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— This was part of a paper presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention in Montreal, Canada, on March 17, 2011. —

India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and in 1998 raised consternation among the international community and anti-nuclear activists. Many saw the Indian nuclear arsenal as a repudiation of everything India stood for, a violation of the Gandhian virtue of ahimsa. Furthermore, critics were confounded that Hindu nationalists could defend the proposition that India should possess nuclear weapons. Largely represented to the West by Mohandas Gandhi and spiritual gurus such as Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghose, and Paramhansa Yogananda, Hinduism has been perceived as a peaceful and tolerant religion that has largely if not completely avoided pitfalls like anti-semitism, the Crusades, or political jihad. India’s Hindu kings have historically been welcoming to Zoroastrians, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and this has caused a misunderstanding of Hindu principles. It is my contention that possession and use of nuclear weapons are perfectly within the realm of Hindu statecraft but is subject to many conditions. Instead of looking to Western icons of Hinduism such as Gandhi, I reference ancient Hindu codices such as the Manavadharmashastra and the Mahabharata to understand the rules governing a king at war. Using the more famous Arthashastra or the Nitisara is unhelpful because it is ultimately a political treatise more than a religious one.

Given the decentralised nature of Hinduism, it is essential to explain the choice of sources in the vast corpus of Hindu thought. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism does not have a single core text. Although the four Vedas are accepted as the source of Hinduism, the Srimad Bhagavatam, Upanishads, Aranyakas, Bhagavad Gita and other derivative texts are accepted in their own respect. However, emphases on different elements have caused them to diverge significantly. As late as the 1300s, there were six schools of Hindu thought, and it was perfectly within the Hindu framework to be an atheist, monist, monotheist, henotheist, or polytheist. Louis Renou notes, “religious books can be described as books written for the use of a sect.”1 However, Hinduism “has often been described not as a religion but a conglomeration of sects.”2 Given such diversity, it is no wonder that the Supreme Court of India decided in a 1996 case that “Hinduism” is not necessarily to be understood and construed narrowly, but as depicting the way of life of the Indian people.3

Dharma, the Sanskrit word that comes closest to the Latin religio, does not quite translate to describe a rigid system that believes in an all-powerful interventional deity. Sacred Hindu texts indicate that dharma is perhaps better translated as virtue. Thus, it makes more sense that brahmins, the priestly class, and kshatriyas, the nobility, have different virtues and duties in accordance with their different roles in society. Furthermore, as one proceeds through the four ashramas, or stages in life, one’s duties also change to reflect the new position in society. This indicates that there is no absolute “good” in Hinduism but such a judgment is relative to one’s circumstances – a belief in absolutes could easily be subverted through clever manipulation of words to serve greed, passion, and a desire for domination. As A.K. Ramanujan has written, “One has to only read Manu after a bit of Kant to be struck by the former’s extraordinary lack of universality. He seems to have no clear notion of a universal human nature from which one can deduce ethical decrees…To be moral, for Manu, is to particularize.”4 Not only does Hinduism emphasise the relative nature of dharma, it also prioritises personal ethics over social ethics. Since society is composed of individuals, personal virtue would ultimately create a virtuous society. Ancient Indian philosophers understood the limitations of social duty – often performed under a sense of obligation and compulsion – but duty should be seen as the Latin officium, not the Greek ananke. This raises another difficulty in ascertaining precisely Hindu ruminations on the ethics of warfare, nuclear or conventional: the ancients wrote almost exclusively on matters of personal conduct and the duties and responsibilities of larger institutions like the state were ignored.

Yet another dilemma in the application of Hindu philosophy to mundane matters is that the texts were written by the priestly class for the priestly class – as education was highly stratified, regular engagement on esoteric topics such as ethics, theology, and cosmology remained the within the purview of brahmins and was inaccessible to most people. The Vedas, Upanishads, Aranyakas, and other Hindu texts and commentaries therefore remained soteriological, expounding on the supreme consciousness, transmigration, and meditation rather than on interest rates, laws, or warfare. Thus, Hindu texts including the Manavadharmashastras, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana may provide material for us to induce a Hindu ethics of warfare, but scant attention is paid to the topic in the texts. Furthermore, what little is available addresses issues of jus ad bellum rather than jus in bello. Although it is not certain why this is so, scholars have argued that this was perhaps because of the nature of ancient Indian society and the place warfare had in it.5 The world of the Mahabharata was an epic age, in which warriors met each other on the field of battle and engaged in duels among equals. This was no place for systematic warfare but for chivalry, one in which kshatriyas who died with valour attained the heavens. As Europe realised in the Middle Ages, the extension of these rules of chivalrous duels to mass warfare are of limited utility to the new situation. Furthermore, as Sanskrit words like vigraha, yuddha, and danda indicate, the Hindu concept of organised violence had many valences, not all of which corresponded cleanly to what Europeans defined as war.6 As a result, if a systematic code of conduct during war were to exist in Hinduism,it would be a step out of time with social evolution since its inception. For all these reasons, it is difficult to clearly define a Hindu ethics of statecraft in any absolute sense.

Despite its opacity on the matter of jus in bello, Hindu texts do provide some insight into what was considered just action in conflicts through examples in India’s two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Particularly in the Mahabharata, a story somewhat ambiguous about “good” and “evil,” we see in the preparations for war Hindu perceptions of just means in war. As diplomatic messages are exchanged between feuding cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, after the emergence of the former from their exile, Krishna is sent to the Kaurava court at Hastinapura as the Pandava emissary. As a peacemaker, Krishna first tries peaceful conciliation with his hosts (saama). When that fails, he tries to sow dissent among the Kaurava ranks by approaching one of their chief warriors, Karna, in private (bheda). Finally, Krishna attempts to bribe the Kauravas by agreeing to part with most of the Pandava kingdom if peace is maintained (daana). Only upon failure of all these methods is war declared (danda).7 These four methods of conflict resolution – saama, bheda, daana, danda – are found in Kautilya’s Arthashastra as well, and indicate that war should be considered a means of last resort.8 That Hinduism implores people to try all methods before violence should not come as a surprise, but what does seem to rebel against more popular version of Hinduism that is Gandhianism is that war is not forbidden in Hinduism either. Ahimsa, though a virtue, has its limitations, and ancient Indians were practical enough to take the suvarna madhya, or golden mean, by denouncing violence yet accepting it as an ugly reality of human nature to be revealed only as a last resort. Although some scholars see this as a self-contradiction – advocating ahimsa yet making allowances for violence – it is the Hindu way of addressing human fallibility.9 Such “hypocrisy” is prevalent throughout the Mahabharata and the Manavadharmashastras – in the first text, the eldest Pandava answers his father, Yama, who had appeared in the form of a yaksha, that a brahmin is one whose behaviour is appropriate, in this case, one who has studied the Vedas, worships the Suprie Being, gives charity, teaches, conducts prayers for others, and accepts charity.10 However, despite accepting that caste is based on deeds, Yudhishitira refuses to acknowledge Karna as a kshatriya even though he has proven his valour. In the latter text, Manu appears to frequently contradict himself on multiple issues. For example, in one verse, he allows for the possibility for a woman to sleep with her husband’s brother while in the very next verse, he says it should not be done and is a despicable act.11 Such contradictions belong to the category of what is called aapad, or adversity/calamity. In extreme situations, humans will not regard any law or custom, but once the situation has passed, the transgressions can be remedied.

During the Great War in the Mahabharata, we see instances in which the rules of engagement are violated. However, the violations are not to be seen as an informal license for war to be waged with wanton disregard for other combatants and non-combatants. In each instance of a violation, the author provides an explication of both, the doer’s motives and the perspective of the injured party. Thus, when Yudhishtira lies to his guru, Drona, that his son has been killed in the war, not only is there outrage in the Kaurava camp but discontent among the Pandavas too.12 In the ensuing discussion (in the midst of battle!), Krishna argues that there can be no sin attached to lying if the purpose were to save lives. However, those less pleased with the proceedings, including Arjuna, argued that the lie was meant to deceive and cause Drona psychological torment. Disturbed and distracted by his son’s death, Drona would become an easier target for the Pandavas and the lie served the purpose of banal material gain, victory in war. At other times, like on the 15th day of the war when Drona goes berserk and attacks infantry with astras, the saptarishis, his father Bharadwaj, and several other heavenly rishis approach him and command him to lay down his weapons for he is fighting unrighteously. A little later, when Drishtadyumna beheads a meditating Drona, he justifies his unfair action by arguing that it was necessary to save the lives of innocent soldiers from Drona’s astras. Thus, as we shall see further, the rules of engagement in Hindu societies were broadly defined but were not at all rigid.

The Manusmriti is quite clear in demarcating legitimate targets and weapons from those that are not. The laws state,

Fighting in a battle, he should not kill his enemies with weapons that are concealed, barbed, smeared with poison, or whose points blaze with fire. He should not kill anyone who has climbed on a mound, or an impotent man, or a man who folds his hands in supplication, or whose hair is unbound, or anyone who is seated, or anyone who says, ‘I am yours’; nor anyone asleep, without armour, naked, without a weapon, not fighting, looking on, or engaged with someone else; not anyone whose weapons have been broken, or who is in pain, badly wounded, terrified, or fleeing.13

In the epics, a few more rules and customs are stated: before the outbreak of hostilities, the two sides meet and establish a standard list of rules of engagement. These rules indicate that the fight must be among equals – an infantryman vs. an infantryman, a charioteer vs. another charioteer, etc. If one combatant uses deceit, the other combatant is allowed to do so as well. Furthermore, certain categories were explicitly excluded from combat: women, children, and the aged, brahmins and ascetics, those from whom one has received food, drivers, transporters, drummers, conch players, foragers, camp-followers, doormen, menials or servants in charge of menials, artisans and miners, and those who are involved in a religious activity. It is also clear from the epics that each weapon had its own rules of combat – for example, in a duel with maces, it was dishonourable to hit below the waist.14 Nonetheless, these rules were frequently broken not only by the Kauravas, the antagonists, but also the Pandavas, who generally represent virtue. So what should modern strategists take away from a religious text that extolls certain virtues which are subsequently violated by the protagonists themselves? How do these ideas relate to the nuclear age (if they do at all)?

Given the corpus of Hindu thought on jus in bello, it seems fair to extrapolate that nuclear weapons are not entirely prohibited. As in the epics, extreme circumstances might sanction the use of extreme measures. Thus, a modern interpretation of ancient Indian thinking would prohibit the use of nuclear weapons but sanction them in extreme cases and perhaps limit the targets on which they can be used. It is evident from the scriptures that it is the duty of the ruler to protect his kingdom and subjects from all threats, internal and external. To this end, the ruler should use saama, bheda, and daana and only upon the failure of these three is the fourth, danda, sanctioned. Once the use of force has been sanctioned, Hinduism has tried to restrain its use to acceptable parameters that do not violate basic human values, though the discussion of what such values entail is beyond the scope of this paper. According to the laws of Manu and the traditions and customs mentioned in the Mahabharata, the belligerents should meet before battle and discuss what constitute the rules of engagement. In modern times, these would be considered the Hague Conventions (means and methods), the Geneva Conventions (humanitarian), and customary law. Under the principle of jus cogens, some laws – such as those on genocide and crimes against humanity – would be considered binding even without their explicit acceptance by the state. The international legal system attempts to extend legal protection to all non-combatants while Hindu texts mention various groups by name but the principle is the same. It is important to note that the July 1996 advisory opinion of the World Court is not clear on the use of nuclear weapons.15 However, the conditions under which they may be legitimately used is severely circumscribed.

Once the parameters of a war are established, there are further norms of chivalry that prescribe the use of weapons and on whom they can be used. One rule demands that battle must be among equals. Although this makes more sense in the case of duels, modern-day appropriation of this rule would imply that a nuclear power should only consider its nuclear arsenal when in conflict with another nuclear power. The use of the term “equality” should not be taken to mean equality in absolute terms. In the Mahabharata, combatants ranged in age from teenagers (Abhimanyu) to octogenarians (Bhishma and Drona). Each warrior excelled with different weapons but fought with a variety of weapons nonetheless. Thus, equality implies training and material attributes more than actual skill. In modern warfare, this could perhaps be translated as a prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons or the threat thereof to only between nuclear powers. A nuclear power cannot use or threaten to use nuclear weapons on a state that does not possess nuclear weapons.

The virtue of restricting combat to only among equals implies that Hinduism would be strongly in favour of a doctrine of no first use. The allowance of deceitful means if one’s opponent does so first also supports the doctrine of no first use. But implicit in the term “no first use” is that use is permissible. Thus, a Hindu approach to warfare does indeed envision scenarios in which nuclear weapons may be used. Of course, even in such dire circumstances, use is restricted to combatants on the battlefield. As is stated in the texts, women, children, the aged – non-combatants – are not to be harmed. Any use of nuclear weapons will have to be on the battlefield against enemy combatants. This can be seen as acceptance of tactical nuclear weapons but not strategic weapons which target civilian populations and infrastructure. Although there seems to be no explicit injunction against the destruction of an enemy’s economic infrastructure and supplies, the way battle was conducted – far from urban development – indicates that such acts were frowned upon.16 Such a constraint would spare cities and other high-value targets from being targeted by nuclear weapons. If nuclear weapons were to be used, they would, thus, have to be in response to the use of similar measures by the enemy and should be restricted to the targeting of enemy military targets.

More fearsome than the immense destructive power of nuclear weapons, even small ones, is the radiation that remains afterwards. Poisoning the land, water, and sky long after the conflict is over, residual radiation affects even future generations. Even though tactical nuclear weapons leave behind a far smaller radioactive signature than their bigger city-buster cousins, they nonetheless do have an adverse impact on the environment. This would seem to militate against the Hindu injunction against damage outside the field of battle, in this case, temporally outside. However, in the Sauptika Parva of the Mahabharata, Arjuna uses the brahmasirsha astra against a similar one deployed by Ashwatthama. Before the two astras could collide and cancel each other, Narada and Vyaasa, two great rishis, stop them with their hands and command both Arjuna and Ashwatthama to revoke them for the place where they were used would not have rainfall for twelve years. Arjuna responds that the only reason he used such a terrible weapon despite the consequences was to protect himself and his kinsmen against a similar weapon used by his foe. This incident demonstrates that despite the injunctions against disproportionate damage, weapons of such magnitude could indeed be used in dire circumstances.

It is interesting to note that after the war, when Yudhishtira is lamenting at the funeral pyre of his friends and family, and in his despondency asks what is the use of inheriting the world that has been stricken of all its beauty, Krishna answers that a king’s duty is the preservation of dharma in his kingdom. Yudhishtira would not be following the path of dharma if he did not fight the Kauravas and allowed their many injustices to go unpunished. This short exchange tantalises us with the question of the use of strategic nuclear weapons and the targeting of population centres and infrastructure as a last resort. If the ultimate duty of a king is the preservation of just rule, would it be permissible to use the ultimate weapon in battle as an ultimate measure? The Mahabharata does not answer this question as the war barely leaves Kurukshetra, the field of battle. However, considering what extreme measures are sanctioned by Manu in the Manavadharmashastras in times of extremity, it is not entirely clear that total nuclear war is indubitably prohibited. Yet Hinduism also stresses the suvarna madhya, the golden mean, which speaks against extreme acts. It is perhaps more likely that Hindu theorists would recommend an immediate suing for peace in the face of unfavorable odds and engaging the enemy at a later date when the odds have improved. The Manavadharmashastras prescribe that when facing a superior foe, the king should take refuge with a righteous and stronger king who can defend him against his enemy.17 Although Manu thus recommends the avoidance of total war, the fact remains that the Mahabharata witnesses what can only be described as a total war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Throughout the Great War in the Mahabharata, Krishna instigates Arjuna to commit various transgressions against the warrior ethic. In one incident, Krishna intervenes in a duel on Arjuna’s behalf. In another, he causes the chariot to sink and saves Arjuna from being killed by an arrow. Most significantly, he urges Arjuna to kill Karna while the latter was without a chariot and without his weapons. In each case, Krishna argues that if following dharma allows adharma to prosper, then it is not dharma at all. The ultimate duty of a king, Krishna repeatedly reminds Arjuna, is the destruction of his foes. What is dharma and what is unjust is highly subjective and therefore, practically, the Hindu code on the field of battle only demands victory.

This cold and realist assessment is supported by various pieces of evidence. The incident with the brahmasirsha and Krishna’s advice to Arjuna and the other Pandavas throughout the war, the permission to use deceitful means (kutayuddha) if the enemy does so first, and the allowance for extreme measures in extreme circumstances (aapad) together exonerate the combatants of any responsibility for waging a war of limited means and methods. However, such responsibility is placed on the combatants in the form of personal virtue. A virtuous king would employ the three other methods of conflict resolution rather than rely on danda; he would not stoop to kutayuddha. This behaviour is dictated to him more by a code of personal virtue ethics than a formal and precise jus in bello.

From an analysis of the few religious sources on right conduct in war available in Hinduism, it appears that Hindu strategists would have spoken out strongly against nuclear weapons. However, as a system of thought that pays attention to the practical as well as the ideal, a Hindu military manual would allow for the use of nuclear weapons in certain circumstances, and in extreme cases, perhaps allow for total war. Typical of Hindu laws, these recommendations come with many caveats regarding intent and situation that attempt to reign in the extreme acts that might have been made necessary. Thus, although to say that Hinduism accepts the use of nuclear weapons in war would be an overstatement, it would not be erroneous to say that Hinduism reluctantly concedes that nuclear weapons may be used in war.


1: Louis Renou, Religions of Ancient India (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1972), 50.

2: Romila Thapar, “Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity,” in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1989, 216.

3: Supreme Court Case, Ramesh Yeshwant Prabhoo vs. Prabhakar Kashinath Kunte, Date of Judgment: December 11, 1995, Citation 1996 (1) SCC 130 [http://judis.nic.in/supremecourt/chejudis.asp].

4: A.K. Ramanujan, “Is there an Indian way of thinking?: An informal essay,” in, Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1989, 45-48.

5: Torkel Brekke, “Between Prudence and Heroism: Ethics of war in the Hindu tradition,” in The Ethics of War in Asian Civilizations: A Comparative Perspective, ed. Torkel Brekke (London: Routledge, 2006), 119-120.

6: For more on the difference between concepts of war, see Torkel Brekke, “The Ethics of War and Concept of War in India and Europe,” Numen, Vol. 52, No. 1, Religion and Violence (2005), 59-86.

7: Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva.

8: Arthashastra, Book VII, Chapter XVI. These are also mentioned in the Manusmriti, 7:107 – 7:108.

9: Wendy Doniger, Brian Smith, The Laws of Manu (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1991), lii-liv.

10: Srimad Bhagvatam, 7:11:14. For the instance of the yaksha prashna, see the Mahabharata, Vana Parva.

11: Manusmriti, 9:56 – 9;64. See Wendy Doniger, Brian Smith, The Laws of Manu, 203-205.

12: “Ashwathama hathaha iti, narova kunjarova.” See Mahabharata, Drona Parva.

13: Manusmriti, 7:90 – 7:93. “Climbing a mound” means, according to ancient commentators, being on the ground, trying to get up to face the king on his chariot.

14: Nick Allen, “Just War in the Mahabharata,” in The Ethics of War: Shared Problems in Different Traditions (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 139.

15: Paul Szasz, “The International Law Concerning Weapons of Mass Destruction,” in Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Religious and Secular Perspectives, ed. Sohail Hashmi and Steven Lee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 63-66.

16: The Arthashastra and Nitisara in fact recommend such acts but as stated earlier, these are political treatises and not religious texts.

17: Manusmriti 7: 174.