In our previous part of ancient Indian warfare, we learned about a part of the ideology that drove the Indians since antiquity. To summarize, ancient Indians were imperialistic by nature but they limited their imperialistic vision within the boundaries of the sub-continent. They came up with the concept of one-state India and they developed a totally separate Kshatriya caste, whose sole duty was to fight. There were strict codes of conduct for the Kshatriyas and ancient Hindu war doctrine defined two forms of war – the Dharmayuddha (one that is based on ethical and high moral values and enjoys support from society) and Kutayuddha (one that was the mirror image of animal ferocity with no moral standards and righteousness).
In this section of ancient Indian warfare, we will take a somewhat detailed look into the laws that governed warfare in India. Our attempts will be to keep things as simple and less complex as possible so that you can get a quick grasp over the overall Hindu war doctrine in the ancient world.
Ancient Indian Warfare – The Laws of Hindu War Doctrine
Ancient Indians divided the society by caste. Don’t be fooled! The caste system that prevailed back then was extremely flexible and was defined by the job taken up by a person and not by birth. One person was free to switch between castes depending on the work he did. The rigidity of the caste system (that is caste system defined by birth) came later. Early Vedic periods didn’t make any such discriminations.
Now, since the society was divided in caste system with Kshatriyas being assigned the noble cause of Country, Crown and God, it became imperative to have some humane laws that should dictate the behavior and actions of the warrior class. Throughout their training the Kshatriyas were not only put through rigorous physical, mental and ethical training, but were also taught that following the laws will lead them to heaven and failure to abide by the laws will lead them on a path to hell.
In early Vedic era, wars were mostly lawless. However, codes governing war waging came to begin in post Vedic periods before the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were even written down. Laws of war were eventually written down and codified by authors of Dharmasastras and Dharmasutras. The epics and the books of laws came up with special sections that listed all the duties of royal Kshatriyas and common warriors. Here are the laws:
1. A king could be selected only from the Kshatriya caste. The reason was that Kshatriyas were superior in material prowess.
2. Kshatriyas should die in battlefield. However, this was at times violated because many Kshatriyas eventually died a peaceful death. We will come to this later.
3. Kshatriyas were prohibited from taking up asceticism and prohibited from putting on ascetic robes.
4. If a warrior wanted to invade a foreign country, he not only needs to believe that he is in a position to do so but should also send an ambassador who would deliver a simple message – Fight or Surrender.
5. In the epic Mahabharata, it was strictly mentioned that killing an ambassador was against law and the ruler doing so will be condemned to hell along with all his court ministers.
6. The winning army was not allowed to ravage and destroy temples, trees, gardens or agricultural lands of the losing kingdom.
7. Conflicts between kingdoms were to be strictly restricted to the Kshatriyas of each kingdom without instilling any fear in the hearts of other castes, especially among farmers, husbandmen etc. They should be able to carry out their activities without any fear even if a fierce and bloody war is in progress just in the neighborhood.
8. Kshatriyas were to fight one-on-one. This means that one warrior should fight only one opponent at a time. If the opponent was disabled for some reason, one should stop fighting.
9. A Kshatriya who was heavily armored was not allowed to fight a warrior from the opponent army who was not so well-armored.
10. A Kshatriya should never kill a woman, a child, an old person or a retreating warrior or a warrior who surrenders.
Now the question, ‘if the Kshatriyas were forbidden from dying outside the battlefield, how come many of them died peacefully?’ The answer to this question can be traced back to Gautama and Mahavira. They went against the laws that were set by their ancient forefathers and they started the order of the sanyasis or the monks. Over time, these sects gathered enough supporters and their numbers started growing gradually. Eventually, there was a decline in the members of the warrior caste who gave up their responsibilities as set by the ancient laws and embraced asceticism. They started preferring peace over war horrors and hence, they ended up with peaceful deaths.
A few interesting comments have been made by ancient historians and modern Indologists. For example, in 4th Century BCE, Megasthenes noticed that compared to other nations in the world, India was the only place where the defeated kingdom was not ravaged by fires and eventually reduced to uncultivable waste – Source: A Brief History of India – By Alain Danielou, page-106. The author says, ‘modern policy of scorched earth was totally unknown back then in India.
Late Professor H. H. Wilson (1786-1860) also said:
“The Hindu laws of war are very chivalrous and humane, and prohibit the slaying of the unarmed, of women, of the old, and of the conquered. At the very time when a battle was going on, the neighboring cultivators might be seen quietly pursuing their work, – ” perhaps ploughing, gathering for crops, pruning the trees, or reaping the harvest.” Chinese pilgrim to Nalanda University, Hiuen Tsiang affirms that although there were enough of rivalries and wars in the 7th century A.D. the country at large was little injured by them.” – Source.
Thus, laws of war in Ancient Indian warfare were based on ethics and moral values that aimed towards protecting the nation and its non-warrior class of people from the horrors of war. Indians of antiquity gave this world the concept of ambassador, which is present even to this day. Sadly, the world has long deviated from the high moral standards that were designed in ancient India. Today we have been taught to believe that everything is fair in war and total annihilation is the only way of winning. Well, that’s not entirely true because the Hindus of antiquity did exactly the opposite and still the great nation and its culture thrived for millennia and it still continues to thrive in form of world’s largest Democracy. May be, we are just too blind to see that there may be other ways too!