Is War Justified in Hinduism?
Kurukshetra battle scene
Question: I want to know what Hinduism has to say about wars. Are wars justified in Hinduism? How does it reconcile the idea of nonviolence with the many wars that were fought on the Indian soil in its long history of several thousand years?
What I am going to present here may be at odds with some of the beliefs which people may have about wars and their justification. Hinduism is not a pacifistic religion, although in some respects it is indeed a peaceful religion. However, it is wrong to believe that Hinduism is only for peace and does not sanction war when it becomes necessary. It is important to remember that Hinduism was originally a religion of the warriors and noblemen, and wars were a constant feature of Indian political scene.
Vedic sacrifices were originally meant to assist kings in their wars, whether it was Asvamedha Yajna or Rajasuya Yajna or the ritual for the birth of an heir to the throne. The kings acted as the hosts (yajamana) of the sacrifices and paid for the expenses, besides giving expensive gifts and land grants to the priests for their services. The Vedic kings, noblemen, feudal lords and warriors (collectively mentioned as Aryas), not only fought wars but also studied the Vedas, hosted elaborate sacrifices and spent time contemplating upon the wisdom of the Upanishads. They worshipped Kshatriya gods and paid them homage through numerous sacrifices and invocations. If you are a pacifist or have a negative opinion about wars, or think that Hinduism is different from other world religions with regard to wars, you may feel disappointed.
From a spiritual perspective, Hinduism is a religion of peace, with nonviolence as its highest ideal. However, from worldly perspective, it stipulates guidelines to deal with the problem of war, as a part of the Kshatriya dharma or the duty of kings and warriors. These two ideas are not contradictory. In spiritual life, one has to renounce the world and not actively participate in any worldly activity including a war. However, even a spiritual person such as a royal priest (raja yogi) or a family guru is obliged to bless a king or a warrior who approaches him for success in the battlefield. In the Ramayana, Sage Viswamitra did not fight demons, who were causing trouble and disrupting Vedic sacrifices. Instead, he engaged the services of prince Rama and Lakshmana to fight them and protect them. The right to self-defense is universally recognized in all cultures, and Hinduism is no exception.
The idea of war is in the core of Hinduism. Many people do not know it. They mistakenly look at someone like Mahatma Gandhi or a spiritual guru and form a wrong opinion of it. Hinduism has its own fierce aspect which is often discernible in the descriptions of deities such as Kala, Kali, Durga, Chandi, Bhairava, etc. The fiercest God who manifests his universal form in the Bhagavadgita is a God of War and Death only. He is Death personified, who expects everyone to participate in the cosmic war against evil forces, whenever they are called upon to do so as a part of his divine will. He ordains everyone to abide in his will and participate in his divine order of creation as his loyal devotees, soldiers and servants (bhagavatas), without personal agendas, selfish desires, egoistic attachments and expectations.
The Vedic religion which was a precursor to present day Hinduism was originally meant to regulate the lives of four classes of people namely priests and scholars (Brahmanas), kings and warriors (Kshatriyas), merchants and traders (Vaishyas) and cultivators and workers (Shudras). The duty of governing and protecting people rested with the warrior class. In times of war, they fought the wars, and if necessary, sacrificed their lives. The priests who served as their counselors performed sacrifices and prayed to gods seeking their success and welfare. Merchants and traders paid taxes and provided them with material support to complete the war effort, while workers and cultivators supplied food grains and cleared forests and laid paths for the marching armies.
Thus, in times of war the kings received help from the whole community. Hindu law books empowered them with the sole privilege and authority to make decisions about wars and conquests and rule their territories according to their ambition, discretion and interests. By virtue of the scriptures and local traditions the kings possessed extensive powers to deal with real and potential enemies and make decisions about wars.
They enjoyed these powers during peace times also because they were never free from their obligatory duty to protect themselves and their subjects from potential threats. As the upholders of Dharma and protectors of their people, they were expected to be in a state of readiness to deal with any internal or external aggression. History shows that Indian kings maintained huge armies and proved quite formidable in times of war. When Alexander invaded the Indian subcontinent, he faced stiff resistance from local rulers and was almost defeated by the army of Purushottama.
However, it is wrong to say that Hinduism is an adjunct to statecraft or war craft. It is multilayered religion in which you will find something for everyone. Wars occupied an important place in the religious and spiritual practice of kings, warriors and noblemen. However, it was not true in case of other classes of people. They had their own duties and obligations, and ultimately everyone was expected to renounce worldly life and pursue liberation through yoga and spirituality. For them, nonviolence became the focal point of their practice.
Hindu scriptures affirm that on the path of liberation, nonviolence is the highest virtue. It is considered the virtue of virtues, since all other virtues eventually lead to it only. In the truest sense, nonviolence means not disturbing anyone or anything and not being disturbed by anyone or anything. The Bhagavadgita sums it up by stating that he who does not disturb others and who is not disturbed by them is the dearest to God. In other words, nonviolence is synonymous with the state of peace and equanimity. It is not established unless a person achieves perfection in self-restraint, selflessness, freedom from attraction and aversion, peace, balance, sameness, stability, detachment, renunciation, indifference, etc.
Now, as you can see, it is extremely difficult to practice nonviolence in its purest form. How many people in this world can cultivate those contributory qualities and become truly nonviolent? In daily life, we either disturb others by our words and actions or become disturbed by them. To reach the highest state of nonviolence one has to achieve perfection in the practice of yoga and enter the state of final dissolution. Nonviolence is the natural state of a self-realized yogi. Since he becomes mentally free from everything and remains absorbed in the Self, nonviolence arises in him and around him automatically. It is said that in the presence of a truly nonviolent person, even the wildest beast becomes truly nonviolent. Having suppressed all the modifications of his mind through the practice of yoga, the nonviolent yogi flows with the flow and remains in harmony with whatever that goes on in him and around him as the will of God or the nature of life.
Nonviolence is the ideal. However, in worldly life it is not possible for people to become truly nonviolent. The nature of life is such that due to desires and attachments householders and worldly people cannot avoid conflicts, divisions and differences, or wars and bloodshed. Violence is also inherent in life. No one can live here without hurting or harming or causing violence or destruction. Even simple actions such as breathing, eating, drinking, walking, sleeping, taking medicines or speaking result in some form of violence or disturbance. Hence, in worldly life we can practice nonviolence only in a limited sense by right speech, right actions, right living, etc. To overcome the sinful consequences of our actions, we have to surrender to God and offer him all our actions so that any violence we may cause is neutralized.
While from the ethical and spiritual perspective wars and violence are evils in themselves, we cannot ignore that there is a world outside that goes by its own norms. Wisdom teaches that the laws that apply to an individual do not necessarily apply to the world, a country or a community. Individual morality does not necessarily correspond to the morality of a State or a ruler who has wider responsibilities and whose actions and decisions leave an impact upon a large number of people.
The nature of evil
Hinduism understands this dilemma. It acknowledges the moral and social imperative of violence in the larger context of the world or the humanity, because the world is made up of dualities, and evil is an integral part of our existence. The problem of evil is so universal and pervasive that even gods have to deal with it and wage wars to keep the worlds safe. Hence, in Hinduism you will find a contextual approach to the problem and the justification for wars and violence.
The idea that we are in a perpetual state of war with evil pervades the whole gamut of Hinduism. It perceives wars as cosmic phenomena in which humans often become entangled due to their karma or acts of God, with gods and other celestial beings lending them support in different ways. While the divinities are compassionate and righteous, they too are in a state of conflict with evil forces. The latter keep an on and off relationship with them according to their convenience and conceit.
It is why you will see that almost every Hindu deity is a warrior, who carries his or her own set of weapons as a mark of readiness to engage in a war or a fight if necessary. Whether it is Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva or the million other gods and goddesses, they possess unlimited fighting prowess and readily take up arms to uphold Dharma and protect the worlds. They may do it in their original form or in their manifested forms as associate deities, aspects, incarnations or emanations.
Thus, in Hinduism wars are fully justified as an integral part of God’s eternal Dharma. God is their source. He is the provider, the supporter, the subject and object of all that happens in a battlefield. According to the Bhagavadgita, as the source and doer of all actions, the origin and the outcome of a war are already predetermined by him in his grand scheme of divine play to ensure the orderly progression of the wheel of creation. As the creator, preserver and destroyer of things, he directly or indirectly engages in wars to destroy evil, restore order and protect the worlds.
The duties of a king
The Hindu law books (see the appendix) vested the divine authority to make decisions about wars with the kings, acknowledging them as God’s sole representatives upon earth to uphold and enforce his laws. According to them a king is born upon earth with the aspects (amsa) of gods such as Indra, Varuna, Soma, Mitra and Yama. Therefore, he was fully empowered to engage in wars for any reasons he deemed fit. He had the power to do it either to show off his strength or gain extra wealth or just weed out bothersome enemies and opponents. He was free to do it on his own or by joining with other kings.
The law books exonerated the kings who abided in God’s eternal Dharma if they engaged in wars for their own sake or for the sake of their subjects, since they believed that it was an essential part of their sacred duties as the protectors and upholders of Dharma. Whether to go to war or seek peace through reconciliation, also rested with them. They expected them to be virtuous and righteous, but did not scorn them if they engaged in wars and conquests to expand their sway, power and prestige. The king personified the god of Dharma as well as the god of Death. In times of peace, he represented Dharma (Vishnu) and in war, Death (Shiva).
If the kings had the right to wage wars for personal, political or economic reasons, the soldiers or the warriors of ancient India had the obligation to participate in them. They were not to refuse or turn their backs in the battlefield. They had the obligatory duty to engage in fighting in support of their kings and lay down their lives if necessary. The scriptures encourage warriors to do their best in wars. They promise eternal heaven (vira swargam) for those who died fighting in a battlefield.
Wars in Indian history
As Megasthanese’s Indika indicates, warriors enjoyed great reputation in society during the time of Chandragupta Maurya for their valor and loyalty. If you study the history of the Indian subcontinent, you will see how the broader framework of laws concerning a king’s duties became an integral part of Hindu polity. You will know why wars were a constant feature of Indian history and why so many wars were fought in the past on the Indian soil. Wars define the long history of the Indian subcontinent, stretching back to five or six thousand years, despite the intense religious and spiritual activity and the teaching and selfless work of countless spiritual masters, scholars and philosophers. It was as if the region was going through two separate dimensions at the same time.
The Mahabharata war was fought on the Indian soil. It was the deadliest war of the ancient world, whose memories are still etched in the minds of millions of Hindus. The epic Mahabharata throws considerable light upon the factors that contribute to wars, the ugliness of wars and their devastating implications to the world and all those who participate in them. The Ramayana reveals how evil grows upon earth and often draws the best of men and women into violent conflicts and suffering, and why wars become necessary to destroy it. Almost every Hindu scripture reminds people of the destructive nature of evil, the karmic consequences of violence and how we cannot be mute witnesses to the misery and suffering they cause.
Yet, if history is any indication, the people of the Indian subcontinent did not seem to have learned any lessons. Historically, it stands among the top two or three regions in the world where some of the bloodiest battles were ever fought. Wars and violent conflicts have been the major theme of its long and checkered history. It is reflected even in the religious and secular literature of India. The Vedas contain memories of ancient wars fought on the Indian soil. They extol warrior gods such as Indra, Varuna and Vayu for their heroic qualities, and how they established their sway over vast realms, fighting the worst of the demons. They also mention the battle of ten kings. Many hymns found in the Vedas are meant to help humans upon earth through sacrifices to win wars and establish peace and prosperity.
Symbolism of war
The symbolism of war is used in the spiritual wisdom of India to teach the importance of duty, morality, sacrifice, detachment, devotion and liberation. Hindu scriptures extol valor as a divine virtue. They regard the world itself as a huge battle ground in which one has to fight many battles to overcome suffering, fight internal demons, suppress evil impurities and achieve purity and liberation. People cannot avoid war in its various forms against evil which manifests in us in various ways both internally and externally. Surrendering to it without giving a fight means eternal bondage and suffering.
The Bhagavadgita teaches the physical, moral and spiritual implications of a war or war like situation, and how one may permanently and effectively deal with it, without corrupting one’s mind or soul. It makes it abundantly clear that one cannot escape from fighting a war, be it real, moral, mental or spiritual, when circumstances compel one to participate in it. In every conflict, human beings have an opportunity to be on the side of God and Dharma and manifest his will. However difficult it may be and whatever pain and suffering it may cause to them, their families and relations, they have an opportunity to serve God and declare their devotion. According to the scriptures, fighting God’s wars upon earth is everyone’s sacred duty, in which one should be selfless and set aside one’s ego, personal fears, desires and attachments and engage in desireless actions. They should live as devoted warriors in the battleground of life, without expectations and as a service or a sacrificial offering to God, who is the source, object and subject of all.
In conclusion, we may say that Hinduism acknowledges war as a necessary means to contain evil and uphold Dharma. Since it has a direct implication to our individual and collective karma, one should engage in the fight against evil as a service and sacrifice to God who represents righteousness. Wars may happen due to our own actions and desires or due to the will of God or both. Whatever may be the cause and whoever may be responsible for them, wars and conflicts aggravate human suffering and bring to light the perennial problem of dealing with evil which is inherent in us and in our world. A war is similar in many ways to a calamity or a disaster. Like any natural disaster, they affect a large number of people and unleash a lot of suffering and chaos upon them. When it happens, we can withdraw, avoid, escape and run away, or surrender to the will of God and fight. However, we must do so without desires, attachment, egoism, vanity, selfishness, delusion or demonic nature.
Author's Note: This is a rough draft. Improvements may be made in due course if we come across additional information.
The duty of a king or ruler in a war
The following is a brief summary of some of the many rules regarding wars, conquests and statecraft, which are found in the Manusmriti and prescribed by Manu as a part of a king’s duties and responsibilities.
Manusmriti declares (1.96) that a king is an incarnation of the eight guardians of directions (dikpalas). God created him for the protection of people, by taking different aspects from divinities such as Indra, Yama, Varuna, Soma and Kubera. Since he represents so many divinities, he is superior to all humans upon whom he rules over or holds his sway. Even an infant king must be honored because he is vested with divine authority. For the same reason, any purification is not ordained for a king, even when he slays people in the battlefield or elsewhere (ordinarily, killing in any form entails purification rituals for others).
However, a king must be virtuous and govern with discretion and responsibility. Without virtue, a king ceases to be the guardian of Dharma. Manu says that a wicked king is equal to a butcher who owns a hundred thousand slaughterhouses, and it is a terrible crime to accept any presents from him (1.86). Manu also suggested how a king or a warrior should fight in a battle. According to him, a king should neither shrink from a battle nor turn his back. When he is fighting, he must do so with utmost exertion. However, he should avoid treachery and the use of concealed weapons or weapons that are laced with poison, etc. He should also avoid fighting with enemies when they are asleep, wounded, fearful, whose weapons are broken, and so on. (It may be noted that foreign invaders unscrupulously used these very rules against Indian armies to take them by surprise and defeat them).
Manu also laid down elaborate procedures regarding how the spoils of war should be shared or distributed among the victors. He suggested that soldiers must present a part of their booty to the king, and what has not been taken by anyone should be distributed equally among them. The king has a right to participate in a battle as a part of his obligatory duty. Striving for the four aims of human life, he must endeavor not only to protect what he has achieved but also obtain with the help of his army what he has not gained yet. He must constantly display his prowess to let his enemies know his strength while doing his best to keep his secrets to himself so that his enemies are not emboldened. Concealing his weakness from his enemies, he must at the same time try to ascertain the weaknesses of his opponents, so that he can use them to his advantage in case of a war. However, in the battlefield he must valiantly fight, using fair methods, as God himself, without resorting to guile or treachery under any circumstances
It is important to note that Manu was not a warmonger. He put onerous responsibility upon a king to abide in Dharma according to the dictum that Dharma protected those who protected it (Dharmo rakshita rakshatah). Further, he did not prescribe war as the only option for a king to deal with his enemies or settle scores. In his worldview of values, using force or waging a war was the last option. Before resorting to it, one must use other expedients namely conciliation (sama), concession (dana) and division (bheda). Learned people preferred conciliation to war as the best means to resolve conflicts. Just as a cultivator removes weeds from his field, a ruler must weed out all his enemies using these expediencies.
Manu identified two kinds of wars, those which were waged in favorable seasons (summer or fall) and those in unfavorable seasons (winter or rainy season). A king might engage in a war by his own accord or in support of a friend or an ally. Similarly, while marching the army to the battlefield, a king may march alone or along with an allied army. Manu did not consider that wars should be fought in self-defense only. According to him a king could go on conquests as a part of his imperial strategy to expand his kingdom and enhance his power. The right time to do so was when the king was strong and mighty, his subjects were happy and contended, and his kingdom was peaceful and prosperous. If these conditions were absent, he should better avoid war and wait for an opportune time, or use conciliatory measures to avoid the invasion of a powerful foe. A king should never take things for granted or blindly trust anyone. He should keep an eye on his friends, foes and counselors, so that they do not betray him.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Religious Violence, Causes and Solutions
- Why Religion Matters, The Impact of Religions
- Hinduism Beliefs About War
- Hinduism Resilience Against Islam and Christianity
- Significance of Death in Hinduism
- Ten Incredible Reasons Why Hinduism is an Amazing Religion
- The Ashtadikpalas, Rulers of Eight Directions
- The Symbolism of Time or Kala and Death in Hinduism
- Life’s Lessons from Mother Nature
- The Origin and Significance of the Epic Mahabharata
- The Abiding Principles of Hindu Dharma
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