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Hinduism and the Righteousness of War

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Hinduism and the Righteousness of War

While the Hindu epics hold peace in high regard, they also strongly advocate for fighting a righteous war to the very end, when the enemy is destroyed.

Hinduism and the Righteousness of War

This sculpture in a temple in Kurukshetra, India, symbolizes the Bhagavad Gita—the spiritual discussion between Krishna, the charioteer, and Arjuna, the archer, about war and dharma.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Devajyoti Sarkar

With student protesters and non-student activists around the world — including in India — calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and the end to the war there between Israel and Hamas, several groups and individuals in India, the United States, and other countries have deployed the language of dharma — an ancient Sanskrit word signifying righteousness, justice, and morality in the Indian tradition — ahimsa (non-violence) and other ideas from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism to bolster their arguments.

For example, the Indo-Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, who is Sikh, declined an invitation to the U.S. White House’s Diwali celebration last year, arguing that she could not celebrate Diwali whilst the administration of President Joe Biden supported Israel’s war in Gaza because “in the Hindu & Jain traditions, Diwali is the celebration of righteousness over falsehood….”

On the other hand, Riddhi Patel, an Indian-American activist who was subsequently arrested for threatening to kill members of the city council of Bakersfield, California, for their support of Israel, accused the council of appropriating Indian figures such as Mahatma Gandhi to support an ethos of nonviolence even though Hindu “believe in violent revolution against their oppressors.”

Contemporary human rights law, as well as the Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — all have well-developed theories of just war, as well as perspectives on the resistance to tyranny and injustice. What about Hinduism? What does it say about just war, especially war that may involve civilian casualties?

To an extent, it seems that activists and students often project their preexisting views onto their religious and philosophical backgrounds, like a Rorschach test, a psychological test in which participants project meaning onto inkblots.

While just war theory is not as developed in the Hindu tradition as it is in Western thought, the two Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have much to say about righteousness and warfare. At the heart of each epic is a major battle, each characterized as an actual physical battle between the forces of righteousness and unrighteousness. Yet, their views are nuanced — they preach dharma, or righteousness — but dharma is always characterized as “subtle” over and over again in the epics: there is a time for peace, a time for war, a time for diplomacy, a time for sparing lives, a time for taking lives, a time for action, and a time of inaction.

The Mahabharata presents a classical dilemma when it comes to the decision to go to war: is it better to secure peace at all costs, even if that entails acquiescing to injustice? In the epic, the kingdom of the Pandava brothers is stolen away from them by their cousins, the Kauravas. After a period of exile — and after the failure of diplomacy — the Pandavas, who the epic characterizes as the righteous party, must decide whether to wage what could be an extremely destructive war, in which millions — many of whom have nothing to do with the quarrel — could die.

One character, Sanjaya, tells them that if their enemies “refuse to return your share without a war…it is better to be a beggar in [other] kingdoms…than to obtain a kingdom through war.” This position resembles both those of contemporary pacifists who would rather avoid war at all costs in order to preserve lives, as well as those arguing that strength deters aggression: why wage war if it is so costly?

Ultimately, however, the Mahabharata characterizes the war that is eventually fought between the Pandavas and Kauravas in the epic, a war in which millions were said to have perished, as a necessary war, as a dharmayuddha, or righteous war, because the triumph of righteousness is worth the cost of lives in battle. The god Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, and cousin of the Pandavas, suggests in the fifth book (Udyoga Parva) of the epic that war or punishment (danda) is the appropriate path forward after other means of obtaining one’s goals — conciliation (sama), gifts (dana), and creating dissension (bheda) — fail. According to Krishna, “the Kaurava will do everything that is wicked. Because he will act in this way, he deserves to be killed by anyone in this world…for that wicked one, I see no other means but…chastisement.”

The Ramayana also addresses questions of war that may strike a chord for contemporary audiences. One of the few examples of urban warfare in a Hindu scripture — including an attack on a civilian space — can be found in the Ramayana, although there are antecedents; for example, in the ancient scriptures, the Vedas, the god Indra is known as purandara, or destroyer of cities. In the fifth book (Sundara Kanda) of the Ramayana, Rama or Ram, who is also an avatar of the god Vishnu sends his loyal follower, the humanoid monkey Hanuman to Lanka in order to search for his wife, Sita, who had been kidnapped by the rakshasa (demon) king of Lanka, Ravana.

Whilst in Lanka, Hanuman was captured, and his tail set on fire. Hanuman believed that it would be valid to take advantage of the fact that he was already in Lanka to give his side an advantage; after all, Ram would later invade Lanka with an army to free Sita and slay Ravana. Accordingly, in the epic, Hanuman thought to himself that he did well by “[wiping] out a part of the army” and that “once the citadel [of Lanka] is destroyed, my labors will have reached a favorable conclusion.” He then proceeded to burn Lanka:

“Then the great monkey, his tail ablaze, moved about the rooftops of Lan̄kā, like a storm cloud crossed by lightning…The wind drove the blazing fire through the houses. Thus the vast, bejeweled palaces with their fretwork of gold and their masses of pearls came crashing down. They crashed to the ground, their lofty terraces shattered…Hanumān saw streams of molten metal flowing from a palace…Hanumān was not sated with killing the lords of the rākṣasas. Overwhelmed by the power of Hanumān’s wrath, the city of Lan̄kā, engulfed in the flames of the fire, the eater of oblations, its heroes slain and its soldiers scattered, was devastated as if by a curse…Marked everywhere by brightly blazing flames of fire, the eater of oblations, its rākṣasas in a state of terror, agitation, and despair, the city resembled the earth overwhelmed by the wrath of the self-existent Lord.”

Thus, the Ramayana seems to suggest that, from a tactical perspective, it is within the realm of righteousness to strike at the enemy’s cities, armaments, and fortresses in order to gain an advantage. This may involve killing the leaders and some of the population of said city: not killing for the sake of killing, but to accomplish a military advantage.

Of course, there is also a frequent insistence in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that war be waged between warriors on battlefields and not against civilians, that only soldiers should be killed, and that after battle, women and children who survived the deaths of the men in their lives be treated honorably. Yet, while the Hindu epics hold peace in high regard, they also strongly advocate for fighting a righteous war to the very end, when the enemy is destroyed.

The Indian tradition, particularly the two major Sanskrit epics, have much to say about war; after all, war is a major concern of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But while war should be for the sake of righteousness, what this entails is a more nuanced question. In contemporary times, the arguments for and against war as well as the boundaries and requirements of war, could well be used by both Israelis and Palestinians, or any set of opposing peoples to justify their actions. Hinduism and other Indian religions have much to say about war, life, and justice, but how their arguments fit into contemporary issues is quite nuanced and could be used to support both sides of a conflict.