For several decades now, Patrick Olivelle of the University of Texas at Austin, has been one of the most lucid exponents of how Indian history and religion interplays with each other. In this deeply moving piece he explains how key figures in Indian history have taken opposing stances on the same subject, namely, the use of violence in managing an empire.

Mr Olivelle begins by noting that violence is deeply ingrained in society: “The Cambridge World History of Violence notes: “A number of scholars…have argued that violence and war are part of human nature, a part of our biological makeup.” The emergence of a distinct warrior ideology, coupled with professional warrior classes, marked a new epoch in this history of inter-group violence. Political violence in ancient India is admirably illustrated by Upinder Singh in her brilliant book, Political Violence in Ancient India. Beyond the political, there is also religious violence in the ritual sacrifice of animals and culinary violence in killing animals for food.”

Unsurprisingly, therefore the most powerful people in India have thought long & hard about their stance on violence and that’s how, Mr Olivelle contends, two distinct schools of thought have emerged on this critically important subject.

In the right corner stand Krishna and Arjuna (and Arjuna stands in that corner after much coaxing from Krishna as laid out famously in the Bhagvad Gita). However, Arjuna’s elder brother, Yudhisthira’s struggle (after the war ends in Kurukshetra) to figure out his stance on state-sponsored violence is a subject we knew little about. Mr Olivelle writes: “The war ends, but Yudhisthira is unable to celebrate his victory. Beset with grief, he blames himself for the carnage he had caused. He curses the warrior ethic that produces such misery. “Damn the warrior’s way!” He would rather follow the path of forest ascetics: forbearance, self-control, truthfulness, ahimsa. He deplores the greed and selfishness that caused this catastrophe. For what? For a trifling kingdom? “We are not dogs,” he says, “but we behaved like dogs greedy for a piece of meat.”

Unlike Ashoka and Yudhisthira, Arjuna experiences his crisis at the beginning of the war. He did not have to experience the carnage. He could foresee it. The very thought of the inevitable massacres stirs his conscience. The first two chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, which is an integral part of the Mahabharata, set the scene for Arjuna’s crisis of conscience. Krishna drives Arjuna’s chariot to the no-man’s land between the opposing armies. Arjuna sees fathers, grandfathers, sons, and grandsons standing ready to kill each other for the sake of a kingdom. “My limbs have gone wobbly, my mouth is parched, my body trembles, and my hair bristles,” Arjuna tells Krishna, and exclaims: “I will not fight!”

The crises of Yudhisthira and Arjuna are remarkable, but they were not turned into positive agendas. Instead, advisers convinced them to give up their momentary weakness and return to the warrior’s path. Yudhisthira was able to put his remorse behind him and assume his royal duties. Krishna advised Arjuna: “Don’t be a wimp! It does not become you. Give up this miserable weakness of heart, Arjuna, and stand up!””

Mr Olivelle explains that to avoid more rulers having to go through these crises of conscience, the powers that be in ancient India did something very clever – they said that the main job of the warrior was to garner fame through valour on the battlefield: “Fame stands at the forefront of the warrior ethic. “For fame,” a Tamil saying goes, “they would lay down their very lives.” And the Bhagavad Gita claims: “For a man of honour, infamy is worse than death.” This ethic valourised fighting and killing over the ascetic virtues of compassion and ahimsa. Our…heroes were, for all we can tell, happily walking along the warrior path.”

However, inspite of the high priests of ancient India saying that a warrior has to fight and garner fame, along came an emperor who after a particularly bloody conflict in Odisha challenged the orthodoxy head on: “The clearest example of that is Ashoka. His crisis of conscience is also unique. He transformed his remorse and mental anguish into a proactive programme of mass moral education. His remorse spurred him to create a new moral philosophy centred on dharma and anchored in ahimsa—non-violence, no killing—as a universal and cardinal virtue.

His new moral philosophy made him abjure not only war, but also killing animals for ritual or food, or hunting them for sport. Ashoka’s crisis was both a cathartic and a creative moment. That moment became the springboard for the rest of his life, which he dedicated thereafter to the propagation of his new moral philosophy.

We can say with some confidence that without that crisis of conscience, there would have been no Ashoka as we know him, probably not even the production of his inscriptions. His imperial rule would have been of the garden variety, not different from any other ancient ruler. What prompted this crisis? I think it was the exposure to the Buddhist ethic that cultivated his conscience, a conscience that would not let him take his butchering of the Kalinga people as normal.”

By the time you end reading Mr Olivelle’s piece you are left asking which corner do you stand in – with Ashoka (and the abjuring of violence) or with Krishna (and the point of view that a warrior’s dharma is to fight).

If you want to read our other published material, please visit

Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor financial advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this publication in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services. Marcellus Investment Managers is also regulated in the United States as an Investment Advisor.

Copyright © 2022 Marcellus Investment Managers Pvt Ltd, All rights reserved.

2024 © | All rights reserved.

Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions