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The Heroic Ideal

The Heroic Ideal
Page Last Updated: February 25, 2017

Warfare played a prominent part in the ancient and medieval history of India, as contending states vied with each other for the prize of controlling the subcontinent. Conquest by military means was more than an expression of power and strength - it was a contest of will, guile, skill and above all, bravery and heroism. Victory in war brought dignity and honor as much as it did fame, glory and territorial gain.

The warrior or heroic ideal was an important element of ancient Indian society and culture. According to a Vedic text, kingship originated from a great battle between the gods and demons, during which the gods appointed Indra as their king to turn defeat into victory. This legend thus suggests that kingship was formed out of military necessity and that the king was seen primarily as a leader in war. In fact, throughout Indian history, the king played a pivotal role in war, leading his troops out into the battlefield and was almost always in the thick of the action. Ancient Indian literature like the Mahabharata and Ramayana are full of colorful battles between the forces of warrior-gods and their evil foes. Some Hindu deities, such as Shiva, Vishnu and Rama, have the attributes and characteristics of warriors. A few rulers like the Buddhist king Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty (c.322-183 BC) did recognize the evil effects of warfare, but outright condemnations of war were the exception rather than the rule. Warfare and military expansion were recognized as a normal activity of the state, even by Buddhist monarchs. By expanding his empire, a king might achieve the status of chakravartin or "universal ruler". Being a member of the kshatriya or warrior caste, the Hindu king was expected to sustain his rule through military expansion. But the ancient texts make it clear that a king should resort to war only after having exhausted all diplomatic possibilities. Even then, these texts state that the victor should aspire to be a "righteous conqueror" who treated his conquered subjects justly and honorably. A conqueror should desire homage, not the acquisition of territory.

Rules of fair play in battles were set out in ancient treatises like Manusmriti, but it is not known whether these rules were always strictly adhered to. For example, the Manusmriti states that the lives of enemies who are wounded or have lost their weapons should be respected, or that a warrior on chariot might not battle a foot soldier. However it might have been quite tempting to overlook such chivalrous rules in the face of defeat. In the later Hindu texts, the idea of military honor found its way into the warrior's code. The most shameful and dishonorable thing that a soldier can do is to flee the battlefield. On the other hand, a soldier who is killed while fighting to the end is rewarded in heaven.

The ancient Indian army was composed of four divisions: chariot, elephant, infantry and cavalry. By the 7th century, the use of chariots had been largely discarded. Elephants continued to be employed by Muslim armies which, however, relied primarily on their potent cavalry. The soldiers of both Hindu and Muslim armies were normally armed with a variety of weapons, offensive as well as defensive. Bows and arrows appear to have been the chief armaments of ancient and medieval armies. The curved bow was widely used in later times; Moghul horsemen were particularly known for their skills in archery. Because of their effectiveness and reliability, bows and arrows continued to be the paramount weapons of armies even in the age of firearms.

Swords had been used in Indian warfare for as long as bows and arrows, and in time came to rival the latter in popularity and esteem. Swords come in many shapes and sizes, each one made with practical considerations in terms of ease of handling and striking an opponent. The mace, besides being a symbol of authority, was also used as a weapon in battle, for jabbing or hurling, and to break the helmets of enemies. The battle-axe was first developed as a weapon of the aristocracy. Metal and leather armor had been used by soldiers from an early period, but it was only during the medieval period that helmets and coats of mail came to be widely used. Daggers were the so-called personal weapons of soldiers that were carried by them at all times, both on and off the battlefield. They were as much ceremonial weapons as they were fighting weapons. In terms of design and style, they were undoubtedly the most creative and colorful of all Indian weapons. Although daggers were used in early Indian warfare, they became popular only after the Muslim conquest.

The introduction of firearms and gunpowder revolutionized warfare in India as it did in other parts of the world, and their use was popularized by the Moghuls (1526-1857). A highly unusual weapon was the jamadhar-tamancha, which is actually half-dagger and half-pistol. Because of operational difficulties associated with firearms, they were not employed solely on their own by Indian armies, but were used side by side with traditional weapons such as bows and arrows.

It is indeed a great paradox that objects that were used to injure and kill are so beautifully decorated. This can be explained to a large extent by the Indians' love of ornamentation. But it could also be attributed to the pride and dignity that a beautiful weapon gave to a warrior. This, in turn, increased the warrior's personal attachment to his weapon. It was not only the weapons of the aristocracy and nobility that were embellished those of the common soldier also have decorative elements. Indeed, a weapon could be decorative and beautiful without impairing its effectiveness in war.


Alamkara: 5000 Years of Indian Art
| Foreword | Kings & Courtiers | Ideal of Ornament
Enduring Image | Adorning the Self | Heroic Ideal
Stream of Devotion | From Pot to Palate | Pursuit of Pleasure
Mortal Women & Celestial Lovers | Smell of Earth | References

Alamkara - 5000 Years of Indian Art
5000 Years of Indian Art

Indian WomanMan Offers Ring to GirlfriendBharatesha VaibhavaWoman with Bow - Stone SculptureLovers in Pahari style.
Ornately Decorated Rudrakshi MalaLady Churning CurdsA tier of spiral foliage of exquisite designA Three Headed Mythological Figure Rides a Lion <br> Illustration from Telugu text <I> Ragamalika </I>Woman Grinding Herbs to Make Cosmetics
Emperor Babur Hunting a TigerStatue of Meditating BuddhaMetallic Floral DesignBronze Statue of Shiva, TamilnaduA Statue of Meditating Mahavira
Carved Bust of a Celestial, KhajurahoSculpted Chandela Temples Depicting EroticaDecorated NutcrackerA Nutcracker Styled as Yaksha-YakshiShiva the Magnificent
Woman Puts on MakeupDasara -- painting on the walls of Mysore palace

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