Laws of Yesterday’s Wars Symposium – Dharma and Ancient Indian Military Laws in the Mahābhārata

by | Mar 13, 2023

Dharma Mahābhārata

Editor’s note: The following post highlights a chapter that appears in Samuel White’s edited volumes Laws of Yesterday’s Wars published with Brill. For a general introduction to the series, see Samuel White and Professor Sean Watts’s introductory post. A book launch of the second volume can be viewed on 20 March here.

This post expands upon Chapter 1 of Volume 2 of the Laws of Yesterday’s War, addressing ancient Indian laws of war chiefly as codified in the Mahābhārata. The Sanskrit great epic Mahābhārata is a rich source of information on ancient Indian military laws. It includes not only prescriptive portions which present the ideal jus in bello, but also a practical application of them, various breaches and the heroes’ rationalizations of them, and, perhaps most importantly, their consequences.

The Mahābhārata

Military laws are omnipresent in the Mahābhārata. The two armies portrayed in the epic agree on them before the war; the laws are quoted by heroes on the battlefield, especially when adherence to them would save their lives; and they are repeated after the war. Military laws are not something merely theoretical in the text; they are shown to be very practical and also personal—the two major violations of the rules with the most severe consequences concern the unfair killing of a hero’s son (Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu) and of a hero’s father (Aśvatthāman’s father Droṇa).

The Mahābhārata combines two streams or schools of thinking about laws of wars in ancient India. What we could call an idealistic or chivalric school can be found mostly in the Manu’s Code of Law (Mānavadharmaśāstra) and in the prescriptive portions of the Mahābhārata, especially by the great Kuru patriarch Bhīṣma. This stream of thought prescribes several rules of war. It specifies who a hero cannot fight against and which weapons are prohibited, gives details about when and where one cannot fight, and prescribes that if an opponent is disadvantaged in any way, a warrior must refrain from attacking him. This school presents the ideal of dharmayuddha, fighting according to dharma, a fair or just war.

The second school of thought, found most prominently in Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra and in the Agnipurāṇa, presents the means of kūṭayuddha or “crooked war” which teaches that disadvantages on the side of one’s opponent must be exploited and that the only real good is victory. In the Mahābhārata, the kūṭayuddha school is represented most prominently by Kr̥ṣṇa, an avatāra of the god Viṣṇu who acts as the charioteer of one of the heroes, Arjuna.

The Kurukṣetra War

Books six to nine/ten of the Mahābhārata narrate the events of the Kurukṣetra war. Seven armies of the Pāṇḍavas fought against eleven armies of the Kauravas, and the battle lasted for eighteen days. It begins with the establishment of noble rules of dharmayuddha and ends with a total destruction of those rules in a genocidal night massacre. Each war book is named after a general of the Kauravas. For the first ten days, the general is the grandfather of the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas, Bhīṣma, who is the epitome of dharmayuddha. After Bhīṣma’s fall, the brāhmaṇa warrior Droṇa takes his place as a general for the following five days. Droṇa’s demise allows Karṇa, a secret brother of the Pāṇḍavas, to lead the Kaurava armies for two days. The next general, king Śālva, is killed in a single day. The last person who is semi-officially anointed as the Kaurava general is Droṇa’s son Aśvatthāman, who conducts the night massacre during the final night. Aśvatthāman is the only general who did not give his name to a book of the Mahābhārata. The tenth book of the Mahābhārata, sometimes not counted in the war books, is called The Book of the Night (Massacre).

The Rules of Dharmayuddha

The Book of Bhīṣma lays down the rules: there should be no trickery, and one should always fight with someone who is his equal (in age, rank, experience…) and respond in kind. When there is a verbal attack, one responds with a verbal attack; a warrior on a chariot fights only against another chariot, etc. One who is leaving the battle should not be killed, one should always warn his opponent before striking him, a warrior should never strike someone who is unsuspecting or afflicted, someone who is engaged with another, who is inattentive or not facing his opponent, who has lost his weapons or is deprived of armor. Charioteers, horses, those who bring weapons, and drummers or conch-blowers should never be attacked (6.1.26–34).

One can easily observe how the rules of the dharmayuddha gradually diminish as the battle progresses and as the generals of the Kauravas change. During the first ten days when Bhīṣma is the general, there are no major breaches of the military laws. The Pāṇḍavas eventually kill Bhīṣma through a slight stratagem: they put Śikhaṇḍin, against whom Bhīṣma refuses to fight, to the front, and let Arjuna kill him from behind Śikhaṇḍin. The important thing is that after Bhīṣma’s fall, the Kauravas lose their arbiter of dharma.

During Droṇa’s five days as the general of the Kauravas, three major breaches of the laws of war occur: the Kauravas unlawfully kill Arjuna’s young son Abhimanyu (7.47) on the thirteenth day of the battle; the Pāṇḍavas cause the deaths of Bhūriśravas on the fourteenth day (7.117–118); and they kill the brāhmaṇa general Droṇa himself on the fifteenth day (7.164).

Six against One: the Killing of Abhimanyu

Arjuna’s young son Abhimanyu attempts to break the ranks of the Kauravas but ends up alone and surrounded by enemies. He fights valiantly and the Kauravas are not able to defeat him, so the crafty king Śakuni suggests attacking and killing him together (7.47.16). On Droṇa’s order, Karṇa rids Abhimanyu of his horses, chariot, and bow and strikes him from behind (7.47.26–33); six warriors on chariots attack one who is chariotless (7.47.33). Abhimanyu is systematically deprived of all weapons and armor and is eventually killed in a last duel (7.48.13).

Celestial beings appear and protest against this breach of dharma (7.48.20–21). The Kauravas broke the rule of fairness on several levels: six warriors attacked a single warrior; chariot fighters attacked someone who is chariotless; and seasoned warriors attacked a sixteen-year-old boy, who was also deprived of weapons and armor. When Abhimanyu’s father Arjuna finds out about the adharmic killing of his son, he swears revenge. This death also becomes the grounds of any further rationalization which allow the Pāṇḍavas to break the laws of war further: they will kill the weaponless Droṇa and the chariotless Karṇa.

Third Person in a Duel: Arjuna, Bhūriśravas, and Sātyaki

Arjuna himself breaks the laws of war only a day later when he shoots off the hand of a Kaurava warrior, Bhūriśravas, who was about to win a duel against a Yādava warrior, Sātyaki (7.117.62–7.118.2). After being hit, Bhūriśravas complains to Arjuna, accuses him of cruelty, and quotes the laws of war which Arjuna violated (7.118.4–15). Other warriors express their disapproval of this act as well (7.118.19). Arjuna defends himself by claiming that he had sworn that none of his allies would ever die within the reach of his arrows (7.118.23) and by pointing out that the Kauravas killed his son Abhimanyu adharmically when the boy had laid down his weapon and was deprived of his armor and chariot (7.118.26).

Bhūriśravas lowers his head and is then decapitated by Sātyaki (7.118.31) who is also forced to defend his act as it is universally condemned. Similarly to Arjuna, Sātyaki mentions the death of Abhimanyu, stressing that he was a boy and deprived of weapons, and asks: “Where was your dharma then?” (7.118.43). The Kauravas say nothing (7.118.49). The reactions of the Kauravas seem to suggest that they accept the fact that they cannot protest against the killing of Bhūriśravas because they lost this right when they adharmically killed Abhimanyu.

Kūṭayuddha of the Pāṇḍavas: Killing the Generals

The final adharmic death of this book is that of the general Droṇa. The Pāṇḍavas trick him into laying down his weapons by giving him false information about the death of Droṇa’s son Aśvatthāman, and then kill him (7.164).

On the sixteenth day of the battle, Karṇa is anointed the general of the Kauravas and is subsequently killed by Arjuna when the wheel of his chariot is stuck in the mud (8.66.59–65). When Karṇa finds himself in this disadvantaged situation, he tries to appeal to Arjuna’s sense of just war, cites a list of people who should not be attacked, and asks him to abide by the rules, by dharma (8.66.62–65). Arjuna’s charioteer Kr̥ṣṇa protests and reminds Karṇa of the evils he did in the past, asking him where was his adherence to dharma then (8.67.1–5). Arjuna kills Karṇa (8.67–68) and is congratulated by everybody (8.69). On the eighteenth day of the battle, the Kaurava army is reduced to the king, Duryodhana, and three remaining warriors. Duryodhana is challenged to a duel and adharmically hit below the navel by Bhīma (9.57–60). This act is unequivocally condemned and called adharmic, but it is supposed to have ended the war.

The killing of Bhīṣma created an opportunity for the Kauravas to kill Abhimanyu in an adharmic manner, which then becomes the rationalization of every adharmic killing on the side of the Pāṇḍavas. The first major breach of the military law makes it easier to violate other rules, but it also creates a discord inside the Pāṇḍava camp, as well as major resentments on both sides, which eventually lead to killings on a much larger scale. This is especially true about Droṇa’s son Aśvatthāman who swears to avenge his father’s death.

Kūṭayuddha of the Kauravas: the Night Massacre

Aśvatthāman, the son of the second general Droṇa, refuses to let the Pāṇḍavas win when they committed so many crimes against dharma and decides to destroy the Pāṇḍava army in a night massacre (10.1.45–53). He quotes an old verse which says that an enemy should be attacked when he is exhausted, wounded, eating, and when he is leaving or entering (10.1.51). His maternal uncle tries to dissuade him and claims it is against dharma to kill sleeping warriors. His uncle repeats some of the rules and even threatens that Aśvatthāman will end up in hell if he conducts the night massacre (10.5.9–15).

Aśvatthāman’s defence consists of the claim that the Pāṇḍavas have already violated dharma when they killed his father Droṇa, Karṇa, Bhīṣma, Bhūriśravas, and Duryodhana, and that he will avenge his father even if he is to be reborn as a worm or an insect (10.5.17–27). The two other surviving heroes on the Kaurava side eventually aid Aśvatthāman with the massacre, killing all who try to escape from the camp and setting fire to it (10.8.99–81). The soldiers in the camp protest, but in vain (10.8.118–119). By the end of the night, there are only a few survivors on both sides.

Breaches and Consequences

The last major consequence of the breaches of the laws of wars during the Kurukṣetra war is found in the sixteenth book. Among the survivors, there are some from Kr̥ṣṇa’s clan: Sātyaki, who killed Bhūriśravas, and Kr̥tavarman, who helped Aśvatthāman during the night massacre. Years after the battle, Sātyaki accuses Kr̥tavarman in the midst of their peers of violating the military laws by killing sleeping enemies. Kr̥tavarman immediately reminds Sātyaki of his unfair killing of Bhūriśravas (16.4.16–21). Their argument quickly escalates and ends with the members of the clan exterminating each other in a violent fratricidal skirmish.

Breaches of the military law in the Mahābhārata are shown to have severe consequences not only for the particular heroes, but also for their families, clans, and the whole world. A small breach is shown to lead to complete destruction as warriors feel justified to use progressively more unfair means not only to win the war, but to take revenge. The message the author(s) convey to the audiences seems to be that dharmayuddha, fighting fairly, brings only defeat and death. On the other hand, the kūṭayuddha, fighting unfairly, does result in victory, but the victory is inevitably accompanied by even more death and destruction.



Zuzana Špicová, PhD is a scholar of Sanskrit narratives, especially in the Mahābhārata at the Charles University, Prague.


Photo credit: Gerd Eichmann



by Samuel White, Sean Watts

March 13, 2023