India’s boundaries, Disunity and Institutions

What started me off on this goose-hunt about India invading other countries? (The answer I was looking for was Ranjit Singh’s general Zorawar Singh’s invasion of Tibet. Sandeep got the answer correctly.)

Believe it or not, this was occasioned by me thinking about the question of who will lead the BJP after Vajpayee/Advani. Let me explain.

It is an article of faith among us Indians that disunity is the Indian disease. We were attacked and conquered time and again because our kings squabbled among themselves and failed to put up a united front when invaders attacked us.
But it occurs to me that this belief is not only mistaken, it is also counterproductive.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not claiming that we weren’t disunited, but that we were no more disunited than the others. Also I am claiming that our disunity was not a source of our weakness, instead when we were weak, we were disunited.

I’ll explain.

First, disunity has been depressingly common throughout the world. When the Romans invaded Britain in 55 BC, they found a bunch of squabbling tribes they could pit against one another. Throughout its history, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have been fighting each other. Germans and Italians were a bunch of squabbling principalities before they were united in the 19th century. Name any country and you are sure to find the same story. India is not a unique case.

Likewise, those who successfully invaded us were not a particularly united bunch themselves. Mohammed Ghaznavi wasn’t leading a coalition of Afghan kings. He was just a lone marauder. Ditto with Babar. Even while the the British were expanding into India, they were fighting a civil war, fighting with the Scots and there were pitched battles going on between the Protestants and the Catholics.

So why were we attacked so often? Look up the physical map of undivided India and you will know why. Yes we are bounded on all sides by natural barriers, but beyond those barriers lies barren terrain.

The Himalayas protected us from invasion to a certain extent, but they were also a barrier for an Indian king looking to expand westwards. But then, India provided an Afghan with a much greater prize than Afhanistan provided an Indian. If you are an ambitious king in Kabul, which way would you look for an empire? Chances are, you would turn towards India. The fertile plains of the Sindhu would beckon you, and you would have an incentive to cross the barrier. But if you were an ambitious king in Lahore, which way would your sights turn? Towards the Gangetic plain or towards Kabul? Delhi would be as enticing as the Khyber was forbidding.

Even if you were an Indian king who did manage to reach Kabul (like Akbar or Ranjit Singh) how long would you be able to hold it? Remember that running an empire was difficult business in those times. If your local Governor rebelled and declared himself a king, or was threatened by an invader and asked for your help, you would have to send your troops across the Khyber pass. Half of them would die on the way and the remaining would be too exhausted to fight. Of course, the same problem would face anyone who tried to rule Lahore from Kabul. But then, it made sense for any king who was ambitious enough to simply move over to this side. Why would an Indian wish to move over to Kabul? That is why, till the colonial powers managed to do it, we were never ruled from outside India. Outsiders used to come for raids or come over and stay put, but they never ruled us from outside.

Okay, that explains why we were attacked repeatedly and why we never expanded outside, but why were those attacks successful? Wasn’t that because of disunity?

Not really. Remember that defenders have to be lucky every time, while an attacker has to be lucky only once. When we were lucky, we had a huge empire lead by a strong emperor leading a powerful and well-organised army waiting for the attackers. Alexander was one such unlucky attacker. Even if his exhausted army had marched on to Magadha, it would have been vanquished by waiting troops. When we were not so lucky, we would be a bunch of quarreling kingdoms unable to decide whether the attackers were allies or foes. Now when you are talking of a 5000 year period, there are bound to be lucky as well as unlucky times. When we were unlucky, the attackers came in. In difficult times, morale goes down and disunity surfaces. You are more likely to be betrayed if you are weak and the treason is more likely to be fatal. This is true of all societies. It is not as if Indians are particularly prone to this problem. Our history is explained by our geography, not by some failing in our national character.

But why am I spending time refuting the claim that we are particularly disunited? What has this got to do with the BJP’s succession problems? I think I’ll just postpone the answer for another post because I am feeling sleepy. Stay tuned and feel free to guess the connection in the comments. The title of this post, which I had written intending to actually get to the point is also a hint.

18 thoughts on “India’s boundaries, Disunity and Institutions

  1. I dont have any real idea, but I am guessing that this has to do with the pre-election notion that the Congress was a more disunited and faction ridden party (ruled by an outsider?) while the BJP was seen as a much more homogenous and seemingly solid and shatterproof party. Ironically, the congress came to power and the BJP lost. This seems to me to be in tune with your theory about disunity as not a major cause for defeat and vice versa.
    Now for what would happen after the election verdict, is projecting your thesis. Consolidation would result in the congress while the BJP starts discovering ‘weaknesses’ ‘conflicts’ and ‘disunity’. The sucession issue is therefore one of those bones of contention?
    Vajpayee & Advani are seen as those leaders who can take the fight to the other camp (?) but a sucessor… hey now I am sleepy. So I’ll stop here.

  2. Good write-up. One question remained unanswered … why did the British succeed to run the empire from overseas whereas others failed according to your thesis?
    I didn’t know that Ranjit Singh had actually conquered Kabul and even attacked Tibet! That’s quite interesting.

  3. The analysis is excellent. But does not take into account the religious factors that were so pervasive in ancient India.

    Monarchies throughout the world drew both their reason-for-existence and way-of existence from religious and spiritual mores.

    India was no different – and the “Rajdharma” as enshrined in our scriptures was the benevolent monarchy that characterized the non-expansionist Europe of a particular medieval period.

    Invasion was not envisaged as a “necessary” thing for a Kshatriya. After all, we did have concepts of subordinate kings under an emperor and so on – there was no reason for not ruling Kabul from afar as the British had done.

  4. Anand,
    Not quite. That is not the point I will be driving at.
    Das, A partial answer to your question is better communications and technology, but the full answer will be part of the next post.

    Seven times Six,
    Have you heard of something called the Ashwamedha Yaga? Where they set a horse loose and wherever it strayed, the ruler of that country was supposed to submit and pay tribute or put up a fight? The Kshatriya Dharma involved not just ruling, but also fighting. It enshrined virtues such as bravery and courage. It was considered an honour to die in battle. And how do you think these subordinate kings got to be subordinate to the emperor? By voluntarily submitting to him because they were dazzled by the his leadership skills and benevolence? I really don’t know where people got this absurd idea that Hinduism is some kind of non-violent religion. I suppose it is because of Gandhi-worship. People wished so hard to believe that Gandhiji was restating some kind of timeless truth enshrined in Hinduism that they ignored everything that did not fit their view.

  5. Das,
    Ranjit Singh was mainly responsible for putting Kashmir under a Hindu king (and hence, depending on your outlook a) causing the Kashmir problem or b) ensuring that Kashmir stays in India) This guy Zorawar Singh was responsible for annexing Ladakh. His invasion of Tibet however took place after Ranjit Singh’s death.

  6. Ravikiran,

    Hinduism IS a non-violent religion. Just because some crazy people did stupid things in the name of religion (like the 9/11 terrorists) doesn’t mean there’s a problem with the religion. I dare you to explain how Hinduism has been violent so that I can rip it to shreds.

  7. {start obvioustruth} On a tangent. There was never a religion called Hinduism. What is Hinduism is a moniker slapped on Indians.
    {end obvioustruth}

    So what is “Hinduism”? Well, there was a certain thing called Sanathana Dharma. which were originally meant to be basic tenets/ideas towards attaining god/salvation.

    Even an atheist, such as many of us on this blog and others, could still be hindus. Not that it would make our lives any better. Or any sweeter.

  8. {Sigh}
    Not that old argument again!
    Listen, I don’t want to get into an argument about how violent Hinduism is on this thread. I happen to think that compared to Islam, Hinduism is a mild religion. My only point is that it is not a non-violent religion. You probably know that the Bhagavad Geeta was pretty much an exhortation to Arjuna to rise up and fight a violent war even though the aftermath of the war would be horrible. Now you may say that the book doesn’t endorse random, brutal or unjustified violence, and I will agree with you. Just don’t blame Hinduism for some hypothetical tendency among our kings to eschew wars of conquest, especially when there is no evidence whatsoever that they had such a tendency, let alone were influenced by their religion to have such a tendency.

  9. Ravikiran, the Ashwamedha Yagna just underlines my point that Indians had a concept of an Emperor and subordinate kings [and consequently could have well ‘annexed’ South-East Asia and Afghanistan] Just that in Rajdharma, it wasn’t envisaged as a necessary trait – this is orthogonal to valor and bravery being touted as necessary traits.

    If you look at Semitic religions and consequently Semitic monarchies – expansionism is considered a laudatory trait. This wasn’t so in India.

    Even the Ashwamedha Yagna had so many entailments to a wannabe Emperor [halo on the head et al] that it was not just an expansionary concept.

  10. Look what evidence do you have to prove that expanding the empire was considered a subordinate virtue to actually ruling it? And why are you trying to explain a phenomenon that does not exist? We had our empires. The Mahabharata tells us that Yudhishtira ended up with a huge empire after he performed the Rajasuya Yaga. We had a Magadha empire that existed in one shape or the other for hundreds of years. Ashoka’s empire would be almost as big as the Roman Empire at its peak. We had the Satavahanas, Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas all forming empires of varying sizes.

    So whatever their religion told them, they certainly did not follow it. If your theory is better than mine, it has to explain both why we formed empires and also why the empires did not go beyond the Khyber pass. The geography theory explains both. The religion theory does not.

  11. Ravi, I think you are promoting certain fallacies. You use the word ‘we’ to designate a large and varied group of people who never in their lives of histories would have imagined that a united front on their part would have been possible or even desirable. A more appropriate comparison would be between Germany and Italy on the one hand, and Rajputana and the Maratha Federation on the other.

    The core reason for British success in creating Modern India, was their goal of Colonisation, as against outright rule as in the case of all the other guys who came before them. The fact that they wanted to bring order and make an environment in which they could do business, rather than create an empire purely for the sake empire. No matter what anyone says, Modern India, even Akhand Bharat has no meaning or substance before the British consolidation.

    At another place you say that Nepal is as good as a part of India, except for British benevolence. I don’t think you will get that answer from most people who live in Nepal. They are a fairly proud and martial race and would fight any attempts at annexation by a “Hindu” India.

    Admittedly I am not trying to refute your theory, and infact I prefer to think in terms of ‘identity’ rather than ’empire’, a liberal vice I guess :-).

    six_times_seven, I’de like to add that you can have to look at more recent evidence, that Hindu kingdoms were inherently expansionary, I don’t think any of the Peshwas or the Maratha Sardars had halos on their heads, nor did Shivaji till the 1960s. That did not stop them from extending control over large areas of the country.

    I don’t know what fanciful stories you have heard that particularly distinguish Indian kings from their Semitic, Persian, Roman or for that matter Mayan counterparts. But all empires have been built because of a Martial spirit in the hearts of their builders, there may have been supporting causes like Honour, Business, Divine Right etc. but unless the neccessary condition of Militarism was not fulfilled that others would not suffice.

    Indians and Hindus are just normal guys, they suffer from all the proclivities of normal human beings even those of violence and empire, give them/us a break and get on with it.

  12. Gautam: Indians/Hindus might suffer from the same proclivities, but that doesn’t mean that societal norms don’t have their way with people. Do you mean to say, for e.g., that Indians/Hindus have an inborn conservative proclivity. Of course not – it is the set of societal mores which make them that.

    Also, reg. Marathas et al: my hypothesis referred to older kingdoms with all their Rajdharma baggage – not to the recent ones like Shivaji et al.

    Ravi: We might have had empires, but that still doesn’t refute the theory of expansionism not being considered a laudatory trait. And also, I never said your geographical theory didn’t hold. Of course it matters that we have mountains and seas on all sides. Just that it isn’t sufficient to explain the dynamics of the Indian monarchical scene back then. Even Swami Vivekananda had something to say about this.

  13. Well then what would refute the theory that expansionism was not considered a laudatory trait? I give you religious concepts that tell you that Hinduism extolled bravery and conquest, and you tell me “perhaps, but they are still subordinate virtues.” I point out that wars of conquest were in fact as common in India as in other countries and you tell me that it still does not prove anything about what their religion told them to do. Tell me what would refute your theory then. Keep in mind that I can’t travel back two centuries and convince Swami Vivekananda that he was wrong.

    Gautam I think that you are wrong too, but I will make that part into a separate post.

  14. Ahhhh, it feels good to meet someone who feels the same way as me. It is mind-boggling, the high number of people who believe in the “peaceful Hinduism” crap. Yes, I would say gandhiji is the main reason for this.

  15. RR> Indians had the Ashwamedha Yagna, and Magadha et al empires. The Yagna indicates Hinduism extolled conquest. The empires indicate that social mores weren’t against expansionism.

    SS> First off, the Ashwamedha Yagna was not about expansionism. Second off, most of the conquests did not ALWAYS happen for expansionary reasons (Some for political reasons, some for stability, and yes some for expansionism)

    Why do I say this?
    We had far so many kingdoms strewn across an India which had a fair extent of cultural identity. Why weren’t there empires or at the very least pseudo-empires constantly? Look at Europe: Even without that much of an identity – they always had a few very strong empires ruling across Europe.
    THAT is why I say expansionism wasn’t considered that important.
    Another clue is the lack of a military science in India.

    Tell me how your theory addresses this aspect.
    Just because there were a few empires like Magadha does NOT answer it btw.

    RR> We had the Khyber pass and seas. So an India, though militarily acute, didn’t ‘expand’

    SS> We had trade routes with the Middle East and further west didn’t we? A militarily acute India – which was so rich and all that – would have made use of that. Also, why didn’t we expand our empire to the South East. As a matter of fact: Ashoka’s empire DID extend to South-East Asia. Why no one else?

    Last off: I am NOT saying Hinduism is peaceful “and all that crap”. I also did not say our kings were all monks sitting in a monastery…
    All I am saying is that the SOCIAL MORES at that time were so warped (and and still are IMO) that we didn’t realise our full military potential.

    To attribute all that to geography is not dharmic.

  16. Interestingly, this concept of geographical reasons overriding any religious ones, is mirrored in Swami Srila Prabhupada’s (of the Hare Krsna movement) explanation of the etymology of the word ‘Hinduism’…

    “Hinduism” is actually a contrived word. “Hindu” is not a word found in the Sanskrit dictionary. Rather, it comes from a mis-pronunciation of “Sindhu”, the Sanskrit name for the river, Indus. The word “Hindu” came into being as a result of the Mohammedans having difficulty pronouncing the letter “S”. Thus, their use of the word to describe people living by the Indus river became “Hindus” rather than “Sindus”. In fact, the term Hindu is more a geographic description than a religious description.

Comments are closed.