'Non-violent ancient India is a myth'

Upinder Singh suggests that the idea of a non-violent ancient India is a myth that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru “helped create” .

Non-violent ancient India is a myth

India's independence movement was built on the principle of non-violence but a new book by noted historian Upinder Singh, also the daughter of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, suggests that the idea of a non-violent ancient India is a myth that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru "helped create" while driving the independence movement on the principle of non-violence.

In "Political Violence in Ancient India", Upinder Singh, head of Delhi University's History Department, documents the "dynamic tension between violence and non-violence in ancient Indian political thought and practice over twelve hundred years".
But what makes Singh reach the conclusion that the idea of a non-violent ancient India is a "myth" that Nehru and Gandhi helped create?
"I think that the great value attached to non-violence in Gandhian nationalism (of which Nehru was also an important part) lulled us into thinking of a non-violent ancient India. This is a myth. This is why the problem of political violence has hardly been noticed, let alone studied (till my book!). Ancient Indian history is full of episodes of bloody wars, succession struggles, patricide, fratricide, conflicts between states and forest people, and the killing of animals. There was also social conflict.
"These things are well known, but we have somehow not joined the dots. Ancient India boasts the icons of ahimsa like Mahavira, the Buddha and Ashoka. But what people need to realise is that their strong pleas for non-violence indicate that these men were very troubled by violence all around them. So, the idea of a non-violent ancient India is indeed a myth. This pleasant myth can perhaps offer some comfort in our desire for peace and harmony in our present violent, intolerant world. It can be used as a basis to argue for a return to a golden age of non-violence. But such a golden age never existed," Singh said.
According to her book, Nehru thought that India's history was marked by a high level of social harmony and a lack of conflict. In Mahatma Gandhi's understanding of Indian history too, the principle of non-violence stood out.
But her findings also seem to suggest that Hindu ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar – the hero of BJP and its Jana Sangh predecessor, as also its ideological backbone RSS – saw violence and war as "necessary and laudable Hindu responses" against foreign aggressors.
She also mentions that Nehruvian model of ancient Indian past – one in which Buddhism, Ashoka, and non-violence, had pride of place – were reflected in the national flag and emblem post-independence. But, she argues in the book, it was based on a very selective reading of India's ancient history. Is it not possible that instead of being a mere representation of India's ancient past, these symbols were used by Nehru and Gandhi to reflect the aspirations of a modern independent country, with non-violence as the core ideal of the then newborn nation?
"It is but natural that there was a close relationship between the political agendas of political leaders, how they perceived India's ancient history, what they emphasised, and their aspirations for India's future," Singh added.



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