Ancient Viewpoints About Citizen Military Obligations

At the time of the Gita, warfare was conducted by a warrior class, the Kshatriyas. The rest of society was insulated from the impact of war and from participation in the battles. The effect of warfare on society as a whole was therefore limited and focused on this special cadre, who by birth, upbringing and education, and natural inclination were suited to conduct warfare. This viewpoint had the additional benefit that society continued to function without enormous disruption when wars occurred. Agriculture and trade, education and religious activity all proceeded apace for the most part. Sri Aurobindo describes the effect: “The rest of the community was in every way guarded from slaughter and outrage; their life and occupations were as little interfered with as possible and the combative and destructive tendencies of human nature were given a restricted field, confined in a sort of lists so as to do the minimum amount of harm to the general life of the race, while at the same time by being subjected to high ethical ideals and every possible rule of humanity and chivalry the function of war was obliged to help in ennobling and elevating instead of brutalizing those who performed it.”

This viewpoint was also to be found in other ancient traditions, and led to the ideals of the Samurai, or the rise of the orders of Knights. We see here an attempt to both recognize the apparent necessity of conflict as part of humanity’s development process, while at the same time, avoiding the pitfall of universal war that destroyed entire societies and cultures, and using it to upgrade the character and discipline of those who were called upon to undertake it.

There may come a time when conflict is no longer part of the human experience, but as long as it is, there is much to be said for the ancient viewpoint in comparison with the modern when we see the kind of wholesale destruction and unrestricted carnage that has developed from the modern view.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 6, Man and the Battle of Life, pg. 47,