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Ancient Indian Weapons and Warfare



The history of ancient India can be largely regarded as a history of Hindu culture and progress. Hindu military science recognized two kinds of warfare namely the Dharmayuddha and the Kutayuddha. The Dharmayuddha was war carried according to the principles of dharma. Here it implied the Ksatradharma or the law of Kings and Warriors.

In other words, it was a just and righteous war which had the backing of the society. On the other hand, Kutayuddha was an unrighteous war. It was a crafty fight carried on in secret. Modern warfare has developed on mechanical lines. Thus, this focussed less on the qualities of courage and individual leadership.

The value and importance of the army were realized very early in the history of India. It was this realization which led to the maintenance of a permanent militia to put down dissent within and arrest aggression from without. This gave rise to the Ksatriya warrior caste. Also the ksatram dharmam came to mean the primary duty of war. To serve the country by participating in war became the svadharma of this warrior community.

The Hindu science of warfare values both niti and saurya were ethical principles and valor. It was therefore realized that the waging of war without regard to moral standards degraded the institution into mere animal ferocity. A monarch desirous of dharma vijaya should conform to the code of ethics enjoined upon warriors.

The principles regulating the two kinds of warfare are elaborately described in some of the works. These include the Dharmasutras and Dharmasastras, the epics namely the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Arthasastra treatises of Kautalya, Kamandaka, and Sukra.

Hindu India possessed the classical fourfold force of chariots, elephants, horsemen, and infantry. These collectively were known as the Caturangabala. Sir A. M. Eliot, Heinrich Brunnhofer and Gustav Oppert have confirmed that the ancient Hindus knew the use of gunpowder.

According to Eliot, the Arabs learnt the manufacture of gunpowder from India. Dhanur Veda classified the weapons of offence and defense into four - the mukta, the amukta, the mukta-mukta and the yantramukta. On the other hand, the Nitiprakasika, divided weapons them into three broad classes, the mukta (thrown), the amukta (not thrown), and the mantramukta (discharged by mantras). The bows and arrows are the chief weapons of the mukta group.

Firearms: Firearms were known as 'agneya-astras.' Kautalya described them as 'agni bana.'He also mentioned three recipes - agni-dharana, ksepyo-agni-yoga, and visvasaghati. Visvasaghati was composed of 'the powder of all the metals as red as fire or the mixture of the powder of kumbhi, lead, zinc. This was mixed with the charcoal, with oil wax and turpentine.' Depending upon the nature of the ingredients as well as their peculiar compositions, it can be inferred that they were highly inflammable. Hence, it could not be easily extinguished.

Gustav Oppert (1836-1908) was born in Hamburg, Germany. He taught Sanskrit and comparative linguistics at the Presidency College, Madras for 21 years. Oppert also attempted to prove that the ancient Indians knew firearms. In his work, 'Political Maxims of the Ancient Hindus', he has held that ancient India was the original home of gunpowder and fire-arms.

It is also probable that the word Sataghni referred to in the Sundara Kanda of the Ramayana referred to canon. The word 'astra' in the Sukraniti was interpreted by Dr. Gustav Oppert as a bow. On the other hand, the term Agneya astra meant a fiery arm which was different from a firearm.

Dr. Oppert further also referred to half a dozen temples situated in South India to prove the use of fire-arms in ancient India. Like for instance, the Palni temple in the Madura District contained on the outer portion in ancient stone mantapa scenes of carved figures of soldiers carrying in their hands small fire-arms. These apparently were the small-sized guns as mentioned in the Sukranitisara.

The front gate of the fifth story of the Sarnagapani temple at Kumbakonam on the top is the figure of a king sitting in a chariot. This chariot is drawn by horses and surrounded by a number of soldiers. Ahead of this chariot are two sepoys marching with pistols in their hands. Such things were also observed in the Tanjore temple as well as the temple at Perur, in the Coimbatore District.

In the latter there is an actual representation of a soldier loading a musket. Sukraniti referred to firearms or agneyastras. It says that before any war, the duty of the minister of war was to check up the total stock of gunpowder in the arsenal.

Small guns were referred as tupak by Canda Baradayi. The installation of yantras or engines of war inside the walls of the forts referred to by Manasollasa. Further, there is also a reference of Sataghni who was the killer of hundreds of men pressed into service for the protection of the forts by Samaranganasutradhara. He clearly reveals the frequent use of fire arms in the battle-field.

In the light of the above, the evolution of fire-arms can be traced in the ancient India. There was evidence to show that agni or fire was praised for vanquishing an enemy. The Arthava Veda showed the employment of fire-arms with lead shots. The Aitareya Brahmana described an arrow with fire at its tip. In the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the employment of agnyastras was time and again mentioned.


This site covers all areas for Ancient Indian History for kids. There are several essays to refer to for your school history study. We start off with ancient India timeline, various ancinet empires like the Mauryan empire and the Gupta empire. You will find information about ancient Indian society and culture, rulers, wars, costumes and several such facinating subjects. History of ancient India for kids is quite fascinating and long.