Indian History Part 52 The Medieval Indian (Hindu) Military System: An Appreciation

Canberra, 11 July 2016

The period 600 – 1200 A.D. can be considered the most critical in the long history of the Indian sub-continent. It saw the beginning of the Islamic onslaught on the Indian polity as well as the crescendo of the invasion when the northern Indian Hindu kingdoms were decisively defeated in battle. These battlefield defeats highlighted the drawbacks that existed in Indian military strategy, operational concepts and tactical manoeuvring. It became clear that the Indian-Hindu military forces had rested on their laurels for far too long and not given sufficient importance to the need to constantly hone military skills and review strategies. Military success was therefore presumed, but in reality not within the grasp of the Hindu kingdoms.

War is bloody but fascinating, and brings out the best and the worst in human beings. While it’s oppressive nature is not in doubt, in different times war has also led to the development of theological doctrine, influenced the creation of political systems, and provided the impetus to the making of new socio-economic policies. It has also inspired law makers, and continues to do so to this day, to scale higher levels of altruistic heights; the recently conceived doctrine of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) is an example. In order to understand war, it has to be studied in a detached manner within the basic principles that guide success and failure in this most base of all human endeavour. The basic principles of war are immutable and has stood the test of time. A common theme that is visible in both Western military philosophy and oriental military thinking is the acceptance of the fundamental principles that guide the conduct of successful military campaigns.

In medieval times North India was a region that had a strong, lofty and evolved political structure. For centuries marauding foreigners had been invaded the land, but had been gradually subsumed as part of the Indian ethos, through a process of cultural and religious absorption. However, the political and social structure started to come apart in the face of a horde of barbarous, virile, swift and doughty warriors who had burst out of the Arabian Desert like a swarm of all consuming locusts. Since earlier invasions had been contained, this relatively rapid collapse was mysterious. It remains unexplained because of a paucity of accurate historical records and contemporary analysis. It is left to the military thinker to stitch together information that is available in bits and pieces and make sense of the events that took place. Even so, the mystery remains to be unravelled.

War has never been a simple activity. Even in ancient times when the weapons systems used were relatively ‘primitive’ it was full of complex challenges. It directly affects the destinies of kingdoms and nations and the lives of millions of people. War and its consequences must therefore be examined in detail. In analysing war, three factors have to be viewed in an overarching manner—geography; the prevailing socio-economic and philosophical religious issues; and the political systems of the participants.

Geography of Early Medieval India

Geography is the science of the earth and all life on it—a study with a very wide scope. Military geography deals with the aspects that influence military operations such as the location, size and shape of the area or region being studied along with the climate, people and physiography or terrain. In some cases the communications and transport infrastructure is also included in this analysis. As early as the time of the Mahabharata, it has been recorded that the Indian sub-continent was equated to a triangle with the base at the Himalayan ranges and geographically divided into five regions. By medieval times the people of the sub-continent had accurate and detailed geographical knowledge of their land.

By the 5th century, the five broad regions were fully established. They were: North India consisting of the Punjab, Kashmir, the hill states and the whole of Eastern Afghanistan; Western India comprising of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kutchch, part of the coast of Sindh and the lower course of the River Narmada; Central India encompassing the entire Gangetic plains from Thanesvar to the river delta in the Bay of Bengal and the lands between the Himalayan foothills and the River Narmada; Eastern India made up of Bengal, Assam, Sambhalpur, Orissa and Ganjam; and South India, which was the whole peninsula from Nasik in the west to Ganjam in the east and Kanyakumari in the south with the region bound by the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

From a military perspective, the Himalayas and its off-shoots form a mountainous barrier in the north and the west—in the north-west they separate the Indus valley from Persia; further north, the Hindukush ranges safeguard the borders; and the Pamir knot separates Kashmir from Turkistan. Even so, the western borders of the ‘Indian’ polity was a dynamically changing entity. Between the 5th and 10th centuries, large and varying parts of Afghanistan was part of Indian kingdoms. Huien Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim traveller who visited Indian kingdoms during 629-645, records the Afghan king being a Kshatriya. From 10th century to early 11th century, the Kabul valley was under the rule of a Brahmin dynasty. These Hindu dynasties ensured a gradual and on-going process of Indianisation in the culture and the ethos of the people. This assimilation process was abruptly brought to an end when the Ghaznavids established their sultanate.

The Indian sub-continent was home to all types of climate, leading to the availability of a large number of natural products. However, the monsoon rains and the burning heat of the North Indian summer, made military operations in the north-west impossible between May and September. On the other hand, in October and November invading armies could easily live off the land since the crops were ripe and herbage plentiful for the horses and pack animals. This was obviously the most opportune time to mount an invasion into the verdant Gangetic plains.

‘India… is the most agreeable abode on the earth, and the most pleasant quarter of the world. Its dust is purer than air, and its air purer than purity itself; its delightful plains resemble the garden of paradise, and the particles of its earth are like rubies and corals.’

Wassaf Abdullah,

Translated in The History of India as told by its own Historians, Vol III, by Elliot and Dowson, 1979, p. 28

The conduct of war is always dictated by geography. In the Indian context the influence of climate has been exceptional. The demography in terms of the influx and assimilation of migrant and invading peoples in earlier times also impact the military geography. Along with the mighty mountains of the north, the geography of the Indian sub-continent acted as a gatekeeper, with the mighty desert on the east of the River Indus being a completely inhospitable region. This region also raised hardy, restless and ferocious fighters. The Gangetic plains were naturally so bountiful that it made the inhabitants indolent and averse to hard toil. The plains by themselves were difficult to defend once an invader had stepped inside, but fortunately geography provided only few narrow entrances to this region from within the Aravalli and Shiwalik ranges. The entrance at the Karnal plains is famous for the battlefields of Panipat and Tarain upon which the fate of India was traditionally decided from early medieval times.

The medieval routes from Afghanistan into India were many, although most of them proved to be difficult to master. Much before the Ghaznavid invasion, Arabs had conquered Sindh but found it impossible to advance any further into the sub-continent across the vast deserts that bordered the territory. This is particularly noteworthy since the Arabs had already conquered great empires to the west of the Arabian Peninsula. The ambition that emanated in one desert was dashed against the sands of another. Later, Muhammad of Ghur conquered Multan and in order to avoid a direct clash with the remnant stump of the Ghaznavids entrenched in Peshawar, attempted to penetrate western Rajasthan to reach Gujarat. In his recklessness sufficient heed was not paid to geography and terrain and the attempt resulted in a resounding defeat for the Ghur army. For invaders from the north-west, geography of the sub-continent was an unalterable fact of life and ignored at their own peril.

Religious Outlook

More than any other group of kingdoms, the ones of North India was influenced by the religious outlook of the people. Historically, the Gupta age is considered the era of Brahminical revival and the period in which the Bhakti movement started. It was an age of widespread tolerance and the start of the acceptance of non-violence as a concept that gradually entrenched itself as a religious creed. By the time of the reign of Harsha Vardhana, arguably the last of the imperial emperors of ancient India, both Jainism and Buddhism had proliferated at the expense of Hinduism. Although Buddhism was almost fully extinct in the country of its birth by the 12th century, it is perceived to have left a legacy that in turn had unfortunate influences on the history of the sub-continent.

The non-violent stance of the Buddhist religion and its predominant status within the more powerful kingdoms combined with the patronage of the ruling dynasties is thought to have made it acceptable for the king to surrender in an abject manner at the first indication of an invasion. Some historians believe that this legacy was carried forward for more than two centuries. There are a number of unsubstantiated stories of kings and rulers hiding to save themselves in the wake of external invasion. However, such behaviour is not in consonance with the spirited defence put up by the Hindu kingdoms against the Islamic onslaught. They would have to be considered aberrations and exaggerations of the reporting. However, there was no religious unity within and amongst the ‘Hindu’ kingdoms. Al-Idrisi, an Arab traveller who reached India in the 11th century, mentions as many as 42 independent religious sects within the broader umbrella of Hinduism. This situation was obviously not conducive to presenting a cohesive front to invading armies that were religiously homogenous in nature.

The people and rulers were both equally religious by nature although common human frailties, such as intense greed, is also known to have manifest from time to time. For example, King Harsha of Kashmir (ruled 1089-1101 and not to be confused with Harsha Vardhana of Kanauj) looted the temples of his kingdom to benefit the exchequer that had run dry through mismanagement. The guiding principles of life in Hindu religion were non-violence, self-sacrifice and self-abnegation. Later-day historians therefore considered warlike attitudes to be anathema to such people. They were very far off the mark.

Hindu Militarism

What has been stated in the earlier paragraphs is only speculative analysis based on very limited evidence and that too applicable to the period after the 9th century. Contrary to this rather uncomplimentary conclusion regarding the courage and attitude of some of the rulers, the fact remains that the Hindu kingdoms never rejected the concept of war as an instrument of state policy. The Vedas considered war as an instrument of progress, clearing impediments and enemies from the path to prosperity. Manu, the ancient law giver, laid down that dying in war was an act of the highest merit and equated it to ritual religious sacrifice.

According to the ancient texts, war was a mandatory pursuit for a king. It was a natural activity for human beings and its absence for a long time was to be considered abnormal. The Hindu concept was that when the troops within a kingdom was ready for battle, war should be declared on a less powerful entity, without even the need to indicate any provocation. This is a very high level of militarism, not an indication of pacifism. Definitely Buddhism with its inherent propagation of non-violence did have a softening influence on Hindu militarism. However, a careful study of the Buddhist doctrine reveals that neither did the religion preach against warfare nor did it oppose the idea of war as a legitimate activity of a kingdom.

Jainism, perhaps the religion that practised the most extreme form of non-violence, also condoned the conduct of war when the honour of the state was at stake. In fact, some of the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta kings were inclined towards becoming practitioners of Jainism while continuing to wage war at will. In medieval times, the ancient laws promulgated by Manu were still accepted and continued to be practiced. Death in battle was not something to be scared of and this concept assured the bravery of the Hindu soldiers to the extent of some of them being foolhardy in courting danger in the battlefield.

Later-day Western historians and analysts contended that Hindus as a whole were a community of philosophers who did not attach much importance to the pursuit of mundane matters like warfare. This perception became entrenched over the centuries and influenced the understanding of Hindu armies, well into the 20th century. This fundamentally flawed analysis has to be refuted and the record put straight. Followers of the Hindu religion have a long and customary martial tradition. The age old ‘caste’ of warriors—the Kshatriyas—could not have been created and become the ruling class of nobles, if warfare was not considered an honourable and necessary profession. The fault in creating the misperception regarding the non-martial attitude of the Hindus lies in the mindset of the Western historians. They could not comprehend a religion that could simultaneously cultivate and refine a philosophical doctrine that considered life to be without competition while embracing warfare, the epitome of competition, as a necessary part of life.

It was part of the Hindu genius that made it possible to set apart an entire community to warfare, from birth to death. This ensured that when war came to a kingdom, it was conducted—won or lost—without any discernible disruption to the existing social and economic fabric. In this broad set up, war almost never brought about the necessity to sweep aside the old order or create a new one. Order—societal, religious and economic—already existed and did not need to be overhauled as the result of a war. Members of the warrior-class were left to pursue war-craft for the overall benefit of the kingdom.

Causes of War

Medieval India was a hotbed of militarism and war was embedded into the philosophy of ruling a kingdom, even in relatively small ones. By the 7th century, even small principalities aspiring to independence maintained standing armies built around a core of Kshatriyas. In the north and west of the sub-continent, the Rajputs made themselves into a separate and higher class of Kshatriyas, who were wedded to warfare and willing to assume umbrage at the merest perception of a slight to their honour and status. This situation was the acme of militarism, contrary to what Western historians have wrongly made generations of history students believe as the non-violent nature of Hindu kingdoms. Further, there was no conscription known in the sub-continent, all Hindu armies were voluntary in nature. [The present day Indian Armed Forces continue this tradition. It is the only national military force that has never introduced conscription, even when faced with global war.]

The medieval Hindu kingdoms did not need any pretext to go to war. The fundamental ambition of all kings was to conquer and a continual attempt to conquer was accepted as the proper state of affairs. Suing for peace was the recourse of only the weak with a state of war being the optimum state for strong kings. In the Indian context, the extermination of non-Aryans was an important cause of war in prehistoric times. Later, the love of glory brought about by victory in battle and then the gradual development of the concept of war being the ‘dharma’, the raison d’etre, for a warrior made it necessary to wage war. Wars were fought to appease vanity, to avenge perceived slights to honour, and on myriad other concocted excuses. The fact was that wars had to be fought to ensure the stability of the kingdom, from a domestic viewpoint.

The result of this political state of affairs was devastating for the kingdoms of the sub-continent. It created and sustained internecine wars that fermented in protracted states of feud and diminished and then completely neutralised any central authority that could act as a deterrent to external aggression. The futile wars were misguided use of national power, vigour and treasure, leading in the long-term to the undermining of the national power-base of the participants. This situation was tailor-made for external groups, tribes and kingdoms, who were covetous of the riches of the sub-continental kingdoms, to pick and destroy the Hindu kingdoms one by one.

Of the battles, campaigns and wars fought by the medieval Hindu kingdoms—with each other and against external aggressors—only glorified accounts of foolhardy bravery, converted to folklore and myth by family bards, remain for posterity. This is a sad commentary of the demise of once powerful kingdoms ruled by dynasties that were exalted in their enlightened rule.

The Organisation of Indian-Hindu Armies

From ancient times, the Army constituted an important and critical element of Hindu kingdoms. An ancient scripture stated ‘…if there is no army, there is no government, no wealth, [and] no power.’ Prosperity and rule of law within a kingdom was a direct function of it having a powerful army. A king was therefore exhorted to maintain an unconquerable army. By medieval times, when the Kshatriyas had become entrenched as the traditional ruling class of warrior-kings, astra vidya (the study of the employment of arms) and yudh tatva (military science) had become compulsory education for the rulers and military commanders. The importance of these two branches of education was emphasised by raising them to the level of philosophy.

The traditional Indian army consisted of four divisions—infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots—and was called ‘chaturangabala’ or the four-fold army. In later days, the term continued to refer to the army, irrespective of whether or not it possessed all the four arms. By the 7th century, chariots were not a regular feature in war but continued to be used for ceremonial purposes and by the early 8th century, even such use had become rare. The reason for the disuse of the chariots could have been their limited employment prospects in rough terrain and also the resource-intensiveness of having to maintain the chariots in fighting order. The horses required to manoeuvre the chariots could be used as the mount for the same warrior with greater efficiency.

The medieval Hindu army consisted of the three standard arms—infantry, cavalry and elephants, along with the support facilities of transport, scouts and the espionage wings. The size of the overall establishment varied from army to army. All the major kingdoms and leading dynasties maintained large standing armies, with some even having a number of armies, each self-sufficient to wage and win wars on their own. They were capable of fighting on different fronts simultaneously as independent entities.

The traditional Hindu army was composed of four types of soldiers—regular troops, feudal levies, irregular forces, and corporation soldiers.

Regular Troops. The regular troops were the core of the standing army and it’s most efficient and reliable section. They were made up of hereditary soldiers, who as a whole were adept at military tactics. In some cases they were augmented by mercenaries. In smaller states that could not afford the luxury of maintaining large standing armies, these sections formed the nucleus around which the national army was raised in times of need. The ‘regulars’ were loyal, valiant and almost always imbued with the spirit of sacrifice to save the kingdom. In the majority of kingdoms, the regular or hereditary troops were the trusted core around which the ‘foreign’ soldiers who volunteered their services were enrolled. In this context, the term ‘foreign’ does not necessarily mean foreigners to the sub-continent, but merely people from outside the immediate region of the kingdom. For example, it has been reliably recorded that the army of the Rashtrakuta King Yasodhara comprised Deccani, Tamil, North Indian, Tirhut and Gujarati regiments. The hereditary troops also formed a smaller group within the regular forces as the personal body guards of the king. This group was dedicated to the protection of the king and invariably died with him in battle. The hereditary troops were highly regarded and continued an age-old tradition in India from the days of Kautilya.

Feudal Levies. These were troops supplied by feudatory chiefs according to the terms and conditions agreed between the king and the vassal. The king parcelled off territory to feudal chieftains according to perceived individual merit and ability. These chieftains were also referred to as jagirdars and in some areas ruled as virtual kings. Normally the number of troops to be provided was a fixed quota and depended on the richness and extent of the territorial gifts received by the vassal chief. The feudal levies joined the main force in all the campaigns of the king, although there is only limited information regarding the command structure that was instituted. There is even lesser material available to make a learned assessment regarding their performance in battle. Considering the origin of these forces, it is certain that there would have been issues of integration and even of their loyalty.

Irregular Forces. These were local forces raised when the kingdom was faced with grave danger and harks back to an old Vedic custom. The recruitment was entirely voluntary and there is no recorded instance of overall conscription. Further, the recruitment was publicly done with emoluments laid down and the operations that would be undertaken specified. The force so formed was a mixed crowd, consisting of loyal citizens as well as brigands and therefore the expectation of irregular forces was limited. Even their loyalty was questioned. The recruitment was normally done by feudal chiefs and neither did they did offer any security of engagement nor provide sufficient training. With the lack of experience within the ranks of this force, they were not expected to perform at a high level in battle. They were unreliable and it is reported that it was customary for them to flee the battlefield at the slightest indication of a reversal of fortunes. In an unbiased assessment it can be said that the irregular forces were merely extra weight in terms of numbers that could also become disadvantageous to the regular forces along with whom they went into battle. Mere weight in numbers is never a substantial contribution to war.

Corporation Soldiers. By the medieval times, ‘srenis’, the professional guilds, had become the pillars of national economic well-being. The larger guilds had become extremely powerful and had created their own militia. The militia was initially formed to protect the trading rights of the guild and gradually became private armies, which in some cases played decisive roles in settling domestic policies. Over a period of time, they also became sufficiently capable to be called upon to serve the state if needed. These militias consisted mainly of mercenaries and formed a quasi-military force that could be induced to join either of the warring states. The soldiers were a group who earned a living through the practice of the profession of arms. Some larger groups were led by commanders who assumed the title of ‘raja’, a tradition that can be traced back to the times of the Great Mahabharata War. In the epic a number of such groups and rajas have been identified, such as Mallaka, Kuru and Panchala.

There was also an amorphous group that fought in wars—not particularly identified with any of the four main types. They were the Kshatriyas who had settled into making a living through agriculture or trade but continued the practice of their traditional profession of arms as a subsidiary pursuit. In times of war, this group formed an essential fighting force that was cohesive and reliable. They were normally employed in short but intense campaigns and was a source of strength to the main army. Their loyalty was always to the group and was unquestioned, making them a formidable fighting group.

Class Composition

Although the Kshatriyas were the traditional warriors, all the people of a kingdom took part in war as soldiers. There are a number of records that show Brahmans having held high military positions from ancient times. It is authentically stated that Alexander of Macedonia faced concerted and stubborn resistance from the Brahmans in the Punjab. As a result, they also bore the brunt of the terrible retribution that was meted out by the Greeks after their victory.

Recruitment to the medieval Hindu army was open to all classes and castes. Some soldiers of the lower castes distinguished themselves in battle and also rose to high positions within the standing army. The army was an open institution with almost no restrictions based on caste or status—a pure meritocracy that rewarded individual loyalty, bravery and capability. This openness also facilitated the altering of the composition of the army by a capable commander to cater for the ethos of the adversary. The flexibility this situation afforded could be turned to decisive advantage by an accomplished king.

Performance of the Army

The army’s performance was directly influenced by four factors—the ability of the commander, availability of resources, morale of the troops and a combination of the weather and terrain. [The fundamentals have not changed that much over the centuries, these are still vital factors in determining the success or failure of a military force.] The commander of the forces was normally the king himself. The success or otherwise of wars depended on the king’s personality in terms of his leadership qualities and personal bravery; his ability to train the army to a high level of readiness; his ability to formulate winning strategies, knowledge of battle tactics and enemy capabilities; the depth and breadth of campaign planning; and the innate flexibility of thinking that could even snatch victory from sure defeat on the battlefield.

Availability of resources meant ensuring adequacy of weapon system capabilities and their numerical advantage over those of the potential adversary. It also demanded putting in place a supply chain that assured resupply during actual combat operations. This was a difficult task and much depended on the army being able to achieve this. Morale of the forces depended on a large number of sub-factors, some of which were immutable—past history, social and economic situation of the kingdom, the status of the soldiers within the broader society and the combined ethos of the army. Cohesiveness was a critical factor and the medieval Hindu kings had already learned the need to have ethnic homogeneity in the fundamental fighting group. Morale—the will to fight—was intangible then as it is now. Terrain and weather influenced the performance of all the warring parties. A clear appreciation of the terrain and understanding of the weather was a prerequisite for a successful commander.

In Indian history, the performance of the commander stands out as the single most important factor in determining the outcome of battles and wars. The soldiers’ loyalty was to the commander who was invariably the king, and there was only a vague understanding or cognisance of nationalism. The king was the kingdom. If a king was killed, wounded and carried away from the battlefield, or fled in the face of an enemy onslaught, the army invariably collapsed. On the other hand, a king displaying exceptional personal bravery could inspire an army to achieve extraordinary feats of valour and sacrifice. The king was also responsible for maintaining the morale and ensuring adequacy of resources. He also had to put into practice his own and the collective knowledge of terrain and weather. The situation is somewhat similar in modern times also, but was very pronounced in medieval times. Battles turned on a single individual.

The Political Situation

Medieval India had already gone past the stage of having powerful emperors whose writ ran across the length and breadth of the north or the south of the sub-continent. Most kingdoms were ruled by kings who were bend on self-aggrandisement. The pomp and ceremony that most kings insisted upon was achieved at the expense of the common people. Further, mutual animosity with neighbours was the most common and normal state of affairs. Warrior-statesmen with very strong will and personal characteristics is needed to conquer, weld and hold vast empires together. Medieval India unfortunately did not produce anyone of such calibre. Instead it produced a succession of kings with limited vision at best. Every petty princeling aspired to be the emperor, at the cost of his neighbour. The slide downwards from the glory days of the Guptas, Mauryas and the Vardhanas and the magnificent rule of the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, and Cholas was already set in motion.

By the 8th century, northern and western India was divided into multiple factions with fluid political boundaries. Sind, ruled by a Brahmin dynasty was politically and geographically isolated from the rest of the sub-continent. In addition, it was badly administered and seething with discontent. It was an attractive prize for the war-thirsty Arab-Muslim rulers to the west and fell easily to the more disciplined soldiers who were determined to conquer or die. The Arabs continued to rule Sind for the next three centuries, but it is noteworthy that despite repeated efforts they could not breach the defences of the sub-continent proper.

By the end of the 10th century, North India was a conglomeration of small and inefficient states of limited power, almost continually at war with their neighbours. Mutual cooperation was restricted to getting together to destroy a mutually hated and more powerful neighbour-adversary. At the same time the Turkmen kingdoms of the north-west were preparing to attack, these petty kingdoms being ripe for the picking by more focused and capable opponents. It is obvious that the political organisation was in a dismal state.

By the medieval times, the Indian sub-continent did not have any semblance of a central authority of note or longevity. The concept of ‘matsya-nyaya’, the justice of the fish of big ones eating the smaller ones, based on mutual hostility and distrust was the entrenched order of the day. In this almost lawless situation, the right to survival was determined by power and might with the weaker sections, principalities and even kingdoms becoming subsumed and perishing in front of the avarice of the stronger entities. The underlying political doctrine was evolved from the threefold concept regarding kings—Sarabhauama, the ruler of the entire earth; Chaturanta, the ruler whose writ runs to the full extent of the four corners; and Chakravartin, the ruler whose chariot wheels of state rolled in all directions. Unfortunately the three types of kings mentioned were all at the furthest end of the ‘kingly’ spectrum, a state not achievable by all and sundry. Even so, this created a situation wherein warring kings set out to conquer in all directions, regardless of their individual merits or capability.

In these circumstances, the mandala theory, so far the stabilising influence on Indian political development, was replaced by the concept of ‘raja-raja’ or the king of kings an exalted state that even petty and incompetent princes aspired to achieve. The mandala gradually reinvented itself and entrenched itself within the broad Hindu religious theory, leading to the perpetuation of the politico-religious rites embedded in the Vedic yagnas such as the aswamedha, rajasuya etc. Further, the once resilient Hindu religion was gradually reduced to a set of superstitious beliefs. The common man lost touch with the more fundamental and simpler religious truths. The once vibrant Hindu society had been reduced to being a rigid system based on the incident of an individual’s birth. The kings were politically compelled to wage senseless wars in order to establish their nominal superiority in relation to a neighbour.

The price that the Hindu kingdoms paid for this rather short-sighted addiction to power and the perpetuation of an inferior societal system was immense. Confusion reigned in the political, religious and societal systems. This in turn paved the way for successive waves of poor and hungry—both literally and metaphorically—but toughened warriors to enter the internecine fighting. The fact that they were adherents of the Muslim religion was only incidental. The politico-cultural and religious situation amongst the Hindu kingdoms had reached a nadir and was conducive for the success of determined external intervention.  It was not surprising that the Indian, or Hindu, arms and military—depleted of vigour and strength through long and fruitless internal warfare—collapsed rather meekly in front of the marauding invaders.

Conclusion – Continuing the Mandala Doctrine

In medieval Hindu kingdoms, the strategy for the conduct of their perennial wars was dictated by state policy and influenced by political exigencies. The essence of state policy was the enhancement of state power, which meant increasing the king’s influence and stature. In enlightened dynasties it also meant the simultaneous enhancement of the people’s happiness and state prosperity. Kautilya stated this concept rather succinctly in the Arthasastra, ‘Strength is power; happiness is the end’. Inter-state relations were still conducted within the broad outline of the Mandala Doctrine that considered the immediate neighbour to be an adversary and the one just beyond that to be a friend.

The Mandala Doctrine advocated a basic six-fold state policy: peace (sandhi), that should be followed by a weaker kingdom to seek a treaty with the stronger neighbour; war (vigraha), where a more powerful state declares war on the weaker one; the observance of neutrality (asana), assumed by a self-assured state that is not strong enough to defeat a potential adversary and therefore remains neutral; marching (yana), marching the army towards the enemy when the army has been fully equipped and trained; alliance (samsraya), the recourse for weak states to march within the umbrella of an alliance with a stronger state who is a friend; and making peace (dvaibhibhara), making peace with one while waging war with another, which means creating an alliance in order to attack another.

The Mandala Doctrine is a pragmatic appreciation of foreign policy that clearly states that war must be a state policy, to be declared only when the chances of victory are high. (The Mandala Doctrine has been analysed and described in detail in From Indus to Independence, Volume III, The Disintegration of Empires, Chapter 21, pp. 293-303.)

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2016]
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (





About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: