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Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare in South Asia Review

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India is one of the world's most ancient civilizations, stretching back to time immemorial with the Indus Valley civilizations. And like any other civilization, this has inherently been accompanied by war, militaries, and fighting, which are part and parcel of civilization. There have been other works written upon structural aspects of Indian armies and the Indian way of war, but there is also the vital aspect of examining the moral side of war: war always carries certain moral precepts with it, and tends to generally exist in systems where legitimate war and ways to wage war are formalized. Kaushik Roy's book Hinduism and the Ethics of War in South Asia: From antiquity to the present attempts to look at Hinduism and its relationship to military fighting and conflict, in what prescriptions Indian thinkers made for war, the relationship of religious institutions to war, and traditions of just war in India, from ancient times to today's nuclear strategy.

An example of war in Hindu mythology, the Battle of Kurukshetra

An example of war in Hindu mythology, the Battle of Kurukshetra

Hinduism and the Ethics of War starts off strongly with an excellent elaboration of Hindu miilitary-religious principles but it ultimately struggles as it moves towards more secular subjects and substitutes more comparison with other religions and civilizations. It still makes for a great glance into the war tradition in India and Hinduism but which could have been significantly improved.

For example, it tends to talk about subjects which veer increasingly away from the original focus of Hindu philosophy. Consider the ‘martial races’, idea, imposed by the British, which decided which races in India were judged as warlike and eligible for recruitment. This is an interesting subject, but one which seems quite remote from the book’s original remit of ethics and philosophy of war in Hinduism. Some sections towards the middle of the book are so eager to compare to other powers, particularly the Chinese, that the Indian element is nearly entirely lost. Comparison is a great thing, but not when it takes away from the original subject.

There could also have been follow-up on certain writers and greater analysis of previously raised points. Consider Kautilya, who mentions the utility of assassination as a tool of war. At later periods in the book, there is mention of assassination, but not how of how this was interpreted in the moral opinion of the times. Similarly, Kaushik Roy, refers back consistently to the concepts of realpolitik and just war, here bound up in the dharmayuddha or just war and the katuyuddha or unjust or more commonly total war. in a very binary arrangement which hides nuance.

I think the basic error present is that the book has taken as its source material almost entirely Hindu foundational texts and writings, and then it tries to then trace development from centuries, even thousand of years, after the date of these writings. This gives great results for analyzing initial developments, such as the Buddha’s talks on military force or violence, and Hindu epics. The chapter on the relationship between the military and religious institutions in Ashoka's India is a brilliant one and which shows excellently how how religious intertwined with military power and simultaneous Buddhist promotion and peace. It is also very well written and explores Hindu/Buddhist philosophy of state under the leadership of Ashoka. There are hints of some of the strategic thinking and objectives of Indian leadership, such as under the Rajputs when war focused on hegemony rather than territorial annexation, which link together with Indian just war tradition and show how it directly influenced power politics.

But as distance grows, Kaushik Roy fails to consistently introduce religious writings and texts of anywhere near the same quality, resulting in the book starting to lose focus and cohesion. It would be the equivalent of studying 18th century European justifications for war on the basis of the Bible and early Christian texts! Much had been added since then. Roy admits that there are some limitations to his return-to-the-sources approach, but this doesn’t remove them - and there could have been significant improvements of the quality of the text through paying more attention to contemporary declarations. This is shown to some extent in limited case studies such as the Marathan invasion of Bengal, but inadequately, and again with constant reference to either dharmayuddha or katuyuddha without actually showing that strategic decision makers or leadership were actually thinking in these terms. The same applies today in discussion of contemporary Indian military debate.

Thus, Hinduism and the Ethics of War does show very well that there was a Hindu military tradition of intellectual and religious importance, that it had real-world, material influence, and that it evolved over time and incorporated distinct prescriptions of when and how violence was authorized or permitted, but it doesn’t do enough to elaborate and explore its actual impact and manifestations.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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