Rules of Engagement: Notes from an Epic

July 16, 2010

The Indian epic, Mahabharata, is about the events leading up to an 18-day all-out war between rivals for the throne of Hastinapura. It is the mythical equivalent of a world war, because you can count the princes who do not participate on the fingers of one hand.

Recently re-reading versions of the epic as part of a research project, it was striking that in spite of the profound acrimony of their rivalry, there were many moments of civility and courtesy during the conflict. Nothing captures these more than the negotiation of rules of combat that took place right after the armies assembled in formation on the first morning of the war.

“Then the Kurus, the Pandavas, and the Somakas made certain covenants, and settled the rules, O bull of Bharata’s race, regarding the different kinds of combat. Persons equally circumstanced must encounter each other, fighting fairly. And if having fought fairly the combatants withdraw (without fear of molestation), even that would be gratifying to us. Those who engaged in contests of words should be fought against with words. Those that left the ranks should never be slain. A car-warrior should have a car-warrior for his antagonist; he on the neck of an elephant should have a similar combatant for his foe; a horse should be met by a horse, and a foot-soldier, O Bharata, should be met by foot-soldier. Guided by considerations of fitness, willingness, daring and might, one should strike another, giving notice. No one should strike another is unprepared or panic-struck. One engaged with another, one seeking quarter, one retreating, one whose weapon is rendered unfit, uncased in mail, should never be struck. Car-drivers, animals (yoked to cars or carrying weapons) men engaged in the transport of weapons, players on drums and blowers on conches should never be struck. Having made these covenants, the Kurus, and the Pandavas, and the Somakas wondered, much, gazing at each other.”
(Kisari Mohan Ganguli, Mahabharata, Volume II, Bhishma Parva, Section I: pages 2-3, 2008.)

In our utterly uncivil times, war at least is governed by some conventions. Not so the internecine civil wars that some theorists would argue have replaced inter-state war. In the circumstances, revisiting our collective heritage to remember other ways of engaging with each other, may not be a bad idea.

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