The University of Hyderabad (UoH) organised a lecture by one of the eminent historians of ancient India, Prof. Upinder Singh, professor of History and Dean of Faculty at Ashoka University. She is is the daughter of Dr. Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister of India. The lecture was held on 8 March 2024 and is the latest in the School of Social Sciences – Institution of Eminence Golden Jubilee Distinguished Lecture Series being organised by the School of Social Sciences, with the support of the Institution of Eminence. The welcome address was given by the Dean of Social Sciences, Prof. Jyotirmaya Sharma and the session was chaired by the Head of Department of History, Prof. Suchandra Ghosh who introduced the speaker as well. The lecture saw a large and enthusiastic audience drawing students and faculty from a wide range of disciplines.

The title of Prof. Singh’s talk “Ashoka and Kautilya: Dhamma and Artha Perspectives on the Problem of Violence” caught everyone’s attention as she delivered an thought-provoking and enlightening lecture, neatly structured into various sections that made it student-friendly. The presentation began by introducing the importance of the history of the ideas and political thought in ancient India and focussed on two important figures of ancient India, Ashoka and Kautilya, along with the ideas reflected in Ashokan inscriptions and the Arthashastra. Thus, Ashoka represents the dhamma view of politics while Kautilya represents the artha perspective. This was followed by an analysis of the conventional view of both wherein Ashoka’s reputation is that of a great emperor, and apostle of peace, and Kautilya’s work on statecraft is rooted in the practice of politics. Prof. Singh showed some very interesting visuals, for example, the corporate renderings of Kautilya as a self-help guru to argue how both Ashoka and Kautilya were not just figures of the past but lived in modern memory.

Prof. Singh’s talk specifically focussed on understanding the attitudes of these figures based on their writings with special reference to Dhamma, violence and non-violence, capital punishment, war, and forest people. This was followed by an exhaustive analysis of the “Divergences” and “Convergences” between both. For instance, as a political thinker, Dhamma stood supreme for Ashoka and represented self-control, piety, purity of thought, liberality towards friends, courtesy towards elders, etc. Ashoka was injecting ethical content to the idea of Dhamma changed and perhaps broadened the meaning of Dhamma and therefore, devised his own version of Dhamma, even if it was derived from the Buddhist thought. For Kautilya, material well-being remains superior as both Dhamma and Kamma were based on artha. Kautilya represented a Brahmanical perspective where Dharma was essentially varna-dharma but despite this, the interest of the state was considered more important.

On the question of non-violence, Ashoka stood for compassion towards all living beings and concerns and welfare for all subjects. Ashoka is credited for undertaking several material and moral welfare measures. For Kautilya, though mitigating social violence is not seen as centrally important. Kautilya seems to be more concerned with the material welfare of his king and his subjects. Prof. Singh stressed that perhaps one of the breakthroughs of Kautilya was also to convince the king that furthering the material interest of the subjects was eventually beneficial to the king himself.

Coming to the question of attitude towards animals. Ashoka considered animals as part of his constituency and the idea of compassion towards all living beings including animals was important. For Kautilya, animals were mostly seen as private property. Similarly, on the issue of punishment, Ashoka was more solicitous and advised the rajukas or the revenue officials to be fair in their dealings. But what we see in Kautilya is perhaps the earliest expression of a legal code and a detailed treatment of punishment. Again, varna is central to the discussion on the punishment. There are typologies of punishment given in the Arthashastra.

The Rock Edict 13 reflects Ashoka’s attitude towards war and its consequences. In the popular view, it is known that Ashoka seems to have renounced war after the Kalinga war and turned to Dhamma vijaya instead. In this sense, Ashoka exudes confidence and not insecurity. Kautilya gives different typologies of war such as asura-vijayin, lobha-vijayin, etc and unlike Ashoka stresses the protection of the king as supreme.

Having demonstrated these divergences, Prof. Singh turned to show the convergences between the two figures and their ideas. Concerning the aim of the state both Ashoka and Kautilya seem to agree that the state should work for the welfare of its people. As suggested earlier as well Kautilya believed that the happiness of the king lies in the happiness of the subjects. The idea of paternal kinship so explicit in Ashoka’s rule, could also be found in Arthashastra which suggests that a king should favour his subjects in distress like a father. Ashoka emphasises the policy of conciliation, however, adopts a stern attitude towards the forest people. Kautilya mentions the power of counsel, lordship and energy with the former being superior to the other two. Force is seen as a last resort and views forest people as a problem for the state but also as a valuable resource for different reasons. As far as justice and punishment are concerned, Ashoka stressed the idea of samata and did not abolish capital punishment but adopted an attitude of non-violence. Kautilya also discusses capital punishment and mentions the periodic release of prisoners on special occasions.

Prof. Singh concluded that both Ashoka and Kautilya separated in time and space were powerful political thinkers and innovators with very different perspectives. They were part of a dialogic and shared political tradition that they inherited and contributed to in different ways. She argued in favour of internal diversity in the dharma attitude on politics/violence and that some amount of violence was considered inevitable in the political domain. Dharma and artha perspectives remain qualitatively different but they do intersect. When we look beyond the image of these figures, Ashoka recognised the pragmatic limits of non-violence, and Kautilya recognised the pragmatic limits of violence in the political sphere.

The lecture was followed by many sets of interesting questions from the students on various aspects that were received and responded to with great enthusiasm by Prof. Singh. The questions were on gender violence, on methods of comparing Ashoka and Kautilya, and on the spatial location of the Arthashastra, among others. The talk ended with high tea for teachers and students where the discussion with Prof. Singh continued informally with the students.

Contributed by: Ms. Ujjwal Yadav, PhD Research Scholar, Department of History