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Mahabharata inspires our military culture
11 December 2012
Amidst a concerted effort by some intellectuals, retired military and foreign office mandarins to somehow cede the Siachen Glacier to Pakistan, some analysts are striving to promote the Mahabharata in public consciousness as India's epic of war. The Archaeological Survey of India's wing at Siri Fort is hosting an exhibition on the epic, with huge charts explaining the military manoeuvres employed by the Kuru and Pandava armies at Kurukshetra.
These classic concepts of warfare are deeply rooted in the national psyche and keep recurring in its history. Major-General Gagandeep Bakshi (retired) points out that in the 1965 War an Indian brigade was in danger of being outflanked by a hitherto unknown Pakistani First Armoured Division which crept up behind it. Thinking on his feet, the commanding officer responded with the classic Ardha Chandra Vyuha (half-moon formation) and ordered the breaking of the canals crisscrossing the region. A virtual swamp was created at Asal Uttar to ground the enemy force which was surrounded in crescent formation and decimated along with 100 Pakistani tanks.
Another enduring manoeuvre is Sakata/Sarbatomukha Vyuha or T-shaped formation which parallels the Lagger battle drill of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps in the Second World War.
Military experts feel history should be taught in terms of innovations that transform the historical process via local Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMAs). At the time of the Mahabharata War, the military paradigm comprised four sections (chaturanga bala) of variable speed - chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry - which were deployed in battle arrays derived from games like chausar (chess).
The Mauryan Empire's massed use of war elephants shifted the military paradigm, generating shock and awe in opposing armies and proving far superior to the chariot as it could carry 6-8 archers against two in a chariot. Elephants had tremendous mobility in any terrain, and helped Kautilya create the gigantic Mauryan Empire in just 25 years. Interestingly, it changed caste equations in favour of the Shudras who manned the war elephants; Chandragupta was a Shudra. Kautilya used the army to smash the remnants of Greek power in Afghanistan and Baluchistan, and secured the invasion routes on the northwest frontier. Centuries later, the British Empire could not secure Afghanistan, and the Americans are in the process of retreat.
In 1971, India again deployed Kautilyan techniques and won a resounding victory, creating Bangladesh in just 14 days and taking 93,000 prisoners of war. Here, the Air Force was used to generate shock and awe, while the ground campaign was preceded by eight months of destabilization caused by the revolt of the Mukti Bahini.
The Mahabharata symbolizes the Indian concept of History as cycles of change that recur at regular intervals, albeit in different form. It was a civilisational armageddon fought with bows, arrows, spears, maces, javelins, and chariots, elephants and horses. Today we have tanks, aeroplanes, missiles, precision guided munitions and even nuclear, chemical and biological warfare weapons and information technology.
A deeper analysis of the Mahabharata and its sub-text, the Gita, reveals an Indian synthesis of Marxist and Arnold Toynbee thought. Marxists emphasise the forces of history as the basis of historical evolution and change. Toynbee stressed the importance of the individual as the source of change – great emperor or charismatic leader such as Alexander, Napoleon, Bismarck, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill, Mao and so on. Marxists counter that charismatic leaders are agents of underlying Forces of History – were it not for the Great Economic depression of the 1930s there would be no rise of Hitler in Germany.
In the Gita, Krishna who established a democratic republican clan of the Yadavas in an era of hereditary monarchies, propounded the Avtara theory of history: "When Dharma or righteousness decline, I incarnate to alleviate the suffering of the civilisation". This sums up an Indian concept of history based on two parameters: a decline in the human / civilisational condition poses a challenge; the rise of charismatic civilisational leaders in response to such challenge (incarnate leaders / incarnations of greatness).
Great charismatic leaders arise only in response to collective civilisational challenges and they alone can overcome the challenges. This core of wisdom from the Mahabharata transcends the era of the Epic and remains relevant to our contemporary world. In the context of soldiering, India boasts some of the finest fighting ethnicities that have proven themselves in almost all battlefields against world class foes like the Germans, Japanese and Turks. Many are mentioned in the epic – Dogras (Dogratas), Suryavanshi and Chandravanshi Rajputs, Jats, Yadavas and Ahirs of Mathura, Biharis, Assamese (Angadesa and Kamrupa), Nagas (Ghatotkach, son of Hidimba after whom modem Dimapur or Hidimbapur is named).
Dehradun, where the Indian Military Academy is situated, derives from Dera-Drona, camp of Drona, who taught archery and the art of war to the Kaurava and Pandava princes. The ASI has long established the historicity of Hastinapur (Meerut), Bairota (Virat Nagar, district Jaipur, Rajasthan), Paniprastha (Panipat, Haryana), Vrikshprastha (Baghpat, Meerut) and Indraprastha (Delhi).
The Mahabharata is no legend but the core of our psychological reality which we must study afresh as it has much to teach us. Its most pertinent lesson is Krishna's counsel of patience to the Pandavas, making them devote long years to forging alliances and acquiring powerful weapons for victory in the eventual war. Many veterans condemn all premature efforts to settle disputed borders and to buy peace with Pakistan at the cost of Indian security.
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