The Symbolism of War in Hinduism

The Symbolism of War

by Jayaram V

Since the dawn of civilization, human history has been a history of wars and violence. Wars denote the destructive tendencies of the human race. Although people recognize the perils of wars, they seem to have a life of their own and keep resurfacing in different parts of the world as a necessary evil to settle disputes and conflict of interests. Find here archetypal meaning, cultural significance and symbolism of war (ranam or yuddham) in Hinduism.


In Hinduism war symbolizes many phenomena. In popular and religious literature it represents suffering, divinity, the fruit of bad karma, conflict between the pairs of opposites, chaos, death and destruction, fury of gods, an inauspicious event, the consequence of evil actions, a manifestation of Death or Time (Kala), an adversity, and a calamity.

War is also the harbinger of change. Like Nature's fury, wars clean up a lot of bad karma, evil people, and set in motion new beginnings, ideas, trends and possibilities. Almost every epoch begins or ends with a war or destruction. It is said that at the end of Kali Yuga Lord Vishnu will appear in the incarnation of a warrior, and riding upon a white horse with sword in hand, he would wage a fierce war against the evil forces of the world and destroy them to usher in a new Age of Truth and herald the beginning of a new cycle of creation.

Wars and conflicts are inherent in creation because of the clash of dualities and pairs of opposites. The gunas are constantly in conflict with each other for dominance and control. Hence, conflicts are inevitable. Because of them only the good and evil forces of creation engage in numerous battles in various planes and spheres of existence. God is a warrior himself who keeps chaos under control to facilitate life and preserve order and regularity. He himself unleashes many wars upon earth to cleanse the world, and restore dharma. When the world is in great chaos and beyond control, he personally incarnates upon earth to destroy evil and restore order..

The Vedas suggest that rains, storms, tempests, natural calamities, suffering, famines and pestilence, death and destruction upon earth may arise from the wars waged in the heavens. Indra, the lord of the heavens, fought with the demons. He slew the demon Vrata and released rain water (symbolized as cows) from the dark and ominous clouds. Without his victory, there would have been no rains and no life upon earth.

Even now whenever you hear roaring thunders or see flashes of lightning, know that Indra is protecting the heaven from darkness. The Maruts and Rudras are storm gods. They are also fierce warriors who descend into the sky as an army, dressed in colorful attires and bearing weapons, to stir the atmosphere and precipitate storms and tempests. Thus, each atmospheric disturbance or calamity may be attributed to the warlike acts of gods or providence.

War is thus a common theme in the popular and religious literature of Hinduism. Wars between good and evil forces figure prominently in the epics and Puranas. Life is presented as a battle between light and dark forces. The good forces want to preserve Dharma, the law of God, while the evil forces want to destroy it so that they can have a free reign. The earth as well as the body is compared to a battlefield, where gods and demons wage a continuous war. We are subject to numerous conflicts both within and without because the body is the seat of Dharma (dharma-kshetra) where the same conflict continues in various spheres. Some of them can be mentally overwhelming since all the organs in the body, except breath, are vulnerable to evil influences, which may provoke the gods in the microcosm of the body into defensive mode.

The scriptures extol the virtues of warriors and project them as heroes. All the gods and goddesses of Hinduism, except for a few, are warriors, commanders, generals, and part of God’s righteous army. They carry various weapons of mass destruction and do not hesitate to unleash death and destruction upon their enemies or upon those who trouble their devotees, invade the heavens, defy God or spread chaos. They have both pleasant and fierce forms. In their fierce forms, they personify Death (Kala) and destruction. Many Vedic gods such as Indra, Varuna, Soma, Mitra, Brahma, and Vayu are warrior gods. The Vedas extol their courage and heroism. They not only protect heaven, but also help humans to win wars against their enemies who do not worship them or make them offerings.

The Vedic hymns glorify their courage, heroism, and victories in the battlefield against formidable enemies. The Vedas prescribe sacrificial ceremonies and magic formulae to invoke the power of gods in human conflicts to delude or destroy enemies, achieve victories or establish dominance. Elaborate sacrifices such as the Asvamedha yajna were performed in the past by kings to mark the end of their conquests and celebrate victories against their enemies.

Hindu scriptures recognize the right of warriors to wage wars for just causes. According to the Mahabharata it is the duty of a warrior, or a ruler, to slay those who unjustly slay others. Warriors cannot back away from wars when they are called upon to defend their rulers or protect Dharma. When challenged, they cannot show their backs, nor refuse to fight. Waging wars for the sake of Dharma or to protect people from evil and injustice is not only their sacred duty but also a good karma. When a war becomes imperative, they should readily fight until death. It is obligatory for them to die honorably fighting their enemies, rather than withdraw from it to save their lives.

In ancient India, warriors preferred dying in the battlefield under the belief that those who died fighting honorably ascended to the warrior’s heaven (vira-svargam). There was nothing more ignominious for a warrior than running away from a battlefield. He cannot avoid it or escape from it without attracting divine retribution or social infamy. His very reputation and status in society depended upon his willing to fight and his readiness to fight. Warriors commanded great respect in ancient India and enjoyed many privileges for their duty and loyalty. A king had the duty and obligation to punish those who turned their backs or reward those who excelled in fighting. The Arthashastra of Kautilya exhorts kings to keep an eye on the neighboring countries and protect people from wars and aggression.

The question of whether Hinduism glorifies war is debatable. War is justified on ethical grounds for just causes, but condemned when it is used for evil purposes. A warrior's (Kshatriya's) primary duty is to fight, but in doing so he must abide by the rules of engagement and abide by dharma. He cannot engage in dishonorable conduct. Hinduism recommends war as a final measure and as part of one's duty to serve God or to protect Dharma. No one should resort to war for selfish reasons, or evil intentions, nor should anyone unlawfully usurp another's kingdom without reason. According to the Mahabharata a war is the curse of gods. Frequent wars indicate the overwhelming presence of evil in the world and the decline of righteousness.

Hindu scriptures and law books support wars when they are fought for righteous causes, but condemn those which are waged unjustly for selfish reasons or with evil intentions. At the same time, they emphasize the importance of peace in human life and the need to settle disputes amicably through discussions and negotiations. Wars and conflicts unleash great destruction, destabilize life upon earth, interfere with the order and regularity of the world, cause permanent damage to the preservation of life and lead to great suffering. No one emerges out of wars unscathed. Both the victor and vanquished suffer from terrible consequences.

However, when a war becomes inevitable, one should participate in it as a duty, with detachment, offering the fruit of his actions to God and letting God decide who should be the victor and the vanquished. The Bhagavadgita suggests that some wars are part of world's destiny, in which human beings are mere role players. In his aspect as Time or Death, God determines in advance the fate of the world and all beings. He may decide when and how wars might happen, who should participate in them, and what should be their outcome. Therefore, when a war become inevitable for the cause of dharma, kings and warriors should readily participate in them and do their part as a service or an offering to God, without worrying about their moral justification or karmic consequences.

The scriptures caution people to abide by Dharma and live virtuously. One should not oppress the people because they are weak or helpless. A king must be just in his actions and in his duties. Before engaging in any war, he must consider the welfare of his subjects and how his actions may effect their lives. As the epic suggests, wars do not restore the lost kingdom just as gambling does not recover the lost money.

In spiritual life, nonviolence is the highest virtue, but in worldly life wars and violence may become necessary when virtue declines and evil gains ascendance. When conflict arises, they should be resolved with wisdom and foresight. The usual approach should be to use the four traditional methods, sama (friendliness), dana (compensation), bheda (division), and danda (punishment). It means that first you will try to settle the matter amicably. If it does not work, you will try appeasement through charity or gifts. If it fails, you will try to divide your enemy by inciting internal conflicts and weaken him. Lastly when all measures fail, you will resort to war or use force.

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