Religious Justifications for and Uses of Violence (John Cort, Summer 2005)

Compiled by John Cort

Original prompt:

A colleague who is not a South Asianist is preparing a course on religious justifications for and uses of violence. Much of the course focuses on Europe & America, but they want to include some materials from Indic religions. So, any suggestions for good readings (as well as visual materials & web sites) that are accessible in a comparative undergraduate class, and teachable by a non-expert, on things such as ksatriya-dharma, Rajput valorization of war, bali-dana, terrorism, just war theory, death penalty, self (or national) defense, etc., would be most appreciated — both normative and descriptive.



I’d highly recommend Tessa Bartholomeusz’s _In Defense of Dhamma: Just-war ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka_ (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), which is out in paperback, and which I’ve used successfully in class before.


Babb’s new book, Alchemies of Violence


Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, rev. ed. Calif


It seems to me that the relevent verses in the Bhagavadgita should be essential to any attempt to discuss the religious justifications of violence in the Hindu tradition. It does not have to be a very long passage.


One good source might be _Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags_, by Sumit Sarkar et al. There has also been quite a bit written about the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat. But maybe a more accessible entry-point into the Gujarat issue would be the film _The Final Solution_ by Rakesh Sharma.


Khaki is out of print. A new pub. Three Essays has a variety of titles on communalism and violence, might work. glad to give you the information directly. Also suggest a new Manohar Violence/Nonviolence. some excellent essays

Ahmad. On Communalism and Globalisation. Three Essays. pa.

Dube. The Path of the Parivar. hb only Three Essays

Khalidi. Khaki and the ethnic Violence in India. Three Essays. hb.

Violence/Nonviolence: Some HIndu Perspectives. ed. Vidal. Manohar. 2003. large hb volume, collected essays, excellent.


Regarding the violence in Gujarat, the news stories about the terrorist attach at the Swaminarayan monument, Akshardham, in Gandhinagar, Gujarat are still available on the BAPS Swaminarayan web site:

A brief chapter about that attack is in Williams on South Asian Religions and Immigration, Ashgate Publishers, 2004, pp. 132-137.


the Mahabharata is full of violence, karmic retribution, and mayhem. The Massacre at Night (Oxford World Classics) is a good source


I would definitely emphasize the way almost all major Hindu deities carry

arms of some sort of the other. It would be useful to speak about Durga, the

deity of war, par excellence and recommend reading of Devi Mahatmya for

violence and war in the celestial world. Thomas Coburn would be useful, and

for an easy reading Nilima Chitgopekar, ‘The Book of Durga’ ( Penguin

2003) which explains this phenomenon as well .


The most vivid sources for studying violence and mayhem, and

instructive because they portray societies in change and from a close-

to-the-ground level, are medieval oral epics like Alha, Pabuji,

Devnarayan, Palnadu, and “Elder Brothers”, all of which can be read at

least in part in English tranlation.

For Alha, it would still have to be the Waterfield translation, with

Grierson’s notes. Make-do but still a compelling narrative.


Robert J. Zydenbos. “Jainism as the Religion of Non-Violence.” In:

Violence Denied. Violence, Non-violence and the Rationalization of

Violence in South Asian Cultural History, ed. K.R. van Kooij and J.E.M.

Houben. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Pp. 185-210.

– provides philological and theoretical material for reconsidering the

caricatural, yet widely popular image of Jainism as thoughtless and

utterly unrealistic super-pacifism, along with historical backup

material to make the argumentation convincing. (Off-list responses are


The volume contains contributions by different authors about thoughts

about violence in South Asian religious traditions.


In the van Kooij and Houben volume mentioned above, the articles by Bodewitz and

Houben are especially helpful for background for your colleague. I wouldn’t recommend them for an undergraduate classroom, but I definitely would recommend them as required reading for the instructor and would definitely use them in a graduate classroom.

Laurie Patton, forthcoming “Tales About Harm: An Overview of Himsa in Early

Brahmanical Narratives,” in a volume edited by Richard King and John

Hinnells on violence in south asia–not sure yet of the title, looks at stories (and legal vignettes) about harm within Vedic, Upanishadic, Epic, and Shastric material from the perspective of narrative and trauma theory. I argue that too often we read early Indian materials for “evidence” of “doctrinal stances” rather than as complex narratives in their own right with complex attitudes toward violence that cannot be boiled down to a single or even a bundle of doctrinal perspectives.

I use Val Daniels’ work on recently-told narratives about violence in Sri Lanka to think back through the early cases. The article doesn’t engage the very important historical debate re the origins of ahimsa, but rather it suggests a complementary way of reading the ancient materials.


K. N. Upadhyaya. “The Bhagavad Gita on War and Peace.” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 19, No. 2. (Apr., 1969, Special issue on “On Violence and Nonviolence East and West.”)

I [John Cort] then sent the following second prompt:

Thanks to everyone for the many suggestions — most of which dealt with

contemporary issues at the intersection of religion & politics.

Let me refine my query to cover two areas on which no one responded —

remember, I’m looking for good teachable sources for undergrads.

1. Ksatriya dharma, Rajput izzat, and various dharmic and other

ideologies of warrior livelihood

2. The theology of bali dan to the goddess — why is she so insistent

on goats, chickens, & buffalo?



Susan Wadley’s new book on Raja Nal is about the view of a a Non-rajput king about

Rajput ‘ness’. Of course, Lindsey Harlan’s book on the hero is about the best

out there. You might look at the Rajasthan epics in the older Oral Epics

of India book. Korinne’s Schommer’s piece. And of course the historicans

are now challenging the view that rajputs were always ‘rajputs’.


I would strongly recommend the articles in the Hedgehog Review,

Vol. 6, Issue 1, 2004, which is a special issue related to violence and

mayhem. It has south Asian perspectives (an interview with Veena Das),

and a good synthesis by Juergensmeyer, as well as more theoretical

articles such as Girad. One that students find challenging is William

Cavanaugh’s article, which questions the link between religion as



Here there are few titles from my research files concerning the point 1

(1. Ksatriya dharma, Rajput izzat, and various dharmic and other ideologies

of warrior livelihood):

-A. Chattopadhyay, Martial Life of Brahamans in Early Medieval India as

Known from the Kathasaritsagara, in Journal of the Oriental Institute,

Baroda, 16(1966), n. 1, pp. 52-59.

-D.H.A. Kolff, Sannyasi Trader-Soldier, in The Indian Economic and Social

History Review, VIII(1971), n. 2, pp. 213-220.

-D.L. Lorenzen, Warrior Ascetics in Indian History, Journal of the American

Oriental Society, 98(1978), n. 1, pp. 61-75.

-D. Shulman, The King and the Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry, Princeton

University Press, princeton 1985, pp. 110-151

-J.N. Farquhar, Fighting Ascetics of India, in Bullettin of the Rylands

Library, 9(1925), pp. 1-17.

-M. Fainsod Katzenstein, Ethnicity and Equality: the Shiv Sena Party and

Preferential Policies in Bombay, Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1979.

-M. Juergensmeyer, What the Bhikku Said: Reflections on the Rise of Militant

Religious Nationalism, in Religion, 20(1990), pp. 53-75.

-M. Neog, A Militant Vaiava Sect: The Mayamariya, in Journal of Indian

History, LVI(1978), n. 3, pp. 417-427.

-M. Thiel-Horstmann, Warrior Ascetics in 18th Century Rajasthan and the

Religious Policy of Jai Singh II, in G.H. Schokker (a cura di), Proceedings

of the Third Conference on Devotional Literature in New Indo-Aryan Languages,

Leiden 1991.

-S. Banerjee, Warriors in Politics: Hindu Nationalism, Violence, and the

Shiv Sena in India, Westview Press, Boulder-Oxford 2000.

-V. Bouillier, La violence des non-violents ou les asctes au combat, in

D. Vidal, G. Tarabout, . Meyer (a cura di), Violences et non-violences

en Inde, ditions de l’cole des Hautes tudes en Sciences Sociales, Coll.

Pururtha n. 16, Parigi 1994, pp. 213-243.

-W.G. Orr, Armed Religious Ascetics in North India, in Bullettin of the

Rylands Library, 24(1940), n. 1, pp. 81-100.

-B.K. Majumdar, The Military System of Ancient India, F.K.L. Mukhopadhyay,

Calcutta 1960.

-E.W. Hopkins, The Social and Military Position of the Ruling Caste in Ancient

India as Represented by the Sanscrit Epic, Tuttle, Morehouse and Tylor,

New Haven 1972.

-G. Oppert, On the Weapons, Army Organization and Political Maxims of the

Ancient Hindus, New Order Book Company, Ahmedabad 1967.

-H.S. Bhatia (a cura di), Political, legal and military history of India,

Deep & Deep, 5 voll., Delhi 1984.

-J.N. Sarkar, The Art of War in Medieval India, Munshiram Manoharlal, New

Delhi 1984.

-M. Deopujari, Shivaji and the Maratha Art of War, Vidharbha Samshodan Mandala,

Nagpur 1973.

-P.C. Chakravarti, The Art of War in Ancient India, Oriental Publishers,

Delhi 1972.

-R. Hume, Hinduism and War, in The American Journal of Theology, 20(1916),

pp. 31-44.


On bali to the goddess, I’ve always found the ‘Sacrifice’ chapter in CJ Fuller’s _The Camphor Flame_ useful for undergraduates.

Some other sources:

1. Susan Bayly, _Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society_, (Cambridge, paperback ed., 2003), 27-70 (discusses warrior ideology as well as blood sacrifice; there are sections later in the book dealing with martyrdom that

might also be useful)

2. Madeleine Biardeau, _Stories About Posts: Vedic Variations around the Hindu Goddess_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). (argues for a link between sacrifices to village goddesses and the Vedic sacrifice)

3. S. Samanta, “The Self-Animal and Divine Digestion: Goat Sacrifice to the Goddess Kali,” Journal of Asian Studies 53, no. 3 (1994): 779-803.

4. David Dean Shulman, _Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition_ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980).

5. Stuart H. Blackburn, “Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism,” History of Religions 24, no. 3 (1985): 255-74. (on how violence creates deities)

6. Isabelle Nabokov, _Religion against the Self: An Ethnography of Tamil Rituals_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. (I’m pretty sure this has a chapter on sacrifice, but I’m moving so my copy is currently in a box)

7. James J. Preston, _Cult of the Goddess: Social and Religious Change in a Hindu Temple_ (Waveland Press, 1985). (about a Durga temple)

8. Das, Veena. Language of Sacrifice Man n.s. 18, 3 (Sept. 1983), 445-62.

9. Hiltebeitel, Alf. On the Handling of the Meat, and Related Matters, in Two South Indian Buffalo Sacrifices LUomo 9, 1/2 (1985).


Leveling Crowds, by Tambiah

Charred Lullabies by Daniels

pieces of James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (of course)

Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition by Menon and Bhasin

Religion and Rajput Women: The Ethic of Protection in Contemporary Narratives (this allong with Menon and Bhasin can be quite strong, esp. in terms of the gender component).


Lindsey Harlan’s book Goddesses’ Henchmen is about balidan (and deals with everything from goats and buffs. to men) and treats Rajput code (esp. re masculinity) extensively, esp in the chapter on Rajasthan and the Rajputs.