa—whose words carry great weight in the epic—says:

    “Oh great king! The inflicting of punishment, and not the shaven head [of the renunciant], is the dharma of the Kshatriya.”154

    The epic tries to reconcile the constant pull between kingship and renunciation in various ways. One is through the model of the royal sage (rājarṣi). There are several royal sages who are so powerful due to their performance of austerities that even the gods dread them. Vasu Uparichara, king of the Chedi kingdom, is one of them.155 The god Indra fears that he might rival his own rank and persuades him to abandon his austerities and go back to his kingly ways, throwing some very desirable gifts into the deal. Janaka, another king-turned-sage, is also persuaded to abandon his austerities and go back to his kingly ways. Kings should be kings. The rājarṣi model that is approved of is that of the king who represents ascetic values while continuing to discharge his royal duties.

    The epic ends with Yudhishthira ultimately taking the path of voluntary retirement from life, but it is only after he has discharged his duties as king for over thirty-six years. The five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi renounce worldly life, and embark on a long journey, absorbed in yoga, ultimately reaching heaven. So renunciation is ultimately required, but only after fulfilling all one’s worldly duties. It is the only way to reach the highest goal, variously described as heaven, oneness with brahman, or the supreme release.

    The Mahabharata as a whole delineates a new model of kingship and announces a new-age king who embodies many apparently irreconcilable attributes. Bhishma—himself a representative of the warrior of the old age— describes this new age king as one who is

    “a bold and brave warrior, who is compassionate, who has conquered his senses, and who affectionately shares the bounty.”156

    This model king is devoted to the practice and upholding of dharma, practices sweet speech, gentleness, self-control and nonviolence. A redefinition of asceticism allows, in fact, requires, the king to be temperamentally an ascetic. In the discussion on what is superior—asceticism (tapas) or sacrifice (yajña)— Bhishma gives primacy to asceticism, but redefines it as consisting of nonviolence (ahiṁsā), truthful speech (satya-vacana), compassion (ānṛśaṁsya), self-control (dama), and kindness (ghṛṇā). This, not emaciating the body, is true asceticism.157 The Bhagavadgita gives a much more detailed philosophical

    justification of political violence, specifically war, as well as a powerful argument that true renunciation consists of the renunciation of the fruits of actions, not of actions themselves (this will be discussed in Chapter 4). Kingship and renunciation are no longer polar opposites; they are blended together in the figure of the new-age king.

    It has been suggested that the central message of the Mahabharata, which tells a tale of extreme violence, is that nonviolence and compassion are the highest duties of an individual.158 Not really. The epic in fact has no central message. But among many other things, it does suggest that for a king, absolute nonviolence is undesirable and impossible; so is happiness; so is perfection.

    Politics in the Ramayana

    The heroes of the Mahabharata and Ramayana face a similar problem: They are deprived of their rightful political inheritance because of the ambition and deceit of rival kin. But they deal with it in very different ways. The Ramayana is set in the middle Ganga valley in the kingdom of Kosala with its capital at Ayodhya. King Dasharatha has four sons—Rama, Bharata, Lakshmana, and Shatrughna. Rama is the eldest, but the machinations of his stepmother, queen Kaikeyi, who wants to promote the interests of her own son Bharata, lead to his facing a twelve-year exile in the forest. Unlike the Pandavas, who are ready to resort to violence to claim their political right, Rama gives up his right to the throne and heads to the forest accompanied by his devoted brother, Lakshmana, and wife, Sita. Love and fidelity have prevented the outbreak of political conflict among the princes of the kingdom of Kosala, but during their exile in the forest, Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. This leads to the outbreak of a terrible war. Rama ultimately wins the war and returns to Ayodhya to become king.

    The Ramayana is both a family melodrama and a political text. Political ambitions lie at the heart of the story, but these are the ambitions of a younger queen, Kaikeyi. No other member of the house of Kosala is tainted by ambition, certainly not Rama, whose right to become king (he is the eldest son) is passed over as a result of Kaikeyi’s machinations, and not even Bharata, the one who gains the most as a result. Rama’s and Bharata’s refusal to accept the kingdom— due to filial and fraternal loyalty, respectively—makes the Ramayana a political tale that is very different from the Mahabharata. However, under the surface of the image of an almost perfect royal household, the Ramayana reveals awareness of political conflicts and anxieties.

    The political geography of the Ramayana is a mixture of reality, myth, and fantasy, with the latter two increasing taking over as the story’s locale moves southward. The three important kingdoms—those of Kosala, Kishkindha, and Lanka—are inhabited by three different kinds of beings. Kosala, ruled from Ayodhya by kings of the Ikshvaku lineage, is one among many kingdoms of humans. Kishkindha (the geographical location of which is the subject of debate) is a kingdom of monkeys (vānaras), ruled over at different times by Vali and

    Sugriva, and transports us to a world tinged with folk fantasy.159 Lanka, which is traditionally identified with the modern island of Sri Lanka, is a kingdom of demons, ruled over by the powerful and arrogant king Ravana. All three kingdoms have certain things in common. They have magnificent capital cities with opulent palaces. Lanka matches Ayodhya in physical splendor, although not in terms of the righteousness of its people and its prince. The protocol and administrative infrastructure of all three kingdoms have similar elements. And the rulers of all three kingdoms are part of a web of kinship relations marked by affection as well as succession conflicts.

    This epic also very strongly emphasizes primogeniture. Rama is considered the rightful heir to the kingdom because he is the eldest son. Primogeniture also rules in the kingdom of Lanka. But in Kishkindha, this principle is overturned, and Rama supports the claims of the younger brother, Sugriva. The justification Rama offers is that although Vali was older, he had committed the crime of having sex with Sugriva’s wife. Nevertheless, this justification is not accepted easily in the Ramayana tradition, and Rama’s support of Sugriva’s claim to the throne of Kishkindha and more so, the manner in which he kills Vali by shooting an arrow into his back, cast a shadow over his trademark rectitude.

    While the Mahabharata offers a new model of kingship, its complex characters do not really appear to be great role models. The Ramayana, on the other hand, offers many models of exemplary behavior. Rama is the ideal son and king, and his wife, Sita, the ideal wife. While there is a certain amount of stereotyping of positive and negative characters, they are not entirely black and white. Ravana and his siblings are sons of the great sage, Pulastya, who is the son of the god Brahma. Many of the demons are ugly, violent, flesh-eating creatures, wont to disrupting the sacrifices of the sages. There are some noble ones who worship the gods and perform austerities and Vedic sacrifices. Ravana himself is a great devotee of the god Shiva. But the overall portrayal of the demons definitely tilts toward the negative. Although some of them perform sacrifices, as a group, they do not respect the sacrificial order; some of them may be moral, but as a collectivity, they are not committed to the moral order.

    As in the Mahabharata, the unfolding of the Ramayana story is presented as part of a divine plan. Rama, his brothers, and the vānaras are created as part of this divine plan. We are told that the gods, sages, gandharvas (celestial beings),

    and siddhas (demigods) approached the god Brahma and told him that the wicked demon Ravana was oppressing them all; he obstructed their activities; his roars disrupted the ascetics’ meditation. He was able to do all this with impunity because he had sought and received a boon from Brahma that he could not be killed by any god, gandharva, yakṣa (a demigod), or demon. Due to his contempt for humans, Ravana did not seek to be made invulnerable to them. For this reason, Brahma observed, he could be killed only by a human. The god Vishnu arrived on the scene, and the gods beseeched him to divide himself into four parts and take birth on earth as the offspring of king Dasharatha and his three wives. Dasharatha was performing a grand horse sacrifice in order to obtain a son and heir, and this was followed by a special son-producing sacrifice. A mighty resplendent being arose out of the sacrificial fire and, handing a bowl of divine rice pudding (pāyasa) to the king, told him that he should offer it to his three queens. The king gave half the pudding to Kausalya, one-third to Sumitra, one-eighth to Kaikeyi, and the rest to Sumitra. The four brothers—Rama, Bharata, and the twins, Lakshmana and Shatrughna—who were born to the three queens were parts of Vishnu. The vānaras—marvelous beings in the form of monkeys—were created by Vishnu at the instructions of Brahma in order to help Rama. It was an incredible mission—a demon who could not be killed by the gods was to be killed by a man, or rather a god in the form of a man. During the ensuing events, the gods appear at various points of time as observers and interveners. They are spectators of Rama’s war against Ravana. When Rama publicly questions Sita’s chastity, and she undergoes an ordeal by fire, the gods intervene, and urge him not to humiliate his innocent wife as though he were an ordinary man. When Rama asks the profound question, “Who am I?,” it is the gods who reveal to him his divinity and his divine mission.

    While some scholars argue that Rama was transformed from a mortal hero into an incarnation (avatāra) of god Vishnu at a later stage in the development of the epic, others hold that he was considered divine from the very beginning. Direct assertions of Rama’s divinity are concentrated in the first and last books of the Ramayana. For the most part, Rama remains charmingly unaware of his godliness. Nevertheless, he is divine, and the nature and quality of his divinity are very different from those of the Pandava brothers in that he is a god who is the focus of devotion.

    Like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana muses on the efficacy of human endeavor and the question of human responsibility in view of the inevitability of fate (daiva), the law of karma, and the power of curses and boons. The two villains of the Ramayana are the queen mother Kaikeyi and the demon Ravana. Both are eventually exonerated in the epic through the argument that they were not personally responsible for their wicked deeds; they were simply doing what they were fated to do. At one point, the brothers Rama and Lakshmana have a debate on fate versus human effort and the use of violence to secure one’s right.160 Lakshmana argues that only the weak and cowardly invoke fate. He asserts that he himself is stronger than fate and urges Rama to have himself consecrated king; he will kill all those who come in the way. Rama is unmoved by these arguments and asserts that he is steadfast in obeying his father’s command because that is the path of the good. He strongly defends fate and says that Kaikeyi should not be blamed for what has happened.161 Everything that had transpired was fated to happen. Rama ends the debate by telling Lakshmana that no one is his own master. Fate determines everything. This is the Ramayana’s ultimate position on the matter.

    At the end of the epic, Rama is a paramount king. His far-flung dominion is symbolized by the fact that water from the four oceans and five hundred rivers is used for his consecration ceremony. He is overlord not only of all the human kingdoms but also those of the vānaras and of the demons. The epic attaches great importance to the horse sacrifice (aśvamedha) as the premier rite of political paramountcy, and Rama performs not one but one hundred.162

    Rama—Good King and God-King

    Dharma is a central positive principle in the Ramayana, and the main story line advocates that it is not to be questioned or doubted beyond a point. There are many people who, because of their personal qualities or their station, exemplify dharma. Rama is the preeminent epitome of dharma and its upholder. But there are many others, including certain wise animals, who know it and are devoted to it. Following dharma does not necessarily lead to happiness. But it does have an efficacy, and its fruits include attaining heaven.

    Rama is devoted to dharma and is the best of would-be-kings and kings. The king is the protector of the earth, but on several occasions, kingship is said to be a burden. For instance, when Rama hands over the reigns of kingship to Bharata, the latter exclaims,

    “What strength have I to bear such a burden? I am like a calf before a load only a great ox can draw.”163

    Like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana promotes the ideal of the sage-like king (rājarṣi). Rama, the ideal king-designate, is like a ṛṣi (sage) in his devotion to dharma. He gives up his kingdom for dharma and goes to the forest without regret or rancor, saying that he does not desire wealth or power.

    Can Rama, a god-king, form a role model for mortal kings? He can, because the problems and dilemmas he faces are utterly human, as are their resolutions. The importance of Rama’s characterization arises not merely from his being an ideal king or even a god. It arises from his being the ideal man, who can be emulated by all men, including kings. The Ramayana begins with Valmiki asking the sage Narada who is the best among humans, and latter’s answer is Rama. Apart from the fact that he is the eldest son, Rama’s claims to kingship are also based on the fact that he embodies the qualities of perfection of an ideal man and an ideal king. These include filial piety, the absence of personal ambition or desire for power, and equanimity in the face of extreme adversity. Central to the epic’s main narrative is that he always keeps his word, even if it involves enormous personal sacrifice. Ravana is Rama’s alter ego. Although he has some positive qualities, they are outweighed by the negative ones—he is arrogant, cruel, prone to anger, attached to drinking and sensual pleasures, and

    lusts after other men’s wives. This last one proves to be his fatal flaw.164

    The Ramayana’s idea of the ideal kingdom is encapsulated in the description of Rama’s rule.165 The king performed many sacrifices, together with his friends, brothers, and kin. These include the great ones such as the aśvamedha, vājapeya, and pauṇḍarīka, performed not once but many times (the aśvamedha one hundred times). During Rama’s rule, nature was beneficent—the rains came at the right time, the breeze was always pleasant, and trees were always laden with flowers and fruit. People lived for thousands of years and had thousands of sons. Elders never had to perform funeral rites for their progeny, nor were there any mourning widows. There was no fear of snakes or thieves. People lived free from sorrow, disease, and misfortune and never harmed one another. The people looked up to Rama as a model.

    Under Rama’s rule, his people pursued their own proper occupations and were content with performing their own duties. Devoted to dharma, they always adhered to the truth. All were endowed with auspicious marks, all were devoted to dharma. Thus did Rama rule his kingdom for ten thousand years.166

    The king of the Ramayana is a paternalistic protector of his people and a maintainer of the social order. This is why in Book 7, Rama kills the Shudra Shambuka, who, contrary to varṇa norms, has taken to performing austerities. But through most of the epic, Rama’s relationship with his subjects is described as one of mutual love. Rama is not attached to the power of kingship, but he is attached to his subjects. When asked by the gods to return to heaven to protect them, his sense of duty toward his subjects impels him to first complete his tasks on earth. The people are given a much greater importance in the Ramayana than in the Mahabharata, perhaps more importance than in any other ancient Indian text. After killing Ravana, Rama shines on the battlefield, surrounded by his people, as Indra is surrounded by the gods. Public opinion assumes paramount importance with tragic personal consequences once Rama becomes king. When the common people cast aspersions on queen Sita’s chastity as she had been forced to spend a considerable amount of time in Ravana’s clutches in Lanka, he cannot bear the gossip and rather than remaining the subject of scandal, orders

    Lakshmana to take away and abandon the pregnant queen in the hermitage of the sage Valmiki.

    Although Rama is presented as an ideal man and ideal king, in the larger Ramayana tradition, two events raise questions about his righteousness. One is his killing Vali and the other is his abandoning Sita. Perhaps it is these two chinks in his armor that save him from utter and tedious perfection and give the story an important element of tension and pathos. But the flaws of the bad king are best illustrated in the delineation of the character of Ravana—arrogance and licentiousness.

    Dharma does occasionally come in for questioning in the Ramayana. One of the most eloquent critiques comes from Lakshmana, when the battle against the powerful demons is raging. Rama faints from grief when Hanuman tells him that Indrajit had killed Sita (Indrajit had actually created an illusion of Sita). Cradling his brother in his arms, Lakshmana laments that dharma has not been able to protect him; it is useless and not conducive to happiness. Dharma should not be practiced to the exclusion of the other goals of human existence. Artha is greater than dharma. The fact that Rama, the great adherent and practitioner of dharma, has undergone so much suffering, raises questions about the power of virtue.

    Going even further, Lakshmana says

    “Since we cannot directly perceive dharma in the same way that we perceive still and moving objects, my opinion is that it does not exist.”167

    It is a long and passionate critique, but it does not represent the view of the epic’s protagonist.

    Kingship, Violence, and Love

    The Ramayana tells us that the genesis of the shloka meter (in which it is composed) lay in the poet Valmiki’s intense, spontaneous outpouring of grief and compassion when a Nishada hunter killed the male of a pair of sweet-voiced kraunca birds. The god Brahma told him to compose the story of Rama in that very meter.168 Compassion is also important in other places in the epic. Rama is willing to, and does, resort to violence to rescue his abducted wife (the war will be discussed in Chapter 4). But otherwise, there are several places in the Ramayana where violence is decried. One of these is the story of king Sagara’s sons, which connects kingship, sacrifice, and violence.169 While looking for the king’s sacrificial horse, which has been stolen by the god Indra, the princes violently dig up the earth with their hands and ploughs and kill its creatures, including the serpents and demons. The earth cries out in pain, and Brahma intervenes to stop the carnage. Another incident that connects violence with misfortune takes place when prince Dasharatha kills an ascetic while on a hunting expedition on the banks of the Sarayu river. It is this act of violence that leads to the ascetic’s father’s curse that Dasharatha will die grieving for his own son, a curse that was to plunge the royal house of Kosala into a crisis.

    The threat of the use of violence to wrest political power hovers on the fringes of the narrative. When he delays Rama’s consecration by one fateful day, Dasharatha hints at the possibility of his changing his mind and that Bharata might challenge Rama’s elevation. In these circumstances, was queen Kaikeyi’s maid, Manthara (who suggested to her the strategy to elevate Bharata to the throne), wicked or simply worldly-wise? Lakshmana in fact urges Rama to use force and seize the kingdom. He says that there is no need to honor the promise of a father who appears to be in his second childhood. Rama’s mother, Kausalya, too, is not averse to the idea; she urges Rama to refuse to go into exile, stay in Kosala, and fulfill his duty toward her, his mother. But Rama replies that obeying the father is the family tradition and refuses to use violence in order to seize the kingdom. Addressing Lakshmana, he says:

    “So abandon this way of thinking based on the noble kshatra dharma. Think like me and follow dharma, not violence [taikṣṇya].”170

    Later, when Bharata comes to the forest to meet Rama, Lakshmana doubts his motives and offers to kill him and Kaikeyi. Killing someone who has caused one harm, he argues, does not violate dharma. But Rama has complete faith in Bharata’s loyalty and tells Lakshmana to desist—a son cannot kill his father, nor a brother his brother. Unlike the heroes of the Mahabharata, Rama is unwilling to use violence against his kin for the sake of the kingdom. The violence he later initiates is to rescue his wife, Sita, from the demon Ravana.

    Powerful, intense love drives the Ramayana, mitigates the elements of conflict and violence, and gives it its enormous appeal. The reciprocal love between Rama and the people of Ayodhya stands out. It is the all-important emotional glue that holds the political story together. The people’s hearts overflow with love for Rama. Rama loves the people and shares in their joys and sorrows as though he were their father. The people spontaneously express their reactions to the unfolding events and echo the feelings of the main characters. They follow Rama’s chariot, clinging to it when he leaves Ayodhya, refusing to turn back even after Dasharatha does. They lament that their lives are over, as they will never see Rama again. Rama is the savior of people and leads them to heaven. But Rama’s relationship of love extends beyond his subjects to all beings. Rama loves all creatures and all creatures love him. He has compassion for all creatures, even inanimate beings, and they, in turn, are devoted to him. Rama is the refuge of all beings (śaraṇyaḥ sarvabhūtānām). This is no ordinary love; it leads to salvation.

    Although the performance of the horse sacrifice at the end of the Ramayana represents a claim to political paramountcy, Rama gets his magnificence not from being the mightiest monarch among kings, but due to his strong commitment to duty—to his father and to his people—and the unique reciprocal love that he shares with all beings. This is brought out graphically at the end of the epic. After Lakshmana’s death, when Rama wants to give up kingship and retire to the forest, Vasishtha tells him to ascertain the people’s opinion on the matter. They tell Rama that they want to accompany him wherever he goes. The procession that makes its way to the Sarayu river is preceded by the sacred fires. Behind the fires walks Rama, dressed in white, carrying sacred kusha grass in his hands, reciting mantras. He is accompanied by the goddess of royal prosperity and the earth goddess. Behind them are Rama’s bow and arrows in

    human form; the Vedas in the form of Brahmanas; the god Savitri; and the sacred syllables. All the people of Ayodhya—town and country folk, high and low, young and old—walk behind them. The magnificent, joyous procession is very different from the Pandavas’ last lonely journey.

    The Two Registers of Dharma

    Before ending this discussion, we need to acknowledge another source that speaks eloquently about the evolution of the ideas of kingship that we have been tracing through texts and inscriptions—coinage. The dynastic affiliations of early punch-marked silver coins and copper-cast coins are not certain, but the symbols on them are revealing. The motifs stamped on the early coins display a preponderance of animals and auspicious symbols. Among the animals, the elephant, humped bull, lion, and horse (the very animals that adorn the abacus of the Ashoka’s Sarnath capital!) dominate. The wheel—that potent and multivalent symbol—also occurs. Anthropomorphic figures gradually make their appearance, and most of them seem to represent gods and goddesses.

    It is intriguing that the figure of the king seems to be virtually absent on punch-marked coins, unless some of the anthropomorphic figures actually represent kings, not deities, or unless there is deliberate ambiguity. A silver punch-marked coin that may belong to the Maurya period bears what is possibly a direct representation of royalty.171 It has three figures: Do they represent a king along with his consorts, possibly even Ashoka? Another striking piece of numismatic evidence comes from an early cast-copper coin type of Ujjain in western India, dated to the second century BCE or earlier. It shows a female figure flanked by two men, one of whom carries a bow. Is it possible that they represent Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana?172 If so, we have numismatic proof of the importance of Ramayana imagery in the political domain at a very early date.

    Ashoka’s inscriptions give the earliest testimony of the awareness of the problem of political violence, both in its internal application toward subjects (punishment, incarceration) and its external application toward other states and forest people (war), but these issues were also the subject of reflection in many other texts. The Mahabharata demonstrates the clear and close connections between intra-lineage contests for power and war, and broods on the violence inherent in the quest for kingship. The texts discussed in this chapter were foundational to the way in which Indian political discourse evolved over the succeeding centuries. Although they have a distinctiveness in their philosophical moorings, perspective, and emphasis, they also share certain common concerns and ideas. They recognize the role of the king as a mediator between human

    society, nature, and the gods; they make analogies between the goodness of the king and the prosperity of the realm; and they allude to ideas of the king’s magico-religious powers.173 But more important is the fact that they represent the earliest attempts to anchor kingship in a discourse of morality and duty, and they recognize the problem of cruelty and violence in the exercise of political power, especially in relation to taxation and punishment. They introduce the idea of the paramount king who combines extensive conquest with exceptional martial and moral qualities. However, the use of the specific term cakravartin for this paramount king is highlighted more in the Buddhist than the epic tradition, perhaps because the term had acquired a strong Buddhist imprint.

    The idea of cruel kings meeting a bad end is pervasive in the Indian tradition. Bhima kills Duryodhana; Rama kills Ravana. But neither Duryodhayana nor Ravana is a bad king. They are portrayed as villains in terms of certain negative traits of their character (though they also have some positive traits). Their killing is justified on the grounds of their having transgressed the rights of their rivals— in one case political, in the other case, personal. We have also seen how many texts (the Mahabharata stands out in this regard) brood over the burdens, dilemmas, and inherent violence of kingship. The discourse ultimately justifies and exalts the institution of kingship, but the questioning and critique of political violence are never completely extinguished.

    All the texts discussed in this chapter were highly influential in the long run. The political ideals of the early Buddhist canon were to exercise a strong impact all over the Asian Buddhist world. This is also the case with the legend of Ashoka, whose epigraphic voice was smothered by Buddhist myth and adulation. Within the Indian subcontinent, as we shall see in Chapter 2, it was the epics that had the most powerful long-term impact on Indian political discourse. In its description of the rule of Rama, the Ramayana presents a model of an ideal king ruling an ideal kingdom. The Mahabharata talks about the problems and dilemmas of kingship using a much more sophisticated and evolved political vocabulary than the Ramayana or early Buddhist texts. Whether the epic composers were borrowing from the ideas and writings of political theorists or vice versa is not clear.

    What was the relationship between the Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jaina political discourses? The negative imaging of mendicants in the Mahabharata

    suggests a relationship of tension between its Brahmana composers and the Buddhist, possibly also Jaina, monastic orders. Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that a monk does not become a monk (bhikṣuka) merely by the outward form of leaving the householder’s life, by shaving his head, and by begging. Those bald men who abandon the Veda, their occupations, and their families, wear ochre robes, and travel around to receive gifts and pursue idle enjoyments—they are not true renunciants, nor are they truly free. They merely display the flag of dharma.174 Bhishma advises Yudhishthira that there should be no beggars (this would probably also have included religious mendicants) or barbarians (dasyus) in his kingdom.175 Further, an abundance of monks and ascetics is one of the features in Bhishma’s description of a kingless state of chaos.176

    But the fact that certain characters, episodes, and ideas in the Sanskrit epics

    also occur in the Buddhist and Jaina traditions alerts us to other aspects of the cultural conversations of the times. Rama and Sita feature in the Buddhist Dasharatha Jataka (the Jatakas are stories of the previous lives of the Buddha), except that here, they are brother and sister. Stories about king Mandhatri and Shibi became part of the larger storehouse of tales about legendary kings. Debates over kingship, dharma, and violence are found in all traditions. The element of intertextuality has been recognized in the case of the Mahabharata, which has been seen as a Brahmanical response to the challenge presented by Buddhism and Ashoka.177 Ideas of merit and sin, heaven and hell cut across religious traditions and are important parts of Ashoka’s political discourse. Buddhist resonances can be seen in the Mahabharata’s repeated reference to human suffering; its linking of ignorance, desire, greed, and sorrow; its rejection of extreme asceticism; and in the statement that knowledge is like a raft.178 In the Ramayana too, while consoling his brother Lakshmana, Rama expresses a pessimistic view of life, ruminating about the inevitability of old age, decrepitude, and death.

    “Death walks by your side, death sits next to you. Even if you travel far away, death will come back with you.”179

    Another interesting parallel with Buddhism is the reference to the wheel of dharma, present from the very beginning of time. Bhishma urges Yudhishthira to

    make people turn on that wheel.180 The Ramayana also refers to the wheel of dharma along with the god Vishnu’s wheel and the wheel of time.181

    Whether we are looking at Brahmanical borrowings from Buddhism and

    Jainism or whether all these traditions were absorbing elements from a common pool of circulating ideas is a question that is difficult to answer with certainty. It was probably a bit of both. The emphasis on compassion and nonviolence in the Brahmanical tradition (of which the epics are a part) may have been an outcome of an interface not only with Buddhism but also with Jainism. However, a certain amount of questioning, including ruminations on violence and asceticism, was, no doubt, also going on independently among the Brahmanical intelligentsia.

    There were two registers of dharma, including the dharma of the king—one absolute, the other contextual—and both were acknowledged. That the former was not lost sight of is clear from the fact that Yudhishthira pays a heavy price for the one lie he told in his life, in order to kill Drona, and the fact that Rama’s killing of Vali continued to haunt his reputation for centuries. Nonviolence was a part of the ethics of the early Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jaina traditions, with much greater importance in the latter two. But in all three traditions, it was part of a larger set of ethical precepts, a means to a higher end, related to the ideas of karma and merit, heaven and hell. And it was not enough to attain the highest goal, mokṣa, which lay beyond distinctions of violence and nonviolence, beyond all morality.

    There was a recognition that the king’s duties necessitated the use of a certain amount of force, and the texts debate how this necessity could be measured. Political violence remained a reality that aroused unease and concern, and a problem to which there was no clear or easy solution. In the midst of the various discussions and deliberations on violence and nonviolence, it is one voice and one voice alone that resounds with strong conviction across the centuries, firm and unwavering—that of Ashoka. But notwithstanding his repeated exhortations about nonviolence toward all beings as part of the way of life that leads to merit and heaven, in his warning to the forest people and his retention of capital punishment, Ashoka expresses his realization that absolute nonviolence could not be practiced by a king.



    IN 187 BCE, Pushyamitra Shunga, the Brahmana commander in chief of the Maurya army, staged a swift and decisive military coup, killing king Brihadratha while the latter was inspecting his troops. Pushyamitra is said to have performed the great aśvamedha, or horse sacrifice, a complex and violent Vedic sacrifice whose hallmark was the free roaming of the sacrificial horse for a year, accompanied by armed men ready to battle all who dared impede its progress. The horse seems to have represented kṣatra, or royal dominion. This “king of sacrifices” was associated with claims to political paramountcy and was believed to bestow victory on the king and fertility and prosperity on his realm.1 Rama and Yudhishthira had performed it, but several later Vedic texts describe it as having fallen out of vogue (utsanna). Pushyamitra’s association with the aśvamedha and legends of his persecution of Buddhist monks are sometimes seen as reflective of a powerful Brahmanical reaction against the Mauryas’ patronage of Jainism and Buddhism.

    The end of the Maurya empire coincided with a series of invasions from the

    northwest. Between the second century BCE and first century CE, the Bactrian Greeks, initially subordinates of the Seleucid empire of West Asia, established their independence and pressed south of the Hindu Kush to found the Indo- Greek kingdom. From the first century BCE, the consolidation of the Chinese empire led to upheavals and tribal movements in Central Asia, and armies of the Shakas, Pahlavas, and then the Kushanas crossed the northwestern mountains and entered the subcontinent. Although Afghanistan remained the center of their empire, the Kushana kings extended their political control from the Indus valley up to Mathura. The viceroys of the Shaka–Pahlavas, known as Kshatrapas, ruled in western India, the two most important lines being the Kshaharatas and Kardamakas. The Chedi dynasty established itself in Kalinga in eastern India,

    while the Satavahanas were the major political force in the Deccan. Farther south, the Chola, Chera, and Pandya kings held their own in the midst of a multitude of warring chieftains (see Map 3).The numerous invasions, inter- dynastic wars, and continuing conflicts between states and forest tribes reflect a significant increase in the theaters and intensity of political violence between circa 200 BCE and 300 CE.

    The discourse on kingship sharpened, expanded, and evolved in important ways at the cusp of the new millennium. Treatises on politics (arthaśāstra) dealt with the use of force and violence by and against the king in unprecedented detail. A new textual genre known as kāvya (literature) was born. Royal inscriptions increased in number, cutting across dynasty and region, and their eulogies (praśastis) expressed an increasingly defined and refined political ideology. The earliest clear representations of kings appeared in sculptural and numismatic art. This chapter discusses these momentous centuries, with a special focus on the discussion and representation of the king’s force and violence in political discourse.

    The Arthashastra: Politics as the Art of Material Gain

    Kautilya, the putative author of the Arthashastra, has often been compared with the fifteenth–sixteenth-century Italian Machiavelli, author of Il Principe (The Prince). Given their relative chronological position, it makes more sense to describe Machiavelli as the Italian Kautilya. However, even a cursory glance at the two works shows that apart from the vast chronological and cultural gulf that separates them, Machiavelli’s vision of politics and the state pales in comparison with Kautilya’s, both in terms of conceptualization and detail.

    MAP 3 Dynasties of India, c. 200 BCE–300 CE

    From Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India from the Stone Age to the 12th century; Courtesy: Pearson India Education Services Pvt. Ltd.

    Ashoka became a victim of his fame and was set in stone as a pious Buddhist king. Kautilya, on the other hand, became a victim of his notoriety. Branded as the arch proponent of realpolitik, in which the ends justify the means, the Arthashastra needs to be understood within the context of the ideas of its time.2 Its apparent amoral unscrupulousness can be seen as an attempt to define politics from the perspective of the king’s political and material gain. Kautilya defined a political sphere, injected a strong dose of pragmatic reason and argument into political discourse, and made a strong case for the regulation and perhaps even

    mitigation of the random violence and capriciousness that must have characterized ancient states.

    The text, written in compact prose interspersed with some verses, consists of fifteen books (adhikaraṇas), divided into 150 sections (adhyāyas) and 180 topics (prakaraṇas). There are differences of opinion about its date. Some scholars think that its compositional history may go back to the Maurya period, with later interpolations and changes over the later centuries. They accept the idea that the author Kautilya can be identified with Chanakya, minister of the Maurya king Chandragupta, who played a critical role in the replacement of Nanda rule by that of the Mauryas. On the other hand, others date the Arthashastra to the early centuries CE. Patrick Olivelle has suggested that while the prehistory of the work may go back to the mid-first century BCE, the first major redaction was composed between circa 50 and 125 CE, and the second one between circa 175 and 300 CE.3

    In view of the continuing debate over its age, it is best to treat the Arthashastra as a text whose composition ranged over several centuries, before and after the turn of the millennium. I will treat the text as a unitary whole, examining its entire range of ideas instead of trying to carve it up into different chronological layers.4 When I refer to “Kautilya,” I use the name as a short-hand for the various authors (including, probably, one named Kautilya) who must have contributed to creating the text that has come down to us. The text’s fame and the formidable reputation acquired by its author point to the fact that it addressed issues of great practical political concern and import over a very long period of time, influencing political thought not only in the Indian subcontinent, but also in Southeast Asia.

    The Discipline of Political Economy

    Much of the misunderstanding of the Arthashastra arises from a lack of recognition of what it is—a theoretical treatise (śāstra) that claims to lay down norms not for a particular king or state but for all time to come. Moreover, the fact that it is a theoretical treatise on artha means that its author was obliged to discuss statecraft from the specific perspective and goals of artha in the broad sense of material gain. Kautilya speaks of the need to balance the goals of human existence, known as the puruṣārthas, but for him,

    Artha [material well-being] is supreme because dharma [righteousness] and kāma [sensual pleasure] are dependent on it.5

    The Arthashastra explicitly presents itself as based on a combination of theoretical knowledge (śāstra) and practice (prayoga).6 Kautilya tells us that he had made these rules of governance for the sake of kings after having gone through all the treatises on the subject and after having acquired an understanding of practice.7 Apart from kings, the audience of the text must have included members of the political elite, including high-ranking officials and courtiers. Addressing this audience was a text that laid down basic principles of governance from the perspective of the interests of the king and the state.8

    In order to understand Kautilya’s contribution to Indian political thought, it is necessary to reconstruct the debate in which he intervened. Tradition was important in the Indian śāstric discourse, and Kautilya acknowledges and invokes it. The opening invocation in the Arthashastra (to Shukra and Brihaspati, preceptors of the demons and the gods) is immediately followed by the statement that this work had been prepared mostly by putting together the arthaśāstras composed by earlier experts for the acquisition and protection of the earth.9 At various places in the text, Kautilya refers to the opinions of specific authorities as well as the experts (ācāryas) collectively, and positions himself vis-à-vis their ideas, very often through disagreement.10 The topics where many authorities are frequently cited and which were evidently subjects of heated debate include crime and punishment; the appointment of counselors and ministers; the calamities (vyasanas) of the state; the powers (śaktis) of the king; and war.

    But there are many sections in the Arthashastra where very few authorities are cited. These include those on topics dealing with the king and princes in Book 1, such as the discipline and training of the prince; the control of the senses; the life of a sage-like king; the appointment of ministers and the royal chaplain; secret agents; winning over seducible and non-seducible parties in the enemy’s territory; rules for envoys; the conduct of a prince in disfavor; rules for the king’s conduct; regulations for the royal residence; and the protection of the king’s person. Book 2, a long book that discusses the responsibilities of the heads of administrative departments and state control over and participation in the economy, refers to specific authorities only in relation to one issue (fines on officials who cause loss of revenue). Furthermore, there are entire books where there is no mention of any specific authority—for instance, Book 4 (on the suppression of criminals), Book 6 (on the circle of kings, that is, interstate policy), Book 11 (on the oligarchies), Book 13 (on the means of taking a fort), Book 14 (on secret practices), and Book 15 (on the method of the śāstra). These probably contain Kautilya’s original contributions. In fact, the Arthashastra’s reputation and authority must have rested not as much on its agreement as its disagreement with earlier authorities, and on its introduction of a new treatment, perspective, and synthesis on the subject of statecraft, one that was meticulous, methodical, rigorous and logical. Its methodology is made explicit in the tantrayukti section at the end of book which lists thirty-two devices of treatment of the subject; these include reason, explanation, advice, application, analogy, implication, doubt, context, illustration, the prima facie view, and the correct view.11

    Kautilya identifies four types of knowledge (vidyās)—anvīkṣikī (philosophy), trayī (the Veda), vārttā (economics), and daṇḍanīti (the science of politics). Disagreeing with other authorities, he describes anvīkṣikī as the lamp of all the branches of knowledge, the means of all actions, and the support of all dharmas.12 The discipline of arthaśāstra was vārttā from a political perspective; and it was daṇḍanīti from the point of view of the king’s material gain. This was the new discipline of political economy, which confidently explains itself thus:

    Artha [material well-being or wealth] means the livelihood of men; in other words, it means the earth inhabited by men. Arthaśāstra is the

    discipline [śāstra] which is the means of attaining and protecting that earth.13

    Because it is the king who is capable of acquiring and protecting the earth (which is the source of the livelihood of men), arthaśāstra is also the science of statecraft or politics. In fact, it combines the study of governance, political economy, and political expansion. If not the first, Kautilya was certainly the most masterly exponent of the discipline.

    The State and Empire

    Some elements of the conceptual vocabulary used by Kautilya preceded him (they are present in the epics, especially the Mahabharata), but his achievement was to weave together various elements to construct a connected, comprehensive, and detailed political discourse from the perspective of economic and political gain, thereby introducing a new vision of a potential state. This discipline regards humans and the elements of nature (including animals) primarily as economic resources; and the goal of the economic activity of the state is the maximization of production and profit, understood both in political and economic terms. Kautilya’s achievement was to spell out a complete conceptual structure for the state and to suggest that governance required an understanding of this structure and that political decisions involved making judicious choices.

    Although there is no overarching word for “state” in the text, the references to different types of polities indicate that Kautilya had the idea of a state that transcended particularities of specific types of political systems. Although he has for the most part a kingdom (rājya) in mind, he also refers to oligarchies (saṅghas). The fact that he devotes a full chapter to how the vijigīṣu (the king desirous of victory) should deal with oligarchies, pointing to their susceptibility to dissension and destruction through gambling, indicates that Kautilya considered them a political force to reckon with. The few illustrative references to specific kings are taken from legend and the epic tradition, which must have been in a somewhat fluid form at the time.14 This reliance on traditional history, this deliberate avoidance of “history” as understood by the modern historian, is not unusual in a śāstra that claims to speak in terms of universals. It is interesting that Kautilya does name specific historical oligarchies.15 However, his discussion of statecraft is from the perspective of a monarchical state.

    In ancient texts and as well as modern scholarship, the Arthashastra is associated with an organic theory of the state consisting of seven elements (prakṛtis): namely, the king (svāmin), minister (amātya), territory plus people (janapada), fort (durga), treasury (kośa), force / justice (daṇḍa), and ally (mitra).16 There seem to be some connections between political theory and medical knowledge. The āyurveda medical treatises speak of the seven elements

    of the body, and as we shall see, the political treatises resonate with the ideas of health, disease, and cure with which the medical treatises grappled, although in the context of the body politic rather than the human body.

    But the Arthashastra is not explicitly structured around the seven elements. In fact, the listing of the elements occurs for the first time in the sixth book and is repeated in Book 8.17 The sequence of the topics discussed in the Arthashastra suggests a conceptual ordering consisting of four interrelated themes arranged in the following sequence: the king; the bureaucracy related to administration; the management of the economy; interstate relations and war. The conceptual scaffolding of the text as a whole includes the idea of the seven limbs of the state, but this idea collapses without the support of other ideas—especially those of the circle of kings, the three kinds of powers (śaktis) of the king, the four policy expedients (upāyas), the six strategies in dealing with other states (guṇas), and the calamities (vyasanas) of the king and the kingdom. It has been suggested that the fact that Kautilya uses a similar vocabulary of concepts and strategies in his discussion of “internal” and “external” politics indicates that he does not distinguish between them.18 This is incorrect. In fact, Kautilya’s organic conceptualization of the state presents it as consisting of distinct, but interconnected elements.

    The terms for king in the Arthashastra are fairly unostentatious.19 Of the various terms for kingdom and / or territory, janapada occurs most often.20 It includes both territory and the people inhabiting it. More important than the terminology is the fact that the discussion of political and administrative units includes their resources and the people who inhabit these spaces. Kautilya states that an ideal janapada is secure from attack, provides excellent resources, commodities, and means of livelihood, and is inhabited mostly by the lower varṇas.21 The last of these stipulations seems to be based on the concern for maximizing production, since the Vaishyas and Shudras are the producing classes.

    It has been suggested (incorrectly) by some scholars that Kautilya visualized a comingling of the borders of the territory of the king and that of his enemy.22 Actually, he clearly distinguishes between the principality of the king and that of others.23 Although ancient kingdoms did not have clearly demarcated territorial boundaries, Kautilya assumes and repeatedly refers to the idea of such clearly

    identifiable borders, on land, river, and sea, especially as places where the inflow of people and goods into the principality could be filtered. His discussion of seals, sealed passports, and officers responsible for them indicates that he has the idea of institutionalizing border crossing.24

    In later times, the term sāmanta was the title of a subordinate ruler or a vassal. There are a few places in the Arthashastra where there is some ambiguity about its meaning.25 But by and large, the term seems to have two denotations in the text—a neighboring cultivator or a neighboring king.26 The idea of a graded hierarchy of kings with a paramount king and various subordinates is, however, implied in the discussion of interstate relations, the idea of the vijigīṣu (the king desirous of victory) and the description of the righteous victor (discussed in Chapter 4).

    Kautilya’s discussion of the strategies that the vijigīṣu should adopt clearly

    indicates the idea of empire-building. The goal of political paramountcy is implied in the idea that a king should aim at enjoying the earth without sharing it with any other ruler.27 The cakravartī-kṣetra (field of conquest of the cakravartin or emperor) is described as the region between the Himalayas and the sea, one thousand yojanas across in extent.28 (This is the only place in the text where the term cakravartin occurs). There is also a detailed mapping of the produce of regions of the subcontinent; this mapping extends north-south from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka; and east-west from Kamarupa (in Assam) up to the land of the Parthians in the northwest. But the discussion is not geared toward the potential productive assets of various possible military targets. It is part of Kautilya’s larger commodity canvas, which includes coral (pravālaka) from Alakanda (Alexandria in Egypt) and Vivarna (probably somewhere on the Mediterranean coast), incense (kāleyaka) from Suvarnabhumi (some place in Southeast Asia), and silk cloth (cīnapaṭṭa) from China.29 Parasamudra (across the sea) could be Sri Lanka; alternatively, given the fact that it is mentioned as a source of gems and aloe wood, it could refer to maritime Southeast Asia.

    Kautilya’s King

    The king is central to the Arthashastra:

    The king and his rule; that is the essence of the constituent elements [of the state].30

    Kautilya emphasizes the importance of high birth and a lineage of long standing, but his statement that the royal residence should be built on an excellent building site fit for the four varṇas to live on implies that the king could belong to any varṇa.31 The list of excellences of the king is long and exhaustive and, apart from noble birth, includes being truthful, intelligent, a follower of dharma, grateful, faithful, generous, energetic, brave, resolute, possessed of a sense of shame, desirous of learning, and far-sighted. It also includes freedom from vices (vyasanas), passion, anger, greed, rigidity, fickleness, troublesomeness, and slanderousness.32

    The prince’s training should include study of the Veda, philosophy (anvīkṣikī), economics (vārttā), the science of politics (daṇḍanīti), the military arts, and history (itihāsa), which includes dharmaśāstra and arthaśāstra. Kautilya recommends that the prince should learn about economics from departmental heads (adhyakṣas) and about the science of politics from both theoreticians and practitioners.33 Education and training are geared toward ensuring political paramountcy and the subjects’ welfare.

    For the self-controlled king who is trained in the branches of knowledge and is intent on training his subjects enjoys unshared lordship over the earth, devoted to the welfare of all beings [sarva-bhūta-hite rataḥ].34

    The last part of this statement reminds us of Ashoka.

    The centrality of vinaya (which includes self-control, discipline, propriety, and modesty) for good governance and political success is indicated by the fact that it is the subject of the first book of the Arthashastra. Vinaya can be inborn or acquired through education. A successful king must be self-controlled (ātmavat). He must be free from anger and lust, and must have control over his senses.

    One lacking self-control and with defective constituent elements is either killed by the subjects or overcome by enemies, even if he is a ruler up to the four ends of the earth. But one who is controlled, even if his dominion is small, being associated with the excellences of the constituent elements and being learned in governance [naya], is victorious over the whole earth and never loses.35

    Thus, Kautilya links the survival and expansion of the kingdom with the king’s control over his senses.

    The king also has an obligation to inculcate vinaya in his subjects, kin, and slaves. A self-controlled king endows the other elements of the state with excellences even if they are devoid of them. But one who is not endowed with self-control destroys the other elements, even if they are prosperous and devoted to him. The ideal king of the Arthashastra is the sage-like king (rājarṣi).36 There are many differences in their words and ideas, especially in the content of their dharma, but both Ashoka and Kautilya see a close relationship between the king’s governance of himself and his kingdom. What is new in the Arthashastra is that it gives a pragmatic basis to the discussion of the king’s duties, anchors them to the realization of his self-interest, and dispassionately and systematically discusses the use of force and violence in the political sphere.

    Kautilya discusses the royal household and harem (antargṛha), and identifies queens and princes as sources of danger to the king.37 He also discusses courtiers and court protocol—how courtiers should strive to fit into the court circle, be alert to the signs of the king’s favor and disfavor, and try to rise above others in their lord’s esteem.38 He elaborates on the structure of a separate, complex, hierarchical bureaucratic sphere, based not on kinship but on function. In this elaboration, it is not the centralization of power that is emphasized, but the careful distribution and allocation of specific spheres of activities and duties to administrative officials who should be carefully chosen to discharge various functions, and the interconnectedness of the various tiers and elements of the administrative structure. Disguise, subterfuge, and surveillance are important elements in the glue that holds this structure together. The idea of fixed cash salaries for officials and even priests and kin indicates a mind that excelled in visualizing and expressing value in monetary terms.

    The king’s activeness is essential for his success. If he is active, his servants and dependents will follow his example and also be active. A king who trusts in fate and is devoid of effort perishes because he does not start undertakings or because his undertakings have miscarried.39 One who does whatever he pleases does not achieve anything and is the worst of all. Kautilya suggests a strenuous model daily timetable for the king, dividing his day and night into a total of sixteen parts, each consisting of one and a half hours.40 Structure and discipline are emphasized, but there is flexibility regarding the precise nature of the structure. Kautilya understood information and communication as keys to effective governance. Receiving reports from secret agents figures three times in the model schedule, and Kautilya emphasizes the need to deal with urgent matters swiftly, without delay.

    The Arthashastra has the idea of the subjects (prajā, prakṛtayaḥ) as a political collective. They are not listed separately among the constituent elements of the state, but are included in the janapada. The implicit standard subject of the Arthashastra is a free ārya, that is, a free citizen, belonging to one of the four varṇas. The term ārya is variously contrasted with mleccha (barbarian), dāsa (slave), and caṇḍāla (untouchable), all of whom who lie outside the ārya fold. And yet, these groups, along with the forest people, are included in the category of the subjects, even if they are seen as lowly and problematic. They can be used by the state as spies and as military resources. Kautilya further breaks down the category of the subjects on the basis of varṇa, āśrama, and gender. He also makes a distinction between the standard subject and those who suffer from mental or physical disabilities, impotent men, outcastes, and those suffering from diseases such as leprosy. When it comes to specific situations when a person’s precise social position has to be ascertained or declared, it is not varṇa but other bases of identity that are mentioned, such as name (nāma), country (deśa), caste (jāti), clan / family (gotra), and occupation (karma).41 But there is also the idea of collectivities that cut across these distinctions—people of the city (paura) and those of the countryside (jānapada), and the compound term paura-jānapada, which is often used for the totality of the subjects.

    Some of the statements made by Kautilya sound strikingly similar to those

    made by Ashoka:

    In the happiness of his subjects lies the happiness of the king, and his welfare [hita] lies in the welfare of his subjects. The king’s welfare does not lie in what is pleasing [priya] to himself; his welfare lies in what is pleasing to his subjects.”42

    But while Ashoka understands dharma / dhamma in universal ethical terms, for Kautilya, the happiness of the subjects in this life and the next depends on their following their varṇa dharma. Kautilya distinguishes between the king’s personal happiness and welfare and those of his subjects. But he also explains how the king’s happiness and welfare (both in this and later lives) depend on ensuring the happiness and welfare of his subjects. While such benign statements may be found in many ancient texts, Kautilya’s achievement was to demonstrate how following such a policy was in the political and material interests of the king. He linked the king’s duty toward his subjects with the maintenance and augmentation of his power, and demonstrated how the calculated use of force was essential to this.

    There is much discussion of the king’s benevolence in the Arthashastra. Kautilya talks about the king’s duty to protect his people and promote their welfare, and urges a paternalistic approach toward those in distress.43 The king should look into the affairs of the gods, sects, learned Brahmanas, women, children, the aged, sick, distressed, and helpless. He should bestow gifts, maintain those without kin, and discipline slaves. He should come to the people’s aid in difficult times such as famine and should construct irrigation works. Kautilya also visualizes the king as a protector and enhancer of the material resources of his realm by devoting special attention to forests, irrigation works, and mines.

    An innovation in Kautilya’s understanding of the subjects is that he recognizes them as an economic resource that can be enumerated, counted, and recorded. This is reflected in the idea of a census of people. The official known as the gopa should keep a record of the men and women in the group (of ten or forty families) according to their caste (jāti), clan (gotra), name (nāma), and occupation (karma), and also their income and expenditure.44 The official known as the samāhartṛ should keep a record of the boundaries and assets of villages and their inhabitants according to varṇa, occupation, and animals owned,

    maintaining details of males and females, children and old people.45 We know that a census of people (and animals) was actually conducted in Ptolemaic Egypt,46 so for the idea to have been known elsewhere in the ancient world is not surprising.

    The duties of the king include protecting himself, his subjects, and the social order, and all these three things are interconnected.

    A king who fulfils his own dharma and protects his subjects according to dharma goes to heaven. For one who does not protect [them] or who inflicts unjust punishment [mithyā-daṇḍa], it is the reverse.”47

    The king’s relationship with dharma is, above all, as protector of the social order based on varṇa and āśrama. By ensuring that people do not transgress this dharma, the king finds happiness in this life and after death.48 In times of crisis, when dharmas are perishing, Kautilya also visualizes the king as a promulgator of dharma (dharma-pravartaka).49

    Although the king is central to his political discourse, Kautilya’s organic

    understanding of the state recognizes the importance of the other elements as well, and the general tenor of the Arthashastra is that the king must never act unilaterally without consultation. Kautilya’s king is very powerful, but he is not a despot.

    Kingship can be carried out only with the help of associates. One wheel alone cannot turn [a cart or a chariot]. So he [the king] should appoint advisers [sacivas] and listen to their opinion.50

    There is also a detailed discussion of the king’s duties. Are there glimmers of a discourse of the rights of others, for instance those of the subjects, embedded deep in the discourse of duties? Perhaps, but barely so.

    The most striking aspect of Kautilya’s potential state is that it is an extremely intrusive one and this intrusiveness involves the use or the threat of force. The king moves people around like pawns on a chessboard, establishing settlements where none previously existed, balancing overflows of population from his own or other lands.51 All conceivable aspects of economic and social life are overseen and regulated. State-owned land coexists with private property. The

    state is an entrepreneur, engaging not only in agriculture but also commodity production in state-run factories.52 Officials and spies fan out in all directions, regulating and watching the goings on in various parts of the kingdom.

    This audacious vision of an omnipotent and omniscient state is contained in a text that seems to be grounded in solid Brahmanical social ideology. As in the Dharmashastra tradition (which will be discussed later in this chapter), the Arthashastra considers varṇa and āśrama as important bases of social organization and social identity. Among the varṇas, the Brahmanas, especially those learned in the Veda, occupy an especially important and privileged position. And yet, the primacy Kautilya attached to productivity and profit necessitated a partial subversion of the ideal Brahmanical order. For instance, he suggests that new settlements should consist largely of Shudras, because he recognizes them as a productive resource that could be fruitfully exploited by the state. He expands their duties—in addition to serving the upper three varṇas, they are also associated with livelihoods (vārttā, defined as consisting of agriculture, animal husbandry, and trade53) and with the professions of artisans and actors. This creates an overlap in the activities associated with Vaishyas and Shudras. Further, in Kautilya’s opinion, Shudras can also be inducted into the army—another infringement of varṇa norms, which associate war exclusively with the Kshatriyas. So although Kautilya upholds Brahmanical privilege, in certain fundamental ways, he also undermines the Brahmanical vision of the varṇa order.

    Kautilya advocates decisive, pragmatic political action and is not squeamish

    about the use of all force and killing that are necessary to protect the king and kingdom from internal and external enemies. And yet, he repeatedly strikes a note of caution. For instance, the king’s three powers, which are the means to his success, are the power of counsel (mantra-śakti); the power of lordship, that is, military might (prabhu-śakti); and the power of energy (utsāha-śakti). Expressing his disagreement with the received wisdom of the experts, Kautilya first asserts the superiority of the power of military might over the power of energy; by winning over and purchasing men of energy, those possessed of military might—even women, children, and lame and blind persons—had succeeded in conquering the world.54 But he goes on (again in opposition to other experts) to assert the superiority of the power of counsel over the power of

    military might:

    The power of counsel is superior. For the king with the eye of intelligence and the śāstra can take counsel with little effort and outwit enemies possessing energy and might by employing conciliation and other strategies and through secret and occult practices.55

    Such an assertion of the primacy of the power of counsel undermines the use of brute force and goes against the idea of a totalitarian exercise of power.

    This argument is further strengthened by Kautilya’s discussion of the four expedients (upāyas): conciliation (sāma), making gifts (dāna), force (daṇḍa), and creating dissension (bheda). All these have to be used astutely, depending on the situation. In the context of dealing with a defeated king, Kautilya asserts that conciliation is the best policy, as it ensures that the defeated king will remain obedient to the vijigīṣu’s sons and grandsons. In fact, he warns against the use of excessive force against defeated kings (for instance, killing or imprisoning them, and coveting their land, property, sons, or wives), lest the circle of kings becomes frightened and rises to destroy the vijigīṣu and take his kingdom or his life.56

    Calamities of King and State

    While Kautilya dilates on the path to political success, he also discusses the possibility of political failure. There are many possible sources of the threat of disorder in the kingdom. Kautilya’s discussion of the calamities of the elements of the state is followed by discussion of afflictions, hindrances, and the stoppage of payments to the treasury—all of which the king has to prevent or contain for the sake of the land’s prosperity.57 Afflictions can be fated or those with unidentifiable causes, such as fire, flood, famine, disease, enemy attack, and strife within the royal family. The hindrances, which can be internal or external, include those caused by chiefs, enemies, and forest tribes.

    While describing the ideal king, Kautilya is aware of the dangers that lie in the exercise of power. The positive enunciation of the king’s duties is accompanied by warnings against excessive exploitation, especially through taxation:

    As from a garden, he should pluck fruits from the kingdom as they ripen. Out of fear of his own destruction, he should avoid [the plucking of] unripe fruits that leads to rebellion [kopa-kāraka].58

    The anger and the disaffection of the subjects are discussed in detail. The implication is that the king should prevent such disaffection in his own interest, otherwise he will fall prey to violent insurrection. Morality is replaced by pragmatism.

    The realities of flawed kingship emerge most vividly in Kautilya’s discussion of the defects (doṣas) and even more so, the vices (vyasanas) to which kings fell prey.59 Kautilya gives the etymology of vyasana as that which throws a person from his good or eminence. Depending on the context, the term vyasana can be broadly translated as “vice,” “addiction,” or “calamity.” Kautilya’s discussion of the king’s vyasanas is part of a larger discourse on vyasanas of the elements of the state as well as of all human beings. The human vyasanas stem from a lack of knowledge or self-control and are classified into those arising from anger and those arising from lust.60 The four royal vyasanas in ancient Indian political thought are drinking (mada), gambling (dyūta), womanizing (strī), and hunting (mṛgayā), and the theorists had different views on their relative demerits.61

    Kautilya disagrees with all other authorities. He disagrees vehemently with those who suggest that princes should be kept engrossed in pleasure so that they do not pose a threat to the king, as well as with those who suggest that they should be tempted with one of the four vices by secret agents to ascertain their loyalty. According to him, these are very dangerous strategies.62 Instead, he advocates ways of creating abhorrence toward the vices in princes.63

    In the discussion of the relative seriousness of the royal vices, the sequence of listing (hunting, gambling, womanizing, drinking) seems to be in ascending order of reprehensibility—that is, hunting is the least problematic and drinking the most problematic.64 However, in one place, this order gets disturbed. Comparing gambling with drinking, Kautilya states that gambling is worse than drinking, especially in the case of oligarchies and royal families having the oligarchic characteristics, because gambling leads to dissension and destruction. Therefore, Kautilya asserts, gambling is the most evil among vices as it favors evil men and since it leads to evil in administration. This clearly applies specifically to oligarchies or polities with oligarchic features. The aim of the king should be to keep free from vices and to become one who has attained victory over his senses (jitendriya).65

    Punishment, Pain, and Profit

    Kautilya’s detailed discussion of the justice system reflects a heightened recognition of the need for the use of carefully calculated force and violence by the state against its subjects. As in other ancient Indian texts, so in the Arthashastra, the word daṇḍa has many different connotations. Apart from its literal meaning—rod or stick—it can, depending on the context, imply punishment, justice, force, fines, the army, and injury (verbal and physical). Kautilya’s king holds up the rod, ever ready to strike. The maintenance of worldly life depends on daṇḍanīti (the administration of daṇḍa), which, by extension, is the science of politics. According to Kautilya, the purpose of daṇḍa is the protection of the people belonging to the four varṇas and āśramas—here to be understood as referring to society as a whole.66 The idea that the king’s force is essential in order to punish criminals, prevent social violence, and maintain the social order is present in the epics. But Kautilya discusses these procedures in unprecedented detail.

    Brahmanical texts frequently refer to the threat of social disorder, which is

    seen as having disastrous political implications. The idea of the mixture of varṇas (varṇa-saṁkara) refers to the transgression of varṇa norms in relation to occupation and marriage. A frequently used metaphor to describe the state of chaos that will prevail if the king does not use daṇḍa is mātsya-nyāya (the law of the fish)—the big fish will devour the smaller fish.67 In this warning of the dangers of brutal and oppressive social conflict, the king’s daṇḍa (force and justice) is the single factor that prevents the world from collapsing into complete anarchy. But Kautilya is not a votary of the unbridled use of force or punishment. Expressing his disagreement with other experts, he asserts that the king who is severe with the rod becomes a source of terror to all beings, while one who is excessively mild is despised. Impartial behavior (vṛtti-sāmya) is one of the important qualities of the king. If the rod is used unjustly, through passion, anger, or contempt, daṇḍa becomes dangerous. The king’s force and his punishment must be rooted in discipline (vinaya); it is only then that it brings prosperity to all living beings.68

    The king does not have a major direct role in the nitty-gritty of litigation discussed in Books 3 and 4 of the Arthashastra. But whether administered

    directly by the king or by judges, punishment is seen as having both social and political aspects. Kautilya has sections dealing with vyavahāra and kaṇṭakaśodhana. Vyavahāra refers to transactions between two parties. It includes marriage, inheritance, property disputes, encroachment, damage, debt, deposits, slaves and laborers, sale, gifts, forcible seizure, verbal and physical injury, and betting and gambling.69 Generally, one of the two parties has to take the matter to a court where the trial is conducted by three judges known as dharmasthas. Most of the crimes in this category invite fines. Kaṇṭakaśodhana (literally, “the removal of thorns”) refers to the punishment of those guilty of various criminal offenses, and these cases are decided by three judges known as pradeṣṭṛs. The punishments include fines, torture, mutilation, and capital punishment. It has been suggested that in the Arthashastra, the term kaṇṭakaśodhana refers to both policing and adjudicating criminal offenses.70

    The main focus is on the nature of the crime, investigation, and punishment, which must be meted out on the basis of a consideration of the entire concatenation of factors—the social status of the parties involved and the nature and degree of seriousness of the offense, as well as motive, time, place, and consequences.71 The varṇa of the defendant, complainant, and other individuals involved is a key element in deciding on the appropriate punishment for many offenses. Brahmanas, especially those learned in the Veda, are seen as belonging to a community with special legal privileges. The most violent punishments related to varṇa pertain to defilement, injury, and sexual transgression. Thus, Kautilya suggests that a Shudra having sexual relations with a Brahmana woman should be burnt in a straw fire.72 Such transgressions invite drastic punishment and public spectacle because they are considered threatening to the social order. And yet, according to Kautilya, great care must be taken to ensure that punishment is meted out justly. The king who inflicts wrongful punishment cannot escape punishment himself.73

    The Arthashastra contains the earliest expression of a legal code in India. It indicates the state’s role in systematizing, developing, and enforcing vyavahāra in the sense of public transactional law.74 Kautilya gives primacy to the royal edict (raja-śāsana) among the four legal domains, the other three “feet” being dharma, vyavahāra (laws related to legal transactions, many of them connected with commerce), and caritra (custom).75 Apart from reflecting the early history

    of jurisprudence in India, this represents a significant development in the ideology of kingship. Punishment, and the force and violence inherent in punishment, were recognized as an important part of governance and politics and were considered in detail with sophistication.

    While the job of dispensing justice is discussed largely in the context of judges, in a few places, there is mention of the king. We are told that when the king carries out his dharma and protects his subjects, he goes to heaven; when he does not protect them and metes out unjust punishment (mithyā-daṇḍa), he suffers the reverse (that is, goes to hell). The king also figures in Kautilya’s discussion of disputes over landed property, as the fixer of boundaries when they have become unclear, and as the recipient of landed property when the claims of two parties are both rejected or when the owner has disappeared. He is the beneficiary of other objects when the claims over them cannot be decided because of witnesses giving different testimony, and is the recipient of the surplus amount mentioned by witnesses if they testify to a larger amount being at stake than that reported by the plaintiff. A summons from the king is a means whereby the defendant or plaintiff can produce witnesses who are located far away or are reluctant to make an appearance. The king is also advised to use punishment as a means of keeping his officials and subjects honest and upright.76 So although the king is spoken of as the wielder of the rod of just punishment in a general way (similar to the description of the king as lord of the land), in a few places, he is connected with more specific aspects of legal procedure.

    The Arthashastra asserts the state’s right to impose retribution, pain, and

    torture on subjects in the cause of justice and is known for its detailed prescription of numerous punishments, often harsh and violent. Kautilya’s aim seems to be to enumerate and give a scale of relative value to crimes and punishments. The types of punishment include fines, confiscation of property, and exile. There are also what we would consider violent punishments such as corporeal punishment, mutilation, branding, torture, forced labor, and death, sometimes involving public spectacle. Kautilya accepts torture as a means of acquiring information during interrogation for crimes.77 The text distinguishes between investigation or interrogation through verbal means (vākya) and through action (karman). The latter refers to torture, and this is prescribed only if guilt is

    probable and not for trifling offenses or for certain categories of people— minors, the aged, sick, weak, intoxicated, insane; pregnant women; and those overcome by hunger, thirst, or travel. Torture is also prescribed as a form of punishment. Women are to be given only half of the due torture; or they should be examined by verbal interrogation. Learned Brahmanas and ascetics are also not to be tortured. Kautilya lists the different types of torture, including those that involve striking, whipping, caning, suspension from a rope, and inserting needles under the nails. He insists on a strict regulation of the torture regime, suggesting that torture should be administered only on alternative days and only once a day. Punishment is prescribed for the use of torture by the superintendent of a prison house, presumably when it was not warranted.78

    Fines dominate the Arthashastra and are prescribed for all manner of offenses, including domestic issues such as a wife going out at night, withholding conjugal rights, or not opening the door to her husband. There is frequent mention of a three-level scale—the lowest (pūrva), middle (madhyama), and highest (uttama)—of fines for violence (sāhasa-daṇḍa).79 It is no coincidence that fines happen to be the most profitable kind of punishment for the state. Another example of Kautilya’s preoccupation with production and pecuniary benefit to the state in his discussion of punishment is his suggestion that officials who fail all tests of loyalty can be put to work in mines, material forests, elephant forests, and factories, thus turning these into sites for productive punishment.80 The most brutal of the Arthashastra prescriptions relate to punishments involving mutilation, amputation, torture, and the death penalty. The principle of lex talionis is applied in certain cases. Inflicting pain, disfigurement, and capital punishment are seen as part of legitimate punishment.81

    In its discussion of capital punishment, the Arthashastra asserts the state’s right to take life on the grounds of justice. It distinguishes between simple death (ghāta / śuddha-vadha) and death by torture (citroghāta / citra-vaddha).82 The latter refers to especially painful deaths, which may also have involved public spectacle and public example. The death penalty is prescribed for causing grievous injury or death, with the variety of capital punishment depending on the severity of the assault and the time between the assault and death, and whether or not there was some mitigating circumstance. Thus, death by torture is the

    punishment for assault that results in instant death; while simple death is the punishment for assault that results in death within seven days.83 Apart from human beings, this penalty also applies to killing or inciting someone to kill horses or elephants or herd animals belonging to the king. The different kinds of death that are included in death by torture are the following: burning on a pyre, drowning in water, cooking in a big jar, impaling on a stake, setting fire to different parts of the body, and tearing apart by bullocks. Death by setting fire to the different parts of the body is mentioned frequently.

    Although varṇa is central to Kautilya’s understanding of society and law, crimes that attract the death penalty are often discussed without reference to the varṇa of the parties involved.84 Most of these have to do with the king or the state. Simple death is prescribed as punishment for various crimes that involve cheating the king or the state—for instance robbing the treasury; using the king’s jewels; embezzling or misappropriating funds; killing an animal that belongs to the king’s herd; killing or stealing a horse, elephant, or chariot that belongs to the king; and stealing army weapons.85 Similarly, in the discussion of sexual crimes, where the varṇas of the two parties are generally crucial determinants of the severity of the transgression and the nature of the punishment, a man having sexual relations with the king’s wife (apparently regardless of his varṇa status) is to be awarded death by being cooked in a jar.86 This indicates that subjects were considered equal when it came to crimes against the king and state.

    A most gory punishment—setting fire to the hands and head of the perpetrator

    —is suggested for one who covets the kingdom, attacks the palace, incites forest people or enemies, or foments rebellion in the fortified city, kingdom, or the army. There is a varṇa-related caveat—a Brahmana is to be made to “enter darkness” (perhaps blinded) and not killed, for such crimes.87 But in general, violence against the state invites the most violent punishments.

    It is interesting to note that in many instances, Kautilya refers to the possibility of commuting punishments to fines. In almost all cases where mutilation is recommended, it can be substituted by a fine.88 But unless there is some crucial mitigating circumstance, no commutation is possible where the crime merits the death penalty, especially in cases of treason or loss to the state, or especially exceptionally reprehensible acts (such as selling human flesh). Again, in tune with Kautilya’s eye for the state’s opportunity for gain in every

    situation, there are many references to men sentenced to death being used as couriers in dangerous, risky assignments.89 The rationale seems to be that since they are going to die soon anyway, the state should take maximum advantage before the execution of the sentence.

    While Kautilya’s discussion of legal proceedings refers to various kinds of judges, with the king stepping in only occasionally, the state is directly involved in the incarceration of prisoners.90 Ashoka’s inscriptions give us the earliest references to prisons. The Arthashastra indicates a significant development in the idea of the prison, and this may have corresponded to a further development of the actual institution. As the text does not discuss prison sentences as a type of punishment, it is possible that prisons housed a variety of persons including those whose trial was awaited or underway, those undergoing interrogation or torture; those unable to pay fines imposed on them, and those awaiting their sentence or punishment (including death). There is an official in charge of prisons (bandhanāgārādhyakṣa). The text distinguishes between prisons associated with the dharmasthīya and mahāmātra officials, probably referring to separate ones for those convicted of civil and criminal offenses. Within these, Kautilya recommends separate sections for men and women and urges that adequate arrangements should be made for well-guarded courtyards to prevent the escape of prisoners.91 He also distinguishes between the temporary lock-up (cāraka) and prison (bandhanāgāra).92 The punishments for letting prisoners escape from the latter were greater and went up to death. Kautilya recommends the periodic infliction of corporeal punishment on prisoners as an instrument of chastisement. But he is also aware of the need to protect them from the cruel or violent actions of jailors and other prisoners such as torture, maiming, depriving them or food and water, and the rape of women prisoners.93

    The fact that the officer known as the saṁnidhātṛ is told to build a treasury, warehouse, magazine, storehouse for forest produce, armory and a prison house (all in the same breath) should alert us to Kautilya’s understanding of the prison as more than a site for punishment. He sees the prison as a source of labor and hence an economic resource for the state, and those convicted of capital crimes had special value. This is clear from the already mentioned reference to convicts who had been given the death penalty being used to perform dangerous tasks for the state. In fact, in the Arthashastra, the productive and pecuniary potential of

    prisons seems to outweigh their role in punishment. Kautilya recommends a periodic (daily or every five days) clearing out of prisoners from prisons by putting them to work or by letting them go in return for cash ransom.

    Kautilya also envisages prisoners as objects in the king’s ceremonial display of benevolence. He recommends that on the king’s birth asterism and full moon days, there should be a periodic release of children and old, sick, or helpless persons; pious prisoners or those bound by an agreement could be released for a ransom. (The reference to children in prisons is striking.) And when a new territory is acquired, a crown prince installed, or a son born to the king, all prisoners should be released.94 While this reminds us of Ashoka’s pillar edict 5, Kautilya’s discussion of the prison is much more elaborate in terms of overall conceptualization as well as detail.

    Violence and Nonviolence in the Political Sphere

    The state of the Arthashastra is a perpetrator, controller as well as a target of violence. Kautilya dissects, classifies, and discusses force, injury, and violence in the political and social spheres in unprecedented, meticulous detail. Although the term hiṁsā is often used for injury, in the detailed discussion of causing injury and the punishments for such crimes, the term generally used is pāruṣya. Kautilya distinguishes between verbal injury (vāk-pāruṣya)) and physical injury (daṇḍa-pāruṣya).95 It is interesting that he talks about physical injury not only to humans but also to animals (as well as plants). However, there is a difference in attitude: While human life is considered to have a value in itself (although there is a gradation in this value depending on social status), the value of animals lies largely in their being private property of the subjects and politically and economically valuable commodities for the king. This is why they have to be protected against injury, theft, and killing. The treatment of animals in the Arthashastra will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 5.

    The term ahiṁsā has a positive value in the Arthashastra and occurs in the

    context of the general code of ethics applicable to all (that is, to all varṇas and āśramas) as well as to the king. It heads the list of the duties common to all— nonviolence (ahiṁsā), truthfulness (satya), purity (śauca), freedom from malice (anasūyā), compassion (ānṛśaṁsya), and forbearance (kṣamā).96 Elsewhere, Kautilya states that with his senses under control, the sage-like king (rājarṣi) should avoid violence (hiṁsā) as well as coveting another man’s wife or property.97 This may sound hypocritical considering the innumerable places where he advocates ruthless action involving injuring and killing others. But in actuality, there is no contradiction because Kautilya sanctions, and in fact whole- heartedly advocates and supports, all measures that are required for the king to maintain and enhance his political power. And while the text recommends many acts that are necessary to maintain the king’s power, it simultaneously defines the limits of the use of force and lays down the negative consequences of transgressing these limits. The force that is wanton, unnecessary, and not conducive to the maintenance and furthering of political power is violence and must be avoided.

    Kautilya is extremely concerned with threats of violence against the king.

    Allies and kinsmen are often grouped together; they are part of the king’s party and give him strength. But the Arthashastra is keenly aware of the danger presented by members of the royal household, especially disloyal queens and disaffected, rebellious princes.

    A king can protect his kingdom only when he is himself protected from those close to him and from his enemies, first of all, from his wives and sons.98

    The heir apparent, the king’s mother and chief queen stand at the top of Kautilya’s salary schedule for members of the royal household. Their generous salary of 48,000 paṇas (silver coins) not only indicates their eminent place in the hierarchy of status within the royal household but also their great susceptibility to instigation and revolt.99 Kautilya warns the king to take great care while in his inner apartments and to guard himself from the violent designs of queens and princes. There is a classification of different types of sons and wives, and we are told that the king’s beloved is more dangerous than the prince. Kautilya recommends a very high level of regulation and vigilance over all comings and goings in the palace, especially the harem.100

    The harem and the royal household are linked to political succession and transition. Kautilya distinguishes between legitimate (jātya) and illegitimate (ajātya) heirs and pretenders to the throne. Succession is generally patrilineal, and primogeniture is approved of, except in the case of a calamity. In normal circumstance, the daughter is not considered an heir. But the emphasis is on the selection of an heir possessing good qualities. According to Kautilya, if an only son is undisciplined or stupid, he should not be made king. In the absence of a worthy son, he advises the elevation of a minor prince who is not addicted to vices, or a princess, or a pregnant queen, under the guidance of high officers. He also speaks of regents. On the death or imminent death of the king, the responsibility for ensuring the continuance of the kingdom and sole sovereignty falls to the minister (amātya); in contrast to Bharadvaja, Kautilya does not approve of the minister himself grabbing power in such a delicate situation.101

    Apart from ensuring a smooth transition to a worthy successor, the problems

    of kingship include dissensions among the princes and army commanders, which

    can lead to violent rebellion. If a king’s treasury is empty, the army will defect or kill him.102 There is the danger of different types of conspiracies in the outer and inner regions, and Kautilya discusses ways of conciliating and crushing them. There can be an uprising of ministers in the interior and other regions. Of inner and outer revolts (kopa), the former are more serious, and a rising of ministers of the interior is more serious than a rising in the interior. Royal favorites (vallabhas) can also become a threat to the king and the kingdom.103

    The king can become a victim of his subjects’ violence. For Kautilya, the subjects do not form a passive collective. Their loyalty or disaffection is an important element in the discussion of governance and of interstate relations. Some people remain dissatisfied despite the use of the stratagems of gifts, pacification, and creating dissension.104 There are many references to revolts of rebellious subjects and to kings killed in such uprisings. The anger of the subjects (prakṛti-kopa, janapada-kopa) is something to be avoided at all cost. Disaffected subjects (virakta-prakṛti) or rebellious subjects (apacarita-prakṛti) who are not loyal to their king weaken his power.

    When he is attacked, the subjects help a king who behaves justly but is suffering from a serious calamity; they remain indifferent to one who behaves unjustly and is suffering from a light calamity; but if they are disaffected, they destroy even a powerful king.105

    The causes of disaffection of the subjects include their being impoverished, which leads to greed. Disaffected subjects will rise in revolt when there is an enemy attack. The converse of disaffected subjects are loyal ones, and Kautilya emphasizes the importance of the subjects’ love (anurāga) toward the king.106 He has already pointed out that the happiness and welfare of the king is dependent on that of his subjects. Therefore, a weak king should try to strengthen his power by ensuring the welfare of his subjects.107 His survival depends on it.

    Kautilya’s king uses force to protect himself against the violence of others.

    “Silent punishment” (upāṁśu-daṇḍa, tūṣṇīm daṇḍa) refers to inflicting death decisively, swiftly, and secretly on those guilty of treason or on enemies who cannot be killed openly. (This is not part of the discussion of standard judicial

    procedure and is discussed in a separate section.) Silent punishment is recommended for treasonable principal officers who harm the kingdom, but being favorites or being united, cannot be killed openly.108 It can be used by the king on seditious members of his own circle or the enemy’s side. Silent punishment can also be used by the king against his own people; it is one of the recommended strategies for dealing with subjects who have turned hostile.109

    Kautilya’s discussion of statecraft goes a long way toward liberating politics from dharma. Although he makes all the right noises about dharma and describes the king as protector of varṇāśrama dharma, by raising artha to the status of the preeminent goal of human activity, Kautilya’s discourse actually undermines that dharma. Kautilya is unequivocal in his position that that if there is a conflict between dharma and artha, the latter must prevail. The duties of the king are disengaged from the moral domain and are grounded in pragmatic self-interest. All this is accomplished through a detailed discussion of a vast range of issues related to different aspects of statecraft, reasoned argument, and the explanation of different alternative paths of action and their likely consequences. The Arthashastra discusses force and violence in the political sphere in unprecedented detail, dilating on the king’s role as their perpetrator, controller, and target. But Kautilya’s king is not a totalitarian despot. He is a powerful, ambitious ruler who stands at the center of a complex web of personal, bureaucratic, and political relationships, one who makes careful choices after deliberation and consultation, keeping in mind his political interests.110

    The fact that Kautilya does not discuss the source of the king’s authority can

    be understood as a part of his lack of interest in discussing abstruse issues, but this silence also indicates that he was interested in the here and now and on de facto power. And yet, for all his hard-headed this-worldly pragmatism, Kautilya’s political economy seems to extend beyond this world to future worlds. Carrying out his duties and protecting his people according to dharma leads to the king’s attainment of heaven; if he fails to protect them or inflicts unjust punishment, hell awaits him.111Artha is described as the means for the acquisition and protection of this world and the next.112 This suggests that the connection between metaphysical concerns and realpolitik is weakened in the Arthashastra, but not completely broken. Or, as is more likely, Kautilya was just paying lip service to widely accepted beliefs.

    The Manusmriti: The King as Deity and Punisher

    As mentioned in Chapter 1, the discipline of Dharmashastra, devoted to an explication and discussion of dharma, was invented during circa 600–300 BCE. Dharmashastra consisted of three types of texts: Dharmasutras, Smritis, and the commentarial texts, which followed each other sequentially. The Dharmashastra works are often described as “law books.” However, as should be apparent by now, the concept of dharma is not equivalent to the western notion of law. These authoritative normative texts include what seem to be legal prescriptions related to civil and criminal issues, but they were not restricted to such issues. It is also unclear to what extent their prescriptions were used in actual legal cases, in which local custom must have played an important role. The overall focus of Dharmashastra was how individuals should live their lives according to Brahmanical dharma; varṇa, āśrama, and gender constituted the principal bases of this normative social discourse.

    The earliest texts of this discipline, the Dharmasutras, do not deal in detail with kingship, but the later ones, such as the Manavasharmashastra, also known as the Manusmriti, does.113 This indicates an acute recognition on the part of the dharma experts of the important role of the institution of kingship in maintaining the Brahmanically prescribed social order. The Manusmriti has usually been dated between circa 200 BCE and 200 CE; a recent assessment places it in the second–third centuries CE.114 The Manusmriti coopted several issues and concepts from the domain of arthaśāstra, and there is evidence of clear borrowing from the Arthashastra in its discussion of kingship, administration, and civil and criminal law.115 Like the Arthashastra, the Manusmriti also enjoys a certain notoriety. It is often seen as an 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. The Manusmriti is composed in verse and consists of twelve books. Here we will focus on the political ideas in the text, especially Books 7 and 8, with special reference to the ideas regarding the king’s use of punishment and violence.

    Book 7 of the Manusmriti begins with Manu telling the assembled seers that

    he will explain the dharmas of kings (rājadharmāḥ)—how a king should conduct himself, how he came into being, and how he can attain the highest success (siddhi).116 The king’s foremost duties are to protect his people and maintain the social order based on varṇa and āśrama. Like the Mahabharata, the Manusmriti has a long discussion of “dharmas in time of emergency” (āpad- dharma). It lays down the norm but is prepared to accept certain departures from that norm. The king of the Manusmriti is a consecrated Kshatriya. In times of emergency, a Brahmana is permitted to earn his living by following the dharma of the Kshatriya,117 but that is an exception, not the norm.

    The Manusmriti frequently asserts the supremacy of the Brahmana over the king. Between the king’s power and that of the Brahmana, Manu tells us that the latter is much stronger. A Brahmana can strike down his enemy by using the powerful Atharvaveda.118 Kings must honor and serve the Brahmanas and must give to them generously. And yet, although Brahmanas are described as preeminent among the recipients of a king’s gift, such gifts are also described as being reprehensible to them. Subsisting on gleaning (uñcha), that is, gathering grain, is superior to accepting gifts.119 This reminds us of the similar importance attached to the vow of gleaning in the Mahabharata.

    The king, Manu informs us, is not a human being but a great deity in human form. This should be understood as the Dharmashastra experts’ attempt to exalt the institution of kingship, rather than as a theory of the divinity of kings. In a kingless world where people were running in all directions in fear, the lord created kings in order to protect the world. He did so by extracting the eternal particles from the eight guardian deities and fashioning them into the king.

    Like the sun, indeed, he burns eyes and minds; no one on earth can bear to gaze upon him. He is Fire, he is Wind, he is the Sun, he is the Moon, he is the King of the Law (Yama), he is Kubera, he is Varuna, and he is the great Indra—by reason of his power.120

    The king overpowers all beings on account of his luster and energy (tejas). Even if he is a mere child, he must never be treated with disrespect. A fire, if approached recklessly, burns only that single man, but the fire that is the king burns him along with his family, livestock, and wealth. The goddess of

    prosperity resides in the king’s favor, victory lies in his valor, death in his anger. The king can destroy; hence he should be feared. His decree should not be transgressed by anyone. All this constitutes a powerful statement about the king’s enormous potential for violence.

    The description of the king’s blazing power and terrible anger are followed by a discussion of his punishment—a description that is much more intense and detailed than that of the Arthashastra. In fact, in the Manusmriti, the king appears above all as a stern policer and punisher. Manu asserts that the lord created his son Daṇḍa (punishment) from the energy of Brahman for the sake of the king. It is fear of the king’s punishment that makes all creatures follow their dharma. The text then goes on to sign paeans to punishment:

    Punishment [daṇḍa] is the king; he is the male; he is the leader; he is the ruler.… Punishment disciplines all the subjects, Punishment alone protects them, and Punishment watches over them as they sleep—the wise declare that Punishment is Dharma.121

    The relationship between punishment and order is emphasized in a manner similar to that in the Mahabharata. Men are generally dishonest. If punishment did not exist, the strong would grill the weak like fish on a spit; crows would devour the sacrificial cakes; dogs would lap up the sacrificial offerings; nobody would have any rights of ownership; everything would be turned upside down. If punishment was not properly administered, the varṇas would become corrupted, all boundaries would be breached, and there would be a revolt (prakopa) of all the people. Where punishment, dark-skinned and red-eyed, moves about killing sinners, there the subjects do not go astray, as long as the king is discerning.122 The necessity of the king’s punishment of his people for the maintenance of the social order is affirmed and emphasized.

    It is clear that daṇḍa refers to punishment that is just; it can be wielded only by one who is self-possessed, not by one who is foolish, greedy, irresolute, or attached to the objects of the senses. The king’s punishment must be proper (samyak). The ruler who administers proper punishment must be wise, honest, and truthful, one who keeps his word, who acts after careful examination and in accordance with the śāstras, and who understands dharma, artha, and kāma. Echoing Kautilya, Manu advises the king to wield the rod of punishment

    properly, and to be both harsh and gentle.123 Just punishment sustains order; unjust punishment not only leads to disorder, it can kill the king, along with his kin.124

    But apart from such general and expected pronouncements on the king and punishment, Manu’s discussion of lawsuits also gives the king a more specific and proactive role than what we see in the Arthashastra. This text refers to the king regularly attending to law suits. If he tires of hearing them himself, he can appoint a minister (amātya) who is well-born, wise, self-controlled, and a knower of dharma in his place.125 Chapter 8 of the Manusmriti, which deals with the administration of justice, mentions the king very frequently. Often using the term “dharma” for justice, Manu presents the king as a judge in civil and criminal litigation, examining and deliberating over the evidence, making and pronouncing judgments, and executing punishment. We are told that the king should hear cases every day, and should enter the assembly hall (sabhā) dressed modestly, accompanied by Brahmanas and counselors who are well-versed in policy. He should decide on cases in accordance with the norms of the country and the śāstras. He can also appoint a learned Brahmana in his place.126 The king must be self-controlled, dispassionate, and honest in discharging his duties as a dispenser of justice. While hearing cases, he must use reason and be attentive to all the details of the evidence, tracking down the truth as a hunter tracks down an animal from its trail of blood.127 Manu excels in using violent imagery while talking about the king’s justice.

    Manu races through various issues related to administration, such as the qualities of good counselors (sacivas) and other officials (amātyas), the governance of towns and villages, and the royal chaplain (purohita) and priests who officiate at royal sacrifices. He recognizes the need for a good surveillance system. All this is discussed very briefly compared to the Arthashastra. Taxation is the king’s reward for protecting the people. The Manusmriti talks about the desirability of moderate taxation and urges the king to have a paternalistic attitude toward his people.

    He should not cut off his own root and that of others through too much greed, for by cutting off his own root, he harms both himself and others.128

    Like the Arthashastra, the Manusmriti gives a daily time-table for the king (though not in the hour-by-hour fashion of the former) and tries rather unsuccessfully to squeeze most of its discussion of governance into that framework. Like many other authorities, Manu emphasizes discipline (vinaya), citing examples of legendary kings who flourished or were destroyed due to their possession or lack of this quality.129 A king must be self-controlled (ātmavān). Controlling the senses is essential for controlling the subjects. The dangers of addiction to vices arising from pleasure and anger are underlined, and greed is said to lie at the root of both. Manu lists drinking, gambling, womanizing, and hunting as the four worst vices stemming from pleasure; and physical assault, verbal abuse, and plunder as the three worst vices stemming from anger. Among this set of seven, he asserts that each preceding vice is worse than the one that follows. This suggests that he considered drinking as the worst royal vice, followed in descending order of reprehensibility by gambling, womanizing, and hunting.130

    The Manusmriti discusses violence and nonviolence and some of this discussion relates to animal sacrifice. For instance, Manu asserts that apparent violence in sacrifice is not really violence.131 Nonviolence features in the rationale given for the performance of the five great sacrifices (pañca- mahāyajñas). The issue of nonviolence also turns up in the context of dietary prescriptions, and there is ambivalence here: Brahmanas should not eat meat, but meat is included in the list of foods to be offered to them at the funerary feast known as the śrāddha.

    In its discussion of dharma in times of emergency, the Manusmriti suggests that if a Brahmana or Kshatriya is reduced to following the dharma of a Vaishya, he should avoid practicing agriculture, because it involves injuring living beings (hiṁsā) and dependence on others (ploughs, animals, landlords, labor?).

    Some people consider agriculture wholesome, yet this occupation is condemned by the good [because] the iron-tipped plough destroys the earth along with the creatures living in it.132

    We see here an unexpected similarity with Buddhist and Jaina views that connect agriculture with violence.

    While exalting the king and his punishment, the Manusmriti also warns of the dangerous consequence of his oppression. (Interestingly, the verb for “to oppress,” kṛṣ, also means to plough or to cultivate):

    As a weeder plucks the weeds and protects the corn, so the king should protect his realm and kill his adversaries. When a king in his folly oppresses his own realm indiscriminately, he is soon deprived of his kingdom and his life, along with his relatives. As living beings destroy their lives by oppressing their bodies, so kings too destroy their lives by oppressing their realms.133

    Bhasa: The Epics and the Political in Early Sanskrit Drama

    The early centuries CE saw the birth of a new textual genre—kāvya, or literature

    —which included poetry, prose, and drama. The origins of this genre have been traced variously to epic poetry or to the tradition of the one-line stanza (muktaka), which is found in the Buddhist Tipitaka and in early Prakrit poetry.134 The emergence and development of kāvya was accompanied by works on poetics and dramaturgy, the earliest extant one being the Natyashastra. Sheldon Pollock has perceptively drawn attention to the close relationship between kingship and kāvya.135 These connections cannot be denied, but we should note at least two things. First, the birth of kāvya took place several centuries after the emergence and development of monarchical states, in fact, well after the emergence of India’s first empire. Second, although kings were major patrons of literature and royal courts an important locus of literary activity, they were not the only ones.

    Political theorists dealt with political issues directly, while litterateurs dealt with them within the conventions and idiom of their own genre, weaving in aesthetics and emotion. Poetry and drama were meant to entertain and enthrall, and the aesthetic and narrative elements of kāvya made it a powerful medium for the transmission and dissemination of ideas related to political power and political violence. The works of Bhasa and Ashvaghosha represent the earliest surviving Sanskrit kāyva, and it is to the former that we first turn.

    Testimony to Bhasa’s literary reputation is found in the writings of many ancient Indian writers and literary theorists, but his actual works were unknown till 1909, when T. Ganapati Sastri, the curator of the manuscripts library of Thiruvananthapuram discovered the palm-leaf manuscripts of thirteen plays— twelve complete and one incomplete.136 Bhasa probably lived in the late second century.137 His plays are marked by a great deal of brisk, dramatic action. In line with the later Sanskrit dramatic tradition, they are bilingual—male, higher-status characters usually speak in Sanskrit; lower status characters and women speak in a Prakrit dialect. But in sharp contrast to the later Sanskrit dramatic tradition, in which tragedy is absent, two of Bhasa’s plays (the Urubhanga and Karnabhara) can be described as tragedies. The plays usually end with a benedictory verse that alludes to a king, in several cases referred to as “Rajasimha” (lion king).138

    Political conflict and violence feature in many of Bhasa’s plays. Contested

    kingship dominates, and there is a special focus on the royal household and the harem. One of the plays is based on the Krishna legend, six are related with the Mahabharata story, two with the Ramayana, and two with a legendary king named Udayana.139 Most of the action takes place in capital cities—Ayodhya, Lanka, Kishkindha, Ujjayini, and Kaushambi. And yet, the characters in the political plays also include nonelite individuals who are given (sometimes very long) speaking parts—cowherds, soldiers, a burglar, a shampooer, and women servants of the harem. Bhasa lets the social underdog speak. Further, the clownish character of the Brahmana vidūśaka (who features in the plays not based on epic themes) introduces social satire, with Brahmanas as its prime target.

    There are two kinds of kings in Bhasa’s plays. One operates in the human realm and deals with human predicaments in human ways. The other has divine elements and performs miracles and superhuman feats.140 The idealization of kingship (and of the conduct of members of the royal household) is most visible in the Ramayana-based plays. The attributes of the great king are sketched with greatest detail in the delineation of Rama’s personality, which is very similar to that in the Valmiki Ramayana. But Bhasa introduces some raw edges. In the Pratima, there is a critique of Rama, which comes from his arch enemy, Ravana. After praising Rama’s strength, prowess, spirit, and speed, Ravana describes Rama as

    “a matchless warrior whose wits have been dulled by his conceit.”141

    Bhasa’s political dramas refer to a range of administrative officials, royal attendants, spies, and messengers. Ministers (referred to as mantrin, amātya, or saciva) play an especially important role. A minister named Yaugandharayana is the central character in two plays—the Pratijnayaugandharayana and Svapnavasavadatta. In fact, in the former, Udayana (the king of Vatsa) and his love interest, princess Vasantasena of Avanti, never ever appear on stage; their activities are only reported. The play is named after the protagonist, the minister Yaugandharayana, who is endowed with all the virtues necessary in an ideal minister and who succeeds in fulfilling his vows. He is extraordinarily brave and loyal, and has love (sneha) and devotion (svami-bhakti) for his master. He is

    very well-informed of the goings on in the political sphere—he has already got a whiff of the plot being hatched against his king Udayana by the rival king Pradyota. The two ministers Yaugandharayana and Rumanvan disguise themselves and daringly venture into enemy territory in order to rescue their master—one disguised as a madman, the other as a Buddhist monk. The former masterminds Udayana’s release from captivity as well as his escape and that of the princess with whom he has fallen in love. In the Svapnavasavadatta, too, the minister Yaugandharayana uses various strategies to safeguard the interests of king Udayana and the kingdom. As he muses, on him who carries the load of the king lies the load of all things.142

    Although the minister’s job involves great power and responsibility, Bhasa makes us aware that it also exposes him to great risk. In the Avimaraka, the minister Kaunjayana ruefully observes,

    “If works succeed, they say it is the greatness of the king

    And if they fail, it is no doubt the fault of the minister [saciva].

    It is nice to be known as a minister [amātya], but that unlucky man, Even though mighty and clever, is subtly punished by the king.”143

    The problems that figure in Bhasa’s political plays include succession disputes, conflicts among collateral claimants, harem intrigues, and war and negotiation. Among the royal vices, Yudhishthira’s well-known addiction to dice occurs in the Pancharatra, and the calamity in the Pratijnayaugandharayana arises due to king Udayana’s desire to hunt an unusual prey—a legendary blue elephant. Primogeniture is considered the proper principle of succession, but it is evident that it is not well-established. Sita’s remarks in the Pratima allude to court intrigues. When the drums for Rama’s consecration suddenly fall silent, she remarks,

    “It is quite possible, the consecration ceremony may have been interrupted. So many things happen in royal families.”144

    She repeats the latter statement later in the play. Rama also talks about the danger from kin, for which there is no remedy; the enemy strikes the body, but the kinsman strikes the heart.145

    Bhasa makes his audience aware of the burden of power. In the Pratima, Rama is not the least bit perturbed at the loss of his claims to the throne or the prospect of exile. He is actually relieved.

    “My mind heaved a sigh of relief as if a weight had been removed. Luckily I am still the same Rama and the king remains as king”146

    As he leaves for the forest, Rama expresses sadness that Bharata has to carry the heavy burden of kingship all alone. Later, Bharata asks Rama to take back from him the burden of the kingdom. On being consecrated, Rama addresses his father in heaven and says that he is now the ruler of the earth, bearing the noble burden, to protect the world through dharma.147

    One of the unusual features of Bhasa’s plays is the fact that he shows a king in dire straits, as a target of violence. In the Pratijnayaugandharayana, king Udyana is captured through a stratagem, imprisoned, beaten, tortured, tied up, and wounded. Of course, the king shows great valor when captured and fights all day till he falls unconscious.148 But the portrayal of a great king in such an abject and humiliating situation would be unthinkable in the epic or later kāvya tradition. It represents one of many elements of originality in Bhasa’s dramatic art.

    Creative engagement with the epic tradition is central to Bhasa’s literary and political discourse. It is not clear which specific tellings of the epics Bhasa was responding to, but he no doubt used poetic license to mold characters and events in ways that best expressed both his poetic tastes and his political ideas. A striking aspect of Bhasa’s political plays is the manner in which he deals with the two arch epic villains: prince Duryodhana of the Mahabharata and queen Kaikeyi of the Ramayana. Duryodhana is frequently referred to as Suyodhana, the negative prefix of his name being replaced by a positive one. (This is seen in the Mahabharata as well, but it is submerged in the larger negative portrayal of the Kaurava prince.) The Pancharatra portrays Duryodhana as a complex character—he is full of deceit but also follows dharma. What is more, in the end, he adheres to his promise and agrees to give half the kingdom to the Pandavas. The nobility and pathos in Duryodhana’s character are most pronounced in the Urubhanga, where he is portrayed as strong and brave, wedded to the warrior’s

    code, a dutiful son, and loving father. As he lies on the verge of death, his thigh smashed by Bhima, we see a mellow Duryodhana, whose hatred toward the Pandavas has melted and who reflects with remorse on the terrible misdeeds he has committed in his lifetime. Bhasa makes him into a tragic hero.

    Kaikeyi’s makeover is equally striking. In the Pratima, although she is the object of much revilement from various characters, including her son Bharata, she is completely exonerated of all guilt toward the end of the play.149 Rama points out that Bharata’s succession to the throne was part of the dowry (śulka) that she was promised at the time of her marriage. Later, Kaikeyi reveals the story of the curse pronounced on Dasharatha while he was hunting, and says that she had taken on the burden of Rama’s banishment not out of greed but so that the hermit’s curse could come true and in order to protect the promise that Dasharatha had made at the time of their marriage. She says that she had always cherished a desire for Rama to become king. As for the issue of Rama’s fourteen-year exile, she explains that she had meant to ask for fourteen days and had uttered fourteen years by mistake. Her version is accepted, and Kaikeyi participates happily in Rama’s consecration.

    We will see other aspects of Bhasa’s creative engagement with the epics in

    later chapters of this book, especially his replacement of violence and war with negotiation and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Bhasa’s sympathetic treatment of the chief villains of the Mahabharata and Ramayana show that while the epic traditions were an important element in literary political discourse, poets and dramatists felt at liberty to alter their events and characters. Bhasa’s audience, which must have been well aware of the general plot of the epic stories, must have reacted to his creative departures with considerable interest and excitement.

    Kingship in the Buddhist Tradition

    The Buddhacharita: Kingship versus Buddhahood

    At the turn of the millennium, there were several important Buddhist interventions in the evolving political discourse. Kingship and Buddhahood were discussed even more than before in terms of association, analogy, and contrast in texts such as the Buddhacharita, Ashokavadana, and Jataka. Further, the sculpted image of the king made its first appearance at Buddhist stupa sites. While there are certain common elements in Buddhist political discourse, it is much more heterogeneous than usually imagined, especially in its attitude toward political violence.

    Ashvaghosha was a learned Buddhist scholar and poet who lived in the first or second century CE, perhaps in eastern India. He may have been associated with the Bahushrutiya school of Buddhism.150 His two extant works are the Saundarananda (Handsome Nanda) and Buddhacharita (Life of the Buddha). A few passages of his play, Shariputraprakarana, also survive. We will focus on the Buddhacarita. This poetic Sanskrit work, divided into several cantos, uses ten meters and describes itself as a mahākāvya (great kāvya). Although the single surviving manuscript of the Buddhacharita breaks off in the fourteenth canto, with the Buddha-to-be moving toward enlightenment under the bodhi tree, the Chinese and Tibetan translations (whose existence shows that the text’s influence traveled far) indicate that it was originally a twenty-eight-canto work that went on to talk about the Buddha’s death, the distribution of his body relics, the collection of his teachings, and the eventual birth of king Ashoka. Interestingly, Ashvaghosha alters the prince’s name Siddhartha (literally, succesful in his aims) to Sarvarthasiddha (successful in all his aims).

    One of the striking aspects of the Buddhacharita is the way in which it deftly

    and almost seamlessly weaves together ideas from various traditions, including the epics and Dharmashastra, and gives detailed, argued responses and rejoinders to certain influential ideas of its time, especially those connected with kingship, renunciation, and dharma. Patrick Olivelle suggests that if the epics and Manusmriti represent Brahmanical responses to Buddhism, then the Buddhacharita represents a Buddhist response to that response.151As kāvya, the Buddhacharita would have had greater impact on political elites than the canonical Buddhist texts, which would have circulated largely in monastic

    circles. The work must have also played an important role in the permeation of Buddhist ideas and ideals into classical Indian political thought.

    Ashvaghosha knew the Vedas, Dharmashastra, and the political the philosophical treatises. He also know the epics well.152 He refers to Valmiki as the first poet, and there are similarities between Valmiki’s description of Rama’s departure from Ayodhya and Ashvaghosha’s description of Sarvarthasiddha’s departure from Kapilavastu. Shuddhodana, whose grief at his son’s departure is compared with that of Dasharatha, says that the latter was lucky to have died soon after his son left for the forest.153 But Rama and the Buddha tread very different paths, and the stories of their lives have very different lessons to offer. The Buddhacharita makes a powerful case for the rejection of some of the central ideas of the epic, indeed of the entire Brahmanical tradition, including its political perspectives.

    Dharma is central to the Buddhacharita, and, as is the case elsewhere, the term is used in many different senses. The text distinguishes between what is conventionally considered dharma (in the Brahmanical tradition) and the dharma that is true, imperishable, and absolute. Conventional dharma has many aspects. It is related to the ideas of the trivarga (dharma, artha, kāma) and the āśramas (the four life stages). It is also related to the practice of what is referred to in the Brahmanical Purana texts as pūrtta—which consists of pious acts such as building parks, temples, and hermitages. The true dharma (sad-dharma) is the dharma of liberation from the cycle of birth and death (mokṣa-dharma). As in the epics, dharma is described as subtle (sūkṣma). The inhabitants of the hermitages have a special relationship with dharma: They pursue it and are its bearers (dharmabhṛt); the āśramas are like workshops of dharma. And yet this dharma is a lesser one. The great sages who live in the hermitages follow a dharma of an earlier age. Sarvarthasiddha’s quest is for the dharma for the new age, the goal of mokṣa. The prince is not willing to accept what the sacred texts or the experts say. He will rely only on his own understanding and judgment.154

    Ashvaghosha is aware of the vocabulary of the political treatises. He alludes

    to the seven elements of the state. The purohita and saciva are presented as experts in statecraft, advising prince Sarvarthasiddha accordingly. The poet is aware of the basic elements in the circle of kings (ally, enemy, neutral king).155 But what is more important is the fact that apart from giving a beautiful poetic

    narrative of the Buddha’s life, his quest, and his teaching, Ashvaghosha directly extended Buddhist philosophy to the realm of political power and gave a detailed exposition and critique of kingship in the light of that philosophy. At the end of the day, rāja-dharma (the dharma of the king) is not compatible with true dharma. And the Mahabharata model of the sage-like king is rejected through direct, forceful, cogent argument.

    Ashvaghosha presents Sarvarthasiddha’s father, Shuddhodana, as an ideal king.156 He is self-controlled (ātmajit), calm, generous, learned, truthful, loved by his people, and just. He follows the tradition of being a king as well as an ascetic. He attains fame and his sovereignty (personified by the goddesses Shri and Lakshmi) is stable. He performs sacrifices, gives gold and cows to Brahmanas, and bathes at many pilgrimage places. He excels in statecraft and has won many treasures; his land is peaceful and prosperous, its people virtuous. Under his rule, the rains come at the proper time, and women give birth painlessly. The kingdom is free from famine, disease, and danger. The king has a paternalistic and benevolent attitude toward his people; they follow his example and are virtuous. He is fair and measured in punishment—he does not impose the death penalty on criminals without reason; nor does he set them free. Instead, he inflicts light punishment. In tune with older tradition, Shuddhodana throws open the prison doors for the periodic release of prisoners.

    This description of the ideal king would not be out of place in a Brahmanical

    text, but it is tempered with a distinct emphasis on compassion and nonviolence. Shuddhodana has the deformed, sick, and wretched gently removed from the highway so that his son does not see them. He is angry with the charioteer Chhandaka for revealing life’s harsh truths to the prince but does not punish him. He offers sacrifices without injuring living beings, as do his subjects. He is never aggressive, not even toward his enemies. Ashvaghosha tells us that

    he crushed the swollen pride of his enemies with the battle-axe of virtue, not war.157

    But Shuddhodana has a major flaw. Although he loves dharma, he loves his son more. Due to the fear of losing him, he guards his son against dharma by submerging him in an excess of sensual pleasures.

    Sarvarthasiddha, the Buddha-to-be, is, at least on the face of it, an ideal

    potential king. He belongs to the illustrious Ikshvaku lineage, which had produced many sage-kings. He has a lion’s mien and royal majesty. He is pure, wise, and noble from his childhood. But his potential actually surpasses that of an ideal king. He performs miracles. On being born, he immediately takes seven steps and declares that he has been born for enlightenment and the welfare of the world, and that this is his last coming-into-existence. The signs on his body have not been seen in noble kings of older times. His extraordinary self-control and self-possession (ātmavattā) are evident in the fact that he remains unmoved by the attempts of a host of beautiful and skilled courtesans to seduce him. Another aspect of his personality that sets him apart from all others is his great compassion (anukampana, karuṇā), which manifests itself as soon as he breaks out of the cocoon of pleasure and comfort that his father had woven around him. As he sits under the bodhi tree, he is possessed of resolve (niścaya), valor (parākrama), and energy (tejas). These qualities would not be out of place in a warrior king, except that Sarvarthasiddha uses them to achieve a very different goal—that of enlightenment.

    A central issue that is discussed repeatedly and in great detail in the Buddhacharita is the relationship between kingship and renunciation. Yudhishthira of the Mahabharata periodically yearns to renounce the world, but allows himself to be dissuaded by others. In stark contrast, Sarvarthasiddha is firm in turning his back on kingship even before he is to become king. Although it is suggested in the beginning of the story that the ways of the world victor and world renouncer represent two alternative paths for the great man, the prince unequivocally rejects the former:

    “I do not desire unhindered kingship even in the triple heaven;

    how much more among humans!”158

    The stand ultimately taken by the Buddha-to-be is presented as the culmination of a detailed debate on the appropriate time for a king to go to the forest. The Buddhacharita first gives a detailed exposition of the view (this is, in fact, the Brahmanical view) that renunciation is acceptable, even praiseworthy for a king, but that he should retire to the forest only after he has lived the life of a householder, paid his debts to the gods, sages, and ancestors, and discharged

    his duties as king. Shuddhodana’s purohita and minister cite precedent and the śāstras to buttress their arguments. They argue that kings have won mokṣa- dharma even while remaining kings. In a dialogue between Sarvarthasiddha and Shrenya (Bimbisara), king of Magadha, the latter urges him not to give up kingship. Practicing dharma is for the old, not for the young; the prince should perform sacrifices and enjoy the pleasures of life. Perhaps he wishes to renounce the world because he is impatient to become king. If that is so, Bimbisara generously offers, he is welcome to take half of his kingdom. But the prince gives spirited rejoinders to all these arguments. There is no “proper” time for renunciation.

    While the relationship between kingship and renunciation, and the rejection of the old dharma in the quest for a new one, can be seen as emerging naturally from the outline of the Buddha’s sacred biography, there are places where we get glimmers of Ashvaghosha’s political perspective. The story of the Buddha’s life naturally loaned itself to a focus on the royal vice of sexual indulgence. But the centrality of the theme in Ashvaghosha’s poem suggests that he considered this as the most dangerous of the royal vices. The prince sees the ugliness that lies underneath the superficial desirability of the women of his harem, and this is an important step in intensifying his spiritual dissatisfaction. Less obviously connected with the main outline of the story—and therefore very significant from the point of view of political ideas—are the four verses on the evils of kingship that Ashvaghosha puts into the prince’s mouth in a dialogue with Shuddhodana’s purohita.159 We have already encountered the idea of kingship as a burden in the epics and Bhasa’s plays. Ashvaghosha goes much further and condemns kingship as a dangerous delusion. Sarvarthasiddha asks:

    “How can it be right for a wise man to accept kingship that is delusion’s dwelling place,

    Where anxiety, pride and fatigue lurk, and damage to dharma by mistreating other men?”160

    Kingship is also dangerous:

    “For a kingdom is charming yet full of dangers, like a golden castle that is on fire,

    like exquisite food that’s mixed with poison, like a lotus pond filled with crocodiles.”161

    Sarvarthasiddha also gives a novel explanation of why kings of earlier times had left their kingdom in their old age and headed for the forest: It was because of their experience of pain and hatred for a job that brought along with it neither happiness nor dharma.162 It is better, he asserts, to eat grass in the forest than to live with the invisible dangers or evils (doṣas) that lurk concealed in royal power like black snakes. Ashvaghosha asserts (again, through Sarvarthasiddha’s voice) that it is not possible for householder kings to attain mokṣa. The dharma of mokṣa, where calm (śama) predominates, and the dharma of kings, where force (daṇḍa) predominates, are poles apart. If a king takes delight in calm, his kingdom falls apart, and if his mind is fixed on his kingdom, his calm is destroyed—like water and fire, like cold and heat, calmness and fierceness are incompatible. It is therefore praiseworthy for kings to abandon their kingdoms and enter the forest, desiring dharma. And once they leave, they should never return.

    Sarvarthasiddha goes even further than this in his conversation with king

    Bimbisara, making the radical pronouncement that because opposites such as happiness and sorrow always coexist, kingship (rājya) and enslavement (dāsya) are the same thing.163 The authority of the king is a source of great sorrow; like a carrying pole, he has to endure great hardship for the sake of his people. The king cannot place his trust in his kingdom, which is full of enemies; nor can he not place his trust in it, for what happiness does he enjoy if he is trembling with fear? And at the end of the day, even if he conquers the whole earth, he still has only one house in one city in which to live. Utterly destroying the idea of the king as an exalted being, Sarvarthasiddha observes in a matter-of-fact way that the king is a mere man, who lives like other men. He wears one pair of garments, eats in order to satisfy his hunger, sleeps in one bed, sits on one seat. The opulent frills of kingship only make him arrogant. If kings of old have anything of value to offer humanity, it is the example of the gentle king Shibi, who was willing to give up his life for the sake of a dove. The violence of kingship is replaced by compassion.

    While the Buddhacharita is one of the earliest surviving works of Sanskrit

    poetry, it actually subverts many poetic conventions of the larger tradition. The aims of kāvya were to entertain, enthrall, and give fame to the poet and his composition. But Ashvaghosha specifically states that he had written this work not to display his poetic skills or learning, but for the sake of the welfare and happiness of all people.164 In Sanskrit poetry, descriptions of beautiful women and love are associated with the sensitive mood known as the sṛṅgāra rasa and are meant to arouse tender emotions (bhāva) in the audience.165 But in the fifth canto of the Buddhacharita, when the gods put all the beautiful women of the harem to sleep, the prince sees their true ugliness. The prince and the reader of the mahākāvya are filled with revulsion.

    Ashvaghosha critiques not only sexual passion, but all kinds of love. Sarvarthsiddha inspires much love and affection—from his father, king Bimbisara, the people of Kapilavastu, the inhabitants of the hermitages, even from his horse. But all these varieties of love are described as sources of suffering. The meeting of people in life is as fleeting as a dream. The pain of separation cannot be ended by reunion with a loved one; rather, it must be ended by abandoning love. The only kind of love that has positive value and really counts in this story is Sarvarthasiddha’s love for dharma (here to be understood as the truth), but ultimately, when he attains enlightenment, that love, too, is abandoned.

    According to kāvya convention, the end of a poem or play is a time for happy reunions. Such an ending was not possible in a telling of the Buddha’s life story, where conventional understandings of the human condition are rejected and reversed. As Sarvarthasiddha points out, separation is inevitable, and it is ignorance, not separation, that is the cause of grief. But it is a happy ending of a different kind: The protagonist attains enlightenment and the new-age dharma is poised to spread far and wide. Apart from the fact that his work represents an early stage in the kāvya tradition, the main reason for the differences between the Buddhacharita and later Sanskrit poetry is the fact that Ashvaghosha uses kāvya as a powerful vehicle of philosophical debate and propagation of Buddhist philosophy. The nature of that philosophy made it imperative for him to subvert some of the conventions, techniques, and aims of kāvya, as well as some of the central political ideas of the Brahmanical tradition. Kingship was rejected in favor of renunciation and enlightenment.

    The Ashokavadana: The King as Buddhist Patron

    While the Buddha’s life story asserts the superiority of the world renouncer over the world victor, Ashoka’s life had the potential for offering a more positive role model for kings, especially one that emphasized nonviolence. But in the entire Buddhist world, Ashoka’s own voice, which resounds clearly through his edicts, was obliterated by the legends that came to surround him. We have already seen that Ashoka’s edicts give us a valuable first-person account of his ideas of dhamma, kingship, and empire. But the Ashoka of the edicts bears little resemblance with the Ashoka of Buddhist legend. Those who had fashioned the legends either did not know the edicts or deliberately chose to ignore them.

    The legends have come down to us in the form of two broad traditions. The Sanskrit Ashokavadana represents the northern tradition, which circulated in northwestern India, Tibet, Central Asia, and East Asia. The fifth-century Pali Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa and Buddhaghosha’s commentrary on the Vinaya Pitaka circulated in Sri Lanka and various parts of Southeast Asia. Here, we will focus on the Ashokavadana, a text that was probably composed in or around the Mathura area in the second century, but incorporates legends that must have been in circulation from an earlier time.166Avadāna means a meritorious deed, and the Ashokavadana is part of a larger anthology of Buddhist legends known as the Divyavadana.

    The Ashokavadana weaves together Buddhist doctrines, including the ideas of karma, merit, and devotion to the Buddha. The text commences with the story of the monk Upagupta, and goes on to recount the story of Ashoka’s gift of dirt to the Buddha in a previous birth; his life and acts before and after he was drawn to the Buddha’s dhamma; his pilgrimage (along with the monk Upagupta) to the sacred places of Buddhism; and his death. It ends with the story of Pushyamitra Shunga, described as a descendent of Ashoka, who violently persecutes Buddhism and is ultimately killed by a yakṣa (a semi-divine being). The Ashokavadana incorporates Ashoka into the Buddhist model of kingship and portrays him as a powerful monarch, intimately associated with Buddhism, and an exceptionally generous patron of the Buddhist monastic order, the sangha. Nonviolence has no place in this portrayal.

    The text heralds a new relationship between kingship and the religious

    domain. Ashoka is directly connected with the Buddha through the legend of the gift of earth: In a previous life, when just a child, Ashoka had thrown a fistful of dirt into the Buddha’s begging bowl and had simultaneously made a vow (praṇidhāna) that he should become a sovereign king through this root of merit. The Buddha had accepted the gift with a smile and prophesied the child’s future greatness. Ashoka’s status as emperor is described as a direct result of that prophecy, which is repeated several times in the Ashokavadana. Later, Ashoka meets the monk Pindola Bharadvaja, who was present when he had made the gift of earth. On meeting one who had seen the Buddha, Ashoka felt tremendous joy.167

    Ashoka does not possess all the standard Buddhist virtues in the Ashokavadana. The negative portrayal of Ashoka before he came under the influence of the Buddha’s dhamma does not surprise us. He is ugly, cruel, violent, and sadistic; his father does not love him and does not want him as his heir. Just before his father’s death, Ashoka connives with the ministers to wrest the throne. He has his brother Susima killed as the latter enters the capital city. He personally beheads five hundred ministers when they ask him why he has ordered them to chop down all flowering and fruit trees and preserve the ones with thorns. He burns five hundred women of his harem alive when they cut the flowers and branches off an ashoka tree. Finally, his prime minister feels constrained to intervene in this orgy of violence:

    “Your majesty, it is not seemly for you yourself to do what is improper; why don’t you appoint some royal executioners, men who will carry out the necessary killings for the king?”168

    An executioner named Chandagirika is appointed. At his behest, Ashoka has a prison constructed, where he derives pleasure from witnessing the torture of hapless victims. According to the Ashokavadana, a remarkable change in Ashoka’s personality took place due to his encounter with a monk named Samudra who had innocently strayed into this prison and who, after attaining enlightenment, withstood all the tortures to which he was subjected. Enormously impressed, the king announced that he would take refuge in the Budddha and the dhamma.169

    Surprisingly, Buddhist hagiography blunts, but does not erase, Ashoka’s violent predispositions and acts after his “conversion.” The executioner Chandagirika is burned alive and the torture prison destroyed. But the king still hunts and the episodes of bad temper, intolerance, and violence continue. He has 18,000 Ajivikas killed, and offers a dinara coin for the head of every Nirgrantha (Jaina) brought before him. He stops imposing capital punishment only after his brother Vitashoka is given the death sentence in a tragic case of mistaken identity. Well after this incident, he has his queen Tishyarakshita and the people of Taxila thrown into the fire when he hears of their role in the blinding of his beloved son Kunala, ignoring the latter’s plea to show mercy.170 This volatile and angry Ashoka is very different from the mature, measured, self-controlled king of the edicts. It has been suggested that the stories of Ashoka’s cruelty were retained because the Buddhist tradition was apprehensive of the institution of kingship.171 But the real reason seems to be that the tradition recognized that a certain amount of violence was an essential ingredient of kingship.

    Unlike the earlier Buddhist texts which talk about a generic cakravartin (paramount king), later ones distinguish between different types of cakravartins. Ashoka is described as a cakravartin who rules over one of the four continents (caturbhāga-cakravartin) and as a cakravartin who wields force (bala- cakravartin). In the Chinese translation of the Ashokavadana, he is called an iron-wheeled monarch who ruled over Jambudvipa (the subcontinent). The significance of these epithets and the larger classificatory system within which they are embedded emerge more clearly in Vasubandhu’s fourth–fifth-century text, the Abhidharmakosha.172 Here we see a correlation between the material out of which the conqueror’s wheel was made, the number of continents over which he ruled, and the method whereby he achieved his great victories. The golden-wheeled cakravartin (suvarṇa-cakravartin) establishes his rule over four continents by simply going forth. The silver-wheeled one (rūpya-cakravartin) establishes his rule over three continents as a result of encounters with some petty kings. The copper-wheeled one (tāmra-cakravartin) establishes his rule over two continents after some resistance. The iron-wheeled one (ayaś- cakravartin) establishes his rule over one continent, namely Jambudvipa, through the use of weapons, although no one is actually killed in the process. Clearly, the Ashoka of the Ashokavadana, who uses force and rules over only

    one continent, is at the bottom of this listing. Nevertheless, he is a righteous king

    —a dharmika-dharmarāja. The Buddhist tradition accepts that the king’s force is compatible with his righteousness.

    The greatness of Ashoka in the Ashokavadana lies primarily in his being a powerful and generous patron of the sangha and a builder of 84,000 relic stupas (known as dharmarājikās). The latter act involved aggression and violence. Ashoka marched, along with his army, to each of the original nine relic stupas, divested them of their relics, and placed a portion of them in a new stupa. After this, he built 84,000 relic stupas and came to be known as Dharmashoka. By building these stupas, Ashoka planted indelible marks of the Buddha’s physical presence all over his realm, in the process sanctifying it and proclaiming his intimate links with the Buddha. He is also said to have symbolically witnessed and internalized the story of the Buddha’s life by visiting the sacred places associated with him in the company of the monk Upagupta, making offerings wherever he went. But he took his army along on this pilgrimage.173 The king and his army seem inseparable!

    The Ashokavadana also presents Ashoka as a skillful disseminator of the

    Buddha’s teachings. He was a “master of good means” (upāyas) who had understood the Buddha’s teaching and sometimes used unusual means to propagate it. Ashoka’s brother Vitashoka was critical of the Buddhist monks and thought that they enjoyed the pleasures of life. In order to make him realize his error, Ashoka allowed Vitashoka to become king for seven days, and stationed executioners at his gate. By the end of this experience, Vitashoka had learned that since monks comprehend and meditate on the certainty of suffering and death, they are immune to the pleasures of life.174 Sometimes Ashoka’s cruelty has a purpose, such as when he asked his ministers to bring him the heads of various animals and a human being and then to go to the marketplace and try to sell them. No one bought the human head because they found it disgusting. Ashoka’s aim was to make his minister Yashas realize that there was nothing wrong in the king bowing his head and showing extreme deference to Buddhist monks.175

    The king is prone to bouts of extreme and ostentatious generosity. In the course of the Panchavarshika festival in Pataliputra, he invites thousands of monks, gives 100,000 gold pieces to the sangha, and bathes the bodhi tree with

    four thousand pitchers of milk. Ashoka’s generosity has a competitive edge. He wants to set a record. Not only does he want to outdo the businessman Anathapindika, the reigning champion of lay generosity, he also wants to out-do king Bimbisara, the grand old royal patron of Buddhism. Goaded on by his son Kunala’s light-hearted prank, he gifts much more than he intended—including himself, the women of his harem, his officials, and Kunala, but not the treasury. This state of affairs does not last long because Ashoka redeems all these things from the sangha by giving it 400,000 gold pieces.176

    Ashoka’s last bout of extreme generosity occurs toward the end of his life, after he has bestowed 96 kotis of gold on the sangha. He continues to give whatever he can, till all he has left is half an āmalaka (myrobalan) fruit.177 He gives this, too. The fruit is mashed, put in a soup, and distributed to the monks. But even this is not enough. Just before he breathes his last, Ashoka presents the whole earth, except for the royal treasury, to the sangha. His ministers buy back the earth from the order by paying four kotis of gold pieces. So Ashoka’s successor, Sampadin, has an earth to rule over, and Ashoka’s desire to emulate Anathapindika’s gift of a total of 100,000 gold pieces to the sangha is eventually fulfilled. He had equaled, although not surpassed, Anathapindika in generosity.

    Woven into the Ashokavadana are critiques of kingship. On his deathbed, as he makes his last gift, the gift of the entire earth, to the sangha, Ashoka announces:

    “With this gift, I do not seek the reward

    of rebirth in Indra’s abode or Brahma’s world; even less do I want the glory of kingship

    that is as unsteady as a choppy sea. But because I give it with faith,

    I would obtain as the fruit of this gift something that cannot be stolen,

    that is honoured by the āryas

    and safe from all agitation:

    sovereignty over the mind.”178

    However, during his lifetime, Ashoka does not display the slightest sign of

    wanting to give up his royal position or renounce the world.179 On the two occasions when he makes lavish gifts to the sangha, he does not include the treasury. The gifts to the sangha are redeemed, the first time by Ashoka himself, the second time by his ministers. The subtext is that the earth belongs to the king, and he must rule over it. In this highly influential elaboration of the legend of Ashoka, the two wheels of dhamma no longer run parallel to each other, nor do they converge. The gap between them is widened, and the roles are clearly defined. Although inferior to the Buddha, the great king has taken on new roles: He is an aggressive religious patron, builder of religious edifices, and proselytizer of the faith. He is neither a prophet nor a practitioner of nonviolence.

    The Jataka: The Compassionate King

    Another influential expression of Buddhist ideas of kingship is located in the Pali Jataka, a collection of over five hundred didactic stories of the previous births of the Buddha, which form one of the fifteen books of the canonical Khuddaka Nikaya.180 The composition of the text can probably be placed between the third century BCE and the third century CE. The Jataka draws on older oral and literary traditions of folk tales and fables, but its stories (known as Jatakas) were very deliberately selected, reworked, and packaged for Buddhist didactic purposes to forcefully emphasize Buddhist virtues. The composition of the Jataka therefore represents a very deliberate and carefully designed religious propaganda project, developed by some intrepid monks who recognized the value of such narratives for propagating Buddhist values. Each story has a prologue that indicates the occasion on it was narrated by the Buddha. Each has an epilogue in which the Buddha reveals the links through incarnation between the characters of the story set in the past and individuals living in the present. The prologue and the epilogue emphasize the moral of the story, which bears a clear and strong Buddhist stamp. Many of the stories also have strong political content.

    The Jataka stories have a large cast of characters.181 Kings, princes, queens, Brahmanas, merchants, ascetics, and robbers figure prominently. Apart from humans, the characters include animals such as deer, elephants, monkeys, lions, and jackals, as well as many types of birds, fish and snakes. Talking animals are found in many ancient textual traditions and are part of a larger cultural understanding of the relationship between the human and animal worlds.182 In their profusion of talking animals, the Jatakas are similar to Aesop’s fables, but there are differences. In Aesop’s fables, apart from animals and humans, trees, flowers, plants, rivers, the wind, sun, seasons, and human body parts have speaking parts. They are also shorter and less complex than the Jataka stories, and their morals are drawn from common sense rather than religious doctrine.

    Kingship is central to the Jatakas. Many of the stories are set in the time of a king of Kashi named Brahmadatta. We encounter human kings as well as kings in the animal world, and their stories exemplify royal ideals from a Buddhist perspective. As is the case with the larger animal story tradition in India, the

    ideas of karma and rebirth are important in the Jatakas. However, unlike in the Brahmanical tradition, where animal birth is associated with sins committed in a previous birth, in the Jatakas, certain kinds of animal births are seen as a prelude to Buddha-hood. The bodhisattva (future Buddha) is supposed to have had numerous human as well as animal births; in several Jataka stories, he is a king, and not necessarily a human one. The social discourse of the Jatakas sometimes affirms and sometimes questions social hierarchies, occasionally giving a voice to the social underdog.183 Many of the Jataka stories emphasize unity among kin, intelligence, and resourcefulness in situations of conflict or trouble. The moral message is woven with the political message.

    The institution of kingship is considered to be as natural in the animal world as it is in the human world. The animals of the Jatakas have a political community akin to that of humans, and leaders in the animal kingdom need the same qualities as human kings. The Uluka Jataka gives the following account of the origins of kingship in the animal world: At the time when humans selected their king, the quadrupeds assembled and chose the lion as their king, and the fish of the ocean chose a fish named Ananda as theirs. The birds in the Himalayas also wanted to choose a king and decided on the owl. However, when a vote was taken on the matter, a crow objected on the grounds of the owl’s grumpy expression, which would look even worse when he was angry. So the birds chose a handsome golden goose instead (he was none other than a bodhisattva). A fallout of this incident was that owls and crows nursed a permanent hatred for each other.184

    In the evolution of Buddhist political thought, the Jatakas display some

    continuities as well as some innovations. The Tesakuna Jataka talks about the five powers (balas) of kingship: strength of arms (bāhā), wealth (bhoga), ministers (amacca), high birth (abhijacca), and intellect (paññā); the last of these is said to be the most important.185 B. G. Gokhale points out that this list has three elements in common with the Arthashastra’s idea of the seven elements of the state—ministers, army, and treasury. It may be more fitting to see the idea of the five balas as an elaboration of the idea of the three powers (śaktis) of the king. To the three powers of military might, energy, and counsel, the Buddhist tradition significantly adds wealth and high birth. These elements were not part of earlier Buddhist political discourse.

    The Jatakas speak of good kings and bad kings. The good king protects his people, is truthful and just, and preaches and practices compassion toward all creatures.186 He takes measures against violent animal sacrifices. The Rajovada Jataka tells the story of a bodhisattva who, as king of Banaras, ruled so righteously and perfectly and administered justice so fairly that the courts were deserted. A protocol issue arose when he encountered the just and righteous king of Kosala on the high road. Both kings were traveling on a quest to find out whether they had any fault in their own character. Only one carriage could pass through and the inferior king would have to make way. But who was the superior king? The king of Kosala was rough to the rough, mild to the mild, good to the good, and bad to the bad. But the bodhisattva king of Banaras had conquered anger with mildness and evil with goodness, gave gifts to misers, and repaid lies with truth. Obviously, he was the superior one, so the king of Kosala made way for him.187

    Sometimes a great king has to sternly threaten violence. In the Dummedha Jataka, when the bodhisattva becomes king of Banaras, he decides to fulfill his previously made vow to make his people refrain from destroying life and to make them virtuous. Using the threat of extreme violence in order to prevent violence, he announces that he will kill all those who transgress righteousness and will offer the gods their flesh, blood, entrails, and vitals. This proclamation was made all over Banaras. People were terrified; none dared disobey the king’s command and all practiced righteousness.188

    But the more usual image of the king in the Jatakas is of one who is kind, generous, tender, and compassionate. For instance, when king Brahmadatta sees a nest in a tree, he has it taken down, and finds three eggs in it. The eggs hatch, and from them emerge an owl, a mynah, and a parrot. The king adopts the baby birds as his children. This act of compassion turns out to be to his advantage. The birds give him good advice on how to rule his kingdom wisely and righteously, and he promotes them to high office.189

    We also encounter the king who gives everything up and renounces the world. The bodhisattva king Makhadeva of Videha ruled for 84,000 years. One day, on discovering that he had one grey hair, he saw death in front of him, and decided to turn his back on worldly pleasures and renounce the world. He handed over the reins of power to his son and became an ascetic living in a mango grove. In

    his next birth as king Nimi of Mithila, he did likewise.190

    The Mandhatu Jataka highlights the dangers of royal arrogance and lust for power.191 Mandhata was a great, powerful king endowed with the seven precious things and the four powers. When he clenched his left fist and touched it with his right hand, seven kinds of jewels poured down. Mandhata ruled the earth for thousands of years but was dissatisfied and wanted something more. On hearing that heaven was a better place, he rolled along the wheel of empire and traveled to the heaven of the four great kings, who invited him to rule over their domain. After a long time, Mandhata was once again seized with dissatisfaction and longed to rule over a better place. On being told that the heaven of the thirty- three gods was more beautiful than this one, he rolled along the wheel of empire and headed toward it. The god Sakka (Indra) welcomed him and gave him half his kingdom. After millions of years of power-sharing, during which thirty-six Sakkas came and went, Mandhata was again seized by a desire for greater power. He thought to himself that half of this heaven was not enough; he should kill Sakka and rule alone. These violent and greedy thoughts were his undoing. Mandhata’s power and life started ebbing, and because a human body cannot die in heaven, he fell earthward and landed in a park. There he breathed his last. The story of Mandhata, the cakravartin with an insatiable lust for power, drives home the destructive potential of excessive political ambition and arrogance.

    Compassion, protectiveness, selflessness, humility, intelligence,

    resourcefulness, and extreme self-sacrifice are the ideal virtues of the bodhisattva and king. In the Chhaddanta Jataka, the bodhisattva is born as a mighty six-tusked elephant.192 A jealous queen who thinks Chhaddanta loves a rival queen more, becomes queen of the king of Kashi in her next life, and sends a hunter to kill the elephant king and bring his tusks to her. The hunter disguises himself as a mendicant and carries a poisoned arrow. On learning of his mission, instead of killing him, Chhaddanta helps him to saw off his own tusks. Bleeding profusely and in great pain, the dying elephant tells the hunter:

    “I don’t give you these, friend hunter, because I do not value them, nor as one desiring the position of Sakka, Mara or Brahma, but the tusks of omniscience are a hundred thousand times dearer to me than these are, and may this meritorious act be to me the cause of attaining Omniscience.”193

    The idea of a king’s supreme self-sacrifice is also the theme of the Shibi Jataka.194 Shibi is a righteous king who builds many almshouses in his capital city and regularly distributes lavish gifts there. He is, however, dissatisfied with this kind of giving and wants to give something that is a part of himself. One day, he vows that on that day, if someone asks him for a part of himself—his heart, flesh, eyes, or his whole self as a slave—he will give it without hesitation. The god Sakka decides to test him, appears before him in the garb of a blind Brahmana, and asks him to give him one of his eyes. Shibi joyfully offers his left eye and asks a surgeon to effect the painful transfer, in spite of the alarmed protestations of his officials.

    “The eye of omniscience is dearer than this eye a hundred fold, indeed a thousand fold: there you have my reason for this action,” and he gave it to the Brahmana, who raised it and placed it in his own eye socket. There it remained fixed by his power like a blue lotus in bloom. When the Great Being [the king] with his left eye saw that eye in the Brahmana’s head, he cried—“Ah, how good is my gift of an eye!” and thrilled with the joy that had arisen within him, he gave him the other eye as well.195

    The king—now blind—contemplates becoming an ascetic, but the god Sakka ultimately restores sight to him—not normal human sight, but divine sight. Shibi becomes an ardent advocate of generosity and self-sacrifice, telling his people that they will attain heaven by practicing these virtues. Like Mandhata, Shibi is mentioned in the Mahabharata—except in the epic version of the story, he offers his flesh to redeem a dove from a hawk. Interestingly, some of the sculptural versions of this Jataka at Buddhist sites seem to follow the epic story line.

    Since the Jatakas circulated in written, oral, and artistic forms, their outreach and potential impact was far greater than that of canonical texts. The relationship between oral, textual, and visual renditions of the Jataka stories is a complex one; they were not simple “translations” of each other. Which of the hundreds of Jataka stories were chosen for visual representation is also significant. It is not always easy to identify these representations with certainty.196 At Bharhut in central India, the Jataka scenes have labels; at other sites, they do not. Pilgrims to religious monuments may not have been interested in tracing the detailed

    story line of the Jataka relief sculptures they encountered. The reliefs may have had iconic value, signifying the presence of the Buddha or the course of his many lives in a general way, enveloping the devotee in their warm embrace, rather than having a specific narrative or didactic value. Or perhaps they were seen as visual allegories for various Buddhist virtues.197 But there is no doubt that representations of the Jataka stories in stone sculpture at Buddhist sites such as Sanchi, Bharhut, Amaravati, and Nagarjunakonda as well as in the later Ajanta murals, made them part of the lived experience of pious Buddhist believers and pilgrims all over the subcontinent. The fact that the stories also spread to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia made them highly influential repositories and communicators of normative ideas of kingship across Asia.

    The most popular Jatakas were about kings and refer to the pragmatic, moral, and karmic aspects of political power. While Mandhata offers a warning to over- ambitious kings, Chhaddanta and Shibi offer positive prototypes for emulation. Individually and collectively, these narratives emphasize the following qualities for a king: compassion and forbearance in the face of grave provocation; resourcefulness in time of emergency; extraordinary generosity; supreme self- sacrifice for the sake of others; and a strong desire for renunciation. The Jatakas seem to offer a model of kingship shorn of its arrogance and violence. However, as we shall see in Chapter 4, they are ambivalent toward the most violent of kingly activities, warfare.

    The Birth of the Royal Praśasti: Kharavela and Rudradaman

    Between circa 200 BCE and 300 CE, there was an expansion in the communicative media of rulers.—apart from inscriptions, royal power and authority were expressed through images and legends on coins and in stone sculpture. The range, type, and volume of royal inscriptions increased dramatically and Sanskrit gradually replaced Prakrit as the language of power. Some of the most important political ideas of the preceding centuries crystalized in mature works of poetry and drama. The panegyric (praśasti) of royal inscriptions offered a condensed and yet precise outline of the important ingredients in the ideology of kingship and played an important role in legitimizing political power.

    There was a close relationship between the form, subject matter, and audience of kāvya and epigraphic praśasti. The latter has been described as political poetry and public poetry.198 Given the presumably limited extent of literacy at the time and issues of placement and access, the circle of “readers” or even “listeners” of the inscriptions may have been confined to social and political elites. Further, as we shall see, the royal epigraphic discourse extended beyond kāyva conventions and vocabulary and embraced ideas expressed in Dharmasastra, the political treatises, epics, and Puranas, as well as, on occasion, non-Brahmanical traditions. A comparison with the Ashokan edicts reveals that although the moral aspect of kingship remained important, it was now expressed in very different ways. The angularities and idiosyncrasies of individual kings are concealed by elaborate idealized portraits of kings who were presented as exceptional and exemplary rulers.

    The praśasti legitimized not only royal power, but also political violence,

    dictating how it was to be perceived from the king’s point of view. The royal genealogy in the praśasti gives a sanitized version of intra-dynastic conflicts, suggests smooth transfers of power, and elides the violent power struggles that must have frequently preceded or followed the death of kings. The king’s violence against his own subjects is subsumed in allusions to his maintenance of social order. The descriptions of violent wars against other states conceal military defeats, and advertise and celebrate victories. Martial kingship is balanced with a detailed description of a host of the king’s pacific, benevolent


    These epigraphic images of kingship had enormous circulatory potential across kingdoms. Given the amount of detail about military victories in such inscriptions, it is very likely that they were crafted in order not only to impress and overawe the subjects of the king, but also to announce his exploits and greatness to rival kings and subordinates. It was possible for a literate reader to transcribe the text of an inscription, and that transcription could travel far and wide. This activity of transcribing epigraphic texts and the circulation of epigraphic models must have taken place on a large scale in ancient times. This goes a long way toward explaining the striking similarity in the format and style of royal inscriptions across different parts of the subcontinent and the spread of Indic epigraphic practice to Southeast Asia.

    We should note that the large number of royal inscriptions, with which we are most concerned here and which provide a framework for the construction of dynastic histories, are greatly outnumbered by records of pious donations made by ordinary men and women from diverse social backgrounds. Political elites forged links with the religious ideas and institutions of their time, but the political sphere never completely captured or encompassed the sphere of sectarian religion.

    Two royal inscriptions—of Kharavela from the east and Rudradaman from the west—are eloquent expressions of the evolving ideology of kingship. The ideas in these inscriptions emerged as an outcome of the intertextual dialogues discussed above. Although the two inscriptions differ in language, purpose, organization, and detail, there are some meeting points. Water figures in both and both connect themselves with the early kings of Magadha, although in different ways.

    Kharavela, who lived and ruled in Kalinga in eastern India in the late first century BCE / first century CE, has been overshadowed in historical writing and popular perception by his famous Buddhist predecessor, Ashoka. But his inscription, in the Prakrit language and Brahmi script, inscribed across the brow and roof of a cave known as Hathigumpha on the Udayagiri hill in Orissa, is a remarkable document, presenting a carefully constructed epigraphic biography, extremely rich in political ideas.199 The inscription clearly indicates that Kharavela was associated with Jainism. It begins with a salutation to the Jaina

    arhats and siddhas. There is no detailed genealogy. Instead, the king’s lineage affiliation is stated—he belonged to the Chedi or Mahameghavahana family and was a descendant of Ila, that is, he belonged to the lunar lineage. This is the earliest epigraphic reference to the epic-Puranic theory of the two megalineages of ancient India, the solar and lunar lineages.

    Describing the education of the prince, his training, and exemplary qualities, the Hathigumpha inscription tells us that he discharged the duties of heir- apparent for nine years and became king when he turned twenty-five. It goes on to systematically narrate the highlights of the years of his reign. Kharavela is described as a great king (mahārāja), benefactor to his subjects, Brahmanas, and members of the Jaina order, akin to a wish-fulfilling tree. Apart from the Jaina salutation in the beginning, the inscription mentions (in line 12) that the king had re-enshrined a Jina image that had been taken away by the Nanda king—an allusion to the wresting and retrieval of a famous war trophy, evidently one of great religious significance. We are told that in his thirteenth year, the king gave gifts of silk and white cloth to the monks (this indicates that they belonged to the Shvetambara sect) who were associated with a relic shrine on the Kumari hill. He also convened a huge Jaina conclave at this place, and had various Jaina texts compiled. He seems to have had some shelters made for the monks (a queen named Sindhula also seems to have been associated with this activity). Kharavela describes himself as a layman devoted to worship, as one who had realized the nature of the soul (jīva) and body (deha).

    The inscription uses the familiar vocabulary of statecraft. Kharavela is said to have followed the three-fold policy of force (daṇḍa), treaty (sandhi), and conciliation (samaya). This Jaina king did not renounce war; in fact, he proclaims his extensive conquests (this point will be elaborated on in Chapter 4). He specifically mentions rituals of anointment and re-anointment and is said to have remitted all taxes on the occasion of the performance of the rājasūya sacrifice.

    The king is presented as promoting the welfare of the people of the cities and countryside, and as a builder and repairer. The inscription tells us that as soon as he was anointed, Kharavela ordered the repair of the gates, walls, and buildings of his capital city, Kalinganagara, which had been damaged by a storm. In this city, he constructed a lake embankment, tanks, and cisterns; and he had all the

    gardens restored. The cost of these activities, which gratified his people, is recorded as 35,000 of an unspecified currency. In his fourth year, he repaired certain structures built by former kings of Kalinga. In his fifth regnal year, he brought into the capital a canal from the Tanasuliya road, excavated in year 133 of king Nanda. Later, he spent vast sums of money in building a “Palace of Great Victory” (Mahāvijaya). He built excellent towers with carved interiors, established a settlement of one hundred masons, and gave them tax exemptions. He built a huge elephant enclosure. He also seems to have built some sort of lavish structure (which cost 7,500,000 of an unspecified currency) associated with the Jaina sangha on the Kumari hill. The specification of the cost of these enterprises seems to have aimed at overawing the audience.

    The last two lines of the Hathigumpha inscription sum it all up. They proclaim Kharavela as king of many things, endowed with extraordinary qualities and authority.

    He is the king of peace [khema-rāja], king of prosperity [vaḍha-rāja], king of monks [bhikhu-rāja], king of dharma [dhama-rāja], who has been seeing, hearing and realizing auspicious things.… [He is] accomplished in extraordinary virtues, [a] respector of every sect [pāsaṁḍa], the repairer of all temples [devāyatana], one whose chariot and army are irresistible, one whose empire is protected by the chief of the empire [himself], descended from the family of the royal sage Vasu, the great conqueror [mahā-vijayo], the king, the illustrious Kharavela.200

    We can see some similarities with Ashoka in Kharavela’s expression of respect for all sects, but unlike Ashoka, this Jaina king did not renounce violence; he was very much a military man.

    An inscription in the Manchapuri cave at Udayagiri records its excavation for the Jaina monks of Kalinga.201 The donor is the unnamed chief queen (aga- mahisi) of Kharavela, who gives details of her own lineage. What is significant for our purposes is that the fourth line of the inscription (which is damaged and difficult to read) seems to describe Kharavela as the cakavati (that is, cakravartin) of Kalinga. If this reading is correct, it is the earliest epigraphic use of the epithet cakravartin by a historical king of ancient India.

    Important epigraphic testimony to the evolving Indian ideology of kingship

    during the period circa 200 BCE–200 CE also comes from the Kathiawar region of Gujarat in western India and highlights the relationship between kingship and water resources even more forcefully. A rock found at Girnar (also known as Junagadh) bears three sets of royal inscriptions: the fourteen rock edicts of Ashoka, an inscription of the Shaka Kshatrapa king Rudradaman, and an inscription of the Gupta king Skandagupta. The latter two narrate the story of a water reservoir across dynasties, over a period of about a thousand years. Here we will look at Rudradaman’s inscription, which happens to be the oldest long inscription in fine literary Sanskrit prose.202

    The well-etched Brahmi letters of this twenty-line inscription, consisting of five long sentences, stretch across an area of over eleven feet on the rock face and are damaged in part. The inscription begins with the eulogy not of a king but of a lake called Sudarshana (literally “beautiful to look at”) and goes on to narrate its history. The construction of this artificial reservoir was begun by Vaishya Pushyagupta, described as provincial governor (rāṣṭrīya) during the time of the Maurya king Chandragupta. It was completed under the supervision of Yavana Tushaspha during the time of Ashoka. The inscription then describes a terrible storm, which took place in year 72 (this no doubt refers to the Shaka era of 78 CE, which corresponds to 150 CE), which tore a huge breach into the lake, leading to its drying up. Against the counsel of his advisers who considered it an impossible task, Rudradaman initiated a massive repair operation. The work was entrusted to and successfully completed by the Pahlava (Parthian) Suvishakha, who seems to have been some sort of governor. This man is described as an able and honest officer who was loved by the people, and who, through his able governance, increased the merit and fame of his master, Rudradaman.

    Framed within the description of the construction, breach, and repair of the water reservoir is an important expression of the ideology of kingship. The genealogy is partially damaged. The eulogy of mahakṣatrapa Rudradaman tells us (lines 10–11) that

    from the womb he was distinguished by the possession of undisturbed Royal Fortune [Rāja-Lakṣmī], was resorted to by all varṇas and chosen as their lord to protect them; [was one] who made, and is true to, the vow to the latest breath of his life to abstain from slaying men, except in battles;

    who [showed] compassion [kāruṇya].

    So although he upheld the principle of nonviolence, he did not abjure war. In fact his martial achievements are described in detail (these will be discussed in Chapter 4). But Rudradaman’s great fame rested not only on his military victories but also on a long list of other stellar qualities and achievements. The king was handsome; learned in grammar, music, logic, and other disciplines; protected his people and had an over-flowing treasury; was compassionate; was generous and benevolent toward cows and Brahmanas; and was attached to dharma. He did not oppress his people with excessive taxes or forced labor. They, in turn, were devoted to him and were free from all troubles.

    The eulogy presents a balanced portrait of an ideal king. What is more, the most important achievement that is highlighted is the repair of the Sudarshana water reservoir, which was aimed at alleviating the despair of his people and augmenting the king’s dharma and fame (kīrtti). There is a marked Brahmanical element in the presentation of the king as benevolent toward Brahmanas and a protector of the varṇa order. Rudradaman’s inscription announces the arrival of elegant Sanskrit as the vehicle for expressing political power. Although it mentions compassion and nonviolence, the emphasis is on the model of a warrior-king who possesses many pacific virtues.

    Visual Representations of Royalty

    In Ashoka’s time, while the king’s thoughts could be read and heard, his physical form was absent. The figural sculpture of that time, largely associated with the capitals of the emperor’s pillars, was dominated by animals that had deep symbolic resonance. This changed toward the turn of the millennium, when we see the earliest representations of royalty carved on stone.

    It is intriguing that while there are plenty of representations of deities and saints in ancient India, kings, whether dead or alive, were depicted rarely, except on coins. Are we dealing with a powerful cultural idea that ordinary mortals, even if they happened to be kings, should not ordinarily be represented visually in sculpture or painting—that only gods, demigods, Buddhas, and tīrthaṅkaras qualified for this? (Even in Buddhism and Jainism, there is an early aniconic phase in which symbols predominate.) Was it considered inappropriate to have images of kings in religious places? Was the infrequency of visual representations of individual kings due to the privileging of the lineage rather than its individual members? Was this connected with a sociopolitical outlook that preferred to focus on collectivities rather than the individual? Where royal portraits do occur, there is stylization and ambiguity, and a blurring of the distinction between king and deity. Vidya Dehejia suggests that the indifference toward verisimilitude can perhaps be traced to the understanding of the self in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina traditions, where the body is considered ephemeral and where suppression of the ego is valorized.203 Whatever may be the reasons, it is intriguing that although kings are very prominent in ancient poetry and drama, they are shadowy figures in sculptural art. Against this background, it is interesting to note that they do make an appearance in stone relief sculpture during the period circa 200 BCE–300 CE.

    We have already seen the references to the cakkavatti / cakravartin in

    Buddhist texts, where he is associated with the seven treasures—namely, the wheel, elephant, horse, jewel, woman / queen, land-owning householder, and prince / adviser / general. Representations of the cakravartin with his “treasures” occur in relief sculptures at several early Buddhist sites such as Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda.204 The scene often occurs in abridged form, showing some and not all seven “jewels.” What is especially interesting is the fact that the

    cakravartin is usually shown raising his fisted right hand, his left hand about to strike or having just struck that fist in order to release a shower of money and jewels (see Figure 2). In these representations, the “jewels” are an important frame, but what dominates the scene is the king’s powerful stance and his upraised clenched fist, which holds within it the promise of fabulous riches, expressing his great munificence.

    As mentioned earlier, kings also figure in artistic representations of Jataka stories where they are the main protagonists, such as the Mandhatu Jataka. In fact, it has been suggested that the representations of the generic cakravartin (discussed above) are actually representations of Mandhata. In some places, this king is shown in other poses, such as sitting in heaven with Indra.205 Monika Zin asks why this “morally dubious” king was chosen for such frequent representation, not only in the Andhra school of sculpture but also at many other distant places such as Bagh, Kizil, Tibet, and Borobudur. She suggests is that this was because Mandhata personified auspicious kingship. The more likely reason is that the Buddhist version of the story of Mandhata embodies and communicates a very important political lesson—namely, the great danger posed by the king’s arrogance to himself.

    Certain historical kings of Magadha and Kosala appear in early Buddhist art as part of the story of the Buddha’s life. For instance, a Bharhut relief panel in the Indian Museum in Kolkata shows Ajatashatru riding an elephant in a royal procession and ultimately performing obeisance before an ornamented throne, parasol, and footprints, which symbolize the Buddha. The Prakrit inscription on the side reads: “Ajatasatu Bhagavato vandate” (Ajatashatru worships the Lord [Buddha]).

  2. Sculpture of a cakravartin from Amaravati (in the Musée Guimet) Photograph: Upinder Singh

    Ashoka figures in three scenes at Sanchi. A scene carved on the southern

    gateway of Stupa 1 seems to depict his visit to the Ramagrama Stupa.206 We see the king with the royal insignia of turban, ewer, and fly-whisk riding in procession in a horse-drawn chariot, accompanied by an entourage that includes infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots. The procession is moving toward a stupa, on the other side of which four serpent deities (nāgas) and their families bear offerings in their hands. Another scene, carved on the western pillar of the southern gateway of Stupa 1, may represent Ashoka’s visit to the bodhi tree.207 A Stupa 2 railing relief shows a king—probably Ashoka—supported by or with his arms on the shoulders of two queens, flanked by three attendants.208

    But the most dramatic evidence of royal representations come from Kanaganahalli in the Gulbarga district of Karnataka, where several kings figure in the midst of an explosion of beautiful relief carvings on limestone slabs that once ornamented a magnificent brick stupa, which now lies in ruins.209 The carvings belong to the second and third centuries CE and the kings are identified by label inscriptions. The representations are highly stylized, without any significant differences in physique or facial features. But there are significant variations in the overall composition and in the details of ornaments, headdresses, and clothing. Ashoka figures in two scenes. In one, he appears along with his queen, with three women attendants, two bearing fly-whisks and one an umbrella (Figure 3).210 He wears an elaborate headdress, armlets, and earrings, and interestingly, the sacred thread, worn across the torso by the upper varṇas. The queen, wearing a necklace, girdle, and heavy anklets, plays with her earring with her right hand. The king’s and queen’s bodies tilt toward each other at the waist; they could be in conversation. The inscription reads “Rāyā Asoko.” (king Ashoka). In the second scene, which carries a similar inscription, the king stands with folded hands to the left of the bodhi tree, which is preceded by a pair of footprints; a man (perhaps a prince?) stands to the right.211 In the upper part of the scene are two women, one holding flowers and the other a bowl with some offerings. It has been suggested that this scene represents Ashoka venerating the bodhi tree along with his son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitra.212 Taken together, these two scenes reflect the iconic status that Ashoka had achieved not long after his death in the Indian Buddhist world.

  3. Ashoka and his consort, Kanaganahalli Courtesy: Archaeological Survey of India

    Apart from Ashoka, five Satavahana kings appear on relief carvings at Kanaganahalli. They can be identified by means of inscriptions as Simuka, Satakarni I, Mantalaka, Sundara Satakarni, and Vasishthiputra Pulumavi. The kings have elaborate headdresses and wear ornaments around their necks and arms, and they are usually shown in a palace setting.213 Mantalaka is shown sitting on a couch along with his queen, holding a cup in his right hand. Their bodies cling close; her firm breasts press against his cup and her right arm is flung around his neck. Both look tipsy. Taken together, the scenes depicting kings at Kanaganahalli portray the ceremonial aspects of kingship. They exalt the position of king through the deployment of attendants and royal insignia and announce him as a devout devotee and donor. But they also represent his relationship with his consort in terms of intimacy and affection. Why were scenes of the Buddha’s life interspersed with these lively representations of Ashoka and Satavahana royalty at Kanaganahalli? Ashokan inscriptions have been found nearby at Sannati but there is no evidence that the Satavahana kings were donors there or nearby.214 Clearly, it was important for the monastic community to claim a connection with these kings, whose rule extended over the area, whether or not they had extended financial patronage toward the establishment.

    Another representation of Satavahana royalty comes from far-away Naneghat

    (in Pune district, Maharashtra) in western India and is located on a major route of communication connecting the western ghats with the ports on the Arabian Sea coast. In a niche in the back wall of a cave are traces of relief sculptures of eight life-size figures, representing three generations of a royal lineage, including dead and living members. The only features of the sculptures that can now be made out are the feet, and in some cases, only barely so. The names of the figures are carved in large Brahmi letters over their heads, without which it would have been impossible to identify them.215 These inscriptions give us the following list: the illustrious king (rāyā si) Simuka Satavahana; queen (sirimāto devi) Nayanika / Naganika and the illustrious king (raño) Satakarni; prince (kumāro) Bhayala; (the name of the fifth person is lost); maharathi Tranakayira; prince (kumāro) Haku-shri; and prince (kumāro) Satavahana. This stiff family portrait seems very different from the lively scenes of the Satavahana kings carved at Kanaganahalli.

    Far away, at Udayagiri in eastern India, are a series of relief sculptures in two caves close to the Hathigumpha which has the inscription of Kharavela, discussed earlier.216 Although fragmentary and greatly damaged, the relief carvings in the Ranigumpha and Manchapuri caves may well tell in images the story that the Hathigumpha inscription narrates in words. In the Ranigumpha, we see a male figure with a parasol over his head and people standing or kneeling in front of him with folded hands. A consort, a caparisoned horse, a woman with a tray, women bearing water-pots on their heads or in their hands, and a man with a sword on his shoulder are part of the composition. The scene suggests a king about to set forth on an expedition, perhaps one of those mentioned in the Hathigumpha inscription. The scene in the Manchapuri cave depicts two male figures (one wearing a crown) and two female figures worshipping an object on a platform—perhaps it is the Kalinga Jina that Kharavela brought back from Magadha. We seem to have here rare instances of epigraphic and visual narrations of important events in the life of an ancient Indian king. It is significant that not a single one of the early sculptural representations of kings shows them directly engaged in warfare.

    While kings appear occasionally in stone sculpture, they start appearing

    frequently on coins, which provide vivid evidence of changes in the ideology of kingship. They first make their appearance in the die-struck coinage of the Indo- Greeks. The coins of the Greco-Bactrians that circulated to the north of the Hindu Kush follow the Attic weight standard; they have royal portraits on the obverse, while the reverse generally depicts Greek deities such as Zeus, Apollo, and Athena, along with the king’s name and title in Greek. The Indo-Greek coins that circulated to the south of the Hindu Kush followed an Indian weight standard and had bilingual inscriptions in Greek and Kharoshthi (and rarely, Brahmi). Silver coins of Philoxenus show the helmeted king seated on a prancing horse on the obverse,217 but most Indo-Greek coins carry the king’s bust. The gods and goddesses on the reverse (many from Indian pantheons) are shown in full bodily form, in a variety of poses.

    The great diversity in the numismatic royal portraits points toward some attempt at realism, which is also seen in the coins of the Scytho-Parthians and Satavahanas (though not on the coinage of the Kshatrapas).218 The presence of Gaja-Lakshmi (the goddess Lakshmi flanked by two elephants) on coins of the

    Scytho-Parthian king Azilises is notable, and seems to be the numismatic parallel to the strong association of this goddess with kingship in textual sources. Like sculptural art, coinage advertises the king not as a warrior but as one closely associated with the religious domain.

    Kushana Kingship: Dynastic Cult?

    The Kushana empire began as a Central Asian kingdom, and expanded into Afghanistan and northwestern India in the early centuries CE. The fact that Bactria was the center of the empire is evident in the use of the Bactrian language in king Kanishka’s coins and inscriptions. The empire consisted of various tiers of control, some areas under the direct control of the kings and others under subordinate rulers who had the title kṣatrapa or mahākṣatrapa. Some subordinate rulers acknowledged Kushana paramountcy and paid tribute, while others were practically autonomous. Historians have argued that the Kushanas introduced into India a new notion of divine kingship. The evidence cited includes epithets such as devaputra (son of a god / the gods), bagopouro (son of god), and bagoshao (god king).219

    As on Indo-Greek coins, the representations of Kushana kings on their coinage are quite individualistic, with varying facial features (see Figure 4).220 The coins of Vima Kadphises show him standing for the first time, sacrificing at an altar. This is the most frequent pose in which kings of this dynasty were hereafter portrayed. The great variety of deities on the reverse signifies their attempt to advertise their relationship with gods and goddesses drawn from different religious traditions—Hellenistic, Persian, and Indian.

    Excavations at Mat near Mathura revealed the ruins of a structural complex and traces of a circular temple of Kushana times, which has been interpreted by some scholars as a sanctuary where images of the Kushana kings were worshipped.221 Two inscribed broken stone images, evidently of royalty, were found near the circular temple. The fact that these images were outside the sanctum does not suggest that they were the principal objects of worship. Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan has also yielded certain structural remains and royal images, along with an inscription in the Bactrian language and Greek script, reflecting the claims of Kushana kings to divine status.222 Here too, the statues of the Kushana kings were not found in the cella. The third important site is Rabatak in Afghanistan, where a twenty-three-line inscription, written in the Bactrian language and Greek script, describes king Kanishka as “the great deliverer, the righteous, the just, the autocrat, the god, one who is worthy of worship, who has obtained kingship from Nana [a West Asian goddess] and all

    the gods.”223 Kanishka is also referred to as a king of kings and a son of the gods. There are references to his ordering the construction of a temple wherein images of the goddess Nana and several other deities were to be installed. The inscription also mentions his commanding an officer to make images of his (Kanishka’s) great-grandfather Kujula Kadphises, his grandfather Saddashkana, his father Vima Kadphises, and Kanishka himself.

  4. Kushana gold coins: (a) Kanishka at altar (obverse), god Athsho (reverse); (b) Huvishka (obverse), god Shahrevar (reverse); (c) Huvishka (obverse), god Shiva (reverse)

    Pankaj Tandon collection, photographs courtesy Pankaj Tandon

    The evidence of a Kushana “dynastic cult” consisting of the worship of kings of the dynasty is not conclusive. But the building of monumental temples to the gods and the placing of imposing sculptures of kings in these temples certainly reflect an innovation in Indian political practice. A connection with the gods is also suggested in coins that depict the king with a disc nimbus around his head and flames emanating from his shoulders, as well as kings shown sitting or emerging from clouds or mountains. The assertion that Kushana kingship was marked by a belief in the divinity of kings has to be considered against the background of the Iranian and West Asian traditions that they drew on and may have amounted to an exaltation of the institution of kingship, rather than the actual worship of individual kings.

    The details of the two headless stone images found at Mat, currently housed in the Mathura Museum, demand close attention. One shows a Kushana king— probably Vima Kadphises—wearing heavy boots, seated on a lion-throne (siṁhāsana). Although the connection of kingship and the lion is pervasive in many Asian traditions, this lion throne appears to be stylistically West Asian.224 The pendant legs of the king are also unusual in the Indian tradition of this period. The second image, which represents Kanishka (Figure 5), is even more dramatic and revealing. The head and arms are missing, but going by the depiction of this king on his coins, we can imagine that his face must have been bearded and he must have worn a conical Central Asian cap. The inscription across the lower edge of his robe announces him as “the great king, king of kings, son of the gods, Kanishka.”225 At first glance, the king’s attire and weaponry seem entirely Central Asian. He wears a knee-length tunic fastened at the waist with a belt, over which he has a stiff ankle-length outer robe. His large, heavy, padded boots are strapped round the ankles. His left hand firmly clasps the hilt of a great sword, ornamented with the carving of a bird’s neck and head. In his right hand, he holds a long mace, which has two very Indian elements: Its shape changes from round to sixteen-sided to eight-sided, reminiscent of Indian pillar forms; and a crocodile (makara) is carved near the bottom. (Various Kushana coins also show kings holding a mace.) In its depiction of the king with

    sword and mace (which can signify either or both force and justice), this Kushana statue perhaps gives us the earliest visual image that combines two central ingredients of ancient Indian kingship in its internal and external use of force—the king as warrior and dispenser of justice.

  5. Kanishka image, Mathura Museum Photograph: Upinder Singh

    Kanishka is celebrated in Buddhist texts as a great patron of Buddhism. He is said to have enshrined the Buddha’s relics in a stupa at Purushapura. A great

    Buddhist conclave was held during his reign. He is supposed to have patronized Buddhist scholars such as Ashvaghosha and Vasumitra and sent Buddhist missionaries to various parts of Central and East Asia. Yet (like those of his predecessor, Huvishka), Kanishka’s coins depict motifs drawn from a great variety of Indian, Greek, and West Asian religious traditions. Apart from the Buddha, we see Shiva, representations of Persian gods such as Atash and Mithra, and Greek deities such as Helios and Selene. This variety of religious motifs is usually taken as reflecting the king’s personal religious eclecticism. It should properly be seen as an acknowledgment of the religious diversity within the empire and the attempts of the Kushana kings to connect themselves with the many deities worshipped in and around their realm. The syncretic elements in the culture of these times is vividly reflected not only in these coin motifs but also in the sculptures of the Gandhara school, as well as in certain extraordinary images that combine attributes of gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra.226 All this marks a significant change in the religious underpinnings of the ideology of kingship during the early centuries of the Common Era.

    Royal Religious Policy

    Inscriptions also announce several innovations in the political interactions with the religious domain, which became part of the long-term Indian political tradition. The connection between kings and sectarian elements are proclaimed in the invocations and seals of their inscriptions. And yet, while sectarianism became an important aspect of the ideology of kingship, it did not succeed in circumscribing that ideology. Royal patronage was extended to a variety of beneficiaries in a way that rules out the identification of any particular religion as a “state religion.” In fact, the inability of any religious tradition to exclusively capture the political sphere was to have far-reaching consequences in Indian history.

    In the epigraphs of the Satavahanas, Kshatrapas, and Ikshvakus, the image of the king as victor in war remained important, but it was increasingly balanced by the image of the king as a performer of sacrifices and a generous donor who bestowed grants of land on worthy recipients. The Nasik inscription of Gautami Balashri, dated in the nineteenth year of her grandson, the reigning king Vasishthiputra Pulumavi, is an interesting document. It is in Prakrit but has long compounds of the kind usually found in Sanskrit. The inscription records the gift of a village by king Pulumavi to Buddhist monks of the Bhadavaniya sect for the embellishment of a cave excavated on the Trirashmi hill for them at the behest of his mother, Gautami Balashri. The grant is described as a dhama-setu (a bridge of dharma, here to be understood as merit) for the deceased king. It begins with praise of Gautami Balashri, describing her as mother of a great king; devoted to truth, charity, forgiveness, and nonviolence; incessantly engaged in penance, self-control, restraint, and fasting; and following the way of life of the wife of a royal sage (rājarṣi). The inscription goes on to bestow fulsome praise on her son Gautamiputra Satakarni (the former king) as a peerless Brahmana and great warrior, who had inherited royal power from a lineage of illustrious ancestors, who had destroyed the haughtiness and pride of the Kshatriyas, who had won many victories over his adversaries, and whose paramountcy was acknowledged by all the circles of kings (these details will be discussed in Chapter 4).227 Gautamiputra’s martial qualities are balanced by many other kinds of attributes. He is described as beauteous in appearance, with strong, long arms and the gait

    of a magnificent elephant. He was devoted to his mother and pursued the three goals of human existence at the right time and place. He was the refuge of royal fortune (Śrī), a source of good conduct, and the abode of the sacred texts (āgamas). He prevented the mixture of varṇas, wisely spent the taxes he collected, and was averse to imposing capital punishment, even on his enemies. He held festivals and archery contests. Interestingly, he is said to have ensured the prosperity of the Brahmanas as well as the lower classes. There are several epic–Puranic analogies: Gautamiputra’s prowess is compared with that of Rama, Keshava (Krishna), Arjuna, and Bhima; while his luster is compared with that of Nabhaga, Nahusha, Janamejaya, Sagara, Yayati, Rama, and Ambarisha. The epic-Puranic tradition had permeated the eulogy of the king.

    Royal religious policy included the performance of Vedic sacrifices and land grants to Brahmanas, Buddhist monasteries, and temples. We have noted the association of the Shunga king Pushyamitra with the aśvamedha sacrifice. The Naneghat inscription of queen Naganika (first century BCE) mentions villages and other items offered as fee to officiating priests when certain Vedic sacrifices, including the aśvamedha, were performed by her husband Satakarni I. A second- century CE Nasik cave inscription of Ushavadata describes him as one who had gifted sixteen villages to the gods and Brahmanas. The inscription also records the grant of a field by Ushavadata to provide food for the Buddhist monks dwelling in the cave. An inscription of Gautamiputra Satakarni in one of the Nasik caves, belonging roughly to the same period, records the grant to Buddhist monks of a field located in a village that previously fell within the jurisdiction of Ushavadata. This is the first ancient Indian inscription that associates certain specific privileges and exemptions with a gift of land. It states that the land was not to be entered or disturbed by royal troops, was not to be dug for salt, was free from the control of state officials, and was to enjoy all sorts of immunities (parihāras). Satavahana queens also played an active role in making grants to Buddhist establishments.

    The site of Nagarjunakonda gives unique, graphic evidence of the close relationship between the Ikshvaku dynasty and religious establishments. This site revealed remains of a royal city including a citadel, royal residences, Buddhist monasteries, Hindu temples, and twenty-two memorial pillars. Inscriptions record gifts made by Ikshvaku political elites and others to Hindu

    temples and Buddhist monks. The many memorial stones honoring dead generals and soldiers speak eloquently of the pervasive violence and war that marked the age. While the royal inscriptions herald the kings’ performance of great Vedic sacrifices (aśvamedha, agniṣṭoma, and vājapeya), these kings do not appear to have been active in making donations to religious establishments. The leading role was played by women of the royal household, high-ranking military commanders, and affluent nonroyal people.228 An exception is Ehavala Chantamula, whose Patagandigudem copper plates (the oldest copper plate inscription found in the subcontinent) record the building of a four-hall compound and the grant of land in favor of a Buddhist monastery that seems to have been close to Amaravati.229

    And yet, the plurality in royal religious patronage did not completely eliminate religious conflict. Buddhist texts provide the earliest reference to religious persecution and violence in the Indian context and connects these with Pushyamitra Shunga.230 According to Buddhist legend, on the advice of a wicked Brahmana, Pushyamitra decided to rival Ashoka’s fame by destroying the 84,000 stupas that the latter had built. Pushyamitra is said to have marched to the Kukkutarama monastery, accompanied by his fourfold army. It was a one- sided encounter because the monks were in no position to resist. Pushyamitra offered them a choice of keeping either the 84,000 stupas or the 84,000 monasteries; they chose the former. The king then destroyed the monasteries and killed all the monks. Later, he offered a reward of one hundred gold coins for anyone who brought the head of a Buddhist monk to him. Ultimately, we are told, Pushyamitra and his entire army were annihilated, and the Buddha’s dhamma was saved through the intervention of two Buddhist-minded yakṣas.231

    According to John Marshall, the Ashokan brick core of the great stupa at Sanchi revealed evidence of “great damage” that was “wantonly inflicted.” He connected this with the anti-Buddhist reputation acquired by Pushyamitra Shunga.232 Pushyamitra has also sometimes been held responsible for the destruction of the Ghoshitarama monastery at Kaushambi and the Deorkothar stupa in central India. On the other hand, Sanchi and other Buddhist monasteries in central India continued to exist and flourish during the Shunga period. Was this in spite of Pushyamitra’s persecution of the Buddhists? Was it because later Shunga kings discontinued his anti-Buddhist policy? Or should the Buddhist

    stories of Pushyamitra’s persecution be considered exaggerated? It is difficult to say for sure, but there must be some historical basis for the fact that Buddhist tradition singles out certain kings for their anti-Buddhist stand, even if their complaints cannot be taken at face value. The stories about Pushyamitra Shunga form one of three accounts of violent religious persecution by kings in early India; the other two will be discussed in Chapter 3. All three have to do with the persecution of Buddhism.

    The Justification of Political Violence

    The ideas of state, empire, and political paramountcy, as well as a distinction between internal and external affairs and between punishment and war existed in ancient India.233 In the discussion of the ideals and realities of kingship, the distinction between legitimate force and violence in the political sphere was recognized in its general form as well as in relation to the king’s punishment and warfare. During the period circa 200 BCE to 300 CE, while there were some continuities from the earlier period in the discourse on kingship, there was an amplification of the political discourse and new emphases in ideas related to kingship and governance. The problem of political violence was seen from a variety of perspectives and elicited different sorts of response.

    The Arthashastra offers a purely pragmatic political response. Its hypothetical king is an ambitious empire-maker, driven by the desire to maximize political and economic profit. Kautilya presents a detailed, sophisticated discussion of the use of force by the king in order to hold his own against enemies within his kingdom, to punish criminals and deliver justice, to maintain the social order, and to expand his empire through warfare (this last aspect will be discussed in detail in Chapter 4). He also discusses the dangers of using excessive force and the constant threat of violence against the king. For Kautilya, the use of force is necessary to maintain and extend the king’s political power, but it must tempered by reflection, caution, and calculation. The Manusmriti speaks of the king’s great anger and power and presents him, above all, as the maintainer of varṇa-dharma and as a punisher, from the perspective of the discipline of Dharmashastra.

    The importance of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the political sphere is evident in the Buddhacharita and the Arthashastra, and even more so in the dramas of Bhasa. Early kāvya expanded the exploration of issues related to political power and political violence within the aesthetic demands of the genre and began the task of weaving together various elements to create a sophisticated literary image of the king, at the same time aware of the harsh realities of political conflicts. The epigraphic praśastis expressed the literary image of kingship in a compressed, condensed form. The fact that Brahmanical ideas swiftly came to dominate royal ideology was no doubt due to the presence of Brahmana intellectuals and ritual specialists in royal courts.

    Different models of kingship emerged within the Buddhist tradition. In the Buddhacharita, kingship is a prize rejected by Sarvarthasiddha as inferior to renunciation and enlightenment. The Ashokavadana emphasizes the king as religious patron and proselytizer, not as a practitioner of nonviolence. The Jatakas emphasize compassion and self-sacrifice as qualities of the ideal king. Perhaps because most of the sculptural representations of kings come from Buddhist sites, they do not display kings in military contexts or attitudes (Ashoka’s armed visit to Ramagrama is an exception) but, rather, show them as pious devotees and donors. The statue of Kanishka, a king with Buddhist leanings, on the other hand, gives striking visual expression of the dual ideas of the king using force within his kingdom in the administration of justice and against other kingdoms while waging war.

    Texts, inscriptions, stone sculpture, and coins indicate that the balancing of the violence of kingship with other elements was well underway during circa 200 BCE–300 CE. The performance of Vedic sacrifices was an important part of the evolving ideology of kingship. The details of these sacrifices can be reconstructed on the basis of the older ritualistic texts, but they may not have been performed in exactly the same fashion. And from the perspective of the royal performers, the detailed symbolism and meaning of these sacrifices must have been minimal. They must have been understood as potent demonstrations of the king’s political power, authority, and prestige, his command over resources, and his close relationship with the sacred. The performance and the advertisement of the performance of Vedic sacrifices in inscriptions constituted a powerful legitimation, not only of kingship in general, but also of the brutality and violence inherent in the king’s exercise of power.

    The elaboration of the image of the king as a great victor in war and as a punisher of his subjects was increasingly balanced by a new equation of the king with the religious domain. The close relationship between the king and the religious sphere was highlighted in inscriptions as well as coins, but royal religious patronage was usually multidirectional. As we shall see in the following chapters, land grants, too, were associated with threats of karmic retribution and war. The king’s increasing association with the religious domain seems to have played an important role in justifying and masking the violence inherent in kingship.



    AN IMPOSING SCENE carved in relief in a cave at Udayagiri near Vidisha in central India has inspired many different interpretations. In the central part of the niche, we see Vishnu in his boar (Varaha) incarnation rescuing the earth goddess Prithvi from the waters (see Figure 6). The god, shown with the broad, muscular body of a man and the head of a boar, dominates and exudes masculine power. His right hand is placed on his hip and his left one on his bent knee. A massive garland is flung around his body. The diminutive goddess Earth clings to his tusks. Vishnu’s left foot rests on the hoods of a serpent deity, who gazes up at him, his hands folded in obeisance. The great god is flanked by sages and celestial beings, and the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna are part of the scene. Behind the serpent deity is the broken torso of a human figure. Does this figure represent the Gupta king Samudragupta or Chandragupta II, or a feudatory ruler, presented as a devotee of the great god? Or could it be that the powerful Varaha represents the king? Or is there deliberate ambiguity, Varaha representing both deity and king? In the fifth century, water cascading down from a cistern on top of the rocky outcrop made its way through a central path cut into the rock cluster all the way down to the cave floor, where it lapped the base of the magnificent image of the great god raising the earth up from the ocean.1

  6. Detail of Varaha relief panel, Udayagiri Photograph: Upinder Singh

    The Udayagiri complex was created during the reign of the Gupta king Chandragupta II (circa 376–413 / 415 CE). While the center of the Gupta empire was located far away, perhaps at Pataliputra (Patna) or Prayaga (Allahabad), military campaigns brought the Guptas to central India. Although Vishnu in his various forms dominates Udayagiri, other Hindu gods are also represented, and there is a Jaina shrine as well. An inscription refers to the excavation of a shrine of Vishnu by a feudatory of Chandragupta II. Another records the gift of a cave dedicated to Shiva by Virasena, a resident of Pataliputra and a minister of the king. Not far from Udayagiri, traces of the Guptas are found at the Buddhist monastery complex at Sanchi, where Chandragupta II made a grant of land and money along with his military commander Amrakardava. The Udayagiri caves display the crafting of a powerful, carefully conceptualized, and executed statement of image and word, expressing the arrival of a bold new vision of kingship and a new kind of religiosity, both intertwined.2 The Gupta inscription at Sanchi indicates that in spite of these developments, the donative policy of political elites continued to be multidirectional.

    The new political and religious developments are also visible in Vakataka

    territory in central-western India. Here, at Ramagiri (Ramtek hill), not far from the royal residence at Nandivardhana, were found the remains of a royal Vakataka ritual center. This consisted of seven temples dedicated to Vishnu in his various incarnations, including the Kevala Narasimha temple, which may been a memorial shrine built in memory of queen Prabhavatigupta by her daughter and son.3 During the reign of the fifth-century king Pravarasena II, the Vakataka capital was moved to Pravarapura, which seems to have been located not far from Ramagiri at the site of Mansar.4 Here, excavations on a mound known as Hidimba Tekdi revealed the remains of what may have been a palace complex (Figure 7). Nearby was a Shiva temple, probably named Pravareshvara after the king. A startling discovery in the foundations of the temple complex was a large clay figure of a man with a hole in his breast. This “Man of Mansar” seems to represent a novel construction ritual embodying ideas of human sacrifice to ward off evil spirits. The site also revealed a brick shaft containing a

    pot with funerary remains; perhaps it was a royal funerary monument of the powerful Vakataka queen Prabhavatigupta. Mansar indicates an integrated royal, residential, ceremonial, and religious center with a complex level of conceptualization, planning, and execution.

  7. The ruins of Mansar Photograph: Hans T. Bakker

    The imagery and remains at Udayagiri and Mansar articulate a new vision of political power, in which kingship and sectarian religion were united. It was a sectarianism in which the personal deity of the ruler or his family—either Vishnu or Shiva—was elevated and given prominence, but did not ignore other deities or faiths. This is largely because of the monolatrous nature of the Hindu cults in which, even when a particular deity was accorded a supreme position, other gods and goddesses were also acknowledged and honored. Buddhism and Jainism also had their constellations of multiple foci of worship—various Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the case of the former and the twenty-three tīrthaṅkaras and other saints in the latter. The sectarianism that emerged in the political sphere during this period was an inclusive one, accommodating a variety of elements— a situation that is often referred to as one of “tolerance,” but which should rather be described as an inclusive sectarianism.5

    The Gupta–Vakataka age was once seen as a classical age marked by empire-

    building and great achievements in literature and the arts. From the 1960s onward, it was described by some historians as the beginning of a feudal age marked by political and economic fragmentation, largely the result of royal land grants. A more convincing perspective is that these centuries were marked by a sustained process of intensive state formation in different parts of the subcontinent.6 To use Kautilya’s terminology, we see several “circles of kings” within which relations of paramountcy and feudatory status—ever in a state of flux—were expressed through an epigraphic vocabulary that seems to have spread like wildfire. The two major circles of kings were those of the Guptas in the north and the Vakatakas (of the Nandivardhana and Vatsagulma branches) in the western Deccan (Map 4).7 The marriage of the Gupta princess Prabhavatigupta to the Vakataka prince Rudrasena II connected the two great dynasties through a matrimonial alliance. Prabhavatigupta exercised power and authority during the reigns of her husband, Rudrasena II, and sons, Damodarasena and Prithvisena II. After her death, the Gupta-Vakataka alliance seems to have been replaced by rivalry and conflict.8 During the period of Gupta and Vakataka ascendency and decline, areas like Orissa and Andhra saw the beginnings of a sustained process of state formation.9 In the far south, a period of social and political dislocation associated with a people called the Kalabhras made way for the ascendency of the Pandyas, Pallavas, and Chalukyas. The Guptas repulsed a Huna (Hephtalite) invasion, but in the late fifth / early sixth century, the Huna Toramana succeeded in establishing his control over parts of northern and western India. Intra-dynastic conflicts, as well as inter-dynastic wars and invasions are intrinsic to the political history of circa 300–600 CE.

    MAP 4 The Guptas, Vakatakas, and their contemporaries

    From Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India from the Stone Age to the 12th century; Courtesy: Pearson India Education Services Pvt. Ltd.

    The Puranas constructed a systematic connected political memory of ancient Indian dynasties, beginning from the flood of Manu and the origins of the solar and lunar dynasties. These texts envision the subcontinent as a geographical, political, and cultural macro-unit. From a mythical past, the Puranas move into the historic period, giving a terse, synoptic account of the dynasties of what they call the Kali age, an evil age marked by impiety, social disorder, violence, and killing, believed to have begun after the death of Krishna, twenty years after the Mahabharata war. The accounts of what we would consider the historical

    dynasties begin with the early kings of Magadha and go up to the Guptas. Although the Puranic dynastic accounts are presented as a prophecy, they represent a later age looking back at an older time.

    The fact that this subcontinental political perspective emerged just after the third century is significant, because it is during this very period that we see the emergence of what can be called a classical ideal of Indian kingship. The ideas were not new. What was new was the universality and confidence with which they were expressed in texts, inscriptions, and art. Also new was the imprint left by kingship on the religious landscape, not as monumental as in later centuries, but marked by a level of sophistication not seen before.10 At the same time, the emergence of a standard template of kingship left room for difference in detail and emphasis.

    The royal inscriptions of this period include eulogies, donative inscriptions (usually on stone) to temples, and land grants (usually on copper plates) to Brahmanas. All three types of epigraphs show a close interweaving of political and religious ideas, especially those related to Vaishnavism and Shaivism, indicating a significant development of the institution of the Hindu temple. Praśastis expressed an increasingly homogenized ideology of kingship, one that was visible to literate subjects, disseminated orally in the course of ceremonial readings, and potentially accessible to ideologues of other dynasties. The geographical spread of an increasingly homogeneous epigraphic expression of political power and religiosity, now largely couched in Sanskrit, was the work of intrepid Brahmanas who were fanning out and occupying influential positions in royal courts as ritual experts, advisers, crafters of genealogies, and panegyrists. Some of them were also beneficiaries of what was becoming an increasingly prevalent royal policy—the making of land grants associated with tax exemptions. The royally endowed Brahmana village (known as brahmadeya or agrahāra) became an important part of the political and rural landscape. The king–Brahmana alliance took on new shape and played an important role in the legitimation of kingship and political violence.

    Kings, Brahmanas, and Temples in Vakataka Kingship

    Most of the Vakataka inscriptions—those of the main line as well as the Vatsagulma branch—are written in Sanskrit prose.11 Interestingly, those of their ministers and feudatories are partly or entirely in verse. Vakataka kings usually have the epithet mahārāja (great king), and on occasion, samrāṭ (emperor). Although portrayed as heroes, they are described as Brahmanas belonging to the Vishnuvriddha gotra. Along with other dynasties, such as the earlier Shungas and Satavahanas and the later Pallavas, this signals a departure from the epic model which connected kingship with the Kshatriya. “Kshatriya” continued to be a status claimed by certain lineages who had managed to wrest political power, but as shown by the inscriptions of the Vakatakas and others, it was not the only one. Apart from their claims to being Brahmanas, a strong Brahmanical element in Vakataka kingship is visible in various other respects as well. Some of the Ajanta caves seem to have been excavated during the time of king Harishena, but there is no epigraphic evidence of direct Vakataka patronage.

    A distinct vocabulary of political hierarchy emerged, and a subordinate king

    or feudatory is routinely described as one who meditates at the feet of his overlord. But hierarchies were not rigid or immutable. While the Vakataka king stood at the apex of his “circle of kings,” other members of the political elite appear as proud, not abject, subordinates. The eulogies of subordinate kings often imitate the phraseology of their overlords and sometimes outdo them. For instance, in the Bamhani plates of the feudatory Bharatabala, this feudatory is given much more elaborate and fulsome praise than his Vakataka overlord. At Ajanta and in the Ghatotkacha cave nearby, inscriptions speak of lavish religious endowments made by wealthy and powerful ministers such as Varahadeva. In fact, while the Vakataka ruling houses directed their patronage toward Brahmanas and temples, other members of the political elite patronized Buddhist monasteries.

    In their inscriptions, several Vakataka kings are given the title Dharmamahārāja (the great king of dharma). Kings are eulogized as having established the Krita yuga (the most perfect age) on earth. There is a pointed declaration of sectarian affiliation, Shaiva or Vaishnava. The king is projected as the foremost devotee of a particular god—parama-bhāgavata (the foremost

    devotee of the lord, that is, Vasudeva–Krishna) or parama-māheśvara (the foremost devotee of the great god Shiva). This is accompanied by the idea that the king had won royal fortune through the grace of that particular god. Vakataka kings also proclaim their performance of grand Vedic sacrifices, often more than once. These sacrifices were occasions when political power, paramountcy, and liberality to Brahmanas could be advertised. One of the early kings, Pravarasena I, is described in his successors’ inscriptions as a performer of seven Soma sacrifices and four aśvamedhas.12 The Puranas refer to his having made liberal gifts to Brahmanas at his performance of the vājapeya sacrifice.

    Epic elements, especially from the Ramayana, surface in several places in Vakataka history. King Pravarasena II is supposed to have composed the Setubandha, a Prakrit kāvya about Rama. Prithivishena I is described in inscriptions as striving to follow Yudhishthira’s model. The Ajanta cave inscription of the minister Varahadeva describes the Vakataka king Harishena as one

    who in beauty, resembled Hari [Vishnu], Rama, Hara [Shiva], Smara [the god of love], and the moon, and who was brave and spirited like a lion.13

    The Ghatotkacha inscription of the minister Varahadeva refers to a Brahmana minister named Deva, who was proficient in governance (naya), and tells us that the king performed his pious (dharmya) duties under his guidance as Partha (Arjuna) did under Krishna’s.14

    In line with the spread of the temple-based Hindu cults, kings and feudatories feature in Vakataka inscriptions as temple builders. As mentioned above, Pravarasena built a Shiva temple, significantly named Pravareshvara after himself. This practice of naming Shiva liṅgas (the phallic emblems of the god) and temples after donors took off in the post–fourth-century period and continued thereafter. Although not confined to royalty, within the political context, it reveals the heightening of the sectarian associations of kingship. Nevertheless, although most of the Vakataka kings were worshippers of Shiva, the remains from Vakataka sites reveal many Vaishnava elements as well. As mentioned above, the ruins of seven Vaishnava temples have been discovered on Ramagiri hill. Relief panels found in the area depict scenes from the life of the

    epic hero Rama, including the encounter between Sugriva and Vali.15 Although the identification of the sculptures found at the Shiva temple site described above are at present tentative, it is possible that some of them may represent scenes from the Ramayana.16 So the sectarianism of the Vakatakas was inclusive, not exclusive or exclusionary.

    Poetry is a new addition to the political discourse. A few Vakataka kings are associated with the writing and patronage of Prakrit and Sanskrit poetry. Sarvasena, a ruler of the Vatsagulma branch, is famous as the writer of the celebrated Prakrit kāvya Harivijaya and some of his verses occur in the poetic anthology, the Gathasaptashati. Pravarasena II is considered author of the Setubandha, a much-acclaimed Prakrit kāvya about Rama’s conflict with Ravana, which emphasizes Rama’s great heroism and the sentiments of love, loyalty, and devotion. The first canto tells us that Pravarasena had started to write this work soon after his accession. In this rendering of Rama’s story, Ravana’s younger brother Vibhishana has a prominent role and is given several dramatic lines expressing his grief at Ravana’s death. Hans T. Bakker suggests that this may reflect an autobiographical element. We know that Pravarasena was not his father’s eldest son, and his two older brothers, Divakarasena and Damodarasena, evidently did not ascend the throne. Pravarasena may have put into Vibhishana’s mouth sentiments that he might have himself experienced after his success in a violent fratricidal struggle for the throne.17 The Mandhal inscription of king Prithivishena II tells us that his father Narendrasena had initially succeeded to the royal fortune of his house, but that it was taken away from him by a kinsman. These sorts of poetic allusions are the closest we get to the intra-dynastic political violence of the time.

    Royal land grants acquired a political performative aspect in this period. The

    Pandhurna plates of Pravarasena II, which record a grant to several Brahmanas issued from the temple (devakula) of Pravareshvara, tell us that the grant was made with libations of water at the king’s victorious place of worship.18 An additional gift of land to the Brahmana Somarya was made at this place of worship (dharma-sthāna), for the well-being of the king in this and his future life, accompanied by the recitation of sacred texts and libations of sesame seeds, which suggests that the grant coincided with a śrāddha ceremony for the king’s ancestors.

    Formulaic references threatening punishment start appearing regularly in royal land grant inscriptions. The imprecatory verses, which threaten kings who revoke a grant or cause any kind of trouble to the recipients, cite the authority of Vyasa, the traditional author of the Mahabharata:

    He who takes away land given by himself or another, earns the sin of killing a hundred thousand cows.

    A giver of land enjoys happiness in heaven for 60,000 years; the one who seizes land or acquiesces in its seizure goes to hell.

    In this manner, the relatively recent trend of kings making land grants associated with fiscal exemptions and privileges anchored itself firmly to the authority of the venerable Mahabharata tradition. A powerful threat of karmic retribution emphasized the inviolability of the king’s decrees.

    A Vakataka inscription makes an unusual association between the king and punishment. The Chammak copper plate of Pravarasena II, which records the gift of Charmanka village to one thousand Brahmanas, states that this grant was to last as long as the sun and the moon endured. But it adds the caveat that the grant would last as long as the Brahmanas in question committed no treason (droha) against the kingdom consisting of seven elements; that they were not found guilty of the murder of a Brahmana, theft, or adultery; that they did not wage war (saṁgrāma); and that they did not harm other villages. If they did any of these things, a king would commit no theft if he took the land away from them. This inscription suggests the possibility that Brahmanas patronized by the king were capable of presenting a violent threat to society and to the king. As we shall see in Chapter 4, land grants were connected with political violence in more than one way.

    The Gupta Model of the Paramount King

    Mention has already been made of the new and sophisticated articulation of Gupta kingship at Udayagiri through the skillful use of double entendre. The imperial Guptas were not as enthusiastic about making land grants to Brahmanas as were their feudatories and the Vakataka kings, but their inscriptions and coins announced the new ideal of kingship even more forcefully. Gupta inscriptions are often dated in an era (319–20 CE) that probably marked the accession of Chandragupta I. The literary quality of the royal praśasti increases, as can be seen in the Mehrauli iron pillar inscription of Chandra (probably Chandragupta II) and the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta. Allusions to intra- dynastic conflicts lurk behind the skipping of certain kings (for instance Kachagupta and Ramagupta) in the Gupta genealogies. On rare occasion, there is admission of serious trouble, as in the case of the Bhitari inscription of Skandagupta, which mentions his repulsing a Huna invasion and refers three times to his having reestablished his tottering lineage or sovereignty of his house.19

    Gupta inscriptions reflect changes in the vocabulary of political relationships

    and the emergence of certain formulaic expressions of paramountcy and subordination that were to remain fairly stable over the next few centuries. From Kumaragupta’s reign, the three titles that became emblematic of claims to paramountcy were parama-daivata (the supreme worshipper of a god or the gods), parama-bhaṭṭāraka (the supreme lord), and mahārājādhirāja (the great king of kings). References to subordinate kings bowing their heads at the lotus- like feet of their overlord became commonplace. However, as we have seen in the case of Vakataka inscriptions, the pecking order was a fluid one. “Subordinate” kings were often powerful in their own realms and made grand, eloquent epigraphic pronouncements about their power and achievements. They may not have assumed the highest titles, but they shared many of the qualities of their overlords. It was a participatory kingship.

    Inscriptions abound in associating kings with the gods, and Chandragupta II and Kumaragupta I have the epithet parama-bhāgavata, announcing them as the greatest worshippers of Vasudeva-Krishna. The sculpted image of the king, which had appeared fleetingly in the previous centuries, disappears, but

    reappears in a new garb, often inspired by and associated with Vaishnavism. Double entendre associating a great king with a great god, seen at Udayagiri, was favored in inscriptions, art, and texts. Numismatic portrayals match the epigraphic descriptions of Gupta kings as all-rounders, advertising them as unmatched warriors of extraordinary physical strength and prowess, performers of great sacrifices, ones who had achieved great fame, hunters and killers of powerful animals, ones who are favored by the goddess Shri, wielders of the rod of justice, and devotees of deities.20 The garuḍa banner (the emblem of the god Vishnu) appears on many coins. The goddess Lakshmi unites ideas of fertility, wealth, and kingship. She appears standing, sitting, walking, and holding a lotus, cornucopia, and / or diadem; in some cases, she sprinkles coins. A coin of Skandagupta has an interesting variation: The king stands with a female figure next to him; the fact that she is holding a lotus suggests that she is no ordinary consort but the goddess Lakshmi herself.21

    In the Gupta empire, coins functioned as a more eloquent medium of royal communication and propaganda than ever before, and their outreach was much greater than that of the royal praśastis. On Kushana coins, kings usually stand stiffly in front of an altar, holding a spear, standard, or trident. The image of the king on Gupta coinage is, in comparison, extremely varied. Realism is not usually the aim, as the same king is often shown with rather different facial and physical features. We often see the king nimbate (with a halo around his head) in three-quarter or profile view. He is shown either with a slender figure or with pronounced musculature, the latter often found on coins where he is portrayed as a warrior or shown killing a powerful animal. The obverse of the coins usually bear the name of the king, and the reverse his biruda, or epithet. The latter, sometimes in metrical form, expresses the significance of the visual portrayals in words. The figural representations and epithets are dramatic and vigorous. Samudragupta and Kumaragupta I are also portrayed as musicians.

    Some Gupta coins commemorate important political events. For instance, a coin portrays and announces the names of Chandragupta I and his wife, Kumaradevi. On the reverse is the goddess Lakshmi and the legend Lichchhavayaḥ (of the Lichchhavis). This coin type may have been issued by Chandragupta himself or by his son Samudragupta, but what is significant is the fact that it advertises an important matrimonial alliance between the Guptas and

    a princess belonging to the Lichchhavi confederacy. The narrative, commemorative aspect of Gupta coinage is also evident in one of Samudragupta’s coin types. We see a horse on the obverse, and on the reverse a queen holding a standard and fly-whisk. The legend (Aśvamedha-parākrama or Hayamedha-parākrama) announces that the king had demonstrated his prowess by the performance of the great horse sacrifice.22 This can be read along with the references in the inscriptions of Prabhavatigupta to Samudragupta having performed several aśvamedhas, and in those of Kumaragupta and Budhagupta to Samudragupta’s restoration of the aśvamedha that had long decayed (cirotsanna), that is, gone out of vogue.23 The claim to have restored the great Vedic sacrifices became an important part of the claim to political preeminence.

    An enigmatic narrative coin belongs to Kumaragupta’s time. We see the king standing, flanked by a male and female figure; on the reverse Lakshmi sits on the lotus, and there is a legend Apratigha (Invincible), referring to the king. Does the scene on the obverse represent the installation of young Kumaragupta as king? Or does it depict the queen and crown prince trying to persuade the king not to renounce the world? It is impossible to know for sure.

    One of the most interesting reflections of the process of sophisticated synthesis in the ideas of kingship in the Gupta period is a rare coin type of Chandragupta II.24 We see Chakrapurusha, a personification of the cakravartin’s wheel, offering three small pellet-like objects to the king, who stands to his left. These possibly represent the three powers of the king—the power of lordship, energy and counsel. The king accepts them with his right hand while his left hand rests on his sword. On the reverse is a goddess standing on and holding a lotus, and the epithet Cakravikrama expresses a combination of the idea of the king’s prowess and the wheel. We may note that the wheel is also one of the attributes of the god Vishnu and many of the Gupta emperors are described as devotees of this god. One symbol encapsulates many ideas.

    The single most important document from the point of view of the ideology of Gupta kingship, especially with regard to political violence, is the Allahabad praśasti of Samudragupta.25 This inscription has often been used by historians as a source of information on Samudragupta’s military campaigns, and a great deal of energy has been devoted to the identification of the rulers and places mentioned in it in order to identify the contours and nature of the Gupta empire.

    However, it is equally, if not more, important to recognize the representational aspect of the Allahabad inscription from the point of view of political ideology.

    Sheldon Pollock has perceptively pointed out that the Allahabad inscription heralds a new imperial idea that was both quasi-universal and projected within a specified geopolitical space.26 When considered as part of a continuing process of the evolution of the ideology of kingship, although it has certain important novel features, the inscription reflects an exceptionally sophisticated synthesis of various elements of kingship drawn from earlier times, couched in superior Sanskrit verse and prose. This continuity is heralded in a remarkable way by the fact that Samudragupta’s inscription is inscribed on a pillar that also bears several Ashokan inscriptions (the six pillar edicts and minor pillar edicts 1 and 3).27 Interestingly, the pillar also bears an inscription of the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Jahangir. Ashoka’s inscriptions reflect his personal ideas expressed in a personal voice. The Allahabad praśasti of Samudragupta is a soliloquy of power in which kingship talks about itself, through the voice of its composer, a high-ranking minister named Harishena.

    The expression of royal power in this inscription is much more vigorous, elaborate, and grandiose than that found in the inscriptions of Kharavela and Rudradaman, which we have looked at in Chapter 2. Kharavela and Rudradaman were eulogized in their inscriptions in Prakrit and Sanskrit prose, respectively. The Gupta rulers are the first Indian kings to be eulogized in a combination of poetic verse and prose. During circa 300–600 CE, poetry was increasingly used in royal panegyric in the preface and epilogue of land grant inscriptions, and as an attribute of ideal kingship.

    The Allahabad pillar inscription consists of thirty-three lines which comprise two long sentences—the first consists of eight verses (lines 1–16), the second of a prose passage and a verse (lines 17–30)—followed by a short concluding prose section. The inscription, in the vigorous Gaudi style, is marked by high literary quality and uses four poetic meters. Harishena uses poetic ornaments (alaṁkāras) such as alliteration (anuprāsa), comparison (upamā), hyperbole (atiśayokti), and double entendre (śleṣa). The heroic and furious “flavors” (vīra and raudra rasas) predominate, although, as we shall see, there is also a highlighting of the king’s pacific attributes.28 Harishena accomplishes the incredible feat of creating a detailed, vivid, and powerful poetic portrait of a

    great king in two long sentences.

    The epigraph was clearly written at a late stage in Samudragupta’s reign, when he had already achieved most of what he was to achieve, both militarily and otherwise (except his aśvamedha). We will begin our analysis of this important inscription toward its end.29 In the naming of the parents, grandfather, and great-grandfather of the king (lines 28–30), we see the incorporation of elements of hierarchy via the use of epithets. The first two Gupta kings have the epithets śrī and mahārāja, while Chandragupta and Samudragupta are given the grander title of mahārājādhirāja—the great king of kings. Harishena situates Samudragupta within his lineage, but subtly indicates that he surpassed his predecessors in his greatness and achievements.

    In offering information about himself, the composer of the Allahabad praśasti is loquacious compared with other epigraphic composers. Toward the end of the inscription, after dilating on the greatness and glory of the emperor Samudragupta, Harishena describes his composition as a kāvya, and offers several details about himself. He was

    a slave [dāsa] at the feet of his lord [Samudragupta]; one whose mind had expanded due to the favor [anugraha] of proximity to him.30

    He was an inhabitant of a place called Khadyatapaka and a high-ranking official in the royal court, bearing the titles of sandhivigrahika, kumārāmātya and mahādaṇḍanāyaka. This man of substance had an illustrious parentage—his father, Dhruvabhuti, was a mahādaṇḍanāyaka. The executor of the composition was also a high-ranking official—the mahādaṇḍanāyaka Tilabhattaka, described as one who meditated at the feet of the great lord, the emperor. The idea of servitude was transformed into a badge of privilege and honor, and such formulations swiftly became standard in political discourse.

    The literary quality of the Allahabad pillar inscription is accompanied by strong emotional content. The fourth verse suggests that Samudragupta’s father selected him and handed over the reins of power to him in his lifetime. But it expresses this in words loaded with high emotional quotient. Harishena paints a dramatic court scene: In the midst of the august assembly, we see the discerning father who had recognized his most worthy successor, embracing the prince, engulfed in extreme feeling and excitement. His eyes are filled with tears of joy;

    the hair of his body stand on end. “Come, oh worthy one,” he says to Samudragupta, “protect thus the whole earth.” Rival claimants gaze on the scene with sad faces, while the high-ranking members of the court (no doubt relieved that a possible violent struggle for succession had been averted) breathe cheerfully. Did the father walk off into the forest after handing over the reins of power to his son? We do not know.

    Harishena describes Samudragupta’s military victories in a manner that suggests a high level of political strategy and presents the Gupta empire as the paramount center of a complex circle of kings (the details will be discussed in Chapter 4). But the description of the king’s wars and victories (which historians have endlessly obsessed over) take up only nine out of the thirty-three lines of the inscription. The first two verses are too fragmentary to be made out, so we do not know how Harishena chose to introduce his composition and the emperor. But the third heralds Samudragupta not as a conqueror but as a great intellectual and a poet,

    whose mind is suffused with happiness as a result of his association with the wise; who is thus accustomed to retaining the truth and purpose of the śāstras …; who, having removed the obstacles to the grace of good poetry through the injunction of excellence clustered together by the experts, enjoys in the world of intellectuals, in an attractive manner, kingship [rājya], as a result of fame for writing copious lucid poetry.

    Harishena repeatedly emphasizes the king’s intellectual and poetic talents and accomplishments. We are told that Samudragupta’s wise words are worthy of study. He is a king among poets (kavirāja), whose compositions surpass the glory of the genius of poets and are a source of inspiration to the learned. He puts Brihaspati (the preceptor of the gods) to shame by his sharp and polished intellect and Tumburu and Narada with his fine musical performances. Samudragupta represents the model of a warrior-king who is also an intellectual, poet, and musician.31

    The king’s martial ferocity is tempered with great benevolence. He is a good man who had performed many good deeds, one whose tender heart could be captured only through devotion and humility. He is compassionate and attends to the uplift of the poor, miserable, and suffering. He is generous, a giver of many

    hundreds of thousands of cows. He embodies kindness to mankind. Further, the king is the enclosing structure, that is, a maintainer, of dharma. Harishena exclaims,

    What excellence is there which does not belong to him! He alone is worthy of the contemplation of the learned.32

    The Samudragupta of Harishena’s inscription is not a man; he is a superman. His extraordinary qualities are emphasized through hyperbole and analogies with the gods. Reminding us of the king of the Manusmriti and the Mahabharata, he is described as the equal of the gods Kubera, Varuna, Indra, and Yama. More striking is Harishena’s use of double entendre (śleṣa) to compare Samudragupta with the god Vishnu. He is inscrutable (Achintya); he is Purusha, the cause of the prosperity of the good and the destruction of the bad. Like Vishnu’s, his heart can be won through devotion (bhakti). He is a human being in his performance of the rites and conventions of the world; otherwise he is a god (deva) who resides in this world.

    The violence of Samudragupta’s military career is masked in a eulogy of his extraordinary fame. Harishena describes the pillar on which the epigraph is inscribed (lines 28–30) as a raised arm of the earth that proclaims the king’s fame, which, having risen up through his conquest of the whole earth and pervaded its entire surface, has moved gracefully to the abode of the lord of the gods (Indra). There are other references, too, to the king’s great fame. Verse 3 speaks of the fame that the king had acquired on account of his poetry. Another verse tells us that his multifaceted sprouting fame was as bright as the moon’s rays. We are also told that the king’s fame had exhausted itself by journeying over the whole world as a result of his restoration of many fallen kingdoms and overthrown royal families. Samudragupta’s fame was the result of his victory over the whole earth (sarva-pṛthivī-vijaya) (line 29). But this fame did not stem from the king’s martial achievements alone. He had wiped off the fame of other kings with the soles of his feet through his many good qualities and good acts.

    Samudragupta’s great fame

    ever ascending higher and higher, and traveling by many paths— generosity, prowess, tranquility, the recitation of the śāstras—purifies the

    three worlds, like the white water of the Ganga river surges forth irresistibly when freed from its confinement in the inner cave of the matted hair of Pashupati [Shiva].33

    Here, with striking imagery suggestive of dynamic movement and potential for purification, the power of the ascending fame of the king is compared with the power of the descent of the Ganga from the god Shiva’s matted locks. Both are tremendous.

    Such a magnificent poetic composition about a magnificent king could be expected to result in great fame, both for the king and the poet. Perhaps the inscription was read out on special occasions marked by political ceremony. News of the contents of this brilliant composition inscribed on a majestic stone pillar must have reached the ears of other kings. But what is interesting is that the Allahabad inscription implies something more. Harishena states that he had composed this inscription for the welfare and happiness of all beings (sarva- bhūta-hita-sukhāya). This is the sort of sentiment that turns up in different kinds of contexts. It was the goal that Ashoka spoke about in his edicts. It also occurs in many Buddhist and Jaina donative inscriptions where many donors express the hope that the merit accruing from their gift should benefit all living beings. In the Allahabad pillar inscription, the idea of merit is transplanted into the political and poetic contexts. The implication is not only that the poet’s praise of the king would lead to spreading the fame of both, far and wide. This praise could translate into something greater—the welfare and happiness of all beings.

    The Nitisara: A Political Treatise for Mature Monarchies

    Analyses of Indian political ideas tend to focus on the Arthashastra, but an important work on politics—the Nitisara—was written during the period of the decline of the Gupta empire or in its immediate aftermath. Estimates of the age of this text generally range between the first and seventh centuries CE,34 but can be narrowed down to between circa 500 and 700 CE. This Sanskrit verse treatise, consisting of twenty sargas (cantos) subdivided into thirty-six prakaraṇas (sections), was written by a man named Kamandaka.35 Generally regarded as a derivative, unoriginal thinker who simply parroted Kautilya’s ideas, sometimes incorrectly, Kamandaka has been largely ignored by scholars. However, the Nitisara should be recognized as an important political treatise with a distinct perspective, which, like the Arthashastra, acquired an authoritative reputation, not only within India, but also in Southeast Asia.36

    Like the Arthashastra, the Nitisara was composed by a Brahmana political

    theorist who was probably closely involved in contemporary politics. Within its normative discourse, we can see the author grappling with pressing issues of his time, including unbridled and unsatiated royal ambitions, endemic war, and violence. The text situates itself as part of a longer śāstric tradition. Kamandaka refers to the collective wisdom of the experts as well as to specific schools and authorities, expressing his agreement or disagreement with them.37 While Brihaspati is the most frequently cited authority, it is Vishnugupta, alias Kautilya, the author of the Arthashastra—referred to on two occasions as “our guru”38—who holds the preeminent position for Kamandaka. The text opens with a salutation to the god Ganesha, the king, and Vishnugupta.39 The eulogy of Vishnugupta describes him as one who was born in a great lineage with descendants who had attained worldwide renown for their sage-like conduct in not accepting gifts of any kind; who was as effulgent as the sacrificial fire; who was so well-versed in the Vedas that he had mastered through his intellect all four as though they were one; who through his powers, as irresistible as furious thunder, had uprooted the great and powerful Nandas; who, like the god Shaktidhara (Karttikeya), through the exercise of his power of counsel (mantra- śakti), had single-handedly secured the world for Chandragupta, the moon among men; who was learned and had produced the nectar of nītiśāstra out of

    the mighty ocean of arthaśāstra. Nītiśāstra and arthaśāstra both refer to the science of statecraft or politics, but Kamandaka seems to suggest that the latter had broader connotations; as we have seen, in Kautilya’s work, arthaśāstra is actually the discipline of political economy. Kamandaka’s description of Vishnugupta can be read as a portrait of the political Brahmana, the sort of adviser considered by Kamandaka to be most suited (and most likely) to deliver a teaching on politics. It is a self-portrait.

    The Nitisara is a pared-down version of the Arthashastra. Kautilya’s detailed discussion of internal administration and civil and criminal law are absent, as is the advocacy of strict state control over various aspects of the economy. This reflects the narrower scope of work, as well as differences in the authors’ views about the potential state. Both Kamandaka and Kautilya were concerned with political expansion and consolidation, but the Nitisara does not share the Arthashastra’s grandiose vision of state power. Neither does it share the Arthashastra’s faith in the efficacy of black magic as a political and military tool (there is no detailed discussion of this in the Nitisara). And, as we shall see later, Kamandaka also disagreed with Kautilya on various specific issues related to the interface between kingship and violence. Times had changed, and the perspectives of the two political thinkers differed.

    Among the four branches of knowledge, the Nitisara asserts the preeminence of daṇḍanīti (the science of politics).40 Nevertheless, as we shall see, its ideas about politics are imbued with philosophical, ethical, and metaphysical presuppositions, in fact more so than the Arthashastra. The Nitisara variously describes its subject of inquiry as nīti (governance, explained as derived from nayana, leading or administering), daṇḍanīti (the science of politics or governance), and rājavidyā (the science of ruling). The scope of nīti (governance) is narrower than the artha (political economy) of the Arthashastra. Kamandaka discusses the principles according to which a king should rule his kingdom and how he could attain political paramountcy as well as prosperity for himself and his subjects. He talks about the intimate connection between kingship (rājatā) and the prosperity of the king, his realm, and his subjects. But the work is not obsessed with material gain in the manner that the Arthashastra is.

    The Morphology of the State

    Monarchy is the only kind of state mentioned by Kamandaka. After their annihilation by Samudragupta, the oligarchies were no longer worth talking about. The prime subject as well as audience for the Nitisara was the king (rājan), whose epithets announce him as lord of the earth, of all men, and of the maṇḍalas (circles of kings).41 The Nitisara and the Arthashastra both address an ambitious and upwardly mobile king, desirous of attaining political paramountcy

    —the vijigīṣu. The king of the Nitisara seeks dominion over the whole earth girded by the ocean. He is a great victor, who plants his foot on the heads of enemies adorned with excellent helmets and bejeweled crowns.42 Kamandaka frequently compares the king with the gods, especially with Indra, Yama, and Prajapati. His work abounds in references to legendary warriors and kings— Parashurama, Ambarisha, Yudhishthira, Bhima, Nala, Janamejaya, and Rama. The Mahabharata and Ramayana traditions were more important in Kamandaka’s political discourse than in the Arthashastra.

    The polity of the Nitisara and the Arthashastra is an organic one, where the king is embedded in a web of complex, reciprocal relationships with the other elements of the state. Kamandaka lists these as the king (svāmin), counselor (amātya), domain (rāṣṭra), fort (durga), treasury (kośa), military (bala), and ally (suḥrt).43 This more or less matches Kautilya’s list in substance, with slight modifications in terminology—janapada is replaced by rāṣṭra, daṇḍa by bala, and mitra by suhṛt. It is interesting that Kamandaka cites Brihaspati rather than Kautilya as the authority on the seven elements of the kingdom.44

    Being a successful king required many inherent and cultivated qualities and a

    great deal of effort. Kamandaka’s long list of qualities that the king should possess (there are similarities with the Arthashastra) reveals an important aim of the political theorists—to temper brute power with virtue. The qualities necessary to become a successful king include nobility of ancestry, intelligence, truthfulness, and powers of endurance. The most important qualities, however, are prowess (pratāpa), energy (utsāha), and constant vigilance. Although many of the virtues desirable in a king are described as inborn, they are actually cultivable; what is implied is that there is difference between a king and one worthy of kingship.

    By now, the four expedients (upāyas) of royal power—conciliation (sāma), giving gifts (dāna), force (daṇḍa), and creating dissension (bheda)—were a standard part of political discourse. Kamandaka speaks of the need to use these judiciously in order to generate and maintain confidence (viśvāsa) in the various elements of the state. Confidence was an essential prerequisite for eliciting loyalty and love (anurāga) from subjects, soldiers, and allies, the kind of loyalty and love that would extend over many generations. Kautilya also speaks of the importance of the subjects’ loyalty, confidence and affection, but the Nitisara expands the vocabulary to add devotion (bhakti) and service (sevā).

    Kamandaka’s discussion of courtiers and court protocol is broadly similar to Kautilya’s but has greater centrality within his larger discussion.45 The anujīvīs (dependents or courtiers) are mentioned in the same breath as the bandhu (kinsmen) and mitra (friends).46 For courtiers desiring political success, a crucial objective was to secure the king’s affection (anurāga), and to regain it if it was lost for some reason or another. The courtier was advised to meticulously tailor his deportment and behavior to court protocol and propriety in accordance with his rank and position. Political success was considerably dependent on the ability to create in oneself and in others certain desirable emotional states and dispositions.47

    Like the Arthashastra, the Nitisara indicates the intersection of the emotional, personal, and political. Disposition and sentiment are important parts of the political discourse. Attachment, estrangement, love, loyalty, confidence, and friendship are sentiments that are invoked to describe relations between king, courtiers, subjects, and other rulers. Kin, especially sons and wives, are sources of strength and support to the king but also a threat. The terms mitra or suhṛt, denoting friendship, are used both for personal friends and political allies of the king. These are distinguished from the vallabhas, or royal favorites, who seem to have been considered especially problematic characters as they are mentioned as one of several sources of fear to the subjects.48

    Violence against the King

    Like his Arthashastra counterpart, the king of the Nitisara inhabits a dangerous world, and his foremost challenge (and indeed duty) is to protect himself. The detailed description of the king as a figure assailed at all times and from all sides by the threat of assassination, especially through poison, may have been realistic. Even if exaggerated, it suggests that violence against the person of the king was a serious source of anxiety for kings and political theorists alike. It was because of this ever-present danger that the king was advised to be well-protected, ever- vigilant, and to sleep lightly like a yogin.49

    Like the Arthashastra, the Nitisara recognizes the political importance of the royal household in its detailed discussion of princes and the harem.50 The harem (antaḥpura, avarodhana) was a place of pleasure and sensual indulgence, but it was also the most dangerous place for the king.51 It was a space where there was much coming and going, and all movements required careful regulation. Members of the harem were to be watched over by officers known as antaḥpurāmātyas. Spies in various disguises were to keep a strict watch over everyone.52

    The king should move about in the harem escorted by eunuchs, armored and turbaned, hunch-backs, kirātas [hunters] and dwarfs.53

    He should be protected by armed palace guards. Men of (over?) eighty years and women of fifty years and eunuchs should be appointed as attendants to members of the harem. Numerous examples are given of treacherous queens who had killed their husbands. Sons, too, were a source of serious worry, and had to be both protected and protected from. Kamandaka advises that even when going to meet his mother, the king should be escorted by trustworthy armed followers; he should not linger in narrow passages or deep alleys, lest he be attacked by assassins.

    Potential troublemakers included those only partially integrated into the circle of kings—sāmantas (neighboring or bordering rulers) and āṭavikas (forest dwellers), who are frequently mentioned in the same breath. In the Nitisara, as in the Arthashastra, the term sāmanta does not yet fully have the distinct connotations of a subordinate feudatory, which it later acquired. But the category

    of subordinate rulers is represented in the discussion of types of alliances. For instance, there is a discussion of the various kinds of treaties or agreements that could be concluded with a weaker or defeated power. Among these, the puruṣāntara sandhi carries the express obligation that the army chiefs (yodhamukhyas) of the ally would serve the vijigīṣu’s interests.54

    Ancient Indian political theorists were aware of the possibility of political crisis and collapse. Kamandaka classifies disturbances that could threaten the kingdom into two categories: internal (antaḥprakopa) and external (bāhyaprakopa).55 The former, described as potentially more harmful, includes disaffection among the royal purohita, amātyas, princes, members of the royal family, commanders, and chiefs of army contingents. Bāhyaprakopa includes disaffection among provincial governors, frontier guards, forest people, and those compelled to surrender.56 But the king’s most dangerous enemy is the king himself. The Nitisara speaks at great length about the problems that a kingdom faces due to the king’s own character and dispositions. These include vices (vyasanas) emanating out of vanity (mada), anger (krodha), and attachment to sensual pleasures (kāma).57 A kingdom whose king is afflicted by vyasanas is in deep trouble, even if the other prakṛtis are functioning well.

    Force and Punishment

    The opening verse of the Nitisara refers to the king as the wielder of daṇḍa (force, punishment). Daṇḍa is necessary for the maintenance of the dharma of the varṇas and āśramas. Daṇḍa must be exercised to ensure the protection and promotion of the prosperity of the subjects (prajā), and there was a reciprocal relationship between the prosperity of the subjects and the king.58 As for Kautilya, so for Kamandaka, attaining political goals often involved using what would ordinarily be considered deceitful, violent means, but the political theorists were not squeamish about this.

    Kamandaka offers various justifications for political violence, referred to in one place as “the policy of a lion” (siṁhavṛtti).59 The most important of these is the attainment of desired ends, specifically the expansion and consolidation of political power. Force is also justified on the grounds of what would result from its absence.

    In this world, people move around in different directions, preying on each other. In the absence of daṇḍa, the law of the fish prevails and there is disaster.60

    Violence is also part of the discussion of secret killing (upāṁśu-daṇḍa), where Kamandaka advises the king on how to kill adversaries, and the section on māyā describes various sly tactics to defeat them.61 Enemies can be legitimately killed by secretly administering poison or by enlisting the services of estranged court physicians. Violence may also be necessary to deal with dishonest and impious people, those who obstruct the course of dharma, or royal favorites who create trouble, individually or collectively. If royal favorites cause loss of lives and become a source of anxiety to the people, they should be killed secretly.

    While performing his dharma, the king may have to dispassionately use violence [hiṁsā] while dealing with wicked, sinful people, just as the sages have to use violence [when they kill animals in sacrifice]. For this, he does not incur any sin.62

    All this is very much in line with Kautilya’s justification of force or necessary

    violence on the grounds of political pragmatism and the need for political survival.

    Justice is another important justification for violence. However, the king must be careful to blend the use of coercive power (daṇḍa) with proper procedure (naya) in order to be praised as a yukta-daṇḍa.63 He is urged to use daṇḍa as firmly as the god Yama, but blended with the impartiality of the nature of the earth, and compassion similar to that shown by the creator Prajapati toward his own created beings. Coercion must be tempered with justice and a sense of proportion, for excessively harsh punishment terrifies the people, just as leniency makes the king worthy of contempt. So far, all this is in conformity with the attitude of many ancient Indian texts.

    Kamandaka discusses punishment in very general terms. He speaks of three types of punishment—capital punishment, fines, and rigorous punishment involving bodily and mental pain. There are two types of execution or killing (the distinction between criminals and enemies is blurred): open execution (prakāśa-daṇḍa) and secret killing (upāṁśu-daṇḍa). An intelligent ruler desirous of religious merit should not inflict capital punishment on Brahmanas and righteous men or on antyajas (outsiders or outcastes); the reason for excluding the latter is not made explicit. Interestingly, according to the Nitisara, capital punishment (prāṇāntika-daṇḍa) should be avoided even for the gravest offense, with the exception of the most serious one, namely usurpation.64 Kamandaka’s disapproval of capital punishment is in sharp contrast to Kautilya, who recommends the death penalty for several offenses.

    Embedded in a political discourse peppered with disquisitions on force and violence is mention of the virtue of nonviolence.

    Nonviolence [ahiṁsā], refined speech, truthfulness, purity, pity and forgiveness constitute the dharma that is applicable to all [sāmānya- dharma], regardless of varṇa or sex.”65

    Further, the vijigīṣu is urged

    to punish the wicked and to support the good, to practice nonviolence toward all beings [ahiṁsā sarvabhūtānām], and to avoid all acts contrary to dharma.66

    Nonviolence as part of the dharma common to all is also found in the Arthashastra. But as we have seen in his stand on the death penalty, and as we shall see in Kamandaka’s attitude toward war and the royal hunt in the Chapters

    4 and 5, this thinker’s perspective on violence was rather different from Kautilya’s.

    The Centrality of Self-Control

    While the goal of the Nitisara’s teaching is political success, there is an ever- present awareness of the possibilities of political malfunction through ineptitude, excess, imbalance, and tyranny. The ability of the king to achieve his political ambitions hinged on his ability to effectively control the various elements of the state. Like many of the other texts that have been discussed so far, the Nitisara recommends that the king cultivate the quality of discipline (vinaya) and control over his senses in himself, in princes, and among his subjects.67

    Early in the Nitisara, Kamandaka defines and emphasizes the important relationship between philosophy and self-knowledge:

    Philosophy [anvīkṣikī] develops self-knowledge [ātma-vidyā], which leads to the understanding of happiness and sorrow. Realizing their true nature, he [the king] renounces both joy and sorrow.”68

    Numerous examples are given to prove the transience of life and its pleasures, and great emphasis is placed on the control of the sense organs. Striking in its Upanishadic ring is the following assertion:

    Just as the universal soul [antarātmā] residing in the midst of the elements of nature permeates the whole world, similarly does the king, in the midst of the elements [of the state], prevail over the whole world.69

    While Kamandaka justifies violent means to attain political ends, a careful reading of the text suggests a more complex and nuanced perspective toward political violence, one that is rather radical in the context of the political thought of the time. The Arthashastra puts forward a brilliant vision of an arrogant all- powerful state, one that was omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. The Nitisara represents a post-Kautilyan reflection on political power, one that is cautious and restrained, especially with regard to issues related to political violence. Compared with Kautilya, Kamandaka was somewhat more concerned with the ethical dimension of politics.

    Kalidasa and the Aestheticization of Kingship

    If Kamandaka was the chief political theorist of mature monarchy, the poet and playwright Kalidasa was its most brilliant literary ideologue. His works include three plays (Abhijnanashakuntala, Vikramorvashiya, and Malavikagnimitra) and three long poems (Raghuvamsha, Meghaduta, and Ritusamhara).70 Kalidasa was one of the foremost exponents of the western Indian Vaidarbha literary style, famed for its clarity and mellifluous flow. Unfortunately, we know little about this great writer. He seems to have lived in the fourth or fifth century and was probably connected with the city of Ujjayini in western India. It has been suggested that Kalidasa may have modeled his description of king Raghu’s conquest of the quarters in the Raghuvamsha on the Gupta king Samudragupta and that the titles of some of his works contain allusions to other Gupta kings who may have been his patrons—Chandragupta II or Kumaragupta.71 It has also been suggested that Kalidasa may have been a Gupta cultural ambassador to the Vakataka court. Notwithstanding the uncertainty about who his royal patron or patrons were, Kalidasa’s works mark an important watershed in the representation of kingship in ancient Indian literature. Most of the various strands in this representation were present in earlier times. But Kalidasa created a new, brilliant distillation and synthesis of ideas in the form of exquisite Sanskrit prose and poetry.

    The Abhijnanashakuntala

    Forgetting and remembering are an important part of Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntala (The recognition of Shakuntala). This seven-act play tells the love story of king Dushyanta of the Puru lineage and Shakuntala, daughter of the nymph Menaka and the sage Kaushika, who is brought up in the hermitage of the sage Kashyapa.72 A story about Dushyanta and Shakuntala occurs in the Mahabharata as well, but Kalidasa’s rendering is different in several respects.73 King Dushyanta spends most of the play either falling in love with Shakuntala or pining for her. He also appears as a hunter, protector of sages’ hermitages, and an adjudicator in property-related suits. He is very frequently referred to as sage- like king (rājarṣi) and has a close relationship with the gods, especially Indra. The king forgets his beloved Shakuntala due to an angry sage’s curse, but a ring restores his memory. The play directs attention to the conflict between love and duty.

    The play also describes the conflict between the values of city and the forest hermitage. The young ascetics of Kashyapa’s hermitage who escort the pregnant Shakuntala to Dushyanta’s court find the city with its hordes of people disconcerting and unpleasant. They are unimpressed by the king’s opulence and wealth, as well as by the purohita’s statement that the king is the protector of the varṇas and āśramas. Unfettered by the conventions and courtesies of courts, they speak their mind without deference or hesitation. They assert that the king must be judged by his behavior and his conduct toward Shakuntala, and they berate him for his refusal to recognize and acknowledge her as his wife (this is due to the curse). One of the hermit boys contrasts the innocent words of Shakuntala with the words of those who consider deception to be a branch of learning, a clear reference to the science of politics.74

    The Abhijnanashakuntala has the idea of the cakravartin (paramount king). Dushyanta is a great king, but he is not a cakravartin. We are introduced early in the play to the fact that his son will be one. Later in the play, the child makes a dramatic entry, dragging a lion cub by its mane onto the stage, wanting to push open its mouth to count its teeth. This cub has half-sucked the milk from his mother’s teats, but the child is oblivious to the danger of his situation. He has an innate, untamed strength; he is fearless and wild, beyond all imaginable limits.

    He does not follow the gentle ways of the hermitage. The sages have aptly named him Sarvadamana—one who torments all. When the boy raises his hand to reach out for a toy, Dushyanta sees that the fingers of his hand are webbed. This is one of the well-known physical attributes of the great man in the Buddhist tradition! The sage Maricha sums up the cakravartin ideal in his prophecy about this unusual child:

    “After crossing the ocean in a chariot smooth and steady in movement,

    he, the unrivalled warrior [apratiratha], will conquer the earth consisting of seven continents.

    He is called Sarvadamana because he forcibly subdues all animals

    but he will acquire the name ‘Bharata’ on account of supporting the world.”75

    Is the idea of the cakravartin crossing the ocean on his chariot just poetic fantasy or is there an allusion here to Samudragupta’s transoceanic exploits? Apratiratha occurs as an epithet on some coins of Samudragupta and also as one of his epithets in the Allahabad pillar inscription. The similarities are tantalizing, but not conclusive.

    The Raghuvamsha

    Among Kalidasa’s works, it is the mahākāvya titled Raghuvamsha (Raghu’s lineage) that has the greatest importance as political poetry. This long poem, consisting of nineteen sargas (cantos), provided one of the earliest holistic, authoritative, and aesthetically refined delineations of the mid-first-millennium classical Indian ideal of kingship.76 The power and influence of this text surpassed Kalidasa’s other works, and extended beyond the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia.

    The theme of the Raghuvamsha is a royal lineage descended from Manu, the legendary progenitor of all earthly kings, but its special focus is on a sequence of kings of the Ikshvaku lineage from Dilipa to Agnivarna. Various scholars have suggested that the digvijaya (victory over the quarters) of king Raghu, an episode described in great detail in the Raghuvamsha, was based on the military campaigns and career of one of the kings of the Gupta dynasty—Samudragupta, Chandragupta II, or Kumaragupta.77 As we shall see in Chapter 4, unlike Samudragupta’s campaigns, Raghu’s digvijaya is a clearly enunciated and detailed circumambulation of the subcontinent, and if Kalidasa modeled his description of Raghu’s military campaigns on that inscription, it could have been only in a general rather than any specific way. The Raghuvamsha offers a more detailed, developed, and complex model of kingship and sovereignty than the inscription does. Further, it offers a literary exposition not only of ideal kingship, but also of the intersection of these ideals with the realities and problems of monarchical power politics. It is possible that while Kalidasa’s ideas of kingship and empire were influenced by Gupta imperial expansion, it was Harishena, composer of the Allahabad praśasti, who was influenced by Kalidasa, rather than the other way round.78

    The Ikshvaku kings Dilipa, Raghu, and Rama are central figures in the Raghuvamsha, and the Valmiki Ramayana was clearly a major direct source for Kalidasa’s account of Rama’s story.79 And yet, there are many differences between the two narratives. Unlike the Ramayana, where references to Rama’s divinity are concentrated in the beginning and end of the story, the hero’s divinity is emphasized and reiterated throughout the Raghuvamsha. But the main difference is that the epic’s focus is on Rama, while in the Raghuvamsha,

    although Rama plays an important role (he is the subject of five out of the nineteen sargas, namely Sargas 11–15), Kalidasa tells the story not of a single king but of a lineage—the sun-born Ikshvaku clan. The origins of this clan are traced to the mythical Manu, but Kalidasa’s focus is on eight kings—Dilipa, Raghu, Aja, Dasharatha, Rama, Kusha, Atithi, and Agnivarna—and his narrative ends with an unnamed pregnant widow of Agnivarna sitting on the throne of Kosala.80 Kalidasa was the first Sanskrit kavi to produce a work that focused on a long lineage of kings. This emphasis on lineage can be correlated with royal inscriptions of the period, where, as we have seen, royal genealogy has an important place.

    The political discourse of the Raghuvamsha is embedded in a larger cultural, philosophical, and religious matrix. We encounter the ideas of dharma, the puruṣārthas, varṇa, and āśrama. But it is āśrama rather than varṇa that is repeatedly emphasized and invoked in connection with kingship. Kalidasa valorizes the king’s renunciation of the world in the twilight of his life.81 The king’s equanimity, detachment, and self-control are emphasized frequently and strongly. The gods appear in the Raghuvamsha as interceders, facilitators, and competitors, as well as objects of devotion (especially in the case of Vishnu). The religious landscape of the mahākāvya also includes a strong belief in the efficacy of the performance of sacrifices, pilgrimage, and vows (vratas).

    The conceptual vocabulary of the political treatises surfaces frequently in different contexts in the Raghuvamsha, especially in Canto 17, which is devoted to the reign of Atithi, son of Kusha. Atithi is the only king whom we see engaged in the nitty-gritty of administration with any degree of specificity. Kalidasa describes him as an exemplary king who meticulously followed the dictates of nīti (proper governance) in order to create peace and prosperity throughout his kingdom. The etymological derivation of the word rājan (king) from the king’s pleasing his subjects is given, and there are references to the seven elements of the state, the need for the king to maintain secrecy, and to be measured and fair in his punishment. Kalidasa mentions the four expedients of statecraft, the three powers of kings, the dangers of royal vices, the circle of kings, and the need for kings to follow the flexible policy of reeds. Clearly, the poet knew the Arthashastra vocabulary well. But he also had his own distinct political perspective, which surfaces especially in places where he was not

    bound by the story and characters of the Ramayana.

    Several scholars have pointed to Kalidasa’s skill in describing the tension between kāma (sensual pleasure) and dharma, especially in the context of kingship; however, it should be noted that in ancient Indian poetic and political discourse, these elements were not necessarily seen as being in conflict with each other. Since the emotions were central to its art and reception, kāvya’s treatment of the affective landscape of power differs greatly from that of the political theorists. Positive emotions like love, friendship, pity, and kindness are emphasized; hatred, jealousy, and anger are negative emotions to which heroes rarely succumb. In the Raghuvamsha, the dangers of the interface between political fortune and human relations is revealed in the Rama episode, when intrigue and rivalry within the harem hurtles the royal family toward disaster. Nevertheless, as a general rule, and in stark contrast to the political treatises, which are replete with frequent dire warnings of the dangers posed by wives and sons, attachment to close kin is not presented as something to be avoided in kāvya. Unlike Kautilya’s king, the king of the Raghuvamsha does not live a life of danger and violence, tormented by a perpetual fear of assassination, especially at the hands of his wives and sons. He does not fear, but rather embraces familial relationships. Another difference (and this is in line with the epics) is that in many kāvyas, great store is set on the king keeping his promise. The word has to be redeemed, even at the cost of a kingdom. Such an attitude is in contrast to the political pragmatism espoused by the political theorists. Political expediency and the single-minded pursuit of power are not the prime factors or focus in the story of the great Ikshvakus. The ethics and aesthetics of politics are framed within dharma, but are also subject to the emotional pulls of various kinds of relationships, principally, but not exclusively, those based on kinship. And as we shall see farther on, the delineation of this rich emotional landscape provides the background for a valorization of detachment and renunciation.


    The Raghuvamsha combined the martial, ritual, and benevolent aspects of kingship. The centrality of the royal lineage is constantly emphasized, and there are four kings who stand out for a detailed description of their exemplary qualities and conduct—Dilipa, Raghu, Rama, and Atithi. It can be argued that Raghu, after whom the kāvya and the lineage are known, is the real hero of the

    long poem, as he closely and directly reflects the ideals laid out at the beginning of the mahākāvya. Of course, Rama, too, is important, but unlike Raghu, he is a god-king, who can be only partially emulated by his human counterparts.

    The Raghuvamsha reflects a complex understanding of the relationship between kingship and the gods. The tensions, even conflict between the heavenly and kingly realms are reflected most dramatically in Indra’s determination to prevent the performance of Dilipa’s hundredth horse sacrifice by carrying away the sacrificial horse, and prince Raghu’s fierce battle with that god to regain it. Comparisons with the gods are frequent, most often with Indra, but also with other deities including Kama, Kubera, Karttikeya, Vishnu, Varuna, and the Ashvins. These are obviously to be understood as exalting the station of the king. Kings are also described as having elements of godliness in them. So, for instance, we are told that the guardians of the four quarters entered the embryo of Raghu and that Dilipa was a portion of the three-eyed god Shiva. But there is a difference between these kings and Rama, who is a full-fledged god (Vishnu) in human form and whose actions are determined and therefore justified by his godliness.

    Kalidasa weaves into his poem an astounding range of titles, epithets, and attributes signifying various aspects of ideal kingship. The most important elements are laid out in five verses right at the beginning, where the traits of the members of Raghu’s lineage are listed. These include purity, valor, perseverance, generosity, justice, watchfulness, and measured speech. The Raghuvamsha describes itself as the story

    of kings who were pure from their birth, who engaged in works till they attained success,

    who ruled the earth up to the ocean [and] whose chariots reached up to heaven.82

    Kings of this lineage performed sacrifices in the prescribed manner; they acquired wealth in order to renounce it; they sought victory only for the sake of fame; they married only for the sake of progeny. It is not individual virtues, but a balance of many virtues and accomplishments that is emphasized. The political paramountcy of the great king is recognized by a congeries of lesser kings and is indicated by his imperial titles.83

    The dharma of the king is an extension of kṣatra-dharma (the dharma of the Kshatriya) in which protection of the subjects stands out.

    The great word kṣatra is well-known in the world through its etymology

    —“one who saves from destruction.”84

    The king gives refuge to his people. Raghu is described in one place as lord of the varṇas and āśramas, but this is not an aspect of kingship that is especially emphasized by Kalidasa till he comes to Rama. Rama is the only king of Raghu’s lineage who is described as specifically punishing someone for transgressing varṇa-dharma; the Shudra who had dared perform austerities has to die. But elsewhere, more than any other king of Raghu’s lineage, Rama is portrayed as a people’s king. Other members of Raghu’s line are also protectors and nurturers of their subjects, but as in the Ramayana, the subjects assume a larger than life role in the Rama story. They follow Rama around and share a mutual relationship of love with him; their opinion leads him to banish a beloved queen, and a query from one of them makes him launch a hunt for the cause of the transgression of dharma in his kingdom. Rama knows Sita is innocent and pregnant, and yet he banishes his beloved queen because he cannot bear the whiff of public scandal.

    The ideal king is a brave warrior who is also skilled in the art of governance. He sees with the eyes of wisdom, and this wisdom is reflected in many specific aspects of his rule. Like the political treatises, the Raghuvamsha emphasizes that the ideal king’s punishment must be measured and not excessively harsh. Dilipa punishes the guilty only for the sake of the maintenance of order; as a dispenser of justice to his people, he is yukta-daṇḍa (one whose punishments are fair and measured). Raghu does likewise:

    For by dispensing fair punishment he won the hearts of the whole world like the southern wind which is neither too cold nor too hot.85

    Kingship has a paternalistic aspect, one linked with instruction and training. The Raghuvamsha repeatedly emphasizes that the king is a role model for his subjects with respect to proper behavior, especially discipline (vinaya). Speaking of Dilipa, Kalidasa tells us that

    due to his imparting the foundation of self-control and discipline [vinaya] to his subjects, protecting and nurturing them,

    he was their father; their [natural] fathers were merely respon sible for their birth.86

    The benevolence of the king is expressed ceremonially on certain special occasions. For instance, after his consecration, Atithi orders the freeing of prisoners and the commutation of the sentence of those awarded capital punishment. The king’s benevolence extends to the animals of his realm—on this occasion, he orders that full-grown bulls are not to be yoked, cows are not be milked, and pet birds such as parrots and others that are confined in cages are to be freed.87 Although this sort of activity is reminiscent of Ashoka, as we have seen, it is also mentioned in the Arthashastra, and it seems that these were customary ways of celebrating important political events.

    The relationship between the king and the sages (ṛṣis) is presented by Kalidasa as one of reciprocity and mutual respect rather than hierarchy. Kings are frequently called on to protect the sacrifices in the āśramas of the sages; and it is emphasized that the sacrifices, mantras, blessings, and advice of the sages help maintain the well-being of the kingdom. Sacrifice (yajña) looms large in the Raghuvamsha as a preeminent aspect of kingship. The text makes analogies between the king and the god Indra and connects sacrifice with the prosperity of the realm:

    He [Dilipa] milked the earth [that is, levied taxes] for the sake of performing sacrifices and Indra milked heaven [that is, made rain] so that grain grew.

    Through this exchange of wealth, they sustained the two worlds.”88

    There are also references to specific sacrifices. All the material fruits of the conquest of the quarters are surrendered immediately afterward by Raghu in the performance of the viśvajit sacrifice. The most prominent sacrifice is the aśvamedha—three kings (Dilipa, Rama, and Atithi) are described as having performed it. Dilipa performs ninety-nine aśvamedhas; the hundredth one is interrupted by the god Indra, who is jealous of the fame that the king would attain, should it be completed.

    The ideal king is described not only in terms of his actions but also with

    reference to his inner qualities. The kings of Raghu’s line are routinely described as self-controlled. The king collects wealth, but not out of greed, remains detached while enjoying pleasures, and is not attached to vices (viṣayas). Raghu does not crave victory, even while on his digvijaya, and in fact, gives away everything he has acquired in the viśvajit sacrifice, a relatively obscure rite that Kalidasa raises to the status of a great royal ritual because of his belief that great kings should be utterly indifferent to wealth. The political treatises such as the Arthashastra also emphasize the need for the king to be detached and to control his senses, and they, too, valorize the sage-like king (rājarṣi); but they do not advocate the complete abdication of power at any stage in his life. The Raghuvamsha takes the elements of detachment and equanimity to another level, advocating complete renunciation of power and the performance of austerities of various kinds toward the end of the king’s life. Dilipa is foremost among kings and rules unrivaled over the entire earth as though it were a single town. But he is willing to give up this sovereignty for the sake of a cow he has vowed to protect. In Kalidasa’s construct of kingship, the true greatness of a king does not lie in his achievement of paramount status; it lies in his readiness to spontaneously give up that status for the sake of pious duty.

    The Raghuvamsha is the story of kings

    who in their childhood studied the various branches of knowledge, in youth sought pleasures,

    in their old age lived like hermits [munis], and in the end gave up their lives through yoga.89

    Kings of Raghu’s line do not cling to power till their death. Dilipa goes off to the forest and presumably dies there. Raghu enters life’s last āśrama and becomes an ascetic (yati), practices yoga and meditation, and realizes the ultimate reality. Aja starves himself to death at the confluence of the Ganga and Sarayu. On the completion of his earthly mission, Rama plunges into the Sarayu along with all his subjects. Nala and Pushya go off to the forest and attain freedom from rebirth (the latter practices yoga). Kalidasa valorizes renunciation as customary among Raghu’s lineage and sees it as a desirable end to a king’s life. He tells us that it was the family vow of the Ikshvaku kings to hand over power to their successors in their old age and retire to the forest.90 This practice had the practical

    advantage of creating a smooth political transition, but it was essentially rooted in a philosophical matrix and also found a place in the classical Brahmanical āśrama scheme of life stages. The lives of the model kings of Raghu’s lineage exemplify the fulfilment of the goals of human existence at different stages of life, and direct attention to the philosophical underpinnings of Kalidasa’s political poetry.

    The great king of the Raghuvamsha is a warrior and victor. There can be many kings at a given point of time, but the great kings are paramount kings. There are two references to the term sāmanta in the Raghuvamsha—which clearly refer to subordinate rulers, not just neighboring kings.91 One of the important aspects of the Raghuvamsha as a political manifesto is its very specific and detailed mapping of the subcontinent as a political domain. This mapping takes place three times. The first occurs in Canto 4, in the description of Raghu’s victory over the quarters (digvijaya), which gives a very detailed and specific mapping of the subcontinent as the field of the cakravartin (the details will be discussed in Chapter 4) in terms of the various lands, their rulers, people, and produce. The second occurs in Canto 6, which describes the princess Indumati’s suitors during her svayaṁvara (marriage by choice). The third is found in Canto 13, which describes the lands that Rama and Sita traverse when they fly back from Lanka to Ayodhya on the aerial car called puṣpaka. The important thing to note is that Raghu’s digvijaya and the notions of empire and sovereignty that it reflects do not involve conquest; they involve the demonstration of decisive military superiority by the victor and the acceptance of this by the defeated kings. The claim to political paramountcy is also publicly enacted and expressed in the performance of the aśvamedha. Kalidasa’s poetic celebration of kingship goes a long way toward masking and aestheticizing its inherent violence.


    In spite of his strong idealization of kingship, Kalidasa also offers insights into the some of the problems associated with monarchical power in mid-first- millennium north India. Behind the idealized perfection of the various kings of Raghu’s line lurk imperfections, excesses, errors of judgement, and addiction to vices.

    As mentioned earlier, the political treatises list four vices (vyasanas) that can afflict a king: excessive addiction to wine, women, hunting, and gambling. Of

    these, the Raghuvamsha does not mention gambling and does not present drinking as a problem. The main focus is on excessive indulgence in women, followed by hunting. The negative fallout of a king’s excessive attachment to a queen figures in Kalidasa’s description of the reigns of Dilipa, Aja, Rama, and Agnivarna. The curse that almost leads to the extinction of the lineage is triggered because Dilipa is eager to unite with his queen, ostensibly for the production of a son. The potential calamity that this threatens to unleash is averted due to sage Vasishtha’s timely intervention and the arduous vow Dilipa performs by serving the divine cow Surabhi’s daughter Nandini for twenty-one days. Aja’s attachment to his queen Indumati (she is actually an apsaras who has been cursed to an earthly existence by a bad-tempered sage) has more problematic results. When Indumati dies, Aja wants to ascend her funeral pyre and refrains from doing so only because of fear of his subjects’ reproach. He is inconsolable and grieves for his dead wife for eight long years, while waiting for his son Dasharatha to attain maturity. When Aja falls ill, he sees it as a boon, and handing over the throne to his son, he starves himself to death at the confluence of the Ganga and Sarayu. Aja’s excessive love for his wife is passed on to his son Dasharatha, who overlooks the rights of his eldest son, Rama, by succumbing to the ambitions of Kaikeyi. The vice of hunting is also prominent in the Raghuvamsha. Dasharatha dies of grief due to the curse that had been placed on him as a result of a wrong-doing committed by him while hunting, and Dhruvasamdhi (one of the later kings of the line) is killed by a lion while engaged in this pursuit.

    The second-to-last ruler, Agnivarna, whose character and activities are described in great detail in Canto 19, is a debauchee:

    Unable to bear a single moment without the pleasures of the senses,

    day and night he immersed himself in his harem, ignoring his subjects who were eager to see him.92

    Agnivarna enjoys music, dance, and wine, dallies with his women servants, lusts after dancing girls, and constantly searches for newer objects of satisfaction. The state of his bed, marked with the powder of flowers, wilted garlands, snapped waist-bands, and vermillion dye reveals his incessant indulgence in the pleasures of love-making. Ironically, in spite of having many wives and being addicted to

    sensual pleasure, Agnivarna does not have any sons. He falls prey to a terrible sickness due to his over-indulgence but still continues to over-indulge.93 The result is a political crisis. Agnivarna’s ministers have to cover up for his dissolute ways and for his sickness. He ultimately dies of disease, and his ministers, in consultation with the chaplain (purohita), furtively throw him onto a funeral pyre in the palace garden. It makes perfect sense that Kalidasa’s poem on kingship should describe both the heights of perfection that a king should aspire to as well as the depths of depravity to which he could sink.

    In the course of a narrative covering the reigns of many kings, apart from the vyasanas that could afflict monarchs, Kalidasa also touches on several other problems of kingship. As in the epics, the central problem is that of succession, especially the anxiety about the production of heirs. In fact, the work begins with a desire for an heir and ends with the expectation of one. The mahākāvya emphasizes the principle of primogeniture, but the transgression of this principle suggests that it was not universally acknowledged or followed.

    As mentioned earlier, Kalidasa recommends that the king should retire to the forest after handing over the reins of power to his son and successor. But there are problematic situations when the kingdom becomes especially vulnerable. This includes the accession of minor heirs such as Sudarshana, who is just six years old. Kalidasa evocatively tells us how subordinate kings bowed before the child king:

    To his feet which dangled a little from the throne, scarcely touching the golden foot stool

    And were dyed with red paste, the [subordinate] kings bowed their great crowns.94

    Ministers play an important role in problematic situations, as they do at the end of Agnivarna’s reign, when they cover up for his illness, reassure the subjects, and secretly cremate the dead king. Further, it should be noted that Kalidasa recognizes that when male heirs are unavailable, women rulers can take over. The Raghuvamsha closes with the pregnant widow of Agnivarna occupying the throne of the kingdom of Kosala. The ensuring of smooth, uninterrupted succession is a major concern, but behind this concern lies an awareness of the conflicts and problems that arose at the time of political transition.

    Like other poets and thinkers, Kalidasa underlines the inherent instability of power by making frequent remarks about the fickleness of Shri, the feminine divine personification of royal power. Violent challenges to the king’s power take the form of jealous rival kings, best illustrated in the narrative of events following the svayaṁvara marriage of Indumati, when the rival suitors get together and waylay the marriage party as it moves toward Ayodhya, leading to a gory battle. Similarly, when Rama is exiled and Dasharatha dies, we are told that the kingdom of Kosala became the bait for foes who eagerly watched for its flaws. Many political problems are glossed over, perhaps in order to offer a normative model for relationships within the royal household. The relationship between kingship and kinship is a central issue. The relationships between kings, wives, and sons usually range from cordiality to intense love, but Kaikeyi’s machinations reveal the dangers posed by harem intrigues to political stability and propriety.

    The Raghuvamsha is an important text because of the comprehensiveness and elegance with which Kalidasa paints the portrait of the ideal king, weaving together attributes such as military victories, the performance of sacrifices, devotion to dharma, a complex relationship with the gods, veneration of the ṛṣis, benevolence toward the subjects, detachment, and self-control. The long poem seamlessly knits together city, palace, forest, and hermitage into an interacting and interdependent whole. These locales are imbued with enormous politico- cultural significance, in a manner that reflects an acknowledgement of their importance as well as an attempt to transform dangerous or problematic spaces into benign ones. It is the creation of such an all-encompassing imperial universe couched in brilliant Sanskrit poetry that gave the Raghuvamsha its great importance in India and Southeast Asia.

    If the Raghuvamsha directs attention to the problems of kingship, it also points to solutions.95 These include following the dictates of Kshatriya dharma; undertaking religious vows; devotion to the sages; the cultivation of virtues, especially self-control; the avoidance of vices; and most important, the voluntary renunciation of power after fulfilling one’s duties. The military ambit of the exemplary king is a digvijaya of the subcontinent. However the notion of empire (sāmrājya) that we encounter in the Raghuvamsha is one that involves victory but not necessarily conquest. Raghu’s is a “victory over the quarters,” not a

    “conquest of the quarters.” While military victories are a necessary aspect of the rule of a great king, the greatest kings follow them up by renouncing the fruits of those victories. Renunciation toward the end of life is a central aspect of the model of ideal kingship in the Raghuvamsha. The violence inherent in kingship (and as we shall see in Chapter 4, even in war) is almost completely erased and aestheticized.

    Vishakhadatta’s Political Realism

    At about the same time that Kalidasa wrote his magnum opus celebrating and aestheticizing kingship, Vishakhadatta wrote the Mudrarakshasa (Rakshasa’s signet ring), a play that has a very different perspective on politics.96 This seven- act play stands alone among all the dramas of ancient India in its unsentimental realism, reminding us of the political treatises rather than any other literary work. It is an action-packed, hard-headed drama, loaded with intrigue, espionage, and murder, a bit like the ancient Indian version of the House of Cards television series. Realpolitik, is in the forefront and the noble ideals of kingship take a back seat. There is no romance, no mirth—just unmitigated, relentless political strategy and counter-strategy.

    Vishakhadatta was the grandson of the sāmanta Vateshvaradatta and the son of mahārāja Bhaskaradatta, members of a well-established family who probably ruled as subordinates of the imperial Guptas. This gave him an excellent ring- side view of the brutal realities of power politics. The first act of the Mudrarakshasa refers to the performance of the play before a political assembly called the pariṣad. Although the first two verses contain an invocation to Shiva in his aspect as the divine dancer, the last verse speaks of a king named Chandragupta and the god Vishnu. It lauds the lord of the earth (pārthiva) Chandragupta who had prosperous kinsmen and servants and who had protected the earth tormented by the barbarians (mlecchas). It also refers to the boar incarnation of Vishnu, to whose tusk the earth had clung in the midst of the deluge (this reminds us of the Udayagiri relief). These and the other references in the play suggest that it was written during the time of the Gupta king Chandragupta II (376–413 / 415 CE).97 This makes Vishakhadatta roughly contemporaneous with Kalidasa, and a comparison of the political ideas in the Mudrarakshasa with those of the Raghuvamsha is in order.

    The Mudrarakshasa is one of the few ancient Indian plays based on a

    historical event, even if it is a legendary memory of that event. It is set in Pataliputra (also known as Kusumapura) at a critical moment of political transition in the kingdom of Magadha, when the Nandas had been ousted and Maurya rule recently established. It is interesting that a play set in the time of the Maurya king Chandragupta was probably written and performed some six

    centuries later in the time of a Gupta king with the same name. It has been suggested that the Gupta kings encouraged a deliberate revival of the Maurya past and consciously imitated Maurya forms and artefacts. The name Chandragupta assumed by two Gupta kings, the writing of a play set in Maurya times, and a Gupta-period lion capital at Udayagiri, which is similar to earlier Maurya prototypes, buttress this interesting hypothesis. The creation of a new legend about the author of the Arthashastra, connecting him with the minister of Chandragupta Maurya, has also been seen as part of a recrafting of the Maurya legacy in the Gupta period.98

    Like some of Bhasa’s plays discussed above, the Mudrarakshasa is not about kings but their ministers. The two protagonists are Chanakya (who is also referred to as Kautilya and Vishnugupta) and Rakshasa; they are the larger-than- life ministers of Chandragupta Maurya and the deceased Nanda king Sarvarthasiddhi, respectively.99 The allies of the Nandas include Parvateshvara, who from his name, seems to have been a mountain or forest king. There are also mleccha kings, allies, and confederates of Rakshasa, who hover around in the background. The entire play is devoted to a description of the attempts of Chanakya and Rakshasa to outwit each other. Vishakhadatta introduces a new element in the age-old debate between fate and human effort. Brilliantly executed strategy can be made to appear like fate.

    The plot and the dramatis personae demand a heavy dose of political theory in the play, and we are not disappointed. Vishakhadatta makes several interesting analogies—between the management of the household and the state, between a snake charmer and a statesman, and between a politician and a playwright. There are numerous direct references to the principles of nīti, daṇḍanīti, and arthaśāstra and to the conceptual vocabulary of statecraft, indicating that Vishakhadatta knew the subject well. There is both the idea of multiple power centers and the idea of imperium over the whole earth.100 Rakshasa’s spies manage to enter the palace through a secret chamber (suraṅga) in the walls of the king’s bedroom, reminding us of Kautilya’s description of secret chambers and passages in the royal residence. The play and the political treatise mention the use of a mechanical contrivance (yantra) that can be used to kill an enemy. The idea of passports for moving in and out of the city are present in both works. The terms for officials also correspond well, although the Arthashastra naturally

    contains a much more elaborate listing.

    Of the four political expedients, the Mudrarakshasa focuses on one—namely, creating dissension. There are references to the standard vocabulary of interstate relations including the vijigīṣu, the six guṇas, and the ari, mitra, and udāsīna, who are part of the circle of kings. In fact, the entire play can be seen as a dramatic enactment of one of the important principles of ancient Indian statecraft

    —namely, the use of strategy rather than force in order to attain political goals. Although Chanakya alludes to the misgovernance of the Nandas, there is no question whatsoever that this is a pure conflict for power. Dharma is unimportant, and there is little reference to the benevolent role of the king. It is a world far removed from the days of the noble king Shibi, who is mentioned three times in the play.101

    As in the Arthashastra, so in the Mudrarakshasa, political violence is treated in a matter-of-fact manner. The play is full of various kinds of spies and assassins, including a femme fatale called a poison maid (viśa-kanyā). A doctor trying to kill Chandragupta by mixing poison in his medicine is found out by Chanakya and is forced to drink the poison himself. There is reference to secret killing (upāṁśu-vadha). Like Kautilya, Vishakhadatta recognizes internal threat (antaḥkopa) and external threat (bāhyakopa) to the state. In his advocacy of a ruthless, single-minded pursuit of political goals, Vishakhadatta is no less pragmatic than Kautilya.

    Chanakya and Rakshasa are well-matched in their intellectual acumen and understanding of realpolitik. Because they are so evenly matched, their strategies sometimes backfire. So, for instance, a “poison maid” employed by Rakshasa to kill Chandragupta ends up killing Rakshasa’s ally Parvateshvara instead. They are both prone to emotional outbursts, Rakshasa to ones of despair and grief, and Chanakya to ones of anger. Before Chanakya strides onto stage, stroking his loose locks, the stage director introduces him thus:

    “This is Kautilya of crooked intellect,

    in the fire of whose fury the Nanda lineage was violently burned.”102

    Chanakya is a completely clinical and cold-blooded political animal, but Rakshasa has a more human aspect. While trying to outwit each other, they also understand, admire, and respect each other. Both men are true to their vows.

    Both fight for their side, but their aims are different. While Rakshasa wants to destroy Chanakya, the latter wants to win him over to his own side. Force is not the chosen tactic—there are armies in the background, but they scarcely come face to face. Both Chanakya and Rakshasa use other tactics—espionage, feigning, subterfuge—to try to outwit each other. Spreading rumors is an important part of the play. Several of the characters are spies, and some of them are double agents, so the distinction between what seems to be happening and what is really happening becomes blurred at times. It is like a bewildering game of chess played by two grand-masters, where the moves are made with breathtaking speed. So swift and relentless is the game of deception that it often leaves the reader, as it must have done the audience, bewildered and confused.

    The relationship between Chanakya and Chandragupta, minister and king, shows an interesting reversal of what one would expect in a classical Sanskrit play. In one place, the minister Chanakya is described as the founder of the Maurya dynasty. The king is inconsequential and treats the minister with exaggerated deference. The minister, for his part, treats the king with scarcely concealed contempt, usually referring to him and calling him “Vriṣala” (hunter).103 This seems to be on account of his low birth, which contrasts with Chanakya’s own exalted Brahmana status. Chandragupta is a paramount king, described predictably as one whose lotus feet are made red by the light from the facets of rubies in the crowns of kings bowing before him. But his behavior toward Chanakya is one of extreme obsequiousness—saluting him with deference and falling at his feet.

    The center-piece of act 3 is a feigned quarrel between the king and the minister, designed to be overheard in order to create a false impression in the enemy ranks. Vishakhadatta manages to pack a great deal of realism and punch into this scene, getting his characters to say things that would have been unthinkable in normal circumstances. Observing the difference between a de facto and de jure king, a bard comments:

    “The enjoyment of ornaments and such things do not make a king a lord, He whose command none can disobey is, like you, declared to be a lord.”104

    We also see Chandragupta angrily expressing his resentment to Chanakya at being a powerless king:

    “When the sphere of my endeavors is at all times obstructed by your honor, my kingdom is not a kingdom but a prison.”105

    Chanakya curtly tells Chandragupta that if he does not like the power equations between them, he should take over the responsibilities of the state. Many rude things are said by both. At the end of act 3, Chandragupta is shown ashamed at what he had been forced to utter in the course of the quarrel. Vishakhadatta’s audience would no doubt have been scandalized while watching this scene unfold, even if this was supposed to be a feigned, and not a genuine, quarrel.

    Worries about reversals of fortune and political instability resurface repeatedly. Chanakya claims to have uprooted the nine Nanda kings from the earth, making royal sovereignty (Lakshmi or Shri) stable in the Maurya line like a lotus plant in a lake. But although the Nanda king has been killed, his supporters, Rakshasa being the chief among them, are alive, and the conflict is therefore not ended. The characters frequently complain about the fickleness of Lakshmi, often using erotic imagery. Chandragupta talks about the difficulty of wooing the goddess of royal sovereignty, who is like a notorious prostitute. Rakshasa gives an especially strong indictment of royal sovereignty, describing Lakshmi as a wanton, sinful woman who has abandoned the Nanda king for the Maurya.106

    Vishakhadatta’s sharp critique of monarchical power politics emerges in his delineation of some of the principal characters. Chanakya suggests at several points that the last Nanda king was arrogant and his regime marked by maladministration. We are also told that this king had prematurely adopted the hermit’s life as a result of a long siege and out of pity for the citizens of the city, suggesting that he was not willing to fight back. This did not help because he was killed anyway. Chandragupta is no role model himself. He is a lazy puppet, interested in fun and festivities, who has effectively handed over the reins of power to Chanakya. As Chanakya muses cynically,

    “Although naturally endowed with power, when forced to maintain themselves through hard work,

    the lords of elephants and the lords of men usually suffer unhappily.”107

    Chanakya speaks of three kinds of kingdoms: those dependent on the king, on the minister (saciva), and on both. He tells Chandragupta that his is one that is dependent on the minister. This three-fold classification of kingdoms seems to be Vishakhadatta’s own contribution to political theory.

    The Mudrarakshasa talks not so much about the vices of the king, but about those of the ministers and other high officials. Factions and jealousy are rampant among the upper echelons of the political elite. Prince Malayaketu rues that fact that in the presence of kings, ministers say one thing for fear of offending them, and in frank discussions say the opposite. But Vishakhadatta clearly had strong sympathies for the plight of the courtier, and his play contains a caustic critique of courtly life. The spy pretending to be a snake charmer likens being a king’s servant to playing with snakes. As the chamberlain observes in melancholy vein, service (sevā) is painful:

    “One must live in dread of the king, then of the counselor, and then of the king’s favorites,

    And then of others, those licentious rogues who, having obtained his favor, live in his palace.

    The demeaning servitude of a man who toils for morsels by raising his face and uttering flattering words

    Has been rightly held by the wise to be the life of a dog.”108

    It is only greed and indigence that lead people to praise a king for virtues he does not possess.

    “For those free from desire, a king is, like a piece of straw, an object of contempt.”109

    The dependent Bhagurayana bemoans having to follow orders and dupe the innocent, and rues a dependent’s “turning his back on lineage, shame, fame and pride.”110 Even the once powerful Rakshasa is aware of the precarious position of the dependent. He lives in fear of the lord and of those who move near him. The status of those who rise to high position leads to jealousy in the minds of vile men. As Bhagurayana remarks,

    “The course of those who rise to eminence is equally prone toward descent.”111

    The dangers of the king’s anger and his punishment always lurk in the background. In the case of people implicated in treason, the play refers to banishment, impaling on the stake, seizing of property, imprisonment along with members of the family, and death by torture (vicitra-vadha). In act 7, the hangman Vajraloma warns of the king’s violence:

    “If you want to protect your life, wealth, family and wife, beware of the danger of going against the king.

    And further,

    When a man consumes unwholesome food, the result is illness or death, but in the case of hostility to the king, the whole family is killed.”112

    At the end of the play, Chandragupta succeeds in incorporating Rakshasa into his camp. Foes have become allies; the ruthlessness of what has happened before is forgotten. The audience can go home happy. Although there is great similarity in the political perspectives of the Arthashastra and Mudrarakshasa, there is also a difference. For Vishakhadatta, politics seems to be entirely an art of the intellect. Toward the end of the play, Chandragupta marvels at how Chanakya has overcome the powerful enemy without an arrow having been fired. While recognizing the importance of intellect and strategy, Kautilya also recognizes and elaborates on the use of force and war in politics.

    Pragmatic Politics in Animal Tales: The Panchatantra

    The serious matters of kingship and political violence could also be discussed through humorous animal stories. The Panchatantra (The five books, or The five topics) is a Sanskrit treatise that came to have unparalleled circulation in various parts of Asia and Europe. The first translation (into Pahlavi) was made in circa 550, and the Sanskrit original may have been composed in the third century.113 Vishnusharman, the putative author, is described as having composed this work consisting of five books after having studied all the works on governance. The prelude (kathāmukha) is followed by stories and stories within stories, arranged in five books on the following topics: creating dissension among allies (mitra-bheda); securing allies (mitra-prāpti); peace and war (sandhi-vigraha); losing what one has gained (labdha-nāśa); and hasty actions (aparīkṣita-kāritva). The wit and humor and fact that the characters are animals blunt the rawness of the stories, but political conflict, violence, killing, and avoiding being killed are important parts of the Panchatantra tales.

    The main frame story introduces us to a great king named Amarashakti,

    learned in all the treatises on governance, who ruled over the city of Mahilaropya. The king was in despair because he had three very foolish sons. At the suggestion of his ministers, he entrusted the young princes to the tutelage of a wise old Brahmana named Vishnusharman, who makes the astonishing vow that he will teach them the art of politics within six months. Vishnusharman goes about doing this through stories, and the Panchatantra contains these stories. The main frame suggests that the author or authors were Brahmanas who were experienced not only in statecraft but also in the art of story-telling—an interesting combination. Their ostensible purpose was educating young members of the political elite in the art of politics painlessly and in an entertaining manner. But the brilliance of the stories and the universality of their message made them travel across time and region in different languages and forms, making the Panchantantra one of the most influential Indian texts of all time.

    Written in a combination of prose and verse, the Panchatantra describes itself as a treatise on statecraft (nītiśāstra). It connects itself with the intellectual tradition on statecraft (referred to variously as nītiśāstra, nṛpaśāstra, and arthaśāstra) right in the beginning, by paying homage to the stalwarts—Manu,

    Vachaspati, Shukra, Parashara and his son, and Chanakya—who had composed great works on kingship. The text is aware of the ideas and conceptual vocabulary of Dharmashastra and arthaśāstra. But because it consists of dramatic, witty, and entertaining stories, its flavor is completely different from their dry and dour tone. The Panchatantra is indeed, as it describes itself, a treatise on governance of great charm. It is not only the sons of Amarashakti who listen spellbound. We, too, follow the twists and turns of the stories, similarly captivated.

    Although the Panchatantra is very familiar with works on dharma and artha, and cites them, the moral of many of its tales does not match the teachings of those works; in some cases, it actually goes against them. The text extends the reference of nīti beyond the king and court to society at large; it can be read as referring to both the political and the personal spheres. So, for instance, the discussion of the all-important mitra can be understood as referring to political allies as well as personal friends. This meant that the potential audience and impact of the text extended far beyond the political elite.

    Texts such as the Panchatantra no doubt drew on a pool of stories that had been in oral circulation for a very long time, but the act of writing the stories down and molding them to a specific didactic frame involved a creative intervention and remodeling on the part of the author or authors. Although the Jatakas and Panchatantra have much in common—most strikingly in their wide cast of animal characters—they are also quite different. Unlike the Jatakas, most of the Panchatantra stories are short and crisp, with unexpected and unpredictable plots, and many of them are incredibly funny. Even when there are stories within stories, the reader’s attention does not wander. Further, as we have seen, while the Jatakas have a political element, their dominant agenda is that of emphasizing Buddhist ethics. There is no such religious or ethical stamp on the Panchatantra. The text is critical of ascetics and monks. Although a few Hindu gods make an occasional appearance, they are not really important, and the Panchatantra is, by and large, nonsectarian. There is a didactic frame, but it is a very pragmatic one. The emphasis is on the need for effort, intelligence, cunning, and—above all—solid good sense to survive in a difficult world. There is also an emphasis on enjoying the good things of life, including material comforts and friendship. It was the combination of enormously entertaining

    stories with very down-to-earth, practical advice on issues of universal concern that contributed to the great popularity of the Panchatantra stories.

    The forest is the setting of many of the stories, but other locales include the village, city, palace, lake, and seashore. There are some humans—kings, merchants, Brahmanas, carpenters, hunters, washermen, and farmers. But the main and most memorable characters are animals. (The range of animals and subspecies is less than in the Jatakas). Some of these (the dog, ass, goat, horse, bull, and camel) are domesticated, but as in the Jatakas, most of the important characters are wild. They include lions, jackals, deer, elephants, leopards, monkeys, hares, tortoises, crocodiles, and fish. There are birds such as doves, herons, geese, crows, and owls. There are mice, mongooses, and snakes, as well as bugs like lice. Among them all, it is the lion and the jackal who stand out.

    As in the Jataka stories, the animals of the Panchatantra have human-like emotions and intelligence, and they have a society and polity akin to that of humans. The animal world is divided into distinct species. Each species has its own king, but the lion is king of the entire animal kingdom. Animal species are associated with certain innate, “natural” characteristics (as are people of different rank and station in human society), based on human observations of animal traits and behavior.114 But there is also an interesting anti-stereotyping; for instance, there are stories in which the lion is not brave but a coward. There is also some flexibility in animal characterization; a jackal, for example, can be foolish or clever, depending on the demands of the narrative. The most important features of the characters are announced in the names that they are given. Interspecies rivalries and conflicts are central to the stories, and the various animal species can be correlated with different “types” of people belonging to different social backgrounds and stations and possessing distinctive character traits.

    We get a good idea of the main teachings of the Panchatantra by looking at

    the themes of its five books. The theme of Book 1 (the longest one) is creating dissension among allies or friends. It deals with how to get ahead in court, use cunning in order to eliminate rivals, dupe the king into dependence, and live a life of comfort. Book 2 demonstrates the importance and benefits of friendship. Book 3—the second-longest one—shows how clever strategy can be used to defeat a more powerful enemy and emphasizes the importance of governance based on sound policy. Books 4 and 5 are very short. The former shows how the

    wise can see through the crafty plots of adversaries and outwit them; and the latter teaches that quick thinking must not be confused with acting impulsively in haste. Because they deal with different issues, the morals of the various books are not necessarily in consonance with one another, and some of them actually contradict each other.

    Kings and Courtiers

    The stories and verses in the Panchatantra talk about the king as protector, provider, and dispenser of justice. Ruling is a burdensome responsibility that has to be discharged through the use of sound policy. The Panchatantra speaks of the three powers of the king, the importance of good counsel, the four expedients, the six strategies of interstate relations, and the role of ambassadors. The king must be ever vigilant and suspicious, and must beware of the danger of excessive force. Subordinates must be subjected to tests of loyalty. There are quotations from the Manusmriti, many echoes of the Arthashastra, and references to the characters and events of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.115 In the political treatises, creating dissension (bheda), is generally discussed as a strategy to be used against enemies. In the Panchatantra, it is used by courtiers to upstage and eliminate their rivals.

    The importance of self-control is touched on, as are the vices and afflictions of kingship. The seven vices of kingship are enumerated as follows:

    Women gambling, hunting, drinking, Harsh speech is the fifth;

    Excessive severity of punishment And the undue seizure of wealth.116

    Royal sovereignty is unstable; misfortune has been the lot of many famous kings. Like all others, great kings are ultimately crushed by the jaws of death. Chiramjivi, the wise minister of the crow king Meghavarna, tells him not to be deceived by the arrogance of royal fortune, for the power of the king is inherently unstable.

    “It is said: Royal fortune is like a reed—one falls down the moment one climbs onto her. She is like mercury—even after making much effort, it is not possible to grasp her. No matter how hard one tries to make her happy, she betrays you in the end. She is fickle like a monkey king; difficult to grasp like a drop of water on a lotus leaf; wavering like the wind; unstable like the association with uncultured men; difficult to appease like poisonous snakes. She glows momentarily like a streak of clouds in the

    twilight. Like bubbles on water, she is transitory by nature. Like the nature of the body, she is ungrateful for what is done for her. She disappears the minute she is glimpsed, like a heap of money seen in a dream.”117

    In contrast to the majestic animal kings in the Jatakas, the portrayal of animal kings in the Panchatantra is anything but flattering. The frame story of Book 1 is dominated by a golden-maned lion king named Pingalaka and two jackal courtiers, the daring Damanaka and the cautious Karataka. In the lion king’s portrayal, we get both the ideal and the reality of kingship. The lion king lives all alone in the forest. He is ignorant of the science of governance, he is not consecrated, nor does he carry the insignia of royalty. It is on account of his physical might that all animals bow down before him and proclaim him king, it is through his prowess that he wins his fortune, and he himself has crowned himself lord of all the animals.118 The lion king is soon revealed to be an utter coward, who is stricken with terror at the distant sound of an ox. The real hero— or rather, antihero—of Book 1 is a jackal named Damanaka, a courtier who has fallen out of favor and is trying to rise in the court circle. Treated with great respect and deference by the foolish lion king, the crafty Damanaka manipulates him for his own gain. He is the hero and the model character to be emulated— clever, audacious, and a quick thinker.

    In contrast to the wily Damanaka, the courtier Karataka follows all the rules

    of courtly deportment, and toward the end of the book, gives a long pious speech about the good royal adviser. But although he is allowed to say his piece, and gives a stinging critique of the wickedness of Damanaka, he is a loser. Damanaka, for his part, having schemed his way into the confidence and affections of the lion king, lives happily ever after, basking in the comforts of the royal court. So there is no doubt about the preferred model of the courtier in the Panchatantra.

    Like the lion king of Book 1, the elephant king of Book 3 is cowardly and gullible; he is fooled by a clever hare named Vijaya (Victory), who is an expert in politics (generally, it is the smaller animals who are the political experts!). The frog king in the same book is foolish, and so are his ministers. The monkey king in Book 4 is old, weak, and driven into exile due to a younger competitor; he is also sentimental and foolish, but comes to his senses when faced with imminent

    death at the hands of a crocodile, with whom he has formed a bond of friendship. The lion king of Book 4 is so old, sick, and weak that he cannot even kill an ass brought to him by his cunning jackal minister. Book 2 is the only place where we see a king in a more positive light, no doubt because of its overall positive theme of friendship. Chitrangada, king of the doves, has great compassion and concern for his subjects. He uses quick thinking to rescue them from the net of a hunter, and puts their liberty over his own when he tells the mouse to gnaw through their bonds before his. There is also an interesting passing allusion to king Shibi, who gave his flesh to a falcon to protect a dove.119 As mentioned above, the Panchatantra lists the vices of kings, using Arthashastra terminology— gambling, womanizing, drinking, hunting, speaking harshly, meting out excessively severe punishment, and seizing property without justification. But the text is not really concerned about these issues; the biggest problem of kings is their stupidity.

    In the Panchatantra, the denunciation of kings is much stronger than their

    praise. The king is a spendthrift, unpredictable and prone to extremes of behavior. Like that of a prostitute (veśyā), his behavior takes many forms.120 The dominant perspective is that of the courtier. The bottom line is: Kings are violent and dangerous.

    The minds of kings are like

    a house where a snake lies hidden inside,

    a groove that is filled with ferocious beasts, a shady pool with charming lotuses

    but teaming with crocodiles;

    The minds of kings are warped

    always by wicked vile men who tell lies; The minds of kings, timorous servants find, Are difficult to fathom in this world.121

    Some of the most striking verses in the Panchatantra have to do with the position of the king’s servant or courtier. We have hints of the vulnerable position of the courtier and the tyranny of court protocol in the political treatises and the Mudrarakshasa, but these are expressed much more bluntly here. The

    precariousness of the dependent’s life is described with great bitterness:

    You may be loyal, you may be helpful, Devoted to kindly and wholesome deeds; You may know every aspect of service, Totally free of treacherous intents;

    Yet, make one slip, and you’re as good as dead, While your success is uncertain at best.

    Serving any lord of the earth, therefore,

    Is much like serving the lord of waters [the sea]; It is always fraught with risks.”122

    Moreover, the Panchatantra moves beyond the courtier’s concerns in the political treatises (how to work his way upward in the court circle and get close to the king) to another level—how to control the king. Damanaka is the daring courtier who uses his powers to persuade and deceive the king in order to control him. We also encounter the dependent who aspires to be king.123 It is said several times that there can be no friendship between meat-eaters and grass- eaters.124 This is a graphic metaphor for the conflict between the king and courtier—the eater and the eaten. Beneath the veneer of humor of the Panchatantra stories is a great deal of political tension, conflict, and violence.

    Although the Panchatantra’s advice is made in the context of ancient court intrigues, its ruminations on the relationship between powerful bosses and employees could just as easily be transposed onto a modern corporate context. The talking animals get away with saying things that could perhaps not be articulated as bluntly by human protagonists in a highly hierarchical society. (In the Panchatantra, animals generally talk to each other, not to humans.) This is one of the things that gives the Panchatantra its power: It reveals the underbelly of courtly society and society at large, shorn of pious platitudes. Dharma is mentioned in passing, but is of little importance. Courtiers plot against their rivals and their king and deliberately give him bad advice. The cat Dadhikarna, devoted to austerities, learned in the Dharmashastra, and seemingly full of compassion, is actually a fraud.125 Brahmanas are picked on for their foolishness, wandering ascetics for their hypocracy; monks (probably Buddhist)

    are killed off in the end. We are in the realm of political satire, social critique, and bawdy humor, all of which give the stories a lot of punch. Elements of satire can be seen in other early texts (for instance, in the character of the vidūśaka in Sanskrit drama), but the Panchatantra marks the true birth of political and social satire in Indian literature. In this respect, while upholding certain ideas of realpolitik, the Panchatantra is also a socially and politically subversive text.

    Friendship and Alliance

    The themes that run through most of the Panchatantra are turned on their head in Book 2 (The acquisition of friends). Unlike the other books, where conflict, rivalry, and enmity are rife, this one is about securing friends, the great benefits of having quick-thinking and loyal ones, and how friends should join together to help each other in times of adversity. While the stories elsewhere in the Panchatantra emphasize natural enmity, in this book, the crow Laghupatanaka and the mouse Hiranyaka—the eater and the eaten—actually become good friends. The mouse at one point talks bitterly and cynically about the power of wealth and the ups and down of life, but he also talks about the values of righteousness and compassion, and ultimately, he adheres to the latter. We also see a rather weird situation in which the crow tries to force his friendship on the mouse. The mouse, after brushing him off initially, citing the natural enmity between their species, finally succumbs, and the warmth of their relationship is reflected in their long and intimate conversations. And ultimately, the book ends with the four friends (deer, mouse, crow, and turtle) living happily ever after. The last verse muses that if animals can form such close friendships, surely men can too.

    Book 4 is also about friendship, but shows both its ups and its downs. The title (On losing what has been gained) can at one level be interpreted in a material sense: In it, we see how the crocodile lost the monkey whose heart he wanted to feed to his wife. But in a sense, it is also about the forging and the loss of a wonderful friendship. The love between the monkey king and the crocodile is intense and inspires many verses on friendship:


    These two syllables of the word for “friend,” Who is it that has created this gem?

    A shelter against sorrow, grief, and fear, a vessel of love and trust.”126

    The discussion of the friendship between male animals is framed within a discourse that feeds into misogynist and also perhaps homosexual male fantasies.127 The intense friendship between the monkey and the crocodile is

    destroyed due to the latter’s jealous wife. The crocodile has to choose between his friend and his wife, and ultimately chooses the latter. But there is also a subtext that while friendship is wonderful, one cannot trust a friend. This goes against the celebration of friendship in second book of the Panchatantra.

    The Moral of the Stories

    Killing is central to most of the Panchatantra stories. For instance, there is the story of the washerman who covers his emaciated ass in a leopard skin and sets him out to graze in a field. The farmer, thinking he is a leopard, is terrified and hides under a grey blanket. The ass mistakes him for a she-ass and runs after the farmer, who runs away from him. The ass decides to captivate the supposed she- ass by braying in order to reveal his true identity. The farmer realizes that he is an ass and not a leopard; he turns around and shoots the ass dead with an arrow.128

    There is an element of irreverence in several stories. For instance, there is a conversation between a louse who lives on the king’s bed and sucks his blood and a bug who gets blown to that spot one day. The bug observes to the louse that he has sucked the blood of members of all four varṇas and it tastes disgusting; he says that he wants to taste the king’s blood because it must taste delicious. He winds up dead.129 Especially in Book 1, the most political of all the books, the good guys rarely win, and the bad guys (with a few exceptions) usually do.130 We are told quite frankly that conventional virtues can lead to ruin. Truthfulness, kindness, and helpfulness to others lead to disaster. The idea of self-sacrifice (even feigned) is mocked. Cunning, quick thinking, and hard- headedness are valorized. The only social relationship that is celebrated is friendship, and even that does not emerge unscathed.

    A lot of the Panchatantra stories are about sheer survival, including political survival. There is one passing reference to nonviolence (ahiṁsā) being the highest dharma,131 and the dangers of the king using unnecessary or excessive force are underlined. Of the four expedients, conciliation (sāma) is described as the best, and force (daṇḍa) the worst, the most sinful, and not always the most useful or effective.132 But most of the stories are quite violent; they are about animals trying to kill and eat other animals or animals trying to escape being killed by other animals. The general advice is: Use your wits to save yourself from death; kill rather than be killed. As mentioned above, it is stated several times that there can be no friendship between meat-eaters and grass-eaters, the eaters and the eaten. This appears to be a metaphor for the natural enmity between the strong and the weak, the predator and his prey. It is invoked in the

    context of the relationship between king and courtier and between rivals in the court circle. With one notable exception (the crow and the mouse), the eater ends up eating the eaten.

    Apart from stories of animals being killed, there are also stories about animals being trapped. The young deer Chitranga falls into a hunter’s trap and is brought to the palace where he becomes the prince’s pet, but he longs for his freedom.133 What is this a metaphor for? Could it be a veiled reference to the ideal of political and social freedom?

    The political philosophy of the Panchatantra has been described (again, anachronistically) as Machiavellian—ruthless, immoral, amoral. While the text begins on a very political note, it ends on a very commonsensical note with the following advice: Don’t be rash. It is perhaps better to see the Panchatantra’s teaching as a pragmatic philosophy that caters both to the political and the personal and everyday, especially in the context of the dealings between the weak and the strong. Elements that are emphasized are clear and quick thinking, using strategy to protect one’s interests, the importance of hard work, and completing tasks that have been begun. The lessons that remain long after reading the stories include: Listen to good advice; don’t talk nonsense; have confidence in yourself; never lose heart; when cornered, think fast; don’t build castles in the air; money isn’t everything; cherish your friends. This is just the kind of practical advice that an experienced, worldly-wise uncle might give to his impulsive and inexperienced teenaged nephew or niece. Different sorts of lessons can be pulled out of the Panchatantra to suit different situations. The combination of rapid action, wit, and sound common sense make the text as relevant today as it was to kings and commoners in the middle of the first millennium.

    Apart from the various texts mentioned above, political ideas were expressed in free-floating or collections of verses known as subhāṣita (well-spoken words), which were considered as embodying wisdom. One of the most famous collections is attributed to Bhartrihari, a writer who is very difficult to date and who may have lived in the mid-first millennium. His three poetic anthologies, consisting of one hundred verses each, are the Nitishataka, Shringarashataka, and Vairagyashataka. (As the verses in these texts display some variation in quality, all of them may not have been composed by the same person.) In the

    Nitishataka, the word nīti does not have the specific political content that it has in the political treatises such as the Nitisara. Rather, it is part of a larger discourse on wise and good living. The subjects of the other two collections are love and renunciation. Bhartihari’s poetry is marked by a brooding reflectiveness and brutal realism. There are many animal analogies, suggesting an overlap with the tradition of animal fables. The Nitishataka includes verses on good and bad character, fate, virtues, learning, fame, luck, dharma, self-control, friendship, and merit. Buried in the midst of general reflections are advice to kings and cynical observations on kingship. These include reference to the problems of being in the king’s service and the danger of his anger. The fickleness of the king is commented on:

    Now truthful, now false; now harsh, now speaking sweetly; now cruel, now merciful; now stingy, now generous; ever spending wealth and accumulating it—thus does the policy [nīti] of kings, like a prostitute, assume many different forms.134

    Another important text, composed in the sixth century, reflects some of the beliefs and practices current in royal courts. Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhita deals with an amazing array of subjects including astronomical phenomena and conjunctions, portents, crops, gems, architecture, temple-building, characteristics of men and animals, aphrodisiacs, and perfumes. It emphasizes the need for a king to have a good Brahmana preceptor and astrologer (daivajña, daivavit), pointing out that one with knowledge of the portents can become famous and the king’s favorite. In its discussion of astrological conjunctions and portents, there is an obsession with identifying those that signal the king’s death and the destruction of the kingdom, and how these can be countered by performing sacrifices, worshipping the gods, giving gifts, and black magic.135 The monthly royal ablution (puṣyasnāna) is a complex ritual involving, among other things, the priest making a mystic diagram of the whole world over which the king seeks mastery. This ritual is said to put an end to the evil effects of portents and to confer peace, prosperity, and victory. Reminding us of the views of Ashoka and other ideal kings, Varahamihira’s description of the rite includes the release of animals from the hands of butchers and the release of all prisoners, except

    those who are a threat to the kingdom.136

    The Dharma and Artha View of Politics

    The various texts and sources discussed in this chapter show a solid core of political ideas that had taken shape by the middle of the first millennium. The great king is projected as protector of his people and of dharma; a great victor; a paramount ruler whose paramountcy was accepted by many lesser kings; benevolent toward others; and possessing sterling qualities of character, especially self-control. Analogies with the gods, a close association with the sages, and the performance of great Vedic sacrifices, especially the aśvamedha, appear frequently. References to the performance of these are found earlier, but increase during the period of the mature monarchies. Inscriptions introduce us to an increasingly important aspect of royal practice: the king granting land to Brahmanas and religious institutions. The epic tradition continues to be invoked in political discourse. Elements of political anxiety can be seen in the Mahabharata and Puranic account of the evils of the Kali age, which, among other things, include violence and the rule of mleccha kings.137

    How did a certain level of consensus on the ideology and practice of kingship

    emerge and how did it spread across the subcontinent during these and succeeding centuries? Part of the answer to this question lies in the centrality of the king–Brahmana relationship in ancient Indian political theory and practice. Brahmana ideologues fanned out to royal courts and assumed important roles as political advisers, ritual experts, and composers of royal epigraphs. And yet, the Brahmanas were a heterogeneous group, lacking any institutional organization. In such a situation, it was the wide circulation of śāstric knowledge, literary works, and epic traditions that offered powerful templates for the discussion of political issues and the construction of royal ideology. Although royal courts were not the only locus of this activity, they were certainly the most important one. The villages granted to learned Brahmanas were also important nodes in the spread and increasing influence of Brahmanical culture—a process that can be termed Brahmanization.

    Royal inscriptions and coins, which contain a compressed distillation of many of the ideas found in a range of texts, played important roles in the communication of political ideas across regions and periods. Kings and their Sanskrit-knowing Brahmana panegyrists were aware of the content of the

    inscriptions of their predecessors and contemporaries. Royal eulogies, prominently displayed on pillars or in temples, were visible to a literate audience. Copper-plate grants, on the other hand, were in the possession of the beneficiaries of royal grants. Pillar and copper-plate inscriptions may have had performative aspects, which would have helped disseminate their ideas. The importance of land grant inscriptions stretched far beyond their function as records of property transfers; in fact, they became preeminent vehicles for announcements of political and social status. Coins were a powerful medium of expression of political ideas too. The Gupta gold coins, for instance, can be seen as the numismatic counterpart of the Raghuvamsha, presenting an abbreviated version of certain elements that had become central to the ideology of kingship by the middle of the first millennium.

    Kings were not considered divine in ancient India.138 The nature of the relationship between kingship and the religious domain was complex. The association of kings with particular deities was announced through textual innuendo, epigraphic analogy, and monumental sculpture. It was also announced in their sectarian epithets and the building and patronage of temples dedicated to certain gods. But all these developments took place in a milieu of inclusive sectarianism where a particular deity or saint may have been favored or even projected as supreme, but shared space with others. Parallel to the epithets that announce kings as worshippers of a specific god, certain kings of Orissa describe themselves as supreme worshippers of the gods in general (parama-daivata).

    The inclusive religious policy adopted by kings, including recently arrived invaders, contributed toward mitigating religious conflict and violence, with a few exceptions. An inscription found at Kura in the Salt Range records the building of a Buddhist monastery by a person named Rotta Siddhavriddhi during the reign of the Huna ruler Toramana. The donor expresses the wish that the religious merit gained by his gift be shared by him with the king and his family members.139 It has been suggested that the famous Buddhist monastery at Kaushambi was destroyed by Toramana.140 Toramana’s successor Mihirakula (reigned circa 515–550) acquired a reputation as a persecutor of the Buddhists. Xuanzang describes Mihirakula as cruel and oppressive toward Buddhists, and the later Tibetan traveler Taranatha echoes this view. The Chinese pilgrim Songyun, who visited Gandhara in the early sixth century, attributed the

    destruction of the Gandhara monasteries to the White Huns or the Ephtalites.

    The Dharmarajika stupa at Taxila has given evidence of severed heads, dismembered bodies, and skulls bearing the marks of blows. The charred wood and half burnt wheat in one of the monastic courts suggests fire, and a burned birch-bark manuscript bears testimony to a violent episode. John Marshall interpreted all this as evidence of a massacre by the White Huns and a more general Huna onslaught against the monasteries in the Taxila area in the late fifth century.141 Of course, we should note that the skeletal remains belong to only six individuals. But even if the scale of killing and destruction may be less than what one would expect in a massacre, the archaeological evidence does clearly point to some kind of violent event. Further, the fact that many arrowheads of different kinds were found within the precincts of the Dharmarajika monastery142 suggests a perception of a need for defense against violent attack.

    Xuanzang tells us that initially Mihirakula was interested in learning about Buddhism, and asked the monks to send him a teacher; the monks insulted him by recommending a servant of his own household for the purpose. This incident is said to have turned Mihirakula virulently anti-Buddhist. Xuanzang states that he destroyed 1,600 monasteries in Gandhara and had 9,000 men killed or sold into slavery on the banks of the Indus.143 He attributes Mihirakula’s subsequent death to these terrible acts. Was this reputation based on actual religious persecution? Or was Mihirakula cast into the role of a cruel anti-Buddhist king because one of his arch political opponents, king Baladitya of Magadha (sometimes identified with a later Gupta king Narasimhagupta), at whose hands he apparently suffered a crushing defeat, was an ardent patron of the Buddhist sangha?144 The interesting thing is that ninth- and tenth-century Jaina texts describe Mihirakula as a wicked, oppressive tyrant who was anti-Jaina.145 It is possible that Mihirakula, who from one of his inscriptions and the symbols on his coins seems to have been inclined toward Shaivism (although his coins also have representations of other deities such as the goddess Lakshmi), was inimical toward both Buddhists and Jainas.

    Another king who acquired a reputation for religious persecution against the Buddhists was Shashanka, a ruler in eastern India in the early seventh century (just after the close of the period that we are surveying in this book). According to Xuanzang, this king destroyed monasteries, cut down the bodhi tree, and tried

    (unsuccessfully) to replace the image of the Buddha at Bodh Gaya with one of Shiva. Shashanka was a contemporary of Harshavardhana, king of Kanauj, who was inclined toward both Shaivism and Buddhism.

    The questions raised by the two cases cited here are: Are the textual references evidence of active political persecution and violence? Or are they merely expressions of resentment at a lack of royal patronage and support? Are they recastings of political conflicts into religious molds? The material evidence is also confusing. On the one hand, images of deities trampling on their rivals in early medieval times have been found at various sites. On the other hand, Hindu deities found at Buddhist sites such as Nalanda suggest their incorporation into Buddhist worship. Even if the extent of the persecution of kings such as Mihirakula and Shashanka was exaggerated, it is significant that such perceptions of violent royal persecution and oppression on religious lines existed. But Mihirakula and Shashanka are exceptions to the general trends of royal religious policy. It should be noted that expressions of sharp religious and sectarian competition and conflict increased in subsequent centuries.

    The similarities and overlaps in the models of kingship and empire expressed in texts, inscriptions, coins, and art should not make us oblivious to the differences. Harishena’s Samudragupta is a poet-king; Kalidasa’s Raghu is a king-renouncer. Echoes of the ideas emphasized in the Raghuvamsha’s representation of kingship can be seen in many texts and inscriptions of succeeding centuries, but the idea of the king as renouncer does not seem to have been important in the long term. Further, we know from a variety of sources that in early medieval India, revenue-free grants of land to Brahmanas and the patronage of temples—which were not part of the Raghuvamsha’s template of kingship—became important aspects of the ideology and practice of kingship. The variations in royal ideology are more noticeable in the praśastis of smaller dynasties. For instance, the origin myths and eulogies of the early kingdoms of Orissa indicate a synthesis of Brahmanical and tribal elements.146 So in the long term, there is both homogeneity and diversity, both continuity as well as change in the ideology of kingship.

    By the middle of the first millennium, there were sophisticated and

    authoritative expressions of two views of politics, which can be called the dharma view and artha view. Royal inscriptions, coins, and Kalidasa’s

    Abhijnanashakuntala and Raghuvamsha represent the former. The Mudrarakshasa and Panchatantra represent the latter. There are shared ideas— for instance, the king’s just punishment of his subjects as necessary to maintain the social order is found in both. Both views engaged with the problem of defining and legitimizing political violence in somewhat different ways. The king’s force was necessary for political survival and political gain (this is artha view); or it was necessary for the fulfillment of duty, for glory and fame (this is the dharma view). In between are texts such as the Nitisara, which combine the artha view of politics with greater elements of caution and sensitivity toward violence. The Panchatantra expands the discourse on political violence by drawing attention to the potential conflict and violence inherent in the relationship between kings and courtiers. But in general, the use of a certain amount of force by the king toward his subjects and toward others and was accepted as necessary and justified.

    In the process, from the state’s perspective, political “violence”—in the sense of the unnecessary, unjustified use of force—was rendered virtually impossible. This emerges more clearly in the political discourses on war and the forest, which form the subject of Chapters 4 and 5. Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jaina models of kingship have their distinctive elements, but we have seen how the discourse on kingship, especially when it came to the issue of violence, breached religious and sectarian divides. Even the ahiṁsā-oriented religious traditions recognized the impossibility of absolute nonviolence in the political realm. The poets not only accepted political violence, but also transformed it and celebrated it. By the middle of the first millennium, political violence had been justified, masked, and largely invisibilized by political theorists, religious elites, and the poets. But a window of doubt, critique, and questioning remained.



    TIME FEELS STILL and heavy at Bhimbetka. The hundreds of rock shelters on the hillsides at this central Indian site are adorned with paintings, engravings, and bruisings ranging from the Mesolithic to the early historic periods. The earliest paintings are dominated by animals, and the artists seem to have poured all their artistry into their portrayal. Men—usually hunters—are puny stylized matchstick figures. They hunt alone or in groups, often wearing ornaments, head-dresses, and ceremonial masks. A dramatic change in style and theme takes place in the paintings of the Chalcolithic age. Hunting parties are replaced by the lone hunter, and hunting scenes eventually make way for representations of farming and herding. Men ride on animals, and the war chariot makes its appearance. The paintings of the historic period show an even more dramatic thematic change. The contest is no longer between man and animal but between man and man. Soldiers armed with swords and shields battle one another on foot or on caparisoned horses and elephants. The rock art of Bhimbetka gives vivid visual documentation of a process that historians have tried to explain in less enchanting ways—the close connection between the emergence of the state and war.

    A peaceful state never existed in South Asia. There is a theory that the protohistoric Harappan civilization was a peaceful culture held together by tradition rather than force, but weapons and walled citadels suggest a different story.1 Fortification walls continue to be associated with cities in the subsequent centuries, both in texts and in the archaeological record, and suggest a defensive preparedness against military attack. Vedic texts are pervaded with violence and war and allude to the ideas of extensive conquest, political paramountcy, and empire. Indra, the powerful manly warrior god, kills his adversaries and bestows victory in war to mortals who sacrifice to him. The great warriors of the Vedic

    hymns rode into battle on horse-drawn chariots accompanied by soldiers on horseback or on foot, wielding bows and arrows and other weapons. In the Vedic world, the killing of animals in sacrifice was an issue of some concern, but the killing of men in battle was not. The people who described themselves as āryas fought wars against those they called dāsas and dasyus, but they also battled among themselves.

    The fortification walls and profusion of weapons found at early historic cities such as Kaushambi, Rajgir, Rajghat, Champa, and Ujjayini reflect the endemic warfare in northern and central India from the mid-first millennium BCE onward. In most cases, the fortifications are constructed of mud and / or burned brick; at Rajgir they are made of stone; and at Ujjayini, mud and wood. The early walls of Kaushambi, made of mud with a burned brick revetment, reached an average height of 10.66 meters, the towers rising to about double that height. This imposing wall, punctuated by eleven gateways, was surrounded by a moat and protected by watchtowers. Fortified cities made their appearance in other parts of the subcontinent some centuries later. But evidence of warrior burials with iron weaponry from megalithic sites in peninsular India bear testimony to the pervasiveness of war long before the advent of urban life.

    In early historic north India, relations between states were marked by alliances (including matrimonial alliances) as well as incessant warfare. The transition from a hereditary military aristocracy toward a recruited and salaried army was accompanied by changes in military administration and organization. Bimbisara, king of Magadha, had the title Senīya (one who has an army), suggesting that he was renowned for his military strength or that he introduced the practice of recruiting a standing army. The oligarchies seem to have relied on the older tradition of the armed hereditary elite going into battle whenever the occasion demanded. The Achaemenids claimed control over the northwest between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. Alexander of Macedon scarcely grazed the fringes of the subcontinent in 327–326 BCE, but during the subsequent centuries, the Indo-Greeks, Shakas, Pahlavas, and Kushanas ventured farther into the interior. Inroads into the forest were an important part of the onward march of aggressive and ambitious states.

    The first millennium BCE saw many changes in the nature and technology of warfare.2 At around the time of the emergence of monarchical states, the horse-

    drawn war chariot was replaced by the war elephant. Armies dominated by the chariot gradually made way for a fourfold army (caturaṅga-bala) consisting of infantry, chariots, cavalry, and elephant corps. Thomas R. Trautmann places the transition to the fourfold army in circa 1000–500 BCE.3 The Sanskrit epics refer to a caturaṅga-bala but retain a nostalgic memory of an old-style of war dominated by heroes riding onto the battlefield in splendid horse-drawn chariots. Warfare had changed.

    Although the armies of early India were dominated by war elephants, they included mounted archers. Over the centuries, these armies faced, and often succumbed to, cavalry-based attacks of the Macedonians, Shaka-Pahlavas, Kushanas, and later, the Hunas. Saddles appear in second / first century BCE relief sculptures at Bharhut and Sanchi, and this may have been a result of the influence of the central Asian invaders. The art of Sanchi and Mathura also gives evidence of the looped stirrup; metal stirrups came into use much later, after the nineth century. Coins, sculptural reliefs, and the Ajanta murals indicate that while archers on horseback were part of Indian armies in the first half of the first millennium, they did not form their backbone.4 In fact, the Hunas, famed for their cavalry skills, swiftly absorbed and incorporated war elephants into their own armies once they established themselves in India. Later, elephant-based Indian armies were repeatedly defeated by cavalry-based armies of the Turks and then the Mughals, with momentous political results.5 The demand and supply of elephants and horses played a crucial role in the outcome of Indian wars. The fact that India imported horses and exported elephants is of fundamental importance in understanding her political and military history.6

    Whether or not the early kingdoms and empires of India had a navy is a matter of debate. The Arthashastra does not mention a navy, but Megasthenes does. Perhaps the Greeks were projecting onto India something that they were very familiar with in their part of the world. Although we encounter allusions to naval expeditions in a few inscriptions, most of them belong to the post–600 CE period. Hero stones in the Goa area on the western coast depict sea battles, and some of the Ajanta murals show fleets of ships, but the overall evidence of naval warfare is not very strong. Given the enormously long subcontinental coastline, the essentially landlocked nature of the military aspirations and the expansion of ancient Indian kingdoms and empires is a curious fact that is not easy to explain.

    Vedic warriors were armed with bows and arrows, spears and axes, initially of copper and bronze, and later of iron.7 The bow and arrow was the most important weapon in epic warfare, and we also hear of elaborate ornamented bows, along with swords, spears, and maces. The Arthashastra mentions bows made of various material such as bamboo, wood, and horn. In the wake of the Bactrian, Shaka, and Kushana invasions, new types of bows such as the horn- bow and composite bow, new kinds of arrowheads (double-tanged and three- bladed), and a heavy javelin came into vogue. The invaders also brought with them new sword designs, which can be seen in sculpture; the Kushanas in particular are associated with a heavy, broad, long sword. Armor and shields are known from early texts. The Arthashastra and Mahabharata refer to military contrivances, and the former divides them into fixed and moving machines (yantras). Kautilya also refers to the use of fire in war.

    Over time, there were changes in military tactics and battle arrays. The latter,

    known as vyūhas, were the subject of a long-standing tradition of specialized military knowledge, of which Brihaspati and Ushanas are spoken of as the foremost authorities.8 It is not only human armies; even the gods and demons are said to have battled each other in vyūha formations. On the basis of the nature of the relationship between the wings, flanks and center, the four main types were the staff (daṇḍa), snake (bhoga), circle (maṇḍala), and noncompact (asaṁhata), but there were many other types and subtypes such as the wheel (cakra), cart (śakaṭa), hawk (śyena), needle (suci), and sea monster (makara). Each array had its corresponding counterarray (prativyūha). The Mahabharata refers to more than thirty-six battle arrays, and each day of the war began with the selection of an array and counterarray by the leading generals. The arrays are also mentioned in the Puranas and, to a lesser extent, in the Jatakas and Manusmriti. The detailed treatment of the subject in the Arthashastra and Nitisara indicates that the vyūhas were considered important aspects of war and politics, and that the political theorists made significant contributions to the development of this sphere of technical military knowledge.

    The focus of this chapter is not on military technology or strategy; it is on

    understanding the attitudes toward war in Indian thought between circa 600 BCE

    —600 CE. This is done by examining Buddhist and Jaina texts, Greek accounts, Ashoka’s inscriptions, the epics, political treatises, memorial stones, Sangam

    poetry, royal inscriptions, kāvya, and the Panchatantra. The chapter explores the place of war in statecraft and religious traditions; the idea of the ideal warrior; the code of honor in war; the understanding of the self and the other in the sphere of military conflict; the typology, justifications, and ethics of war; and the desire for peace. Warfare conventionally includes armed conflict, but we shall also encounter and reflect on its metaphorical forms.

    Nonviolence, Victory, and Renunciation

    It is not a coincidence that religious ideologies emphasizing nonviolence arose at a time when violent warfare was escalating and military organization was becoming more systematized in northern India. And it is ironic that the most celebrated and successful proponents of nonviolence emerged from the ranks of the warrior elite and expressed their ideas using the warrior vocabulary of mastery, conquest, and paramountcy. This vocabulary simultaneously permeated discourses on renunciation, salvation, and kingship.

    War is an important metaphor in both Buddhism and Jainism. Mahavira is the “great hero,” one of several jinas (victors). Addressing him while he was still an embryo in the Brahmana woman Devananda’s womb, the god Indra hails the arhats (those who have attained liberation) and lions among men, universal emperors of the best law, the conquerors and granters of conquest.9 When the Buddha is questioned about the one thing whose killing he approves of, his answer is: the killing of anger.

    Having slain anger, one sleeps soundly; Having slain anger, one does not sorrow; The killing of anger, O devatā [god], With its poisoned root and honeyed tip; This is the killing the noble ones praise,

    For having slain that, one does not sorrow.10

    As we have seen, renunciation and asceticism have an older history in India. But Mahavira and the Buddha connected them with the political domain through their personal histories and through their postulate of kingship and renunciation as two dichotomous poles. Given the dominance and influence of the political sphere, this had an important impact. At one stroke, the ideas of renunciation and self-control that had been circulating within a small milieu of philosophers and thinkers were catapulted into the position of central political, indeed civilizational, issues. The emphasis on nonviolence in Jainism and Buddhism should, on the face of it, have translated into a strong antiwar stance. But did it really, either at the level of thought or of practice?

    Killing and War in Early Jainism

    Buddhism and Jainism recognize that while nonviolence (ahiṁsā) is important, it is not possible for the laity to practice it with the same rigor as the monastic community. But the emphasis on nonviolence is much more intense in Jainism. As discussed in Chapter 1, all killing is not the same in Jainism. Harming organisms with different numbers of senses has different value. Intentional, premeditated violence (saṁkalpa-hiṁsā) is distinguished from the less serious violence (ārambhajā-hiṁsā) that occurs in the course of performing an acceptable occupation, for instance, that of a surgeon or farmer. Even less serious are acts of violence that were committed purely in self-defence (virodhī- hiṁsā).11

    The Jaina laity is supposed to avoid harming beings with two or more senses, but monks and nuns are supposed to avoid harming even small insects and the even tinier single-sense organisms that are believed to inhabit the earth, water, fire, and air. They must not dig the earth, lest they kill earth bodies. They should avoid bathing, swimming, or walking in the rain, lest they kill water bodies. They should not kindle or extinguish flames, lest they harm fire bodies. They should not fan themselves, lest they harm air bodies. They should avoid walking on grass or touching plants, lest they harm plant bodies. It is mandatory for Digambara monks to carry a small broom in order to sweep the place where they sit so that they do not harm small creatures.

    Mahavira gives a discourse on the various troubles that are likely to beset the wandering mendicant, troubles that he must learn to bear and conquer like a hero in war. These include insects:

    Suffering from insects a great sage remains undisturbed. As an elephant at the head of the battle kills the enemy, so does a hero (in self-control conquer the internal foe).

    He should not scare away (insects), nor keep them off, nor be in the least provoked to passion by them. Tolerate living beings, do not kill them, though they eat your flesh and blood.12

    The repeated, strong emphasis on nonviolence extends beyond negative injunctions to positive ones.

    With due consideration preaching the law of the mendicants, one should do no injury to one’s self, nor to anybody else, nor to any of the four kinds of living beings. But a great sage, neither injuring nor injured, becomes a shelter for all sorts of afflicted creatures, even as an island, which is never covered with water.13

    Modes of speech must be measured and moderate; negative, exploitative words should not be uttered about fat men or animals, big trees, ripe fruits, or vegetables. These should be replaced by positive utterances.14

    Given the centrality of nonviolence in Jainism, it is not surprising that jobs that necessarily involve violence, such as hunting and fishing, are to be shunned. The six approved occupations are governing, writing, farming, imparting knowledge, trade, and crafts. Out of these, administration and farming are considered less respectable as they involve some amount of violence, and in trade, there are prohibitions on dealing in certain kinds of commodities.15 The soldier’s job is neither specifically approved nor proscribed, though it could be included in governing. The Jaina monk is supposed to avoid places where there is a conflict between kingdoms.16

    There are variations in attitudes toward war. The Bhagavati Sutra, composed in the early centuries CE, speaks of two terrible battles that occurred during Mahavira’s lifetime.17 Mahavira rejects the idea that soldiers who die fighting bravely go to heaven and predicts that almost all of the dead soldiers will be reborn in lower realms of existence. And yet, there is no strong proscription of war. The Jaina attitude seems to be as follows: Sometimes it becomes necessary to fight; if one has to fight, one must do so with the right inner disposition and values. The best illustration of this comes from a later work, the Adipurana. In this eighth-century text, Bahubali fights his half-brother Bharata for his kingdom in order to prevent a war. But although he gets the better of Bharata, he does not kill him and goes toward the forest in a quest for liberation. In his work titled the Samayasara, the Digambara Jaina monk Kundakunda alludes to what is clearly the Bhagavadgita philosophy, stating that one who thinks he kills or is killed is ignorant, emphasizing that death and killing are the outcome of actions in previous lives.18

    A verse of the tenth-century Jaina writer Somadevasuri has sometimes been

    interpreted as implying that while killing in a defensive war should be avoided, it is acceptable for the laity. However, the story literature suggests that even killing in self-defense leads to hell. In the Jaina Ramayana, Lakshmana, who kills Ravana, goes to the same hell as the latter does.19 The Jaina attitude toward war varies from ambivalence to tacit acceptance and justification. The strong emphasis on nonviolence in Jaina doctrine did not translate into a shunning of war by followers of the faith. Jaina monks had no qualms in prophesying victory or defeat for kings as they embarked on military campaigns. And as we shall see below, Jaina kings were not pacifists.

    Kharavela, the Jaina Warrior King

    Ashoka, the Buddhist king, renounced war (though he was the only one to do so). Kharavela, the Jaina king, did not. The Hathigumpha inscription boasts of Kharavela’s military victories in general as well as very specific ways. Kharavela is a great king (mahārāja), the overlord of Kalinga, the augmenter of the glory of the Chedi lineage, endowed with auspicious marks, possessing virtues that have reached the four quarters. He is described as destined to have extensive conquests like king Vena.20

    There is a distinct pattern in the description of Kharavela’s reign: It oscillates between his martial achievements and benevolence, seeking to create a balance between the two. After describing the king’s building and repair activities and his gratifying his people in the first year of his reign, the inscription tells us that in his second year, disregarding Satakarni (a Satavahana king), he sent to the western regions an army strong in cavalry, elephants, infantry, and chariots. That army reached the Krishna river and threw the Musikas into consternation. The next line, which refers to the king’s skill in music and his entertaining the capital with song, dance, and festivities, is followed by mention of his having deprived the Rathikas and Bhojas of their jewels and royal insignia, and having made them bow at his feet. Descriptions of further benevolent activities are immediately followed by reference to Kharavela sacking Goradhagiri with a large army in his eighth year. We are told that he went on to besiege Rajagriha and that the Yavana king Dimita was forced to retreat to Mathura, his army and transport having been diminished.

    The palace built by Kharavela was called the Palace of Great Victory. In his tenth year, the king followed the policy of force, alliance, and conciliation; sent an expedition against Bharadavasa (that is, Bharatavarsha, here probably referring to kings of northern India); was victorious over the land; and obtained many riches from defeated kings. He went on to plough the town of Pithumda, founded by the Ava king, with a plough of asses, and he broke up the age-old confederacy of the Tramiras, which had been a source of danger to his kingdom. He terrified the kings of Uttarapatha, and caused panic among the people of Magadha, driving his elephants into the palace of king Bahasatimita, making him bow at his feet. He retrieved the image of the Kalinga Jina that had been

    taken away by the Nanda king and brought back the riches of Anga and Magadha to Kalinga. The aestheticized reference to plunder and tribute continues with the Hathigumpha inscription telling us of the large quantities of pearls that Kharavela brought in from the Pandya king. The hyperbole of the inscription suggests sustained and far-flung military victories across the subcontinent; the claims no doubt vastly exceeding Kharavela’s actual political control.21

    Although he was a relentless warrior, Kharavela’s inscription also refers to another kind of victory in describing the gifts he made to the Jaina monks when the wheel of victory (vijaya-caka) had revolved for thirteen years on the Kumari hill. The epigraph closes by describing Kharavela as the king of peace (khema- rāja), king of prosperity (vaḍha-rāja), king of monks (bhikhu-rāja), and king of dharma (dhama-rāja), who had been seeing, hearing, and realizing auspicious things. He was a descendant in the family of the royal sage (rājasi) Vasu, endowed with irresistible chariots and army, and a great victor (mahā-vijayo). He had extraordinary virtues, respected all sects (pāsaṁḍas), and repaired temples (devāyatanas). Martial and benevolent achievements strikingly balance one another in this catalogue of Kharavela’s achievements, and while he is said to respect all sects, his associations with Jainism are highlighted.

    In later centuries, we know of many Jaina rulers, ministers, and generals who planned and participated in wars. Kings of the Ganga, Rashtrakuta, and Hoysala dynasties who had Jaina leanings fought as hard to protect and expand their dominion as those with other religious affiliations.22 The famous tenth-century general Chamundaraya of the Ganga dynasty was as renowned for his ferocity on the battlefield as for having patronized the building of a colossal statue of the Jaina saint Bahubali at Shravanabelgola in modern Karnataka.

    War in Early Buddhist Texts

    In Buddhism, too, all acts of killing are not the same. They can be graded according to the size and virtue of the victim, the intensity of the desire to kill, and the amount of effort used by the perpetrator.23 So, for instance, killing an insect is not as serious an offense as killing an animal or a human being. Killing a criminal is not as serious an offense as killing a virtuous man. And killing that involves a relatively less amount of brutality in terms of intention and force is less serious than killing that involves greater amounts of both.

    The most sensational war of the sixth / fifth century BCE was the protracted conflict between the kingdom of Magadha and the Lichchhavi oligarchic confederacy. Buddhist texts tell us that the Magadhan king Ajatashatru deputed his minister Vassakara to visit the Buddha for advice on how to defeat the Lichchhavis. The Buddha did not advocate pacifism. The clever Vassakara caught on to the implications of his reply—namely, that the Lichchhavis were too strong to be defeated in regular combat and that other tactics would have to be used. This is exactly what the Magadhans did. Vassakara went undercover to create dissension among the Lichchhavi ranks, and the strategy bore fruit. When Ajatashatru finally attacked, the Lichchhavis were so busy quarrelling among themselves that they were soundly defeated. The conflict between Ajatashatru and the Lichchhavis may have lasted over two decades, between 484 and 468 BCE. Ultimately, victory went to Magadha. This war of attrition in which the use of the classic strategy of creating dissension succeeded is described in Buddhist texts as the result of the Magadhans following the Buddha’s advice.

    War is closely related to Buddhist ideas of kingship and imperium. The elephant and horse, the two mounts of soldiers, appear in the list of the seven treasures of the cakkavatti. The early Buddhist tradition is a bit vague about how exactly a king becomes a cakkavatti, and this seems a conscious masking, even a denial, of the element of violence inherent in war. As we have seen in Chapter 1, the story of king Mahasammata in the Agganna Sutta does not mention war, while the Mahasudassana and Chakkavatti Sihanada Suttas do. Mahasudassana follows the wheel treasure with his fourfold army. Wherever the wheel stops, kings welcome him and invite him to rule over their domain; he gives them a message of Buddhist piety. It is not the king but the wheel treasure that is

    victorious over the land from sea to sea. Of course, the cakkavatti Mahasudassana ultimately turns his back on royal life. King Dalhanemi is also described as victorious over the four quarters through dhamma, not through the use of force.

    In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha states that the five qualities that enable a king to abide where he has been victorious include the strength of his army divisions, which are loyal and alert to commands. One of the five possessions of a warrior king’s son is skill in the elephant, horse, chariot, bow, and sword.24 In the same text, the Buddha says that he had many a time been a righteous cakkavatti possessing the seven jewels, had been victorious up to the four ends of the earth, and had brought stability to the land. He says that he had had over a thousand brave sons who had vigorously crushed enemies. When he had attained victory over the sea-girdled earth, he had ruled righteously over it, needing neither rod nor sword.25 So in his previous births, the Buddha had used military force successfully, and had given it up only when it was no longer needed.

    War also features in Buddhist monastic discipline. According to the Vinaya Pitaka, soldiers could join the sangha only if released by the king. Monks were not supposed to visit the battlefield, except under special circumstances (such as if a kinsman was lying there on the verge of death). Such interdictions are not only found in the Pali Tipitaka, but also in later texts. In the Mahasamghika school, visiting the battlefield is one of pācattika offenses which require expiation and forfeiture. A lesser category of improper behavior (known as the Śaikṣya dharmas) includes a prohibition against teaching the dharma to one who has in his hand a knife, weapon, stick, or parasol. The Mulasarvastivadin school modifies this to one wielding a sword or wearing armor, a coat of mail, or a crown.26 The allusions are to warriors, kings, and royal attendants who have not divested themselves of their trappings.

    Notwithstanding the Buddhist emphasis on nonviolence, there were many arguments in the Buddhist doctrinal arsenal that could be used to justify killing, violence, and war. In Buddhism, suffering and death are intrinsic to the human condition. Could this not justify killing in war? Further, even though nonviolence is an important ethical precept, one who had achieved the highest state was above all such things. Did this mean that the distinction between violence and nonviolence was no longer relevant for an arhat?

    The idea of the beneficial results of compassion in the course of war is exemplified in the story of the birds’ nests. In a battle between the gods (devas) and the demons (asuras), the latter win. The gods withdraw toward the north, chased by the demons. As the chariots of the gods hurtle into the forest, Sakka (Indra) tells his charioteer Matali to be careful not to disturb the birds:

    “Avoid, O Matali, with your chariot pole The bird nests in the silk-cotton woods;

    Let’s surrender our lives to the asuras [demons] Rather than make these birds nestless.”27

    The charioteer turns back the chariot yoked to a thousand horses. The demons think that the gods have returned for a second round of battle and flee in fear. Indra attains victory through the observance of nonviolence and compassion.28

    However, certain Mahayana and Vajrayana texts seem to condone the idea of killing out of compassion. A story that is often cited in this context is that of a bodhisattva (significantly named Great Compassion’) who kills a dacoit who is on the verge of killing five hundred men (who also happen to be bodhisattvas). He is said to have done so out of compassion, because many lives were saved by killing one, and the dacoit was saved from hell.29 Further, although Mahayana schools of Buddhism advocate compassion and friendship toward all beings, the doctrine of emptiness (śūnyatā) could be seen as diluting the moral imperative of nonviolence:

    Since the living being (sattva) does not exist, neither does the sin of murder. And since the sin of murder does not exist, there is no longer any reason to forbid it.… In killing then, given that the five aggregates (the five elements of conscious existence) are characteristically empty, similar to the visions of the dreams or reflections in a mirror, one commits no wrongdoing.30

    There are also philosophical observations on the consequences of war. On one occasion, Ajatashatru marches with his fourfold army against Prasenajit of Kosala. There is a battle in which Ajatashatru is victorious, and Prasenajit retreats to his capital Shravasti. Next morning, the monks on their begging

    rounds hear of the happenings and go back to narrate the events to the Buddha. The Buddha tells them that Ajatashatru has evil friends and companions, while Prasenajit has good ones. Nevertheless, the latter will sleep badly tonight because he has been defeated.

    “Victory breeds enmity,

    The defeated one sleeps badly. The peaceful one sleeps at ease,

    Having abandoned victory and defeat.”31

    This event is followed by another battle, in which Prasenajit defeats the aggressor Ajatashatru. He decides to confiscate all the latter’s troops but to spare his life as he (Ajatashatru) is his nephew. The monks report this incident to the Buddha the next day. The Buddha’s reaction suggests that war is like a see-saw, that an evil aggressor (Ajatashatru) will inevitably get his just deserts.

    “A man will go on plundering So long as it serves his ends, But when others plunder him, The plunderer is plundered.… The killer begets a killer,

    One who conquers a conqueror. The abuser begets abuse,

    The reviler, one who reviles. Thus by the unfolding of kamma The plunderer is plundered.”32

    But what about the fate of the ordinary human soldier? In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha is asked by a headman of mercenaries named Yodhajiva whether it is true, as it is said, that warriors who are killed while fighting bravely in war are born in the company of battle-slain gods. The Buddha twice refuses to answer this question, but the third time, he states quite categorically:

    “When, headman, a mercenary is one who strives and exerts himself in battle, his mind is already low, depraved, misdirected by the thought: ‘Let

    these beings be slain, slaughtered, annihilated, destroyed, or exterminated.’ If others then slay him and finish him off while he is striving and exerting himself in battle, with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the ‘Battle-Slain Hell.’ ”33

    The mercenary bursts into tears on hearing this, saying that he has been tricked into thinking otherwise by the teachers of old, and immediately becomes a follower of the Buddha. The Buddha gives a similar reply when asked the same question by an elephant warrior and a cavalry warrior named Assaroha. The message is clear: There is no heaven for warriors, not even for brave ones.

    Buddhist Narratives, Textual and Visual

    War features in many a Jataka story. Prince Temiya is so horrified at the violence inherent in kingship that he decides to become an ascetic.34 Some Jatakas talk of the idea of nonresistance and inaction, even in the face of violent attack. Pious, virtuous, and kind king Mahasilava refuses to go to war or to resist when he is attacked. In fact, he sends his enemies away laden with presents. After being almost killed and managing to save himself and his men through great presence of mind and perseverance, he ultimately gets his kingdom back because the usurper is overwhelmed by his moral virtues.35 Similarly, the bodhisattva born as the king of Banaras refuses his soldiers’ entreaties to let them fight the enemy, saying:

    “I want no kingdom that must be kept by doing harm.… Do nothing at all.”36

    When the enemy arrives, he orders the city gates opened. The king and his courtiers are thrown in prison. The bodhisattva is filled with intense pity due to which the enemy king’s body is racked with great pain. He is told that this is because he had thrown a righteous king into prison. He realizes his mistake, restores the bodhisattva to his throne, and promises to protect him from all enemies in future.

    But there are many more Jataka stories where good kings, including bodhisattvas, fight wars. In the Bhojajaniya Jataka, the bodhisattva is born as a thoroughbred Sindh royal war horse, who participates with exceptional bravery and determination in a war. He gallops forward as the mount of a noble soldier whose king has been surrounded by seven enemy kings. Six enemy kings are captured. Although severely wounded, the bodhisattva horse refuses to allow his rider to mount another horse, because he knows that without him, the mission cannot succeed. He breaks down the seventh enemy camp and brings back the seventh king. Before dying, the war horse lectures the king on righteousness and justice, telling him not to kill the captive kings, but to bind them by oath and let them go. Having given this advice, he dies.37 In another story, the bodhisattva is born as an elephant trainer’s son, and serves as the trainer of a war elephant for a king who launches an attack against the king of Banaras. As the war

    commences, the king’s elephant is terrified by the mayhem. The trainer exhorts him to be brave, march onward, break the iron bar and pillars, crash through the gateway, and enter the town. The elephant’s confidence is restored, and he decisively moves forward.38

    The Maha Ummagga Jataka contains one of the rare references to dhamma- yuddha in early Buddhist literature, but the term does not have its usual meaning of righteous war.39 The setting of the story is an impending war between Brahmadatta and the king of Videha. Instead of a war, it is decided to hold a different kind of contest. The Brahmana sages of the two sides will meet face to face, and victory will belong to the side whose sage salutes the other. This was the bright idea of Kevatta, the Brahmana sage of Brahmadatta; he thought that since he was older, his younger adversary Mahosadha would instinctively and naturally bow down in salutation. But Mahosadha, who is a bodhisattva, uses a clever stratagem. He offers Kevatta a heavy gem as a gift, dropping it onto the latter’s finger tips. The gem rolls off and falls to the ground, and Kevatta instinctively bends down to pick it up. All see him bend. The Videhans win, and Brahmadatta’s army flees. The aim of this story is to demonstrate a bodhisattva’s use of skillful means (upāya-kauśalya). Dhamma-yuddha here seems to refer to a victory being achieved without resort to battle.

    The importance of war in the early Buddhist tradition is evident from two

    episodes that are an important part of Buddhist textual and visual narratives: the war of the relics and Mara’s assault on the Buddha. The Tipitaka tells us that after the Buddha’s cremation, the Mallas of Kushinagara were initially in possession of his bodily relics. For a week, they honored the relics in their assembly hall with garlands, music, singing, and dancing. They guarded the relics by encircling them with a lattice-work of spears and a wall of bows. But eight people learned of the Buddha’s passing away. One of them was a Brahmana, and the rest were Kshatriya kings who put forward their claims to the relics on the grounds that like the Buddha, they were Kshatriyas.40 The Mallas of Kushinagara initially displayed some belligerence. They were reluctant to part with any of the relics, on the grounds that the Buddha had passed away in their country. But eventually, matters were sorted out amicably through the intervention of a Brahmana named Drona, who urged that in line with the Buddha’s teaching, conflict should be avoided and there should be a harmonious

    resolution to the dispute. Everyone agreed, and Drona apportioned the relics into eight parts among the Mallas of Kushinagara, Ajatashatru of Magadha, the Lichchhavis of Vaishali, Shakyas of Kapilavastu, Bulayas of Allakappa, Koliyas of Ramagrama, a Brahmana of Vethadvipa, and the Mallas of Pava. The Moriyas of Pipphalivana received the embers, and Drona himself kept the funerary urn. All the recipients built stupas over their share of the sacred relics.

    We have here a rare case of Kshatriya solidarity, old enmities temporarily receding in the wake of the demise of a great teacher who was revered by all. In later texts, there are descriptions of the Mallas’ elaborate armed protection of the relics by arranging tightly packed concentric circles of elephants, horses, chariots, soldiers, and archers, and the conflict over the relics is described in heightened form. The kings who want their share of the relics are ready to wrest them by resorting to war. The Mallas respond by increasing their military preparedness, teaching their young girls, women, and boys the art of archery. Ajatashatru aggressively sets forth for the Malla kingdom accompanied by a fourfold army, prepared for war. But in all the textual versions of the incident, war is averted as the Brahmana Drona succeeds in brokering a peaceful settlement.41

    However, relief sculptures at early historic Buddhist sites actually depict a “war of the relics.” Sometimes the scene is represented in the form of a magnificent procession. Elsewhere, it has a strong martial air. For instance, on the lowest architrave of the Southern Gateway of the great Sanchi Stupa, there is a scene packed with dense, vigorous detail showing the siege of Kushinagara in full swing (Figure 8). The town’s fortification wall is punctuated by gates and towers. Soldiers stand in the moat, others try to scale the wall, while the defenders hurl down arrows and stones from the ramparts. We see troops on foot, horses, elephants, and chariots, carrying bows, spears, swords, and perhaps clubs.42 The artists had converted the textual descriptions of tension and possible war into a full-scale war. To the left and right of the scene, we see the seven kings riding off, the relics placed on the heads of their elephants.

    The second important episode in which the idea of battle figures is Mara’s assault on the meditating Siddhartha as he sits under the bodhi tree, on the verge of enlightenment. Ashvaghosha describes this battle in great detail in the Buddhacharita.43 It is a physical and mental battle that takes place in one

    specific spot. Mara is identified as the god of love, Kama, with his flower arrows and colorful bow. An enemy of the true dharma and of mokṣa, Mara feels threatened; he is worried that if the Buddha attains enlightenment and propagates his doctrine, he will conquer his domain. So he comes to the bodhi tree, determined to prevent this from happening. Mara addresses the prince as a Kshatriya; he tells him to abandon mokṣadharma, and asserts that mendicancy will bring him only ignominy. He urges him to follow Kshatriya dharma, which will win him fame and the realm of Indra. The evil one is accompanied by his three sons—restlessness, excitement, and conceit—and three daughters— pleasure, love, and desire.

  8. The war of the relics; Sanchi Stupa 1, Southern Gateway Photograph: Parul Pandya Dhar

    In Ashvaghosha’s dramatic account, Mara places his children in front of him and shoots an arrow at Sarvarthasiddha, trying to arouse his erotic passion, but although the arrow hits its mark, it has no effect whatsoever. The meditating sage wears an armor of resolve and has as weapons the bow of courage and the arrow of insight. Mara’s army is a real one, and their weapons and their attack are very material. The soldiers are hideous, deformed, bizarre fiends (bhūtas), armed with spears, trees, javelins, clubs, and swords. It is a great battle (yuddha)—the earth shakes, the wind rages, the oceans shudder. The fiends attack with their weapons, but they cannot touch the meditating Sarvarthasiddha, who is

    unperturbed by the mayhem around him. Mara’s attack fails. The meditating sage is unmoved and has won victory by using resolve (dhairya) and calmness (śama, which also means peace). The delighted gods shower down flowers, and the Buddha-to-be moves into a trance, seeking the highest truth. It is not a coincidence that the prince who rejects kingship attains his goal after fighting and winning a battle—a fierce and extraordinary one, his one and only one, fought sitting perfectly still under a tree. This war is also different from ordinary battles in that the stake is much higher: It is not a kingdom but the welfare of the world that hangs in the balance.

  9. Mara’s attack; Sanchi Stupa 1, Western Gateway Photograph: Parul Pandya Dhar

    The scene of Mara’s assault is carved at various places at Sanchi. On the back of the middle architrave of the Northern Gateway of Stupa 1, we see Mara, accompanied by his son and daughter, trying to tempt Siddhartha (represented by the bodhi tree); his ugly, grotesque troops are shown making merry, engaged in drinking, music, and dance. But on the back of the bottom lintel of the Western Gateway, there is a more dramatic and carefully detailed composition of the battle (see Figure 9). In the center of the scene is the vajrāsana (Diamond Throne) in a shrine, which has a tree emerging from the top (this symbolizes the Buddha). To the left, a procession of the gods accompanied by celestial

    musicians approaches the Buddha with folded hands, holding garlands or banners and waving scarves. In stark contrast to this orderly group, to the right of the vajrāsana we see a scene packed with tumult and chaos. Mara’s soldiers (the expected ugly, deformed creatures), having failed to distract the meditating Siddhartha, are fleeing. It is a virtual stampede. The leaders are thrown off their horses or are leaning over the heads of their elephants. The soldiers, armed with axes and bows and arrows, are running and falling in panic. One of them plunges his trident into the back of his fellow soldier by mistake. A figure on a horse- drawn chariot to the right seems to represent Mara. This scene is continued on the front of the bottom lintel, where we see two demons making a getaway on elephants, two riders, and some horses’ heads, and several foot-soldiers standing, squatting, falling. There are saddle cloths on the backs of the horses; a demon is shown offering water to another from a gourd.44 It is interesting to note that the war of the relics and Mara’s vicious attack were chosen and displayed frequently and prominently at many early historic stupa sites. We also see them represented in the murals at Ajanta.45 All this shows the importance of battle in the early Buddhist imagination.

    In the Asian Buddhist world, the association between Buddha relics and warfare was to become even stronger; relics were often described and used as a justification for warfare in Sri Lanka and Burma.46 Mara’s assault also acquired great symbolic political significance in Asian Buddhist lands. For instance, during the sixth- century revolt of Buddhist monks under Faqing in Tang China, rebels described their violence as analogous to that of the Buddha against Mara and justified it accordingly.47

    The Greeks on Indian Warfare

    The first somewhat detailed account of armies of early historic north India comes not from Indian but from Greek texts. While Indian sources are completely silent on the Macedonian invasion of circa 327 / 326 BCE, this event became part of the legend of Alexander and contributed to the expanding Greek database on India. Alexander’s historians described his march into India, the principalities he and his soldiers traversed, and the people and kings they encountered. Armed with their first-hand experience, Alexander’s men refuted many of the wild stories about the Indians prevalent among the Greeks, though they also invented a few. Their battles proved, among other things, that the Indians were “much the finest fighters of the inhabitants of Asia at that time.”48 Descriptions of Alexander’s encounters with Indian adversaries include the one with Porus, whose principality lay beyond the Hydaspes (Jhelum) River. Megasthenes is said to have observed that Alexander “was acquainted with Sandracottos, the greatest of the Indian kings, as well as with Porus, who was even greater.”49 This suggests a meeting between Alexander and Sandrocottos, that is, Chandragupta, who went on to establish the Maurya dynasty. We do not know whether the Greeks relied on good military intelligence, rumors, or both. But they speak of the great military might, wealth, and unpopularity of an Indian king named Agrammes or Xandrames who ruled in the east from his capital Palibothra (Pataliputra). He can be identified with Dhanananda, the Nanda king of Magadha. Curtius talks of his huge army, consisting of 20,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots, and 3,000 elephants. The Macedonians ultimately never faced this army in the battlefield as they turned back from the Beas River.

    The aspect of Indian warfare that fascinated and worried the Greeks more

    than anything else was the elephant. They had encountered Indian elephants in their battles against the Persians, and Alexander had received gifts of elephants from allies and defeated parties. Diodorus asserts that the Gangaridae had never been conquered by foreign nations because they had the most numerous and largest elephants, and foreign kings therefore feared them.50 Alexander’s soldiers’ refusal to venture beyond the Beas may have been because they feared the Nanda army, known for its large number of elephants.51 The Greek

    awareness of the importance of war elephants explains the treaty concluded at a later date between Chandragupta Maurya and his Hellenistic counterpart, Seleucus Nicator. Apart from a matrimonial alliance, it involved the Maurya king receiving the provinces of Arachosia, Gedrosia, and the Paropanisadai (that is, Kandahar, Makran, and Kabul) in exchange for five hundred elephants.52 The deal indicates the enormous military value of war elephants at the time.53

    The Greeks refer to certain peculiarities of India’s military history. Strabo reports that the Indians had never sent an army outside, and that no army from outside had ever succeeded in conquering them, except for the Greek gods Dionysos and Herakles, and more recently, Alexander. Arrian reports that Indians never went outside their homeland in order to wage wars on account of their laws.54 The Greeks must have been surprised by this stay-at-home policy of Indian kings, which contrasted with their own far-flung military adventures, and perhaps could explain it only as the result of laws and prohibitions.

    Megasthenes, whose account cannot be taken at face value, classifies Indian society into seven groups (gene or mere). This seems to have been his own invention and corresponds neither to the fourfold varṇa order nor to the more numerous and complex jāti (caste) system, although he does mention hereditary occupation and endogamy, which were important elements of the latter. The soldiers (stratiogion or polimistai) are fifth in the list and are described as second to the farmers in terms of numbers. They were well adapted to war, and needed relaxation and different kinds of amusement in times of peace. Soldiers, horses, and elephants were all maintained by the state.55 The soldiers experienced the greatest freedom and contentment—others made their equipment, served in their camps, tended their horses, and drove their elephants and chariots. They were very well-paid and supported others; they fought during war and were cheerful during peacetime. The fourth class of Indian society (the technitai or demiourgikon) includes those who made weapons and built ships; they were maintained by the king and worked only for him. The commanding officer provided soldiers with weapons, and the naval commander rented ships to sailors and merchants.56 We are told that Indian soldiers handed over their weapons and animals to the state. Arms were stored in the royal armory; horses and elephants were housed in royal stables. The Greeks also mention the military administration of the Indians.57 They refer to an administrative body dealing

    with military affairs, consisting of six groups of five members each, for the navy, commissariat, infantry, cavalry, chariots, and elephants.

    The Greeks commented on an unusual Indian war practice. Diodorus observes:

    Both sides of those warring kill each other in battle, but they leave those farming unharmed as the common benefactors of all, and they do not burn the lands or cut down the trees of those fighting against them.58

    Similarly, after talking about the philosophers (philosophoi), Arrian says the following about the farmers (georgoi):

    Second to them are the farmers, who are the most numerous of the Indians. They have no military weapons and no involvement in matters of war, but they work the land and pay taxes to the kings and the cities that are autonomous. If war occurs between the Indians, it is illegal to attack the land of these workers or to devastate the land itself, and while some are making war and killing each other as opportunity serves, others nearby are quietly ploughing or harvesting or pruning or reaping.59

    This idyllic picture seems to be an exaggeration. In Greece, the burning of farmers’ fields was a common aspect of war and led to acute food shortages. This practice seems to have been less visible in India to the Greeks (they may not have been in a position to actually observe Indian armies battle against one another), and they may have exaggerated the contrast. It may also have been part of their depiction of Indian society as an ideal one, where, as they marveled, food was never in short supply. Another element where there is an idealization of Indian military practice is the statement that the Indians live thriftily, especially when on military expeditions, and that there was hardly any theft in the huge military camp of Sandrocottos.60

    As Alexander reluctantly turned home after many battles, apparently due to the mutinous mood of his soldiers, the Maurya king Chandragupta and later, his son Bindusara, waged wars and created what is generally regarded as the first virtually all-India empire on the foundations of the military successes of the Nanda dynasty. (As mentioned earlier, continuous or effective Maurya military

    and fiscal control over such a vast area is highly unlikely.) But even more spectacular than the first two kings’ military achievements was the ostentatious renunciation of war by the third Maurya king, Ashoka.

    Ashoka, the Pacific Buddhist King

    There are two diametrically opposite views of Ashoka’s pacifism. One is that it irrevocably weakened the military basis of the empire, and the other is that this king’s pacifism was tempered by a strong element of pragmatism and had little role to play in the decline of the Maurya empire. Ashoka’s abjuring of war has also been interpreted as a stance taken by a king who had inherited a vast, virtually subcontinental empire, and for whom there was nothing left to conquer.61 This is too simplistic a view. Ashoka’s attitude toward war has to be situated within a larger web of ideas and represents a strong and reasoned moral response to the problem of violence.

    In rock edict 4, Ashoka tells us that due to his practice of dhamma, the call of dhamma (dhamma-ghosa) had replaced the sound of the war drum (bheri-ghosa) and that the king had shown his people spectacles of aerial chariots, elephants, masses of fire, and other divine figures. In their reversal of key images associated with the battlefield, these statements figuratively but dramatically express the king’s abjuring of warfare. Elsewhere, the announcement of his rejection of conventional military victory is accompanied by a rejection of the conventional basis of a king’s fame. Ashoka states that he did not set much store by fame (yasa, kīti) except for that arising from his success in inducing people to follow dhamma, now and in the future (rock edict 10). This stands in stark contrast to the general basis of a king’s fame in the ancient world, which rested to a considerable extent on his military achievements.

    The most detailed and important statement on war is to be found in Ashoka’s thirteenth rock edict, which begins by talking about a specific event:

    When Devanampiya Piyadassi [that is, Ashoka] had been consecrated eight years, he attained victory over the country of the Kalingas. One hundred and fifty thousand men were captured and deported, one hundred thousand were killed there, and many times this number died. After that, now that the Kalingas have been taken, Devanampiya is devoted to the ardent practice of dhamma, desire for dhamma and the teaching of dhamma. This is on account of the remorse [anusocana] of Devanampiya over the victory over the Kalingas.62

    So the most detailed description of a military victory in ancient Indian inscriptions consists of the king’s reflections on its disastrous consequences! This includes a redefinition of the injury caused by war, and a redefinition of the idea of righteous victory. Ashoka observes that it is painful that people experience injury, capture and death in war.

    But what is considered even more painful by Devanampiya is the following—that Brahmanas and renunciants [śramaṇas], members of other sects and householders, who live there and practice obedience to superiors, obedience to mother and father, obedience to elders, proper courtesy and firm devotion to friends, acquaintances, companion and kin, as also to slaves and servants—they [all] experience injury, killing or deportation of their loved ones. This [suffering arising from war] is shared by all men and is considered painful by Devanampiya.63

    Ashoka’s argument is that the suffering caused by war extends far beyond those who suffer directly, physically. It includes the emotional pain suffered by those who hold these people dear. When such suffering is experienced by good people, it is especially regrettable. (This argument ties in with the Buddhist idea that the severity of violence can be measured, among other things, in proportion to the virtue of the victims.) Brahmanas and renunciants are said to live everywhere except among the Yavanas (Greeks), but members of sects live in all lands; causing suffering to them is deplorable. Good people also live everywhere; therefore, wherever it occurs, war is bad. Although the edict begins by citing high casualty figures designed to overawe, Ashoka asserts that even if a small fraction of those who had died or had been deported or had suffered as a result of his Kalinga campaign, he would still consider it terrible. This suggests that war per se is to be avoided, regardless of the scale of its violence. According to Ashoka, war is a cause of suffering for the victors, the vanquished, and countless others.

    Although rock edict 13 focuses on the abjuring of fresh military campaigns, it does not abjure the use of force to suppress recalcitrant forest people and / or forest chieftains (aṭavi), who, in fact, posed a serious impediment and challenge to the expansion of all premodern Indian states.64 The king announces that he will forgive that which can be forgiven, and reminds the forest people of the

    power he possesses in spite of his sorrow and remorse, so that they do not suffer at his hands.65 The forest people are included in the king’s message on dhamma. But they are also told unequivocally that they should not provoke him. There is no hint of pain or suffering arising out of possible conflict here.

    Rock edict 13 also announces the deployment of the metaphor of victory for a new dhammic purpose. Dhamma-vijaya (victory through dhamma) is not a conquest but a victory consisting of effectively propagating dhamma. Ashoka claims to have won such a victory in the dominion of the Yavana (Greek) king Antiyoka; beyond that, in the kingdoms of Turamaya, Antikini, Maka, and Alikasudara; and toward the south, in the domain of the Cholas and Pandyas, stretching as far south as Tamraparni (Sri Lanka). He asserts that he has won dhamma-vijaya in his own domain, among the Yavanas, Kambojas, Nabhakas, Nabhapanktis, Bhojas, Pitinikas, Andhras, and Pulindas.66 We are told that even where the king’s envoys do not go, people have heard of dhamma and are conforming to it. So Ashoka claims his dhamma victory to be universal, or at least universal in the world that he was familiar with. Clearly, he had an exaggerated idea of the success of his propagation of dhamma. But at the very least, we have here a reference to a very unusual kind of interaction with other kingdoms and one that does not fit into conventional molds of warfare or diplomacy.

    Ashoka claims to have won his dhamma victory not once but repeatedly,

    suggesting that the inculcation of dhamma was not a one-time event but a constant “battle,” requiring continuous exhortation and effort, with an eye not so much on this life as the next:

    Such a victory which has been thus won everywhere and repeatedly, leads to satisfaction [piti]. I have obtained satisfaction through this dhamma- vijaya. But this satisfaction means little. Devanampiya values only the fruits [of action] in the next world.67

    Clearly, dhammic victory was the best victory, not because it gave the king satisfaction, which was of little consequence in itself, but because it led to fruits in this world and, even more importantly, in the next. Ashoka goes on to tell us the reason why this edict on dhamma had been inscribed. It was

    so that my sons and grandsons should not think of a fresh military campaign, that if they do undertake such campaigns, they should take pleasure in mercy and inflict little force or punishment [daṇḍa], and that they should consider victory through dhamma as the only victory.68

    Recognizing that his descendants would be disinclined to abjure war completely, Ashoka urges them to be merciful and moderate in their use of force or punishment, connecting these with war.

    The edict suggests that as head of the state, the king is responsible for the totality of the consequences of war, not just for violence or injury caused by him personally. It also suggests that reflection and resolve can mitigate, possibly even cancel, the karmic consequences arising from such responsibility. However, out of sensitivity, shame, pragmatism, or a combination of all these things, the king did not put his pain and sorrow on display in Kaliṅga itself (rock edict 13 is replaced by separate rock edicts 1 and 2 at Dhauli and Jaugada) or at Sannati, another area that seem to have experienced the impact of Maurya armies.

    There are no words for war or peace in rock edict 13. Instead, Ashoka talks of the injury, pain, and suffering caused by the violence of war. He talks of his own pain and the pain of others and of his ardent espousal and propagation of dhamma after the Kalinga war. His reaction to the event is usually understood as one of remorse (anuṣaye / anusocana, anutapa), but although there may be a thin line between remorse and grief, the tenor of rock edict 13 leans toward grief and a firm resolve emerging from it. It should also be noted that while Ashoka expresses his grief for the consequences of the war, he does not ask for forgiveness from anyone.

    What explains this powerful reaction to the Kalinga war? Was it because Ashoka was an active participant in the campaign? This in itself is not a sufficient explanation, as legend has him putting down violent revolts in Taxila during his father Bindusara’s time. It is not a sufficient explanation unless we assume that there was something unprecedented about the scale of violence in the Kalinga war. Does rock edict 13 point to changes in the nature of warfare in third-century BCE India toward military conflicts that involved much higher levels of military deployment than before, higher casualties and mass deportation of captives, perhaps even of noncombatant citizenry? Do the

    rhetorical numbers mentioned in the beginning of the edict suggest that one of the most massive and brutal campaigns in ancient Indian history was launched during Ashoka’s time and that the scale of devastation that followed in its wake turned the king’s stomach? Did Ashoka suffer a personal loss—that of a dear son or a good friend—which forced him to reflect on how the impact of war extends far beyond those who are affected directly to those who are bound to them by ties of kinship and affection? Or was he already becoming more sensitive to violence due to his drawing closer to the Buddha’s teaching with its emphasis on nonviolence? We can only speculate about what lay behind Ashoka’s powerful antiwar proclamation. The inscription begins with a grim account of the universal suffering caused by a war and all wars but ends with a discussion of satisfaction, happiness, and pleasure, and reference to the attainment of higher fruits in the next world. The moral of the story is clear: Waging war does not lead to such fruits; following and propagating dhamma does. But (this will be discussed in further in Chapter 5) war against the forest people is placed in a different category altogether.

    In Ashoka’s post-Kalinga political philosophy, war and military victory are not considered essential parts of politics or empire. In fact, they are seen as undesirable and reprehensible; they have no place in the emperor’s idea of a moral empire. If the message of rock edict 13 is reduced to its bare bones, it is as follows: The king had fought a terrible war against the people of Kalinga. War is deplorable because it causes incalculable, universal suffering. A king cannot attain heaven if he wages war. Action against rebellious forest people, however, is different from regular war. In formulating and proclaiming his detailed critique of war and following up the critique with concrete action, Ashoka intervened in the ancient Indian discourse on political violence in a very significant and unusual way. His attitude toward war is radical, even by Buddhist standards. And it is ultimately based on ideas related with merit, demerit, and the afterlife. As discussed in Chapter 2, Ashoka was given a makeover in the early centuries CE, one that is at variance with his epigraphic autobiography. Interestingly, there is no hint of pacifism or the renunciation of war in the Ashokavadana’s story of the king’s life.

    We have seen in Chapter 1 that the Achaemenid king Darius boasted of having crushed rebels and achieved many military victories. In searching for a

    possible parallel to Ashoka in the ancient world, we have to go further back to the first Achaemenid king Cyrus and an inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder, which describes his conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE.69 The inscription tells us that the god Marduk commanded Cyrus to march against the king of Babylon Nabonidus and that the god walked by his side like a friend and companion. The vast army was like the water in a river and could not be counted, but Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle being fought. It was a bloodless victory. Cyrus announced himself as the “king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world.” All other kings acknowledged his paramountcy and brought him tribute and kissed his feet. The inscription also describes Cyrus as one who had “enabled all the lands to live in peace.” But this declaration involves a post-facto justification of military campaigns and talks of a peace established at the conclusion of a successful military career. Although there are some similarities in the mention of the gods, the description of a momentous military campaign, and the idea of a universal empire, there is a world of difference between the attitude toward war in the Cyrus Cylinder and Ashoka’s thirteenth rock edict. The Achaemenid inscription describes what must have been a bloody war as a bloodless one; Ashoka highlights the death and suffering caused by a war. Cyrus fights many battles and proclaims himself universal emperor. Ashoka fights one battle and declares himself a universal emperor on account of his propagation of virtue.

    A closer comparison can perhaps be sought in ancient China, where the Mohists (fifth to third centuries BCE) advocated a policy of disarmament. Further, the Spring and Autumn Annals of Lü Buwei has the idea of righteous warfare. This work talks of an army that justifies its attack on the grounds of moral superiority and seizes the goods of those who have acted against the Way of Heaven, but spares the lives and goods of those who submit.70 This text was written in the third century BCE, round about Ashoka’s time, but its idea of righteous warfare does not correspond at all Ashoka’s idea of dhamma-vijaya. Ashoka’s radical renunciation of war is unprecedented and unparalleled.

    War in the Mahabharata

    Much more part of the mainstream Indian tradition were the ideas about war expressed in the Sanskrit epics, which give us the first long, detailed descriptions of war, its causes, progress, and consequences. The Mahabharata refers to many conflicts between gods and demons and between men and men. But there is one great war that stands at the center of the epic, the one fought on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The first five books of the epic give the prelude to the war, the next six deal with the war and its immediate aftermath, and the last seven deal with the immediate as well as long-term aftermath, ending with the death of the Pandavas and their ascent to heaven.71 It is possible that the epic was woven around the memory of an actual conflict between warring kin. However, we are concerned here not with the question of the historicity of the war, but rather with what the epic has to say about war and peace. The Mahabharata talks of many things, but the relationship between dharma and war is one of its central concerns.

    The conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas is an old, deeply rooted one,

    going back to their childhood. But the proximate causes are Duryodhana’s refusal to give the Pandavas their share of the kingdom and the humiliating disrobing of the Pandavas’ collective wife Draupadi in the assembly after Yudhishthira’s loses everything, including himself, in a gambling match. As events unfold, the war ends up being not just between the Pandavas and Kauravas, but between their two confederate armies, which include all the kings of the epic world. In this sense, the Mahabharata war is a world war.

    The conflict has cosmic dimensions. It is another episode in the age-old turf war between the gods and the demons. As mentioned in Chapter 1, the Pandavas are described as partial incarnations of various deities; Duryodhana was born from the evil Kali (a personification of the Kali age), and his brothers were demons born among men. Gods, demi-gods, and celestials appear frequently as participants and spectators of the great war. The most important god is Krishna, a deity with a complex character, who plays a pivotal role in the unfolding of the story. What makes this round of the god–demon conflict different from earlier ones is that this time, the gods and demons are fighting each other in human form. And yet, while the audience of the epic would have presumably been

    aware of the higher, cosmic aspect of the war, the main characters seem oblivious of it.

    The men who confront one another at Kurukshetra are tied to each other in many ways through kinship, friendship, and teacher-pupil bonds. Before the battle begins, Yudhishthira makes an extraordinary gesture. He approaches the elders Bhishma, Drona, and Kripa and asks their permission to fight, and also asks them how they can be killed. They give him the blessings as well as the advice he seeks. It is the strong bonds of affection between the two “enemy” sides that lead Duryodhana to constantly accuse his generals Bhishma and Drona of not fighting hard enough against the Pandavas. The agony of the conflict is most graphically reflected in Arjuna’s initial refusal to take up arms on the eve of the battle. But ultimately, fight he does.

    War as a Last Resort

    Although war is ultimately inevitable, the Mahabharata presents it as a last resort. There is also the idea of contest in lieu of war. The Kaurava idea of challenging the Pandavas to a dicing game is a strategy aimed at destroying them without war, and hinges on Yudhishthira’s passion for and lack of skill in gambling. The Pandavas are sent into exile after the second dicing match to buy time for the Kauravas to strengthen themselves. In fact, even during the war, there is a Kaurava plan to corner Yudhishthira, make him gamble yet again, and pack the Pandavas off to the forest for a second exile, but it does not come to pass. Even after all the disastrous results of his predilection for gambling, Yudhishthira does not learn his lesson about taking unnecessary risks. After the end of the war, he stakes the entire kingdom on the outcome of a duel between Duryodhana and Bhima.

    There are attempts to use negotiation to settle the political dispute peacefully. Dhritarashtra tries this by dividing the kingdom into two parts—the Kauravas ruling from Hastinapura and the Pandavas building a new capital at Indraprastha. The issue of war versus peace is debated often in the Kaurava and Pandava camps in the build-up toward war. Many characters repeatedly plead with Duryodhana to make peace with his cousins. Envoys and spies move between the two camps. At the same time, there is a sense of foreknowing among the participants and the audience / reader that these attempts are not likely to succeed, that Duryodhana will not bend, that the war will happen.

    Three peace missions are described in the Udyoga Parva—those of Drupada’s household priest, Samjaya, and Krishna. The aim of these missions is to try to convince not only Duryodhana (chances of which are acknowledged as very slim), but also those around him, so that they may either urge him to change his mind or create dissension in the Kaurava camp. The arguments that are put forward include one that asserts that the Pandavas want only what is rightfully theirs and that theirs is therefore a just cause. A very pragmatic reason is also put forward for accepting a negotiated settlement. Duryodhana is told that the Pandavas cannot be defeated in war; that the side on which Krishna is will win; that Krishna and Arjuna are invincible; that the gods are on the Pandavas’ side. The fact that Duryodhana remains impassive in the face of all these arguments

    shows his enormous ignorance and arrogance. His ignorance leads him to claim that the gods will not interfere in human affairs and his arrogance makes him boast that he is more powerful than they.72 Perhaps his over-confidence stems from the fact that he has been told by the demons that he was created by Shiva and the goddess Devi for their sake, and that they will ensure his victory. The Pandavas reduce their demands in order to maintain peace, and at a certain point in the negotiations, Yudhishthira whittles these down to just five villages. But Duryodhana is impervious to reason and is not prepared to give even a speck of land to his cousins.

    The main reason for the various negotiations and embassies is to exhaust all options and to buy time for the war preparations. The war advocates are led by Duryodhana and include Karna (who is actually the Pandavas’ brother). On the Pandava side, Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas, is for war. She wants vengeance for the various humiliations she has been made to suffer because of the Kauravas. The peace advocates on various occasions include Vyasa, Krishna, Drona, Ashvatthama, Bhishma, Vidura, and Gandhari. On one occasion, even the normally bellicose Bhima urges peace. Among the Kaurava brothers, Vikarna consistently argues for peace. Dhritarashtra also on occasion urges peace, though he is more often than not seen protesting plaintively that he cannot prevent Duryodhana from doing what he wants to do. The sage Maitreya pronounces a curse on Duryodhana that if he does not seek peace, there will be a terrible war in which Bhima will smash his thigh with his club. Before and throughout the course of the battle, there are repeated pleas for peace from many characters, but Duryodhana dismisses them all. Krishna twice uses diplomacy to try to win Karna over to the Pandava side. He does not succeed because Karna does not swerve in his loyalty to Duryodhana. In fact, ultimately, there is only one notable defector. When Yudhishthira asks the Kaurava enemy if anyone wants to come over to their side, Yuyutsu, half-brother of the Kauravas, is the only one who crosses over. Apart from the votaries of peace and war, there are also those who are undecided. Yudhishthira does not want to rush into war, not only on moral, but also on pragmatic grounds. He is worried about the risks of war and is uncertain of victory.

    The idea that war should always be a last resort is asserted on several occasions in the didactic portions of the Mahabharata. In the Shanti Parva,

    Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that victories won without fighting are better than those won through war. He also declares that victory and defeat are both impermanent and must be endured.73 The sage Vamadeva states that victory achieved through war is said to be of the lowest kind.74 Conciliation is much better than war. The worst kind of victory is that won through war. War should be a last option, to be exercised only after all the other expedients have been tried and have failed.

    But in spite of the attempts at negotiation, peace missions, and the arguments against war, the Mahabharata—like the Ramayana—is not a text that advocates peace. This is the case whether we look at the narrative or the emphasis of the didactic portions, or even at how the epic may have been received in different forms and media by audiences over the centuries. War is central to both epics. It is impossible to conceive of either of them without the wars, which were understood by the composers as well as audiences as ultimately necessary and also righteous.

    The Mahabharata graphically reveals the bitter rivalry and hostility that must have existed between collateral kin among political elites, which is usually elided in the epigraphic praśastis. The desirability of unity within the lineage is emphasized. Using striking imagery, Vidura says that the Kauravas are like a forest and the Pandavas like the tigers who live there; neither can exist without the other.75 The arguments are made even more forcefully and eloquently by Krishna. Quarrels among kinsmen lead to ruin; the Kauravas and Pandavas should unite and rule the earth. If the Kauravas go to war, there will be great loss of life, they will incur great unhappiness, and the earth will be destroyed; if they listen to counsel and unite with their cousins, they will gain sovereignty over the earth. In war, there is no good, no dharma, no artha (material gain), no happiness.76 Victory is never certain. Krishna urges Dhritarashtra to give up Duryodhana, and thereby prevent the war, for the sake of the larger good. The verse he recites in support of this is repeated on several occasions in the epic:

    Give up one man for the sake of the family; give up one family for the sake of the village; give up one village for the sake of the kingdom; give up the earth for the sake of yourself!77

    But at some point, war becomes inevitable. The Udyoga Parva ends with both armies marching out toward Kurukshetra. In a sense, the characters themselves have fore-knowledge of its inevitability as well as its outcome. From the Pandavas’ point of view, it is a just war. They are good; Duryodhayana is evil. They represent dharma, the Kauravas adharma.

    There are two points of view on war and violence in the Mahabharata. The first is that a Kshatriya is obliged to engage in a certain amount of violence in the discharge of his duties. Necessary and unavoidable violence is distinguished from avoidable violence; it is not killing per se that is deplored, but the killing of kin. The second view is that all forms of violence incur sin and this sin must be expiated. This is clear from the fact that at the end of the war, Yudhishthira performs the aśvamedha as expiation. The story emphasizes violence. But the didactic portions introduce nonviolence as an important aspect of dharma. This sits uncomfortably with the main narrative, which is very, very bloody.

    The Warrior’s Dharma

    The Mahabharata tells us that Kshatriya dharma is said to have originated from the first god; it is the oldest dharma in the world, contains all other dharmas, and is therefore the most excellent one. It is eternal and never decays. Kṣatra (the power of the Kshatriya) was created to kill the barbarians (dasyus) and to protect the Vedas. It was exercised by Vishnu to defeat the enemies of the gods. Killing is the primary aspect of Kshatriya dharma, and a Kshatriya king’s most important duty is to destroy barbarians.78

    By and large, the Mahabharata talks of war being the job of a hereditary martial class—the Kshatriyas. In times of emergency, however, the situation is different. If Kshatriyas act against Brahmanas, the latter are justified in protecting themselves by any means, including taking up arms. There are unusual circumstances in which it is permissible for Brahmanas to take up arms and for non-Kshatriyas to rule. A Brahmana can take up arms in three situations: if his life is in danger; if the varṇa order gets corrupted; or if he is faced with an exceptionally difficult situation. In fact, if the varṇa order is threatened, if barbarians create lawlessness and chaos, or if Brahmanas are under threat, men of all varṇas can take up arms. But these things should happen only in times of extreme adversity and crisis. There are martial Brahmanas in the Mahabharata such as Rama Jamadagnya and Drona. But although Drona is respected by both sides, he is also criticized for having transgressed dharma by having adopted the Kshatriya way.

    Although Kshatriya dharma has many advocates, its unpleasant results are there for all to see, and Yudhishthira condemns it on more than one occasion. In a debate on the issue with his brother Arjuna, he exclaims:

    “Damn the kṣatra way! … Damn the unforgiving stubbornness that brought us to this disaster! Good are the tolerance, self-control, sincerity, harmonious disposition, unselfishness, harmlessness, and truthful speech that are the constant traits of those who dwell in the forest. But we, because of our greed and our confusion, were proud and stubbornly arrogant. We have been brought to this condition by our desire to possess the trifling kingdom. But now that we have seen our kinsmen who pursued

    that prize lying dead upon the ground, no one could make us rejoice at being king, not even with being king of all the three worlds.”79

    The War Itself

    The day-by-day reportage of the terrible eighteen-day war tells us of the thousands of men who were killed every day. Duels are an important part of the great war but the difference between the two is understood.80 There are numerous accounts of one-to-one battles, and the great heroes on both sides (especially Arjuna, Bhishma, and Drona) are described as single-handedly killing several thousand unnamed opponents. What drives the battle forward is the systematic killing of the leading Kaurava warriors till they are whittled down to three. On the Pandava side, too, the focus is on the death of certain great warriors; the Pandavas themselves miraculously survive.

    The Mahabharata refers to a fourfold army consisting of infantry, elephant corps, cavalry, and chariot corps, but also mentions a sixfold army, which includes machines (yantra) (the sixth element is unspecified).81 There is also reference to an eightfold army, which, apart from the standard four elements, includes the navy, workers, guides, and spies. The Shanti Parva contains a detailed discussion of military tactics and battle formations. The disquisition has largely to do with how to kill especially strong and troublesome opponents by fair or foul means, distracting them and forcing them into a corner. There is discussion of the best time to march, the best terrain suitable for the different wings of the army, and the different ways of fighting adopted by different people. The strategies recommended include creating magical illusions (māyā). Destructive methods and damaging crops are not recommended. The war is high on action and emotion; anger, love, grief, and fear are constantly on display. Many oaths are taken during the war; all of them are fulfilled.

    Although they are sometimes on elephant back, the heroes usually ride into

    battle in magnificent chariots, with distinctive banners, sometimes hopping from one chariot to another. The crucial role of the charioteer is indicated by Krishna, who guides Arjuna to victory, and Shalya, who does his best to demoralize Karna. On occasion, there is arm-to-arm combat, but the warriors usually fight with a wide array of weapons—bows and arrows are the most common, but swords, spears, maces, clubs, lances, axes, and rocks are also used. Great weapons have names, such as Arjuna’s bow, Gandiva. Magical and celestial weapons also play their part, though sometimes they refuse to work. There is

    also the idea of the ultimate weapon—one that renders all other weapons ineffective and destroys its target, and can be resisted only by ceasing all physical and mental resistance. This is the great weapon received by Ashvatthama from his father, Drona, who himself had obtained it from the god Narayana. As this weapon wreaks havoc among the Pandava side, Krishna tells the warriors that there is only one way they can withstand its destructive potential: They must dismount from their chariots, throw away their weapons, and offer no resistance. They do so, and the weapon is stilled.82

    The epic’s description of the battlefield does not flinch from graphic details of the carnage. The bodies of warriors, pierced by arrows, look like porcupines. As Arjuna showers arrows on his adversaries, a terrible river starts flowing on the battlefield:

    Its water was blood from the wounds of weapons on men’s bodies, its foam human fat; broad in current, it flowed very swiftly, terrible to see and to hear. Corpses of elephants and horses formed its banks, the entrails, marrow and flesh of men its mud. Ghosts and great throngs of demons lined its banks. Its waterweed was hair attached to human skulls, its billows severed pieces of armour, as it bore along thousands of bodies in heaps. Fragments of the bones of men, horses and elephants formed the gravel of that fearful, destructive, hellish river; crows, jackals, vultures and storks, and throngs of carrion beasts and hyenas were approaching its banks from every direction.83

    The dust and din of war are tremendous. Apart from conches and drums of different kinds, the twang of bowstrings and the noise of chariot wheels, there are the warriors’ roars of anger and exultation. War is a noisy affair.

    In line with the glorification of war is its poetic aestheticization. The battlefield is terrifying and yet splendid. The young warrior Abhimanyu scatters the earth with the bodies, limbs, and heads of enemies. Handsome, fair-featured, decked with beautiful earrings, and covered with beautiful garlands, diadems, and turbans, studded with diamonds and jewels, the dead warriors, with blood flowing out, look like stemless lotuses, or the sun, or the moon.84 When Abhimanyu is killed,

    the earth was most splendid to see, like a full-moon sky wreathed in stars, for it was flooded with pools of blood, and strewn with gold-shafted arrows and with the heads of heroes, still gleaming with their earrings.85

    But the glorification and aestheticization of war in the Mahabharata are considerably marred by the enormous grief and guilt that follow the Pandavas’ triumph.

    Victory and Dharma

    As is the case with warrior cultures in other parts of the world, the Mahabharata knows an elaborate honor code in war. Kshatriya dharma overlaps with, but is broader than, this code. When the demands of Kshatriya dharma conflict with this code, the former takes precedence. Victory must be achieved at all cost. During the war, Yudhishthira’s dharma is somewhat different from the dharma of the average Kshatriya warrior, because his dharma as a warrior intersects with the dharma of a would-be king. This means that he is not obliged to fight to the death, but must fight to the best of his ability in order to win the kingdom.

    The dictates of the code of honor are many. Arrows should not be smeared with poison, nor should barbed arrows be used. A wounded man must not be attacked, nor should one whose vehicle has been destroyed. Soldiers must never abandon other soldiers on the battlefield. Old men, women, Brahmanas, and those who have surrendered must not be killed. Low blows are not to be given. But many tenets of this code are violated in the course of the war. The god Krishna is, in fact, an arch advocate of the breaching of the warrior’s honor code. Krishna is both engaged and disengaged in the war. He has taken a vow only to be Arjuna’s charioteer and not to actually fight. With one exception (Shishupala), he never kills directly. He uses others as instruments, often ostensibly because he knows what has been decreed by fate. Krishna lists the warriors he has killed through stratagems. It is not personal. He is happy at the killing of Bhima’s son Ghatotkacha, because he knows that Karna has used up Indra’s weapon on him and is therefore vulnerable. In the battle between Bhima and Duryodhana, Krishna tells Arjuna that Bhima cannot win in fair fight; Arjuna signals to Bhima by touching his thigh, and Bhima brings down his club, smashing his opponent’s thigh. Krishna defends this ignoble act, saying that even the gods practice deception.86 Even before this, the Pandavas have engaged in many deceitful and ignoble tactics in killing Drona (announcing that Ashvatthama—the name of his son—was dead) and Karna (killing him while he sought to free his chariot wheel from the mud). The Kauravas also indulge in unfair, dishonorable combat, for instance, in their coming together to kill a single combatant, the young Abhimanyu.

    But such violations are commented on and receive censure. The manner in

    which Abhimanyu is killed leads the gods to exclaim, “This is not dharma!”87 Balarama is unconvinced by his brother Krishna’s explanations about why it was all right for Bhima to fell Duryodhana with a low blow, and is very vocal about his disapproval. Duryodhana gives a long list of Krishna’s wrong-doings even as the latter defends himself. As Krishna explains, the Pandavas could not have won the war in a fair fight. Yet even Arjuna criticizes the way in which Yudhishthira connived at Drona’s killing for the sake of the kingdom. After such a wicked act, he says, death is better than life.88 The Mahabharata leaves no doubt that such actions are violations of the warrior’s code of honor. Although no side comes out with flying colors, the epic does make it amply clear that the Pandavas score higher marks.

    The Mahabharata talks about righteous victory (dharma-vijaya), which partly overlaps with, but is greater than, the warrior’s honor code. In the Mahabharata, the idea of a righteous war (dharma-yuddha) involves fighting for one’s right, and right is defined by primogeniture. It also involves a conciliatory and benevolent attitude toward defeated enemies and their subjects. Enemies should be restrained but not unnecessarily tormented or annihilated; the king should treat them as though they were his own children. Once the people of the defeated king have been made to bow through the use of force, the king should swiftly try to make them happy through the use of conciliatory words and lavish gifts, in return for taxes. After victory, the king should practice forgiveness, even toward enemies who have committed great offenses against him. This enhances his fame.

    So what does the Mahabharata really mean when it declares the great war to be a war of dharma or when Krishna asserts that Yudhishthira has conquered the earth through dharma? What does it mean when it says that victory lies where dharma is, or where Krishna is?89 Or when it states that Krishna is dharma? It seems that the dharmic war is one that can involve deceit but is fought for upholding the right of primogeniture. But there are also good theological reasons why this is a dharmic war. The Pandavas are semidivine; Krishna fights on their side. As the epic tells us several times, where Krishna is, lie dharma and victory.

    Warriors of the Old and the New Age

    The Mahabharata war can be seen as the swan song of the old-fashioned idea of the Kshatriya warrior, one who is noble and born into a family of hereditary warrior elites. In this world, brave warriors are willing to fight unto death, and such men are eminently worthy of honor and respect. The names of the two chief protagonists—Yudhisththira, Duryodhana—suggest that one is steadfast in war and that the other fights unfairly. Martial epithets abound, and the heroes are compared with powerful animals like the bull, elephant, tiger, and lion. But the warrior–heroism equation is not a simple one. Yudhishthira belies his name (which means steadfast in war) by vacillating a great deal and spending much time agonizing about his moral dilemmas. He goes through most of the battle without especially distinguishing himself, and seems to come to life only on the last day, when he kills Shalya with a spear. Brave warriors sometimes flee when the going gets tough. There are also warriors who are not brave. Prince Uttara, for instance, is terrified of going into battle and runs away. Arjuna has to drag him back, and instils courage into the novice warrior.

    War is associated with masculinity, but the Mahabharata characters are not entirely gender stereotypes. Yudhishthira is weak and vacillating. His wife Draupadi, ��the dark one,” is aggressive and assertive.90 Her very birth is connected with hurtling the Kshatriya order toward the catastrophic war. An even more interesting set of episodes are those in which war is associated with androgynous characters. The androgyny of the Hindu gods is reflected most powerfully in the idea of Shiva as Ardhanarishvara (the god who is half woman), but androgynous elements in the portrayal of certain warriors in the Mahabharata are of a different order and are suggestive of an enigmatic sexual ambiguity. During the year that the Pandavas spend incognito in the court of the Matsya king Virata, Arjuna chooses to take on the disguise of a eunuch named Brihannada (the name literally means “one with a big reed or phallus”). A feminized Arjuna teaches singing and dancing to the women of Virata’s harem. While this confirms him as a ladies’ man, there is something incongruous and comic in his rushing out to battle against the Kauravas to rescue the Matsya prince, dressed in woman’s attire, his braids flying in the air. Another striking androgynous warrior image is that of Amba, who is temporarily transformed in a

    subsequent birth into the male Shikhandi, in order to get revenge on Bhishma by killing him. Bhishma cannot be killed by a man and refuses to fight an adversary who was formerly a woman. Not surprisingly, these episodes have lent themselves to endless speculation about the precise nature of the transsexuality of these characters and a wide range of psychoanalytical interpretations.91 At the very least, in these episodes, the epic gives an interesting twist to the association of war with masculinity. However, leaving aside these episodes, bravery in war is generally associated with manliness, and the charge of being unmanly or a eunuch is considered an insult.

    Bhishma represents the old Kshatriya order. Arjuna and Karna are the two greatest warriors of the younger generation. The two are equally matched in terms of military skill but there are many differences between them. Karna represents the old-world warrior qualities combined with two qualities more associated with kingship and the dharma common to all: generosity and truth. He goes into battle burdened with the knowledge that he is not likely to survive. He declares that he does not fear death as much as he fears untruth. Although in the events leading up to the war he comes across as a belligerent member of the war mongers, during the course of the war, he scores several times on account of his honorable conduct. He is one of the few great warriors who adheres unwaveringly to the warrior code. He does not kill an unarmed Bhima. He lets the Pandava prince Sahadeva go as he is not his equal in war, simply touching him with the tip of his bow. He spares prince Nakula because of the promise he had made to their mother, Kunti. Karna fights by the old rules of honor and dies in the process. He is a tragic hero.

    Arjuna, ambidextrous and amazingly proficient in arms, is the new-age warrior. If there is one single true hero in the epic, it is he. He suffers and struggles constantly. When going to dutifully fetch his bow to protect a Brahmana harassed by cattle thieves, he knowingly violates an agreement among the Pandavas that anyone who sets eyes on their wife Draupadi lying with another brother should go into celibate exile for twelve years (actually Arjuna is not entirely celibate during the period). In addition, he spends five long years away from his brothers in search of celestial weapons. He fights relentlessly and furiously, burdened with the knowledge that the outcome of the war and the victory of his side depend to a great extent on him. He loses his sons in battle,

    and this is a grief that he finds hard to bear. Several years after the war, Arjuna suffers deeply at the death of his friend and mentor Krishna. The grief-stricken Arjuna performs the last rites of Krishna’s people, the Vrishnis; rescues the Vrishni women, children, and aged people; and fights the Abhiras who attack them as they flee Dvaraka. Arjuna has aspects of what must have been an age- old heroic ideal. But he has new-age elements of doubt about the righteousness of what he is doing. He is also a new-age warrior in that he is a bhakta warrior— a warrior who is also an ardent devotee of a great god Krishna. Friendship and single-minded devotion are the hallmarks of the relationship between this warrior and his god.

    Against the background of the Kshatriya order having have been exterminated many times, the Mahabharata emphasizes a Kshatriya dharma wherein the warrior is wedded firmly to the dharma of varṇa and āśrama, fights for his political goals, ignores kinship ties, and has a close relationship with the gods and Brahmanas. It is shameful if a Kshatriya dies at home in his bed. A warrior should die fighting fiercely in battle, his body mangled by the blades of weapons. One who dies thus attains heaven. The usual food offerings and libations and the observation of a period of impurity by kin are not required in his case. This kind of death should not be mourned (although we know that it is!).

    However, the Mahabharata reflects an awareness that the attainment of heaven—the traditional goal of the warrior—is no longer enough. And the warrior’s duty, although reiterated frequently, is also debated, questioned, redefined, and given a new philosophical content. The new approach to war connects inner and outer battles. Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that a king must first conquer himself and then his enemies. The battle within has to be fought in the mind—alone, sans weapons, without the support of allies or kin. Winning this battle helps attaining victory over enemies in the outer war.92 Yudhishthira wins the outer battle but continues to fight the inner one till his death.

    The Bhagavadgita

    The preeminent philosophical instruction on war in the Mahabharata is contained in the Bhagavadgita, and it is given to Arjuna and not to Yudhishthira, because Arjuna is the quintessential warrior. As mentioned earlier, the events and discourse of the Bhagavadgita take place at a time when peace negotiations have failed and war is not only imminent but is about to begin. The two armies stand surveying each other, face to face.

    Arjuna’s problem in the Bhagavadgita is not related to war in general; rather, it is with a war that involves the killing of close kin, teachers, and friends. When he surveys his own kin (sva-jana) arrayed in battle before him, Arjuna finds his mouth going dry, his body feels weak and tremulous, his bow slips from his grasp. His mind is filled with terrible confusion. He voices his anxieties to Krishna. The killing of kin leads to the destruction of the lineage (kula-kṣaya) and the corruption of women of the lineage, which in turn lead to social disorder (varṇa-saṁkara). Surely fighting such a war would be a great sin (pāpa). The great Pandava warrior dramatically puts away his bow and arrows and sits down in his chariot. He does not want to fight.

    Krishna urges Arjuna pick up his weapons and fight the enemy. He uses three sets of arguments to persuade him do so. One fits in which the old heroic culture, but the other two are based on a new philosophical synthesis and a new idea of godhead. The first set of arguments emphasizes the importance of following one’s dharma (sva-dharma), understood as the dharma of the varṇas, in Arjuna’s case, the Kshatriya dharma. For a Kshatriya, there can be nothing greater than a righteous war (dharmya yuddha) such as this; it is few who have the privilege of fighting such a war. The heroic warrior who fights fearlessly unto death attains heaven. Such a death brings unending fame. Not fighting brings in its wake accusations of cowardice, guilt, and unending shame and dishonor, which are much worse than death.

    The second set of arguments is philosophical. We have already noted in Chapter 1 that Krishna’s long, detailed response to Arjuna contains a unique combination of elements of Samkhya, Yoga, and Vedanta philosophies with the ideas of duty and devotion (bhakti), and a new definition of renunciation. The goal that the Bhagavadgita ends with is not heaven but liberation from the cycle

    of rebirth (mokṣa). Death is inevitable and should not cause the wise man any grief. The embodied eternal self (ātman) is eternal and indestructible; it is not born and does not die; on the passing away of one body, it moves on to inhabit another.

    “As a man discards his worn-out clothes And puts on different ones that are new,

    So the one in the body discards aged bodies And joins with other ones that are new.”93

    Killing in battle is not something to be concerned about, because it is the physical body of the enemy that is killed. The ātman is beyond reach.

    “Swords do not cut him, fire does not burn him, water does not wet him, wind does not parch him. He cannot be burned, wetted, or parched, for he is eternal, ubiquitous, stable, unmoving, and forever.”94

    The wise man has mastery over his senses and remains unperturbed and unmoved in all circumstances. He performs his duty without thinking of the consequences of his actions.

    “Either you are killed and will then attain to heaven, or you triumph and will enjoy the earth. Therefore rise up, Kaunteya [son of Kunti, Arjuna], resolved upon battle! Holding alike happiness and unhappiness, gain and loss, victory and defeat, yoke yourself to the battle, and so do not incur evil.”95

    The third set of arguments in Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna rests on a new idea of godhead proclaimed in the text. In the eleventh book of the Bhagavadgita, Krishna reveals to Arjuna his powerful and terrifying infinite, universal form, one impossible to see with ordinary eyes. Arjuna sees this blazing form with its many arms, legs, eyes, bellies, and mouths, wearing divine ornaments, adorned with celestial garments, and anointed with divine perfumes. Arjuna tells Krishna that he sees that the sons of Dhritarashtra along with the warriors of the other kings of the earth, like Bhishma, Drona, and Karna, as well

    as the leading warriors of the Pandavas

    “Are hastening into your numerous mouths That are spiky with tusks and horrifying—

    There are some who are dangling between your teeth, Their heads already crushed to bits.

    As many a river in spate ever faster Streams oceanward in a headlong rush So yonder heroic rulers of earth

    Are streaming into your flame-licked mouths.

    As moths on the wing ever faster will aim For a burning fire and perish in it,

    Just so do these men increasing their speed Make haste to your mouths to perish in them.”96

    Arjuna cowers before the terrible sight of the god licking his lips in order to devour all the worlds into his flickering mouths. Krishna tells him that he, Krishna, is Time grown old to annihilate the world. He assures Arjuna that he will win the war; his enemies are doomed and will be killed. All this has been preordained; Arjuna is merely the god’s instrument. Krishna urges Arjuna to surrender all his acts to him, to seek shelter in him, to be absorbed in him; in return, he will be set free from all sin. So the ultimate message of the Bhagavadgita is not related just to war, but to all acts, and its underpinnings are social, philosophical, soteriological, and devotional.

    The combination of these powerful arguments resolves Arjuna’s terrible dilemma. His doubts are removed, and he picks up his bow and arrows, resolute and prepared to enter battle. The function of the Bhagavadgita is to justify the war and to take away the taint and the guilt of killing kin. But it can do this only for the warrior who has internalized its philosophy and who fights accordingly. It is not clear that anyone actually does so in the Mahabharata, with the exception, perhaps, of Arjuna. In a righteous war, whose righteousness is certified by none other than a great god who exhorts a warrior to fight, that warrior must not be squeamish about killing, not even about killing his close kin. Whether this applies to ordinary, mundane wars and warriors is another question altogether.

    The Mahabharata ends with the Pandavas meeting in heaven. But strewn throughout the epic is the idea that heaven is not the final stop and that there is a higher goal. Yudhishthira attains one of the higher heavens where other great kings of yore such as Harishchandra, Mandhata, Bhagiratha, and Bharata reside. This is because he has followed something greater than the warrior’s code— namely, the king’s code, which includes virtuous deeds such as giving gifts. But being virtuous and performing royal duties does not lead to the highest goal. It is true renunciation that leads to mokṣa—liberation from the cycle of rebirth. In spite of all his exertions, Yudhishthira does not achieve this.

    War, Sacrifice, and Expiation

    While the war begins as a conflict over a kingdom, as it proceeds, the goal expands. It eventually becomes a total war—one whose goal is the annihilation of the enemy. During the war, Bhima drinks Duhshasana’s blood after killing him. But Ashvatthama’s night massacre of those sleeping in the enemy camp, after the war is more or less over, is perhaps the most chilling event in the epic.97 Not only does he kill everyone in that camp, but he also releases a weapon that will destroy the wombs of the Pandava women. The goal is the complete annihilation of the enemy’s lineage. It is only through Krishna’s divine intervention that this catastrophe is averted and prince Parikshit lives. The epic is not as concerned with the general destruction caused by war as it is with the killing of kin. The qualms over this have to be, and are, overcome by the main characters. But this does not explain the extent of Ashvatthaman’s carnage. It seems that the Kshatriyas have to be virtually wiped out for a new Kshatriya order to emerge from the ashes of the old.

    Ashvatthama’s gruesome nocturnal massacre of the Pandava camp is

    described in a manner in which it appears as an enactment of an animal sacrifice. It is significant that he performs this act after he offers himself to the god Shiva and the latter’s destructive energy enters him. There are several places in the Mahabharata where war itself is said to be a sacrifice, the battlefield a sacrificial altar, the various weapons the sacrificial implements, the warriors the consecrated performers of the sacrifice, the enemy the offering, and the body of the warrior king the sacrificial post. A detailed explanation of the war-sacrifice (saṁgrāma-yajña) is given by Indra to king Ambarisha:

    “Every warrior equipped for battle is ritually consecrated, and when he goes to the front of the army he gains the right to perform the sacrifice of battle—that’s a settled conclusion.… The elephants there are the priests, and the horses are the adhvaryu priests. The chunks of the enemy’s flesh are the offerings, and their blood is the clarified butter. Jackals, vultures, and ravens sit in the ritual assembly and are participants in the solemn rite.

    … The blood which runs upon the earth from the violence in a battle is its full libation, the rich cow from which all wishes flow.”98

    What do the frequent analogies between war and sacrifice really mean? There are numerous striking similarities between war and sacrifice. Both involve killing, the following of certain rules or norms, and expiation for lapses. Both have mundane as well as higher aims. The idea of men as victims also perhaps hearkens back to the distant memory of that most supreme of all sacrifices, human sacrifice. The metaphorical description of the war as sacrifice probably also aimed at legitimizing the kind of violence—enormous and targeted against kin, teachers, elders, friends—that it entailed.99

    As for specific royal sacrifices, the two that stand out in the epic are the rājasūya and aśvamedha, and both are connected with war. The rājasūya, an important sacrifice connected with royal consecration that presented the king as the center of the cyclical process of regeneration of the universe, required huge amounts of wealth and was supposed to be beset with many obstacles. Narada tells Yudhishthira that the rājasūya is often followed by a war capable of destroying the earth, and that the portents indicate that his (Yudhishthira’s) rājasūya would be of this kind. He is right, because Duryodhana’s intense jealousy at Yudhishthira’s display of his might, wealth, and prestige at this sacrifice ultimately leads directly to the terrible war. The aśvamedha (horse sacrifice) is a great sacrifice signifying political paramountcy and also requires great wealth. It is performed by Yudhishthira soon after the war; it is an opulent event, accompanied by great food and lots of merriment, rather like a grand festival. All the kings of Jambudvipa are present. But the aśvamedha is also accompanied by widespread war, even more so to than the rājasūya. Arjuna is chosen to accompany the sacrificial horse that is set to roam free for a year, and Yudhishthira tells him to avoid war as far as possible. But there are many battles and Arjuna returns war-weary after winning them all. This particular horse sacrifice seems to be more a purifying and expiatory rite, cleansing Yudhishthira of the sin of killing his kin. So Yudhishthira has incurred sin by fighting the war after all.

    After the horse sacrifice is over, a half-golden mongoose enters the scene and sneers at the event.100 He is actually the sage Jamadagni, transformed into a mongoose due to an ancestors’ curse, which would be lifted only when he censured dharma (Yudhishthira is dharma incarnate). A debate on violence toward animals ensues between the mongoose and the assembled Brahmanas,

    and the idea of a nonviolent mental sacrifice is introduced. The mongoose points out that the merit accruing from Yudhishthira’s aśvamedha was less than that of a Brahmana who shares his meager gleanings with a guest. Where does this leave Yudhishthira’s grand spectacle? Where does it leave the war and the victory that leads up to it? What was the point of it all?

    Women and Lament

    In a sense, the outcome of the Mahabharata war flies in the face of realism. We are told that the Kaurava forces outnumber those of the Pandavas. Yudhishthira has seven armies, Duryodhana has eleven. Nevertheless the Pandavas are invincible because of the sheer presence of Krishna and Arjuna. At the end of the eighteen-day war, thousands have been killed on both sides. There are seven survivors on the Pandava side—the five brothers, Krishna, and Satyaki. Only three warriors survive in the Kaurava camp—Ashvatthama, Kripa, and Kritavarma.

    The Mahabharata contains an eloquent exhortation to warriors to fight, but it also contains a powerful lament on the consequences of war. The extent of the devastation is matched by the intensity of grief that follows. The victors do not live happily ever after. Yudhishthira secures the throne, but the world continues on its cyclical moral decline. The heroes trudge through life, dispirited. Dhritarashtra mourns the death of his hundred sons. Arjuna is exhausted. Yudhishthira is racked with guilt and sorrow because of his responsibility for killing his kinsmen for the sake of a kingdom. He wants to fast unto death. He wants to go off to the forest and renounce the world. He is constantly counseled and pulled back by the other characters. Familiar arguments are made: He must rule in order to fulfill the duties of a king; renunciation is not part of the Kshatriya way; warriors who die on the battlefield must not be mourned because they go to heaven. Further, Yudhishthira was not responsible for the war and its consequences—it was fate, or it was Time (kāla). Yudhishthira was only their instrument.

    The postwar narrative of the Mahabharata is suffused by the sorrow experienced by the survivors. There is little relief from their incessant pain. The one night of joy they experience is when Vyasa, using his divine powers, unites the living with the dead, by creating a vision of the dead heroes. The latter rise out of the waters of the Ganga River, and this reunion is the only brief episode of happiness that the victors experience. It is only after death that the protagonists achieve peace of mind. The war was necessary, but it does not lead to happiness. So the Mahabharata can also be read as a powerful indictment of war. The most concentrated lament is contained in the Stri Parva. In this book, there is

    universal lament at the death of loved ones; bitter accusations of responsibility; acknowledgments of guilt; and attempts at consolation and conciliation. Grief, guilt, and remorse are on display. There is a regular blame game as Dhritarashtra, Yudhishthira, Gandhari, Duryodhana, Krishna, and fate are variously held responsible for the disaster. Ultimately, anger makes way for grief and for an acceptance of what has come to pass.

    The intensity of anger and grief are reflected most of all in the description of the emotions of women. And here, the Mahabharata eloquently presents a chilling and powerful women’s perspective—especially that of mothers and widows—on the carnage of war:

    Along the bank of the Gaṅgā … Yudhishthira beheld women in throngs, shrieking like stricken ospreys. At once they surrounded the king in their thousands, weeping, waving their arms aloft in their distress, speaking without caring whether their words were soft or harsh. “How can the king know dharma and yet show such cruelty that he slew fathers, brothers, elders, sons and friends?”101

    The queen Gandhari has lost all one hundred of her sons, and Yudhishthira is rightly afraid of her anger. He trembles as he approaches her with folded hands, admitting his culpability:

    “Lady, I am Yudhishthira, the cruel slayer of your sons. I deserve to be cursed, for I am to blame for this devastation of the earth. Curse me! For I am a friend-betraying fool, and having slain such friends, I have no use for life, or wealth, or kingdom.”102

    A tiny sliver of her furious gaze from the corner of her blindfold burns the tips of Yudhishthira’s fingernails. Gandhari describes her hundred dead sons and curses Krishna for contributing to their death—he will meet a violent death thirty-six years hence at the hands of his own kin.

    Unaccustomed to the dreadful spectacle of war, the women are dazed as they stumble over the battlefield, muddy with flesh and blood:

    The earth itself seems overspread with fallen hands and other limbs,

    mingled in heaps. The blameless women see dreadful headless bodies and bodiless heads, and unaccustomed to such sights, they are struck senseless. Staring distractedly, they join a head to a body, failing in their misery to see that it is another’s and does not belong there; full of woe, they also join up arms and thighs and feet that have been separated again and again.103

    Who is to blame for the slaughter? This is a question that is raised repeatedly, including in a conversation between Sanjaya and Dhritarashtra. Sanjaya is the plain-speaking caustic war reporter, who can see what is happening on the battlefield due to the divine vision granted to him, and he narrates all the events to the blind king. Every now and then, Dhritarasthra moans that this is all because of fate, and Sanjaya retorts that it is actually entirely his, Dhritarashtra’s, fault. But the larger perspective of the epic is that things happen because they are destined, and war and happiness are incompatible.

    War in the Ramayana

    The Mahabharata war is fought for the sake of a kingdom. In the Ramayana, none of the princes hankers for the throne. Rama fights the king of Lanka to regain his beloved abducted wife, Sita, and Ravana is willing to go to war to retain her.104 For Rama, it is also a matter of love and honor. The cruel words he speaks to his wife after she is brought before him indicate that the second is more important to him:

    “Let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valour of my allies. Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.”105

    But there is more to the war against Ravana, although Rama himself does not yet know this. Like the Mahabharata war, this one is another round of the age- old conflict between the gods and demons. Rama is a god, born as a man. His birth is part of a divine plan—to kill the arrogant demon Ravana, enemy of the gods, who has created terror by obstructing the activities of the gods, gandharvas, yakṣas, Brahmanas, and sages. Rama and his three brothers are parts of the god Vishnu. Rama’s helpers, the vānaras (who have the form of monkeys), are actually the sons of various gods and have been created with the specific task of defeating Ravana. Through his austerities, Ravana had obtained a boon from the god Brahma that he could not be killed by the gods, gandharvas, yakṣas, or dānavas (a type of demon). Being contemptuous of humans, he did not ask for invulnerability from humans. As in the Mahabharata, in this epic too, there are martial Brahmanas such as Vishvamitra and Parashurama. But war is generally associated with the Kshatriyas, and the epic has much to say about their dharma. War in the Ramayana is a dramatic episode involving copious killing. And yet it does not seem as brutal, as laden with anguish and despair, as it does in the Mahabharata.

    As in the Mahabharata, so in the Ramayana, there is an awareness that given the nature of the adversary, peace will not be possible. Nevertheless there are attempts to maintain peace, and these come from Ravana’s camp. When Ravana

    seeks the counsel of his ministers, they tell him that Rama can be easily defeated. But Ravana’s brother Vibhishana warns against rushing into war and suggests that the other expedients should be tried first:

    “The learned have prescribed as appropriate the use of force [vikrama] only on those occasions where one’s object cannot be achieved by means of the other three stratagems [upāyas], dear brother. And, dear brother, the use of force, even when made judiciously and in accordance with the proper injunctions, succeeds only against those who are off guard, preoccupied, or stricken by misfortune. How then can you all hope to assail someone who is vigilant, intent upon victory, firm in his strength, the master of his anger, and utterly unassailable?”106

    Vibhishana urges his brother to return Sita and establish peace. Ravana, however, doubts his motives and ruminates on the dangers posed by close kin. Ravana’s grand-uncle Malyavan recognizes the portents of doom and urges Ravana to make an alliance with Rama and establish peace, using pragmatic as well as moral arguments: A learned king who follows sound policy should make peace or war at the appropriate times; one who is weaker than or equal in strength to the enemy should make peace; one should wage war only if one is stronger than the enemy, and even then, one should never underestimate him. Dharma will overcome adharma. The omens portend the destruction of the demons. Rama cannot be an ordinary mortal—he must be a form of Vishnu.107 Another adviser, Mahodara, urges the use of deception rather than war. Even as Rama’s army prepares to cross the ocean, Ravana’s ministers urge him to return Sita and make peace; they describe to him the power of the monkeys and the qualities of Rama and Lakshmana. But Ravana chastises them for praising his enemies. Ravana’s wives, mother, and senior-most advisor, Aviddha, also urge him to give Sita up, but to no avail. Ravana is impelled by fate; his anger, stubbornness, and refusal to listen to wise counsel stand out in his assertion that he will break, but never bend. As in the Mahabharata, here, too, there is a mission sent to the enemy: Angada is sent to Lanka with a message from Rama, but it is a message not of peace but of war.

    The War Itself

    There are several similarities in the Ramayana’s and Mahabharata’s descriptions of the fourfold army, the numerous one-to-one fights, the use of conventional and celestial weapons, the noise of war, and the dust raised by the soldiers blocking out the sun. But there is also a world of difference between the two events. The Mahabharata war takes place on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The war against Ravana tak