Classical Indic Warfare I: Dhanur Veda

It is often asked whether there was a Traditional Dharmic Military Science. After all, in an era where “Might makes Right” and “Victory is the only Morality”, how can a society, any society, hope to survive without its own Tradition of Warfare? Although modern India has come to be associated with the concept of Ahimsa, it must also be remembered that Bharat is also the society of Dharma eva hatho hanthi.

Those who wish to elevate Dharmo rakshati rakshitaha from a mere maxim to an actual eternal truth must first begin by properly understanding the first installment in our new Series on Classical Indic Warfare: Dhanur Veda.

Introduction

Vaasishtaaya namoh namaha

Salutations to Maharishi Vasishta, who expounded the Dhanur Veda to King Kausika (who became Vishvamitra).

Dhanur Veda is an ancient tradition, considered by some to be one of the 18 branches of knowledge. “According to Visnudharmottara, god Satakratu (Indra) represents Dhanurveda or the knowledge of warfare.” [2] Other divinities associated with it include Lord Skanda (the God of War), and his father (Sadashiva) who himself is credited with the Siva-Dhanur-Veda.

Although Dhanurveda is often referred to merely as Science of Archery or “Martial Arts”, it is in fact the Ancient Vedic Military Science. It is the foundation of the Indic Way of War. As for why the name emphasises the Dhanush, the explanation is as follows: Just as Soopa Sastra refers to Cuisine, just as Arthasastra refers to Statecraft, so too does Dhanur Veda refer to Military Science.

Long time readers would have become familiar with the preceding Upavedas we discussed. Each Upaveda is attached to one of the Chatur Vedas.

Gandharva Veda — Saama Veda

Sthaapatya Veda — Atharva Veda

Dhanur Veda — Yajur Veda

Ayur Veda — Rig Veda

As such, just as Gandharva Veda is attached to the Saama, just as Sthaapatya Veda is attached to the Atharvana, the Dhanur Veda is attached to the Yajur Veda.

That is why the realm of Dhanur Veda is not merely for rote regurgitators, but for those with an understanding of both ancient and modern military arts. In fact, the first guru-sishya parampara of Dhanur Veda begins with Lord Brahma teaching King Prithu. There are of course other lineages. The Siva Dhanur Veda propounds the teachings of Tripurantaka (Lord Shiva) who instructed Parashurama. And finally, the Vasishta Dhanurveda Samhita encompasses the discourse on Dhanur Veda delivered by Maharishi Vasishta to Vishwamitra. Some even list as many as 6 or 7 Traditions.

Despite the fumblings of neophytes, also-rans, and ahankari-shikhandis, a proper restatement of the Vedic Way of War has yet to be comprehensively discussed. To date, there have either been modern Subject-Matter-Experts with outstanding professional expertise, but minimal traditional awareness, or traditionalist (and pseudo-traditionalist) scholars who cite theory without practical modern understanding. But to face the Exigencies of the Politico-Strategic, both are required. We must be rooted in the past but pragmatically face the present as it is, not as we wish it to be.

As such, to fight the battle that faces us, rather than merely the one we want, one must properly understand that we face not a Clash of Civilizations, but a Clash for Civilization. Because when you realise the enemy you face is amongst you, and inherently uncivilised, you understand the traditional rules of Achara Yuddha do not apply. It is why Dhanur Veda stands astride both the realms of Raja Dharma and Raja Niti. While statecraft encompasses both, Dharmic Epistemology necessitates the classification of Sainyaara-vidya under Niti, as the principles of war are neither moral nor immoral, but amoral.

Dharma→Rajadharma→Rajaniti→Kootaniti→Dhanurveda→Kanikaniti

It is why in the Kali Yuga, Koota Niti rather than Dhanur Veda is the starting point, because strategy determines whether or not you go to war, rather than war being the starting point of considering strategy. The present time provides a set of sophisticated forms of warfare, which may or may not have been foreseen by our forbears and seers, but nevertheless are practiced today (Lawfare, Economic Warfare, Cultural Warfare, etc.). In fact, the modern and post-modern eras have become so complex, that one must consider strategy even before politics. The latter becomes an extension of the former, rather than the standard other way around.

If the Politico-Strategic involves understanding and successfully managing the competitive landscape, Dhanur Veda involves the ability to impose one’s decision upon the adversary.

Purpose

The Purpose of Dhanur Veda was stated by Maharishi Vasishta himself. Rather than for seeking glory or demonstrating mere skill, the purpose of archery (Dhanurvidya) and warfare (Dhanur Veda) was to protect one’s subjects, and rescue the weak from the strong, and preserve Dharma and the virtuous persons who practice it.

Dushtadasyuchoradibhya saadhu-samrakshanam dhammethah |

Praja-paalanam Dhanurvedasya Prayojanam || sl.5

The purposes of learning [Dhanurveda] are to protect the virtuous people from the evil persons, robbers and thieves and also to protect and defend the subjects. [2,4]

As such, a teacher of Dhanurveda has the responsibility to train students well, and also to reject greedy, foolish, ungrateful, and evil students so that they cannot abuse this knowledge to harm others.

Knowledge, for both student and teacher, comes with responsibility.

Theoretical Foundations

For the defence of a country, there are abundant references in Vedas, to maintain a regular armed force. It is also enjoined therein that the immediate control of this defence force should be under the command of a chief.  [1,14]

These of course are references to the state of the Military art of the time. Contrary to popular opinion, the theoretical study of Warfare is ancient and widespread in Indic Civilization.

As with all things Dharmic, the foundational aspects of the Indic Military Tradition are found in the Chaturveda. Due to the numerous references to the subject in that samhita, Maharishi Vasistha considers Dhanurveda to also be a sub-branch of Atharva Veda.

Committees (samiti/sabha/sura) consisting of competent experts were to be appointed by the King on defence policy and related matters (AV. 15.8.9, 4.30.2). Such bodies had an advisory role, with the King naturally serving as the overall Chief of the Defence Forces (RV.10.125) Nevertheless, separate Commanders-in-Chief (senadhipatis) were frequently appointed (though the risk of coups remained—as evidenced by Pushyamitra Sunga‘s rise to power).

The election and consecration of the commander on the field of battle as evidenced in the epic at once reminds one of the Vedic king’s coronation. [7, 2]

While rooted in the Yajur Veda, there are a large number of sources (extant and otherwise) for understanding the application of Dhanur Veda.

Dhanurveda, the standard work on Vedic military science being lost, dissertations on the Mahabharata, the Agni Purana, Akasa Bhairava Tantra, Kautalya Arthasastra, Manusmrti, Matsya Purana…Manasollasa, Yukti Kalpa Taru, Visnudharmottara Purana, Viramitrodaya, Samrangana Sutradhara, Sukraniti, and other small works on Dhanurveda like Ausanas Dhanurveda, Vasishta Dhanurveda, Sadasiva Dhanurveda and Niti Prakasika are the only source of information on the subject left to us.” [1,13]

Many of course will argue that some of these texts, such as the Siva Dhanurveda, focus almost exclusively on literal Dhanur vidya (archery). That is true, but even the Vasistha Dhanurveda Samhita is more robust and covers elements of battle strategy and military operations as well. There are also other Dhanurvedas that are lesser known: Vishvamitra Dhanurveda, Jamadagni Dhanurveda, Vaisampayana Dhanurveda, as well as the Veerachintamani of Sarangadhara. [1,15] Furthermore, the RamayanaMahabharata, and Arthasastra all cover the details of the art of Dharmic War, down to the granular level of logistics and military education of princes.

The Hindu did not permit even the military art to remain unexamined. It is very certain that the Hindu kings led their own armies to the combat, and that they were prepared for this important employment by a military education; nor is it less certain that many of these monarchs were distinguished for the highest valour and military skill. [1,1]

The Nitiprakaasika of Vaisampayana tells us that Lord Brahma was the originator of Dhanur Veda and taught King Prthu, son of Vena, via 1,00,000 slokas. This was reduced to 50,000 by Rudra, 12,000 by Indra and 3,000 by Pracetasa & Brihaspathi. Sukra reduced it to 1,000, Bharadvaja to 700, Gaishira to 500 and Maharishi Veda Vyasa to 300.  Vaisampayana himself provides us with this work in 8 chapters. [1]

Dhanurveda is generally divided into 4 sections: 1. Deeksha (Initiation), 2. Sangraha (Procurement), Siddhaprayoga (Training), Prayogavidhi (Operations).

Modern Hindus are more obsessed with 1 and 4, when they need to pay more attention to 2 and 3. Some leaders are born—it is true—but most are made. They are made through education and tested through practice. It is why all-theory and no practice pseudo-trads need to exit the kshetra where they do not belong.

Pareekshaa anyaa yogyataa anyaa

Exam is one thing competence is another

This is emphasised by Acharya Chanakya himself, who mentioned training in the military arts to extend to study of the Itihaasas. It is not for nothing that History is dubbed “the school of princes”.

Interestingly, talented generals were often highly trained in the fine arts. Maharana Kumbha crushed the neighbouring Sultanates and turned Mewar into a powerhouse. He was also a commentator on Music & Literature.  As for Andhra, the Nrtta Ratnavali (a work on dance) of Jaya Senapati ends every chapter colophon as follows:

Srimanmaharajadhiraja-ganapatideva-gajasaadhanika

Jayasenapati- viracitaayaam nrttaratnaavalyaam

Nrtta Ratnavali authored by Jayasenaapti, the chief of the elephant forces of Ganapatideva, the superior king of kings. [147]

A great general in his own right, Ganapati Deva was the father of the warrior Queen Rudrama Devi.

Thus the Gaja-sadhanika (or Elephant Corps commander) also had a well-rounded education. While these are some of the theoretical foundations, one must also familiarise oneself with the terminology and principles of Dhanurveda.

Teminology

  • Dhanurveda — Military Science
  • Samgraama/Vigraha — War
  • Yuddha — Battle
  • Sangraha — Procurement
  • Siddhaprayoga —Training
  • Prayogavidhi — Operations
  • Upasad — Siege
  • Samkrama — Bridge
  • Kavacha — Armour
  • Varma — Chain mail
  • Sirastraana/Sipra — Helmet
  • Kantatraana — Throat protector
  • Phalaka — Shield (metal or wood)/Charma (leather or hide shield)
  • Hastaghna — Armguard (especially for archers)
  • Dundubhi — War drum
  • Suhstra — Weapon
  • Dhanusha — Bow
  • Vaana — Arrow
  • Gadha — Mace
  • Vavri — Sheath/ Vaala — Belt
  • Khadga — Sword (falchion)
  • Khanda — Sword (long sword)
  • Asi — Blade/Knife
  • Chakra — Discus
  • Velam — Spear
  • Tomara — Lance
  • Parashu— Axe
  • Trishula — Trident
  • Yantra — War Engine (i.e. Catapult)
  • Durgam — Fortress
  • Skandhavaara/Shivira — Camp
  • Chakravartin — He who turns the Wheel of Dharma (Paramount Sovereign)
  • Raja — King
  • Rajanya — Royal Family
  • Kshatriya — Aristocrat
  • Veera — Warrior
  • Senadipathi — Commander in Chief
  • Senapathi/Senani — General
  • Nayaka — Commander
  • Upanayaka — Lieutenant
  • Sainik/Patti — Foot Soldier
  • Ashvasaada — Cavalryman
  • Spashah — Spy
  • Duta — Messenger
  • Gaja — Elephant
  • Ratha — Chariot
  • Naava — Boat
  • Nalikaa — Gun
  • Agnichoorna — Gunpowder
  • Nisthaanam — Base
  • Sena — Army
  • Nau Sena/Varuna Sena — Navy
  • Vayu Sena — Air Force
  • Kaksha — Flanks
  • Paksha — Wings (also camp)
  • Koti — Vanguard
  • Uras — Chest (front centre)
  • Madhya — Centre (behind the chest)
  • Prstha — Rearguard
  • Praligraha — Reserves
  • Vyuha — Formation
Principles

samudraram

  1. Initiation
  2. Procurement
  3. Training
  4. Operations
    1. Strategic Planning
      1. Personnel
      2. Logistics
    2. Military Operations
      1. Encampment
      2. Battles
        1. Organisation
        2. Formations
      3. Sieges

Study of specifically Dhanur Vidya is more appropriate for another time. It is important to understand its place and practice in the wider context of War (Samgraam)

Dharma of Samgraama

Dharmachakra

The Dharma of Samgraama, or Dharma of War, is one that is complex and one that has grown increasingly subtle over time. While the purpose of war has already been discussed, how should a just war be conducted?

The Epic code of ethics helped to soften the edge of conflict…The civilian population was allowed to pursue its labours umolested, temples and places of public worship were left undefiled. That these rules were operative in the fourth century B.C., is fully supported by the testimony of Megasthenes. It is doubtful if any other ancient civilization set such humane ideals of war. [7, 167]

Achara Yuddha

Hindu warfare was honoured for its code of Ethics, so much so that foreign commentators often asked whether it was more of a tournament for warriors.

Murcchitham naiva vikalam nashastram naanyayodhinam |

Palaayamaanam saranam gathanchaiva na himsayeth || sl.41

One should not kill the enemy who is lying unconscious, who is crippled, devoid of weapon or is stricken with fear and also who has come for shelter. [2, 64]

With such rules, it is easy to see why Rajputs fell for Turk deceptions time and again. But the first responsibility of a King is not to be a chivalrous/magnanimous figure, but to protect his subjects.

But contrary to naysayers, however, there was a practical aspect to it as well.Ethical warfare is suited for ethical enemies. Those who practice koota-yuddha must be opposed by similar conduct. Kautilya himself was merely reasserting what Krishna had already taught. When the enemy is breaking all the rules, you cannot fight with one hand tied behind your back. That is the difference between a Raja and Rajaputra.

Therefore, Achara yuddha was meant to be followed with other Indic Kings who observed the rules of Civilised Warfare. Above all, civilians were to be respected, and women and children to be protected.

Suptam prasuptamunmattam hyakaccham suhstra-varjitham |

baalam striyam deenavaakyam dhaavantham naivadhyaathayeth || sl.64

The person who is asleep, who is in drunken state, who is devoid of clothes or weapons, the lady, the minor, the helpless, the afraid one who deserts the battle field should not be killed. [2, 75]

As Bharatavarsha found out in the medieval period, there are some enemies who specifically mandate the opposite.

Rakshasa Yuddha involved an enemy who breaks all the rules. Atrocities are committed against civilians, who are not spared. Any unchivalrous method can be applied by this honourless foe. In fact, chivalry is seen as ‘markaz i jahalat’, or crassly stupid, as per such barbarians. War is not a mere tournament of arms, but as stipulated by Maharishi Vasishta himself, a means to protect one’s subjects, rescue weak from strong, and punish the wicked. To this end, Achara Yuddha must be put aside, and Koota Yuddha utilised.

Koota Yudha is defined as ‘deceptive war’ by Chanakya. Nevertheless, its more correct meaning is Strategic War, as it is ultimately rooted in Koota Niti (Strategy). Modern War as conducted by foreigners breaks all the rules and indiscriminately slaughters and even commits biological atrocities against civilian populations. One need not similarly become demonic to fight demons. Instead, one must use strategy to outwit such foes and develop asymmetric means to defeat their dastardly weaponry, via both R&D and strategic design.

Dharma Yuddha

Above all this, of course, is the concept of Dharma Yuddha. Some have tried to liken it to a “Crusade” or its Saracenic counterpart, but it is neither. Dharma Yuddha is a war to restore Dharma. That is, all Kings who proclaim to uphold Dharma are mandated to come together to defeat and uproot those who are threatening its very existence. When facing an Adharmic opponent, Koota Yuddha is often not only needed, but even required.

The person who in order to save the brahmins, cows, women or minors gives up his own life is sure to attain eternal salvation [2,75]

All this is more appropriate discussion for another time. For now, the Principles of Dhanur Veda will be covered.

Initiation

Vasishta muni states that “The ideal time for teaching and learning archery is in the presence of ten stars —Hasta, Punarvasu (Rama’s star), Pusya, Rohini, Uttaraphalguni, Uttarbhadrapada, Uttarasada, Anuradha, Aivini, Revati“, and that this should be done on the third, fifth, seventh, tenth, twelfth, and thirteenth days of the lunar month, ideally on Sunday, Thursday, or Friday. [2, 6-7]

The tradition of purvaranga vidhana (ritual oblations to the divine) is stipulated, as is reverence to the teacher by the students. Prayers to Mahadev, Krishna, Brahma, and of course, Ganesha are also advised.

The warriors of the day were duly indoctrinated in the code of morality and duty. Thus the education of Dhrtarastra, Pandu and Vidura includes lessons in morality, history, tradition, Vedas and the allied literature, apart from military exercises. [7, 163]

Martial Arts

kalaripayattu-martial-art-of-kerala-500x500

In general, martial arts is a subset of the greater Dhanur Veda. In fact, these are more commonly associated with Kreeda, hence the term Military Science better suited for Dhanur Veda. Nevertheless, initiation into the different schools can take place. Some train at akhaaras learning malla and mushti yuddha (wrestling and boxing), and others learn more armed forms of martial arts, such as Kalaripayattu and Gatka.

Officially dating back to the venerable Guru Hargobind Singh ji,  “Gatka can be practiced either as a sport (khel) or ritual (rasmi).” It features aspects of armed and unarmed combat. It is practiced to this day.

More importantly however, again like its Southern counterpart, Gatka is a direct connection to the ancient Indic warrior ethos. It is an outgrowth of traditional Suhstra-Vidya, which in Punjabi is called Shastar Vidya ਸ਼ਸਤਰ ਵਿਦਿਆ, but has become a tradition in its own right. Sikh Dharma may be centuries old, but it draws from and is part of a millennia old Dharmic Civilization. Whether for sport or for safety, preserving and passing on its proud traditions remains important for Sikh: Citizen, and Soldier alike.

Procurement

Procurement of excellent weapons, armour, and other equipment are an important part of War. Ancient India was no exception. Dhanurveda being intricately connected with Dhanur Vidya (Archery), procurement of a good bow was elemental.

Characteristics of a good bow were given. All these can be discussed elsewhere. What is important for now is that, different types of bow even composite bows made of horn are also discussed. Ancient India was, for obvious reasons, known for the long bow. Qualities of arrows (and even poisoned arrows) are also discussed. But more than the bow, it was the bowman who was irreplaceable. Good people, after all, are hard to find.

Training

Chitrayuddha, practice of archery, is an essential aspect of training with the bow. Arjuna memorably shot arrows in the dark, and ultimately was able to strike the matsya yantra (fish machine) merely from a reflection. All this was due to practice and rigour in training.

Dhanurveda stipulates stringent rules for the selection and imparting of military instruction. Beyond the usual rules and rituals, it emphasised guna in pairing a soldier with a weapon of choice. Those with Sattvika guna should be paired with the Bow (dhanush). Those with Rajo-sattva should be paired with the Sword (khadga). Those of tamaso-rajas should be paired with the spear (kunta). And those of tamaso guna should be paired with the mighty mace (gadha).

In the ancient times, Acharyas in Dhanurveda were brahmanas (who were then barred from ruling and power politics). A preceptor excelling in 7 types of fighting was called a Saptayodha. One who is versed in 4 is called Bhargava. One in 2 is called Yodha, and if versed in 1 type, he is called Ganaka. Maharishi Aurva trained the mighty King Sagara, and the illustrious Saptarishi Vasishta, trained Sri Rama.

There are, of course, various methods of imparting training. Dhanurveda naturally begins with the bow.

Practice

Various methods for practice are stipulated, primarily for archery. These involve firing blunt arrows (and other suhstras) as practice weapons. These are very detailed in discussion and best discussed elsewhere. What is useful to know, is that Dhanur Veda discusses target practice for standing targets, moving targets, and even moving targets while on horseback. Success in this skill is more than just a matter of balance, but also technique.

 Holding the String (Gunamusti)

Pataakaa vakramushtischa simhakarnasthatthaiva cha |

Matsari kaakathundi cha yojaneeyaa yathaakramam || sl.84

Gunamusti is of five types — Pataka (Banner), Vajra-musti (thunder bolt), Simhakarna (ear of a lion), matsari (fish), Kakatundi (beak of a crow). These should be applied in proper places. [2, 23]

Dhanurveda specifies a number of different methods of holding the string. These influence not only the effectiveness of holding the arrow, but the precision of hitting the target. These are in turn combined with laksya (types of aim) and even types of bow draw (dhanurmushti) and bow posture.

Bow Postures (Vyaaya)

These are, of course, just a few of the basic aspects of training in Dhanur Vidya. Dhanur Veda proper is more complex. Though rooted primarily in archery, the Dhanur Veda Samhita of Vasishta is more detailed and covers operations as well.

Army Training

Contrary to our modern “I am an army of one!” ahankari-shikhandis, Dhanur Veda did not simply stipulate singular individual training. The Dharma of Collaboration requires not cooperation with the enemy, but cooperation with one’s countrymen and fellow soldiers.

Parasparaanurakthaa ye yodhaah shaarnga dhanurdharaah |

yuddha-jnaasthuragaarudaasthe jayanthi rano ripun || sl.182

The Warriors even armed with Saarnga bow (made of horn) who co-operate with each other and know battle-craft may beat enemies fighting them on horseback. [1, 141]

Moving and operating as a unit is nothing unique to a particular civilization. Here is Maharishi Vasishta on the infantry.

The infantry or the food soldiers should be of equal height. All of them should be equally expert in jumping an running. They should also be trained in moving backward (pascadga-manam), standing still (sthirikaranam), lying [down] (sayanam) running apace (dhvanam) rushing  headlong into the hostile army and moving in different directions in accordance with signals” [2, 69-70]

Horses and even elephants were to be trained as well. Indian mahouts were celebrated for their skill with the elephant and ankush (goad). A good driver would bond with his elephant, which was celebrated for its loyalty and fierce defence of its master in war.  All these involved detailed elements of raising an army. What about deployment?

Military Operations

Niti

Preparation and deployment of one’s defence forces is not a simple method of theory and orders. Strategic planning, selection and training of personnel, order-of-battle, selection of ground/place/time, and formations—all play a role in making successful contact with the enemy. Whether to oppose in the field or to prepare for a siege or to even engage in guerilla warfare via tribal allies (atavi), are all complicated aspects that are covered by Dhanurveda in general and Sainyara-vidya in particular.

While Naval forces (Samudra Sena) and naval operations are mentioned, they are better discussed elsewhere. The great Naval expeditions of Kalingas, Cholas, and the Vijayanagara Empire are important to Sainyara-vidya, but Land warfare being central to Dhanurveda, necessitates focus on that type of war first.

Strategic Planning

The Vasistha Dhanurveda Samhita specifically has a section called Samgraamavidhih. That is, it establishes the importance of war strategy. Though it does not go into depth, it becomes apparent that success in war is more than just about mere proficiency in weapons or even numbers. All the elements of the Art of War were required to come together under the command of skilled general who understood that ‘prudence is the handmaiden of victory’.

The Atharva Veda (7.12.2) “recommends the formation of an advisory Samiti that could chalk out the plan and decide the strategy to fight out the war. The members of such a Samiti are called Narista…All the members of this council have to work collectively.” [1,18]

Personnel

Vasishta muni writes the following regarding selections of Senadhipatis and Senanis:

Listen O Visvamitra! that the Commander-in-chief should be physically fit, learned and powerful kshatriya. He should also treat all his subordinates equally. He should prove his intelligence in arranging the army in array and also provide such work to the infantry that fits it. [2, 73]

Qualifications of a Commander

           1. He must be conversant with the art of fighting a war (RV.1.114.4)

           2. He should possess exemplary character ( RV. 2.33.8)

           3. A Vajrabahu (one with arms like a thunderbolt) inspires confidence in troops.

          4. He should be a Pururupa(one who can handle all types of situations (RV.2.33.9))

          5. He should be a sahasraaksa (one who is equipped with a spying system (YV))

         6. He should be an outstanding warrior (Avevirah) (AV. 19.2.2)

Competent military and strategic leadership is paramount. As even the Vedas recognised, an intelligence network to surveil the enemy to determine capabilities/intentions, and to do basic reconnaissance on the field was important. Win or lose, a general is not allowed to be surprised.

Soldier – He should be swift in action, have great courage, be fearless and bright, and be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. He must be proficient in arms, and expert in his tasks, and possess requisite knowledge of army rules and regulations.

The Hindus display bravery not surpassed by the most warlike nations and will throw away their lives for any consideration of religion or honour. [1, 30]

Even Women could be recruited (though generally not for frontline combat). A secondary line battalion consisting of women could be put at the command of the mahishi (chief queen). It is this tradition of warrior women that could be seen from Kaikeyi down to Rudrama Devi to Rani Durgavati. [1, 29]

Above all, “Foremost qualification of the warrior is that he must be deeply in love with his motherland. It is only then he can put his whole soul to save his motherland from all sorts of troubles.” [2, 28]

Logistics

Logistics is crucial to warfare in any era. After all, an army marches on its stomach and gold is the sinews of war. As such, “all kinds of facilities are to be provided to army men. A special type of clothing, proper nursing, food, living accommodation, clubs, playground, hospitals, places of the prayers and educational facilities are to be provided” [1, 29]

The Mahabharata makes reference to a position similar to that of Quarter-Master General. Yudhisthira appoints Nakula (a famed swordsman in his own right) to maintain records of the various forces, secure supplies (especially food and water), and ensure prompt payment.

Repeated stress is laid on the importance of regular and punctual payment of wages and rations to the army; irregularity in this may lead to disaffection or even rebelllion. In the Sabha parva Naarada asks Yudhisthira if he pays his troops in advance before he marches, and if he supports the wives and children of men who lay down their lives for him, or undergo misery on his account. [7,149]

In the medieval period, the Army of Vijayangara was fabulously well-supplied. It was a veritable moving city that accompanied the Emperor.

Encampment

The army camp should be established at prudent (and auspicious) hours and avoid encroaching upon various burning grounds, temples, and other places of sanctity. “The ground, preferably level and abounding in grass and fuel, is properly measured for an encampment; a moat is dug around to protect it, and guards are stationed at important posts. Door-keepers and sentinels keep watch outside the tents of the chief heroes and princes. Stocks of arms and armaments, food and water are in evidence, and physicians and mechanics form part of the establishment.” {7, 151]

Discipline was to be maintained and stockades and watch towers erected for protection. Contrary to the current civic culture (or lack thereof), Ancient Indian military discipline (particularly in camps) was strict. Bivouacking was an orderly process, cleanliness and carelessness to be avoided, and clamour kept to a minimum.

Campfollowers were numerous, with doctors, purveyors of food stuffs, musicans, merchants, and vesya (women of the night). This practice was eventually banned by Chhatrapati Shivaji, due to the disrespect shown to women by foreign invaders.

The camp is, above all, a place for soldiers and warriors. The seriousness of the task and the adherence to strategy must be remembered.

Battles

battlefield-of-kurukshetra

Organisation

Over the years, military organisation has changed given the size and needs of military forces. As gloriously recounted in the Mahabharata, these could reach fantastic levels that may stretch credulity in the modern day, and yet, align with the internal logic.  The Battle of the Kurukshetra featured 7 Akshauhinis on the Pandava side and 11 Akshauhinis for the Kauravas.

1 chariot and 1elephant, 3 horses and 5 foot soldiers = 1 patti.

3 pattis = 1 senamukha. 3 senamukhas = 1 gulma.3 gulmas = 1 gana.3 ganas = 1 vaahini

3 vaahinis = 1 prtana. 3 prtanaas = 1 chamu. 3 chamus = 1 aneekini.

10 aneekinis = 1 Akshauhini [1,17]

1 Akshauhini

21,870 Chariots; 21,870 Elephants; 109,305 Infantry; 56,610 Cavalry

With a ratio of 1: 1: 5: 3, the approximate total is 209,700 soldiers.

This would bring the total on the Kurukshetra to 4 million. It is an amazing number indeed, which would number in the more modest hundreds of thousands in the post-Legendary period.

The army of Chandra Gupta for example was estimated to be 600,000 infantry; 30,000 cavalry; 10,000 chariots; 9,000 War elephants. In late antiquity, the Imperial Pratiharas were said by middle eastern chroniclers to field 4 armies for the 4 cardinal directions, each numbering 800,000 soldiers—for a total of 3.2 million men. Ancient India was, not for nothing, known for its armies. But armies are one thing, and generalship another.

India has fielded many great and intelligent generals, none more so than Krishna (the real commander of the Pandava armies). Nevertheless, legendary figures aside, “historical” figures such as Ajatashatru, Samudra Gupta, and Chhatrapati Shivaji all made their marks on history. It is only a recent matter for Indians to forget the importance of strategy & generalship.The Republic of India must remember this again.

And after making the decision to take the field, the next decision for any general is how order-of-battle should take form.

Formations (Vyuha)

The Vyuhas are one of the most legendary aspects of ancient Indic armies. Perhaps no vyuha is more legendary than the chakravyuya famously featured in the Mahabharata. A formation of envelopment, it was notoriously difficult to enter, and as young Abhimanyu discovered, even more difficult to exit.

Despite the legendary aspects of the Kurukshetra War, the importance of Vyuhas was retained long into the entry of Common Era. Though divyastras obviously were not used, deployment in concentrated force with proper arrangement remained important. The four divisions of the army (chaturanga-bala) that would inspire chess (chaturanga), which would feature an elephant corps, a cavalry corps, chariot corps, and infantry. All these would be deployed per the needs of battle.

  1. Chakravyuha — Discus formation
  2. Makaravyuha — Crocodile formation
  3. Syenavyuha — Hawk formation
  4. Garudavyuha — Eagle formation
  5. Varahavyuha — Boar formation
  6. Gajavyuha — Elephant formation
  7. Sakatavyuha — Waggon formation.This is ideal if surrounded or expecting rear attack
  8. Kraunchavyuha — Bird formation
  9. Simhavyuha — Lion formation
  10. Sarpavyuha — Serpent array
  11. Agnivyuha — Fire array
  12. Gomutrika — Echelon or Zig-zag
  13. Pippeelika — Ant array
  14. Ardhachandra — Half moon formation
  15. Sarvatobhadra — Hollow square
  16. Suchimukha — Needle array
  17. Danda — Staff formation
  18. Gulma — Bush formation
  19. Mandala — Hollow Circle formation
  20. Padmavyuha — Lotus formation
  21. Srenika — ranks/rows
  22. Bhoja — column
  23. Asanhata — detachments of various units into penny packets

Many of these may seem rather intricate and complicated to our modern eyes. Nevertheless, there are certain important principles that come from this. As seen above with the Garuda vyuha, there is very much a concept of organisation and backup planning. Contrary to the current school of thought that assumes a disorganised mass of chivalrous soldiers in unthinking frontal charges, methodical deployment was very much a practical art. Above all, is the fact that the concept of keeping reserves was emphasised — a reality that frequently turned the tide of key battles in history. Placing the chariots in front, elephants next to break the enemy lines, followed by the infantry is specified. Siva Dhanurveda specifically mentions the placing of cavalry on the wings, in sloka 179.

Ancient Indian Warfare was certainly practical. If one does not believe in combining mantra with suhstra, then the place of supernatural astras is reduced, and rather than spiritual, more material weapons will be emphasised. That is the nature of war, as well as the nature of RMA.

Sieges

Some of the most successful wars are conducted not in the field, but inside the fort. From the Vedic times of Purandara (destroyer of forts) to Chanakya to Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Indic Durg has been a crucial part of Dhanurveda. The most successful armies in history were those that mastered the art of conducting the siege. This involves more than just investment of fortified cities, but also the defense of even fortified positions and redoubts.

The frontiers of the country were expected to be guarded by forts, with the intention of perimeter defence or defence-in-depth. Terrain was taken into close consideration, and measures such as investment, artillery, and mining discussed to take opposing forts.

For the purposes of brevity,  a simple discussion of forts will be discussed here to dovetail with Sthapatya Veda:

Mountain fort (giri durgam), Forest fort (vana durgam), Water fort (jala durgam), Clay/Cave fort (panka/guha durgam), Chariot fort (ratha durgam), Divine fort (divya durgam, has extensive fortress with efficient defensive system), and Mixed fort (mishra durgam, situated among both both mountains and forest). [1, 45]

A land fort is the easiest to capture, a river fort more difficult and the mountain fort most difficult. From the point of a view of a besieged king, a mountain fort is preferable to a river fort which is better than a land fort (7.12.2) — Arthasastra

Important Texts

Dhanurveda

Siva Dhanurveda

Vasishta Dhanurveda

Ausanas Dhanurveda

Jamadagni Dhanurveda

Vaisampayana Dhanurveda

Ramayana

Mahabharata

Agni Purana

Matsya Purana

Visnudharmottara Purana

Akasa Bhairava Tantra

Arthasastra

Manasollasa

Yukti Kalpa Taru

Veeramitrodaya

Samrangana Sutradhara

Niti Prakasika

Veerachintamani of Sarangadhara

Application

Vedic scholars were well aware that ‘armies can signify but little unless there is  council or a wise management at home‘. The efficiency of an army is thus very much dependent on the efficiency of the ministry of defence.

In the legendary times, the sarvasreshta dhanurdharas (Sagara, Sri Rama, Bhishma, Arjuna) could all reputedly summon divine weapons (divyastras) that would unleash firepower that normal chariot borne archers could not match. Obviously in the present time, these seem to stretch credulity. Nevertheless, keeping in mind the internal logic of Divine involvement in the affairs of man (which even Homer includes in the Iliad) one could understand the devastating effect these dhanush-wielders could have. Bhishma himself swore to wipe out 10,000 soldiers a day with the firepower he commanded.  With these dhanurdharas as the centerpiece of the Indic armies of Legendary times, one understands the emphasis placed on them why they were deployed the way they were.

The Epic material provies depth to the pic-ture that we have gleaned from our Vedic sources. The nature of the Vedic literature precludes the possibility of the graphic des-criptions of warfare which we can find in the Epics. The echoes of the Mahabharata can be detected in the Vedic literature and, as we have pointed out time and again in our text, some of the Epic tradition is indeed very ancient. Chariots in the Epic are the invincible instruments of battle [due to the Dhanurdharas they carried]; elephants and cavalry play role of comparative insignificance. …By the time Alexander came to India, things had changed; the chariots were there of course, but the real responsibility of attack and defence had shifted to the elephants and the cavalry. ” [7, 2]

Weapons

Standard Weapons are divided into mukta (released from the hand), amukta (held), mukta-amukta (may or may not be thrown ), and yantra mukta (released by artillery/engines). We also find another division of suhstra, yantra, and mantra. Mantra will obviously not be considered here.Nevertheless, ancient Indian war was more in line with how the native cinema depicts, rather than foreign indologists, who seem to imply that the society that had the best metallurgy somehow did not believe in armour and helmets. That is why it is important to not deconstruct a tradition, but to study it as a continuum.

Continuity in these traditional weapons is seen even outside strict Vaidika Dharma, as Sikh Dharma and its warrior-saints used them to great effect.

Technology

Technology is a trendy topic, particularly in what we presently consider to be a technologically advanced age. Some topics are controversial, while others not so much. One area that has been acknowledged by almost all parties is the advanced state of Indian metallurgy—particularly in the forging of blades.

The famous crucible steel (Wootz) had its origin in India. The Chera steel was renowned for its quality. Indian iron smiths must have invented the ‘wootz’ process in the 6th or early 5th century B.C. Ktesias saw two wonderful swords of Indian steel at the court of Artaxerxes Memnon. Herodotus speaks of the arrows of Indian soldiers tipped with iron.” [7, 102]

Hindu warfare (what has been acknowledged at least) has long been the subject of controversy. “Were divyastras really just pre-modern artillery?”  or the most notorious, “Come on, vimanas? Really?“. But the perhaps the most important one of all is the question of whether or not ancient India had independently invented gunpowder. That’s right, as discussed by this article, it has been averred that Eastern India (particularly Bihar) possessed excellent saltpetre mines which are crucial for firearms.

A number of ancient texts specifically refer to gunpowder (agnichoorna/ranjaka) and firearms (nalikaa). The Dhanurveda explicitly mentions nalikaa (guns) as well as goleem(bullets)

Even the Sukra Niti supports this:

In Sukraniti, the method and chemical composition for preparation of gunpowder has been given. Accordingly, five palas (582.5 mg) survaci slat, one pala (11.5 mg) of sulphur and one pala (11.5 mg) each of the charcoal received from the wood of arka (…asclepias giantia), snuhi and angaara plants by the Ayurvedic process of Sahdooma Putapaaka where a drug is prepared in a closed vessel placed in a pit. The above-mentioned salts and charcoals should be purified, powdered and mixed together. This mixture should then be soaked into the juices of snuhi, arka and garlic. It should be dried up in the sun and finally powdered like sugar, the substance will be gunpowder.” [1, 76]

Whether or not this is the case is for present day scholars to confirm. Nevertheless, these ancient texts make a convincing case for ancient firearms. At the very least they give insight into some of the ancient artillery Indian armies featured.

Professor Wilson writes “Rockets…appear to be of Indian invention, and had long been used in native armies when Europeans came first in contact with them.” [1, 74] He goes on to say that ‘The Indians are from time immemorial remarkable for their skill in fireworks..” [1, 77] So much for “cracker-free” Diwali…

Engines of War were called Yantras. Some celebrated ones include the Sataghni (hundred-killer, asmaguda (catapult that pelts stone balls), ayoguda (weapon that pelts iron balls).

That elephants and chariots also carried yantras, is proved by a few references, but yantras in open battle seem to signify weapons in general. King Ajatasatru of Magadha, a contemporary of the Buddha, used a new engine of war against the [Vrjjis], called the mahasilakantaga, which must have been a stone-hurling contri-vance like those denoted by the Epic yantras. [7, 113]

When Alexander of Macedon set foot in the ancient Indosphere, his armies were said to have been scattered by a besieged Indian city which featured weapons of fire and lightning. These were unleashed following a terrifying pitch silence, soon broken by the sounds of thunder and cries of men.

For those of you familiar with the Byzantine Empire, there is, interestingly enough, even evidence that perhaps the famed “Greek Fire” may not have had a Greek origin after all. “The fire which burns and crackles on the bosom of waves denotes that the Greek fire was anciently known in Hindustan under the name of badavaa“. [1,75]

Ctesias, Elian and Phostratus all make reference to such an incendiary oil , saying “it is inextinguishable and insationable [sic], burning both arms and fighting men” [1, 75] Perhaps when the Arabs were crushed at Constantinople and during the Battles of Rajasthan, they may have in fact received “Greek fire” from both ends…

Personalities

Though the study of the Dhanurveda cuts across classes, this list will focus primarily on military commanders and direct operational planners. For brevity’s sake, this list will focus on both legendary commanders and warriors mentioned in the Puranas as well as “Historical” personalities from the Ancient, Medieval, and Late Medieval periods. Strategists and Commanding Generals of the Modern Era will be listed elsewhere.

King Prthu

King Sudasa

Maharishi Vishvamitra

King Sagara

Haihaya Karthaveerya Arjuna

Parashurama

Aikshvaku Raghu

Aikshvaku Rama

Bharata Dauhsanti

Bheeshma

Vasudeva Krishna

Arjuna

Jarasandha

Ajatashatru

Mahapadma Nanda

Chandragupta Maurya

Ashoka Maurya

Pushyamitra Sunga

Kharavela

Stabrobates

Sriharsha Vikramaditya

Gautamiputra Satakarni of Andhra

Samudra Gupta Ashokaditya

Chandra Gupta II Vikramaditya

Skanda Gupta Paraakramaditya

Narasimha Gupta Baladitya

Vikramaditya Panwar of Ujjain

Salivahana Panwar of Ujjain

Harsha Vardhana Shiladitya of Thanesar

Chalukya Pulakesin II

Karkota Lalitaditya of Kashmir

Pratihara Nagabhatta I & II

Rashtrakuta Dhruva Dharavarsha

Rashtrakuta Govinda III

Rashtrakuta Indra III

Dharmapala I of Vanga

Bhaskaravarman of Assam

Raja Suhel Dev

Haihaya Kalachuri Gangeyadeva

Paramara Bhoja

Chola Raja Raja I

Chola Rajendra I

Chalukya Rani Naiki Devi

Prithviraj Chauhan III

Ganga Bhanudeva II of Odisha

Rani Rudrama Devi

Kakatiya Prataparudra II

Hoysala Veera Ballala III

Musunuri Nayaks of Andhra

Maharana Kumbhakaran Singh of Mewar

Sangama Harihara & Bukka

Krishna Deva Raya

Venkatapati Deva Raya

Maharana Sangram Singh Sisodia

Maharana Pratap Singh Sisodia

Rani Durgavati

Lachit Bophurkan of Assam

Chhatrapati Shivaji Bhonsle

Admiral Kanhoji Angre

Baji Rao I

Maharaja Prithvi Narayan Sah of Nepal

Zorawar Singh

Banda Bahadur Singh

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Hari Singh Nalwa

Sher Singh Attariwala

Marthanda Varma of Travancore

Conclusion

Clearly much water has flowed down the Ganga since the days of Dhanurveda’s first exposition. From the Imperial Armies of Magadha to the modern Day Indian Army, there is a long tradition of Military Science in Bharatavarsha.

For those who call for an Indic and Dharmic Way of War, it must be remembered that military lineages cannot commence with mere colonial regiments. Regimental and Tri-services pride aside, a society whose motto is Satyameva Jayate, must have lineages which work for the triumph of Truth, rather than colonial occupiers. But at the same time, one cannot be occupied or pre-occupied only with unthinking traditionalism or rote ritual.

The Dharmic way of War must necessarily adapt to the modern exigencies where victory is the only morality…

…and this is the cost of defeat.

The price of war is terrible, and therefore, must necessarily be practiced by professionals, whether strategists or soldiers. Knowledge of the Dharmic Art of War must be rooted in tradition, while being pragmatic enough to adapt to the Enemy. As Ovid wrote, it is right to learn, even from the Enemy.

It also means promoting those with a proper understanding of military history and modern strategy as overall Defense planners. This criticism was in turn criticised by the politically motivated, but leave aside gender and other considerations—is it not on point?

With V.K.Krishna Menon at the helm, Nehru planned to turn the Indian Army into a mere constabulary force of 100,000. Within a year or two, China launched a surprise attack (after similar Doklam type Chinese Checkers in Ladakh). The unmitigated disaster that was A.K.Antony was only further proof of the need for a governing class that has a strong affiliation for military affairs—beyond mere mantra japa of “Chanakya!“.

It is true, as those who actually understand global political affairs will tell you, that the risk of foreign funded military coups was at one point very great. One need only look at the Republic of India’s neighbour to the West to see just how frequent they could be. Even its neighbour to the North has come tantalisingly close to this very real reality of political life. The first step to fore-stalling or mitigating such risks would be to have a governing class that the officer class would not feel disgusted by. The current crop of the corrupt lining the IAS and the Rajya Sabha is exhibit A in a fool’s gallery of fops.

The Prime Minister has rather wisely been taking to the ancient nostrum of “minding the solidiers” and has restored a measure of trust between the Bharatiya Sena and the Bharatiya Sarkar. The current Raksha Mantri is a very efficient minister, and MP’s such as Rajyavardhan Rathore and Kiren Rijiju cut dashing figures. But the governing classes and would-be elites must build on even this, and regain a strong sense of the native Indic military sense, and military sense begins with strategic thinking. Winning in war is more than just a matter of mere numbers.

Api panchashatham suraa mrudananthi mahathim chamoom |

Athavaa pancha shat saptha vijayanthaanivarthinah || sl. 181

Even five hundred determined and well-trained soldiers can defeat a large army. Sometimes even five, six or seven such heroes who do not withdraw and fight bravely may emerge victorious [1,141]

—Siva Dhanurveda

If “war is too important to be left to the generals”, then it is definitely too important to be left to the hands of poets and pedants. Serious politicians with the Dharmic martial ethos and modern strategic education are required. The list of Dhanurveda personalities we listed above cut across caste and class, because they all faced the unignorable exigency of competence. All too much emphasis has been placed on Government, which in turn has become code for mere electioneering and politics. True Governance is rooted in Rajadharma, which is what is missing in today’s governing classes, with rare exception. An education in Governance and Modern Strategic Affairs is required to not only take the tradition of Dhanurveda into the Modern (and Post-Modern) era, but also to steer India and the rest of the world away from strategic disaster.

Indeed, the stakes of Dhanurveda are far higher than military honour or an “izzat ka sawal”. The very fate of humanity’s freedom depends on native Kshatriyata to re-emerge across caste lines focused above all on competence and character. We conclude this introductory article on the Indic Tradition of Dhanurveda and Dharma (and why they remain relevant), rather ironically, with a quote from a European General of whom you might have heard:

It is character that remains the Achilles heel of governing classes around the world, and India can no longer risk a governing class (or wannabe governing class) steeped in incompetence, completely clueless on strategic affairs, and utterly hypocritical and characterless. Those who are so compromised they induct and promote foreign “acharyas” to teach Indians how to “decolonise” are the least qualified to govern…period—their claims to “Chanakyanism” aside.

Vishvaksena Janardhana

It is time to  return to Krishna Niti. To properly understand modern Military Affairs, the ethos of the Kshatriya (the native Bharatiya Kshatriya) is required to train, mentor, and anoint a governing class across caste lines. That is the path of not only the Dhanurveda of King Prthu, but of Dharmic Civilization’s Revival itself.


References:
  1. Arya, Ravi Prakash. Dhanurveda – The Vedic Military Science.Rohtak: Indian Foundation for Vedic Science (Amazon Books).  2014
  2. Ray, Purnima. Vasishta’s Dhanurveda Samhita.Delhi: J.P.Publishing House.
  3. Gaur, Niketan. Sthapatya Ved-Vastu Sastra: Ideal Homes, Colony and Town Planning. New Delhi: New Age Books. 2009
  4. Rangarajan, L.N. Edit, Kautilya. The Arthashastra. New Delhi. Penguin.1992
  5. Sukra Niti
  6. Kota, Venkatachalam.
  7. Singh, Sarva Daman. Ancient Indian Warfare.Delhi: MLBD.1997
  8. Pappu, Venugopala Rao. Nrtta Ratnavali of Jayasenapati. Kakatiya Heritage Trust. 2013

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