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A just war or a war that is just a war?

 article about A just war or a war that is just a war?

This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.


The Islamist terror and subsequent Iraq War have let loose a huge debate around what is "Just War"? The Islamists claim that Just War is Jihad and it is perfectly legitimate to fight against oppression by unbelievers. The Iraq Just War claims are based (and debated) upon legal arguments arising from UN and parliamentary resolutions.


As it so happens, both the UN and western parliamentary resolutions are broadly based upon Judeo-Christian religious heritage and in particular, the Just War theories going back to the 12th century teachings of St. Aquinas, who – it has been said – was influenced greatly by books written by religious scholars expounding on the legal reasons and justifications of Jihad. But there is another strand of human thought around the Just War theory, which goes back centuries and millennia before Just War was a twinkle in the eyes of the Abrahamic faith theologians. Let us explore that a bit.


I was in a discussion last year with some people who were debating about Crusades, Jihad and Just War came up. I was hearing about how the Just War is defined as war against the other, but having a just cause such as fighting against oppression, which authority can launch a just war, so on and so forth. And I was reminded of two things when I heard that these concepts were relatively new. The first was the fact that Just War is not a new concept for me, in fact this is pretty old and secondly, this is not just Hinduism which I refer to, but also Buddhism (yes, that religion of peace…) which has a full blown concept of Just War.


So I promised to write about it and this essay relates to the first aspect. The Buddhist concept of Just War will need a full essay of its own. One might be surprised as to why a country like India, with such a long and sometimes violent history, can house two violently competing thoughts about war at the same time. The first is a very well developed doctrine and corpus of war and military science (perhaps even the first in the world), while the second is more known as the doctrine of non-violence. The latter was obviously popularised by Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian Nation. It says a lot about Hinduism's concept of "duality" and of "Maya" (illusion) that these two ostensibly mutually incompatible concepts can co-exist merrily, but this essay is not on that aspect, it is on the first.


The genesis of Just War within the overall rubric of Hinduism as a philosophy can be traced back to the oldest religious and philosophical books of mankind, the Vedas. Take for example, the Rig-Veda, the oldest written book. It is but a collection of hymns, to a variety of old Hindu Gods, and therein you will find a very large collection of hymns which pray to various God(s) to intercede in times of war and help in winning battles. So whether one is praying to Indra, the Lord of Heavens or Agni, the Lord of Fire, it is your basic prayer before war. Or consider the fourth Veda, the Athar-veda which is more aimed at particular purposes such as hymns and charms to protect against arrow wounds, confusing the enemy, protection of equipment such as the battle drum, etc.


It goes without saying that at that time of human development (expressed both in oral and written tradition); one would not have expected people to have deep philosophical thoughts about the nature of war and that too Just War. Life was short, the world was scary and the only people who could make sense of this scary dark world were the Gods. Hence hymns and prayers to them would be the primary philosophical output of human kind (you see the same behaviour in the books of the dead in Egypt or the hymns of the ancient Mesoamerican cultures).


But philosophy relating to the world and events as we know it emerged in the annals of the Upanishads (btw, Hinduism provides philosophical guidance to all aspects of human behaviour and endeavour, none of this separation of church and state malarkey but it is again a nature of its duality (see note about Arthshastra below) that secularism has found such a firm root in a largely Hindu country such as India…). But to go back to philosophy, the second aspect of war is explored in the Upanishads which is a body of Hindu scripture discussing philosophy, meditation, hymns, nature of the world and emotions.


For example, one might be familiar with the concept of Greater Jihad in Islam, where one fights against the inner evils and sins, tries to attain self actualisation against inner weaknesses and limitations. It is the Lesser Jihad which is the physical manifestation of this battle against evil, oppression and injustice. But hundreds of years ago, fighting against the inner evil was enjoined in a variety of Upanishads, (such as in the Chandogya Upanishad – Eighth Prapathaka; twelfth Khanda, first paragraph, to the Mundaka Upanishad – third mundaka, first khanda, third paragraph to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad- third Brahmana). The avoidance of evil and the fight against inner desires is clearly a route to Brahman or the ultimate Godhead. In other words, if one removes all desires, one is undistinguishable from the Godhead.


Then come the Puranas, which is a corpus of texts, mainly in the form of stories; talking about the history of the world, the stories of the Gods, their genealogies and their deeds, the people and events. Based upon the concept of avatars or incarnations of Gods on earth, these incarnations emerge on earth to fight against evil, to carry out Just War against the disturbers of the divine order. Thus, by analogy and examples, the shape, size and type of evil is explained. The fight against evil is also described by means of divine intervention. But the knowledge of the Vedas and Upanishads was distilled into the Mahabharata, the gigantic and profound Hindu epic and one can legitimately claim that the Mahabharata was itself distilled into the Srimad Bhagwat Gita. This is the story of the time when Sri Krishna (himself an incarnation of Vishnu as explained in the Vishnu Purana and other documents) explains the concept of divine destiny; the use (or rather prohibition) of weapons such as Brahmasashtra and Pasupatastra; how the divine godhead will come to the assistance of the just; how fighting has to be done for the sake of fighting and not for the sake of emotional reasons such as happiness or jealousy etc. See the crucial difference?


This just war concept is to fight evil and not to spread Hinduism. This aspect to be remembered is that the Hindu concept of Just War is clearly distinguishable from the Christian/Islamic concept of Just War, which includes war against the outsider/foreigner/other religion or persons from different faiths. The basis of Hinduism is Dharma, or cosmic order. Whatever or whoever disturbs this cosmic order or acts against the Dharma is considered to be a target, irrespective of their demographics. But the concept was much wider than that, you cannot just go about waging Just War haphazardly.


There are strong rules about how and where war can be fought, who is to be protected and who can fight. War had to be fought in an equitable and fair manner and using open means. (See an excellent treatment of this issue by Arthur Eyffinger in his book The International Court of Justice 1946–1996, where he delves deep into the background of our international laws relating to war and other references to the religious books are from Kane's seminal work Dharmashastra).


Another book, Arthshastra, has to be mentioned. Arthshastra written by Kautilya is a body of knowledge relating to political science, government and its administration, international relations, including spying etc. One can call it the first political science text book of the realist school. One has bear that in mind that Arthshastra is totally independent from any moral philosophy as expounded in the epics and Dharmashastras mentioned above. While nobody will claim that Arthshastra is part of Hindu religion, it indeed is part of Hindu politics and culture and one can clearly see the roots of secularism inherent in this body of knowledge. This also explains the difference between law and religion. Hinduism is universalistic and humanistic in nature.


One can almost call it the perfect religion for the secular humanists. Unlike other religions, there is a clear cut difference between law and religion. While religion and by correspondence faith is immutable, laws have to change given changed circumstances, which make Hinduism inherently flexible and dynamic in nature as man matures and changes. War as a means of public policy is also the last strategy to be adopted when reconciliation, gift giving, threats and diplomacy do not work. (One can see these guidelines in the Smiritis such as the Manusmriti, as well as in the Shastras, such as the Arthshastra).


Rules have to be followed in terms of declaration of war, how to determine if one is the King of Kings, etc. Rules can be determined in terms of ban on poison arrows; ban on killing the elderly, women, sleepy people, peaceful citizens, the insane, musicians, retreating soldiers; ban on destroying gardens, temples and places of worship; and so on and so forth. Not only that, but war can only be carried out by a particular class of people, the Kshatriyas. All other classes of people are not to be involved in warfare, which is again just and fair. Only those people who are trained fight, not just anybody. So as one can see, a full corpus of Just War theory and practice, with a history dating back to almost 4,500 years ago which has then been further developed and enriched since then. One of the modern guru's of Just War theory, Michael Waltzer, said that the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 is perhaps one of the very few wars of modern times that can be called as a Just War.


I am not surprised at that, and the military philosophy of the Indian Army is heavily based around this concept. Are you also surprised that the Indian Army is one of the largest troop contributors to United Nations Peace Keeping Missions? One can quibble about quite a lot of Indian Army actions, but India has a proud history and philosophy of Just War. The world can do worse than to take those concepts on board. All this to be taken with a grain of salt! Technorati Tags: Just War,Hinduism,India



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