Hindu Ethics of War: A Gentle Introduction

[dropcap style=”default, square, or circle”]H[/dropcap]emachandra Vikramaditya is that rare and solitary Hindu king of a unique category who rose from being a humble fruit-seller on the streets of Delhi to wresting its throne occupied for nearly 250 years by the so-called Sultanate, an euphemism for barbaric tyranny rooted in a Holy Book and characterised by wanton economic exploitation and unbridled debauchery. Small wonder that our ideological pamphlets known as pass him off as a footnote, a pesky nuisance that interrupts their Grand Narrative of the Benevolence of Islamic Rule over India.

Today, he is an amorphous entity known as Hemu, which can mean anything.

Hemachandra Vikramaditya occupies that exalted league of Hindu Samrats beginning with say, Chandragupta Maurya, who never tasted defeat. In a glorious career lasting over 30 years, Hemachandra Vikramaditya won twenty-two battles until that freak, final and fatal accident that killed him on the battlefield. Had he won in that , history would, if it did, remember a Muslim general named Bairam Khan and not an adolescent named Akbar.

That fateful battle was the herald of the next 200-odd years of an Islamic tyranny clothed in various apparels, which reached its naked apogee in Aurangzeb who made no pretense of the true nature of a “pure” Islamic rule. This period germinated what’s today celebrated by significant sections of North Indian Hindus as the “Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb.” It’s Tehzeeb as long as it is Islamic.

Hemachandra Vikramaditya shares his name with another Hemachandra, author of a little-known work titled, “Laghvannitisara,” a Sanskrit abridgement of a voluminous Prakrit work titled, Brihadarhannitisastra,” (no longer extant) a treatise on various aspects of war as known in Bharata from the earliest times to their own times. Not just war but the ethics of war as known to Bharatiyas.

Hemachandra Vikramaditya followed these precepts almost to the “T” to his own peril. The author and scholar Hemachandra lays down these principles, which is presented as a summary as follows:

  • The king shall not go to war before exhausting all the other three options of Sama, Dana, and Bheda.
  • However, once a war is begun, it must be conducted on righteous principles, so that there may be little loss of manpower, and suffering shall be attempted to be as minimal as possible.
  • Cruel, poisoned, or treacherous weapons shall not be used.
  • Monks, saints, ascetics, renunciates, Brahmanas, Acharyas, those who do not carry weapons of war, the diseased, the infirm, eunuchs, the naked, those who are asleep, refugees, those holding blades of grass in their mouths, guests, and people performing Yajnas shall not be harmed.

This was the underlying thread of the Hindu warfare that encountered something called .

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It is a tribute to the extraordinary genius rooted in the spirit of Sanatana Dharma that not only followed these lofty tenets but developed and distilled them to more sublime standards. The greatest example is to be found in the conduct of the victor.

War is victory. Victory is war.

Three Kinds of Victory

[dropcap style=”default, square, or circle”]C[/dropcap]onsonant with the Trigunas of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, our tradition categorized war victory into three based on their inherent impulse: Dharma Vijaya, Asura Vijaya and Lobha  Vijaya, as  contemplated by and  Asoka, and mentioned in the epics and the Puranas.

In a way, Dharma Vijaya can be loosely equated with the notion of (Righteous War: think of the Pandavas fighting the Kurukshetra war), while, technically speaking, and fall in the realm of Kutayuddha (War by stealth where the only goal is victory at any cost).

According to  Kautilya, meant that a  conquering king was satisfied  with the acknowledgement of his supremacy by the defeated powers. Once the defeated king accepted this supremacy, the political morality and ethics of the time dictated that his peers and vassals would also acknowledge the supremacy of the victorious king. Needless, they always had the option open: to directly challenge the victor himself. When one scratches the surface and really digs deep into the operating principle of current Indian foreign policy, one finds this same impulse. It can’t be otherwise. You can’t alter your nation’s DNA.

The motive was to  avoid war as far as possible, and to foster peaceful and polite relations with  neighbours and foreigners.

In the Lobhavijaya scheme of things, the aim of the  conqueror was to covet the territory and the treasure of the enemy.

In the Asura Vijaya, the vilest form of warfare, the enemy is captured and  deprived of his kingdom, treasure, sons, and wives. Or he was slain and his  country was  reduced to smoldering embers.

For an excellent exposition of Dharmavijaya, Lobhavijaya and Asuravijaya concepts, the reader is referred to Dr. S L Bhyrappa’s blockbuster novel, “.” 

This then is the Sanatana tradition of warfare. The reader is left to deduce the place that something like Jihad occupies in this framework of war ethics.

Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. Author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.