Why We Need Better Attempts To Understand Warfare In Ancient India

Why We Need Better Attempts To Understand Warfare In Ancient India

by Jaideep A Prabhu - Sunday, January 10, 2016 02:03 PM IST
Why We Need Better Attempts To Understand Warfare In Ancient India

Book Review: Hinduism And The Ethics Of Warfare In South Asia: From Antiquity To The Present

Often led astray by his sources, Kaushik Roy fails to attempt to answer the most important questions that vex military historians of South Asia. Such lapses cannot be afforded in a history project as important as this.

Hinduism, and South Asia more broadly, has been a glaring lacuna in the study of military history and ethics. Kaushik Roy’s Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare in South Asia: From Antiquity to the Present (henceforth HEWSA) is, unfortunately, a poor attempt to rectify that oversight.

Although HEWSA passes as an introduction to the uninitiated, it leaves most of the important questions that vex military historians of South Asia unanswered. Although the author’s attempt to place warfare and ethics within their cultural moorings rather than posit them as universal axioms is appreciated, the wider ambitions of his work in presenting South Asia to a Western audience takes away from a focussed analysis of military matters.

To be fair to Roy, however, the topic and timeframe present a Herculean project that would require expertise not just in military affairs but also archaeology and several languages to accomplish thoroughly. This explains why a choice was made – wisely – to restrict the study only to ‘elite’ Sanskrit circles that had the greatest influence on policy. It should also be mentioned at the outset that for the purposes of this review – and most of HEWSA, South Asia is synonymous with India and the dharmic systems that abide within.

Why We Need Better Attempts To Understand Warfare In Ancient India

The question before any study of military ethics is what constitutes a just war and how it should be waged. When it comes to South Asia, scholars would first have to dispel the notion that the region has never known the practice of strategic thinking; second, they would also have to break away from the overpowering Europeanising grand narrative of universal history that places the experiences of the western end of the Eurasian landmass as the normative centrestage.

HEWSA begins by asking basic questions on the nature of war and politics instead of accepting readily available theories from the Western canon. Roy, however, sets up the strategists of India in a conversation with their Western (and Eastern) counterparts rather than in opposition; clearly, he does not wish to settle for the simplistic binary of East vs. West that still colours comparative studies across specialties. This is certainly a strength of the book though also a weakness as I will explain later.

Roy establishes his project as trying to answer four questions:

  1. What is war?;
  2. What constitutes proper justification for going to war?;
  3. How should war be waged?; and
  4. What are the consequences of waging war?

Strategists long before Prussian military theorist Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz have wrestled with these questions, and the answers each civilisation has proposed to these questions are today obfuscated by a 20th-century technological determinism and a Euro-American pragmatism. As historian Jeremy Black has pointed out, not all societies were driven by the motivation to come up with the most combat-effective machines because their worldviews were different; culture is the key to understanding military strategy.

The import of this observation should not be diluted to posit a facile dichotomy of Western rationality versus Eastern spiritualism or wars of honour. In fact, as military scholar Michael Handel noted, the basic rationality of strategy as political behaviour is universal. Kamandaka, believed to be a 4th-century strategist in the Gupta court, for example, speaks of the importance of the people’s support for a righteous war to ensure stability – a value dear to the heart of several Western strategists as well.

(Rama going into battle, 18th Century Painting)
(Rama going into battle, 18th Century Painting)

Yet it would be equally unhelpful to overemphasise the similarities between different approaches to war: Indian thinkers like Chanakya and Manu were, for example, as concerned with the potential for insurgency as they were with facing foreign enemies. Indian authors rarely put their names to their treatises either; furthermore, they usually contained the amalgam of strategic thought before their period though again not always with proper citation. As a result, it is a challenge to date Indian theories of state and warfare as it is difficult to put an author to a treatise. Concerned as they were with dharmayuddha and kutayuddha, Indian strategists were also a product of their times: Chanakya’s Arthashastra proposes a boldly expansionist state as he wrote during the waxing of Maurya power while Kamandaka’s Nitisara is more cautious as the Gupta Empire was on the defensive from nomadic invaders from Central Asia.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Indian and Western thinking on the state and warfare, as Roy astutely observes, is that Eastern societies did not view the state as an abstract principle: there was a relation between tao and the people in China just as there was between rashtra and society in India. European thinkers, on the other hand, seem to view the state more contractually and legalistically, although this is more true with modern theorists than ancient Europeans.

The greatest difference between Indian ethical texts and their Western equivalents, however, is that the former are more theoretical and describe the world as it should be, not as it is, while the converse is true for the latter. Although Roy observes this, he fails to realise how important a point he has stumbled on – Indian morality, even on the field of battle, is not as clearly defined as in the West. This is a strong reflection of dharmic thinking on matters of state and it is possible that Western thinking was similarly and equally influenced by Abrahamic certitude of the world. Yet to be fair, expounding on this would lead him away from the main topic of his study.

Finally, an interesting observation by Torkel Brekke, historian of religion, about differences between Indian and European military thought is that the latter comprises of equal attention to jus ad bellum (just cause for war) and jus in bello (just conduct in war) while the former only concerns itself with the latter. The author mentions this in the introduction but disappointingly never returns to the matter explicitly later in the book. From the structure of other arguments, the reader is only left to assume that it has something to do with how Indian strategists viewed the nature of politics and conflict but some clarity would have helped.

The greatest weakness of HEWSA is the author’s willingness to indulge in simplifications about Hinduism that muddy the reader’s understanding of Indian society. Given the author’s belief that society and culture are inextricably linked to military strategy, this is an unacceptable lapse. For example, Roy repeatedly harps on the role of kshatriyas as the warrior class in South Asian society. While this may broadly be true, it does not explain how most of India’s major empires were not of kshatriya lineage. Nor does it explain how Indian emperors could sustain large standing armies based on conscription if only kshatriyas could wage war.

After the fall of Rome, it was not until the 19th century in Europe that a professional class of soldiers emerged. In the interim, armies were usually composed of farmers who had to return to their fields during harvest season. As a result, war was limited to specific periods of the calendar or the economy would suffer if farmers could not return to their fields on time. If Indian polities did not follow this rule, it is an important social and economic difference that was worth highlighting. Admittedly, Roy merely repeats the formulation of Indian philosophers on the matter but as he has been quick to point out in other aspects, Indian thinkers addressed an idealised world and not the real one. Instead, a brief explanation of varna and jati would have left readers with a clearer understanding of what actually was and what was supposed to be.

Mahratta Light Horseman – Alken, Henry, 1785-1851 (artist)
Mahratta Light Horseman – Alken, Henry, 1785-1851 (artist)

The author’s implicit acceptance of the Indo-Aryan Migration Theory (IAMT) is another factor that mars this study. Basically, IAMT was proposed by British and German Orientalists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries after the discovery of the Indo-European language family and postulates that the Indian subcontinent was subject to large population migrations from the Caucasus and Central Asia in three waves, the first around 2,200 BCE, the second around 1,700 BCE, and the final one around 1,000 BCE.

In the mid-1940s, British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler suggested that these waves had perhaps been invasions rather than migrations but this variation of the IAMT, referred to as the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), did not hold for long though it has been the strawman subject of innumerable critiques of the IAMT. Regardless, given the controversies around the subject, any scholar touching upon the topic peripherally ought to warn the reader of the assumptions made.

Roy suggests that the rules governing the war towards the end of the Ramayana were laxer than in the great fratricidal war of the Mahabharata…or at least, there seemed to be more anguish and hand-wringing at the violation of rules in the latter epic than the former. This he supposes is due to the different rules governing warfare within and without groups.

The assumption here, stemming from his thoughts on the IAMT, is that Rama was an Aryan king fighting a non-Aryan king, Ravana, while the Pandavas and Kauravas were both Aryan families. In the former situation, there were few rules of just war whereas the latter had strict codes. Of course, this fails to explain how Ravana, a non-Aryan chieftain, was a great devotee of Shiva and a brahmin – outsiders would never be accorded a varna (improperly translated into English as caste). More importantly, there is no textual evidence for this supposition in the primary sources – the author cites secondary sources to back his claim, a source whose racial categories are strongly influenced by the orientalism of British Indology.

With the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, Roy correctly points out that these systems are not as pacifist or as ascetic as are commonly believed: the founders of both were themselves kshatriyas and both had several royal friends throughout their lives; Buddha was not even a vegetarian! Buddhist and Jain ahimsa was closer to the Hindu concept as expounded in the Chandogya Upanishad, related to austerity, generosity, sacrifice, truthfulness, and integrity, and not the passive non-violence of Mohandas Gandhi. Roy’s exposition is a much-needed correction to the common narrative on Buddhism and Jainism. However, he insists on seeing both these belief systems as schisms from Hinduism – a view that is not shared by many scholars of the latter.

A whole chapter is dedicated to the most famous treatise on war and politics to come out of India, the Arthashastra. The treatise is briefly summarised before its author is compared to European political philosophers and military theorists from Plato to the authors of Fourth Generation Warfare. Roy relies heavily on secondary sources, preferring the words of his contemporary scholars than of the masters themselves. In the evaluation, the Arthashastra emerges as an amoral text that was quite comfortable with kutayuddha as well as dharmayuddha and considered internal as well as external threats to the kingdom.

An Ashokan pillar (Photo: Pebble101)
An Ashokan pillar (Photo: Pebble101)

Chanakya advocates diplomacy, assassinations, poisoning, temporary alliances, espionage, biological warfare, and any other means that can deliver victory. The focus is on strategic knowledge of the enemy than on tactical advice and Chankaya does not stop with victory: the Indian strategist considers the best ways of controlling a defeated foe as part of his analytical package. Contrary to Western armies, Indian victors allowed the conquered to maintain their language, dress, customs, and gods; only the unrighteous rulers were removed. Unlike Western theorists, Roy observes, Chanakya’s theories make human agency instead of inter-state structure the primary variable in politics. Furthermore, there is no mention of seapower, nor is there any consideration of technology as a force multiplier in battle.

Instead of the long comparative section, the topic would have been better served if a closer analysis of the Arthashastra, its author, and their milieu were attempted. How did the political, social, and economic realities of the early Maurya Empire influence Chanakya’s thoughts? How much is he a product of his time? What were the challenges to Mauryan rule at the time? Why did the Mauryans dedicate their efforts to conquering India and not send their armies westwards? The answers to these questions would have situated the Arthashastra in its own context and revealed more about warfare and ethics in South Asia than do the quick comparisons to Western and Eastern strategists. After all, it is not the Western theorists who are understudied but the South Asian context.

Roy’s discussion of early medieval India leaves much to be desired. Again, led astray by his sources, Roy argues that brahmin intellectuals of the period saw the Bactrians and Parthians as mlechchas because of their patronage of Buddhism. This would not have solved the problem of local Indian chieftains who patronised Buddhism or those who followed it and it seems bizarre that the brahmins would follow this half-measure that achieved nothing. Roy also claims that the Sunga and Kanva dynasties were established by brahmins to fight off the sudra ascendancy seen in the rise of the Nandas and Mauryas! It is in this context, the author claims, that the Manava Dharma Shastra was written and as a result, the primary aim of its author was to preserve the status of brahmins. While Chanakya had concentrated on artha and kama, Manu focused on dharma.

Manu is the first Indian strategist that we know of to mention seapower. Kalidasa is another but in both cases, the authors limit themselves to riverine navies and not bluewater vessels. Manu is also the first Indian strategist to show a liking for cavalry, even suggesting that the king should not wage war in the absence of good cavalry. Chanakya had advocated a balanced composition of forces between infantry, cavalry, chariots, and elephants while Kamandaka had emphasised the shock value of elephants. However, Manu is more cautious than the author of the Arthashastra and voices a preference for coalitions of likeminded rulers against a common threat than a quest for power by one emperor. Oddly, though, unlike most commanders, he preferred fortress warfare to open battle despite the hardships of disease, logistics, and discipline. The army would live off the enemy’s land, laying siege to the enemy’s fort while pillaging the countryside.

In general, Indian strategists preferred to solve things through diplomacy and wealth over arms; this is the same advice one gets from Chanakya, Manu, Kalidasa, Kamandaka, Somadeva, and others though they also strongly advised against shunning violence. Later thinkers, however, accepted the use of kutayuddha more readily, especially if it could prevent war altogether. According to Roy, Kalidasa advised that dharmayuddha be followed only against Indian monarchs and not against the Yavanas; similarly, it was permissible for a victorious king to annex the kingdoms of his defeated foes outside India but not within. The development of a geographic sense of India in this period is an interesting facet that Roy does not dwell on.

The author suggests that Somadeva warned against sending armies to the northwest – this would correspond to the region whence most invasions of India occurred and usually by a foe with superior technology. Unfortunately, Roy has little more to say about this either. Something else Roy mentions is Thiruvalluvar’s advice that an army should look grand and imposing. Clearly, the Tamil thinker understood the psychological dimension of warfare well and tried to bring it into play in service of his patron. The lessons of these books on strategy did not remain restricted to the elite but trickled into the HitopadeshaPanchatantraKathasaritsagara, and other stories in simplified form. What the reception was is a difficult question to answer. One wonders if the wisdom of Indian military thinking was noticed by foreigners when these works were translated, first into Persian and then later into Arabic and Latin.

The descriptions of Indian treatises on strategy raise many questions that Roy does not answer. For example, Indian monarchs seemed to always lack cavalry of sufficient quality and quantity. Yet no king ever tried to address this shortcoming by importing and breeding horses in India.  Kalhana, the author of Rajatarangini, mentions that the Palas and Senas of Bengal attempted to import cavalry from Afghanistan and South China, and the Hoysalas tried to crossbreed Arab mares with local breeds to no avail. When the Romans, Greeks, Persians, and Carthaginians could take elephants from India, why could Indian traders not acquire war horses? Although the problem of a weak cavalry was temporarily solved under some kings such as Vikramaditya of the Gupta dynasty or Harshavardhana of Thaneshwar and Kanauj, it remained an issue until the very end. In relation to the equine lacuna, India did not develop metal stirrups or horseshoes until much later either and this gave the Hunnic mounted archers a tremendous advantage in battle; the invaders’ composite bows also gave them greater range than their Indian opponents. Why did Indian rulers fail so spectacularly in developing or acquiring military technology despite their use of spies or their fame in trade? This would have been an important question in a military history of South Asia.

Indian reflections on warfare declined with the Islamic invasions of the subcontinent. Warriors for a jealous desert god, Muslims rulers removed Hindu advisors of the conquered Indian kings from imperial service and closed the avenue for contribution to political life. Most Hindus who continued in royal service were forced to convert if they wished to retain their positions. The Hindu kingdoms that resisted the invaders, however, did not fare better than their ancestors did in terms of learning newer and more effective military strategies and technologies.

The Rajputs, for example, held to their code of personal glory on the battlefield and failed to see the evolution of mass tactics; similarly, the Nayakas in the south were disdainful of gunpowder and thought it to be weapons for the cowardly – a regressive attitude that only shattered their armies when they went up against more modern opponents. The Rajput and Nayaka views were prevalent among European knights too when they first came across the Ottoman janissaries. The social and economic structure of feudal Europe had created the European knight, a fearsome force in one-on-one combat but no match for hurtling pellets of lead. Where the Europeans adapted quickly, Indian polities failed to do so. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Shukranitisara, a work by an unknown author written around the late 17th century.

The Shukranitisara, like any work on military matters, emphasises the training of soldiers to fight with or without arms. However, it shuns the use of warfare with mechanical devices – gunpowder, siege engines, etc. – as asurayuddha, a particularly barbaric form of kutayuddha. The concept existed even in earlier treatises such as the Arthashastra but where Chanakya used the term ‘asurayuddha‘ to define heinous practices to be avoided by a victor, such as the massacre of the males of the royal household, the violation of their women, and the appropriation of their wealth, the author of Shukranitisara reserved the term for battlefield practices that had become routine.

One might pontificate over the degeneration of chivalry but such matters concerned only romantic bards while the strategists were not beyond recommending kutayuddha in the pursuit of a quicker and cheaper victory. Not only were foreign invaders less delicate about such concerns, but Muslim armies frequently desecrated Hindu places of worship, forced conversions, massacred the citizenry, raped and sold the royal women into slavery, and killed their menfolk. It was in response to this barbarism that Rajput women took to jauhar.

English fleet attacking Suvarnadurg, Konkan Coast
English fleet attacking Suvarnadurg, Konkan Coast

Although Roy accepts the atrocities of the Muslim conquests, he nonetheless enters into the record Romila Thapar’s claim that there was no sense of Hinduism in this period. He also cites Richard Eaton on how limited the damage from the Islamic invasions were. This is deeply unconvincing given the tales of conversion and massacre contained in his own study.

Roy takes the reader through the Indian freedom struggle and ends his study with a few short comments on India’s nuclear posture. However, these periods hardly reflect any thought on the ethics of warfare understood in the conventional sense. Even accepting Chanakya’s paradigm of inter- and intra-state warfare, passive non-violence seems a tool that may have, at best, suited a particular situation rather than be an entire ethical theory of warfare in itself.

Perhaps the biggest question Roy does not attempt to answer is why Indian polities remained thoroughly inept at war. Barring a brief period in the Chola Empire, no Indian kingdom ever extended beyond the boundaries of Akhand Bharat; furthermore, there was a total failure to develop or even adopt superior technologies in a timely manner. Why were Indian monarchs not able to do what rulers in most other parts of the world did routinely?

A second ‘big question’ Roy could have shed light on is to what extent these theories were discussed and debated. Was there even a limited and elite public sphere in which ideas of warfare were discussed and improved upon? How well did these ideas survive transmission as one dynasty replaced another? Roy indicates that Indian treatises dealt with the ideal world more than they dealt with reality. However, what effect did the results of real battles have on them?

It is possible that these questions can never be answered for lack of sources. Nonetheless, they deserve a vigorous discussion that HEWSA did not provide. The author’s excessive reliance on secondary sources and translations also deserves comment. Although South Asia is a difficult region that demands its scholars to have a command over several languages and kills, any analysis as important as Roy’s project ought not to be done without expertise in at least some of the skills and languages; perhaps a collaborative work would have achieved the desired result better. It is said that reviewers often discuss the book they would have written rather than the book at hand – this may be the case here too but any study that claims to discuss the ethics of warfare in South Asia cannot afford these lapses, particularly in a field where much of the groundwork is yet to be laid.

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.
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