Ancient Indian Political Thought: A Historiographical Analysis

(This is an introductory chapter from a longer research paper on the Buddha’s political ideas: A Compassionate Polity: The Buddha as Political Philosopher)

The study of Buddha’s political ideas must be done through a contextualist approach to the social, economic and political conditions of the time during which the historical Buddha lived and expounded his ideas, with a close attention to the existing socio-political discourses in ancient India. In this chapter, I will do a literature review on the study of the ancient Indian political thought in an attempt to establish the existence of much speculation and elaborate conceptualization of social and political organization in ancient India as confirmed by both classical Hindu and Buddhist texts. Second, I will make an attempt to contextualize the Buddha and the study of his political ideas in its arrival and reception among Indian and Western philosophers and political scientists or the lack of it. Besides the missionary accounts of India, the West first began a serious study of India and its past in the late eighteenth century with the works of scholars who have been described as the Orientalists or Indologists (Thapar, 1978, 2). As Thapar notes, the discovery of the relationship between Sanskrit and certain European languages excited the scholars and the study of classical Sanskrit literature attracted and produced extensive scholarship (2-3). As a pioneer in the study of ancient India and Sanskrit, Sir William Jones (1746–1794) founded the Asiatic Society in 1784. In the Society’s journal Asiatic Researches, Jones published his works: the linguistic discoveries about the familiarity and even superiority of Sanskrit and its grammatical structures to Greek and Latin (Edgerton, 231), the project of studying ancient Indian law through translation of works like Manu’s Laws and the formulation of a methodology for the study of Indian history (Majeed, 1992, 12). Majeed asserts that Jones’ interest in studying Sanskrit was encouraged by his legal project of curbing the power of the pundits and maulvis, i.e. his purpose was to undermine what he perceived to be the legal authority of the sacerdotal classes of Bengal (Majeed, 20). This seems to be a plausible position, because Jones was a lawyer by profession and he had orchestrated an ambitious project of translating the law-book of Manu from Sanskrit before his demise (Majeed, 20). The literary theorist, Edward Said (2003), confirms this in his Orientalism by stating that seven years before Jones’ arrival in India, Warren Hastings (Governor General of Bengal) declared that the Indians were to be ruled by their own laws which existed only in Sanskrit and embarked on a mission of “a complete digest” of laws, figures, customs and works (78). Jones’ appreciation of ancient India, its literature and philosophy can be seen from his works on comparative literature and philosophy. Jones’ English translation of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, the greatest work of dramatic literature, excited his European contemporaries like Herder and Goethe, and he also translated (not quite completely) the Gitagovinda, called the “Indian Song of Songs” into English (Majeed, 20). Jones compared Indian philosophy to that of the Greece and Rome, and suggested that Indians or Indian philosophy may have influenced Greek philosophers. Jones’ legal works on India had considerable influence on the utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and James Mill (Majeed, 21-2). Romila Thapar (1978) suggests that the study of Sanskrit as one of the Aryan languages was significant for the Western scholars because Sanskrit is believed to belong to a period earlier than that of Greek, and thus it deserves more attention and places the language itself to be “in a purer state of preservation” (3). It is important to recognize the political context of the scholarship, which initiated the efforts, and its purposes. As indicated above, this study arose principally from the East India Company and the scholars, to use Said’s vocabulary, were the early Orientalists who were mostly legal scholars with administrative positions in the British India. In a discussion on the distinction between pure and political knowledge, Said (2003) exposes the practical or actual difficulties of the distinction given that political society reaches into such realms of civil society as academy and saturates them with significance of direct concern to it (11). Said establishes the political nature of the knowledge or academic interest of the Western scholars in the Orient:

My idea is that European and then American interest in the Orient was political according to some obvious historical accounts of it that I have given here, but that it was the culture that created that interest, that acted dynamically along with brute political, economic, and military rationales to make the Orient the varied and complicated place that it obviously was in the field I call Orientalism. (2003, 11)

Thus, the portrayal of the Orient in the Western imagination is carried through a whole series of “interests” which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description in their creation of the Orient with certain intentions of not only control, but also manipulation and incorporation (Said, 2003, 12). In the case of India, the general Orientalist portrait of India, and especially, its past was that the Indian society was an “unchanging” and “backward” civilization, where the village community was the idyllic center of Indian life, and such was the background of lifestyle for the qualities like gentleness, passivity and other-worldliness (Thapar, 3). This characterization of the Indian past as static and the people as passive and disinterested in politics had huge ramifications on the subsequent scholarship and the West’s perception of India. James Mill (1773-1836) is one of the most significant figures in the Orientalist construction of India. Mill was a utilitarian, a close friend of the father of classical utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, and the father of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), who surpassed his father’s eminence and made substantial contribution to advance the theory of classical utilitarianism (Ball, 2013, 1). James Mill and Jeremy Bentham formed a political and philosophical alliance after discovering that they were in some respects kindred spirits, and their political project was to reform the British political system and work towards legal reforms favoring freedom of speech and press (Ball, 5). This political interest of Mill seems to explain his enthusiasm to study Jones’ works on ancient Indian legal texts like the Manu’s Laws. James Mill’s massive and most influential work, History of British India (1818), where in he proudly declares and asserts in its preface that his “objectivity” is guaranteed by the fact that he has never visited India (Ball, 9). Mill’s History delineates the Indian civilization as a civilization devoid of the principal values of rationalism and individualism, and that it showed no great concern for political values, which made her vulnerable to foreign attacks and the rule of despotism (Ball, 9). Mill denounces the “rude” and “backward” culture for its cultivation of ignorance and its veneration of superstition, and suggests that a strong dose of utilitarian rationalism is the correct antidote (Ball, 8). Intentionally or not, Mill’s History does offer a defense of the British colonization of India with his arguments crafted in the philosophical doctrines of utilitarianism. Majeed (1992) quotes the English Orientalist, H. H. Wilson, to have commented, “For James Mill, India was a testing ground for some of Bentham’s theories” (125). Some scholars maintain that the main fame of Mill’s History rests on its transformation of utilitarianism into a “militant fait” (Majeed, 123). Besides the prescription of utilitarianism to India, Mill’s critique of Indian practices and customs includes: that the Hindu culture is “immature” and exhibits characteristics of “the rudest and weakest states of society;” that the ancient Hindu texts like the Puranas contained exaggerated ideas about the antiquity of Indian civilization; that the Indian chronologies conveyed little factual information about ancient history and its legends are the “offspring of a wild and ungoverned imagination” (Majeed, 164). Clearly, Mill was skeptical about the positive portrayal of ancient India by William Jones who applauded not only its rich spiritual and philosophical traditions, but also the great power and magnificence of the sovereigns of Hindustan. As Ball notes, Mill’s conception of the human nature is that “man is a progressive being” and education is the chief engine of progress (Ball, 8-9). It seems that Mill subscribed to Hegel’s philosophy of history or at least maintained a notion of history as possessing a directionality or meaning. Despite its embodiment as a representative work of early Orientalism, it seems plausible to say that the influence of Mill’s History is unquestionable. The History became the standard work for East India Company officials, and eventually a textbook for candidates for the Indian Civil Service (Majeed, 128). Majeed argues, “the History shaped a theoretical basis for the liberal program to emancipate India from its own culture” (127). In that sense, Mill’s History was not so much an attempt to understand India, but to change it. And the “change” was double-edged: while it offers a justification for the British intervention in India, India also functions as a laboratory for the experimentation of utilitarianism. James Mill also influenced his son, John Stuart Mill, in his understanding and the conception of Indian civilization. Said (2003) points out that J. S. Mill made it clear in his On Liberty and Representative Government that his views cannot be applied to India because the Indians were civilizationally, if not racially, inferior (14). Generally, the Enlightenment thinkers rejected the religious interpretation of history but theorized their own teleology, the notion of progress –the idea that humanity is moving in the direction of a better and more perfect civilization (Little, 10). Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) posits history as an intelligible progress moving towards a specific condition –the realization of human freedom. Little (2012) puts it, “Hegel constructs the world history into a narrative of stages of human freedom, from the public freedom of the polis and the citizenship of the Roman Republic, to the individual freedom of the Protestant Reformation, to a civic freedom of the modern state” (12). In his lectures on The Philosophy of History, Hegel states that the spread of Indian culture is pre-historical, for History is limited to that which makes an essential epoch in the development of Spirit (2001, 157). In his construct of specific moments as “world-historical” events bringing human freedom to world history, not a single event or an individual in the hitherto Indian history qualify as such like the Napoleonic conquest of Europe. Hegel concludes that the diffusion of Indian culture is only a “dumb,” “deedless” expansion with ‘no political action’ and the Indian people achieved no foreign conquests, having been vanquished themselves on every occasion (159). It seems that Hegel’s main aversion or the central feature of Indian culture and history that troubles him the most is the caste system. Hegel subjects the Indian culture and society to a harsh critique and terms the caste system “the most degrading spiritual serfdom” (162). He makes several references to Manu’s laws and the implementation of criminal law (danda), and comments how there are discriminatory and completely caste-ridden (168). Following a discussion on how Brahmins exploit the lower classes, Hegel makes the conclusive statement that, “this arrangement (caste system) is fixed and immutable, and subject to no one’s will. All political revolutions, therefore, are matters of indifference to the common Hindoo, for his slot is unchanged” (172). As a result, Hegel’s dialectical change and development of history towards the goal of human freedom cannot be applied to the Indian history because of its stationary and fixed nature. The following seems to perfectly capture Hegel’s view of the Indian mind and its civility:

Characteristic of the Hindoo’s humanity is the fact that he kills no brute animal, founds and supports rich hospitals for brutes, especially for old cows and monkeys –but that through the whole land, no single institution can be found for human beings who are diseased or infirm from age. The Hindoos will not tread upon ants, but they are perfectly indifferent when poor wanderers pine away with hunger. (Hegel, 177)

Unsurprisingly, Karl Marx (1818–1883) inherited the Hegelian interpretation of Indian civilization and incorporated it into his materialist conception of history. While serving the New York Tribune’s chief European correspondent, Marx wrote extensively on Indian history, society and culture, which became a source of controversy as the critics of Marx points to these writings (especially those of 1853) for its Eurocentricism (Anderson, 2010, 9) Anderson argues that Marx’s writings of 1853 are clearly influenced by Hegel, and agrees with the French sociologist Michael Lowy’s contention that the Hegelian influence led Marx to a “teleological and Eurocentric” notion of progress in these writings (14). However, as some Indian historians have argued, the distinguishing element between Marx and Hegel’s view of India seems to be that while the latter maintains the Indian religion (Hinduism) as the determinant of India’s civilizational stagnation and political immaturity, the former holds the peculiarities of Indian culture that were really themselves the consequence of Indian social organization –pre-eminently the village community (Anderson, 16). Marx employs his materialist conception of history as he begins to interpret Indian social structure and commerce, and in his articles for the Tribune in 1853, Marx indicates his library studies on the military and social organization of the Mughal Empire and quotes “old Francois Bernier” at length with complete certainty and authority when he concludes: “Bernier rightly sees all the manifestations of the East –he mentions Turkey, Persia, and Hindustan –as having a common basis, namely the absence of private landed property. This is the real key, even to the eastern heaven” (Anderson, 13). This preconception of absence of private landed property was really “key” to Marx’s own interpretation of Indian and Asian history at large, and in his defense of British rule of India. In his article, “The British Rule in India” June, 25, 1853, Marx makes a similar argument for British rule of India as James Mill, and even goes on arguing that the British have gone below its surface into breaking the entire framework of Indian society and its social structure that has “remained unaltered since its remotest antiquity” (MECW Vol. 12, 125). Even though it is understandable given the circumstances of lack of interaction and opportunity for consulting with extensive material, it is quite shocking to realize how narrow and prejudicial Marx’s interpretation of Indian society and culture was. Commenting on Indian society and caste system, Marx argues that, “We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow” (MECW Vol. 12, 125). As Hegel points to the caste system as “the most degrading spiritual serfdom,” it certainly played a central role in Marx’s interpretation of Indian history and society, but the caste system was, theoretically, important yet problematic to Marx because it rendered the Indian social and economic structure unfit into his economic theory of history as punctuated by epochs of different modes of production. As indicated, Marx sketches a concept of “Oriental Despotism,” which he applies broadly to Asian societies like China, Egypt, Persia and India, and argues that the common feature of these societies is that they have three departments of government: that of Finance or the plunder of the interior; that of war or the plunder of the exterior; finally, the department of public works (Anderson, 15-16). In relation to India, Marx argues that “disorganized, patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations” and the idyllic village-communities of India have always been the foundation of Oriental despotism, and that in such social organizations the human mind is restrained within the smallest possible compass –“making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies” (MECW Volume 12, 1953, 125). Marx invented the notion of “Asiatic Mode of Production” as a peculiar mode of production for Asiatic societies including India. Although there are nuanced philosophical debates about Marx’s notion of historical materialism as a theory of history, it seems safe to say that for Marx history is marked by different “modes of production,” propelled by the nature and relationship between the means of production and the relations of production (Marx & Engels, 1848). In this scheme, the Asiatic societies were an anomaly because in these societies, according to Marx, perennially, the state owned the common land and there were no private landed property. The absence of private landed property in Asiatic communities meant that the entire surplus is collected by the state and the village communities were under complete subjugation of the state. Kancha Ilaiah notes, unlike modern European scholars who have conducted extensive study aimed at understanding the political philosophies of ancient Greek political thinkers, modern Indian political scientists and historians were occupied with studying the political philosophy of the ancient Greeks, instead of the ancient Indian political thought (Ilaiah, 2001). However, in recent years, few scholars have turned their attention to the study of ancient Indian political philosophy even though the focus of their attention seems very limited. Indian political scientists and scholars like A.K. Sen and K.P. Jayaswal have been significant in their effort of refuting and discrediting the Western misconception of the Indian or Hindu mind as unconcerned or uninterested in politics, i.e. these nationalist scholars have in some ways successfully refuted the Western assumption and asserted that the ancient Indian mind had contributed much to political thought (Ilaiah, 3-5). However, given the limited scope of attention, it almost seems as if their sole purpose was to reject that misconception. Ilaiah contends that the nationalist scholars like Jayaswal and Sen largely relied on Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Manusmriti or Manu’s “laws.” Kautilya’s Arthashastra is considered as the most comprehensive treatise of statecraft of classical times of ancient India, and according to Shamasastry, even though its scope is wider than statecraft, centrally, Arthashastra argues for an autocracy managing an efficient and solid economy as well as the duties and obligations of a king (1915). The Manusmriti is the Hindu code of ancient India, which deals with the relationships between social and ethnic groups, between men and women, the organization of the state and the judicial system, reincarnation, the workings of karma, and all aspects of the law (K. Jaishankar & Debarati Haldar, 2004). As Jaishanker and Haldar notes, Manusmrit shows that the criminal justice system in ancient India was based on the caste system, and it defined crime and punishment for each Varna in a hierarchical mode (Jaishankar & Haldar, 2004). In Hindu Polity (1955), Jayaswal argues that the Arthashastra of Kautilya (300 B.C.) can be called the Imperial Code of Governance of the Early Mauryas, and asserts that given the extensive references Kautilya makes to social, economic and political issues of early periods it is clear that politics had been studied for centuries before the author (4). Jayaswal toils through the Vedic literature in trying to find and present the earliest records of Indian social institutions, and recognizes the existence of quasi-democratic republics during the time of the Buddha as evidenced by the records in the Buddhist Pali canon (21-22). However, Jayaswal’s cursory look at early Buddhist political organization shows that he is not interested in the marginal political currents of ancient India. But he couldn’t avoid recognizing the unique political institutions inspired and advocated by the early Buddhists, mainly because of the multiple references that Kautilya makes to Sangha communities in Arthashatra. Given that his central concern is to conceptualize an ancient Hindu political thought, it is not surprising to see his hurried scrutiny of the early Buddhist political ideas. Ilaiah argues that the aim of the nationalist scholars and political scientists were only limited to refuting the Western view by constructing a Hindu monolithic, authoritarian and varnadharma based theory of political system (Ilaiah, 18). As indicated, the notion of varnadharma was central to both Kautilya and Manu, and the ancient Hindu polity was essentially a political ideology based on the social structure of the four castes –where each varna or class had its own set of duties and obligations (sva-dharma) prescribed for the sake of the solidarity and progress of society as a whole (Embree, 1988, 221). The quintessential example of following one’s svadharma can be found in the Bhagavad Gita of the great epic Mahabharata, where Arjuna is instructed by Krishna to uphold his dharma as a Kshtriya during the Kurukshetra war (Miller, 1986, 23-5). As Brown (1953) argues, the foundation of Hindu society lies in the concept of dharma:

The conception of dharma was a far-reaching one embracing the whole life of man. The writers of dharamashastra meant by Dharma not a creed or religion but a mode of life or code of conduct, which regulated a man’s work and activities as a member of society and as an individual and was intended to bring about the gradual development of a man and enable him to reach what was deemed to be the goal of human existence. (15-16)

It was only mid-twentieth century when the writings of Dr. Ambedkar first brought light to the study of the Buddha’s political ideas and values. Ambedhkar’s writings sparked interest in the study of Buddhist and the Buddha’s political ideas as a contending school of thought to the Hindu political thinking as presented in Manu’s Laws and Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Ilaiah, 18-21). Ambedhkar for the first time presented the Buddha’s political ideas as a rival and adversary to the mainstream Hindu polity. This provoked as well as excited some scholars, but it never got a wider audience. It is quite plausible to assume that Ambedkar was politically motivated as an activist and advocate for the rights of dalits and untouchables; he fought a constitutional fight for securing a separate electorate for the dalits and lower castes (Mukherjee, 1988). Ambedkar’s extensive studies concerning the historical emergence of the untouchables as a social class would introduce him to the Buddha’s liberal and progressive political ideas. As opposed to Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar believes that the hatred for Buddhism coupled with contempt for beef-eating were the main reasons for making the people untouchables (Mukherjee, 1988, 7). In the West, while there have been great reception and interest in the study of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy in both popular and academic realms, especially in fields like comparative religion and philosophy in the latter, no attempts have been made to study the Buddha’s social and political philosophy informed by the extensive texts of the early sutras. The study of Buddha’s political ideas are inextricably linked to the already existing brahmanical views that are premised on the Vedic socio-moral worldview. So it is against the background of a society largely dominated and shaped its social structures by the brahmanical traditions that the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, lived and expounded his ideas in all fields of human knowledge, including on political organization and society. The Buddha and His Dharma (1957) provides a new framework to understand ancient Indian political thought from not only the point of view of the oppressed masses, but also from a non-Hindu perspective (Ilaiah, 21). As indicated, the study of the Buddha’s political ideas is not only very recent, but is still largely ignored by political scientists and philosophers from trying to construct his ideas into a coherent political philosophy. The absence of such intellectual and academic undertaking has resulted in the restriction of the Buddha’s teachings to religion –disregarding his significant contribution to ancient Indian political thought and its contemporary relevance.


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