In This Article Ancient Indian Warfare

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Aryans and Non-Aryans
  • War and the Nature of the Indian State
  • Battlefield Tactics and Technologies
  • Violence (Hiṃsā) and Non-Violence (Ahiṃsā)
  • The King and His Authority
  • The Arthaśāstra
  • The Mauryas and Guptas
  • The Indo-Greeks
  • The Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa
  • Warfare in Early Buddhism and Jainism

Military History Ancient Indian Warfare
by
Torkel Brekke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0098

Introduction

The meaning of terms like “ancient,” “classical,” “early medieval,” and “medieval” India have been the issue of some debate, and there is no absolute agreement among scholars about the exact chronology of these relatively loosely defined periods. However, it might be reasonable to say that a bibliographical essay about ancient Indian warfare should start with the Aryan invasion (if there was one!), include the Vedic period and the early state formations, and focus in particular on the Maurya Empire and the fascinating historical evidence contained in the inscriptions of Aśoka. Reference must also be made to the age of the Guptas and to the Indo-Greek kings of Bactria and their military campaigns in India. A survey of ancient India should probably end with the invasion of the Central Asian Hephthalites, which destroyed what was left of the Gupta Empire and marked the end of the classical period of north Indian states. After the Hun invasion, the political center of gravity in India moved to the south, which is generally considered the start of the medieval era. One of the great problems in the study of war and warfare in ancient India is to read the evidence found in texts in Indian and other ancient languages in conjunction with the archaeological record. There is an enormous amount of material about war in important Indian texts like the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, but it is often hard to say what reflects historical realities and what is simply ideology or legend. Nevertheless, an essay about ancient Indian warfare must look at these important textual sources. There is a clear time division in the scholarly study of ancient Indian warfare: before and after the discovery and publication of Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra in the early 20th century. This text revealed a completely new picture of ancient Indian society in general and of warfare in particular. Before the discovery of the Arthaśāstra, the political life of ancient India was clouded in the mythical world of the great epics, but the Arthaśāstra showed a highly realistic, and some would add cynical, side of ancient Indian politics. It should be mentioned that the study of ancient India has become politicized in recent times. For sections of the Hindutva movement, ancient India has become a battleground for an attempt to create a sanitized and revisionist vision of Hinduism, and there have been conflicts over schoolbooks and curricula both in India and in other countries. However, ancient Indian ideas and practices of warfare are not only about Hinduism. The heterodox religious movements, like Buddhism and Jainism, also were intimately entwined in the political realities of ancient India, and the texts of these traditions have important things to say about war and violence. Thus, a section about Buddhism and Jainism seems necessary. Of course, these systems are probably most famous in the West for their presumed rejection of violence, but the fact is that the debates about violence (hiṃsā) and nonviolence (ahiṃsā) were important to many of the religious and philosophical traditions in India. For this reason, a bibliographical essay about war in ancient India needs a separate section about this important topic.

General Overviews

Compared to the great number of books that have been written about the religion and culture of ancient India, rather few have appeared on the subject of politics and war. Scholars and students unfamiliar with the topic of ancient Indian warfare may start by reading Roy 2004, which contains a lot of information about medieval and modern India as well, but gives an overview of general trends. They should also be familiar with Dikshitar 1999. Singh 1997 is still among the most important of the books that aim to cover all aspects of ancient Indian warfare and should probably serve as one of the first texts to be read by students interested in the subject. As an introduction to the ideological and religious sides of war, Patton 2007 gives a broad overview of some of the fundamental ways in which ancient Indian narrative traditions treat violence.

  • Dikshitar, Ramachandra V. R. War in Ancient India. New Delhi: Cosmo, 1999.

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    An early attempt to describe Indian warfare from different angles by using the archaeological and textual evidence available at the time. The book sometimes takes a naive approach. Originally published in 1944.

  • Patton, Laurie L. “Telling Stories about Harm: An Overview of Early Indian Narratives.” In Religion and Violence in South Asia: Theory and Practice. Edited by John R. Hinnells and Richard King, 10–38. New York: Routledge, 2007.

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    Patton explores how different ancient Indian traditions, from the Vedic and Upanishadic worlds to the pragmatics of the Arthaśāstra and the great narrative cosmos of the Mahābhārata, approach violence ambiguously, often relying on the ever-present concept of dharma to solve tensions.

  • Roy, Kaushik. From Hydaspes to Kargil: A History of Warfare in India from 326 BC to AD 1999. Delhi: Manohar, 2004.

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    This book gives a bird’s-eye view of decisive wars and battles in Indian history.

  • Singh, Sarva Daman. Ancient Indian Warfare: With Special Reference to the Vedic Period. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a valuable attempt to put together archaeological and textual evidence from the Vedic period in order to explore the basic technologies and organizational forms of ancient Indian warfare. Of particular interest is Singh’s discussion of chariots and horses. Originally published in 1965.

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