Violence, when legitimate and organised can be a positive force for social progress. Proponents of War believe that use of force constitutes the ultimate arbiter in international relations. One could even say that minus War, humans would still be living like apes; hunting, gathering and nurturing in caves. It is only through use of force in domesticating animals (distinct from hunting) and enslaving weaker clans that victors felt secure and had the leisure to settle down and think of art, poetry, literature and culture.
Over time, this ‘security-and-leisure’ led to the unfolding of new technologies and new philosophies that sought to make War more predictable and a cost-effective enterprise. This is where Ethics of War presents itself as an agency that sets and regulates rules of the game to ensure that these cost/benefit analysis and code-of-conduct are not restricted to the victor’s perspective but take into account all possible stakeholders to achieve lasting peace.
This book is an examination of multiple overlapping Hindu texts since ancient times that debate on this complex binary of just and unjust war namely, dharamyuddha and kutayuddha. It outlines an awe-inspiring enormity as also a blending of continuity and change that has remained unexplored. It contextualises these texts into their material and social circumstances and compares these with contemporary trends in Chinese, Greek, Byzantine, and European traditions.
The author concedes that while it is difficult to establish a direct correlation between these classical texts and modern military strategies or to present Hinduism as one coherent monotheistic continuum over two millenniums, yet his extensive research successfully debunks Western contentions that ancient India had no major texts except Kautilya’s Arthashastra or that ancient India lacked disciplined standing armies and complex war-fighting strategies.
The moot point established by this book is that Hinduism has been a rather porous and diverse ‘Way of Life’ and yet in various guises, it has structured the thought processes of successive generations. Hindu ethics widely entrenched Indian psyche through its popular epics. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata portray actions of warriors in moral heroic drift as they present a complex intertwine of rajdharama, kshatriyadharma, kuladharma which offer no easy choices. But there is always space for interpretations and individual initiatives.
Ramayana portrays an ideal narrative of a war against non-Aryans and yet it involves ambush to kill Vaali (Baali). Krishna, the realist of Mahabharata, wants victory at all costs. He gives unethical advice to Yudhishtra to tell a lie to Drona that his son Aswathama had been killed, asks Arjuna to kill his teacher Drona and elder brother Karna while they were unarmed and not aboard their chariots.
Buddhism also challenges sacrificial rituals of asvamedha and rajasuya yajnas and yet in Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Buddha allows his disciples to take up arms to defend Buddhist order. Medieval Jain poetry extols heroic actions of warriors. But unlike the Western classical texts dominated by material and technical details, the ancient Hindu texts are much closer to Chinese as they focus on the moral and the cosmic. Like Sun Zi, the Tirukkural of Saint Valluvar, composed around 11 century, talks of exploiting enemy weakness as the way to victory. But in addition to imposing numerically strong armies he emphasised strong leadership. Brahmins served as generals in the armies of the Cholas and Chalukyas during 10 and 11 centuries.
Impact of Islam
Advent of Muslim rulers from the 9 century saw Muslim theologians describe Hindustan as the land of Kufr which shaped their war ethics as also the Hindu response to it. This period saw a rise in the vanity of personal valour amongst Rajputs at the cost of expediency and strategy.
In 1296 CE, when Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji attacked Jaisalmer, 16,000 women committed Jauhar and Tilak Singh with 700 men fell in the battlefield. This also led to the scripting of Sukranitisara which talks of allocating 50 per cent of revenues for armies. It preaches asanayuddha i.e. cutting of enemy supply-lines by attacking civilians and also permits kutayuddha in defending the homeland against ‘demonic’ Muslims.
Most interesting was the ethics of Rajput commanders in the service of Muslim kings. Udairaj Munshi, secretary of Mirza Raja Jai Singh, edited his master’s military dispatches, published as Insha-i-Haft Anshuman in 1699. Like Bhishma of Mahabharat, Jai Singh puts his rajdharam above everything. As he advances into Maharashtra, he negates Maratha King Shivaji’s attempts for diplomatic negotiations and advises him to “place in your ear the ring of servitude to the slaves of the imperial court.” He also feels no qualms in using kutayuddha by ordering plunder, bribery and desertions in Shivaji’s armed forces. Almost till early 20 century when British colonial rule finally produced a ‘national’ consciousness and created groundswell for subcontinent-wide anti-colonial sentiments, wars under successive rulers were seen as an opportunity for social mobility for men of the lowest classes who could achieve a permanent, often inheritable, elevation of social and material position. Even the British had created a martial race theory around Sikhs, Gurkhas, Dogras, Rajputs, and Pathans and some of these communities regarded military service as honourable while the British showed due deference to their religious sensibilities. Indeed both the militant as also the anti-militaristic freedom movements of India were entrenched in Hinduism. Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj linked the moral regeneration of India with the political emancipation from the British and Subhas Chandra Bose’s insistence on equal participation of women in Hind Fauj was shaped by his aggressive Hinduism of Mother Goddess paradigm.
Though independent India was set up as a secular state, episodes of violent partition, setting up of Islamic Republic of Pakistan and four wars and continuing low intensity conflict with that country have added a slant to all post-independence strategic debates. Western trained intellectuals of India have not only remained preoccupied with conforming to liberal and realist paradigms, they have been equally wary of highlighting any connections between ancient Hindu theories and modern strategic thinking lest they be dubbed as communalists.
However, this proverbial civilisational inheritance was clearly underlined by Nehru’s writings as also in his principles of non-alignment and Panchasheel. This is equally true of several other leading writers from amongst India’s political, scientific and business elite. For laymen, this Hindu incline remains visible in the very naming of India’s nuclear tests and ballistic missiles. Even India’s internal dissensions and insurgencies over years have become far more entrenched in religious affinities.
In this continued neglect of the enormous role of Hindu traditions, the book makes a critical addition to indigenously rooted analyses of Hindu texts on statecraft and should be a must read for students of Indian history as also those interested in Indian traditions in sociology of war studies. Only, the mention of ‘South Asia’ in title seems unclear as this is a rather recent and colonial category. Besides, it does not really look at traditions — like Hindu Kingdom of Nepal — which are distinct yet part of the South Asian reality. Instead of South Asia, perhaps ‘Indian subcontinent’ represents what it seeks to achieve.
(Swaran Singh is Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)