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11 March 2014, Gateway House

Book review: Delving into India’s strategic past

In ‘Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare in South Asia’, Kaushik Roy counters West-centric arguments that India has traditionally lacked strategic culture and thinking

Fellow, International Security Studies Programme

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Scholars studying India’s tradition of strategic planning have generally focused on Kautilya’s Arthasastra (3rd century BCE) as the root text. However, another stream of research has debated whether India possesses a strategic culture at all. This perspective was propagated by George Tanham, an American defence analyst, who argues that India has always suffered, and continues to suffer, from a lack of a tradition of strategic thinking. [1]

Carrying forward this debate, The Economist in March 2013 published a series of articles which argued that since Independence, India has got away with a weak strategic culture; and that now, as India inches towards a great power status, that forward march is being stymied by the lack of, or a weak, strategic culture. [2]

Countering both these approaches, Kaushik Roy’s Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare in South Asia argues that India – primarily in its Hindu philosophy – indeed had a rich tradition of strategic culture beyond Arthasastra. To substantiate this argument, Roy examines the interconnections between religious ethics and how warfare is conducted; he looks at the debate between dharmayuddha (just war) and kutayuddha (unjust war) through various eras, beginning with the Vedic period (1500-400 BCE). His enquiry centres on four questions – what is war; what justifies it; how should it be waged; what are it potential repercussions?

Roy’s study sheds light on the work of other thinkers, such as Manu’s Manusmriti, Bana’s Harsacharita, and Kamandaka’s Nitisara. He writes that much before Prussian strategist Carl Von Clausewitz spoke about the relationship between righteous war, people’s support and a stable government, Kamandaka had theorised about this trinity in the 6th century CE.

The author also distinguishes between Indian and Chinese notions of warfare – which are usually collated by western scholars under a unitary “eastern” category. Roy says that since Hinduism is also a socio-cultural system, it had outlined principles of warfare that enabled its followers to deal with conflict and violence. The socio-cultural aspect on warfare is clearest in the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, texts from the Vedic times. In Roy’s overview, Hindu philosophy also covers Jainism and Buddhism – the two religions that, despite stressing ahimsa (non-violence), had prescribed principles of warfare.

Roy counters the general perception in the strategic community that early medieval India had no military theory worth studying. Instead, he argues that between the periods of Kautilya to the advent of the Turks (300-900 CE), South Asia’s military system underwent innovation. The acharyas (teachers) generated sophisticated theories in tune with the political and ecological conditions. These theories spanned various aspects of warfare, including fortress warfare, amphibious warfare, commando raids, war logistics, alliance management and intelligence gathering.

A weak point of this approach is that Roy’s work is heavily slanted towards north and central Indian history. He seeks to partially fill this gap by including the Tamil Saint Valluvar’s work, Kural. Yet, the book’s focus remains reserved for Kautilya. Situating Kautilya’s thought in the realist stream of international politics, Roy says that the international system in Kautilya’s view was characterised by matsanya (the law of the pond, where bigger fish eat smaller fish) and the only operating principle of “might is right” paved the way for the application of dandniti (a judicious use of force).

According to Roy, the Arthasastra marginalised the role of battle in warfare and focused more on kutayuddha (unjust war) by attacking the enemy’s plans and objectives. Despite this, Kautilya’s work had elements of ethics linked to the realist approach. For instance, officials and rulers might sometimes set aside religious considerations, but in ordinary times governance was to be based upon dharma (morality, code of conduct) and artha (wealth). Roy also draws attention to a lesser-known aspect of Kautilya – he was probably the first to mention biological warfare.

In his analysis of Kautilya’s philosophy, Roy also compares the Arthasastra with the works of other strategic thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Machiavelli and Clausewitz. He draws similarities and differences between their ideas on various facets of warfare. In covering such aspects, the book historicises Kautilya and other ancient thinkers, rather than looking at them in the spatio-temporal abstract.

Linking Arthasastra to modern times, Roy says that India’s counter-insurgency doctrine is shaped to a great extent by Kautilya’s work. He suggests that the Indian Army can draw further lessons from Arthasastra rather than look at western counter-insurgency theories.

However, the analysis of the debate between unjust war (kutayuddha) and just war (dharmayuddha) becomes weaker in the subsequent sections in the book on the medieval period and modern Indian history. In the medieval period, warfare decisively transformed due to invasions by Islamic armies from Central Asia. It meant that for some communities, depending on the context, kutayauddha became dharmayuddha.

Roy argues that though the British administration had a secular outlook, it shrewdly used religion for administrative consolidation and to forge discipline among the native troops. The link between dharmayuddha and kutayuddha is not clear in this section.

Roy argues that several Hindu rulers of medieval India, as well as military officers and civilian analysts of independent India, have been influenced by concepts from the epics. The dharmayuddha tradition aids liberals while the kutayuddha tradition is handy for the realists/hardliners.

The single-most critical contribution of Roy’s work is his convincing argument that rather than following western arguments on India’s military history, it is important to examine India’s ancient texts on warfare and formulate indigenous conceptions. Rich in citations, with both primary and secondary sources, Roy’s voluminous work is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in understanding the history of India’s strategic thinking.

‘Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare in South Asia: From Antiquity to the Present’. Kaushik Roy. Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 288, Rs. 995.

Sameer Patil is Associate Fellow, National Security, Ethnic Conflict and Terrorism, at Gateway House.

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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1. Tanham, G. (1992). Indian strategic thought: An interpretive essay (R-4207-USDP). Retrieved from RAND: National Defense Research Institute website:

2. Know your own strength. (2013, March 30). The Economist. Retrieved from and Can India become a great power?. (2013, March 30). The Economist. Retrieved from

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