The Bhagavad Gita comprises the sixth book, and is the central component, of the Mahabharata. Because it centers on the struggles between kings and princes, the Mahabharata can be read as a reflection of the ideological components of rulership in ancient India. At its center is a power struggle between the descendants of two brothers, culminating in a comprehensive war that ends in the victory of one branch of the family over the other. Elements of philosophy, religion, and moral behavior appear throughout the poem, and the concepts of dharma (natural law, correct behavior) and chaos are introduced by Krishna, the wise sage who appears at critical moments to explain the wider implications of what seems a simple battle narrative. The speakers in the following excerpt are Dhritarâshtra, a blind king in the midst of a succession crisis; Sañgaya, the visionary narrator of the battle; and Arjuna, one of the five sons of Pandu, the Pandava.
The Bhagavadgita, with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anugita, trans. Kashinath Trimbak Telang (Oxford: Clarendon, 1882), 37, 39–41, 42, 73–75, 87–88, and 91.
A diverse set of writings, the Upanishads were thought to convey secret knowledge and serve as the vedanta, or fulfillment, of the Vedic tradition. Among these documents are the Aranyakas (“forest books”), which may have been recited originally by hermits who had retreated to forests. Throughout the Upanishads one can see the full development of the principle of the joining of the individual self (atman, or “soul”) with the brahman, or “world soul”/ “soul essence.”
The Upanishads, vol. 2, trans. F. Max Müller (Oxford: Clarendon, 1884), 100–101 and 103–105.
This remarkable account of a merchant’s travels throughout Eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India resulted from the singular obsession of a monk in retirement. Determined to prove that a proper understanding of earth’s geography would confirm God’s creation—and that the earth was a flat, oblong table surrounded by the ocean—the monk Cosmas reflected back on his extensive voyages, which had probably been undertaken to further a spice-import business. Cosmas commented on the trading practices of the Aksumites and on their wealthy culture, providing one of the few outsider glimpses of Aksum that are now available.
Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christianike Topographia, Book 3, trans. and ed. Christopher Haas, Villanova University; available online: http://www29.homepage.villanova.edu/christopher.haas/cosmas_indicopleustes.htm<
Kautilya was a political advisor to the first Mauryan king, Chandragupta Maurya, who in c. 321 BCE. created a vast empire across northern India. Kautilya wrote this treatise to guide Chandragupta and his successors, but his text was influential on subsequent states and empires as well. In this excerpt, Kautilya describes how a village should be organized and run; it reflects the pragmatic approach Kautilya had toward politics in general. Although written later than the other material in this chapter, it is another example of the far reach of Vedic influence.
Translated by R. Shamasastry, 1915.
Asoka (304–232 BCE) was third king of the Mauryan dynasty. After taking the throne, he initially pursued the expansionist policies of his father Bindusara and his grandfather Chandragupta Maurya. The Mauryan Empire maintained a large, professional army, complete with an impressive (though militarily unreliable) corps of trained war elephants, supported by a large bureaucratic machine, much like the Han and Roman empires, and indeed the range of terrains and climates in which Mauryan armies campaigned probably exceeded those in either China or the Roman Empire. It is probably this geographic diversity, including the presence within agricultural districts of large tracts of semidesert and scrub land incapable of supporting agriculture that accounts for political division, rather than imperial unity, being the rule in India before and even after the Mauryas, by contrast certainly with China and even with Rome (especially the eastern half of the Empire) in later centuries.
It is thus especially noteworthy that, with the conquest of the kingdom of Kalinga on India’s southeastern coast, Asoka brought almost the whole of the subcontinent under Mauryan rule. But the cost of that campaign in human lives and misery led Asoka to a spiritual crisis and conversion to Buddhism. He forswore offensive warfare (but did retain his large army and the will to use it defensively when necessary) and instead committed himself and his government to spiritual conquest, the welfare of his subjects, and the promotion of dharma (sacred duty, though the term has a number of meanings in Hindu and Buddhist tradition and Asoka construed it broadly and with toleration for religious variety). Adopting the reign name Priyadarsi (“one who looks after the welfare of others”), he had stone pillars erected throughout his realms inscribed with his precepts on dharma. This selection comes from those Rock and Pillar Edicts and is more about the impact of and reaction to war than about war itself.
The Edicts of King Ashoka, trans. Ven. S. Dhammika. Copyright © 1993 Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
The third of the Mauryan kings, Ashoka ruled a vast empire throughout the Indian subcontinent in the period 273–231 BCE. His abrupt conversion to Buddhism in 260 led him to govern according to Buddhist principles—at least as he understood them. His new policies with respect to “righteous” governance were posted in a series of edicts that were engraved on rocks and pillars at strategic spots in his empire. A sample of these contains both very specific injunctions—imposed upon himself and upon his subordinates—and general principles, which could presumably be adapted to changing real-world circumstances.
Ven S. Dhammika, trans. DharmaNet, 1994, http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html#PILLAR.