India and South Asia: Ancient Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Compared with those of other ancient civilizations, the interstate relations and warfare of India were the weakest aspects of Indian political affairs.

Political Considerations

Compared with those of other ancient civilizations, the interstate relations and warfare of India were the weakest aspects of Indian political affairs. Much of the role of fighting was traditionally assigned to the kṣatriya Kṣatriya (South Asian warriors)[Ksatriya] warrior caste. This caste, similar in some ways to the knights of medieval Europe, had its own traditions and customs, similar to the European concept of Chivalry;ancient chivalry. The art of fighting was extolled and ancient epics glorified war, with legends such as the Rāmāyaṇa[Ramayana] Rāmāyaṇa seeing men fighting demons. However, India appears to have displayed little skill in military matters. Generally peaceful and docile, the people of ancient India were not able to offer much resistance to hordes of invaders from the north. Even medieval Hindus;medieval Hindu kingdoms could not create lasting empires, maintain strong alliances, or sustain large military forces. Ancient traditions, cumbersome pedantic theories, and outmoded military techniques hampered the progression of military science. None of these burdened the invaders of India. War was accepted as an essential state activity, and condemnation of it was rarely voiced in Indian literature. The quintessential Nonviolence Jain-Buddhist doctrine of Ahīṃsā (Jain-Buddhist nonviolence)[ahimsa] ahīṃsā, or nonviolence, was never interpreted as a condemnation of war until the Mahatma Gandhi, Mohandas K.Gandhi, Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869-1948) took up the banner in the twentieth century. Even Aśoka the Aśoka the GreatAśoka the Great[Asoka] Great (c. 302-c. 232 b.c.e. ), the only monarch to repudiate war, as well as most Buddhist kings, accepted the use of warfare as necessary to achieve the cultural unit of Bhāratavarṣa, the ancient name of India–a dream constantly challenged by invaders of Indian soil.India;ancientSouth Asia;ancientIndia;ancientSouth Asia;ancient

Military Achievement

Indian Kingdoms and Empires, 400 b.c.e.-500 c.e.

The military history of South Asia coincides with the influx of Indo-European invaders, who, hardened by migrations from the Steppe nomads;Indus Valley invasionssteppes of Eastern Europe, entered the Indus Valley and made contacts with the indigenous, dark-skinned DravidiansDravidians. The innate aggressiveness, superior military technology, iron weaponry, and horse-drawn chariots of the steppe nomad warriors successfully overwhelmed the local population. However, little is actually known of the conflicts between the two cultures. Archaeological finds present scant evidence of military conflict. Integration of the Indus Valley seems to have been achieved by means other than military absorption. The synthesis of the two cultures resulted in a Hindu civilization after 1400 b.c.e. in which small states pursued incessant warfare for dominance. Against this background developed the Vedas (Hindu sacred texts) Vedas, the most ancient and sacred writings of Hinduism, which give tantalizing clues to military events of the Vedic period.

The post-Vedic era, however, produced reliable histories describing military events and weaponry in South Asia. The format of war that continued well into the modern era had its birth around 400 b.c.e. Between 600 and 400 b.c.e. a patchwork of feudal tribal states consolidated into sixteen republics, Māhajanapadas[Mahajanapadas]māhajanapadas, four of which in the eastern Gangetic Valley–Kosala, Kasi, Magadha, and Vrjji–gained ascendancy. Magadha Magadha emerged victorious under Chandragupta MauryaChandragupta Maurya Chandragupta Maurya (r. c. 321-297 b.c.e. ), who founded the Mauryan Mauryan Empire Empire and expelled the forces of Alexander the Alexander the GreatAlexander the Great;Mauryan resistance Great (356-323 b.c.e. ) from India. The Mauryan Empire achieved its grandeur under Chandragupta’s son, BindusāraBindusāra (Mauryan ruler)[Bindusara] Bindusāra (r. c. 297-272 b.c.e. ), and grandson, Aśoka. Of these, Alexander, Chandragupta, and Aśoka represent the first great military geniuses of Indian history. Although the art of warfare that ChandraguptaChandragupta (Mauryan ruler) Chandragupta learned from the Macedonians helped him solidify India under the banner of the Mauryas, dramatic developments in warfare remained static for approximately 2,200 years. Aśoka the GreatAśoka the Great[Asoka] Aśoka even renounced war and its effects in favor of Buddhist rulers Buddhist pacifism, although later Buddhist monarchs such as Harṣa of Harṣa of KanaujHarṣa of Kanauj[Harsa] Kanauj (c. 590-647 c.e. ) and Dharmapāla of Bihār and Bengal (r. c. 770-810 c.e. ) pursued their political aims as ruthlessly as their Hindu neighbors.

Between 200 and 180 b.c.e. Mauryan power steadily declined, setting the stage for invasions by the Scythians, Parthians, and Yuezhi, with ensuing warfare and chaos. Dynasties rose and fell, with the ScythiansScythians, or Śakas (nomads)[Sakas]Śakas, establishing a foothold in North India between 80 and 40 b.c.e. that was held by the efforts of the Andhra king. At the dawn of the Christian era the Andhra Andhra DynastyDynasty controlled central India, and the Śakas the Indus Valley. South India, although independent, was engulfed in constant warfare between the Cōla, Pandya, and Chēras kingdoms.

The first two hundred years of the Christian era continued as a period of confusion throughout Hindu India with no significant developments in design or employment of weaponry. Between l and 50 c.e. an offshoot of the Śaka, the Kushān Dynasty[Kushan]Kushān, entered the Punjab and carved out a vast empire under KaniṣkaKaniṣka (Kushān ruler)[Kaniska]Kaniṣka (fl. c. 78-103) between 78 and 103 c.e. It was a short-lived attempt at empire building. Upon Kaniṣka’s death, Śaka authority was usurped by satraps and feudal lords who maintained a state of confusion for ninety-seven years. During this period wars in South India were marked by copious bloodshed, violence, ferocity, and treachery, while in the north warfare was a sport of the monarchs, rarely a struggle for existence. Northern wars usually had limited objectives and were less savage than wars elsewhere in the world.

During the third and fourth centuries, kingdoms continued to rise and fall with no major power appearing on the scene. The Kushān Dynasty lingered into the mid-third century, and the Andhra Dynasty in the south collapsed and was replaced by the Pallava Pallava DynastyDynasty of warrior kings, who dreamed of expansion. In 300 c.e. another Chandragupta IChandragupta I (Gupta ruler)Chandragupta, claiming descent from the founder of the Maurya Dynasty, consolidated the central Ganges, crowned himself Chandragupta I (r. 320-c. 330), or “King of Kings,” and established the glorious Gupta Gupta EmpireEmpire in 320 c.e. He conquered territory almost equal to that governed by Aśoka, but he employed a feudal decentralized authority. The golden age of the Gupta Empire was reached by the third emperor, Chandragupta Chandragupta IIChandragupta II (Gupta ruler)II (r. c. 380-415), who added Vikramaditya to his name. With the approach of the Middle Ages, White HunsEphthalite, or White White Huns;Punjab invasionsHun, invasions from the north challenged the now-weakened Guptas, who proved helpless against them. The Ephthalites established a kingdom in the Punjab and Rajputana between 500 and 530 c.e. but held sway for only twenty years. A patchwork of warring Hindu states ensued, with violent wars waged for territorial control.

The first five hundred years of the Christian era, then, were characterized by partially successful attempts at reestablishing Mauryan and Gupta glory, but ancient militarism did not result in a permanent empire. Only the Mauryans and Guptas exhibited the genius of empire building. The remainder of Indian history is a maelstrom of invasions and petty struggles toward creating a recognized cultural unit of Bhāratavarṣa.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Although the military history of South Asia coincides with the influx of Aryan invaders, Stone Stone Age;IndiaAge weaponry in the form of celts (axes), knives, and arrowheads have been discovered. Between 3500 and 3000 b.c.e. Mesopotamia and Egypt utilized weapons of copper which, a few hundred years later, were hardened with tin to usher in the BronzeBronze Age;IndiaAge throughout the Near East and Indus Valley cultures. The subsequent Iron Age enhanced the manufacture of weapons. In major cultural centers a highly developed art of war with land and water transport, chariots, cavalry, and iron-steel weaponry ensued. Primitive military organization and combat techniques began to surface. By the sixth century b.c.e. continuous warfare records reveal the more sophisticated military trends.

The AryansAryans who entered India in the second millennium b.c.e. proved formidable adversaries, skilled in warfare and bronze Metallurgy;Aryanmetallurgy as seen in spear, dagger, arrowhead, mace, and sword specimens found in the mounds of Mohenjo-daro. The most significant improvement during the early historic period, then, was the use of metal for implements of war. Metallurgical skill permitted the working of malleable metal, a skill that produced highly sophisticated weaponry to ensure conquest of the Indus River Valley.

The primary weapon was the bow and Bows and arrows;Indiaarrow, which was used from the Stone Age until the end of the Middle Ages. Four to five feet in length, the bow was constructed of bamboo, horn, wood, or metal. Its strings were made of saṇa fiber, hemp, skin, or animal hide. An invaluable weapon, its effective range was 100 to 120 yards, fewer if heavy, antielephant arrows were used. It was carried into battle on the left shoulder or carried aloft in the left hand. So great was its importance in ancient times that a code of rules regarding Archers and archery;Aryans archery was ennobled as a subsidiary Vedas (Hindu sacred texts) Veda, the Dhanur Dhanur Veda (Hindu sacred text) Veda. The title of Dhanurdhāra, or “master of the bow,” was the highest accolade paid to a warrior, and the stringing of the bow was often a test of strength as with Prince Rama in the Rāmāyaṇa[Ramayana] Rāmāyaṇa.

Arrows, Bows and arrows;Indiafabricated from deer horn or iron, were barbed, crescent-shaped, needle-pointed, and dentiform, or serrated, and they were carried in a quiver made of hide, basket-work, or metal plates. The quiver was slung on the back and tied in front by a cross-belt. Fire-arrows[Fire arrows]Fire-arrows and other incendiary missiles, often used against elephants, were disapproved by smrti writers. The Treatise on the Political Good (Kauṭilya) Arthaśāstra (Kauṭilya)[Arthasastra] Arthaśāstra (300 b.c.e. -300 c.e. ; Treatise on the Political Good, 1961) of the Indian philosopher KauṭilyaKauṭilya (Indian philosopher)[Kautilya] Kauṭilya (fl. 300 b.c.e. ), a treatise on Indian polity from the Mauryan period, stressed the value of birds and monkeys to carry fire to enemy rooftops. Arrows tipped with metal and poison were used but were also condemned in religious texts.

Warriors also used a variety of hacking, stabbing, and felling weapons in the form of pikes, lances, spears, and battle-axes, as well as an assortment of swords, daggers, and javelins. The Javelins;Indiajavelin, or Śela[sela] (Indian javelin)śela, used by the infantry was highly praised, and a special long Lances;India lance, the Tomara (Indian lance) tomara, was used by warriors mounted on horses or elephants. Swords were double-edged, thick and heavy, and always borne in the hand. Sabers;India Sabers, on the other hand, were short-bladed, curved, single-edged, and worn on the left side. The Mushṭika (Indian dagger)[Mushtika] mushṭika, a Daggers;India dagger of varied shape and form, was especially favored by the warriors. Siege warfare;India Siege machinery in the form of artillery, battering rams, and ballistae for hurling rocks, boiling oil, melted rosin of the sal tree (kalpala), and fire-tipped darts became common during the Mauryan period.

Besides traditional weapons, charioteers and infantry used a Nāgapāś (Indian lasso)[Nagapas]nāgapāśa, or Lassos lasso, to snare the enemy, as well as a Boomerangs;India boomerang that returned to the spot from which it was thrown.

Hindu warriors wore protective Armor;ancient India[India]armor for head, torso, and legs, usually fabricated from leather reinforced with metal. Helmets, which had generally appeared by the Middle Ages, as well as breastplates and greaves, to protect the leg below the knee, were made entirely of bronze and iron. Prior to the Middle Ages warriors had depended on the thick folds of a turban to protect the head. To protect hands and arms from bowstring friction, leather guards were used. A wooden or wicker shield covered with buffalo or rhinoceros hide was carried in the left hand on the left arm. Archers without shields were protected by a front rank of oblong or circular shield-bearing javelin throwers. By the Middle Ages coats of Armor;Indiamail were common protective gear for both man and beast.

The Indian prince Porus is defeated by Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Hydaspes (327 b.c.e.), during the ancient Vedic period of Indian history.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

Around the sixth century b.c.e. two decisive war machines appeared, namely the chariot, which developed after the Persian invasions, and the war elephant, which was considered as valuable as the chariot.

Elephants Elephantswere outfitted with a housing, or howdah, covered with cloth or carpet and bells around the neck and rump. Lower-ranked warriors armed with bows and other missiles were seated in the howdah. According to the Greek historian Megasthenes (c. 350-c. 290 b.c.e.), who was sent as a representative to the royal court of India, three archers and a driver rode on each elephant.

Primary reliance was placed upon the Chariots;Indiachariot, or Śaṭangaratha (Indian chariot)[satangaratha]śaṭangaratha, a two-wheeled, open vehicle similar to those used in other ancient cultures. Drawn by horses, the chariot became a decisive fighting instrument in Indian warfare. Chariot wheels were occasionally outfitted with scythe-like blades projecting from the axles, making the chariot a most dangerous weapon. Sanskrit literature describes chariots ornamented with precious materials and armed with an array of weapons. Large numbers were used in battle. Battalions of 405 infantry, 81 chariots, and 243 horses are commonly described in Sanskrit literature.

Cavalry Cavalry;Indiaarmed with lances and short swords dominated the warfare of North India, whereas infantry was most important in South India, because southern geography and climate did not support the raising of sufficient horses for large cavalry units. Most of the superior horses of southern India were used for chariots. Although cavalry gave way to more disciplined and maneuverable infantry in Asia, India continued to rely heavily upon cavalry. India generally lagged behind other civilized cultures in military development. Its major contribution to military technology was the stirrup, which provided lancers stability in the saddle and was used by the Indian army as early as the first century b.c.e.

Military Organization

The Hindu army consisted of various categories of warriors but its backbone of seasoned hereditary troops were the Kṣatriya Professional militaries;ancient India[India] professionals. Its ranks were filled by southern Mercenaries;in India[Indian] mercenaries from Chēra, Karnata, and other areas; troops that generally protected caravans or trading posts of śreṇi, or merchant guilds; troops supplied by subordinate allies; army deserters; and wild guerrilla tribesmen. All castes were incorporated into the army, but Kṣatriya (Indian warrior caste)[Ksatriya] Kṣatriya represented the warrior par excellence. Brāḥ[Brahmans] Brāḥmans held high military ranks, whereas the lowest two castes, Vaiśya caste[Vaisya] Vaiśya and Śūdra caste[Sudra] Śūdra, fought as auxiliaries. Warriors were arranged according to the clans and districts to which they belonged. During the Vedic period, all free men were subject to military service, but this obligation vanished as caste rules solidified. After the Mauryan period general conscription was rare.

The army was divided into four sections, the whole forming a Caturangam (Indian army unit)caturangam: elephants, chariots, cavalry, and infantry. Elephants Elephants, the first line of defense, were trained with extreme care and utilized as battering rams, to frighten horses, to trample troops underfoot, and to ford rivers. Although they were difficult to wound, they were protected by infantry. However, there was constant danger that elephants could easily be unnerved by fire and panic. When Porus used them at the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 b.c.e. , he used between 85 and 200 elephants to shield his infantry and then used his cavalry, which Alexander the Great drove back on the elephants who were, in turn, driven back on the infantry. In spite of these occasional disasters, elephants were used well into the nineteenth century by later Muslim monarchs.

The Cavalry;Indiacavalry, long considered indispensable, were the shock troops in the time of Porus. However, gradually they were less and less used, and by medieval times they proved to be a weak element in Indian armies. The mounts were often wretched, failed to cover great distances, and proved vulnerable to mounted invaders from the northwest. They were not relied upon to any great extent. Chariots;IndiaChariots, on the other hand, were major fighting units in the Vedic period. They were used widely in Mauryan armies but by Gupta times, the light two-horsed car had evolved into a larger, more cumbersome transport vehicle.

The strength of the army rested in the Infantry;Indiainfantry. In most Indian kingdoms an elite corps was pledged to protect the king to the death. Generally, however, they represented a miscellaneous horde of men that fell upon an enemy without any method or concerted plan. Each recruit usually provided his own mount and also received a stipend for himself and for the upkeep of his horse. Undisciplined mercenaries often deserted. Some reference is made to armies having mutinied in face of the enemy until pay was received. Yet the infantry, numerically the army’s largest contingent, represented its main strength and was relied upon heavily.

Thousands of noncombatants also accompanied the fighting force to battle. They were especially evident in disorderly camps pitched during campaigns. Soothsayers, astrologers, dancers, prostitutes, acrobats, quacks, merchants, cooks, fakirs, religious mendicants, entire families of the fighting men, and royal family, wives, and concubines often slowed the pace of the army. The Arthaśāstra (Kauṭilya)[Arthasastra] Arthaśāstra speaks of physicians and veterinarians attached to the army to care for man and beast.

The size of the Hindu army usually was enormous. In ancient and medieval times, according to various sources, the army engaged 600,000 to 900,000 men, although these figures are clearly exaggerated. The king led his army personally into battle. Under him were a number of superintendents with a senāpati, or general, at the head of all military affairs. The Mauryan army, according to Megasthenes, was organized under a committee of thirty with subcommittees that controlled infantry, cavalry, chariot, elephant, navy, and commissariat elements. Captains from feudal nobility served under the general. Standards identified all regiments, divisions, and squadrons.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Three reasons are given in the Arthaśāstra for pursuing war: dharmavijaya, or victory for justice or virtue; lōbhavijaya, or pursuit of booty and territory; and āsuravijaya, or incorporation of territory into that of the victor and political annihilation. The Mauryan kingdom waged wars for glory and homage rather than wealth and power. The Guptas, on the other hand, stressed political annihilation and incorporation of territory. However, Dharmavijaya (victory for justice) dharmavijaya, or victory for justice, was the ideal that Hindu kings were expected to pursue. War, however, became a sport of kings, profitable and always serious. Defeat was usually expunged by Suicide;India suicide. Dravidian South India, never fully influenced by Aryan culture, waged wars of annexation. Captives and noncombatants were treated with ruthlessness, but the ideal of dharmavijaya was still present.

War was considered a religious Religion and warfare;Indiarite, the highest sacrifice of a warrior. Battle was preceded by purification rituals, and astrologers determined the time and day for battle. The Arthaśāstra advised the employment of elephants and infantry in the center; light infantry, chariots, and cavalry on the wings; and archers behind spearmen. Emphasis was placed on single combat between selected warriors, but mass encounter of rank and file proved decisive. Morale was provided by leaders; if a leader was slain, the army generally fled. Elite Kṣatriya warriors were expected to fight to the death. Prisoners of war;India Prisoners were treated honorably, usually released upon payment of ransom or after ransom was fulfilled by labor. Massacre was deprecated in Sanskrit literature.

The king and his nobles, the rājanya, fought from chariots. Infantry marched along with charioteers to the accompaniment of martial music that inspired them toward victory. Laying siege was considered dangerous and was rarely pursued. Generally a town was attacked and starved into capitulation.

Armies met each other face to face, approaching in parallel lines, infantry in the center, with chariots and cavalry on the flanks. Swarms of archers and slingers approached in the foreground, raining harassing fire with shouts and clashing of arms. The usual objective was to outflank an enemy, because the ten to thirty ranks of infantry were deemed vulnerable. Until 700 b.c.e. chariots provided the striking force, and the infantry provided a solid base around which more important groups could operate. Little organization was present, because the primary objective was to reach a suitable battle site and overwhelm the enemy. When charioteers struck terror in the enemy, the battle resulted in a rout. Usually each side converged and fought for an hour or more until one side would sense defeat. After 1000 b.c.e. more order, discipline, and organization entered the military system.

India generally lagged behind other civilized cultures in military theory, strategy, and tactics up to the dawn of the common era. Although training and discipline were well known to the Hindus, they found it difficult to impose military fundamentals upon the troops. The Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya became the primary guide for military organization, tactics, ethics, and doctrine well into the medieval period.

Ancient Sources

Early Indian literary sources such as the Rigveda (Hindu sacred text) Rigveda; the Mahābhārata[Mahabharata] Mahābhārata (c. 400 b.c.e. -200 c.e. ; The Mahabharata, 1834), including the Bhagavadgītā[Bhagavadgita] Bhagavadgītā (c. fifth century b.c.e. ); and the Laws of Manu, The Manusmṛti[Manusmrti] Manusmṛti (compiled 200 b.c.e. ; The Laws of Manu, 1886) describe the power of weaponry, the religious duty of war, the importance of strong leadership, and the ethical aspects of waging war. The comprehensive Mauryan Arthaśāstra (Kauṭilya)[Arthasastra] Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya, composed between 300 b.c.e. and 300 c.e. , looked upon war as a “continuation of polity by other means,” as a legitimate last resort for achieving the aims of government and not to be embarked upon lightly. Although earlier literature had stressed a warrior’s dharma, or duty, the motive of the Arthaśāstra was the establishment of a great empire. Around 500 c.e. the Dhanur Veda (Hindu sacred text) Śiva Dhanur Veda, of unknown authorship, stressed the skills of archery and military science in general. Its importance is seen in the application of the term Dhanur Veda to all writings on the art of war. There are also many battles, albeit largely men and monkeys against demons, in the Rāmāyaṇa, but it still contains some important military concepts. The major non-Indian source is ArrianArrian (Roman historian) Arrian, the Campaigns of Alexander, The (Arrian) Anabasis Alexandri (Arrian) Anabasis Alexandri (early second century c.e. ; The Campaigns of Alexander, 1893), which contains detailed descriptions of the Indian commander Porus at Hydaspes.India;ancientSouth Asia;ancient

Books and Articles
  • Basham, E. L. The Wonder That Was India: A Survey of the History and Culture of the Indian Subcontinent Before the Coming of the Muslims. New York: Grove Press, 1954.
  • Bhakari, S. K. Indian Warfare: An Appraisal of Strategy and Tactics of War in Early Medieval Period. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1981.
  • Bull, Stephen. An Historical Guide to Arms and Armour. London: Cassell, 1991.
  • Mitra, Rajendralala. Indo-Aryans: Contributions Towards the Elucidation of Their Ancient and Mediaeval History. 2 vols. Delhi, India: Indological Book House, 1969.
  • Nicolle, David. Fighting for the Faith: The Many Fronts of Medieval Crusade and Jihad, 1000-1500 A.D. Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword Military, 2007.
  • Nossov, Konstantin S. War Elephants. New York: Osprey, 2008.
  • Spaulding, Oliver L. Warfare: A Study of Military Methods from the Earliest Times. 1925. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993.
Films and Other Media
  • In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great. Documentary. British Broadcasting Corporation, 2005.

India and South Asia: Medieval

The Mughal Empire

China: Ancient

Nomadic Warriors of the Steppe

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