Ancient Indian Warfare Demystified

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Ancient Indian scriptures stress on the abstinence of violence in thought or deed. Non-violence is the basic premise needed for the evolution of a being. But only abstinence is not enough, we must actively seek to prevent violence happening to any other creature or being as well.

Kshatriya dharma developed for the protection of the society – men, beasts and environment alike. They were entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the cows, havans, all beings as well as mother earth; of fighting injustice and evil and slaying the ravanas that disturbed the balance in creation.

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One must note here, that even though the Kshatriyas (warrior community) ‘fought in war’, it was not considered violence and rightly so. These ancient Indian warriors followed strict code of conduct and fought only as a part of their duty. Serving the country and participating in war was the swadharma of this community. Chivalry, valour, mercy and dignity even in the ugliest of wars, were some of the qualities possessed by these ancient Indian soldiers. And so that these qualities were maintained, certain laws were followed during war to maintain a fair approach and prevent injustice.

  • A Kshatriya in armour was not to fight one without armour
  • One was to fight only one enemy and cease fighting if the opponent was disabled
  • Old men, women, children, the retreating, or the ones who had surrendered were not to be killed
  • The army was to leave fruit & flower gardens, agriculture crop fields and places of worship unharmed in all circumstances
  • It was mandatory for a war to start at sunrise and end at sunset

Professor H.H. Wilson, an English orientalist said that, “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.”

But it was not just the ethics and code of conduct that made Indian warfare stand out from the rest of the world in ancient times. The techniques of war and the weaponry used were also more powerful than any other civilization at that time. Many historians, professors and researchers have stated that weaponry was more advanced than any other civilization in ancient times. According to A.M. Eliot and Heinrich Brunnhofer, ancient Indians knew how to make and use gun powder much before anyone else. In fact, the Arabs learnt its manufacture from India only. Gustav Oppert, a Sanskrit professor from Germany wrote and taught about how ancient Indians knew about firearms including bombs and gun shots.

Indians are also believed to have been skilled in aerial warfare. Henry S. Olcott, an American author and philosopher once said in a lecture in Allahabad that, “the ancient Hindus could navigate the air, and not only navigate it, but fight battles in it like so many war-eagles combating for the domination of the clouds. To be so perfect in aeronautics, they must have known all the arts and sciences related to the science, including the strata and currents of the atmosphere, the relative temperature, humidity, density and specific gravity of the various gases…” Evidence in Vedic and Puranic literature shows explicitly how ancient Indians conquered the skies.

Research has also shown that from a very early time, Indians were well established in their naval and nautical skills and also went on expeditions in the sea. Boat and ship building industries have existed on this land since ancient times. The Vedas and even the Ramayana, speak of people who crossed the sea for trade and commerce purposes. Arthashastra and Mahabharata also, have ample instances of naval forces being a part of the army.

Apart from advanced weaponry and forces, Indians were also known for their fighting techniques that required no weapons. Fighting without weapons was actually considered to be a specialty of the Kshatriya class. These included martial arts techniques which were also taught as self-defence techniques. Hand-to-hand combat combined techniques of wrestling, throws and hand strikes, tactics and evasions were framed and then taught to successive generations.

Kalaripayattu, which is known to be world’s original martial art, still exists in Kerala. It uses various body movements and postures, to teach and practice combat. Bodhidharma, its founder is also the one who took martial arts to China almost 1300 years ago. Silambam, is another art which has been in existence for over 5000 years. It originated in the Krunji mountains in south India and uses a bamboo stick in its movements. It was originally used by natives to defend themselves against animals. Today it is displayed during religious festivals as a skill or form of art.

Modern warfare over the years has become mechanized, slowly eliminating the scope for cultivation of courage and leadership in individuals and soldiers. Earlier, where wars were characterized by high core values, today they have more or less turned into cold-blooded atrocities against the masses. There is a need for us to take a peek back into history and learn from our ancestors.

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