Ancient Indian Warfare – Ideology, Weapons and Diplomacy – Part I

by Sankalan Baidya
ancient indian warfare

It is gradually becoming clear to the world that ancient Indian culture was THE MOST advanced culture in terms of religion, science and philosophy. For long, the Europeans and other western countries managed to show this great culture as a derivative of their own culture simply because they wanted to achieve racial supremacy. The problem is that truth cannot be hidden forever. The truth is that if ancient India did not exist, the rest of the world would not have seen the light of knowledge, they would not have seen wisdom. In fact, the world received so much from ancient India that without her presence, even the 21st century that we live in today would have been only as advanced as, may be the mediaeval world.

Ancient Indian Warfare Ideology

Not just religion, science and philosophy, ancient India even excelled in warfare. Even the political institutions of India in antiquity were almost as modern as what we see today in different countries. The problem with modern world is that even the art of warfare puts less weight to two principal qualities – leadership and courage and uses more of mechanical lines of development. India however, since antiquity, realized that army was important and hence, she adopted the stance of maintaining permanent militia. A separate caste was born out of this realization – the Kshatriya caste or the warrior caste. This gave rise to what is known as the Kshatriya Dharma, which literally means the rules for the warrior community.

The military science that was developed in ancient India clearly distinguished between two forms of warfare:

  1. Dharmayuddha
  2. Kutayuddha

What is Dharmayuddha in Ancient Indian Warfare?

It simply refers to a type of war which is fought on the principles of dharma. This war is righteous and just. The society approves of this war because it is necessary to oust the evil from the society. This form of war will have high moral standards and the warriors will conform to the Kshatriya Dharma.

What is Kutayuddha in Ancient Indian Warfare?

This form of warfare is not righteous and just with no regards for moral standards. There is no valor and no ethical standards are maintained in this form of warfare. It is no less than animal ferocity and the warriors involved in this form of warfare do not conform to the Kshatriya Dharma.

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Elaborate descriptions of principles that regulated both forms of warfare can be found in:

  1. Dharmasutras
  2. Dharmasastras
  3. The epic Ramayana
  4. The epic Mahabharata
  5. Sukra’s Arthasastra treatise
  6. Kamandaka’s Arthasastra treatise
  7. Kautilya’s Arthasastra treatise

Interestingly enough, ancient India possessed and maintained the fourfold force of – infantry, horsemen, elephants and chariots. This classical force was known as the Caturangabala. In case you are not aware, the game of chess which is popularly known in Arabic as Shatranj and Chatrang in Persian are actually derivatives of Sanskrit name Caturanga, which means ‘the chess’. References of this game can be found in the Vedic texts – Rig Veda and Atharva Veda.

The Kshatriya Caste in Ancient Indian Warfare

The people belonging to the Kshatriya caste were warriors. They were trained in the art of warfare and their sole purpose was to fight. Whether there was any war or whether peace prevailed, the army was to be maintained in order to deal with any contingencies arising from outside the borders of India or from inside.

The Kshatriya caste was totally aloof from the remaining members of the society. They were disciplined and educated in the art of warfare. Only they possessed the militant attitude and the rest of the community stayed away from war or war institutions.

They were trained to possess some extraordinary qualities even during the grimmest of conditions that showed up during armed conflicts. The Kshatriyas were trained to cultivate individual heroism, chivalry, nobility and mercy. They had some strict codes to follow. For instance,

  1. A warrior who was heavily armored was not allowed to fight a warrior who was not so well-clad.
  2. A warrior should fight just one opponent from the enemy. In case the opponent is disabled for some reason, he should stop fighting.
  3. A warrior should never kill children, women and aged. He should not kill a person retreating from fight. He should not kill a person holding a straw between his lips – a sign of unconditional surrender.
  4. The winning army, under no conditions, should molest and destroy public worship places like temples. Flower gardens or fruit trees or agricultural lands should not be destroyed.

The Kshatriya caste specialized in one special form of fighting in ancient India. They were trained to fight without weapons. In his book, The Boddhisattva Warriors: The Origin, Inner Philosophy, History and Symbolism of the Buddhist Martial Art Within India and China, author Terence Duke points out that martial arts (for which China has earned fame) actually trickled down to China from India.

According to Atharva Veda, “May we revel, living a hundred winters, rich in heroes”. This means that the country looked upon the Kshatriya caste as the protectors or defenders of the country. As a result, the country was okay with the fact that the Kshatriyas enjoyed higher social rankings and were considered as people dedicated to the noble cause of Country, Crown and God. Thus, the departments of war were not looked upon as war department. They were rather considered Defense Departments. This is why, all military spending was considered as defense spending.

The One-State Idea in Ancient Indian Warfare

Ancient India was imperialist by nature. However, the imperialistic control that Indian kings of the Vedic and later stages wanted to exert was always limited within the boundaries of the nation, which was back then, known only as Bharatvarsha. Imperialistic control beyond the boundaries of the nation was never an idea that the rulers of ancient India entertained.

One important thing that comes to focus that the imperialistic nature of the Indian rulers of antiquity was conceptualized by the Vedic kings and they were realized only by the kings or rulers we find in popular epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata.

A few concepts existed back then:

  1. The monarch who managed to control the length and breadth of the nation was referred to as Digvijaya. This monarch might have conquered the rival clans and chieftains by the might of his sword. The other option was that weaker clans and chieftains might have simply kneeled before the military prowess of the monarch at will without shedding a drop of blood.
  2. The king who managed conquer the whole of India was given the title Samrat. For instance, in the Puranic Period, Haihaya Clan’s Kartavirya Arjuna managed to flex his arms across the whole of Indian subcontinent and thus, he earned the title of Samrat.
  3. Two major ways of showing absolute control over the whole subcontinent was the performance of sacrifices like the Rajasuya and Ashvamedha. Only the Kshatriya community performed this. The absolute control of the king performing these sacrifices would be accepted only if the sacrifices went unchallenged.
  4. There was a difference between the Rajasuya and Ashvamedha. In case of Rajasuya, once the generals of a king (in most cases it would be kins like brothers or sons) returned from successful military campaigns, the sacrifice would be performed. The defeated kings would be invited to attend the sacrifice and they would have to accept the winning king as the emperor with sole sovereignty. In military conquests, the routes would be decided by the generals of the king. References of Rajasuya sacrifices are found in the epic Mahabharata.
  5. In Ashvamedha sacrifice, a king would release a horse from his capital. The horse was accompanied by the king’s generals. This horse was allowed to wander around in the country freely. If a king from a different clan wanted to challenge, he had to either kill or capture the horse by defeating the accompanying generals and soldiers. In this form of sacrifice, the horse would be allowed to travel freely anywhere it wanted and the traversed route would become the actual route followed by the generals and soldiers of the king who wished to become the sovereign power. If the horse was not captured or killed in one year, the accompanying soldiers and generals would take the horse back to the capital where the horse would be sacrificed, thereby establishing the sovereign power of the king who performed the ritual. Ashvamedha followed Vedic religion’s Srauta tradition.

According to ancient Indian texts, a sovereign king would control the whole of Indian subcontinent stretching from the Himalayas to the Kanyakumari. Such sovereign kings controlling an all-India empire were known by several names like Ekarats or Sarvabhaumas or Chakravartin. Kautilya’s Chakravartiksetram has testimony of such One-State India. It is in Chakravartiksetram we find the political term ekacchatra, which literally means one-umbrella.

It was against the rule for Chakravartin Samrats to wage wars beyond the boundaries of the Indian subcontinent. They always considered their own homeland as their only playground. Their entire focus stayed only and only on Bharatvarsha but yes, many people persecuted from other lands always found refuge in India.

Sources: 1, 2

Image source: War in Ancient India – By V R Ramachandra Dikshitar

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