For years now, popularisers of complex ideas, such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari, have articulated the anxieties of a generation increasingly ready to accept that modern life is a mistake. Consumer culture has adapted accordingly: the new millennium has ignited many passions for survivalist workouts, Stone Age diets, and a general cultural tone that chastises us for our historical dependence on grain-based agriculture.

This is a good moment in the brief history of human beings as dominant and sedentary rulers of the planet to reflect on the kinds of violence through which we built our societies and states. We know now, after all, that the “end of history” has been cancelled. A curious solace and perhaps the beginnings of purpose may be found in new works of literature from India and the United States that study our ancient or pre-historic existence.

The upheavals of the last few years have led to a sense of gloomy uncertainty haunting many formerly smug democracies, including, perhaps, our own. But how did we achieve the social order we so valued in the first place? In the Agganna Sutta, part of the collection of Buddhist scripture called the Digha Nikaya, Buddha tells his audience of beings fallen from a state of perfection into a world of wrongdoing and violence. They come together and decide to appoint a man to punish the unworthy. He would earn, by performing this duty, a portion of rice from each of them. They chose, Buddha says, “the most handsome and good-looking, most charismatic and with the greatest authority,” and asked him to “criticise whoever should be criticised, accuse whoever should be accused, and banish whoever should be banished”.

The myth of a non-violent ancient India

The historian Upinder Singh recounts this tale in a new book, Political Violence in Ancient India, a graceful and learned examination of the use of violence in Indian statecraft between 600 BCE and 600 CE. To the notion of independent India as the inheritor of an ancient tradition of peace-making, Singh deals the blow it deserves – if not to detonate the idea of India as a syncretic, conflict-resisting society, then at least to deflate its mythology.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru did not conjure the dream of a timeless, tolerant nation out of entirely thin air. Buddhist, Jaina and Brahmanical traditions all idealise non-violence to varying degrees. Yet most dominant worldviews in ancient India were crafted by making their violence invisible or acceptable, and perhaps even desirable, Singh argues. Nehru may have thought of Indian society as inclined to peaceable coexistence, and BR Ambedkar may have chosen Buddha over Karl Marx as a philosopher for his democratic (though not absolutely non-violent) ideas for social transformation. But in ancient India’s philosophical and political treatises, readers would find clearer lessons on how to normalise the violence with which our kingdoms and empires were governed, than on how to eliminate or even minimise it.

Why did Indians, and human beings at large, choose to live the way we do now? The general and longstanding response is that the state’s monopoly on violence is a small price to pay for an orderly society and all the arts and freedoms it enables. Our very scruples about violence and inherent freedom are a product of the modern state; in a world without its infrastructure, what historian could even write a book, much less aspire to imagine a different world?

Singh in no way implies otherwise. Yet in relating her meticulous and careful analysis to the arguments of another electrifying new work, it may be easy to conclude that the minimisation of violence isn’t just a no-hoper in the politics of the state, but inherently and essentially damaging to it. In American scholar James C Scott’s new blockbuster, Against The Grain, violence orders – rather, traps – human beings in civilisations based on fixed-field agriculture, which currently includes the vast majority of the human race.

Cultivation and statehood

Scott wishes to end the popular assumption that the gifts of food security and social order motivated human beings to settle together in the rich, humid alluvium of the Tigris and Euphrates basins. It is true that early hunter-gatherers faced down starvation but it took four thousand years between our discovery of cultivation and the appearance of the world’s first stratified states.

Evidence from these earliest states, in Scott’s charming, even breezy telling, indicates that not only did we miscalculate the benefits of this lifestyle swap, almost all of us were probably forced into its service in the first place. In exchange for the redistribution of taxed grain, settlements in southern Iraq, the Levant, western China and South America enslaved people, building walls to keep them in, disciplining them by force, and enrolling them in labour without end.

Scott takes the view that cereal surplus was the serpent that expelled humanity from Eden. Thanks to fixed-field cultivation, pathogens, incubated in dense dwellings where humans and animals were penned in together, devastated health and life expectancy. Women, who once had fewer children at slower birth rates (carrying too many small infants around at a time would impede nomadic existence) became more fertile, laboured more, and were in turn coerced into producing more labourers. Cultivators became bonded labour on land they might otherwise have tilled without needing to possess it.

Scott’s description of nimble, nomadic hunter-gatherers who existed independent of, and then in opposition to, their fettered cousins in fixed-field settlements, finds an echo in how early Indian kingdoms both hated and exploited the forests on their borders, and the inhabitants within. It may have been a place of renunciation and renewal for individuals, but the state’s job was to keep the jungle at bay. “Military conflicts between state armies and recalcitrant tribals were acceptable even to that prophet of nonviolence, Ashoka,” Singh writes. Even the insertion of asramas and agraharas – places of renunciation and spiritual renewal – into its midst were an incursion that involved conflicts with forest dwellers and “a fracturing of their livelihoods, habitats and culture”.

Hope for the future

How inevitable it all seems now. Singh describes the Chalcolithic paintings at Bhimbetka transforming dramatically in their choice of subject over time – hunting parties replaced by the lone hunter and depictions of pastoral activity giving way to the war chariot and to men riding on animals. Buddhist philosophy eventually replaced the rod of ruling force with the wheel of the peaceful and just conqueror in its telling; but did the rod itself not derive its iconic power, as Scott suggests, from the instrument of the surveyor, who accompanied the tax collector?

In Singh’s study, the implications of Scott’s argument against the state’s moral right to own this violence achieve an illuminating clarity. Political Violence In Ancient India is an intellectual history, and Against The Grain a romantic, even perhaps quite speculative view of practice. But each dismantles, in separate parts, the overarching idea that the state’s monopoly on violence is an indicator of human progress or righteousness.

It cannot follow that a transformation of the state will result in the end of coercion and violence: the destruction of a dystopia doesn’t automatically guarantee utopia. Yet in times of social upheaval, there is comfort in knowing that no political order is foreordained, and that human beings – even Indians – have had their civilisations re-arranged for them, and having done so, may re-arrange them again.

To reach back into our past is to understand that the violence in our societies was formed in spite of a contradictory but equally real human tendency. We were meant not only to toil in suffering, but also to make do; to adapt to our surroundings by causing minimal harm; and to forget the acquisitive envy that we thought was our factory setting. To know this, perhaps, is to meet the idea of a changing world in moral, and maybe even political readiness.