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Chanakya On Military Mobilization History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Ancient India produced many philosophers and strategists, whose works contribute immensely to understand the great civilization and its religions even today. Of all the great thinkers and strategists who left their mark in Indian history, Chanakya is perhaps the most important, because it was his strategy that led to the realization of the idea of a unified India. It was his student Chandra Gupta Maurya who followed his strategy to unify India in 321 BC. Unlike many other contemporary Indian thinkers who focused on religion and thought of heavenly realms, Chanakya had his feet firmly planted on the ground and thought about the ways to make a country rich and powerful. His book on statecraft, Arthashastra, is one of the first books by any Indian author to highlight the importance of the military in the smooth functioning of the state. In other words, he was a realist who understood the power a strong standing military in sending out a clear signal to other countries and its contribution to bolstering national pride. It was his emphasis on military, diplomacy and covert operations and his ruthless practicality that earned him his nickname, Kautilya, the shrewd one who employed all means possible to keep the national pride intact. Although there are a lot of controversies about the identity of Chanakya, a master strategist and kingmaker, it is beyond the scope of this article. The article will only deal with his views-or what is now regarded as his view by many scholars-on military mobilization.

Chanakya comes out as one of the first strategists who not only wrote on how to mobilize the military, but also how to organize it. As someone who grew up witnessing wars among the various kingdoms and republics that existed in India then, and also having witnessed Alexander’s invasion of India, he clearly saw the need for a strong unified India that would be peaceful and deal with others on its own terms. And he clearly realized that to turn his dream of a strong India, a strong military was a must. Without a strong military to back the ruler in conducting his domestic and foreign policy, he realized, the country would perish. Thus, in his book he highlights the importance of military, how to organize and mobilize it when needed. His chapters on military reads like chapters from any modern book on military science. It is hard to imagine that more than 2,000 years ago, he thought of sending a medical unit to campaigns to take care of the wounded.

In Arthashastra, he clearly highlights the need to divide the military in units and battalions, with their respective flags and commanders. He also writes on the chain of command and how to maintain it. And like any modern book on military science, also mentions the importance of covert operations and psychological warfare to subdue the enemy. More than that, he clearly writes the criteria for choosing the commanders of each unit. For example, the one who heads the infantry has to have battle experience, know about the weapons necessary for his troops. Similarly, the one heading the cavalry should be able to choose the best horses for his unit, and know how all things about the horses. Similarly the officers heading the chariot and elephant units too should have knowledge and experience in choosing the right equipments and animals for their units.

Mobilizing the Military

There are some striking similarities between Chanakya and his Chinese contemporary Sun Tzu, the author of “The Art of War” on military mobilization. Both seem to highlight the factors such as terrain, power and logistics that are important to wining a war. Chanakya has highlighted the factors that are responsible for a successful military campaign: Power, place, time, season, forces, i.e., when to mobilize different types of troop, i.e., standing army, territorial army, militias etc, the possibility of revolts and rebellions, loses and gains of the campaign, and the likely dangers.

On power, Chankaya disagrees with his predecessors who emphasized the bravery of the king alone to win a war. For him, although king’s own ability is important, but a military campaign should not be based on this factor alone. There has to be a well-trained and well-equipped army to support him. As Chanakya makes it clear, going without preparations to attack the enemy is foolhardy and would certainly cost the king his crown and country. Therefore the first and foremost thing to consider before launching a military campaign is power. Here, power is not just the military power, but also the intellectual power of the king-his own understanding of the situation and the counsel he gets from his ministers and others such as military generals and intelligence reports- and the economic power to back and sustain the campaign.

Place or geographic terrain is another important consideration before launching a campaign. Therefore, the best terrain is the one which is suitable for the attacker and unfavorable to the one being attacked. This increases the chances of winning. If the terrain is suitable for both parties, then the terrain is average. And if the terrain is unfavorable to the attacker, then chances of winning diminishes. Therefore, the military should be trained in fighting wars in all kinds of terrains, such as forests, villages, mountains, deserts etc. It is safe to say that Chanakya was well ahead of his time to envision desert and mountain warfare and training the military to fight in all terrains.

Then Chanakya highlights the time of campaign. Here time refers to both season and the duration of military campaign. If the season is unsuitable for military campaign, then it is better to wait until the season is favorable. According to him, power, place (terrain) and time are interdependent and only the right combination of the three can lead to victory.  For example, to destroy the enemy’s rainy season corps and to prevent winter sowing, it is best to launch a campaign in the months of November and December. Similarly, to destroy the enemy’s winter corps and to prevent spring sowing, it is better to launch a campaign in the months of March and April.

Chanakya then proceeds to write on when to mobilize different kinds of troops. In his view, before deciding on what kind of troop, i.e., standing army, territorial army, militias, friendly forces etc to be mobilized for the campaign, it is absolutely necessary to find out what kind of troop the enemy is using, and which troop would be best suited to defeat it. According to him, the standing army should only be used when it is absolutely necessary to do so and when there are no threats of internal rebellions, otherwise, other troops such as militias should be used.

However, Chankanya cautions the rulers not to mobilize the military if there is even the slightest chance of rebellion at home by enemies, both internal and external, no matter how large the gain by conquest be.  If a military campaign has to be launched despite the chances of internal rebellions and revolts, then it is better for the king to let the crown prince or the chief of defense lead the campaign.

He further writes that the king should only embark on a military campaign when the “expected gain outweighs the losses and expenses”. And for this, a careful consideration has to be given and since, military campaign are expensive by nature, a military campaign is only to be launched when the king is certain of profits-money and territory it would bring him. No ruler should embark on a military campaign just to satisfy his whims.

Chanakya, himself a master practitioner of covert methods, goes on to caution the rulers against treachery when he is away on campaigns. Treachery could be internal, by the people the king trusts and by his own citizens and high ranking officers, and external treachery by his enemies and allies. Therefore the king should always be on his guard and be able to deal with treacherous elements employing four methods: Conciliation, placating with gifts, sowing dissension and use of force.

Chanakya’s advice to rulers on military mobilization are still relevant today. Of course, humans have always aspired for peace but there are situations when a war has to be fought for national pride and national survival. This is perhaps the reason that even today we see the need for maintaining a strong and capable national army. It does not mean that we have not evolved for the last 2000 years, we have come a long way and we now have mechanisms to resolve the differences that exist between nations peacefully by taking the issue to international organizations such as the United Nations, but then there are certain situations that need military mobilization, no matter how much we want to avoid it. Like a Chinese saying puts it aptly, “be prepared for every eventuality” (bu pa yi wan, zhi pa wan yi) and all countries, whether big or small need to be prepared to deal with any danger on national independence and sovereignty. Chanakya did not advise the rulers to maintain a strong army to bully others. On the contrary, a strong army to protect his country from intruders and extremists, both internal and external, so that the country is at peace and the people can go about their daily businesses without having to fear for their safety. Therefore, like other military classics, Chankaya’s Arthashastra, too needs to be studied and its strategies can be applied to strengthen national defense.

Arthashastra is a classic and has been translated into English by many scholars. In writing this piece, I have relied on the translation by L N Rangarajan “Kautilya: The Arthashastra” (Penguin Books, 1992)

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