A peep into time

A peep into time

War was a part of political life but not a problem in the Vedic world. The justification and critique began in the post-Vedic age. Texts and artefacts...

War was a part of political life but not a problem in the Vedic world. The justification and critique began in the post-Vedic age. Texts and artefacts reveal elements of similarity, diversity, and change over the twelve hundred years between circa 600 BCE and 600 CE. For all their emphasis on nonviolence, by and large, the early Buddhist and Jaina traditions do not contain a strong or consistent indictment of war, as part of their larger realization that absolute nonviolence was not possible in the political sphere.

The deepest self-conscious awareness and reflection on the violence and savagery of war appear in the Mahabharata and Ashoka’s inscriptions. It is only here that we encounter reflections on the tragedy of war perhaps comparable in intensity to that in Aeschylus’s plays.

Of course, the outcome of the Mahabharata events and Ashoka’s reflections on war are very different. In the Mahabharata, there is much agonizing on the terrible nature of a war against kin, but ultimately war prevails. In Ashoka’s case, a terrible war leads to his renouncing war, although his pacifism does not extend to the borderers and forest people.

The political theorists offer mainly a pragmatic set of arguments from the perspective of the vijigīsu. Kautilya and Kamandaka recognize war as a normal part of interstate relations and as necessary for the upwardly mobile king and discuss it in great detail, but they both urge extreme caution and calculation before launching a war.

The Nitisara, which describes the negative fall-out of war with great detail and emphasis, suggests a more negative view of warfare than its predecessor, and its pragmatic arguments are buttressed by what seems to be a moral one about the inherently negative nature of war.

The litterateurs Bhasa and Kalidasa both deal with war, but not in identical ways. Bhasa brings the violence of war onto the stage, gives a voice to the ordinary soldier, and emphasizes negotiation to prevent intra-dynastic conflicts from turning into war. But the more influential view was that war was an inevitable part of kingship, and that its violence had to be concealed and turned into something else.

This required celebrating the king’s wars by making grandiose claims as well as specifying military successes, thereby simultaneously carefully balancing the martial aspect of kingship with pacific and benevolent elements. This is evident in Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha and in royal praśastis.

By the middle of the first millennium, poets and artists had perfected a highly aestheticized articulation of war, which was expressed in poetry, drama, inscriptions, and coins. However, the artha view persisted. In the Mudrarakshasa, political goals are pursued ruthlessly and attained purely through the use of complex stratagems. The ruthless pursuit of political goals is also visible in the animal fables of the Panchatantra, where animals kill or outwit their enemies using brute force and cunning…

An interesting aspect of the Indian attitude toward war throughout the twelve hundred years we have surveyed are the scant details of the many invasions from the northwest. Early Orientalists remarked with incredulity on the absence of reference in Indian sources to the invasion of Alexander of Macedon. The reason may be that the invasion was a brief episode that barely grazed the fringes of the subcontinent, one that was considered more significant by the Greeks than the Indians.

But what about other invasions, for instance, those that occurred between circa 200 BCE and 200 CE? We do not get any detailed accounts of these events in the Indian sources; the accounts come from elsewhere. The narratives usually have to be painfully pieced together from the epigraphic, numismatic, and archaeological data, or from much later Indian textual or foreign sources.

There are a few epigraphic references. Kharavela claims to have defeated the Yavana king Dimita. Gautamiputra Satakarni states that he had destroyed the Shakas, Yavanas, Pahlavas, and Kshaharatas. The lists of victories do not seem to distinguish between “indigenous” and “foreign” foes. Among the many invaders who surged into the subcontinent during the period we have surveyed, it is the Hunas who seem to have left the longest and most powerful imprint in Indian texts and inscriptions, although, like other invaders, they were swiftly assimilated into the Indian cultural matrix.

Early Indian texts mention specific “foreign” people like the Yavanas, Shakas, Tushkaras, Pahlavas, Chinas, and Hunas, and also collapse them into the more generic category of mleccha.

The term mleccha not only referred to cultural “others” (tribals and foreigners) but also contained elements of military conflict. This emerges clearly in the expansion of its meaning in the Mudrarakshasa.

The attitude of Brahmanical dharma experts toward mlecchas was one of great ambivalence, and included attempts to incorporate them into the fold of the Brahmanical social order by describing them as the result of inter-varṇa unions or as degraded Kshatriyas.

The accommodative attitude toward some of these groups was no doubt due to the fact that these invaders eventually settled down and became political elites in various parts of the country and, therefore, had to be incorporated into the normative social order. The fact that these elites patronized Brahmanas indicates that they too swifty fell in line with the king--Brahmana alliance, which was an important long-term element in the Brahmanical ideology of kingship.

It is intriguing that ancient Indian kings generally conducted their wars within the subcontinent, at the most venturing into Afghanistan (in the case of the Mauryas). While armies marched into the subcontinent from the northwest many a time in Indian history, we do not see the reverse process.

The clearly demarcated geographical circumscription of the subcontinent and the fact that it offered a vast sphere for military and political expansion as well as abundant economic resources of various kinds may have been responsible for this.

Another intriguing aspect of Indian warfare is that in spite of the long coastline and history of maritime trade, Indian rulers rarely made incursions across the sea. The only exceptions are Samudragupta’s claim in the Allahabad praśasti to have subdued the island dwellers.

In later times, there were conflicts between the southern kingdoms and those of Sri Lanka and the Chola expedition against Srivijaya.

But generally, Indian imperial fantasies and campaigns remained land-locked. It is surprising that ancient India boasts no elaborate, ostentatious monuments of victory analogous, for instance, to the Parthenon, which celebrated the Athenian victory over the Persians. There are hero stones and satī stones, but these are small-scale affairs. The heroism of warriors and satīs was usually commemorated in images rather than in words engraved on stone.

The most flamboyant advertisements of the military achievements of the great kings were expressed in words rather than in images or monuments. The maximum monumentality these words assumed was when they were inscribed on lofty pillars, crowned by capitals.

There were several ideas of righteous war and victory in ancient India. The epics discuss war at two levels: the higher level (or the mega-level, where the good guys must win), and the nitty-gritty of war, where there is a code of honor that must at times be transgressed in the interests of attaining the higher goal.

The righteousness of war is variously connected with rights of primogeniture, with the idea of the dharma of the varṇas, with the gods and fate. One of the important contributions of the Mahabharata to the discourse on war is the idea that war and all it entails cannot be reduced to a simple formula, whether on the scale of righteousness or any other aspect.

The epic idea of dharmic war is very different from Ashoka’s idea of dhamma-vijaya, which consists in propogating goodness and is completely different from all the other perspectives on war and victory. And although Kautilya explains the righteous victor as one who does not unleash violence on his defeated foe and who fights only for fame, the righteousness or otherwise of war was not a central issue for the proponents of the artha view of politics.

Extracted with permission.

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