Tracing International Humanitarian Law To Hinduism

Picture by Ben Heine

Picture by Ben Heine

Written by Garima Tiwari

India is party to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and has incorporated them into its municipal law, but India is not a signatory to the two Additional Protocols. This post examines how far the concepts of Hinduism have helped in the development of international humanitarian law.

War as an art as well as a science was equally well understood in ancient India.[i] The ancient Indians recognized war as a relation between states, the Agnipurana[ii] defines war “as the direct result of the injuries done to each other by two hostile monarchs.” Professor H. H. Wilson calls the ancient Indian laws of war are very chivalrous and humane, and prohibit the slaying of the unarmed, of women, of the old, and of the conquered.[iii]

In ancient times the first and foremost duty of the king was to protect his people. Protection consisted in countering internal threats as well as external aggression to man‟s liberty.[iv] Hinduism has mentioned wars in its various sources. Francois Bugnion has stated of Hinduism having “law of armed forces on the principle of humanity” in the following words,  “The ancient Hindu law of armed conflict, founded on the principle of humanity, had many rules limiting violence. The Upanishads     taught that all human beings are one and that all are his children…”[v]

The source of the “Hindu law of armed forces” as stated by Francois Bugnion was only Upanishads. But, in real sense, it will not be correct to say so. Hinduism is based on numerous texts. The primary sources of Hinduism are Sruti and Smriti. Sruti literally means what is heard, while Smriti designates what is remembered. In this regard, Sruti is revelation and Smriti tradition. Srutis are the four Vedas, the Rig Veda, Sam Veda Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. Each Veda consists of four parts: the Samhita (hymn), the Brahmana (rituals), the Aranyakas (interpretations) and the Vedanta (Upanishads). The Bhagavad Gita part of the epic poem Mahabharata, is the most influential Hindu text.[vi] Manu, Yajnavalkya and Prasara are the most celebrated law-givers of ancient India. There are eighteen main Smritis or Dharma Sastras. The Dharma Sastras and epics recognized two kinds of war: Dharma Yuddha (righteous war), and Adharma Yuddha (unrighteous war).

Hinduism does not forbid war but consider it as a last resort for a state. The Manusmriti, provides that a king should first try to conquer his foes by conciliation, by gift and by causing dissension if possible: if all these fail then and then only should he wage war.[vii] The policy of conciliation and making gifts should be tried first before engaging in war.[viii]

The code of Manu advises the king:“when he fights with his foes in battle, let him not strike with weapons concealed (in wood), nor with (such as are) barbed, poisoned, or the points of which are blazing with fire.”[ix] Whether he himself fights or engages others to fight for him, the king must ensure that the battle will be an honest duel.[x]

The Rig Veda also laid down the right conduct of war. Vedic rules maintain that it is unjust to strike someone from behind, cowardly to poison the tip of the arrow and heinous to attack the sick or old, children and women.

The ancient Indian war was a war of righteousness, i.e., Dharmayuddha; hence, any kind of inhumane acts were discouraged and frowned upon. Whose weapons are broken; who finds himself in trouble; the string of whose bow is snapped; whose battle horse is killed – he should never be attacked. Such an enemy falling into one‟s hands, his wounds should be tended, and he should be taken to his home.[xi]

The laws of war in ancient India drew a clear distinction between civilians and belligerent.[xii] The ancient Indian texts like Mahabharata, being the greatest epic ever written in the history of mankind, and Manusmriti, lay down the laws governing war in ancient India, are congruous to the provisions of Geneva Conventions[xiii], as in the Basic Rules of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.[xiv]

According to Manu: “persons walking on the road, not participating in the conflict, or mere travellers, or those who are engaged in eating and drinking or pursuing their special avocations or activities or diplomatic errands and of course the Brahmins, unless they are engaged in war, were not to be killed.”[xv]

For example, combat between mounted and unmounted soldiers was strictly forbidden. Furthermore, combat between warriors of officer rank and foot soldiers was not allowed, since the former would generally be much better armed and trained than the latter. Collective attacks against a single soldier and the slaying of a warrior who was temporarily at a disadvantage during battle were strictly prohibited.

The Agni Purana clearly mentions that prisoners of war should not be enslaved. If soldiers  were taken prisoner, they were to be released at the cessation of hostilities. Kautilya advocated the humanitarian treatment of conquered soldiers and citizens. In particular, he maintained that a humanitarian policy toward a defeated people was practical, pointing out that if a king massacres those whom he has defeated, he frightens all the kingdoms that surround him and terrifies even his own ministers,[xvi] whereas more land and loyal subjects can be gained if the defeated are treated magnanimously. Kautilya advised that the conquering king should order the release of all prisoners and give help to the distressed, the helpless and the sick. He thus called for the establishment of a righteous course of conduct for sound military policy.[xvii]

Regarding weapons to be used in war field K.R.R.Sastri quotes Kautilya and written: “Our modern strategists who have killed two or three hundred thousand at Hiroshama and Nagasaki are invited to read the following passage from Kautilya(Book XIII. Ch. IV):”When if fort can be captured by other means, no attempts should be made to set fire to it; for fire cannot be trusted; it not only offends the Gods but also destroys the people, grain, cattle, gold, raw materials and the like. Also, the acquisition of a fort with its property all destroyed is the source of further loss”.[xviii]

In the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, it is mentioned: This means to kill someone not in combat; to rape a woman, or misbehave with her; ingratitude; to rob one devoted to learning and knowledge; to deprive another of all he has – these are considered very low acts even among robbers.[xix]

A conquering king should reassure that defeated people that not much has changed except their rulers. He should adopt a character, dress, language and behaviour similar to when the former king was ruling (similar to those of the subjects). Moreover, he should show the same devotion at festivals in honour of deities of that country, festive gatherings and sportive amusements.[xx] He should honour the local deities and make grants of land and money to men distinguished in wisdom and piety. The conquering king should show his goodwill toward the defeated by instituting a righteous custom that had not previously been introduced. Kautilya commented that “one must kill a dangerous person; however, the king must leave his property untouched and shall not appropriate the land, property, sons or wives of the killed one.”[xxi]

Kautilya also held that the fundamental rule about immoveable property was that it did not belong to the victor by right; only such things as chariots, animals, and war material belonged to the conquering forces. The king should personally examine all such captured wealth and should then keep a part for himself and distribute the rest among his armed forces according to rank.[xxii]

According to the Manusmriti, only the warriors who actually fight in the battle can take the spoils of war. Yet they are to be shared with the ruler inasmuch as the kings who have engaged them to settle scores with the enemies demand the best part of the booty.[xxiii] In this connection, the conqueror is advised to grant remissions on taxes instead of looting the conquered territory. He must seek to win over the commoners of conquered territory and not do anything that would increase their bitterness. He should not be vengeful but should instead offer an amnesty to all who have surrendered to him.

Thus, humanitarian law principles found their existence in India long before the Geneva Conventions and Protocols.


  1. Manoj Kumar Sinha ,Hinduism and International Humanitarian Law, International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 87 Number 858 June 2005
  2. Gaurav Arora, Gunveer Kaur, Supritha Prodaturi, Vinayak Gupta,International Humanitarian Law and Concept of Hinduism, , International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research Vol.2 Issue 2, February 2012, PP.452-458
  3. Modh, Bhumika Mukesh, International Humanitarian Law: An Ancient Indian Perspective (January 12, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

[i] H. B. Sarda, Hindu Superiority: An Attempt to determine the position of the Hindu race in the scale of nations, Scottish Mission Industries Company, 2nd Ed., Pune, 1917, p 349.

[ii] Agnipurana is one of the 18 Mahapuranas, a genre of Hindu religious texts, contains descriptions and details of various incarnations (avataras) of Lord Vishnu.

[iii] H. H. Wilson, Essays and Lectures on the Religions of the Hindus, Vol. II, Trubner & Co., London, 1861, p. 302.

[iv] Pandurang Varman Kane, History of Dharmasastra, Poona, 1973, Vol. 3, p. 56.

[v] Francois Bugnion,Customary International Humanitarian Law, ISIL Yearbook of International Humanitarian and Refugee Law Vol. 7,2007, p. 1.

[vi] Surya P. Subedi, The concept in Hinduism of just war, Journal of Peace and Conflict Studies, 2003, Vol. 8,p. 339-361.

[vii] Ancient India developed a method in four successive stages for the settlement of disputes between States: the first stage is called peaceful negotiation (sama); the second stage consists of offering gifts (dana) to appease the enemy; the third is a veiled threat (bheda); and the last stage allows the use of force (danda).

[viii] K. R. R. Sastry, “Hinduism and International Law”, Recueil des Cours, 1966 (I), Vol. 117, pp. 507-614

[ix] V. Nagarajan, “Manusmriti as Socio-political Constitution”, available at <;

[x] Ibid

[xi] Bhagshastro vipinnashch krittajyo hatvahanaha| Chikitsyaha syaat svavaishaye prapyo svagrahe bhavet|| shanti 15.13||

[xii] Lakshmikanth Penna, “Traditional Asian approaches: An Indian view” Australian Yearbook of International Law, 1985, Vol. 9,p. 108-191

[xiii] The modern laws of war were developed mainly by The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, and in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the two 1977 Additional Protocols thereto

[xiv] Basic Rules of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, ICRC publication 1988, ref. 0365

[xv] Supra xii

[xvi] Roger Boesche, Kautilya’s Arthasastra on War and Diplomacy in Ancient India, available at <;

[xvii] C. H. Alexandrowich, “Kautilyan principles and the law of nations”, British Yearbook of International Law,1965-66, Vol. 41,p.301-320

[xviii] K.R.R. Sastri, Hinduism and International Law, Recueil Des Cours Vol. 117, 1966 p. 507.

[xix] Chaturvedi Badrinath, The Mahabharata: An inquiry in the human condition, Orient Longman Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2006, p. 152

[xx] Supra xvii

[xxi] Supra xvii

[xxii] Supra xvii

[xxiii] Supra xii

2 thoughts on “Tracing International Humanitarian Law To Hinduism


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s