Lecture 12, Part 2: Cruelty’ in the Indian Tradition by Bharati

To the reader…

This is the last of this series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


‘Cruelty’ in the Indian Tradition

20. So, the moral of the Mahābhārata can be said to be the centrality of the relationship between brahma and kṣatra. There are also several dharma related ideas and cruelty is one of them. The Sanskrit word for cruelty is nṛśaṃsa (नृशंस). Now nṛśaṃsa is actually an adjective and it describes a person who wilfully causes injury to others, who inflicts mindless violence on others. That kind of person is called nṛśaṃsya and from that word, a new word, ānṛśaṃsya (आनृशंस्य), seems to have been coined by the authors of the Mahābhārata. Ānṛśaṃsya is an abstract noun. It means non-cruelty. So nṛśaṃsa describes a person who is cruel, anṛśaṃsa (अनृशंस) is one who is compassionate, and ānṛśaṃsya is non-cruelty, or the virtue of non-cruelty.

21. What is the difference between non-cruelty and non-violence? First, remember that most of the key normative ideas in Indian philosophy are negatively formed. And it is something of a puzzle why these have been negatively formed. (I must confess that initially I had taken ānṛśaṃsya also to be a negative and formed in a similar way. But that was a mistake. The word starts with “ā [आ]” and not “a [अ]”.) Take the word ahiṃsā — non-violence. Take the word asteya — non-stealing. Aparigraha — non-holding (non-attachment, non-possession).[15] All these are virtues which are supposed to be virtues that everyone must cultivate regardless of the gender or varṇa. And therefore these are virtues which are prescribed by what is called sāmānyadharma. The word dharma has many meanings. But the meaning that I have in mind here concerns the distinction between sāmānyadharma and varṇāśramadharma. Varṇāśramadharma is that which is specific to your varṇa and your āśrama: your birth and status and the stage of life you are at; whereas sāmānyadharma, which can be loosely translated as universal or general dharma, is something which is valid for everybody.

22. Asteya, aparigraha, ahiṃsā and ānṛśaṃsya, which is to say non-stealing, non-holding, non-violence and non-cruelty are supposed to be valid for everybody and therefore they are part of sāmānyadharma.[16] The śāstric position on the relationship between varṇāśramadharma and sāmānyadharma is rather disappointing. Because having said that everyone should follow non-killing, non-cruelty, etc., the śāstras say that in case of conflict between varṇāśramadharma and sāmānyadharma, varṇāśramadharma prevails. If you are a king, you cannot say that the sāmānyadharma has told you not to kill, therefore you will not go to war or that you will not punish. Because as a king it is your duty to kill and punish. It is only when the two are not in conflict that sāmānyadharma is relevant. All the important virtues which are part of sāmānyadharma are for some reason negatively formulated and anṛśaṃsya is also one of them.

23. It has been speculated on the basis of some stories from the Mahābhārata that cruelty can be of two forms if we provisionally define cruelty as taking pleasure in actively inflicting pain on others.[17] If you happen to be in pain for reasons which have nothing to do with me and I take pleasure and I take pleasure in witnessing you pain, then I can only be called a sadist and there may be something very perverse about that but that is not cruelty.[18] But it is only when that pain has been inflicted by me actively and I take pleasure in witnessing your pain and your agony that I can be called a cruel person. Some of the stories from the Mahābhārata indicate that according to it, cruelty may be of two kinds. It may be cruelty of hand, and cruelty of speech. Let me dispose of cruelty of speech quickly because I don’t want to say much about it. Cruelty of speech can be indistinguishable from humiliation because humiliation of a particular kind uses words. You use derogatory words to insult somebody for example. That is cruelty by speech. And since cruelty by speech and humiliation are indistinguishable, I will keep that aside as not a special case at all. I am simply calling it a form of humiliation.

24. Let us look at cruelty by hand. There is a story in the Mahābhārata which shows one poor but learned Brahmin — a trope that recurs frequently in the tradition with the implicit idea that the poor but learned and virtuous Brahmin must be respected — called Kaśyapa is walking on the road, a rich and powerful and arrogant man’s ratha or chariot goes past him and as it goes past him, it dashes him on the ground and he falls down. The injury is not severe but the fact that the arrogant man should have done this to him is what really hurts him. That is when he starts really lamenting his life and his being born in this world at all. I am a learned Brahmin. But what do I get out of being learned? Why do I have to live such an impoverished, appalling life?

25. This is when Indra takes the form of a jackal and comes and whispers in the ear of Kaśyapa: don’t you think that you are luckier than me? Look at me, I don’t have hands but you do. And therefore there are a lot of things which you can do but I can’t. If I am injured, I can’t actually take care of myself where as you can.[19] Therefore, even if you are blaming your whole life and your being born in this world, I think you are luckier than me. Human beings are luckier than birds or animals.

26. And then there is a discussion about the paradoxical gift of hands. Hands distinguish you from animals and birds because with hands you can do things which animals and birds cannot. (Incidentally, modern science also tells you that a lot of cognitive development is actually connected with our being able to use hands.) So that is something which sets us apart. But having hands also makes it possible for us to indulge in cruelty, which most animals and birds cannot because they do not have hands. So hands have a kind of paradoxical role to play in human lives.[20] They can distinguish us from other creatures, make us superior to them in every respect, but they can also make us morally inferior to them because with our hands we can do things which are cruel and perverse. We find very few stories both in literature and in scientific discourse of cruelty by birds and animals on each other and those remain unconvincing stories. Whereas stories of cruelty by human beings are innumerable.

27. In the American war on terror, they used a prison with special means of torture. You must have heard about it.[21] ‘Terrorists’ were rounded up and tortured there. There was an infamous incident of a woman soldier, Private Lynndie England, who was on duty there and who not only tortured the prisoners but also filmed the act of torture. The torture was aimed at dehumanising the targets of torture but in the process she actually divulged herself as a human being, though a particular kind of human being. She uses her hands to humiliate and dehumanise them.[22] This reminds us of the Mahābhārata story where hands are supposed to be that part of the body which makes us human both in the perverse sense and also in the flattering sense.

28. While it is true that depending on the theory or conceptual framework that you want to use, your understanding of cruelty will be different, there are certain things which seem to be quite obvious. Judith Shklar has pointed out that cowards tend to be more prone to inflicting cruelty on others and yet, as Machiavelli would have told you, with examples, those who are brave and courageous are not free of the vice of cruelty.[23] The opposition between cowardice and bravery doesn’t seem to give you a clue about who will be cruel and who will not be. In fact, what seems to be happening is that an idea emerged in early modern Europe that maybe a certain aristocratic code of valour and nobility will inhibit or discourage cruelty. But even if it is true, it comes at the price of a certain power relationship.

29. The problem is either you institutionalise violence in the form of certain relations of property and authority or you allow cruelty in an uncontrolled way. There seems to be an either/or here. Institutionalisation of violence and uninstitutionalised forms of cruelty. You either have one or you have the other. And sometimes you have both. You have any number of examples of cultures which have effectively discouraged cruelty, given no sanction to acts of cruelty, and yet which have institutionalised forms of violence. So there seems to be a problem here. You either have institutionalised forms of violence or you have uninstitutionalised forms of cruelty. There has been a great deal of research both from philosophers and psychologists about the mind of a person who indulges in cruelty. That is a big area. And since we are looking at Indian Political Thought we are not going into it.

30. Erich Fromm and Bertrand Russell, to take two examples, have tried to analyse human nature philosophically and psychologically to explain what the sources of cruelty in human nature are. But what you find in a text like the Mahābhārata or some of the other Indian texts is that they are distinguishing between non-violence and non-cruelty. They do it in an interesting way. The difference is not of degree or of the element of perversity. It is as follows.

31. It has been said that to live in this world is to be implicated in some form of violence or other. Violence is unavoidable and that therefore non-violence in the literal and most rigorous sense is impossible. At least it is impossible for ordinary human beings: for the householder, the king, etc. So non-violence is the higher ideal. Whereas non-cruelty is something of a lower order and achievable. The distinction is that non-violence is meant only for those who have renounced this world. It is a typical value of the renunciatory path. It is a value of those who have started saṃnyāsa whereas non-cruelty is something which is achievable for a householder or even a king.

32. In the last class when I talked about some of the stories of King Aśoka constructing a prison for torture — and mind you the story I was narrating was from the Buddhist sources which is what is so strange. Now this is something that needs to be avoided. A king cannot follow complete non-violence. But the punishment need not be cruel. It need not be of the kind that Arthaśāstra prescribes. It does not have to be setting on fire parts of the convict’s body. This can be and should be avoided.

33. You might argue that what we regard as inhuman is something which changes from time to time and place to place. And that is of course true. But if we are going to talk about the here and now, then we know by convention and by discussions of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable that certain forms of state action degrade human beings. As long as there is state, there is law and there is punishment and some people will be punished, etc. But you must ensure that there is due process and that the punishment is proportionate to the offence. This is broadly speaking what the hundred-year old human rights movement in different parts of the world has made us believe in. So not being cruel is entirely compatible with being a state functionary or a ruler or a householder or performing any of the roles and functions that you have to perform in this world.

34. Early on in this course, I said that within Indian thinking — and I deliberately said Indian thinking because Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jaina thought seem to have converged on this point — a distinction was made between the householder and renunciate. The renunciatory path was meant only for a few people because it is extremely hard to give up this world, to give up comforts, to give up pleasure, to ultimately give up even your life because you may be a mendicant and beg for food but eventually you are supposed to even reduce your food intake and finally starve yourself to death. Jainism has an elaborate procedure for what we outside the Jaina tradition might clumsily call religious suicide.[24] Buddhists have talked about it. The ultimate aim of the renunciatory path is that of ending your life or worldly existence. It reaches a point when you end your life. Along the way you are supposed to follow a life style which has not only no ordinary forms of violence but requires practicing ever higher forms of non-violence.

35. It is a common sight of Jaina munis covering their mouth and nose and not practising agriculture,[25] and in both cases it is the idea of non-violence, of not causing injury or harm to other creatures. You also have the familiar description of a Buddhist monk using a cloth as a filter in order to remove small insects from the water. Microbiologists might smile at it. You find all sorts of extreme ideas and extreme practices of non-violence on the renunciatory path. And I think the reason why Gandhi got into all kinds of muddles and perplexities is because he kept on insisting on a literal and extreme meaning of non-violence which neither he nor his associates nor anyone in the world could have possibly followed.

36. He said he will not drink cow’s milk because in doing so, one is depriving the calf of its mother’s milk. That amounts to causing injury. Fair enough. Then he falls ill. Doctors say: he has become so ill that he must at least drink milk. But he says no. And then it is his wife who was probably more practical than he was who says, the vow you have taken is about cow’s milk. What about goat’s milk? And Gandhi agrees!! [laughter] Suddenly I think the lawyer in him got the better of him!

37. But when he narrates it… well, you know how in certain kinds of autobiographical narrations, the author is dripping with guilt and remorse and everything. So Gandhi says that he felt bad, that he felt he was cheating himself, but he became desperate, and didn’t want to displease his family and so he started drinking goat’s milk.[26] The problem arose because he was using the term non-violence in the most absolute sense. No Jaina — with all respect to the practitioners of that faith — can survive without eating agricultural produce. It is one thing to say you will not indulge in agriculture because it involves violence. But you are still eating food-grain which comes from someone else doing the violent act for you. Someone else is taking on their head the sin of causing injury to the insects in order to keep you alive. So whenever people take non-violence literally, they get into all kinds of puzzles.

38. But if you say, yes, my life is full of violence, so is yours and everybody else’s, without violence we cannot live. But what I will try to avoid is cruelty. Cruelty by speech and cruelty by hand so that you can say that you have never indulged in cruelty. If someone were to say this, then it would be a plausible account and it would be a goal worth pursuing. Because non-violence, even non-cruelty is something which is still so remote in this modern world that to posit that as a goal won’t be a bad idea at all.

39.39.What the Indian tradition has done is to distinguish between two paths: that of the householder where you perform your duties, pay your debts, perform you sacrifices, etc., and the path of the renunciator who is supposed to practice non-violence which is the more rigorous and harder goal. It is the householder and king who is supposed to follow non-cruelty: both by hand and by speech. And that amounts to not inflicting pain on others wilfully and not taking pleasure in inflicting pain on others wilfully.

40. But there is a small problem which remains. Can we say indifference to other people’s plight, pain, tribulation, injury is a form of cruelty? (To relish food, drinks and delicacies while the hungry ones look on is cruelty, says the Mahābhārata.) Because the moment you say yes, a lot of things become instances of cruelty. In today’s world where every form of suffering is immediately circulated through modern technology — on YouTube, on WhatsApp, etc. — there is every possibility that you won’t be able to spend even a single day without actually coming across some form of suffering somewhere. If you were to respond to each of these, then you won’t be able to live a normal life. You will have to become a 24-hours activist trying to lessen somebody’s pain all the time. You cannot go to a restaurant without noticing someone somewhere hungry or suffering. So how do you reconcile these things whether it is ‘normal’ day to day living or occasional indulgence in pleasure with the fact that you are confronted by news or visuals of suffering practically all the time?

41. There is no way you can shut yourself completely from news about suffering. If you say I will go ahead and do whatever I am doing, then you are guilty of indifference. If you are guilty of indifference, the question is if that indifference is a form of cruelty, and if indifference is a form of cruelty, then we are back to square one. We left the higher ideal of non-violence saying that it is too exalted to follow because we are householders in some sense of the term. We are not renunciates, or activists. Therefore, we settle for a lower objective or goal of non-cruelty which we define as not taking pleasure in inflicting pain on others. We think that it is something which is possible for us to achieve. And then suddenly this idea that maybe indifference is a form of cruelty comes up. But if indifference is a form of cruelty, and indifference is our defense mechanism, there is no way you can live normally in this world today without having a bit of indifference to protect you from sights or discussions of suffering. If that is the case, then living in a non-cruel way seems to be as difficult as living the life of a non-violent person. And therefore the distinction made by some of the Indian texts between non-violence and non-cruelty where one is supposed to be achievable for normal human beings and the other is not seem to collapse in the 20th and 21st century situation — a situation which is as much a politico-economic form of life as it is a phase constituted by modern technology.

42. About 50 years ago, the world was probably as saturated with suffering as it is today but it is just that there was a delay in the occurring of suffering and the impact that it had on you. There was no internet, computers or mobile phones. But today that is impossible. Leave aside the world, just take South Asia. Suppose you say you are going to be open to all the audio-visual messages that come to you. I don’t think you will be able to spend even a day without getting affected by somebody’s suffering somewhere in this big country. Whether it is the technology or whether it is a certain phase of modernity, (I don’t want to go into that because that is a larger and more complicated question) whatever is the cause, the situation that we find ourselves in is that practicing ānṛśaṃsya, i.e., living in a non-cruel manner, is, or seems to be, as challenging as following ahiṃsā or non-violence in a rigorous manner.


[15] These ideals are common across tradition. Along with satya [“veracity”] and brahmacarya [“chastity”], these are the give great vows (mahāvratas) that Jainism identifies for ascetics. The same five normative ideas form the five restraints (yamas) of (the subsequently elaborated) Yoga (Yogasūtras 2.30, trans. Rāma Prasāda, p. 155). See also next note.[^]

[16] The Arthaśāstra (1.3.13, trans. Patrick Olivelle, p. 68) mentions six: non-injury (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), purification (śauca), lack of malice (anasūya), compassion (ānṛśaṃsya), and forbearance (kṣamā). The Manusmṛti (10.63, trans. Patrick Olivelle, p. 211) mentions five: Abstention from injuring (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), purification (śauca), and mastering the organs (indriyanigraha).[^]

[17] See Mukund Lath, ‘The Concept of Ānṛśaṃsya in the Mahābhārata’, in The Mahābhārata Revisited, ed. R. N. Dandekar (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1990), 113–19; Arindam Chakrabarti, ‘Non-Cruelty of Speech and the Hand: Hopes for Humanity Inspired by the Mahābhārata and the Buddha’, in Global Forum on Civilization and Peace (Seoul, South Korea, 2009).[^]

[18] The term “sadism” derives from Marquis de Sade (1714–1840), the French nobleman who is infamous for his literal acts and literary works that combines pornography with violence and pain.[^]

[19] Mahābhārata 12.[Śāntiparva].173 (trans. Bibek Debroy, vol. 8, 1501[173]).

O brahmana! Without hands, I cannot take out the thorn that is paining my body. For those who possess hands, the gods have given them ten fingers. They can use these to uproot the insects that are biting their limbs. They can act so as to save themselves from the cold, the rains and the heat.They can cheerfully obtain food and enjoy these in beds that are safe from the wind. In this world, they enjoy cattle and employ them to carry burdens. They employ many other means to bring them under their subjugation. Those without hands and those who cannot grind with their tongues do not live for a long time. They have to tolerate many hardships.[^]

[20] Mahābhārata 12.[Śāntiparva].173 (trans. Bibek Debroy, vol. 8, 1501[173]),

There is no doubt that those with hands obtain riches and are powerful. Men use these to reduce other men to a state of servitude. They repeatedly use these to torment, slay, bind and afflict others. They take pleasure in deceit, sport and are happy. Accomplished in their learning, those spirited ones control others through the strength of their arms.[^]

[21] While Quantanamo Bay (Cuba) is more well-known, another was Abu Ghraib (Iraq), and it is at the latter that the incident to be mentioned (see below) took place.[^]

[22] The facts and images of torture inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib (including pictures that show Private England pointing to naked male prisoners and posing with her thumbs up) are documented and archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20161016003840/imgur.com/a/C6mLO [Warning: The pictures and descriptions are extremely graphic and disturbing.][^]

[23] Shklar, Ordinary Vices, pp. 9–10.[^]

[24] This is called itvara or sallekhanā. It is described, for instance, in the Ācārāṅga Sūtra 1.7.6 (trans. Hermann Jacobi, p. 71–73)

If this thought occurs to a monk: ‘I am sick and not able, at this time, to regularly mortify the flesh,’ that monk should regularly reduce his food; regularly reducing his food, and diminishing his sins, he should take proper care of his body, being immovable like a beam; exerting himself he dissolves his body.

Entering a village … a monk should beg for straw; having begged for straw he should retire with it to a secluded spot. After having repeatedly examined and cleaned the ground, where there are no eggs, nor living beings, nor seeds, nor sprouts, nor dew, nor water, nor ants, nor mildew, nor waterdrops, nor mud, nor cobwebs — he should spread the straw on it. Then he should there and then effect (the religious death called) itvara.

This is the truth: speaking truth, free from passion, crossing (the saṃsāra), abating irresoluteness, knowing all truth and not being known, leaving this frail body, overcoming all sorts of pains and troubles through trust in this (religion), he accomplishes this fearful (religious death). Even thus he will in due time put an end to existence. This has been adopted by many who were free from delusion; it is good, wholesome, proper, beatifying, meritorious. Thus I say.

The Ācārāṅga Sūtra is the first of 12 Angās that form part of the Agamas, the Jain sacred canon.[^]

[25] Interestingly, the Manusmṛiti (10.63) says that agriculture is violent.

A Brahmin, or even a Kṣatriya, who earns a living by the Vaiṣya occupation, should try his best to avoid agriculture, which involves injury to living beings and dependence on others. People think that agriculture is something wholesome. Yet it is an occupation condemned by good people; the plow with an iron tip lacerates the ground as well as creatures living in it.[^]

[26] M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth: A Critical Edition, trans. Mahadev Desai (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), pp. 432–33.[^]


Chakrabarti, Arindam. 2009. ‘Non-Cruelty of Speech and the Hand: Hopes for Humanity Inspired by the Mahābhārata and the Buddha’. In Global Forum on Civilization and Peace. Seoul, South Korea.

Debroy, Bibek, trans. 2010. The Mahabharata. 10 vols. Penguin Books.

Gandhi, M. K. 2018. An Autobiography, or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth: A Critical Edition. Translated by Mahadev Desai. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jacobi, Hermann, trans. 1884. Jaina Sutras, Part 1; The Acharanga Sutra, The Kalpa Sutra. Sacred Books of the East 22. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lath, Mukund. 1990. ‘The Concept of Ānṛśaṃsya in the Mahābhārata’. In The Mahābhārata Revisited, edited by R. N. Dandekar, 113–19. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Olivelle, Patrick, trans. 2013. King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India: Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra. New York: Oxford University Press.

Olivelle, Patrick, and Suman Olivelle, trans. 2005. Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśastra. South Asia Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Prasāda, Rāma, trans. 1912. Pātañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. The Sacred Books of the Hindus 4. Allahabad: The Panini Office.

Shklar, Judith N. 1982. ‘Putting Cruelty First’. Daedalus 111 (3): 17–27.


Lecture 12, Part 1: Preliminaries on Cruelty by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


Preliminaries on Cruelty

1. When I think of cruelty, one of the scenes from Tarantino’s film Kill Bill — I can’t now recall whether it was Part I or Part II — comes to my mind.[1] It is a scene where a member of a gang called Elle, who has a patch on one of her eyes, brings a bag full of currency notes for the other member called Budd. The reason is that Budd has sold Elle a very precious sword made by a Japanese master. He is gleeful as he opens the bag because he has fallen on hard times after the disbandment of the gang. He works as a bouncer in one of the clubs where his relations with the boss have not been very good. He has also become an alcoholic. You can see that he is someone who is unable to make ends meet. Naturally he is very happy to see the wads of currency notes. He has probably never seen so much money.

2. He opens the bag, looks at the money, and starts taking those currency notes one by one, and suddenly from under the notes, a deadly snake jumps at him and bites him on his face several times. The snake is supposed to be very poisonous and as soon as the snake bites him, Budd collapses and starts convulsing as the poison takes effect. At this point, there is an extended sequence in which Elle, who has actually placed the snake in the bag, talks to him. And for me, that sequence, especially the way she talks to him… Here is a man who is close to death, but Elle is completely composed. She has no remorse, no excitement. In a tone of mock politeness she says: “I am very sorry about this rudeness; I should have introduced you to the snake”. She goes on: “Budd, this is Black Mamba; Black Mamba, this is Budd”. By this time, Budd is on the floor, writhing in pain.

3. And then she says: “you know, before I planned this, I did some research on the Internet about the snake. And this is what it says”. She takes out a small note-pad and reads out: “In Africa, there is a saying: An elephant can kill you, a leopard can kill you, and a black mamba can kill you; but it is only with black mamba that death is most certain”. Then she starts describing the effects of the venom of black mamba on the nervous system: If the snake bites you on the face or on the torso, then you will suffer paralysis within twenty-minutes. “This is something you should listen to carefully”, she says to Budd, “because this concerns you”. And she goes on: “With every bite, the amount of venom injected by the snake into the human body is gargantuan”. At this point she stops, and then says: “You know what” — she is talking to someone who is in unbearable pain and who is about to die — “I always wanted to use that word. You rarely get such an opportunity. The amount is gargantuan, and the victim will die within twenty minutes”.

4. This whole sequence, and particularly the manner in which Elle’s coldblooded manner is presented, is for me one of the best visual depictions of cruelty. (Or is it sadism?) In about three to five minutes, it gives you an unforgettable account of what cruelty can mean. Elle wanted to kill Budd, but it is not just that she wanted to kill him. It is his pain that she is so casually indifferent to. What is cruelty? Is it indifference to someone else’s pain — especially pain inflicted by oneself — or seeking pleasure out of it? In any case, there is a difference between violence and cruelty. But how to make that distinction? Every era, every culture has its own way of conceptualising violence and cruelty. Violence and cruelty do not exist independently of the conceptual framework in which or through which people talk about them.

5. You will find western philosophy talking about both violence and cruelty. There is a famous essay by a scholar by the name Judith Shklar.[2] I am not sure if your course instructor mentioned this very fine work on Rousseau by her when you did your Western Political Thought course.[3] She has also written a book called Ordinary Vices.[4] The whole book is about Ordinary Vices: one chapter on hypocrisy, another on betrayal, and another on cruelty. In the essay on cruelty, Shklar uses the framework derived from Montaigne and Montesquieu.[5] It would be worth your while to try and read that article not because you will find points about cruelty in a ready to use form, but what it will inform you is that thinking about violence or cruelty or thinking about any of these concepts is a matter of specific intellectual traditions within which or through which you talk about them. By intellectual tradition I mean not only ‘philosophy’ but also ‘literature’. For example there is a discussion of violence and cruelty in the Mahābhārata.

6. Before I come to that, let me give you a little background as to why we are discussing this. Last time, I read out a passage from the Mahābhārata where Bhīṣma is saying to Yudhiṣṭhira: “Be the king. Win heaven. Protect the virtuous and kill the wicked”. And I said that the distinction between the wicked and the virtuous is very problematic. There are many occasions where you are perplexed as to how to distinguish between the two. The textual tradition that we are looking at, and which consists of the śāstric texts, the epics, and the Purāṇas, has often talked about demons or asuras. In fact, the sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgītā is all about the distinction between the devas and asuras. The distinction, at one level, is completely stark. There are godly people and demonic people. They are so completely different from one another as to be each other’s polar opposites. After discussing the godly people and their characteristics and behaviour[6], the rest of the sixteenth chapter is about the demonic people. They are described in such negative terms[7] that the conclusion that therefore they must be killed, or that they must be subdued, follows without any further argument or justification.

7. We must pause here and look at the targets of this textual tradition. Who are the people who are being called demonic? And you will notice that within the context of the Bhagavadgītā, the epics, or the Purāṇas — I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the purāṇic stories, and I am sorry I will have to explain to you what a “Purāṇa” is[8] — these stories operate with a binary of good people and bad people, those who follow dharma and those who are wicked. Underlying all these stories, underlying the śāstric texts, and underlying the epics, there is a certain process which for the sake of convenience I will call a process of demonization. Whoever is on the other side of the divide is regarded as a demon. The targets of demonisation can be varied. For example, Lokāyatas, the materialists or Cārvākas who believed that this world is all that there is and that enjoyment of worldly goods or worldly matters is desirable. There were also the practitioners of tantric rituals. So you can see that the targets have been different from time to time.

8. But the process whereby they come to be represented as demons is the same. You have the same vocabulary, the same kind of rhetorical strategies to present some people or certain groups as demons. And since demonisation as a process is the same with only the targets varying, you can’t simply say that the wicked should be punished. You have to ask whether violence in the name of suppressing the wicked is justified at all. But the question of cruelty goes beyond violence.

9. There is a story of a king called Vena. The story recurs in various Purāṇas across centuries. The way Vena is described is standard. In each of the Purāṇas, his evilness is described by saying that he did not respect Brahmins, did not adhere to the Vedas, prohibited vedic rituals and sacrifices in his kingdom, and he said instead of offering sacrifices to the god Indra, offer sacrifices to me, I will give you whatever you want. All this made him an evil king. Then the Brahmins ganged up to kill him. Once they kill him, they produce two beings out of his body, one of whom is dark and resembles forest dwellers [Niṣāda], and the other is resplendent, fair, and brave; he becomes the king [Pṛthu] who rules the earth in a righteous manner for several thousand years.[9]

10. This story is quite revealing because it makes no attempt to conceal the reasons why some people are called demons. It makes no attempt to justify the killing of Vena. It is simple: Vena did not accept the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmins and he would not allow vedic rituals or sacrifices in his kingdom and therefore he had to be killed. It is as simple and transparent as that. When you come across stories like this, you wonder whether the distinction between the godly and the demonic, gods and demons, devas and asuras, Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas, itself is something which needs to be problematised.

11. Since we have talked about Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas, let me quickly explain why the Mahābhārata tends to be open to so many interpretations.[10] We must remember that the Mahābhārata is something which operates at many levels at the same time. And each of these levels is superimposed on another level. At the most basic level, it is a story of the war between the Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas. But that war and that conflict have been activated, in narrative terms, by an old enmity between Drupada and Droṇa.[11] The strained relationship between Drupada and Droṇa, which initially was one of friendship, is what activates the conflict. A word about Drupada and Droṇa: one of them (Droṇa) is a Brahmin and the other (Drupada) is a Kṣatriya. And therefore you can see that in this story of a friendship turning into enmity is also a kind of symbolic narration about the relations between Brahmins and Kṣatriyas. In talking about Drupada and Droṇa, the authors are also talking about the relations between Brahmins and Kṣatriyas as classes.

12. But in talking about this relationship, the authors can also be seen to be talking about the relationship between brahma and kṣatra. There are these abstract powers or forces: one is called kṣatra and state power is its worldly tangible form, and the other is brahma which is exemplified by a virtuous Brahmin who represents knowledge and wisdom.[12] So, at one level, the Mahābhārata is also a story of the relationship between these two abstract forces, the force of state power, or kingship if you like, kṣatra, and the power of wisdom and knowledge.

13. At a higher level, it is a story of the play of the forces of preservation and the forces of destruction. In Indian mythology, the forces of preservation are represented by the deity called Viṣṇu. Viṣṇu, whose human form is Kṛṣṇa, represents the force of preservation, whereas Shiva represents the force of destruction. Therefore, whatever actions are attributed to Shiva and Kṛṣṇa in this epic can be seen at an abstract level as the play of the forces of preservation and destruction. The philosophical discussion of this is that Time has both creation and destruction as its phases, and at the end of each epoch or yuga it is Shiva’s destructive force which comes into play and destroys the entire world in order to renew it. One way of looking at the story is to say that the war between the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas occurs at a point when the phase of destruction has begun and that therefore it is Shiva — although he is not visible in the story — whose actions have been extremely crucial in taking the narrative forward.

14. You will probably know that the Mahābhārata ends with the destruction of almost all the Kṣatriyas. Very few are left and the way this is explained is by saying that this therefore is a story of the complete destruction of the Kṣatriyas and a renewal of the world by renewing the Brahmin–Kṣatriya relationship. Remember, one of the reasons why the conflict occurs is the enmity between Drupadaa and Droṇa. If they represent brahma and kṣatra then the explanation as to why this happens is that crises occur because the powers of kṣatra and brahma start drifting apart from each other. That they start diverging is the reason why the conflict between Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas starts at all. And once they have diverged so far as to have no chance of reconciliation, the only way you can bring them back is by completing annihilating the world, the entire Kṣatriya class.

15. The trope of wiping out the Kṣatriyas is not new or unique to the Mahābhārata. There are many stories inside and outside the Mahābhārata talking about the annihilation of the Kṣatriyas. That is a trope you often find in Brahmanical texts. Paraśurāma is a well-known example of someone who is supposed to have eliminated all the Kṣatriyas from this world.[13] The Brahmins are supposed to have been so powerful that within the narrative of these texts — but not historically, mind you —they eliminated Kṣatriyas. So the ideal of the Brahmanical world is that kṣatra and brahma work together, work in conjunction with each other. That kṣatra or state power willingly subordinate to wisdom or brahma and that kingship is legitimate only when the king has subordinated himself to the priest or the Brahmin. This is the Brahmanical ideal.

16. When actual society starts deviating from this ideal, there is a possibility of crisis and that crisis is what unfolds in the Mahābhārata war. But then Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas can also be seen as devas and dānavas, and therefore you can have yet another interpretation of what is going on. In addition, there is Draupadī’s story woven into the narrative of the Mahābhārata. You know that Draupadī was born out of a sacrificial fire. What is the symbolic significance of Draupadī having been born out of this sacrificial fire? She was not the one that her father, Drupada, was actually praying for. He had not asked for her. He had asked for a son who will be so powerful that he will be able to defeat Droṇa’s side. And that is why the sacrifice was performed. But in a way, Draupadī is born out of that fire in an unasked manner. The way Draupadī is described is significant. She has a dark hue and therefore she is called Kṛṣṇa. And she also has a golden hue which symbolises the goddess of prosperity, Śrī. So Draupadī is supposed to be the human or earthly form of the goddess Śrī.[14]

17. If prosperity is what Draupadī stands for and if she is coveted not only by the Pāṇḍava brothers but also by some members of the Kauravas, then the entire story becomes actually a story of pursuit of artha or prosperity, and kāma, or satisfaction of worldly desires in the form of coveting Draupadī. Thus when the Kauravas start coveting Draupadī, it is supposed to stand for pursuit of artha. Therefore, the symbolic meaning of the role played by Draupadī in the narration of the Mahābhārata is that when the pursuit of artha happens in an unrestrained manner, you have Mahābhārata like tragedy.

18. So you can see that, first, you have the Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas fighting over the kingdom. Then you have the level of Drupada and Droṇa as individuals having enmity and that enmity activating Kaurava–Pāṇḍava enmity. On that you have Brahmin-Kṣatriya conflict. At an abstract level above that you have brahma and kṣatra diverging from each other. At yet another higher level, you have the idea that when brahma and kṣatra start diverging from each other, it is the destructive phase of time which has started and all this must get destroyed through war or annihilation. That is represented by Shiva. Though Kṛṣṇa, who is the earthly form of Viṣṇu, who represents preservation is visible throughout, it is actually Shiva who is instrumental in all this because the Mahābhārata period is called the yugānta and the yuga which is ending is supposed to be the yuga in which Kṣatriyas have become too arrogant, have started overreaching themselves, and have started pursuing artha in the form of Draupadī or kindgom in a manner unrestrained by dharma and therefore they may be said to have gone away from brahma. When kṣatra and brahma start diverging from each other, you know that Shiva has to come into play and it is the destructive phase of time which has started. So in a way, the Mahābhārata war was inevitable.

19. There are many stories within the Mahābhārata – of diplomacy, of various efforts to avoid war. But it was inevitable. The Mahābhārata war which leaves hardly anybody alive except half a dozen people was bound to happen because at that time in the revolving of the yugas a phase had come when everything had to end. So in a way the Kaurava–Pāṇḍava war is nothing but an instrument through which Shiva turns the cycle of time into a destructive phase so that the earth is renewed and you have a new set of Brahmins and Kṣatriyas and once again the ideal relationship of kṣatra and brahman is established. This is what the Mahābhārata is about. And it is because of these different levels that it is open to several different interpretations.


[1] The scene is from Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004). It can we viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsaG8rJGlyQ. Quentin Tarantino is known for, amongst many others, his memorable dialogues and extravagant use of bloody violence; and infamously for shots of bare feet and immoderate use of the n-word. Most of his films, in addition to the two Kill Bill movies, are modern classics: Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Inglourious Basterds (2009) Django Unchained (2012), etc. However, yours truly has a soft spot for the lesser known (and certainly not a classic) but extremely fun Jackie Brown (1997).[^]

[2] ‘Putting Cruelty First’, Daedalus 111, no. 3 (1982): 17–27.. Later published in Ordinary Vices.[^]

[3] Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).[^]

[4] (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1984).[^]

[5] Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) who is famous for his Essais (Essays) — he popularised the genre of essay writing — and Montesquieu (1689–1755) who is famous for his L’Esprit des lois (The Spirit of Law) and his theory of the separation of powers. Shklar’s citations are from these works.[^]

[6] The daivic (according to the Bhagavadgītā 16.1–3, trans. Bibek Debroy) are characterised by “absence of fear, pureness of heart, steadiness in jnana yoga, donation, and control, yajnas, self-study, practice of austerities and simplicity, absence of injury to others, truthfulness, lack of anger, renunciation, tranquillity, lack of criticism of others, compassion towards beings, lack of avarice, gentleness, sense of shame, steadfastness, energy, forgiveness, perseverance, cleanliness, absence of hatred, absence of ego.”[^]

[7] The asuric are characterised by (Bhagavadgītā 16.4) “Arrogance, insolence, egoism, anger, cruelty and ignorance”. They do not (16.7) “know about inclination and disinclination. In them, there is no purity, nor righteousness, nor even truthfulness”. And then (16.8–9): ‘They say the world is full of falsehood, without basis, without God, created without continuity and with no reason other than to satisfy desire. Resorting to such views, with distorted minds, little intelligence and cruel action, they perform evil deeds. They are born to destroy the world”. And it goes on for several verses more.[^]

[8] Literally, “old”. According to James G. Lochtefeld’s The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2002). p. 532, the Purāṇas comprise;

An important genre of smrti texts, and the repository of traditional Indian mythology. According to one traditional definition, a purana should contain accounts of at least five essential things: the creation of the earth, its dissolution and recreation, origins of the gods and patriarchs, the reigns of the Manvantaras, and the reigns of the Solar and Lunar Lines. In practice, the puranas are compendia of all types of sacred lore, from mythic tales to ritual instruction to exaltation of various sacred sites (tirthas) and actions. Individual puranas are usually highly sectarian and intended to promote the worship of one of the Hindu gods, whether Vishnu, Shiva, or the Goddess. By tradition the major puranas number eighteen, but there are hundreds of minor works.[^]

[9] For one version of the story, see the Bhāgavata Purāṇa 4.15 and 4.15 (trans. Tagare, vol 2., pp. 10–19). Sanjay Palshikar, “Demons and Demonisation,” in Evil and the Philosophy of Retribution: Modern Indian Commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita (Delhi: Routledge, 2014), 25–57.[^]

[10] The reading that follows is proposed by J. L. Mehta, ‘The Discourse of Violence in the Mahabharata’, in Philosophy and Religion: Essays in Interpretation (New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1990), 254–71.[^]

[11] The story can be read at Mahābhārata 1[Adiparva].121–122.[^]

[12] This spelling follows Mehta (note 10). However note that it is the same as the “elemental cosmic power” called brahman which is introduced in Lecture 2, Part 3.[^]

[13] As many as twenty-one times. At Mahābhārata 12[Śāntiparva].48 [trans. Bibek Debroy, vol. 8, 1376(48)]. Bhīṣhma says to (Paraśurāma is called Rama in the quote.)

O Partha! There, in the distance, you can see the five lakes created by Rama. Earlier, he used the blood of kshatriyas to offer oblations to his ancestors. On twenty-one occasions, the lord emptied the earth of kshatriyas. It is only now that Rama has refrained from that task.[^]

[14] At Mahābhārata 1.[Adiparva].61 (trans. Bibek Debroy, vol. 1, [61]), Draupadī is described thus:

A part of Shri herself was born on earth out of love. She was born as a faultless daughter in the house of Drupada, from the middle of a sacrificial altar. She was neither tall nor short, and had the fragrance of a blue lotus. Her eyes were long, like lotus leaves. Her hips were well formed. Her hair was long and black. She had all the auspicious marks on her body and she had the shine of lapis lazuli.[^]


Debroy, Bibek, trans. 2010. The Mahabharata. 10 vols. Penguin Books.

———, trans. 2019. The Bhagavad Gita. Gurgaon: Penguin Books.

Lochtefeld, James G. 2002. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism. 2 vols. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group.

Mehta, J. L. 1990. ‘The Discourse of Violence in the Mahabharata’. In Philosophy and Religion: Essays in Interpretation, 254–71. New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research.

Palshikar, Sanjay. 2014. ‘Demons and Demonisation’. In Evil and the Philosophy of Retribution: Modern Indian Commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, 25–57. Delhi: Routledge.

Shklar, Judith N. 1969. Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1982. ‘Putting Cruelty First’. Daedalus 111 (3): 17–27.

———. 1984. Ordinary Vices. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Tarantino, Quentin. 2004. Kill Bill: Volume 2. Blu-Ray. Action/Martial Arts.


Lecture 11, Part 4: Normativism vs Pragmatism: The Dilemmas by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


Normativism vs Pragmatism: The Dilemmas

39. I take the point that for its time, the Arthaśāstra may have been revolutionary. It was in a way saying: leave aside these dharmaśāstric considerations, we just want to discuss what is necessary for the king to be successful. Now that kind of assertion of pragmatic and this-worldly considerations was probably something very revolutionary for that time. The dharmaśāstric tradition continued, and the quasi-autonomous nīti tradition also continued, with complicated relations between them. When it comes to today’s reception of Arthaśāstra and Manusmṛti, it becomes difficult for us to reject one, i.e., Manusmṛti, saying that it is discriminatory, and accept the other, by saying that it is devoid of dharmaśāstric considerations and it is all about pragmatic matters. Because today, in our modern political common sense, we have come to reject not only birth-based discrimination and status hierarchy, but we have also started questioning this entity called the state.

40. The Mahābhārata has this… you know, Yudhiṣṭhira was perpetually in doubt. He always happened to be asking the question: should I be doing this? Bhīma never had any doubts and that is why he is someone who is liked by a lot of people, probably by Draupadī also. Bhīṣma warns Yudhiṣṭhira:

Nothing great can be achieved through pure compassion. People do not respect you if you are too gentle and too noble. … Be the king. Win heaven. Protect the virtuous and kill the wicked (MBh 12.76.18–35).[23]

41. That is the advice given by Bhīṣma to Yudhiṣṭhira. And Arjuna tells Yudhiṣṭhira much later when the war is over and once again Yudhiṣṭhira is in doubt:

Beings or creatures live upon creatures, the stronger live off the weak. … Everything that is moving or stationary is meant as the food of life. (MBh 12.128.28–29)

42. This is the kind of advice that Yudhiṣṭhira gets. On one level it is a very robust advice. Anyone who wishes to accomplish something in this world will be greatly impressed by this advice. But if you revisit the last line of what Bhīṣma says — Be the king, win heaven, protect the virtuous, and kill the wicked — and ask a very simple question, which is a question which did not arise for them, naturally, but which can and must arise for us, namely: How can we distinguish between the wicked and virtuous? How do I know or decide that this person is wicked and this person is virtuous? If you give a very simple and obvious answers like: here is a robber, or rapist, or someone who has assaulted me, then it seems to be an easy matter to distinguish between the good and the bad.

43. But you know that life, particularly social life but also personal life doesn’t give you easy classifications of good and bad people. Good and bad often boils down to us and them. Nobody is going to say we are wicked and they are good. Everyone says we are the good party and they are the wicked party. That they are the aggressors and therefore we must teach them a lesson. And mind you they are also saying the same thing about you. So how do we decide? Is there a normative or moral Archimedean point where you can stand and impartially decide who is guilty and who is right?[24] You cannot. Because if you examine your life — individual as well as collective life — you will notice that nobody is completely free of guilt. You may say that you haven’t deprived anybody of anything individually, and that might be true. But there are social and economic processes, and by virtue of these processes you get something where you haven’t literally deprived anybody of anything but the process itself has actually been such that it has amounted to the deprivation of some people.

44. Take a very simple example. Like many middle class people, I live in a gated community where I have a flat. I can always say that I paid money which I earned honestly and saved up and therefore what I am enjoying is not because I have deprived anybody of anything. But if somebody asks me a simple question about who I bought it from and I reply that I bought it from the builder, it might be asked where the flat is constructed? On a piece of land which the builder purchased. How did the builder get that land? I would not know the answer because I don’t know if the means used by the builder or the ‘developer’ to acquire the plot of land and to get all kind of permissions were fair. Sometimes the land is an agricultural land. In law there is a distinction between agricultural and non-agricultural land and you are not supposed to use agricultural land for commercial or residential purposes.

45. But there are ways of changing the status of the land from agricultural to non-agricultural and make the whole thing quite legal. A person who owns that land… probably there are ten farmers who own portions of that land… if you as a builder want to amalgamate them so that you can construct a gated community, how do you do it? You negotiate with each of them. The asymmetry between you and them is such and given the way agriculture has become economically unviable, the money you are offering to them seems to be so attractive (though it is not going to be enough for the rest of their lives), at the moment it seems great to them, they accept it. Sometimes, coercion is used. So all kinds of things happen in the process by which gated communities come up which then someone like me becomes a beneficiary of.

46. In a legal sense, I have not done anything wrong, but I have been a beneficiary of a process which is not fair. There may be even illegalities involved in it which I am not aware of. Many more examples of this sort can be given. If only you are impartial, if only you have the courage to accept that maybe I am as guilty as a robber or a thief, you realise that the distinction between the virtuous and the wicked is not at all easy to make. I don’t even know whether one should be using these categories at all. People are not virtuous or wicked by choice. It is not because someone is a bad human being that he indulges in crime. A huge amount of work by sociologists and economists and psychologists has come to tell us that crime is more an alternative mode of living than a function of somebody’s wicked state of mind.

47. Given these complexities, the distinction between the wicked and the virtuous is not at all easy to make or maintain. They might be both these coexisting in each one of us. So how do we decide who is wicked and who is virtuous? If we cannot, then Bhīṣma’s advice to Yudhiṣṭhira is not so unproblematic. Whom shall I protect? Whom shall I kill? Even if we don’t take the words protect and kill in the literal sense, whom do I side with? The division between us and them seems to be basic and we superimpose the other normative division between the virtuous and the wicked on it because by definition we are virtuous and those who are our adversaries are wicked. And unless we are convinced of this we will not be able to fight them. And unless we are willing to fight them, we will not be able to preserve what we have got. This is how the social world goes. So Bhīṣma’s advice which is steeped in the dharmic tradition is not helpful.

48. The Arthaśāstra discussion of statecraft as a purely pragmatic matter — whatever helps the state or whatever secures my success should be done — also doesn’t seem to help. So the point I am making is that the interest that we have in these texts which is not a purely historical critical interest but also an interest with a viewpoint of the present — what are today’s problems and do these texts give us any moral or ethical advice at all, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist — is a question which, if taken simplistically will yield equally simplistic answers. Because they seem to be offering something which our contemporary political consciousness is not able to accept or assimilate.

49. But if we do, we will have to admit that we have a partisan view. You cannot possibly have a non-partisan view and also accept the Arthaśāstra kind of reasons of state position. If you are a partisan of the state, and say, look I am on the side of the state, and therefore whatever helps the state protect and preserve itself is alright with me, then Arthaśāstra’s advice will be acceptable to you. But you will have to admit that you have first taken a position which is an ideological position: you have sided with the state. And then, within that context, approved of the Arthaśāstra like pragmatic discussion. So you are not actually doing something which is not in the nīti tradition. You are discussing the efficacy of certain means where the end is somehow ideologically, already accepted by you. You have already accepted that the state is right. You are on the side of the state. And therefore, whatever protects the interest of the state whether it is forms of punishment, use of torture for information, use of spies, using a person sentenced to death for a dangerous mission: all this is fine. But provided that the ultimate aim, namely the state, is something that you have already accepted.

50. These are the problematic positions you land when you pluck an old text out of its context and try to make it normatively ‘relevant’ for our times. While I agree that a purely historical or contextual discussion is not all that can be done with a text, and that it is possible to go beyond that, it cannot be simply a matter of looking for advice to negotiate situations which the authors of those texts had no inkling of. This is what I wanted to stress and make the point that the choice between a purely historical interest in these texts and a philosophical or normative interest cannot be reduced to a choice between the nīti and dharma traditions. In fact I don’t know what it would mean to ‘choose’ a tradition, and that too in an altered world. The other point which I want to reserve for the next class, which I have already signaled by reading out certain parts of the Mahābhārata, is the theme of cruelty. The Sanskrit word for non-cruelty is ānṛśaṃsya. I will talk about it in the next class. And with that I will conclude our discussion of ancient India.


51. Q. When we are trying to distinguish between the wicked and the good, it is all about the subjectivity of the observer and it is very difficult to make the distinction. But when we are living in a society, for pragmatic reasons, somehow the society has to come to an objective conclusion about right and good.

52. A. I agree that at any given point, we will have to have some notion about what is legal and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not. And to that extent, the Mahābhārata kind of advice can be seen as useful. But what modern social science has taught us is that what is established at a given time is not the ultimate. That we can have an alternative view on what is good and what is bad. And that history actually shows us that there has been a succession of ideologies and regimes where the latter finds the former or the previous faulty and defective. If it is the case that what is established is not final, then should we be resorting to extreme forms of violence? And I am not talking about imprisonment, or detention. I am talking about capital punishment for example or use of torture. Can we use these forms for the sake of what today we regard as right or legal or acceptable because we know from history that tomorrow, not literally tomorrow but after a certain period, we might come to regard that as unacceptable? So the emphasis is on extreme forms of violence or extreme forms of action. And that is where I want to connect this discussion to the discussion of cruelty. Cruelty and not violence seems to be the problem. Because no tradition — Buddhist, Jain, or Brahmanical — has been able to demonstrate to us convincingly that you can live without any violence.[25] In modern times, you have Gandhi being obsessed with this idea of non-violence and being perplexed on many occasions about certain kinds of violence which he thought were unavoidable. So that shows that nobody has been able to demonstrate to us that you can absolutely and literally be nonviolent. So if violence to a certain extent is unavoidable, then should we perhaps not be focusing on minimising it? Should we not try to avoid gratuitous, disproportionate, and sadistic forms of violence? That is actually the question.

53. Q. You are critical of the historians who are celebrating pragmatism and who are critical of the theological. That was the point made. If there is a theological content which is the realm of imagination, and a pragmatic content which is the realm of rationality and reason, don’t you think a realm of imagination has a danger of justifying a realm of propaganda because Manusmṛti has elements which actually accepts the power hierarchies in the society whereas Arthaśāstra being pragmatic doesn’t talk about those. Don’t you think adhering to such a theological realm will justify injustice? Aren’t there more risks than pros?

54. A. There is a misunderstanding that I am actually weighing in favour of the “theological” or the dharmaśāstric and condemning the other. I have no doubt that the content of the dharmaśāstric texts is something that we, in the era of democracy, cannot accept. So for me, it is not a question of accepting either Arthaśāstra or Manusmṛti. It is not a question of accepting the nīti or the dharma tradition. That is not the question at all. I have not said that one is acceptable while the other is not. You are absolutely right in pointing out that norms or ideals are historical, transitory, and subject to change. Today, what we regard as acceptable is not something that is eternally valid. It keeps changing and yet, this is my tentative answer to the question, at each point in time and history, we have to have some norms. How we derive those norms is a debatable question. Whose norms we accept is also debatable. But we will have to have some norms for our political actions: whether it is the state action or individual political action. All these will have to be governed by or at least circumscribed by some idea of what is right and wrong. But that would be different from superimposing simplistic ideas of Good and Evil on Us and Them.

55. If you ask me how we arrive at this idea of right and wrong, I have no answer. Because while it is easy to say that these should be democratically arrived at, we don’t know how in practice that can be done. So the procedure or the manner in which you arrive at universally acceptable forms is a process we don’t know much about. We simply don’t have a device by which we can do that. All I am saying is that the celebration of the artha tradition today should not amount to the celebration of instrumental rationality and a celebration of the reason of state argument. Because that is dangerous. That is the limited point I am making. I am with you that norms change. But just because they change doesn’t mean that we cannot have any norms at all. Where they are going to come from; who is going to give us these norms; and how do we arrive at those norms are extremely difficult questions of much modern social and political theory has taken pains to resolve. I am not going into these. I recognise the difficulty of these questions and leave it at that. All I am saying is that there has to be some norms. Those cannot come from the elite; nor do we have an electoral mechanism with which to arrive at them.

56. These norms, I stress again to avoid misunderstanding, cannot come from the dharmaśāstric texts. The dharmaśāstric position on the differential status of different classes of the society based on birth is something that we will, for once and for all, forget and not hope to revive. For me, the source of these norms is not the dharmaśāstric texts. What else can that source be? I really don’t know. The limited question that I am asking is: having gotten rid of dharmaśāstric texts as unacceptable in today’s democratic world, and being led only by Arthaśāstra-like nīti texts, can we only have a celebration of instrumental rationality which is in the service of the state. And that too because I notice that there is a danger in mistaking Subrahmanyam and Narayana Rao’s enthusiasm regarding Arthaśāstra-like texts.[26] And therefore I am responding to that by saying well, the pragmatic advice of those texts, abstracted from the intellectual and historical context of those texts, amounts to reason of state position.


[23] Quoted from Upinder Singh, Political Violence in Ancient India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), pp. 74–75.[^]

[24] Named after the ancient Grerek mathematician Archimedes who is supposed to have said something like the following: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world”. René Descartes speaks (in his Meditations on First Philosophy) of this Archimedean “place” as one which is “firm and immovable”. Given how “first class levers” work, this “place” would literally have to be another world. As Plutarch reports it (in his Lives of Pelopidas and Marcellus), Archimedes said that “if there were another world, and he could go to it, he could move this [world]”. This conveys the sense, as Simon Blackburn puts it in his useful Dictionary of Philosophy, of ‘Archimedean point as a point outside of space and time, outside of our one’s culture or context, a God’s eye view, or a view from nowhere, etc. from which “a different, perhaps objective or ‘true’ picture of something is obtainable”.[^]

[25] In fact, during the freedom struggle, many nationalists enlisted the epics, especially the Bhagavadgītā, to argue for and justify the use of violent action in fighting against the colonial masters. Sri Aurobindo writes:

To shrink from bloodshed and violence under such circumstances is a weakness deserving as severe a rebuke as Sri Krishna addressed to Arjuna when he shrank from the colossal civil slaughter on the field of Kurukshetra. Liberty is the life-breath of a nation; and when the life is attacked, when it is sought to suppress all chance of breathing by violent pressure, any and every means of self-preservation becomes right and justifiable.

Tilak says the following:

But, it is nowhere stated by our moral philosophers, that if protection against evil-doers cannot be obtained by saintliness, one should not give ‘measure for measure’, and protect oneself, but should allow oneself tom become a victim of the evil-doings of villains; and it must be borne in mind that, that man who has come forward to cut the throats of others by his own evil-doings, has no more any ethical right to expect that others should behave towards him like saints.

See Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram: Political Writings and Speeches, 1890–1908, vol. 6 & 7, The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, 2002), p. 278; Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Śrimad Bhagavadgītā-Rahasya or Karma-Yoga-Śāstra, trans. Balchandra Sitaram Suthankar, vol. 1 (Poona: Tilak Bros, 1924), p. 554.[^]

[26] And this is probably a good place to point out, even though Bharati doesn’t draw attention, that it is not not just this one article. Recently the popularity of the Arthaśāstra has seen a rise among domestic International Relations scholars who argue for a the relevance of the text for contemporary foreign policy. The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) website hosts a great deal of material on the issue. Incidentally, the text has also become very popular among self-help and motivational gurus who peddle its timeless secrets for gaining success.[^]


Blackburn, Simon. 2008. ‘Archimedean Point’. In , 2. ed., rev. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Descartes, René. 2008. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Translated by Michael Moriarty. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Perrin, Bernadotte, trans. 1961. Plutarch’s Lives. Vol. 5. Loeb Classical Library 87. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Singh, Upinder. 2017. Political Violence in Ancient India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sri Aurobindo. 2002. Bande Mataram: Political Writings and Speeches, 1890–1908. Vol. 6 & 7. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press.

Tilak, Bal Gangadhar. 1924. Śrimad Bhagavadgītā-Rahasya or Karma-Yoga-Śāstra. Translated by Balchandra Sitaram Suthankar. Vol. 1. Poona: Tilak Bros.


Lecture 11, Part 3: Violence and the Arthashastra by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.
  3. Please have the Arthaśāstra with you. Download it here.


Violence and the Arthaśāstra

29. Let us quickly look at the Arthaśāstra. We have talked about the Arthaśāstra and we have talked about the pragmatic discussion of statecraft there. What does it amount to in specific terms? There is a long discussion, both in the Manusmṛti and Arthaśāstra — and the Manusmṛti probably simply borrows all this from the Arthaśāstra — of the forms of punishment. And like every other discussion in the old texts, it is an extremely explicit, blunt and remorseless discussion. The Arthaśāstra discusses 18 forms of torture and, in a fairly cold manner discusses various instruments of torture ( 4.8.21–23). What kind of instrument is most effective for inflicting pain on the body of the victim? It refers to certain old treatises which go into elaborate discussions of which form of torture is the most effective ( 4.8.24).

30. Some of these forms of torture or punishment are, well, torture was sanctioned for extracting information, as part of interrogation. And all the functionaries of modern states will be very pleased to know that even as early as a few centuries before or after the common era, there were texts which talked about using torture precisely in the manner in which the modern state does. All modern states use torture in interrogation and Arthaśāstra is one of the oldest texts in the textual history of human kind which not only sanctions torture but does not bother to justify it. It is discussed in as matter of fact a manner as your doctor will discuss what kind of medicine you should be taking for what sort of illness. This is called instrumental rationality.[21] You do not ask whether the objective for which you are doing something is normatively justifiable or not. You are simply focussed on the efficacy of the means. Instrumental rationality is exemplified in the rationality of the state and one of the earliest expressions of that rationality comes in the Arthaśāstra.

31. There is an elaborate discussion there of how you can torture a victim in order to extract information from him ( 4.8). There is an extended discussion about what kind of punishments, where torture or corporal punishment has been sanctioned, can be commuted into fines. There is a discussion of how prisoners can be set to work ( 2.36.46). So prison labour as an institutional practice is something which seems to have been invented as early as that. Why keep these people in prison when they can be sent to work? That will be good for the state. Why not send someone who has been given death sentence and is awaiting execution, on a dangerous or risky mission for the sake of the empire? In case the person dies, it doesn’t matter because anyway the person has been sentenced to death.

32. You can see that in each of these instances, there is a cold calculation and nothing more than that. What form of torture will be effective is the only consideration. Again, torture is not torture for its own sake. This is not the sadism of Aśoka in Aśokāvadāna. What is intended here is that torture should be used efficiently for extracting something from the victim or from the suspect and therefore torture should be used on alternate days ( 4.8.25). And what are the forms of punishment? The forms of punishments are not only death sentence but — of course there are any number of fines and there are certain corporal punishments which can be commuted to fines — there are punishments which we will shudder at even to think of: parts of the body can be amputated, mutilated, or set on fire (discussed at 4.11). There are public executions. And of course the most benign, the least violent, punishment is exile (for instance 4.13.2, 9.3.14). If you are sent into exile, you will thank the stars that you are not publicly burned. At least your life is spared. These are the kinds of punishment that Manusmṛti and Arthaśāstra discuss.

33. Of course, there is discrimination (for instance, at 4.8.14). Depending on the nature of the crime and depending on the varṇa and the status of the suspect or the convict, punishment is different. But that is not the point that I want to make. I already made the point earlier that that systematic discrimination belongs to the dharma tradition. The point I want to make now is about the matter of fact tone and completely nonchalant way in which both these texts discuss extremely severe punishments. The severest punishment is reserved for two categories of crimes. One is sexual crimes. Whenever there is a sexual transgression in terms of varṇa hierarchy, the punishment prescribed is extremely severe. It can be as severe as someone being burned publicly with grass/straw or someone being cooked in a jar ( 4.13.30–40). And the other category of crime that invited equally severe punishment was all those crimes which are against the state. Crimes against the state meant basically trying to foment rebellion in the kingdom (for instance, 5.5.16). Those who are inciting the forest tribes. Those who are trying to attack the palace. Those who are trying to steal from the royal treasury (for instance, 4.8.26, 4.9.6). These are the crimes against the state and they are met with extremely harsh punishment.

34. As I said, the discussion is extremely calculated. Is this going to lead to any results? That is the consideration. So while the Aśokāvadāna kind of sadism is not there, there are also no normative restrictions on the forms of punishment. The later development in international law and in some cases domestic law, which is an entirely modern development, that even persons who are guilty of the worst kind of crimes cannot be tortured or given cruel and degrading punishment because those forms of punishment are not compatible with human dignity is absent in Arthaśāstra or Manusmṛti. Of course certain categories of people are exempted. Pregnant women are exempted from torture (for instance at 4.8.17), those who are too young or too old, those who are young or weak, those who are exhausted, those who are intoxicated, those who are insane… all these are exempted.

35. So you can say, depending on what you are looking for — it is like a complex picture, and depending on which part of the picture you focus on, the picture looks different — you can look at the discussion on punishment in the Arthaśāstra, and instead of focussing on the severity of the punishments, you can focus on the exemptions made by the text and say, look, Arthaśāstra was very humane, it exempted several categories of people like the old, the weak, pregnant women, etc. But if you look at the entirety of the discussion, while the exemptions are indeed there and it would be interesting to find out what is the source of these exemptions — whether it is dharmaśāstric or some other normative source — the point is that texts like the Arthaśāstra in the artha or nīti tradition seem to be as severe in protecting the interests of the state as the dharmaśāstric texts were in protecting the varṇa hierarchy.

36. So today while we celebrate artha tradition or the nīti tradition as an example, one of the few examples, of non-dharmaśāstric thinking and pride ourselves with having the tradition of secular or purely pragmatic political theory as early as the centuries before and after the common era, the implication of having a text like this, the implication of a completely autonomous nīti tradition is something which is disturbing for the modern mind. What it must have been like for the ancient Indian people is very difficult to say. You do have glimpses of non-brahmanical Buddhist or Jaina criticisms of the Brahmanical traditions but since the Jaina and Buddhist haven’t, as far as the textual tradition tells us, entirely consistently avoided or condemned violence, it seems the question of violence was a common question for all traditions of that period.

37. What is disturbing is that to celebrate something on the ground that it is pragmatic actually amounts to a celebration of the reason of the state. The reason of the state is an idea which has become extremely suspect in modern times. In today’s political theory, or even in today’s common sense I would say, if you were to say, well this is justified because it is in the interest of the state, not everyone will be convinced by your argument because the counter argument will be, how do we know that the interest of the state is also the interest of the people in the state? Who decides interests of the state? And even if it is for the sake of the state that something is done, isn’t there some limitation or restriction as to the form of punishment or the kind of means you might employ to extract information. These are the normative questions that are typically raised in modern times.

38. So our approach to the Arthaśāstra today will be, in a way, conflicted if not downright schizophrenic. We might say, look here, we have a grand example of political theory which is not constrained by the dharmaśāstric considerations and therefore something that we can celebrate as one of the earliest examples of Indian political theory. But at the same time, we will also be worried about the implications today of a normatively independent, normatively autonomous discussion of statecraft which is what Arthaśāstra is presented as. In this context, it is important to note that the anthology of selections from Telugu nīti texts by the early 15th century author Singana, Rao and Subrahmanyam remind us, is not an amoral text. While there is a healthy acceptance of the desire for success, “it is implicit that success should be achieved within the framework of ethical conduct”.[22] Rao and Subrahmanyam’s sort of subtle celebration of the artha or nīti tradition is something which worries me.


[21] The phrase belongs to Max Weber who wrote of “instrumentally rational (zweckrational)” social action. See Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, trans. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 24. However, its prevalence and salience in the humanities and social sciences as a term of reproach is thanks to the work of Max Horkheimer, and the Frankfurt School generally. Horkheimer wrote:

Having given up autonomy, reason has become an instrument. In the formalistic aspect of subjective reason, stressed by positivism, its unrelatedness to objective content is emphasized; in its instrumental aspect, stressed by pragmatism, its surrender to heteronomous contents is emphasized. Reason has become completely harnessed to the social process. Its operational value, its role in the domination of men and nature, has been made the sole criterion.

See Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (1947; repr., New York: Seabury Press, 1974), p. 21. The German title of this text, which first appeared in English, is On the Critique of Instrumental Reason (Zur Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft).[^]

[22] Rao and Subrahmanyam, ‘Notes on Political Thought in Medieval and Early Modern South India’, p. 187.[^]


Horkheimer, Max. 1974. Eclipse of Reason. New York: Seabury Press.

Rao, Velcheru Narayana, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. 2009. ‘Notes on Political Thought in Medieval and Early Modern South India’. Modern Asian Studies 43 (1): 175–210. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X07003368.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Translated by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Lecture 11, Part 2: Depiction of Violence in Mahabharata, Ramayana and Ashokavadana by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.
  3. A copy of the Aśokāvadāna could be handy. Get it here.


Depiction of Violence in the Mahābhārata, Rāmāyaṇa and Aśokāvadāna

17. Later today and on Thursday I will return to some of these initial remarks and try to connect everything that I have said to these larger themes. But let me first give you a couple of examples. It is well-known that the old texts are very explicit whatever they are discussing. Whether they are discussing human body, sex, war or violence, these old texts use a language which will be shocking to most of us today. Even those who swear by the great Indian tradition will be shocked to read those words today. The earlier writers are explicit about everything. When it comes to describing war, even a text like Mahābhārata or Rāmāyaṇa doesn’t hesitate to use the most vivid, most gory imagery to talk about war. One image that you will find both in Rāmāyaṇa and in the Mahābhārata is of river of blood. There is also use of exaggeration. Everything is in hundreds and thousands. Such exaggeration is used to make the point. So, the war has gone on for some time, ‘hundreds of thousands’ of people have been killed, and there is a ‘river of blood’ flowing. That is the scene of battle from the Mahābhārata.

As Arjuna showers arrows on his adversaries, a terrible river of blood starts flowing on the battle field. This river of blood has human fat floating on it like foam. The river of blood is broad in current. It is flowing very swiftly. Corpses of elephants and horses have formed its banks. The flesh of human beings has become its mud. Ghosts and demons have lined its banks. There are pieces of armour floating around. There are heaps of bodies somewhere. Fragments of the bones of men and horses and elephants are gravel of this river. This river, that fearful, destructive, hellish river, crows, jackals and hyenas have started approaching the banks of this river. (MBh 6[Bhīṣmaparva].55.121–25)

18. This is the description of the Mahābhārata battlefield. Interestingly, you will find a very similar description, the same imagery of river of blood, in the Rāmāyaṇa.

Indeed the battleground resembles a river of blood. Masses of slain heroes formed the banks of this river and shattered weapons formed its great trees. Torrents of blood made up its broad waters and the ocean to which this river of blood was flowing was Yama or the god of death himself. Livers and spleens made up its mud. Severed heads and trunks made up its fish. Pieces of limbs became its grass. It was crowded with vultures. It was covered with fat instead of foam and the cries of the wounded took the place of its girding waters. It was not to be crossed by the faint hearted. (Rām 6[Yuddhakāṇḍa].46.25–28)[9]

19. This is from the Rāmāyaṇa. The same image is used in both epics. There is also the description of Lord Rāma. I am sure you have seen lots of paintings and calendar pictures or statues of Rāma. But I bet that hardly anyone would have seen a painting of Rāma which shows him drenched in blood. But that is the description that you find in Rāmāyaṇa when that last great fight was going on. There is a particular tree called kiṃśuka. What is distinctive about this tree is that when it is in flowering season, it is covered with red flowers. Rāmāyaṇa compares Rāma in the battlefield to this kiṃśuka tree.

Drenched with blood in battle, Lakṣmaṇa’s elder brother Rāma looked like a great kiṃśuka tree with its red flower in full bloom in the forest. (Rām 6[Yuddhakāṇḍa].92.7)[10]

20. So you can see that there is a certain aesthetic convention being followed in the description of violence. The authors of these epics are not only not shirking from describing the gory details, but they are actually using their imagination and literary skills to make it aesthetically appealing. That’s Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata for you.

21. What is interesting is that both, but particularly the Mahābhārata, have the idea that war itself is a form of sacrifice. There is an elaborate discussion at various places in the text how war or battle itself is a sacrifice. The comparison starts like this. The battlefield is a sacrificial altar, that is, the site where offering is made. Various weapons used in the war are the sacrificial implements. And the warriors are consecrated for the performance of sacrifice. The enemy, his body or his blood, is the offering in the sacrifice. And the body of the warrior is the sacrificial post.[11] There is a dialogue in the Mahābhārata where Indra is saying that every warrior is ritually consecrated and when he goes to the front of the army, he gains the right to perform the sacrifice of battle. The Sanskrit word for sacrifice of battle is saṃgrāmayajña. Saṃgrāma is, of course, battle. And yajña is sacrifice. The elephants are the priests in this sacrifice. And the horses are the adhvaryu priests. The chunks of the enemies’ flesh are the offerings in this sacrifice and their blood is like clarified butter. Jackals and vultures and ravens sit in the ritual assembly and they are the participants in this rite. So, in the Mahābhārata, war is actually understood as a solemn rite or ritual.[12]

22. In this entire description, how or where do you actually start distinguishing between violence and cruelty? It is interesting that the period in Indian history which was full of wars, assassinations, was also a period when various religious ideologies of non-violence emerged. It is possible that one was a reaction to the other. What is interesting is that these texts were authored by Brahmins but the statements regarding non-violence are all in the mouths of the Kṣatriyas. It is the Kṣatriya figures in these texts who are often shown to be discussing questions of violence and non-violence. And when it comes to questions of violence and non-violence, it is not really easy to distinguish between Brahmanical and Buddhist texts. Because you sometimes find justification of violence in Buddhist or Jaina texts. And sometimes you find justification of non-violence in Brahmanical texts. So a simple distinction between the Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical or vedic and non-vedic along the lines of justification of violence and non-violence is not possible. You find an intermingling of these messages in these two sets of texts.

23. I haven’t had time to talk about Jainism but it is important to mention that Mahāvira, the great Jaina sage, the founder of Jainism, is supposed to have condemned the idea that a soldier in the battlefield, someone who dies while fighting, will go to heaven. That was one of the ideas which it seems was popular at that time. Mahāvira condemns it and says, in fact, such soldiers, if they die while fighting on the battlefield, because of the state of their mind at the moment of death, are actually likely to suffer lower rebirths. He thus rejects the idea that a warrior who dies in the battlefield will go to heaven, an idea that you find in various texts and traditions including the Bhagavadgītā.[13] Some schools of Jainism have taken an extreme position on violence, so much so that they do not even approve of agriculture as an occupation because they are of the view that ploughing the field involves violence, and therefore one should not engage in agriculture.

24. But what is interesting is that many Jaina kings, while they patronised Jainism, themselves planned and executed great military campaigns. There is a place, I think near Bhubaneshwar, called Hathigumpha. There is an inscription there which talks about an early Jaina king called Kharavela and the inscription talks in very celebratory terms about his military exploits. How he went on the mission and how he plundered after the battle and came back with a sackful of pearls from the Pandya king as part of his tribute.[14] So Jaina inscriptions themselves seem to have no problem with Jaina kings indulging in war and plunder.

25. You also have the example of Buddhism. We associate Buddhism with non-violence and some of the Aśokan imagery, symbolism, have become the symbolism of the Indian nation-state.[15] Upinder Singh’s Political Violence in Ancient India begins with a short description of the capital of the Sarnath pillar adopted as the emblem of the new nation.[16] But what is interesting is that the horse and the elephant which are essentially the mounts of soldiers are parts of the seven treasures of the chakravarti. The idea of the chakravarti is a Buddhist idea.[17] And there is a certain ambiguity about how you become a chakravarti. How do you become the one who has conquered the whole world? One reading of the text suggests that you conquer the world with your non-violence. The other realistic reading suggests that you become so powerful that you adversaries dare not challenge you and therefore wherever you go, you are acknowleged as the chakravarti. So the idea of the chakravarti is itself fairly ambivalent. The seven treasures of the chakravarti include horse and elephant. But more interestingly, as I told you earlier, there is this Buddhist idea of killing somebody out of compassion; and this idea includes killing even a robber or murderer — out of compassion for him and not out of compassion for the potential victim!

26. But what we often don’t know, and this is truly shocking because when it comes to Buddhism we think of Aśoka, and as soon as Aśoka is mentioned, we think of the various instructions that he left behind on rock edicts strewn all over the northern, central, and parts of south India which we count as evidence of Aśoka’s teachings. But there was this second century CE text called Aśokāvadāna.[18] Avadāna means meritorious deeds.[19] And therefore the title Aśokāvadāna means the meritorious deeds of King Aśoka. Remember that Aśokāvadāna is considered as a Buddhist text. It is not regarded as a Brahmanical or non-Buddhist text. And the presentation of Aśoka in this text is shockingly different from what we get from other sources, Buddhist as well as non-Buddhist. Aśoka is shown to be, at least before his conversion to Buddhism, extremely cruel, violent, and ill-tempered. So like everything else, there is exaggeration about his violence also.

27. He is supposed to have killed his queen and other people because he suspects that they were involved in blinding his son. So out of rage, he burns his queen (pp. 275–85). There is a story that he had asked his ministers to cut all the trees which bear flowers and fruits and keep only those which are full of thorns. And when some of his ministers dare to ask him why, he flies into a rage and the texts says that he himself, personally, beheaded 500 ministers. Then he is also supposed to have burned 500 women of his harem — the number 500 recurs, so that is a signal that it is not to be taken literally — because they plucked flowers and cut the branches of some trees which were very dear to him (pp. 210–11). It is said that he constructed a prison which was meant for torture of prisoners and he would sit there and witness and enjoy the spectacle while his team of executioners tortured the prisoners (pp. 212–19).

28. Then of course there is his conversion to Buddhism. And in this, the Aśokāvadāna tells a very different story. The standard account is that he witnessed a great deal of violence and devastation and death at the end of the war. He emerged victorious, but also full of remorse. That is when he is supposed to have converted to Buddhism. That is the standard account we get. In the Aśokāvadāna, we get a different account.[20] Anyway, whatever led to his conversion, it is not as though he becomes totally non-violent. He continues to resort to violence, except that his violence is now targeted at the critics or challengers of Buddhism. He says that anyone who brings even one single Jaina head to him will be given this much of wealth (p. 232). There was an Ājīvika sect, a similarly renunciatory sect, of which he is supposed to have killed 18,000 (p. 232). And he is supposed to have used extreme forms of aggression and violence to construct 84,000 relic stupas in service of Buddhism (pp. 219–21). So while his violence before conversion seems completely unguided, his violence after Buddhism seems to have been in favour of Buddhism and against the opponents of Buddhism.


[9] Quoted, with slight modifications, from Robert P. Goldman, Sally J. Sutherland Goldman, and Baren A. van Nooten, trans., The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VI: Yuddhakāṇḍa, Princeton Library of Asian Translations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 247.[^]

[10] Quoted, with slight modifications, from The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VI: Yuddhakāṇḍa, p. 435.[^]

[11] For instance at MBh 12[Śāntiparva].25.25–28 (trans. Bibek Debroy, vol. 8, 1353[25])

The great-souled Ashvagriva was devoted to his duties. He perfected his soul and finds delight in the world of the gods. The bow was his sacrificial stake. The bowstring was the rope. The arrow was the smaller ladle. The sword was the larger ladle. Blood was the clarified butter. The chariot, which could go anywhere at will, was the sacrificial altar. The battle was the fire. The best of horses were the four officiating priests. Having offered his enemies and himself as oblations into that sacrificial fire, the spirited lion among kings became free from all sins. Like taking a bath at the end of a sacrifice, he offered his life in the battle.

Or at MBh 5[Udyogaparva].57.12–14 (trans. Bibek Debroy, vol 4, 720[57])

O father! Karna and I [Duryodhana] will perform this sacrifice of the war. O bull among the Bharata lineage! We have been consecrated and Yudhisthira will be the sacrificial animal. The chariot will be the altar, the sword will be the ladle, the club will be the larger ladle and the armour will be the assisting priests. The horses will be the four officiating priests. The arrows will be the darbha grass. Fame will be the oblations. O king! Having sacrificed ourselves to Vaivasvata in this war, we will return in triumph, having slain our enemies and surrounded by prosperity.[^]

[12] See Danielle Feller, “Raṇayajña: The Mahābhārata War as a Sacrifice,” in Violence Denied. Violence, Non-Violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History, ed. Jan E. M. Houben and Karel R van Kooij, Brill’s Indological Library 16 (Leiden: Brill, 1999), pp. 69–103.[^]

[13] For instance, at Bhagavadgītā 2.32, 2.37 (trans. Bibek Debroy, p. 31)

O Partha [Arjuna]! This war has arrived on its own, like an open door to heaven. Happy are the kshatriyas who obtain a war like this.

‘If you are slain, you will attain heaven. If you win, you will enjoy the earth. O son of Kunti [Arjuna]! Therefore, arise, resolve determinedly to fight.[^]

[14] See K. P. Jayaswal and R. D. Banerji, “The Hathigumpha Inscription of Kharavela,” in Epigraphia Indica and Record of the Archaeological Survey of India: Vol. 20, 1929–30, ed. Harananda Sastri, (Delhi: Manager of Publications, 1933), 71–89.[^]

[15] A reference to the Lion Capital of Aśoka which has been adapted as the National Emblem of India. As the Indian government describes it:

The State Emblem is an adaptation of the Lion Capital of Asoka at Sarnath. In the original, there are four lions, mounted back to back, on a circular abacus, which itself rests on a bell-shaped lotus. The frieze of the abacus has sculptures in high relief of an elephant, a galloping horse, a bull and a lion separated by intervening Dharma Chakras. (https://knowindia.india.gov.in/national-identity-elements/state-emblem.php, accessed 11 April 2022)[^]

[16] (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), pp. 1-3.[^]

[17] See the Mahāsudassana Sutta of the Digha Nikāya. At DN 17.7 (trans. Maurice Walshe, p. 280), we read:

King Mahasudassana was endowed with the seven treasures and the four properties. What are the seven? Once, on a fast-day of the fifteenth, when the King had washed his head and gone up to the verandah on top of his palace to observe the fast-day, the divine Wheel-Treasure appeared to him, thousand-spoked, complete with felloe, hub and all appurtenances. On seeing it, King Mahasudassana thought: “I have heard that when a duly anointed Khattiya king sees such a wheel on the fast-day of the fifteenth, he will become a wheel-turning monarch [Skt. cakravartin; Pali cakkavatti]. May I become such a monarch!”

In addition to the Wheel, the other treasures are Elephant, Horse, Jewel, Woman, Householder, and Counsellor.[^]

[18] John S. Strong, trans., The Legend of King Aśoka: A Study and Translation of the Aśokāvadāna, Buddhist Tradition Series 6 (1983; repr., Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2008). Further references to this text are noted in text by page number.[^]

[19] Upinder Singh, Political Violence in Ancient India, p. 142.[^]

[20] Samudra, a Bhikkhu happens upon the jail built by Aśoka. He is stopped by Caṇḍagirika, the executioner, who sends him to his doom. Samudra begs for a month’s stay on the exuction and is granted seven days. “Now early on the seventh day, King Asoka happened to see one of his concubines conversing with and gazing lovingly at a youth with whom she was enamored. As soon as he saw them together, he became furious and sent them both to the gaol. There they were ground with pestles in an iron mortar until only their bones remained.” Samudra is completely shocked and learns the Buddhist lesson: “[The Buddha] was right when he likened the body/to a bubble of foam, worthless and unstable./Where now is that lovely face?/Where has that beautiful body gone?” (Scared?) he applies himself the whole night and gains enlightenment. The next day, the executioner “threw Samudra into an iron cauldron full of water, human blood, marrow, urine, and excrement. He lit a great fire underneath, but even after much firewood had been consumed, the cauldron did not get hot. Once more, he tried to light the fire, but again it would not blaze.” Aśoka himself comes to see the marvel. At this time, Samudra began to generate his supernatural powers and flew up into the sky and displayed various magical feats. Dazed and confused, Aśoka gets converted at this point. (see pp. 214–19)[^]


Debroy, Bibek, trans. 2010. The Mahabharata. 10 vols. Penguin Books.

———, trans. 2019. The Bhagavad Gita. Gurgaon: Penguin Books.

Feller, Danielle. 1999. ‘Raṇayajña: The Mahābhārata War as a Sacrifice’. In Violence Denied. Violence, Non-Violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History, edited by Jan E. M. Houben and Karel R van Kooij, 69–103. Brill’s Indological Library 16. Leiden: Brill.

Goldman, Robert P., Sally J. Sutherland Goldman, and Baren A. van Nooten, trans. 2009. The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VI: Yuddhakāṇḍa. Princeton Library of Asian Translations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jayaswal, K. P., and R. D. Banerji. 1933. ‘The Hathigumpha Inscription of Kharavela’. In Epigraphia Indica and Record of the Archaeological Survey of India, edited by Harananda Sastri, 20, 1929–30:71–89. Delhi: Manager of Publications.

Singh, Upinder. 2017. Political Violence in Ancient India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

‘State Emblem’. 2022. Know India. 11 April 2022. https://knowindia.india.gov.in/national-identity-elements/state-emblem.php.

Strong, John S., trans. (1983) 2008. The Legend of King Aśoka: A Study and Translation of the Aśokāvadāna. Rpt. Buddhist Tradition Series 6. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Walshe, Maurice, trans. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. The Teachings of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications.