The forest was not imagined or understood in a single way in ancient India. It was a site for and an object of the exploitation and violence of the state; it was also a source of violent challenge to the state. But it was much more. The Harappans accorded an important place to large mammals in their religious and political symbolism. Some of these animals retained an importance in the visual representations of political power in the historic period. Ashoka’s reign marks an important watershed when certain animals – the lion, elephant, and bull – became imperial symbols and shared space with the powerful words of the king, emphasising not military victories but virtue.

In the course of subsequent centuries, Indian political discourse become increasingly anthropocentric, but once again, not all sources tell the same story. The economic and military resources offered by the forest and its persistent association with renunciation and release from the cycle of rebirth in ancient Indian thought were important factors in mitigating its negative representation.

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana contain different ideas about the forest, the latter having an overall much more positive imaging of the forest and its inhabitants. Political treatises such as the Arthashastra and Nitisara recognise the forest as an important economic and military resource to be exploited by the state. The great animals – especially the elephant, lion, tiger, and bull – are important parts of the imagery and allegory of kingship in Sanskrit poetry and drama. The forest and its great animals have an importance in didactic story literature such as the Jataka and the Panchatantra, where they are given important roles in the generation of very different kinds of ethical ideas and political ideas, especially in relation to violence and nonviolence. In all cases, there is a constant engagement with the forest and its inhabitants, both humans and animals – an engagement marked by a recognition of conflict and difference and as well as interdependence and incorporation.

All the views of the forest are perspectives from the city, the capital, or from the dominant religious and cultural traditions. The perspectives of the forest dwellers toward the state are recorded nowhere.

Ancient Indian political history must have included innumerable conflicts with tribal communities of the forest belts, which rarely find mention in royal inscriptions. The stern warning administered by the otherwise pacific king Ashoka to the forest tribes suggests such conflicts. The prasastis [eulogies] of later kings usually advertise military victories achieved against other states. The boast in the Allahabad prasasti that Samudragupta had made all the forest people his servants is an exception, but again, the tribal adversaries are not specifically named. Animal imagery known to kavya [literature] appears in epigraphic descriptions of great kings, but the forest people are largely ignored. Nevertheless, we should not be misled by the veil of silence that almost completely conceals the essential and continuous violence of the encounter between the state and the forest.

By and large, the ancient Indian tradition considers the hunt an admirable royal practice and an important part of the ideology of kingship. Its benefits are routinely listed, although there is a recognition of its risks and of the fact that an admirable royal sport can become a vice. Stronger discordant notes of anxiety are struck by Ashoka, the Jatakas, Kamandaka, and Kalidasa. Ashoka’s abhorrence of hunting applies not only to the royal hunt but also to hunting as a subsistence activity, and he seems to have made strenuous, and no doubt ineffectual, efforts to put an end to it. His condemnation of hunting was part of a larger code of nonviolent ethics, and his prohibitions were accompanied by paternalistic care toward animals, both wild and domesticated. Kamandaka has reservations about the royal hunt on moral grounds, and Kalidasa gives a derisive declamation on hunting in the Abhijnanashakuntala. At the same time, the king as hunter appears prominently on Gupta coinage, as the vanquisher of the powerful animals of the wild – a metaphor for his irresistible power over the animals of the forest, all his adversaries, all men.

Over the twelve hundred years between circa 600 BCE and 600 CE, there was a steady increase in what we would consider two kinds of political violence, one involving the killing of men (war), the other involving the killing of animals (the royal hunt). Both had acquired an important place in the ideology of kingship by the middle of the first millennium. With a few exceptions, both were presented as aspects of kingship that were to be celebrated, not as violent activities that were a source of shame or sorrow.

Military conflicts between state armies and recalcitrant tribals were acceptable even to that prophet of nonviolence, Ashoka.

The exploitation of the resources of the forest and the insertion of oases of Brahmanical culture in the form of asramas [four life stages] and agraharas [royally endowed Brahmana village] involved conflicts with forest dwellers and a fracturing of their livelihoods, habitats, and culture. Political ideology offered a variety of templates within which the forest and its inhabitants could not only be subordinated and eliminated, but also incorporated and assimilated. But even the processes of incorporation and assimilation must have, at least initially, involved much conflict and violence.

For ancient times, there is no data on how many tribals (or royal soldiers, for that matter) were killed or made to kneel before kings; how many were transformed into peasants, “Hinduized,” and absorbed into the caste fold; how many made the transition from chieftains to kings; and how many resisted, held on to their hunting- gathering ways, and retained their distinct social and political identities and traditions.

These histories have to be extracted with great effort by piecing together scattered clues, give us only fleeting glimpses of violent political encounters. But the fact that insurgencies with strongholds in the forested tribal belts pose a challenge to the Indian state even today shows that the age-old violent political conflict between the state and the forest continues, although in different form. The precarious existence of the great mammals of the forest shows that although there were changes in the technology and culture of the elite hunt, the onslaught against these animals continued with even greater intensity and ferocity in medieval, colonial, and independent India. Now, as then, the forest remains a borderland with a difference. It does not lie on the margins of the state. It lies within it.

Excerpted with permission from Political Violence in Ancient India, Upinder Singh, Harvard University Press.