Charting Hinduism's rules of armed conflict:
Indian sacred texts and international humanitarian law

Raj Balkaran and A. Walter Dorn

Originally published in International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 104, no. 920, pp. 1762–1797 (html), and online by Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2022. (pdf)



What does Hinduism have to say about the rules of armed conflict? How might Hinduism enrich the modern global discourse on international humanitarian law (IHL)? What convergences might be found, and what areas of divergence? This paper examines and contextualizes the rules of armed conflict advocated in classical Hindu texts, especially in the epic Mahābhārata, where important norms of Hinduism are established. It also examines the other major epic, the Rāmāyaṇa, and the Dharmaśāstras (Law Codes), as well as the Arthaśāstra, which takes an alternative (realpolitik) approach. This paper focuses on conduct during armed conflict (jus in bello), now synonymous for many with IHL, rather than considerations leading up to war (jus ad bellum). The paper seeks to illuminate both convergences and divergences with IHL and highlight particular Hindu approaches on the righteous (dharmic) application of violence. Like IHL, classical Hinduism values (1) proportionality of force during armed engagement; (2) the minimization of human suffering during combat; (3) care for survivors of war; (4) immunity towards non-combatants, especially civilians; and (5) balancing military necessity with humanity. With respect to divergences, classical Hinduism extols non-violence in ways that critique even the warrior's duty to engage in righteous war (dharma yuddha). In contrast to IHL, the Hindu epics have some different limitations; for instance, they limit the right to combat to a particular caste, the kṣatriyas, though this concept could be modernized to mean uniformed personnel of the State. The epics also disavow certain practices that are legal under IHL, such as ambushes and surprise attacks against legitimate targets. The Hindu proportionality provision goes beyond IHL by prescribing that only warriors of the same type should fight. With its many deeply ethical considerations, Hinduism enriches modern IHL through its heightened emphasis on fair and humane conduct in battle and its call towards compassion on behalf of both combatants and non-combatants.


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Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the ICRC