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Ancients on War


V. R. Raghvan


An attempt to understand the strategic outlook of two great nations like India and China would require an examination of many strands of history. One most important strand would be the written account of the way the nations were protected from external and internal threats to their existence. India and China produced a unique pair of treatises, which allow us to examine strategic thoughts that guided their policies. The classical treatises of Arthashastra and Sunzi Bingfa are specially suited to this examination, by the range, scope and emphasis of their outlook.

Arthashastra and Sunzi Bingfa offer fascinating insights into the approaches to statecraft by two wholly different civilisations. It is nevertheless better to study them on their own terms instead of looking for commonalities. Arthashastra was conceived and named as the Science of Wealth. It focussed on creation of wealth as the means to ensure the well being of the state. Sunzi Bingfa is what might be called the Science of Decisive Results. The first covers a wide gamut of state-making activities. The second, while specifically directed towards winning a war, is indicative of the philosophy that should govern the activity of the state. The two classics were products of their limes. In China, It was the period of Warring States, when various kings were contesting for supremacy within the pale of Chinese civilisation with nomadic horsemen threatening the frontiers. The Great Wall had yet to come up in its integrated shape and victory in war was seen as the best way to ensure the safety of the state. In India it was the time of post-Buddha warring kings. Alexander had visited, conquered a part of India and left behind strong satraps to rule the seized lands. These not very dissimilar circumstances nevertheless produced two contrasting doctrinal approaches to managing the state’s security.

In the western world, by the end of the 4th Century BC, the mighty armies of Persians (Darius) and Greeks (Alexander) had come and gone. The new model armies of the Romans had already created an empire. Hannibal’s campaign over the Alps with elephants had been conducted in 216 SC. Warfare had become an organised enterprise in all its aspects, viz., financing, organising, recruiting, tactics, generalship, logistics and training. In China and India, prior to the 5th Century SC, warfare had remained ritualistic, either based on unorganised masses crashing into each other, or of feudal knights battling individually according to the rules of personal combat, e.g., the probity of Prakasha yudha. Chivalry and the warrior’s code took precedence over results. King Porus’ regal answer to Alexander on how a defeated king be treated is indicative of the altitudes that guided warfare. In China the King (Duke) of Song in 638 BC declined to attack till the enemy army was fully arranged and such a civility made him lose the battle. Mao Zedong was fond of saying, “We are not the Duke of Song.” Around the 5th Century SC, warfare had started getting organised into a method. By the 4th Century, warfare in both countries had become a “directed” affair.

In China, the King of Zhao had introduced the first major military reforms by 307 BC, by replacing the chariots with cavalry. By 299 BC the Shangjun Shu (sometimes also called Book of Shangjun) had been compiled. It formalised the views of the Legalists as opposed to the Confucian traditionalists. It saw war as inevitable and which must be won. It went on to say, “A wise ruler understands that he can attain surpremacy in the under-heaven only by victory and therefore obliges his people to serve in the army.” The theory of proportional dependence of a state’s power on its military success became the classic contribution of the Shangjun Shu The period of Warring States ended by 221 BC, Sunzi Eingfa gave a sharper edge to the Shangjun Shu and made war the first priority of the state: “War is a matter of vital importance to the state; the province of life and death: the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”

A comparable emphasis on the military aspect of state policy did not emerge in India. The Arthshastra focussed on preservation of the state through alliances, and the elaborate and almost esoteric “Mandalas” by which to determine inter-state relations. It thus emphasised balance of power - a much maligned outlook today in India. Kautilya’s India looked at war as a feature of the state’s life, something to be lived with, almost as if one puts up with a chronic illness with the help of palliatives. The army was just one of seven elements that constituted the slate (king, ministers, land and people, towns and cities, treasury, forces, allies). War was treated as any other state enterprise and not considered vital as in Sunzi Singfa. Bulk of the army was made up with the help of guilds (shrenis). The mandala approach was applied even to the regular army. The army chiefs and other generals were given the full treatment of spies, surveillance and mutual suspicions. The location of the army was decided by the need to keep it divided and not on operational needs. Compared to Sunzi Bingfa, war in Arthashastra was more an ongoing effort instead of a climactic, decisive act to shatter the present and shape the future. The perils of indecisive and therefore protracted wars from which no country ever benefits, as advised in Sunzi Bingfa, were never quite understood in Indian strategic thought. It was to cost India dear throughout its history, and even in the modern post-Independence period. Even in recent times Mao Zedong emphasised protracted war as the people’s means to defeat the stronger tortes of a state. Arthashastra does not mention protracted war at all. Perhaps living in a protracted state of conflict had made the rulers and peoples inured to it.

Historical and state factors played a not insignificant part in the evolution of the contrasting strategic emphasis on matters of the nation’s safety. Even in the age when the king was synoymous with the stale, India and China as kingdoms looked at threats to the state differently. Chinese convictions about it being the civilised centre, or middle, against the barbarian periphery,

led to the military emphasis of Sunzi Bingfa. India had by then absorbed numerous military and civilisational invasions. A culturally accommodative state had emerged which is reflected in the Arhashastras emphasis on alliances and spheres of influence.

Sunzi Bingfa emphatically related power to military strength. This special emphasis on the military as the indicator of national payer, continues to weigh heavily in Chinese thought in modern times. Mao’s immortal quote on political power growing out of the barrel of the gun, reiterates lhat emphasis even more tellingly man Sunzi Bingfa. Kautilya’s Arthashastra viewed good counsel and correct judgement as the constituents of power and as more useful than military might. One also wonders in the light of the history of the time, if Kautilya was not more concerned with the intellectual and moral qualities of Indian leadership of his time than their personal valour! Along with power the relative importance given to decisive action is another area of divergent outlook. Sunzi Bingfa places a high premium on decisive, even deterrent action. There is a clear preference for action directed towards decisive results. The story of the author of the Chinese classic, actually beheading a few concubines of the King of Wu while teaching them drill, to show how obedience is to be obtained may be apocryphal, but is indicative of the ruthless emphasis on decisive results. The Arthasbastra is almost managerial in its outlook on managing the affairs of the state.

The present may seem remarkably as a continuation of the past, if Indian and Chinese policies for the management of internal and external threats are any indication. Arthashastra and Sunzi Bingfa really cannot and should not be compared but used as insights into the two great civilisations’ inspirations of state policies. They provide very useful clues to each other’s outlook on the role of the state. More than that, they offer pointers to the future management of relations with each other. At the turn of the second millennium, when the need is more of interdependence than confrontation, Arthashastra and Sunzi Bingfa offer as good an understanding of what was done in the past, as of what can be achieved in the future. India and China will do well to learn from both the classics.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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Published in 1998 by 

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