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The Indian Art of War: The Mahabharata Paradigm

The Indian Art of War: The Mahabharata Paradigm
Item Code: NAL942
Author: Brigadier G.D. Bakshi
Publisher: Sharada Publishing House
Language: English
Edition: 2002
ISBN: 8185616817
Pages: 174
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.5 inch X 7.5 inch
weight of the book: 500 gms
About the Book

The Mahabharata is the primary source book of Indian Military thought and tradition. It is truly an index of civilisational development and constitutes the Indian “Weltanschung”. Over two millenniums ago it outlined an attrition oriented Indian Paradigm of war that was primarily centered on a pure “force on force” regime. The Indian armies of that period had evolved from the two basic arms of the Early Vedic period (Infantry and Chariots) to a highly sophisticated four arms structure comprising Chariots, Elephants, Cavalry and Infantry. Surprisingly, this military organizational format was to remain constant in India till almost the Tenth Century A.D. The Chariots were the prize arm of that Mahabharata era. The Mahabharata mentions Vyuhas or battle arrays and battle drills that coordinated the actions of these four variable speed maneuver masses on the battlefield. The prime aim was destruction and annihilation of the enemy through systematic attrition. Surprisingly, this Vyuhas methodology has great relevance for the modern mechanized forces, which need to synergies the actions of all arms teams in the form of combat groups and teams.

The Mahabharata constitutes an Indian Paradigm of was that is based on Attrition and annihilation in pure force on force engagement. Alexanders invasion led to a clash of the Indian and Greek civilizations. In response to the Mobility Paradigm of the Greeks, Kautilya transformed the Indian Art of War into a more mobile form based on the massed employment of War Elephants Kautilya became the worlds first Grand Master of Information War. However this was a brief interlude of brilliance and Indians soon regressed to the attrition parading of the Mahabharata. This Paradigm remains the archetypal Indian Form of War.

In this book an attempt has been made to take an objective look at the military content of the Mahanharata. It been studied in relation to the development of military art in Sun Tzu’s China – a civilization of matching scale and antiquity.

Some years ago American scholars like George Tanham and Stephen P Rosen had essayed forth in quest of an historic Indian strategic culture or an Indian way of war. They concluded sadly that there was none. This book differs radically. It insists that there is an Indian paradigm of war and the Mahabharata Epic provides us a clear insight into this historical Indian way of war. An understanding of this racial inheritance is critical if modern India is to evolve its own military theories and doctrines that suit its innate cultural genius. A systematic study of the military content of the Mahabharata is therefore a prime need of the hour and hopefully, in the coming years, Indologists will focus their research efforts in this fascinating field.

Brigadier G D Bakshi, VSM is a graduate of the National Defence Academy. He did his early schooling from St. Aloysius School Jabalpur. He hold a Masters degree in Defence Science and an M. Phil in Defence and Strategic Studies from the University of Madras. He taught for three years each at the Indian Military Academy Dehradun, and the prestigious Defence Services Staff College at Wellington. He is an Associate Member of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis and is a prolific writer on matters military. He has author six books and written several papers for prestigious defence journals which include the Strategic Analysis and Indian Defence Review. He has done two tenures at the prestingious Directorate General of Military Operations at New Delhi. He commanded his unit in Kargil and was awarded the Vishist Sva Medal in 1991. Currently, he is commanding a Rashtriya Rifles Sector in J&k. In this book he brings to bear his thirty years of military study and experience to an analysis of the military content of the Mahabharata Epic. The central theme of this book is the assertion that there is an historic Culture and today we need to rediscover these inheritance.



The Mahabharata has fascinated the Indian mind for centuries, nay millennia. It has been referred to variously as a cultural heritage, a brilliant story which has all the ingredients of literary genius, a history, a myth and so on, but the military context of Mahabharata has hardly been explored. Brigadier GD Bakshi, VSM, seems to have done just that – an exploration and an analysis of Mahabharata from the military point of view. This is his second book on the subject, the first being ‘Mahabharata – A Military Analysis’. In the present book, he has attempted to take his analysis to a higher plane and hence the focus on ‘The Indian Art of War’.

The controversy on the classification of Mahabharata, as a myth or otherwise, will no doubt continue, but the author has attempted to project the epic as the ‘primary’ source book of Indian military thought and tradition. The antiquity of Mahabharata, no doubt qualifies it as the ‘primary source book’, whether it portrays’ Indian military though’ is for the reader to judge, helped no doubt by the logic and arguments proferred by the author, in this lunch and easily-understood book.

The author has theorized that the fascination of the Indian military with ‘attrition’, which sadly continues to prevail even today, can be traced to the Mahabharata, with nearly three ,millenniums ago, outlined an ‘attrition-oriented Indian paradigm of war’, that was primarily centred on a pure ‘force on fore’ regime. The armies of that period had evolved from the two basic arms of the Early Vedic Period (Infantry and Chariots), to a highly sophisticate four arms structure, comprising Chariots, Elephants, Cavalry and Infantry. Surprisingly, this, military organizational format was to remain constant in Indian till almost the Tenth Century AD. The Chariots were the prize arms of the Mahabharata era. The Mahabharata mentions ‘vyuhas’, or battle arrayas, and battle drills that coordinated the actions of these four variable speed manoeuvre masses, on the battleied. The prime aim was the destruction and annihilation of the enemy, through systematic attrition.

In the 3rd century BC, a major clash of civilizations occurred between the Greek and Indiac Civilizations. Alexander’s invasion conformed the Indians with a mobility-based paradigm of war, that came as a great shock to the Indian Armies, which were primed for ‘set piece battles’ of attrition, in pre-designated battle lines. During the Mauryan era, Kautilya (the redoubtable Chanakya) reflected on these early encounters with the Greeks. He found that the prized Indian Arm of the Chariots was unsuited for mobile operations and cross-country movements. He therefore phased out this Arms and placed heavy reliance on the mass employment of war elephants, to generate ‘shock action’. Consequently the strength of the Elephant Corps of the Mauyan Army was raised from 3000 to 9000 war beasts. What is far more important, however, is that fact that Kautilya waged a brilliant Information Warfare Campaign, to exploit the shock effect of this new weapon system viz elephants. He wove brilliant psychological themes that exploited the Greek terror of these war beasts. The upshot was tha the Greek Army mutinied and refused to go any further. Kautilya, therefore, appears as the world’s first and most consummate grand master of information warfare.

Subsequently, Kautilya transformed the ‘attrition-oriented’ Kshatriya paradigm of the Mahanharata (where attrition was supreme) to the Brahmanical concept of war, based on information dominance and extended covert action campaigns, designed to destabilize and unbalance an enemy, before launching a conventional attack. However, the concept of information dominance started languishing thereafter, and attrition warfare regained its primacy. In recent times, the British reinforced it and therefore it continues to remain the dominant Indian cultural mindset for war fighting, even today. Brief interludes of brilliance (like Kautilya’s), were followed by regression to this attrition-based paradigm of the Mahabharata. It is with us to this day, as a basic historical inheritance, although efforts are now afoot to allocate to ‘manoeuvre’ the predominance it deserves.

In this book, Big GD Bakshi has attempted to take an objective look a the military and strategic of the Mahabharata. He has also attempted to relate it to the development of military art in Sun Tzu’s China – a civilization of matching scale and antiquity.

Some years ago, American scholars like George Tanham and Stephen P Rosen had researched Indian history in their quest for a historic Indian strategic culture or an Indian way of war. They concluded, sadly, that there was none. Brigadier Bakshi’s book attempts to negate their conclusions. It insits that there is indeed an Indian paradigm of war, and the Mahabharata Epic provides us a clear insight into this historical Indian way of war. An understanding of this historical inheritance will perhaps assist military thinkers in modern India to evolve military theories and doctrine that suit the innate cultural genius of India.

The book, ‘The Indian Art of War’ would have achieved its purpose if it spurts further analysis and research by Indologists, in this fascinating field. I commend Brigadier Bakshi for his dedication and diligence in addressing a path-breaking subject and producing a document, which will interest not only a defence analyst but also a historian and indeed even a lay reader, whose intention is only imbibe knowledge.



On 14 September 1975, Dr DC Sircar, one of the most eminent epigraphists of India, declared unequivocally that the Mahabharata was a myth, devoid of historicity, opening as it were, the floodgates of controversy all over the country. Professor HD Sankalia, the renowned archaeologists, added fuel to the fire saying that it was only a family feud and belonged to a time when the result of a battle depended primarily on individual strength and prowess as was also the case in ancient Greece and Troy. To him the literary at their face value.

The Mahabharata categorizes itself as itihasa (history) and not as gatha, akhyana or purana. It comprises a core legend of the family feud leading to the Kurukshetra War, around which were interwoven, in stages, several legends, all mythicizedin course of time. The epic Manabharata is a precious document of Indian life and it must not be pushed aside as a myth or a legend. The war, in all probability, was fought around 1000 BC, which marks the beginning of the Age of Kali (Kaliyuga) and the Age of Iron (Lauha yuga) in Indian. It is also not without reason that holf a dozen wars that decided the fate of Indian were fought on the plains between Kurukshetra and Sonepat. In the seventh century AD Hieun Tsang visited the site the entire area was ‘still covered with borns’.

Amongst the principal historical associated with the Mahabharata War mention be made of Hastinapur (District Meerut, UP), where the Kauravas attempted to burn aslive the Pandavas in a lac house; Bairata (ancient Viratanagar, District Jaipur, Rajasthan), where the Pandavas lived in exile; Panipat (ancient Paniprastha, Haryana); Baghpat (ancient Vrikshaprastha, District Meerut, UP); Indraprastha (Purana Quila, Delhi); the five strategic villages on the Yamuna system, asked for by the Pandavas in case a war was to be averted; Kurukshetra (Haryana), where the battle was fought; Mathura (UP), wherefrom Krishna hailed; and so on.

The archaeological explorations and excavations have revealed an identical material culture in the lowest levels of all these sites which binds them together. This culture has been designated as ‘Painted Greyware Culture’ since it is characterized by a peculiar type of pottery which is grey in colour and which is painted.

Professor Sankalia has raised two very pertinent issues: they concern the weapons of the war and the nature of warfare. Broadly speaking, he is of the opinion that so-called war was of a very primitive kind, resorting mainly to combat in which physical strength and personal valour counted much more than anything else. The weapons of war were of an extremely simple nature sine the real sophisticated ones mentioned in the epic are absolutely mythical: their existence could not be proved either by archaeology or by sculptural representation or by actual specimens belonging even to the first millennium AD not to say of the earlier millennia. In this connection attention is drawn to the references which point to the use of chariots, projectiles, hurling weapons, siegecraft, armour, etc., in more or less the proportion they were used in the medieval period. The horses and the elephants were used in the eighteen-day war. Certainly, numerically their combined strength was much less than that of the foot-soldiers but that has always been the case in the past.

Further, what about the chakravyuha? Was it a myth? Was it of a very simple kind? Could we quote any example from history and ethnography both in which the ‘tribal people’ have been able to plan out a battle array like this for their warfare? Thirty years of serious study of these subjects have completely failed to give me any reference of this kind. My own feeling is that it was a very sophisticated type of planning and therefore, the Mahabharata warfare cannot be dubbed as ‘tribal’ or ‘mythical’.

The Mahabharata War is called Dharma Yudha even though it was fought for political reasons. Evidences of Kuta Yudha are no doubt available but obviously not much of the Chanakyaniti or Machiavellian tactics were employed. A few instances of deceit like Yudhisthira’s telling a lie or Bhima’s hitting Duryodhana below the navel are exceptions and not the rule of the war. Intellectualism in planning the chakravyuha (and other makara, pipilika, hastivyuhas as well) and ethics in day-to-day warfare marked the Mahabharata as much as the personal valour of the heroes the usual concept of a hero is that physically omnipotent. The combats between one hero and the other have necessarily been. Let us not be misled by such references in evaluating the nature of the Mahabharata War.

History is a very peculiar subject since at every stage of its writing a historian may be seen evaluating the past and while doing so, it has often been seen that inadvertently he has used some yardstick which is applicable either to the present or to recent past or to some other time and situation but not the time of actual happening of the event. Something of the kind seems to have happened in the case of accounts of the Mahabharata War also, even by renowned writers. I make strong plea to guard against this tendency.

Now about the weapons of war. It has often been alleged that the bows and arrows were primitive weapons since these have been closely associated with prehistoric man or aboriginal tribes. It may, however, be pointed out that in India right from the Stone Age till AD 1857 when ‘arrows were showered by the Indian rebels on the company soldiers’, bows and arrows have been used. The standard of archery was very high in the age of the Mahabharata where several names for bow (dhanu, kodanda, druna, chapa, sarasana); for an arrow (isu, aramukha, naracha), quivers and braces are given. The blazing and flaming arrows, like the naft and khadanaga of the Arabs , used in India in the century AD were steeped in oil.

A bow was composed of a stout staff bent into a curved shape. Bamboo, cane, horn and wood were commonly used for staves. The Ajagava or Pinaka of Siva, the Sarnga of Vishnu and the personal bow of Krishna were made of horn; the Gandiva of Arjuna was of bamboo; while the Vijaya of Karna was forged out of metal. Three principal materials had been recommended, viz. iron, horn and wood, and each had been further divided into several categories. In the group of ‘iron’, gold, silver, copper, black iron and oily iron have been included. Among’ horns’, the best ones were those of the buffalo, Sarabha (a Kashmiri animal) and stag.




  Foreword - Lt. Gen. V. Oberoi, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, Vice of the Aemy Staff ix
  Introductory Note - Dr. G.N. Pant 1
  Prologue 11
Chapter 1 Mahabharata: The Indian Weltanschauung 25
Chapter 2 Mahabharata: An Ideological Anaysis 31
Chapter 3 Incarnation: An Indian View of History 37
Chapter 4 Notes on Chironology: A National Epic 41
Chapter 5 A Comparison: State of The Art - Sun Tzu and Mahabharata 47
Chapter 6 Sources of Indian Military Thought 53
Chapter 7 Fighting Arms of The Ancient Indian Armies: A Historical Evaluation 65
Chapter 8 Vyuhas: Racial Motifs of War 83
Chapter 9 Attrition Versus Mobility: Transition From Mahabharata to Kautilya 101
Chapter 10 Adminisration and Training 121
Chapter 11 Mahabharata's Relevance to Present Conditions 125
Chapter 12 Racial Motifs of War: The Indian Inheritance 131
Chapter 13 Zietgeist of the Mahabharata 137
Chapter 14 Vision of Apocalypse: The Philosophy of Endism 145
  Epilogue 151
  Bibliography 159
  Index 161


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