Upinder Singh is a professor in the Department of History of Delhi University. In her book ‘Political Violence in Ancient India’ she highlights a complex and political universe in which ‘violence’ has been subject of a lot of debate. Singh, through this book, aims to recover the historical realities of both violence and non-violence and the intellectual debates about their respective value that took place in ancient India.
Here’s an excerpt from the book.
The most detailed and important statement on war is to be found in Ashoka’s thirteenth rock edict, which begins by talking about a specific event:
When Devanampiya Piyadassi [that is, Ashoka] had been consecrated eight years, he attained victory over the country of the Kalingas. One hundred and fifty thousand men were captured and deported, one hundred thousand were killed there, and many times this number died. After that, now that the Kalingas have been taken, Devanampiya is devoted to the ardent practice of dhamma, desire for dhamma and the teaching of dhamma. This is on account of the remorse (anusocana) of Devanampiya over the victory over the Kalingas.
So the most detailed description of a military victory in ancient Indian inscriptions consists of the king’s reflections on its disastrous consequences! This includes a redefinition of the injury caused by war, and a redefinition of the idea of righteous victory. Ashoka observes that it is painful that people experience injury, capture and death in war.
But what is considered even more painful by Devanampiya is the following—that Brahmanas and renunciants (śramaṇas) (), members of other sects and householders, who live there and practice obedience to superiors, obedience to mother and father, obedience to elders, proper courtesy and firm devotion to friends, acquaintances, companion and kin, as also to slaves and servants—they [all] experience injury, killing or deportation of their loved ones. This [suffering arising from war] is shared by all men and is considered painful by Devanampiya.”
Ashoka’s argument is that the suffering caused by war extends far beyond those who suffer directly, physically. It includes the emotional pain suffered by those who hold these people dear. When such suffering is experienced by good people, it is especially regrettable. (This argument ties in with the Buddhist idea that the severity of violence can be measured, among other things, in proportion to the virtue of the victims.) Brahmanas and renunciants are said to live everywhere except among the Yavanas (Greeks), but members of sects live in all lands; causing suffering to them is deplorable. Good people also live everywhere; therefore, wherever it occurs, war is bad. Although the edict begins by citing high casualty figures designed to overawe, Ashoka asserts that even if a small fraction of those who had died or had been deported or had suffered as a result of his Kalinga campaign, he would still consider it terrible. This suggests that war per se is to be avoided, regardless of the scale of its violence. According to Ashoka, war is a cause of suffering for the victors, the vanquished, and countless others.
Although rock edict 13 focuses on the abjuring of fresh military campaigns, it does not abjure the use of force to suppress recalcitrant forest people and / or forest chieftains (aṭavi), who, in fact, posed a serious impediment and challenge to the expansion of all premodern Indian states. The king announces that he will forgive that which can be forgiven, and reminds the forest people of the power he possesses in spite of his sorrow and remorse, so that they do not suffer at his hands. The forest people are included in the king’s message on dhamma. But they are also told unequivocally that they should not provoke him. There is no hint of pain or suffering arising out of possible conflict here.
Rock edict 13 also announces the deployment of the metaphor of victory for a new dhammic purpose. Dhamma vijaya (victory through dhamma) is not a conquest but a victory consisting of effectively propagating dhamma. Ashoka claims to have won such a victory in the dominion of the Yavana (Greek) king Antiyoka; beyond that, in the kingdoms of Turamaya, Antikini, Maka, and Alikasudara; and toward the south, in the domain of the Cholas and Pandyas, stretching as far south as Tamraparni (Sri Lanka). He asserts that he has won dhamma vijaya in his own domain, among the Yavanas, Kambojas, Nabhakas, Nabhapanktis, Bhojas, Pitinikas, Andhras, and Pulindas. We are told that even where the king’s envoys do not go, people have heard of dhamma and are conforming to it. So Ashoka claims his dhamma victory to be universal, or at least universal in the world that he was familiar with. Clearly, he had an exaggerated idea of the success of his propagation of dhamma. But at the very least, we have here a reference to a very unusual kind of interaction with other kingdoms and one that does not fit into conventional molds of warfare or diplomacy.
Ashoka claims to have won his dhamma victory not once but repeatedly, suggesting that the inculcation of dhamma was not a one-time event but a constant “battle,” requiring continuous exhortation and effort, with an eye not so much on this life as the next:
Such a victory which has been thus won everywhere and repeatedly, leads to satisfaction (piti). I have obtained satisfaction through this dhamma vijaya. But this satisfaction means little. Devanampiya only values the fruits [of action] in the next world.
Clearly, dhammic victory was the best victory, not because it gave the king satisfaction, which was of little consequence in itself, but because it led to fruits in this world and, even more importantly, in the next. Ashoka goes on to tell us the reason why this edict on dhamma had been inscribed. It was
so that my sons and grandsons should not think of a fresh military campaign, that if they do undertake such campaigns, they should take pleasure in mercy and inflict little force or punishment (daṇḍa), and that they should consider victory through dhamma as the only victory.
Recognizing that his descendants would be disinclined to abjure war completely, Ashoka urges them to be merciful and moderate in their use of force or punishment, connecting these with war.
The edict suggests that as head of the state, the king is responsible for the totality of the consequences of war, not just for violence or injury caused by him personally. It also suggests that reflection and resolve can mitigate, possibly even cancel, the karmic consequences arising from such responsibility. However, out of sensitivity, shame, pragmatism, or a combination of all these things, the king did not put his pain and sorrow on display in Kaliṅga itself (rock edict 13 is replaced by separate rock edicts 1 and 2 at Dhauli and Jaugada) or at Sannati, another area that seem to have experienced the impact of Maurya armies.
There are no words for war or peace in rock edict 13. Instead, Ashoka talks of the injury, pain, and suffering caused by the violence of war. He talks of his own pain and the pain of others and of his ardent espousal and propagation of dhamma after the Kalinga war. His reaction to the event is usually understood as one of remorse (anuṣaye / anusocana, anutapa), but although there may be a thin line between remorse and grief, the tenor of rock edict 13 leans toward grief and a firm resolve emerging from it. It should also be noted that while Ashoka expresses his grief for the consequences of the war, he does not ask for forgiveness from anyone.
What explains this powerful reaction to the Kalinga war? Was it because Ashoka was an active participant in the campaign? This in itself is not a sufficient explanation, as legend has him putting down violent revolts in Taxila during his father Bindusara’s time. It is not a sufficient explanation unless we assume that there was something unprecedented about the scale of violence in the Kalinga war. Does rock edict 13 point to changes in the nature of warfare in third-century BCE India toward military conflicts that involved much higher levels of military deployment than before, higher casualties and mass deportation of captives, perhaps even of noncombatant citizenry? Do the rhetorical numbers mentioned in the beginning of the edict suggest that one of the most massive and brutal campaigns in ancient Indian history was launched during Ashoka’s time and that the scale of devastation that followed in its wake turned the king’s stomach? Did Ashoka suffer a personal loss—that of a dear son or a good friend—which forced him to reflect on how the impact of war extends far beyond those who are affected directly to those who are bound to them by ties of kinship and affection? Or was he already becoming more sensitive to violence due to his drawing closer to the Buddha’s teaching with its emphasis on nonviolence? We can only speculate about what lay behind Ashoka’s powerful antiwar proclamation. The inscription begins with a grim account of the universal suffering caused by a war and all wars but ends with a discussion of satisfaction, happiness, and pleasure, and reference to the attainment of higher fruits in the next world. The moral of the story is clear: Waging war does not lead to such fruits; following and propagating dhamma does. But…war against the forest people is placed in a different category altogether.
In Ashoka’s post-Kalinga political philosophy, war and military victory are not considered essential parts of politics or empire. In fact, they are seen as undesirable and reprehensible; they have no place in the emperor’s idea of a moral empire. If the message of rock edict 13 is reduced to its bare bones, it is as follows: The king had fought a terrible war against the people of Kalinga. War is deplorable because it causes incalculable, universal suffering. A king cannot attain heaven if he wages war. Action against rebellious forest people, however, is different from regular war. In formulating and proclaiming his detailed critique of war and following up the critique with concrete action, Ashoka intervened in the ancient Indian discourse on political violence in a very significant and unusual way. His attitude toward war is radical, even by Buddhist standards. And it is ultimately based on ideas related with merit, demerit, and the afterlife.