Hinduism and war

5 Jun

Like most religions Hinduism includes both teachings that condemn violence and war, and teachings that promote it as a moral duty.

Arjuna, a human man, kneels before Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, who is showing himself in a many-headed, many-armed form to persuade Arjuna to fightKrishna reveals his true form to prove Arjuna’s destiny as a warrior.

Photo: Steve Jurvetson © 

Hinduism is a label that covers a wide range of Indian religious groups. While there are many differences between the various traditions they have a great deal in common.

Like most religions Hinduism includes both teachings that condemn violence and war, and teachings that promote it as a moral duty.

The teachings that condemn violence are contained in the doctrine of ahimsa, while those that permit it centre around the Kshatriyas – the warrior caste.


Hindus believe that it is right to use force in self-defence:

May your weapons be strong to drive away the attackers,
may your arms be powerful enough to check the foes,
let your army be glorious, not the evil-doer.

Rig Veda 1-39:2

The conduct of war

The Rig Veda sets down the rules of war at 6-75:15, and says that a warrior will go to hell if he breaks any of them.

  • do not poison the tip of your arrow
  • do not attack the sick or old
  • do not attack a child or a woman
  • do not attack from behind

Arjuna, quiver of arrows on his back and a bow by his feet, kneels before Krishna who is making a sign of blessingKrishna tells Arjuna to fight because it is his dharma © 


A key teaching is contained in the story of Arjuna. Arjuna was about to go into battle when he discovered many of his relatives and friends were on the opposing side. Arjuna didn’t want to kill people he loved, but was persuaded to do so by Krishna.

Krishna tells Arjuna that he should fight, for the following reasons:

  • it is his duty – his dharma – to fight because he was born a warrior
    • he was born a member of a warrior caste and his duty to his caste and the divine structure of society are more important than his personal feelings
  • violence only affects the body and cannot harm the soul, so killing is not a fault and there is no reason for Arjuna not to kill people, nor should he be sorry for those he has killed
    • behind this lies the Eastern idea that life and death are part of an illusion, and that the spiritual is what matters


Ahimsa is one of the ideals of Hinduism. It means that one should avoid harming any living thing, and also avoid the desire to harm any living thing.

Ahimsa is not just non-violence – it means avoiding any harm, whether physical, mental or emotional.

In modern times the strongest proponent of ahimsa was the Indian leader Gandhi, who believed that ahimsa was the highest duty of a human being.

Ahimsa, non-violence, comes from strength, and the strength is from God, not man. Ahimsa always comes from within.


Gandhi did not equate ahimsa with non-killing – he accepted that killing because it was a person’s duty, and doing so in a detached way without anger or selfish motives, would be compatible with ahimsa.

Hindu militantsHindu militants in India, 1989


Underlying Hindu opposition to killing or violence is the concept of Karma, by which any violence or unkindness a person carries out will return to them at some time in the future by the natural law of the universe.

When Hindus are violent (other than as a matter of duty), philosophers argue that this is because those who do harm do so because they have yet to evolve to a level where they understand and seek peaceful conduct.


Hinduism contains some of the earliest writings about peace, as this quote from the Rig Veda shows.

Come together, talk together,
Let our minds be in harmony.
Common be our prayer,
Common be our end,
Common be our purpose,
Common be our deliberations,
Common be our desires,
United be our hearts,
United be our intentions,
Perfect be the union among us.

Rig Veda 10 – 191:2







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