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Subject: Chandragupta -- The Laws of War rss

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Stephen R. Welch
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Chandragupta: The Laws of War

No code of military conduct is mentioned in the Vedic literature, but epic and Puranic literature holds an excellent military code approaching the laws of war known in modern international law. Essentially, it promulgates against striking down an unarmed, unequalled and fallen foe, emphasizes showing quarter, punishing indiscipline and betrayal, and rewarding meritorious service, humane treatment of prisoners of war, and abstention from seizing enemy property, etc. Property and places of public worship were respected such that even “when battle is raging in their neighborhood,” noncombatants on either side were not to be disturbed. Wealth obtained through booty was still allowed, of course, though a vanquished king in turn was expected to voluntarily hand over what was justly due the conqueror.

These ethics of war were recognized as dharmayuddha, or war that followed the principles of dharma, here meaning a just and righteous war that had the approval of society. Dharmayuddha employed no treachery or artifice, and the preliminaries were settled by the belligerents before a battle was actually conducted. There was no stratagem or secrecy employed in Dharmayuddha -- it was a straight fight regulated by carefully delineated rules of battle. In other words, no attacks on the flanks or from the rear, and warriors were allowed only to fight with their equals or betters. Those who retreated out of fear were despised, but attacks against the retreating were prohibited. Charms, spells, or the use of mantras were prohibited, and no one was allowed to kill “the sleepy or the thirsty, or the fatigued,” nor camp followers, Brahmans, cows, outcastes. War-musicians, eunuchs, ascetics, and last but not least, hermaphrodites, could not be killed (though escaping warriors disguised as such could be captured and exiled).

As to the “equal-or-betters” restriction, this would entail a prohibition against attacks by soldiers against weaker opponents in terms of armor, mobility, or conveyance. Elephant warriors, deemed the strongest of all, were allowed to attack only other elephant warriors; cavalry could attack elephants or other cavalry, but not chariots (which were less mobile than cavalry) nor unmounted infantry. Chariots could attack any type of unit with the exception of infantry, and infantry, deemed weakest of all, were allowed to attack any other opponent. In a head-to-head fight, attacking a superior opponent (visualize light infantry in a frontal attack against cataphracted elephants) may not have been prudent, but at least it was valorous.

The opposite of dharmayuddha was kutayuddha or “unjust” warfare, sometimes also termed mantrayuddha for its use of charms or magical invocations. This was secret warfare in which artifice, stratagem, deception, and ruthlessness were employed. Generally, kutayuddha was permissible only as a last resort and for purposes of defense. By the time of the Mauryans, however, the principles of righteous warfare were often sacrificed at the altar of expediency, and the ever-Machiavellian Kautilya included kutayuddha in his treatise on War Polity in the Arthashastra, describing the use of spying, misinformation, bribery, assassination, night attacks and ambush, etc. Certainly, the pragmatic requirements of maintaining empire were at tension with the war ethics from the Epic tradition. Essentially, Kautilya deemed that an enemy could be justifiably paid in his own coin – if he used kutayuddha, kutayuddha should be used against him.

Dharmayuddha will be playtested as an Optional Rule for Chandragupta.

Next week: Size matters.
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