In this article we will discuss about the army and warfare in ancient India.

Though war has been condemned in the ancient scriptures like Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita, which describe the life of a soldier as sinful, but it has been practiced in India since earliest times. In fact it is a natural instinct of man to acquire more. Therefore ambitious rulers undertook campaigns of conquests and tried to expand their empire at the cost of the neighbours.

The Smritis have also enjoined that when the king feels that his army is strong and kingdom prosperous, and the position of his opponents is just the reverse, he is at liberty to declare a war against them.

Certain scholars have criticised this open advocacy of aggressive methods on the part of ambitious rulers; but it is not something unnatural because all over the world strong rulers have resorted to unprovoked aggression, although sometimes they have put forth the plea that they were motivated by philanthropic consideration.


However, it cannot be denied that the Smritis and Niti writers were much ahead of their age and advised the ambitious rulers to avoid war as far as possible because an unrighteous war brings disgrace in this life and procures hell thereafter.

Ashoka was probably one of the only ruler in ancient times which broke away with the tradi­tion of aggressive warfare and resorted to dharam vijay. During the earlier period Buddhist texts also impressed on the need of abhoring war. In one of the stories Buddha himself is depicted as interven­ing in a tribal war between the Sakyas and the Koliyas and persuad­ing them to come to terms.

One of the verse in Dhammapada, an early collection of Buddhist verse, says, “Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered sleep in sorrow; above victory or defeat the calm man dwells in peace”. It may be noted that though war was consi­dered to be an evil, it was a normal activity of the state. Even the Buddhist kings could not completely abjure the war.

The idea of empire building gained prominence under the Mauryas, but the Indian concept of empire was quite different from the one prevailing in West.


Arthasastra envisaged three types of conquests:

Righteous conquest (dharmavijaya),

Conquest for greed (lobhavijaya) and

Demoniac conquest (asuravijaya).


In the first type of conquest the defeated king was forced to pay homage and tribute to the conqueror; after which either he or some other member of his family was reinstated on the throne. In the second type of conquest the conqueror either claimed huge booty or large portions of the territory of the conquered ruler.

The third type of conquest implied complete political annihilation, of the conquered kingdom and in­corporation of the territory in the empire of the victor.

Of these three types of conquests generally only the first type of conquest was approved off, even though Arthasastra approved of the other two types of conquests also Arthasastra emphasised that “The King who is weaker than ‘the other’ should keep the peace; he who is stronger should make war.” In other works also similar views find prominent place.

According to Arthasastra, the main purpose of the conquest was to build up a great empire. However, the other ortho­dox works say that the chief purpose of war was glory not gain. These works laid great emphasis on the observance of certain rules of war.

Some of the most popular rules advocated by these works (specially Manu Smriti) were that a warrior fighting from a chariot should not strike one on foot; an enemy on flight, wounded or ask­ing quarter should not be killed; the lives of enemy soldiers without weapons were to be respected; poisoned weapons should not be used; prisoners of war were to be treated well and given medical care.

The conqueror may extract homage from the vanquished and not annex his territory. It may be noted that these rules of warfare were not actually followed in practice. Even the heroes of Mahabharata did not observe these rules and justified their action on grounds of expediency and necessity.

Generally these rules were followed by the ruler who was strong and was sure of victory against his opponent. But where the fight was between the evenly balanced rulers, the feeling of self-preservation inevitably led to the neglect of these rules.

Kautilya also advises that if a state has immense superiority over its opponent, it should follow the Chivalrous code (dharmayuddha); otherwise it should resort to all sorts of methods of warfare (both fair and foul) to attain the objective.

Both Bhishma and Sukra also expressed similar views. However, one thing is really creditable that during ancient times certain rules of war had been laid down which triad to make the war humane. This was in complete contrast to other ancient civilizations, where no such rules existed.

Military Organisation:

The ancient Indian army, accord­ing to Prof. Basham consisted of six types of soldiers viz. here­ditary troops, which formed the backbone of the army; merce­naries; troops provided by the corporations (Sreni) ; troops supplied by subordinate allies; deserters from the enemy; and wild tribesmen.

We do not possess much information about the troops provided by the corporations. Most probably these were the troops maintained by the various merchant guilds for the protection of their own caravans and trading posts, which were loaned to the king during the limes of the war. The wild tribesmen were mainly utilised for the guerifla fighting in the hills and jungles.

Though most of the soldiers came from the Kshatriya class, the members of other classes also participated the war. We find refer­ences in the Epics and other medieval inscriptions which shows that even Brahmans held high military positions.

The members of the lower castes usually fought in subordinate positions. At least in the early Vedic period military service was rendered by members of all the castes. However, with the caste system assuming rigid shape in later years, fighting became the prerogative of Kshatriyas.

Traditionally the Indian forces consisted of four arms—foot, horse, chariots and elephants. The states which lay on the side of the large river or sea also had navy. Kautilya has added the arma­ment as the sixth branch of the forces. Certain other scholars have included the spies and the pioneers and commissariat as the seventh and eighth branches of forces.

Thus there is difference of opinion among the scholars regarding the arms of the forces. The difference ranges between four and eight. But it is admitted on all hands that the elephant formed the most important wing of the forces in ancient times. We get a definite reference in the Buddhist scriptures to the effects that Bimbisara of Magadha possessed a large and efficient ele­phant corps.

The elephants in ancient times served the same purpose which is done by the tanks in modern times viz. breaking the ranks of the anemia forces and smashing gates and other defences. The elephants also proved helpful in crossing the shallow rivers. Usually each elephant, in addition to the mahout, carried two or three soldiers. These soldiers were armed with bows, javelins and long spears.

The cavalry, which was another important wing of the Indian forces, was not that well organised. The weakness of the cavalry was one of the major factors responsible for the defeat of Porus at the hands of Alexander and Prithviraj at the hands of Muhammad of Ghor. The horsemen usually carried two spears and a shield.

The infantry must have formed the backbone of the army, although we do not get any definite reference to this effect in the ancient texts. The foot-soldiers fought with straight sword, slung from his shoulder by a baldric.

He was armed with arches, which were shot from a sitting position by bending the bow by pressing it with the left good. The foot-soldiers also carried javelin and pears. The defensive weapon of the foot-soldiers consisted of ox-hide.

The chariots were the chief fighting force during the Vedic period. They retained their importance even during the Epic period, us is testified by the various Epic stories. Even under the Mauryas I lie chariots were widely used in war as is testified by the Arthasastra.

With the dawn of the Christian era the chariots fell in disuse. They were no doubt in vogue during the Gupta period, but they were mainly used as means of transport. The chariots were drawn either by two or four horses.

According to certain scholars the Indians also possessed a navy. I hey make reference to the instances of the ships being used for military purposes to prove this point. While it cannot be denied that I lie ships were used by the people in ancient India, particularly for conveying troops along the great Indian rivers, but it was rather neglected.

Only the Cheras and the Cholas realised the importance of the navy and pursued a steady naval policy. Chalukya king Pulakesin II employed navy to besiege Puri. Similarly Rajaraja I and Rajendra I purused a definite maritime policy and maintained regular navy.

The corps of physicians also formed a party of the army during the war. This corps usually stayed at the rear and took care of the wounded with drugs, bandages and other methods. The existence of such corps is testified by Arthasastra and other sources. Certain women also formed part of this corps and they cooked the food for the troops.

According to most of the scholars the basic unit of Indian army was is patti. It was a sort of mixed platoon consisting of one elephant, one chariot, three horses and five foot-soldiers. Three pallia consti­tuted a senamukha’, three senamukhas a gulma and so on.

However, certain scholars have refused to accept the existence of this type of inter-mixed organisation in the absence of any confirmed evidence. According to Arthasastra a unit consisted of 45 chariots 45 elephants, 225 horses and 675 foot-men. The full battle array comprised five of these detachments.

We learn about the organisation of the army from Megasthenes and Kautilya. Megasthenes tells us that Mauryan army was organised under a committee of thirty, divided into sub-committees which controlled the corps of infantry, cavalry, chariots, elephants, navy and commissariat. However this account is not confirmed by any other source.

Arthasastra says that the army was organized under a number of superintendents with the senapati at the head. Larger armies had a number of senapatis with mahasenapali in supreme command. The senapati was usually a member of the royal family and fought according to the directions of the king.

The senapati was assisted by nayaka and dandanayaka. The soldiers were organised into regiments, divisions and squadrons. Each possessed distinct standards and lived a definite corporate life.

The instruments and arms used by the soldiers in ancient India did not fundamentally differ from the one used by the soldiers of other countries during that period. Certain scholars have gone to the extent of suggesting that fire-arms were known to the ancient Indians, but this view cannot be fully substantiated.

The usual weapons used by the soldiers up to the Mauryan period was arrow made of bamboo. Poisoned arrows were also known to them, although its use has been condemned by the religious texts.

Swords of various types were also known to the people. Lances and javelins were the other important weapons used by the Indian soldiers. Iron maces and battle-axes were also used. A special long lance known as tomara was used for fighting from the back of the elephant. For protecting their bodies the soldiers used shields of bent cane covered with leather or of metal.

Fortification formed an important part of the military organi­sation. Though most of the fortification of the ancient time have since perished or modified according to the later requirements, we can get some idea about them from the long wall of rough-hewn stone protecting the ancient site of Rajgriha, the capital of Bimbasara of Magadha. This wall probably belongs to the age of Buddha.

Similarly at Sisupalgarh in Orissa small section of the city rampants have been excavated which are dated back to the Gupta period. The Arthasastra provides us details about ideal fortification.

Kautilya described an ideal durga as encircled by three very wide moats, within which was an earthwork, covered with spiny shrubs and surmounted by a wall thirty-six feet high, with numerous square towers and roofed balconies for archers. The practice of taking the prisoners of wars was in existence. But they were not massacred- and were usually released on payment of ransom either in cash or by labour.

Republican States:

Though the monarchy was the usual form of government in ancient India, the Indian and foreign literary sources testify that a large number of non-monarchical states also flourished in India particularly between the later-Vedic period and the fifth century A.D.

These non-monarchical governments have variously teen described as aristocracies or democracies or republics. Megasthenes records an ancient Indian tradition that the kingship was dissolved and democratic governments were set up. This suggests that the non-monarchical states came into existence probably during the later-Vedic period.

The Buddhist scriptures also recognize the existence of many republics in the foothills of the Himalayas and in North Bihar. These republics were mainly tributaries to the great kingdoms, although they enjoyed plenty of internal autonomy.

Buddha himself belonged to a tribe known as Sakyas who lived on the borders of Nepal and his father was a tribal chief.

In the Avadanasataka it is said that some merchants from Madhyadesa went to Deccan during the times of Buddha, and they were asked by the local rulers as to who were their kings in their respective home lands, they replied “Sir in the countries of some of us there are kings, but in those of others, there is gana or republican govern­ment”

The Buddhist Sangha itself was organised on the model of the gana, probably the Sakyas. The existence of the gana is also proved by the Jain work Acharangasutra which warns a monk that he should avoid visiting a country which has no king, or has a crown prince as the ruler, or two kings fighting with each other, or is governed by the gana form of government.

The contemporary Greek writers have also testified to the existence of certain non- monarchical states in ancient India.

Certain scholars like M. Crindle have expressed the view that the independent or autonomous state mentioned by the Greek writers were the village communities’ but this view is not tenable. The Greek writers have rarely referred to the village life or village government.

This doubt is further set at rest when Megasthenes mentions the two forms of government on equal terms when he says “They report everything to the king where the people have a king, and to the magistrates where the people are self-governed.”

Some of the important non-monarchical or Republican states of ancient India were Sakyas with their capital at Kapilvastu, the Kolivas of Ramagrama, the Lichchhavis with their capital at Vaishali, the Vidhans with their capital at Mithila and the Mallas with their capital at Kusinagara.

It may be noted that the republics in ancient India differed from the modern republics in so far as the power was not shared by the entire population but by a handful of persons.

Therefore these republics were more of oligarchies or aristocracies in which the power was concentrated in a fairly numerous class. This class was mainly Kshatriya, although we get reference in Arthasastra that the power in certain republics was shared by the military and the trading classes.

As regards the constitution and administrative set up of the ancient Indian republics, we do not possess sufficient material to form an exact idea about the same. The evidence which has come down to us belongs to widely distant periods and refers to different states which greatly stand in the way of drawing a composite period.

One thing, however, is quite clear that there was no uniformity in the constitutional set up. Probably the constitutional machinery of small states like Mauriyas, the Koliyas, and the Sakyas was quite different from the one prevailing in bigger states like Yaudheyas and Malavas.

In the smaller states the business of the state was transacted by the Central Assembly, which met quite frequently in the Assembly Hall (santhagara). Each member of the aristocracy was known as raja. In addition to the governing class the population also contained artisans, farmers, servants, serfs etc. but they had no say in the administration

The bigger states were divided into provinces each under a separate governor. These governors belonged to the privileged, class. The provinces were further sub-divided into cities which were administered by the city councils. Though the members of the privileged classes dominated the city councils, the traders, arti­sans and agriculturists also sent their representatives to this body.

In the village councils the common people must have enjoyed dominant position. In the bigger republics at the centre the real power was yielded by the Central Assembly, which sometimes contained members between five to eight thousand.

The Yaudheyas had 5000 member Central Assembly while the Lichchhavis had a Central Assembly of 7,707 members. This suggests that the Central Assemblies were really unwieldy bodies. But in actual practice only 10 per cent of the members attended the meetings.

Probably the system of elections did not exist in ancient India because we do not come across any reference regarding the electoral role containing list of qualified voters, nor do we hear of periodical elections.

The Central Assemblies wielded tremendous powers. They elected the members of the executive as well as the military leaders. For example when the news of the impending invasion of Alexander reached the Ambashthas elected three generals to lead their armies.

The Central Assemblies controlled foreign affairs. They sent and received foreign ambassadors and decided the issues of peace and war. The Assembly exercised complete control over the executive. We learn from Arthsastra that if the President of the Sangha or a member of the Executive Council was found guilty of misman­agement of public funds he could be punished by the state tribunals.

Dr. K.P. Jayaswal is of the opinion that the assemblies had a well-developed and regular procedure and formal rules existed for the transaction of the business. He gives extensive extracts from -the Buddhist texts in support of his contention.

He says that the matters of state were discussed in the assembly and when the House was divided in its opinion, decision was taken by majority vote (bahutara). The decisions taken by the Assembly without quorum were not valid.

The voting tickets were coloured and were known as Salaka. There was a teller (Salakagrahaka) who took the votes either openly or secretly. Sometimes committees were appointed to investigate specific issues and to report their decisions to the Sangha.

The party system was a common feature of the republics and it is referred to even by the grammarians. The members of the different parties sat in separate groups. These parties were usually named after their leaders. For example the party of Vasudeva or Krishna was known as Vasudeva-vargya.

Each gana had a Central Executive consisting of four to twenty members. These members were most probably elected by the Cen­tral Assembly. Whether these members were taken from the mem­bers of few leading families or anybody could be its member, cannot be said with certainty.

However, in course of time it became a hereditary body. Usually the members of the Executive Council were capable captains and dauntless leaders, who could provide able lead to the state during emergencies. In addition they were also well grounded in the laws, customs and traditions of the land.

The members of the Executive Council also headed various departments like foreign affairs, justice, treasury, etc. They were assisted by officers of different grades for the smooth working of their departments. Certain conditions were considered essential for the successful working of the republican system of government.

For example Gautama specified seven important conditions for the successful working and welfare of the Lichchhavi-Vajji Confederacy, which could easily be applied to all the gana states.

These conditions included holding full and frequent assemblies; meeting together in concord and rising in concord, and carrying out business in concord; adhering to the ancient usages; honoring the elders; protecting women and girls from violence; honoring Chaityas and protecting the saints. The republics worked property so long as these qualities were adhered to.

The republican states continued to flourish till fourth century A.D., when they were completely eclipsed. Dr. K.P. Jayaswal attri­butes the destruction of the Republics to the imperialism of the Guptas. He says that Samudragupta, like Alexander, killed the free spirit of the country and destroyed the Malavas and the Yadhe yas, who were the nursery of freedom.

However, this view is not acceptable to Prof. Altekar who says,

“The republic of the Malavas and the Arjunayanas, the Yaudheyas and the Madras had only accepted in a general way the imperial position of Samudragupta. They offered him tribute, but retained their autonomy. Their terri­tories were never directly administered by the Guptas, and so their republican institutions could not have been much affected. It should be remembered that their independence had been completely eclipsed under the Mauryas and the Kushanas, but they once more emerged as republics when the above imperialism declined. The Gupta imperialism had not interfered with their autonomy and it is, there­fore, difficult to understand how it could have been fatal to their democratic institution”.

Prof. Altekar is of the opinion that the Republican states declined when the leadership of the republics passed into the hands of hereditary presidents who were military leaders and claimed royal titles and could no longer be distinguished from the monarchies. Why these hereditary leaders were allowed to assume enormous powers is difficult to explain.

The belief in the divine origins of the monarchy might have induced the republics to accept the leadership of the hereditary presidents, who often descri­bed themselves as Maharajas. Probably it was felt that a unitary leadership facilitated by the kingship was a better protection against invasions than offered by the group leadership in a republic.