The True Origins of India's Military Strategy

The modern Indian state has not been beyond using “ends justify the means” thinking for its geopolitical benefit, even right after the idealistic period defined by Gandhi.

India has two great, ancient epics that saturate its civilization, much like the Bible and Shakespeare in the West: the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. The Ramayana is simpler in structure and focuses on the ideal reign of a single ruler, Rama, who has traditionally been the model for political authority in South and Southeast Asia. On the other hand, like the Bible or Herodotus’ Histories, the Mahabharata describes a multitude of political and military situations from many perspectives. This makes it a broad, useful compendium of strategy, rather than just political authority, that was widely accessible to anyone throughout Indian history. Since it was composed around 400 B.C.E. (possibly loosely based on events that happened around 1000 B.C.E.), its contribution to the Indian worldview cannot be understated, not just as a story or religious text, but as a strategic text that has influenced Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and even Islamic states in South Asia. Indeed, it offers a central—and often overlooked—case for realism in foreign affairs.

The Mahabharata is considered an itihasa, or history in the Indian tradition—epics meant to narrate tales of bygone days as lessons. Exemplars derived from this text are found everywhere in India today. For example, a recent article in an Indian newspaper, the Hindustan Times contained the following analogy from the Mahabharata: “When the Kauravas refused to part with five villages, they had to lose the entire kingdom,” in reference to the Nepalese government’s refusal to grant more autonomy to its southern region. The analogy refers to an incident in the Mahabharata in which the Kauravas, a group of aristocratic cousins seize the kingdom of their cousins, the Pandavas, for a period of 13 years during which the Pandavas are exiled. After they return, the Pandavas made it known that they would settle for only five villages instead of their whole kingdom, but this offer was refused by the Kauravas, thus leading to war and the destruction of the Kauravas. The strategic lesson of this episode is that it is sometimes necessary to give way a little in order to hold onto larger gains. Another article, in the Hindu, wrote that Indian Prime Minister Modi needed to break through the chakravyuh—an almost-impenetrable, wheel-like formation used in the war in the Mahabharata—of the bureaucratic, legally complex Indian state in order to reform its structures and economy. Like the chakravyuh of the Mahabharata, the Indian state was designed to last as a socialist state through being structured as a multilayered maze, and as in the epic, most politicians get trapped in this maze without being able to reform it.

The previous analogies are but a taste of the strategic richness and wisdom of the Mahabharata, stories known to just about everyone in India. Briefly summarized, the Mahabharata is the story of the political rivalry between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and Pandavas. Their dynastic dispute ensues because the father of the Kauravas was denied the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapura despite being the eldest male heir due to his blindness; the throne went instead to his younger brother, the father of the Pandavas, who died early, leaving his brother as regent. Confusion thus arose as to which branch of the family had a rightful claim to the throne, eventually leading to the kingdom’s partition, the exile of the Pandavas from their kingdom after its seizure through gambling by the Kauravas, and finally an epic war in which the Pandavas destroyed their cousins and reunited the kingdom. The epic is sympathetic to the Pandavas because they are portrayed as being righteous and not motivated by an arrogant desire for power.