Dharma and Karma. The balance between what is just and justified; and facing the repercussions of one’s prior actions is a recurring theme in Hindu philosophy. The word Dharma is derived from the
Sanskrit word dhri which means “to hold together.” In the Hindu tradition, the spirit of universality extends to the whole world; with the Rig Veda declaring that there is only one race of human beings and therefore the validity of different traditions, religions and pathways to truth must be respected.
Diplomacy and tolerance was and is considered a higher virtue than the accumulation of territories and peoples. Even in the former Hindu Kingdoms of Southeast Asia, syncretism–and not separatism or proselytisation–was a key strategy in cementing a king’s legitimacy over the throne.
During ancient times, the chief dharma of a king was to protect his people against both internal and external threats. War is deemed undesirable as it violates the principle of Ahimsa and should therefore be avoided as a means of settling disputes. However, the texts acknowledge time and time again that there exist situations where it is better to wage war than to tolerate injustice. But the texts also insist that before war can be declared, all peaceful remedies should first be exhausted. In the Hindu tradition, war and armed conflict is a last recourse.
The Kurukshetra War described in the Mahabharata was the culmination of an intergenerational conflict which resulted in deep enmity between two royal clans: the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Kauravas had unlawfully seized property belonging to the Pandavas. The Pandavas were left with two choices: either to fight for their rights as a matter of duty or to evade battle and accept defeat for the sake of peace.
It was only then that they finally chose to wage war.
Concepts like ahimsa non-violence, which hold a strong sway over the collective consciousness of society, is not, and has never, equated to non-killing. For Kshatriyas, the ancient warriors of India, it was accepted that to kill was a matter of duty and dharma. When it came to self-defence, killing has never been considered incompatible with ahimsa.
While the legitimisation of violence is condemned by modern historians as unnecessary and undesirable–I argue that such beliefs only hold weight and sway in peacetime. In a time of war, when every man, clan and country exists for his or herself; higher moral principles such as these cannot allow for the self-sacrifice or self-immolation of a nation. We should not willingly walk towards martyrdom for the promise of rewards in the afterlife.
In ancient India, local populations were, for the most part, not mobilised to fight and warfare remained the province of military elites. Once the military was defeated, kingdoms would end up falling into enemy hands. Even among the military elites, there was a preference towards making accommodations with their enemies to broker peace than to decisively destroy the enemy. Indian armies have historically been on the defensive and have failed, time and time again, to project power to take out their enemies.
Even when Indian armies won battles or successfully defended their territories, they often eventually lost wars in the long run because of their failure to follow up on victories, constantly fighting defensive wars.3 Problems with War and Strategy in Medieval India by Akhilesh Pillalamarri
If the moral highroad leads to defeat time and time again, perhaps a more suitable strategy must be considered. The superior strategy is simple. We must do what it takes to both survive and thrive. Perhaps the moral highroad might save our souls in the afterlife, but for us to survive in this world; we need to fight… and fight to win.
While in the Hindu tradition, the spirit of universality extends to the whole world; it has been proven time and time again that numerous inhabitants of the world do not see things the same way. Old temples with invaluable artefacts are desecrated, chapters of history are burnt never to see light of day, and innumerable lives are lost in the names of God, Money and Sibling Rivalry.
Peace is the sensible option. However, the fact remains that it is not the only one. And sometimes, war is the only answer.
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