Exploring Hindu Ethics of Warfare: The Purāṇas

Originally published in International Review of the Red Cross (Cambridge University Press), 2024. 



What rules of fighting (armed combat) does Hinduism espouse? The sacred texts are the pre-eminent sources, so these need to be summarized and compared to each other. Teaching mostly through stories, the texts describe deeds of people (especially warriors), gods and demons to show how to behave and not to behave in war. While the injunctions in the Mahābhārata and Arthaśāstra are already covered in the literature, including in this journal, this present work examines the Purāṇas in depth. After a thorough search of all relevant passages, we find the Purāṇas to be very similar to the epics in terms of the list of prescribed and proscribed actions in war that they provide. We also make comparisons to international humanitarian law (IHL); as in the epics, we find that the Purāṇas contain many similar provisions to those found in IHL but that they go above and beyond what is required by IHL in urging that fighting be fair at the tactical level (i.e., between individual fighters). Being religious texts, the Purāṇas also deal with the afterlife consequences of both righteous and unrighteous combat.