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Ancients on War 


Giri Deshingkar


This paper is meant to be only an exploratory comparison between strategic thinking in India and China in ancient times. For one thing, the problem of dating individuals, events and texts in Indian history is a formidable one. In China, on the other hand, it is much less of a problem, although the dates for Sunzi were in dispute for a long time. Interpolations in texts are common in both traditions but the ora1 tradition in India as opposed to the tradition of writing in China presents greater difficulties in reconstructing Indian texts. But the more serious difficulty in comparing the Indian and Chinese streams of strategic thinking stems from the strong “religious” base of Indian thought. In contrast, Chinese thinking has an unmistakable “secular” base. An off-shoot of the “religious” element in India was the social organisation it produced. Warfare in India was almost exclusively the preserve and even the duty of the ksatiiya varna (warrior class) which was hereditary, although specific instances of the priestly brahman varna can be found thinking about and engaging in warfare. In China, although the shi (scholar-gentlemen) were trained in the military arts among other scholarly subjects, they did not constitute a hereditary group.


The absence of a “religious” base in Chinese thinking does not mean that the role of ethics in war was neglected. The Confucian school, particularly Mencius and Mozi not only emphasized ethical principles in warfare, they were opposed to war as such. But with the rise of the state of Qin and its expansion, the Legalist school of Shang Yang and Han Feizi gradually eclipsed the Confucian opposition to war. And although Legalism was theoretically abandoned when the Qin dynasty was overthrown by the Han (in 207 B.C.), “State Confucianism” as adopted by the Han thinkers did not oppose war in the manner of Mencius. From Western Han onwards, realpolitik dominated Chinese strategic thinking. Whether the Marxist-Leninist base in Chinese strategic thinking in our century marked a partial return to “ethical” principles is a question beyond the scope of this paper.

It is probably a comment on the limits of ideology when it comes to applying it to practical matters that despite the strong “religious” base of Indian thinking, a strong school of realpolitik also appeared in India side by side with it. Thus, ancient Indian thinkers produced two schools of war, diplomacy and interstate relations; the dharmayuddha (ethical warfare) school; and the kutayuddba (devious warfare) school. The two schools were, however, not mutually exclusive. The practitioners of each school was informed by the principles and methods of the other and practised them. (In China, they were very nearly mutually exclusive). The best example of this is the great Mahabharata war in which one can see both schools of thought in operation: in this war the victory went to the practitioners of the kutayuddha school although the war itself has always been described as dharmayuddha. In the other epic war, the Ramayana, although both streams of thought were at work, the victory went to the dharmayuddha (righteous/ethical) school. And in the case of the wars fought by Emperor Ashoka, while all of them were presumably won by the methods of kutayuddha, after the conquests Ashoka himself turned a complete pacifist. This was the case with an individual (which is what has earned him fame) but in Indian thinking neither school ever completely replaced the other. At the level of rhetoric, the concept of dharmayuddha always reigned supreme. But in practice kutayuddha was often the norm. The defeat of Indian kings at the hands of foreign conquerors has been attributed by many to the loss of traditions of war-making, particularly that of kutayuddha. This is probably why, at present in modern India, the kutayuddha school seems to be in the ascendant, although even there the righteousness of the cause always dominates the rhetoric.

In ancient times, India was populated by numerous tribes. Some indigenous and others who had migrated into the subcontinent. (Some scholars have questioned this theory lately). They were culturally and technically unevenly developed and there was constant warfare among them, particularly between the immigrants and the natives, The wars were fought over territory, for lifting cattle (the chief form of wealth), for capturing women (the immigrants arrived with few women of their own), for honour and status, for self-aggrandizement in all spheres and sometimes out of anger, envy, fear or just display of heroism. While such warfare over centuries produced tribal rituals of warfare, codes of chivalry and heroism, technology of warfare and, of course, the all important hereditary group of warriors, the ksatria varna, it did not yield any body of thought which can be called strategic thinking which remains the major characteristic of Chinese thinking, particularly since the 4th century BC. Such thinking started with the establishment of well-recognized kingdoms/states as political entities possessing standing, armies, administrations, laws and social order capable of supporting war.

Shaurya (heroism) continued to be valued as the virtue of an individual warrior but to this was added the concept of neeti (ethical principles) in the conduct of warfare. The belief grew that without neeti, war became merely a display of animal-like

ferocity. For a victory based on principles (dharmavijaya), the king and the warriors had to observe certain codes in warfare. These codes were incorporated in the Dharmashastras (loosely translated as Books of Law). Warfare carried out according to the codes was also called prakashayudha (illuminated or open warfare). There was nothing secret about it. Preparations for such a war were made openly in the full knowledge of the adversary.

There was no element of surprise and there were strict rules about seasons of warfare, the duration of combat was restricted to daylight hours and rigid codes about close combat between warriors were observed. In all this, there was no room for strategy or tactics; only the numbers of warriors, their skills and the quality of weaponry counted. But, at the same time, diplomacy played an important role in building alliances for war and in making decisions about whether or not to go to war. The Chinese case around the time of Sunzi was quite different; set-piece battles were a thing of the past.

Inevitably, in actual warfare, the principles of righteous warfare were often set aside by individual warriors or their commanders. In fact, such was the sweetness of victory that some kings waged war for reasons of self-aggrandizement. The victory achieved for such selfish reasons came to be classified into two categories aasurvijaya in which the enemy’s territory was annexed, enemy kings and commanders were booty punished after the war, enemy cities were destroyed and the women were carried away as war booty. The second category produced lobhavijaya or victory out of covetousness or greed. This did not need waging a ruthless war of destruction but one for gain in terms of territory, wealth, women and so forth.

Only kutayuddha (devious warfare) could produce victories aimed of self-aggrandizement, Although the form was repeatedly denounced by ancient sages, it was nevertheless practised with increasing frequency until by the time of Emperor Ashoka, it came to be accepted as a norm. From practice, codification of devious warfare was only a short step. Several thinkers like Brihaspati and Shukracharya are known to have done this. But a comprehensive codification was undertaken by Kautilya, the great strategist of the Mauryan period.

The term koota, in the context of hunting, was used for a trap or snare. Consequently, in the context of warfare, it came to mean ensnaring or trapping the enemy. This included the use of magic spells and such other occult methods. (Sunzi decidedly rejected that use.) And when it came to weaponry prevalent in those days, it included the use of poisoned arrows, fire arrows and such other unauthorized weapons which could bring about destruction of men and property on a large scale. Other methods included poisoning of the enemy’s water sources, attack by stealth, enticing the enemy into an unfavourable position, bribery, assassinations and attacks at night.

Almost every single war described in the epics and the puranas incorporated at least some of these forbidden methods. Sometimes, only one side is said to have done this. In the Ramayana, for example, the raksasa side is said to have resorted to koota methods. In the numerous wars fought between the devas and aasuras the latter are always accused of having used unethical methods. In general, it seems that such methods we attributed to the side which was technologically superior but nevertheless lost the series of wars in the end. The didactic message of these classics was that righteousness always emerged victorious. A few epics like the Agni Purana, however, condoned the use of koota methods by the weak as a last resort.

One prominent characteristic of the Hindu reading of reality is that the good is always mixed with or accompanied by the evil. Human nature is the product of a variety of influences (karma) from the previous births and the present life. So the same human being contains both righteous and unrighteous impulses, even the most ideally righteous person may occasionally commit unethical acts in the interests of larger righteous causes. Thus, in the Ramayana, Lord Rama, the most perfect human being known nevertheless kills Vali, a brother of his ally, by deceit. In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna, himself a major God in the Hindu pantheon, advises and resorts to all kinds of trickery in the service of the weak but righteous side in a dispute over a kingdom.  Hindu classics always uphold the rhetoric of righteousness or dharma but condone and often justify lapses from the codes.

In this essay, I want to focus on the thinking of two strategic thinkers, Kautilya and Sunzi. Kautilya (also known as Chanakya and Visnusharman), who comes closest to the thinking of Sunzi as is available to us in his Art of War (Bingfa)). Like Sunzi, Kautilya also rose as a strategic thinker in a period of constant warfare; both realized the importance of studying war as an important aspect of statecraft. However, Sunzi does not seems to have played any role in helping any particular stale of his time to establish its hegemony over others. Kautilya on the other hand is said to have single-handedly engineered the victory of the Mauryas by destroying the Nanda power and to have put Chandragupta Maurya on the Magadha Ihrone.


Kautilya’s thinking on statecraft as a whole is available to us in the great classic Arthashastras (AS hereafter) which may be translated as the “Science of Politics and Administration”. Unlike the Bingfa (BF hereafter), it covers a much broader range of subjects. But in this essay, we will discuss only those sections which deal with war and external affairs.

The AS recommends that a state should base its defences on the fort (durg) and the army. Of the two, it regards the tort to be more important since it allows the king to survive a siege and practise his diplomacy from that base. The army is, of course, important in defence matters but it can be completely lost on the battlefield leaving the king without any protection.  In contrast, the BF totally rules out sieges as being expensive and wasteful.

For the defence of the stale against enemies, the AS prescribes al least four bases, one each in every cardinal direction. These should preferably be natural defensive points such as mountains, water, desert, forests and the like. But in the state capital, a man-made fort is regarded as essential. It should have moats, ramparts and parapets for soldiers to shoot from.  Wooden walls are ruled but as a fire-hazard. In the approaches to the fort, traps should be laid for the enemy. Inside it, it should be guarded by four types of formations comprising elephants, chariots, cavalry and infantry, each led by several commanders so that the loss of one or more to the enemy does not leave the formations leaderless. The fort should, of course, be well-stocked to withstand a siege but should have secret escape routes if the situation became desperate. As we shall see, Sunzi’s thinking is very different.

The troops should, naturally, be from the warrior castes as far as possible. Lower varna are acceptable but the highest varna, Brahmins, are ruled out because of the peculiar Indian social system. The enemy can put Brahmin troops out of action simply by prostrating before them and prostrating persons, by law, could not be killed. The infantry can be a standing force or it can be raised for the particular war. But other branches, e.g., elephants, cavalry etc., must be standing formations led and trained by specialists. The army of an ally can be used but captured enemy soldiers should be used only with caution.

The AS prescribes a detailed hierarchy of officers. The Senapati or Chief-of-Staff is the highest officer, his station is at the rear. The lower commanders (nayakas) actually lead the troops in battle. Daily rigorous training must be the norm. Frequent inspections are required to keep the troops fighting fit. As for weapons, there should be a special office for acquiring them and storing them safely. Each weapon is to be marked with the king’s insignia and strict inventories must be maintained to guard against loss.

Three main types of weapons are prescribed and seem actually to have been maintained in ordnance depots. The first category consisted of battlefield weapons such as bows and arrows, spears, swords, daggers, shields etc. The second type comprise those for defence of the fort such as stones, catapults and bows and arrows. The third type is meant for attacking enemy fortifications which includes scaling equipment as well as flaming arrows and other incendiary weapons. The AS puts a great deal of faith in magical practices such as casting spells.

In Kautilya’s time, warfare was limited only to certain seasons. Generally it was avoided during the rainy season. The AS generally upholds this practice but says that the time for launching a war should also depend cm the terrain which would  become the battlefield.

It also prescribes that the type of troops to be deployed should be determined not only by the terrain but also by the disposition of enemy troops. The book lays down elaborate rules for establishing camps during the march against an enemy.

Although the AS puts a great deal of emphasis on devious warfare (kutayuddha), it prescribes that if a king has a clearly superior force and other factors are favorable, he should engage in open and rule-bound warfare (prakashayudha). Obviously in Kautilya’s mind, a certain amount of odium continued to be associated with devious warfare. For it involved among other things attacking the enemy when he was vulnerable, feigning retreat to draw out the enemy into a trap, using elephants to break up closed ranks, attacking one flank and then the other, tiring out the enemy with one’s inferior troops first and then attacking with superior ones, laying ambushes, attacking at night to deprive enemy soldiers of their sleep and then attacking them during the day with fresh troops, attacking the enemy troops when they were facing the sun and so forth. All such tactics are routine now but they were regarded as exceptional in Kaulilya’s time.

The AS, therefore, goes into great detail about the “conventional” warfare of its time. It prescribes standard battle-arrays (vyuha) which have a centre, two flanks and two wings. Each component of the vyuha is conceived as being of equal strength containing between 9 and 21 units; each unit in turn, should be based on an elephant or a chariot with five horsemen and 15 infantrymen in front and rear. There are four basic types of battle-arrays: the staff (in-line) array, the serpent (wavy) array, the circular array and the loose army. The choice is determined by the terrain and the enemy’s troop disposition.

Great emphasis is placed on reserves behind every battle-ariay; this is where the king stations himself. The AS shows preference for mountains or forts to station the reserves. With the reserve force, there should be physicians and medicaments to treat the wounded, and field kitchens run by women. The women are also trusted with the task of “encouraging” the troops.

Before the beginning of action, the king should address his troops and emphasize that he is one of them. Next the Chiet-of-Staff (senapatl) should also address them and announce rewards for acts of bravery. (For example, killing the enemy king earned the reward of 10,000 coins and there were lesser rewards for other acts). Whatever loot the soldiers captured would be theirs but the Chief should also announce gratuities at the end of the war. It was the task of the officers to report acts of bravery by men fighting under their charge.

Whatever the form of warfare, the AS is scrupulous about one principle: not to cause harm to the subjects of the enemy king. So, when laying a siege to the fort, the people inside must be assured of their safety and be allowed to leave the fort for safe places. If territory must be annexed - it was usually not annexed - only the king was forced to become an ally or a vassal - the people are to be won over through all means. Their customs must be respected and their gods must be revered by the new king. After the war, carrying away loot is forbidden. If the king was reduced to vassalage, he still retained control of the territory and the army and was not obliged to help his sovereign militarily.

It needs to be emphasized that the AS does not only speak about making conquests. It also discusses the strategies and tactics for the prevention of conquest by others. This is why a large portion of the book is devoted to statecraft and administration of the state.

But whether in conquering others or in preventing conquest, the AS takes conflictual relationship between states as the norm. So, management of these occupies an important place in Kautilya’s thinking. It is almost certain that a large number of ideas he propounds came to him as received wisdom. And after him these ideas were appropriated by different texts as their own.

Kautilya’s major contribution, in contrast with that of Sunzi. Comes from his sense of political geography. The AS envisages the “international” arena, the mandala, as comprising 12 types of kings/states. It classifies them as follows: 1. The would-be conqueror, at the centre of the mandala. 2. The enemy whose territory borders on that of the would-be conqueror, i.e., the hostile neighbour. 3. The ally’s whose territory lies immediately beyond that of the hostile neighbour. 4. The enemy’s ally who is the neighbour of one’s won ally. 5. The ally’s ally who is territorially distant. 6. The ally of  the enemy’s ally who is also territorially distant. Types 7 to 10 follow the same sequence but to the rear of the would-be conqueror. The last two types are No. 11, a neutral king/state neighbouring both the would-be conqueror and his/its enemy but is stronger than both. And 12, the king is totally indifferent towards all other kings/states but is more powerful than the would-be conqueror, his enemy and the neutral king/ state.

All the advice in the AS is directed to the would-be conqueror (vijigisu or one desirous of victory). The underlying assumption is that neighbors always turn hostile. Another assumption is that a common enemy creates allies.  But the categories of enemy and ally are not fixed.  Under certain conditions, allies can become friends and vice-versa. The 12 types classified by the AS are possible combinations; they are not to be taken as the permanently existing actual situation in a mandala.

Kautilya assumes that except for the neutral and “indifferent” kings/states, all others in the mandala are of equal strength So, in a concrete situation, the mandala gets divided into two more or less equal blocs, with one blocs-leader seeking to establish hegemony over all the others. The strengths of blocs being equal, diplomacy, strategy and tactics assume great importance attaining hegemony.

The AS does emphasize the role of diplomacy but shows no preference for it over war. This is simply because one important component of the society of his time was the warrior group whose very existence was tied to fighting. Diplomacy, Kantilya was for winning allies, delaying war if one was vulnerable and for making postwar arrangements for a new order.

According to the AS, relations with other kings/states are to be established and carried out through dutaas or ambassadors. It prescribes three types of ambassadors: the plenipotentiary, envoy with limited negotiating powers, and one who is one messenger. It recommends that ambassadors should be stationed in all foreign states on a permanent basis and that they she enjoy what we call “diplomatic immunity” in modern parlance. In contrast to modern diplomatic norms, however, the AS expects the ambassadors to engage in spying, acts of sabotage and most importantly be active in securing defections from the enemy’s army.

Kautilya distinguished between six major approaches to foreign policy. The first is a policy of maintaining peace with another state which is based on a treaty detailing the terms and conditions. The second is the policy of hostility which she be followed if one is stronger than the enemy. The third approach is one of inaction: It is most suitable when states are of equal strength. The fourth is outright invasion but this policy is recommended for the very strong. For the very weak is prescribed fifth approach, i.e., seeking shelter with another king and wait for better days, The sixth and the last approach recommend policy of peace with one king/state while maintaining hostility towards another; such a dual policy is possible if help is available from another state to fight the enemy.

The AS, naturally realizes that one may become the object of such policies by another king/state. So the enemy may force peace by a treaty on oneself. If that happens, Kautilya advises that one should drag one’s feet in fulfilling the treaty obligations and wait for an opportunity to overthrow the enemy. If the treaty demands a hostage, for example, one should offer an inferior person. But if the enemy demands one’s son as a hostage, the king should offer himself so that the son can plan to overthrow the enemy and rescue the father.

The AS describes many kinds of treaties, with or without various stipulations, temporary and long-term ones, sincere and dishonest ones. The aim is always to outsmart the adversary. It also discusses in great detail not only the six broad approaches outlined above but also their combinations. Even the necessity of surrender is not overlooked but it is always for buying time.

War-making is only one among the means to attain one’s objective of hegemony. The other means are friendship bribery to be employed against weak kings. Yet another two means to be deployed against the strong are splitting (the enemy’s strength and alliances) and coercion (which includes war). The difference between the means and approaches/policies is that the means can be employed against domestic as well as foreign opponents whereas the policies can apply only to other kings/states.

By way of broad strategy, the AS recommends that the would be conqueror should first go at the hostile neighbour and with the new power acquired, he should next tackle the neutral king/state. If he succeeds, he should proceed against the most powerful “indifferent” king. That would complete his hegemony over the mandala as a whole, for the rest would fall in line. if there are no neutral or “indifferent” kings, the conqueror should first tackle his enemies and then secure the allegiance of enemy’s allies. In the event there are only two other states, one hostile and the other friendly, the would-be conqueror should crush the neighbouring state regardless of whether it is hostile or friendly and then proceed against the other. Finally, if there are a number of neighbouring states, they should be tackled one by one gaining strength in the process.

It goes without saying that Kautilya underlines all his strategies with the requirement that the would-be conqueror must satisfy himself that he enjoys superiority in such essential aspects as troop morale, war materiel and above all strategic advice. At the same time, the king must take precautions against insurrection within his own kingdom while he is away at war. So the AS recommends that a reliable Regent should be appointed and one-third of the army left behind for internal security. The most likely rebel leader should be taken by the king on his expedition. (The AS, as may be expected, also discusses how an insurrection should be planned and executed.) Finally, the AS elaborately discusses how gains and losses from an expedition against others should be estimated beforehand. Kautilya wrote a practical handbook and therefore does not indulge in any theory of a good society, good actions etc.  This is why to the modern mind he comes across as a totally amoral and cynical practitioner of strategies of war. Most Western comment on the AS is therefore negative in the extreme. In India, however, the book has never evoked any such negative response. This seems largely because despite the odium attached to kutayuddha, in all epic wars, the righteous side always emerged victorious. Kutayuddha always remained a kind of side-show. The second reason, I think, is that the AS was appropriated by other shastras and the puranas (or epics) in which the moral/ethical side of all human actions was abundantly stressed; so, devious and cynical practices came to be considered secondary, situational and answering only the needs of exigencies.



Sunzi was a product of the Warring States period (403.221 BC). At that time China was divided into numerous states, each with its own standing army. There was constant warfare among them. This allowed a number of “sages” (a) to travel from one state to another to offer advice on military matters to the kings. There is some doubt about whether such a person actually existed or whether what has come down to us as Bingfa (BF) was a compilation of the sayings of several strategists. For the purpose or this essay we will treat the BF as having been authored by Sunzi who may have lived in the 4th century BC.

If BF is to be summarized in one sentence, it would be: The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. Sunzi cautioned the kings and their commanders not to place reliance on sheer military power. He exhorted them to resort to minimum killing and destruction of the enemy. They were to take all intact or as nearly intact as possible.

All this called for very high level skills of diplomacy and devising stratagems of deceit, bribery and extensive use of spies (one’s own, from among the enemy’s subjects and double spies, i.e., the enemy’s spies won over). The army was only an instrument to deliver the coup de grace to an enemy previously made vulnerable through other means like subversion and causing a rift between him Andy his allies. Sunzi himself did not believe in magic weapons and asked the kings and commanders not to resort to them. In contrast, Kautilya favored their use.

Since most kings in Sunzi’s time were prone to resort to war to satisfy their whims and greed - they lived unbelievably luxurious lives - Sunzi repeatedly asked them not to resort to military adventures. War was an important element of statecraft and had to be studied with seriousness. No war should be undertaken without drawing up detailed plans which were tailored to the situation of the enemy. In any case, wars must be short, swift and decisive. There never has been a protracted war which has benefited a country” he said. He was especially aware of the economic consequence of war, particularly the inflation of currency during and after a war.

Sunzi firmly believed that only benevolent and righteous rulers could win wars. Rulers had to have unstinted support of their subjects behind them. By implication, he believed that such benevolent rulers had no fear of internal insurrection, a subject on which Kautilya has much to say.

The BF does not convey the impression that Sunzi had any imperial designs in mind for the ruler he was advising. The BF does use the word ba (hegemonic) but it seems to mean a more powerful ruler than others. In fact, the Legalists (Shang Yang, Han Feizi and Xunzi) who were empire-builders for the Qin state do not seem to have benefited much from Sunzi’s teachings, except perhaps for battlefield tactics, When the Qin state ultimately established the first empire, its Emperor ordered that all classics before him (except works on technology) should be burnt. He did not spare the BF.

In contrast to AS, the BF has a very limited view of political geography. Sunzi is aware that the enemy may have allies but he basically speaks of bilateral responses to and initiatives vis-a-vis the enemy. He distinguishes between overall strategy (what should one do about the enemy?) and military strategy (how to win a war if one decides to wage one). He has little to say about the former question but is extremely detailed and meticulous about the second.

Both BF and AS share the importance of the terrain and weather while they differ sharply on the importance of numbers of soldiers and weapons, BF does discuss the use of different kinds of weaponry in some detail but the emphasis is clearly on tactics of mobile warfare China did not then have cavalry, as India did, but AS nowhere speaks of using it for outflanking the enemy. In contrast, BF treats the main (zheng) force as a way of intimidating the enemy but actually resorting to the extraordinary (qi) force for attacks on the flanks and the rear of the enemy.

The primary target of the attack is the mind of the enemy commander. Is he rash? Is he quick-tempered? Does he have too delicate a sense of honour? It so, one must plan one’s strategy accordingly. Sunzi rules out sieges and frontal attacks except to surprise and cause disarray. He always recommends the “indirect approach.” One should attack only when one can win. But one must never hesitate o withdraw to conserve oneself and to entice the enemy to a battlefield favourable to oneself. Given enough rope, Sunzi seems to say, the enemy will hang himself.

The only constant thing about war is constant change of the situation. In fact, a good commander must take the initiative to create change and then to manipulate it. But the foremost method in warfare is deception. When capable, feign incapacity, when active, feign inactivity, when near the enemy, make it appear to him that you are far away. When you are far away, lead him to believe that you are near. Feign disorder and strike the smug enemy. Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance. When the enemy is strong avoid him.

As for tactics, when one has ten to the enemy’s one, surround him and take him intact: when one has 51 superiority, attack and disperse him. But if only double his strength, seek to divide him. If equal to the enemy’s strength, one can engage him but this requires great skill. If weaker, withdraw. In no case attack his elite troops. If you surround the enemy, leave an escape route; otherwise he will fight desperately. Keep him under strain and wear him down. BF is full of such aphorisms and modern commanders will at once recognize them. Kautilya has also mentioned many of the same tactics. BF is much shorter than AS and does not deal with “international relations” or administration of the state.

Unlike AS, BF (despite all known copies having been burnt by Emperor Qin Shihuangdi) was studied and extensively commented upon almost continuously over the next two millennia. Since late 19th century it has also been used as an important text book in Japanese military academies. There are many scholars and strategists in the West who believe that Mao Zedong’s military thinking was based on Sunzi’s BF but Mao denied that he had read BF before he came up with his own military doctrines. The two certainly differ on the subject of protracted war although they agree on several tactics.


We finally come to an overall comparison between Bingfa and the Arthashastra. Both works display great clarity of thought and a strong sense of realism. Neither advocates protracted war or total war although both are convinced that war is a constant reality for (he state and therefore must be studied and executed seriously. At the same time, both Sunzi and Kautilya make it abundantly clear that war is much more than just a fight among men: reliance on sheer military power does not assure victory. What we today call “software” is much more important than the “hardware”. Thus strategy and tactics become supremely important elements and they must be practised in tandem with diplomacy.

The authors of both works were great practitioners of realpolitik, As such they do not indulge in moralizing or theorizing about the ends of power. Kautilya does pay lip service to the upholding of a righteous social and political order, but Sunzi does not do that beyond saying that popular and just rulers can mobilize their subjects for victory more successfully than unpopular and unjust ones. Beyond this concession to righteous principle, both focus their attention on the goal: the achievement of victory over others through any means appropriate for the occasion. These include obtaining accurate information about the enemy’s plans and actions to frustrate them. Both strongly advocate measures to break up the enemy’s alliances and his internal structure in order to isolate and demoralize him. Both recommend indirect and devious approaches with deception at all levels playing the central role. Oddly enough, despite such single mindedness in achieving victory/hegemony, both Kautilya and Sunzi are.concerned about minimizing the economic costs of war as well as minimizing civilian casualities.

A closer comparison will, no doubt, bring out more similarities as well as differences between the two thinkers. Kautilya, it appears, is far more concerned about preventing conquest by others and far more in acquiring vassals than is Sunzi. Similarly, he also shows more sensitivity about internal security than does Sunzi. Above all, whereas Sunzi focuses somewhat narrowly on war, Kautilya has a much broader set of concerns taking in all aspects of statecraft, of which war is just one. But he applies himself to that one aspect with just as much concentration as Sunzi does.

Despite the great similarities -- almost identities -- between the two, there remains one major difference which has to do with the different social systems of India and China. As mentioned earlier, SW’s thinking may be summed up in one sentence: The victory is one where the enemy is subdued without fighting. Such a sweeping doctrine would have been inconceivable for Kautilya because that would have devalued the entire hereditary warrior varna. For this class, it was a disgrace to die anywhere except on the battlefield. So, a world without war was even theoretically inconceivable so long as one was within the established order. But a world without war was not only conceivable but eminently desirable for those outside the fold i.e., the Buddhists and the Jainas. Emperor Ashoka established the Magadha empire as a warrior informed by the thinking embodied in the Arthashastra, but having done that he saw the futility of it all. That wisdom made it impossible for him to continue as a warrior. And since he ceased to believe in the creed of warriors, his rightful place was outside the “Hindu” fold, in the path of the Buddha.

But among the rulers in India, Ashoka was an exception. China did not produce an Ashoka. The Indian rulers after Ashoka, Buddhists and Jaina ones included, waged wars as did the different rulers in China when the empire split up from time to time and they applied the concepts of AS and BE However, in our own century, the Kuomintang in China and the armed forces in India wholly copied the western concepts of warfare almost to the last detail. Mercifully, they ignored one commandment of Clausewitz: “To introduce in the philosophy of war a principle of moderation would be an absurdity. War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds”. In our own times neither India, nor Pakistan nor China has resorted to Clausewitz’s concept of “total war”. Is there a civilizational lesson in this?


Samuel B. Griffith. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, New York 1963,

V.R Ramchandra Dikshitar, War in Ancient India, Delhi, 1987.

R.P. Kangle, The Kaufilya Arthasasfra (Vol. 3). Delhi, 1988.

PV. Kane, History Of Dharmasasfras, (Vol. 3) Poona, 1946.54

K.A. Nilakantha Sastri’, Age of fhe Nandas and fhe Maufyas, Banares. 1952.

Romila Thapar, Ashoka and the Decline of fhe Mauryas, Oxford, 1961’.

G.D Bakshi, Mahabharata, A Military Analysis, Delhi, 1990.

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

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