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Including Arthashastra and The Bhagavad Gita for Indian Military Training – Salience of India’s Strategic Roots

Dr Kajari Kamal Sun, 26 Sep 2021   |  Reading Time: 4 minutes

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for enhancing indigenisation in the national security system, not just in sourcing equipment and weapons but also in the doctrines, procedures and customs practiced in the armed forces in March this year is a reassertion of the government’s efforts to integrate endogenous sources of knowledge within the framework of national security policy making. The recent idea to include Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Bhagavad Gita as part of India’s military training appears to be in tandem with projects to study, evaluate and glean the enduring wisdom of ancient Indian texts, already underway in some of the premier defence institutions.

It is particularly heartening to see the Arthashastra being considered as part of regular training rather than dwelled upon ephemerally in sporadic lectures primarily focused on establishing its relevance in contemporary times. The important questions to ponder are why are these texts more significant than some others? Why is it important for India to tap its strategic roots, and why now? Why should this socialization be limited to the armed forces? Does this mean that the armed forces have so far been divorced from civilizational ethos? And whether this is the best way to bring about cultural rootedness, potentially critical for a harmonized vision of India’s national security goals.

Sanctity of the Ancient

The essence of a nation’s culture resides in the ‘native’ – vitally connected with the original inhabitants of a country. Ancient India and classical textual tradition, therefore, are key to India’s search for ‘pure’ essence. Strategic cultural theorists too aver that the ‘objects of analysis’ of a nation’s strategic culture are essentially strategic texts representative of a foundational period in the development of strategic thoughts and practices. The formative conceptualization of the external security environment (in terms of role of war, nature of adversary and utility of the use of force) along with a set of strategic preferences in dealing with it, acquires certain resilience, especially when the decision makers are shown to be adequately socialized and exhibiting these heuristics and preferences.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra is illustrative of a period 2300 years ago when for the first time a cohesive Indian geo-cultural space and the drive to establish a pan-Indian state/empire encompassing it, had existed. As the treatise is a compilation of precepts and principles of previous artha tradition and demonstrates affinity in thought-style with important texts of India’s larger strategic and philosophical tradition, it is eminently representative of ancient tradition of statecraft. Simultaneously, it is also perhaps, India’s chief historical military text signifying the role of the Army and its complementarity with other dimensions of state security, thereby setting it apart from military classics in other geographies.

The future lies in the past

But why should India revisit its past and rigorously draw lessons for contemporary statecraft from its strategic tradition? As India’s footprint on the world grows, she needs to be self-consciously aware of the values she represents. National security is about protecting a set of values from threat, and may mean different things for different people. The exact set of values, means of securing them, cost one is willing to bear, and the specific degree of security that the state is seeking to achieve, is bound to vary from state to state, and in a large measure then, becomes a function of its strategic culture. Universal, cross-cultural aspect of strategic thinking interacts with and integrates local cultural norms to arrive at principles of war making, lending distinctiveness to geo-cultural spaces.

As a nation’s approach to problem solving seemingly emanates from its cultural context, grasping the socio-cultural milieu of other states is equally important to fashion one’s own responses. For this reason, study of Thucydides, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu is significant. But what is equally if not more important is to have the knowledge of our own strategic traditions and the uniquely Indian way of war, in part also to understand how India is perceived by her allies and adversaries.

Kautilya and the armed forces

The armed forces as an important component of the national security structure do need to be adequately socialized. What are India’s national security goals and what are the preferred means to secure them need to be clearly spelled out and internalized. But if cultures are enduring with subliminal, latent influences, a state’s military too can’t be divorced from cultural and political norms of the society from which it draws its people. They should represent native proclivities and orientations even without structured socialization.

Let’s examine Indian Army’s ‘Land Warfare Doctrine’, 2018. The document comprehensively alludes to Kautilyan principles without making a direct attribution. Ironically, the conscious inclusion of a Chanakya quote is the least Kautilyan of its contents. The primary approach to resolve disputes in an ‘amicable manner’, employment of a mix of ‘politico-diplomatic initiatives’ backed by simultaneous military preparedness, weighing options based on capabilities, hybrid wars, importance of internal security along with external aggression, principles of ‘operational art and manoeuvre warfare’, information and psychological warfare, and the general understanding that elements of the military arsenal in conjunction with other elements of comprehensive national power constitute a nation’s grand strategy, are vibrant Kautilyan themes. Therefore, the past incorporated through primary socialization arguably may be more impactful and substantial than the symbols of its manifest presence, in representative forms like street names, pen names, comics and the Chanakya metaphor for a cunning statesman.

But this does not dilute the effectiveness of the exercise being discussed. A formal study of the ancient texts is important to merge the latent with the manifest, to have a more self-aware thinking on issues of national security. Perhaps, an introduction of these ‘value ideas’ at an early stage may work better for their absorption and operationalization.

A comprehensive approach

Kautilya’s idea of comprehensive statecraft is as much about armed might as it is about benign rulership, good counsel, productive resources and economic wealth. Therefore, the salience of these ancient texts, where security is defined in holistic terms, extends beyond the realm of military personnel to political leaders, diplomats, civil servants and public policy framers, in general.

The whole (body politic) inheres in its parts (seven limbs or saptanga) and the latter are both individually and collectively responsible for efficient statecraft. A true homage to the ancient strategic thinker would be a comprehensive approach towards ‘Indianization’ rather than a selective one.

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Author
Dr Kajari Kamal is a faculty at Takshashila Institute Bangalore. She has done her research on strategic culture in the Indian context. Her dissertation was on the salience of Chanakyan ideas to better understand the drivers of India’s foreign policy.

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POST COMMENTS (12)

Ankit Kumar

Oct 11, 2021
very informative 🇮🇳🙏jai hind

Col A Asthana

Oct 05, 2021
It is very satisfying to get noticed but annoying to see it happening for the wrong reasons. I have nothing against Arthashastra or Geeta, only against their suitability as literature for armed forces. Utter nonsense to say that armed forces of today have anything useful to learn from them. Why were these two picked for study, if not to emphasize the role of hindu knowledge and prowess? What that knowledge and prowess achieved is, as I said, well documented in our history of last 1000 years. Why follow a failed model? Gita is totally useless. Arthashastra does have some advice but for Mr Modi, not Gens Rawat and Naravane. Sample this advice- सुखस्य मूलं धर्मः । धर्मस्य मूलं अर्थः । अर्थस्य मूलं राज्यं । राज्यस्य मूलं इन्द्रिय जयः । इन्द्रियाजयस्य मूलं विनयः । विनयस्य मूलं वृद्धोपसेवा॥ The root of happiness is Dharma (ethics, righteousness), the root of Dharma is Artha (economy, polity), the root of Artha is right governance, the root of right governance is victorious inner-restraint, the root of victorious inner-restraint is humility, the root of humility is serving the aged. — Kautilya, Chanakya Sutra 1-6[54] Dharma, dear guys, is ethics and righteousness, not religion. The armed forces are already overburdened with playing bands, doing yoga on Siachen, skydiving with tricolour, making railway overbridges in Mumbai, dragging up the biggest flag up a hill etc. Who will fight the Chins and Pakis?

Roshan Raghunathan

Oct 02, 2021
Asthana is a clear case of putting up a thinly veiled attempt at disguising his own biases and political opinions while feigning concern and neutrality all the same. His projections make this quite bare and reveals the problem of secularization of the armed forces some of who themselves are ironically a little too indoctrinated for their own good to sit on judgement where imbibing native values in strategic affairs is concerned. He inadvertently strengthens the need for such a comprehensive philosophical review while trying to innocuously take a potshot at our history of the past 1000 years which if anything is a reflection of what we should have followed but didn't, however i don't think he will have the self awareness to recognize the same.

Alka Kumar

Sep 29, 2021
Just went through some of Col A Asthana's articles in The Wire. Clearly, his thinking does not match with essence of the above article. @ Kajari Kamal, it's a very relevant topic you have taken up. Kautilya's Arthashatra and Mahabharat are definitely the backbone of Indian political economic and strategic ethos. Look forward to more from you.

Col Prabir Sengupta, VSM

Sep 29, 2021
Dr Kajari Kamal, has brought to fore a very pertinent issue to the forefront. The need to have 'fellows'/ fellowships under these hallowed institutions which should pursue the subject of military philosophy, international relations and strategic affairs. The National Defence University could/ should be mandated to pursue such matters. But this does not preclude the other institutions to support studies which can be incorporated in the training of future leaders. A military doctrine needs regular updation, iterations and has to be dynamic to the changing times and technology.

Col A Asthana

Sep 29, 2021
There are some posts here reminding us of our need to follow and promote our military heritage. Well, our military heritage is so bad that we remained under foreign rule for at least 10 centuries, unbroken. In the last of these, we were under a British trading company for a 100 full years, for god’s sake. Indians simply have no culture of fighting. Let us change this, rather than have even modern India go back to adapting to foreigners. 1962 was the one and only example of India standing up to aggression and doing so aggressively. In any case, this has nothing to do with the army, except its unwillingness to stand up to politicians even in purely military matters.

Balakrishna Gopinath

Sep 28, 2021
Major Saab Every military of a country should take pride in its history and heritage and be able to draw inspiration form it, and of course also deploy the latest of technology too Respectfully BG 🙏 🙏

Col JP Singh

Sep 28, 2021
We have enough understanding of military philisophy and strategic affairs. We need look to look forward and not back and for heavens sake leave the Armed Forces akone and do not Hinduise them. They are not the RSS. Why not pick some war philosophy from the Sikhs. Its the govt amd people like Modi who have no understanding of strategic affairs. They need to be given lessons and not ghe Armrd Forces. Give the Armed Forces a big budget and the soldiers good pay and vetrans a good pension. Mumbo-jumbo diesnt serve any purpose here.

reply to col A Asthana

Sep 28, 2021
ma'am/SIR with all due respect to your title and rank, Gita provides for moral lessons, it provides for duty of being, it provides for duty of Dharma. Being a student of law who is well versed in rule of law. Basics of rule of law is a reflection of rules of being, duty/dharma mentioned in Bhagavad Gita. While you are indeed being insular towards the Holiest text in the whole world and the lessons on rule of law and dharma mentioned therein, it would be a suggestion from my side to open the first page of Gita imbibe the concept of Dharma in your respectful life. Thank you, no offense. 🙏

Col A Asthana

Sep 27, 2021
The problem with this choice of two books is - why these two? Why not military wisdom everywhere? Why not the more contemporary battles of the Greeks and Romans, Christians, even world wars 1 and 2. Better still, not not study India's shocking defeat by civilian LTTE in Sri Lanka, or the terrible Indian show of Kargil, which allowed ill clad intruders get hold of enough India territory without even fighting, that it took three months to get it back. Or, the inefficient techniques used by super-sexy NSG which resulted in more than 200 of them about 3 days to over power 4 pick pockets of Lahore, something which good commandos should do in about 20 minute preparatory operations and 5 minute execution. Indian military needs to wake up.

Col A Asthana

Sep 27, 2021
Let us firmly stop this hinduisation of armed forces, once and for all. Today’s military and strategic environment has nothing to do with arthshastra and gita. Is purely political. Yes, arthashastra has some lessons on good governance. Modi, not armed forces, need to read it. As for gita, is a sheer waste of time. With each passing day, the army and its senior officers are behaving like BJP instruments. Let them get paid from BJP funds which are in any case, bigger than India’s budget.

Lt Col Rajnikant Tiwari

Sep 26, 2021
Very informative and well articulated write up. Thanks to Dr Kajari Kamal for bringing such a relevant and forward looking article while taking a leaf from our rich past. Jai Hind 🇮🇳

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