War was a cultural activity that antedated the State by several millennia.
Man did not always believe in equality. But belief in human rights, liberty, democracy, peace, non-violence and a host of modern values guides the conduct of men and nations today.
Man was a clever animal. He learnt to make fire, cook food and cultivate food crops. He domesticated horses, donkeys, camels, cows, pigs, goats and chickens, put some of them to work for him, used others as transport, and ate the rest. He liberally used violence in all his endeavours. When he stopped wandering and chose to live a settled life, he was never at peace either within his settlement or with his neighbours. For homo sapiens was a fighter-cock.
War was a cultural activity that antedated the State by several millennia. If Aristotle had encountered the archaeological evidence he would have said, “Man is a war-making animal.” Man learnt to write barely 5000 years ago. By then organized warfare had become a habit. The battlefield was his playground. He was so proud of his gory games that he carved the details on stone and palm leaves for posterity to read. Who killed whom, who looted what, and so on.
Slave raiding and slave trading flourished as the ascent of man pushed other species into subjugation or extinction. As Europeans began to sail round the world 10 million blacks were transported to the Americas. Slaves from Malabar went to Bombay, slaves from Madras were sent to Indonesia. When slavery was banned in the colonies, indentured labour quickly took its place.
Man is the only animal with political inclinations. Animals fight for turf and mates, but that’s about all. Man, not only fights for territory, he fights for just about anything. Every nation on this planet owes its existence to the warrior. Today war is the prerogative of the State. We recognize it as a purely political act. It stopped being cultural a long time ago.
Somewhere along the road to civilisation Man stopped following the laws of the jungle and came up with his own laws. The principle of equality is one such law. Man did not always believe in equality. A thousand years before Christ, two Hebrew prophets first propounded the idea that, “All men are equal in the eyes of God.” 3000 years later we still live in an unequal world. But belief in human rights, liberty, democracy, peace, non-violence and a host of modern values guides the conduct of men and nations today.
Born in a Bloodbath
The propensity to violence, however, lies buried deep in our DNA. How else do we explain the spontaneous outbursts of violent activity the world over, at the slightest provocation and for seemingly innocuous reasons? The careful examination of political violence is a matter of contemporary importance, especially when terrorism without borders is the new threat. We see America grappling with an increasingly malignant gun culture. The exponential growth of the Islamic State literally gives us the creeps.
Indian history has umpteen examples of mob violence, the Partition, the violence against Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the Gujarat riots being the most glaring examples. And in God’s Own Country, we have the ongoing spectacle of the Kannur killings.
Is non-violence really rooted in the Indian psyche? Are we more pacifist than other nations? Did we gain independence by non-violent means? Many people don’t think so. V D Savarkar opined that war and violence were necessary responses to foreign domination. He saw non-violence as a negative value. Young revolutionaries sought to liberate India by taking up arms. The INA’s struggles in Malaya and Myanmar, the revolt of the Royal Indian Navy, and the martyrdom of men such as Chandrashekar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Kudiram Bose and Surjya Sen, are classic examples of violent resistance to British rule.
There may have been a stage in human evolution when all men were warriors. Perhaps all women were warriors too — we just don’t know. The habits of aggression, loot, pillage, vandalism, murder, rape, abduction et al are an integral part of human history. Do the impulses still reside in our DNA?
Religion, Renunciation and Non-Violence
Down the ages, ancient India debated the relative merits of violence and non-violence. Kautilya, the political theorist par excellence, espoused the artha view of politics as opposed to the dhamma (dharma) view propagated by the Buddha. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are essentially stories of political conflicts culminating in bitterly fought wars. The Mahabharata doesn’t end with the massacre of the Kaurava clan. The Yadavas slaughter each other and Krishna is killed by a hunter. The Bhagavadgita, Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna on the eve of the Kurushetra war, gives an elaborate rationalization of political violence. He puts forth the proposition that one should renounce the fruits of action — not action itself.
The Rig Veda has a hardcore masculine ethos and a martial ideology at its core. Violence is advocated, justified, and of course directed at people outside the clan. God Indra is a somaras drinking macho male who uses his thunderbolt to vanquish his foes. The violence inherent in the Vedic tradition is evidenced in weird modern day temple rituals that are a throwback to the ancient practices of human and animal sacrifices.
The teachings of Mahavira and the Buddha marked a clear deviation from Vedic tradition. They introduced the concept of renunciation and non-violence, and challenged the practice of ritual sacrifice. Interestingly, the Ajivikas were a distinct religious group that sprouted in opposition to the Vedic tradition and survived for many centuries before eventually dying out.
They flourished as far south as Kerala and Tamilnadu and are mentioned in Sangam literature. The idea of non-violence seems to have entered the Vedic texts at a later stage (Dharmasastras) as borrowings from the Buddhist and Jain traditions.
Jains espoused strict vegetarianism. Some sects literally wouldn’t harm a fly. They went about with their mouths covered and carried a broom to sweep the earth before them to ensure that they don’t trample upon any living creature, however small. The Jains had also developed a sophisticated method of attaining samadhi by starving themselves to death. The Buddha died after eating contaminated pork.
Kings, who were the most violent members of the polity, had no hesitation in extending patronage to Buddhism and Jainism. According to the Pali Tipitaka (composed between the 5th and 3rd centuries B.C.E.), Bimbisara of Magadha, his son Ajatashatru, and Prasenajit of Kosala were followers of the Buddha in his lifetime. From the Puranas and Buddhist and Jain texts we hear of assassinations, patricide and people’s rebellions. Ajatashatru killed his father. Other patricides followed.
Christianity and Islam came to India soon after their founding and were easily absorbed into the Indian ethos. Neither of them are really pacifist religions. Jesus Christ may have said ‘turn the other cheek’ but he did use violence to drive the moneylenders out of the temple of Jerusalem. Islam said, ‘kill the infidel’. The Crusades happened. The Inquisition happened – even in Goa.
Marxism (a quasi-religion) gave a powerful call for equality, but did not baulk at violence. Revolution is an inextricable part of the Marxist dream. Incidentally, Marx propounded an ‘artha’ view of society, where the wealth or livelihood of men is primary.
The Pacifism of Ashoka the Great
The first pan-Indian empire known to historians was established in the 4th century B.C. by Chandragupta Maurya in the years following Alexander’s invasion. The wily Brahmin Chanakya was instrumental in his rise to power. Jain tradition maintains that Chandragupta abdicated in favour of his son Bindusara, retired to Karnataka and died fasting in the Jain tradition of sallekhana. Indian history states that his grandson Ashoka, after the Kalinga War, suffered pangs of remorse, embraced Buddhism, and sent emissaries far and wide to propagate Buddhist ideals. Ashoka was keen that his fame should transcend time. Hence his message of peace and pacifism was inscribed on stone edicts. The Kandahar inscription reads (in Greek and Aramaic) “And the king abstains from (killing) living beings, and other men and those who (are) huntsmen and fishermen of the king have desisted from hunting.”
Author Sanjeev Sanyal in a 2016 publication titled ‘The Ocean of Churn’ puts forth the proposition that Ashoka wasn’t really a pacifist at all, and his pillars and proclamations were part of a well-orchestrated propaganda blitzkrieg. When Bindusara died suddenly Ashoka seized power with the aid of Greek mercenaries.
He killed his half-brother Sushima who was the crown prince, put to death dozens of male relatives and beheaded 500 officials, triggering a civil war that lasted four years. Ashoka finally emerged victorious and was crowned in 270 B.C. When he invaded Kalinga eight years later he was already a practising Buddhist. Yet he killed 100,000 people and took 150,000 captives if his own edicts are to be believed. The Ashokavadana, a later Buddhist text, narrates how Ashoka executed 18,000 Ajivikas in Bengal, in the earliest recorded instance of large-scale religious persecution in India. (Bindusara was partial to the Ajivikas.) Buddhist texts describe Ashoka as a cruel, ruthless and bad-tempered ruler. He is credited with building Ashoka’s Hell, a torture chamber manned by an executioner.
Ashoka ruled for 36 years. He claims to have renounced war. But he didn’t renounce his kingdom or abolish the death penalty. Ashoka’s edicts aren’t all peaceful. They also warn monks and nuns against creating conflicts with the Sangha, and threaten forest peoples against revolting. Ashoka died at the age of 72. Before his death one of his younger wives blinded his son Kunala, the chosen heir. Obviously his wives remained unconvinced by his professed pacifism. The Ashoka Chakra (wheel of righteousness) is now on our national flag.
Public, Private and Domestic Violence
While public violence is sporadic and takes war-like forms, violence in the private and domestic sphere is omnipresent and invisible. Violence against women in all its manifestations is being talked about today, but violence against children still remains under wraps. Ragging occurs in educational institutions, while physical and psychological abuse of children occurs in homes and in schools3. While some traditions like foot-binding in China and child marriage in Asia and Africa are either dead or dying, social reformers are still agonizing about religious rituals such as circumcision of girls and boys, commitment of minors to monastic orders, ear-piercing, kuthiyottam and what not.
Homo sapiens devised many weird practices before he eventually became civilized. Take the practice of Sati. It is mentioned in the Mahabharata and noted by a historian accompanying Alexander the Great. In Kerala, in the days of the Ay kingdom, when Ay Antiran (a ruler of the Sangam age) died, his many wives committed ritual suicide. Sati was banned by Muhammed bin Tughlak, the Mughal emperors, the Portuguese, the French and finally the British. It lasted until the 20th century as far afield as Indonesia and Nepal. How could an intelligent species devise such a ridiculous ritual? Perhaps it has a much to do with the consequences of war. Before man began to write history he had already subjugated woman. So we don’t know whether sati was meant to satisfy the male ego, or to avoid capture and slavery, or to enable rebirth and reunion. OMG! Imagine having the same husband in yet another life!
Saffron Terrorism versus Red Terrorism
When Tripura fell to the BJP ending a quarter century of Left domination, the winners let loose an orgy of violence, pulling down statues of Lenin, burning buildings and attacking political rivals. With social media incitement by saffron leaders, a statue of Periyar E V Ramswamy was defaced in Vellore, Tamilnadu. Next came the turn of Shyamaprasad Muhkerjee, as red cadres retaliated in Kolkata.
In Kerala, we don't care about statues. We've been targeting real people for decades. Kannur district is known countrywide for modern political murders and ancient kalari vendettas.
The spokesmen of political parties appearing in television debates tend to justify murders on the grounds that their adversaries killed many people too. Often the violence seeps into their voices, clouding their logic and reasoning, and leaving the hapless viewers stunned. In a recent debate on prime time TV, CPM legislator TV Rajesh and T Siddique of the Congress indulged in an all out shouting match that involved ugly displays of uncontrolled rage.
The helpless moderator appealed again and again for peace, warning them that "the people are watching" and reminding Rajesh that he is a legislator. The belligerence of the two young men corroborates the view that political violence in the state has a very bright future.
Meanwhile, K Sudhakaran, the Congress strongman of Kannur, announced that it's time for Congress workers to eschew Gandhism and non-violence in favour of self-defence. 'They're killing us, why don't kill them too' seemed to be the unspoken message.
On International Women's Day, a news channel called on the wives and mothers of slain martyrs, and made the pertinent observation that women survivors are rarely invited to district-level peace conclaves. Will their heart-rending stories bring about any change in the murderous mindset? Not if the murder instinct is embedded in our DNA.