Military & Aerospace

An Indian Philosophy of A Soldier
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 09 Aug , 2019

Members of the Indian Armed Forces swear to observe and obey all the commands, not only of their Supreme Commander, the President of India, but of any officer set above them. Significantly, when swearing their allegiance in this manner, they assert that they would do so even to the peril of their life!  It is very important that the significance of this oath be understood, not only by those who undertake and adhere to it, but by all Indians, who enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by these soldiers at “the peril of their life”! 

In this article, we discuss insights offered by India’s philosophical traditions that help us comprehend gallantry and heroic decision-making within the context of Indian culture.  Indian traditions and philosophies offer clues about how the Indian soldiers might resolve moral and ethical dilemmas in situations of conflict. This article suggests a paradigm for the analysis of virtuous decision-making behavior and gallantry.  This paradigm describes dilemmas in terms of competing options between individual obligations and social responsibilities. But first we shall explore the nature of dilemmas. 

In situations encountered by military personnel, unexpected developments demand rapid decision-making. That is to say, actions (karma) are demanded of them in situations where they have limited time to decide on the optimal option.  Often, adequate time needed to research the alternatives or to eliminate the uncertainties is not available. Therein lies their dilemma. The dilemma would be solved if the decision-maker fulfills all obligations to all parties involved, within the limited time available. There would be no dilemma if all obligations to all parties were satisfactorily met.

Usually, it is not possible to solve a dilemma in this manner.  It is not always possible for an individual to fulfill all obligations to all parties at the same time or within the limited available time. In fact, such possibilities are rather rare. Such is the nature of a true dilemma. In practice, as in every example of gallantry displayed by the soldiers, it is not possible for them to fulfill all their obligations. Generally, they opt to fulfill their social responsibilities; that is, responsibilities to the larger society, such as to their fellow soldiers, to their military unit, to their corps, or to the country, at the expense of their personal responsibilities; such as their responsibilities to themselves, to their immediate families, and to other kith and kin, who depend on their survival. 

Social responsibility does not call for fulfillment of all obligations. For soldiers, being socially responsible amounts to subordination of their obligations to themselves and their kith and kin.  In taking socially responsible decisions, the soldiers often place their own survival at risk, demonstrating the courage to act in protecting welfare of others (Asarian, 1981; Cuff, 1993; Rabieh, 2006)).  Indeed, to resist an enemy, one must be alive. 

Nevertheless, soldiers put their lives in the hands of their comrades-in-arms, and exhibit courageous, fearless behavior under enemy-fire, motivated to save their countrymen and their fellow soldiers. This behavior is complex. Courageous behavior in face of threats to one’s own well-being has been examined by philosophers (Miller, 2000; Tillich, 2014; Rabieh, 2006), psychologists (Yang, Milliren, & Blagen, 2015; Pury & Lopez, 2010), and theologians (Tillich, 2014).  With the requirement that their decisions and actions be implemented urgently and immediately, they usually take risks in face of incomplete information.

Such socially responsible behavior goes to the heart of what we might describe as virtuous decision-making behavior. Virtuous behavior is demonstrated when one courageously acts to protect the life or the interest of others, even with incomplete information, but with potentially significant cost to oneself.  It is possible to identify the nature of virtuous decision-making process.  Virtuous decision-making is both ethical and courageous, and socially responsible.  Ethical decision is a decision that meets the criteria of the right action; that is, it is about doing the right thing.

However, ethical behavior is not necessarily virtuous. Also, it is not necessarily courageous. Besides, it may very well be motivated by self-interest.  Routine decisions may indeed also be ethical.  Courageous decisions, too, are not necessarily linked to ethical decisions.  Unethical behavior can also demand courage.  However, virtuous behavior is both ethical and courageous.

In study of military ethics, the training is often imparted through discussion and analysis of specific cases. The soldiers discuss cases that present them with ethical issues.  They learn rules that would assist them in addressing the dilemmas offered by these cases. Soldiers-in-training know in advance that the cases presented to them include ethical issues.  In conflict situations, however, the soldiers do not usually enjoy the benefit of being forewarned in this manner. Ethical issues may arise precisely when they are under fire, or at the very least, when they do not have adequate time to study their situation or alternatives. 

For instance, during war a common dilemma is whether to open fire on another potentially aggressive group, when it is not yet clear whether the other party is friend or foe.  Should the other party turn out to be the enemy, a delay might give the enemy the opportunity to open fire first, depriving the opportunity for adequate self-defense and defense of others. Nevertheless, the decisions must be taken, irrespective of the stress or the ‘fog of war’.  It is essential that the decision-maker recognize an ethical problem, when it exists in the situation confronting the decision-maker.  Normative models seek absolute truths about decisions. 

Unfortunately, the models taught in peace time, in a classroom, often prove inadequate in their capacity to explain virtuous behavior on the battlefield. 

The literature on ethics, especially that emanating from the western philosophical and religious cultures, is dominated primarily by two major principles. These are (i) the deontological principle, and (ii) the utilitarian principle.  The deontological perspective studies the decision-making behavior in terms of such obligations as duty (Kant, 1965).  These are obligations tied to religious beliefs and tenets.  The utilitarian approach studies the decision-making behavior with emphasis on utility. 

For instance, Bentham (2007) and Mill (Mill, 2017) would give greater importance to utility over beauty.  The deontological and the utilitarian principles, both, fall short of explaining behavior emanating from considerations of virtue.  The literature offers additional principles that, too, are generally inadequate for our purpose. Consider, for instance, Thomas Hobbes’ non-utilitarian theory of egoism (Hobbes, 1982).  Hobbes’ theory of  egoism suggests that individuals behave in self-interest. The egoist asks, “What is in it for me?”

If there is no benefit to be had from a course of action, then the individual has no reason to act for any reason, irrespective of considerations of ethics, courage, virtue, or otherwise.  Hobbes’ theory of egoism, too, is of little help in understanding virtuous decision-making.

However, the principles we have discussed above come from the western culture.  These principles do not necessarily apply to the calculus of the mind of the Indian soldier.  Searching for a relevant principle that represents the Indian culture, we find the principle of dharma. Central to this principle is the concept of righteous conduct, the very element that defines virtue! The process of virtuous decision-making is evident when an individual attempts to ameliorate an ethical dilemma a situation that might have developed unexpectedly, and is not necessarily of the individual’s own making, but in which action is demanded within a limited time frame.  As stated by (Dhir, 2005):

 “The conflict is between (i) the agent’s self-interest, and agent obligations, often with relatively low associated costs or risks to the agent, and (ii) interest of others, raising the issue of the agent’s social responsibility, often with relatively high associated costs or risks borne primarily for the benefit of others.  The agent may have little advance warning of the emergent situation, the timing may be awkward or inconvenient, the time available to make a choice may be limited, and the choice made may have significant consequences for the agent or for others.  To be virtuous, the agent must first recognize the dilemma; that is, he or she must recognize that there are (i) conflicting obligations or responsibilities to be met, and (ii) no solution that would satisfy all demands of the situation.  The agent must then make an informed choice, with awareness of the consequences posed by the alternative actions … for all parties affected.  Enlightened wisdom facilitates the decision-making process. Therefore, knowledge is a prerequisite for virtuous decision-making.”

In the context of this article, the agent in the above quote is the Indian soldier.  Indian philosophic literature has a unique way of presenting a moral dilemma.  In both, classical and contemporary Indian literature, the concept of dharma is explored through story-telling. Stories are told, with stories nested within stories, to bring out the nuances hidden in dilemmas. In these stories a decision-maker faces multiple obligations. 

However, the circumstances preclude the decision-maker from satisfying or fulfilling all these obligations.  At times, meeting one of the obligations violates some or all other obligations as follows:  A story about decisions or actions facing a decision-maker would proceed to address a specific obligation, until the analysis brings the reader to violation of another obligation that demands attention as well; at that point, a new story begins within the previous story, until that too encounters conflict with yet another obligation; and so on.  By taking this approach of nested story-telling for sequential analysis of dharma, or obligations, stories elaborate on all the nuances in delightful detail. Nevertheless, these stories demand that the decision-maker be virtuous. What is the decision-maker, then, to do? 

Indian philosophers recognize that dilemmas cannot be solved, or else they would not be dilemmas.  They recognize that moral dilemmas remain unsolved.  What is more important than solving them is that the decision-maker must first recognize the nature of the difference between irreconcilable alternatives, and then make a choice based on what wisdom can be mustered.  Dharma does not demand reconciliation.  It only seeks resolution; a resolution based not on morality, but rather on wisdom.

Western philosophers have generally had difficulty in comprehending the Indian concept of moral obligations.  Their mode of addressing duty and obligations are generally based on the idea of morality. They take issues with the Indian treatment of dilemmas. After all, it is difficult to directly translate the word, ethics, into Sanskrit.  Moral philosophers in the West generally deny that moral dilemmas are possible. Western philosophers would argue that an adequate moral theory should eliminate such dilemma. In Book I of Plato’s Republic, Cephalus discusses the concept of ‘justice’ (Plato, 2013).  He describes justice in terms of keeping of promises made to others. In the Judeo-Christian philosophy, truth is the ultimate criteria! The keeping of a promise, repaying one’s debts, are activities that are essentially consequence of the paramount requirement that one speaks the truth. It is noteworthy that the official seal of India carries the inscription, “Satyameva Jayate.” To the Indian mind, truth prevails, but is not necessarily the criterion for decision-making.  It refers to the outcome, the consequence, but not necessarily to the means of arriving at that outcome. Truth prevails, but there is no injunction on deploying deceptive schemes to arrive at the truth. 

An illustration would clarify this point: Suppose one borrows a gun from a friend, promising to return it by a pre-specified time. In the interim, the borrower learns that the owner intends to use the weapon to commit mayhem. Should the borrower return the gun? To Kant, morality was a requirement of all human beings at all times.  Kantian ethics recommends that the gun be returned as promised. More than two centuries ago, in 1785, Immanuel Kant had already stated (Kant, 1965; Also see: Timmermann, 2013):

“Because…duty and obligations are, in general, concepts that express the objective practical necessity of certain actions, and because two mutually opposing rules cannot be necessary at the same time, then it is a duty to act according to one of them, it is not only a duty but contrary to duty to act according to the other.” 

However, an Indian mind might take issue with such action and refuse to return the gun, potentially saving innocent lives. The promise would be irrelevant in light of the obligation of saving lives.  Taking this consideration further, the Indian mind might well submit that practically every moment of human existence involves an ongoing struggle to resolve some dilemma or the other.  

The Indian soldier would readily quote from the Bhagavad Gita, wherein Krishna analyzes Arjuna’s dilemma (Easwaran, 2007; Radhakrishnan, 1948).  Krishna tells Arjuna that it is the latter’s duty, his dharma, to engage in war, even against an army of kin; and that “keeping of a promise, or even truthfulness, cannot be an unconditional obligation when in conflict with the avoidance of unjust and criminal acts.  Indeed, telling the truth, protecting the truth, and keeping of a promise, are strong obligations.  However, saving an innocent life is a strong obligation as well” (Dhir, 2005). 

According to Indian thought, genuine dilemmas do exist, and are paradoxical and are seldom solved.  Nevertheless, they may be resolved or dissolved. The essential requirement for resolution is wisdom.  The virtuous Indian soldier will seek wisdom.

In the Mahabharata, Bhishma is introduced as an expert on being virtuous.  When asked what was dharma, the wise Bhishma hedged, “Dharma is subtle!” (Rajagopalachari, 2012). Arguably, the term dharma is a complicated concept.  Translating the term in another language is a challenge. The term carries many meanings.  It deals with law and custom governing the development of individuals, including Indian soldiers.  It deals with relationships between different groups, both indigenous and external to a society. The Indian soldier is likely interested in the concept as the basic principle of righteous conduct. 

Resorting to sage Manu, the author of Manusmriti, we find that the term, dharma, includes the concepts of (1) law, usage, custom; (2) moral merit, virtue; (3) duty, prescribed code of conduct, obligation; (4) right, justice; (5) piety; (6) morality, ethics; (7) nature, character; and (8) an essential quality, characteristic property, and attribute  (Patwardhan, 1968, p. 80).  With so many possible interpretations of the word, the intended meaning of dharma is derived from the context of its usage.  Adharma is the opposite of dharma, or devoid of dharma, again deriving its meaning through the context of use.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was the second President of India, who also serves as the Supreme Commander of the Indian Armed Forces.  In collaboration with Professor Charles Moore of the University of Hawaii, he explained that dharma “… is not a potency residing in the action performed” (Radhakrishnan & Moore, 1960: 416-418).  He explained that one’s dharma resided in the individual.  The dharma of the eldest brother relative to his younger brother is not the same as that of the younger brother relative to his elder brother.  The dharma of the Chief Petty Officer relative to his Seaman is not the same as that of the Seaman relative to his Chief Petty Officer. Radhakrishnan and Moore recognized the dual quality of dharma in terms of individual obligations and social responsibility.

Professor Motwani of Jabalpur University has elaborated on the concept of dharma with additional clarification (Patwardhan, 1968, p. vii): He described dharma as being derived from the placement of the individual in the larger scheme of things.  The dharma of an individual depends on the role and responsibilities of the individual, of the group to which the individual belongs, and the needs in the scheme of the environment in which the individual exists.  To effectively resolve a dilemma, the individual decision-maker must recognize the conflict between one’s own obligations and one’s social responsibilities.  The key to decision-making is the enlightened wisdom required for virtuous choice and behavior.

As we have seen, the key to the exercise of one’s dharma is the need to recognize the conflict between individual obligations and social responsibility.  The goal is not so much to solve moral dilemmas as to recognize them and to seek appropriate wisdom that facilitates choices.  Knowledge is the basis of enlightened wisdom.  This is the crux of the Bhagavad-Gita (Easwaran, 2007; Radhakrishnan, 1948), which is an integral part of the epic, Mahabharata (Rajagopalachari, 2012). It is noteworthy that to explain the significance of dharma and its relationship to action, the narratives of the Bhagavad-Gita are steeped in the metaphor of war.  Arjuna is the commander of his Pandava army, which stands ready to engage the vast Kaurava army and commence the Battle of Kurukshetra.

However, the Kauravas are Arjuna’s own kin. Arjuna hesitates.  He is no coward.  His dilemma lies in engaging in a lethal battle against his own kin. Would it not be adharma or sinful to kill one’s own kin, for the sake of control over the kingdom?  Questioning the morality of the war, Arjuna informs his friend and advisor Krishna that he will not fight. He foresaw terrifying consequences of general extinction of his community, loss of traditions, and general lawlessness.

Krishna responds to Arjuna’s inaction by reminding him of two essential aspects of action (karma).  First, he reminded Arjuna that abstention does not free an individual from the dharma; that it was not possible to be free from action through abstention or inaction. As stated above, the potency of dharma does not reside in the action.  Likewise, it also does not reside in inaction. Action is the essence of being alive. 

It is a necessary condition for continuity of life.  It is not possible to be alive in an unengaged state. Second, Krishna explained that the individual and social elements of dharma come together in action.  This coming together of the individual and the social elements could bring about harmony. Here we introduce the concept of svadharma. Different from dharma, which is a social phenomenon, svadharma relates to the mode of individual’s existence within the context of the society.  The concept of svadharma is closely related to the innate nature of the individual, the svabhava.  Svadharma of the soldier consists of those specific elements of dharma that are derived by the individual, functioning in the role of a soldier within the society. Svabhava is a personalistic concept, while svdharma is not.  However, svadharma presupposes svabhava. 

A soldier is bound to act in manner that is dictated by the svabhava or the innate nature of the soldier.  This implies that there would be a correlation between what the soldier is disposed to do and what the soldier is expected to do. To the extent to which these two converge, there exists harmony between the soldier and the society (Radhakrishnan and Moore, 1960; More, 1995: 97-98). 

The rules of engagement described in the Mahabharata were different from those that apply to the soldiers today.  To defend the country, fellow soldiers, and for self-defense, each soldier must decide in a timely manner, while under risk, whether another human being is a friend or a foe; whether to open fire or to hold it; whether to take a life or to let go.  Of course, the soldier is put through a rigorous program of character development, and lives with a prescribed code of honor.  Ordinary people are trained to perform extraordinary deeds that are ethical, courageous, and thereby, virtuous. Emphasis is placed on taking initiatives and managing risks. All this is done to develop the soldier’s svadharma. 

To recognize the highest order of gallantry and virtue among its soldiers during war time, the Government of India awards the Param Vir Chakra (PVC).  The corresponding award to recognize the highest order of gallantry during peace-time, that is, when no war has been declared, is the Ashoka Chakra (AC).  It is noteworthy that over the past thirty years, India has not been at war, and in spite of over a billion citizens, has decorated merely 44 individuals with the Ashoka Chakra.  However, of these, 43 were awarded posthumously!  Of a total of 21 PVCs ever awarded by India, 14 were awarded posthumously. Today, India has only three living PVCs and one living AC.  In contrast, the United States, a nation of about 330 million citizens, has over 70 living PVC-equivalent, Medal of Honor awardees. It would seem that in India, one has to die to demonstrate gallantry!  Or perhaps we do not comprehend the nature of Indian gallantry! India might do better by recognizing gallantry of Indian soldiers in terms of the degree of harmony they bring between their behavior and the expectations of the society, in terms of the soldiers’ dharma, svadharma, and svabhava.

This essay offers an analysis of the decision making process of a soldier drawn from the Indian philosophical traditions.  It suggests that a soldier’s decision-making is virtuous when it is both ethical and courageous. In such behavior, the soldier gives priority to responsibility to the society over personal obligations to self or to kith and kin. This essay attempts to explain how the Indian philosophical thought pertaining to the behavior of the soldier differs from the tenets of the Western culture. To do so, it describes how the concepts of dharma, svadharma, and svabhava, explain resolution of dilemmas for the Indian soldier, where Western Judeo-Christian approaches prove inapplicable. These considerations suggest how gallantry of an Indian soldier might be recognized.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Krishna S Dhir, PhD

is Research Professor at Széchenyi István University in Győr, Hungary; and Professor Emeritus at Berry College, USA. Earlier, he was a Dean at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, and at Berry College, both in USA. He has served as visiting professor at Swinburne University of Technology and RMIT University in Australia, University of Pannonia in Hungary, and Coventry University in UK. He was head of business programs at The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina in Charleston, USA. He worked with BioStar Medical Products in USA; Borg-Warner Chemicals in USA; and CIBA-GEIGY in Switzerland. He was elected Fellow of the Operational Research Society in 2004; and President of Decision Sciences Institute during 2011-2012. He earned a BTech in chemical engineering at IIT Bombay; MS also in chemical engineering at Michigan State University; MBA at the University of Hawaii; and PhD in Management Science at the University of Colorado. His address is:

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8 thoughts on “An Indian Philosophy of A Soldier

  1. Thought provoking, Krishna. An interesting read, and I think I will have to read it again and reflect on it. An immediate question that arises in my mind is how the attitude of the Indian soldier might differ from that of a soldier in another culture – do they also act according to their dharma, despite not having that specific word in their culture? Is there possibly something equivalent?

    • Dear Satish: Thanks for reading the essay with interest and for your insightful comment. You raise an excellent question! In fact, I was deliberate in qualifying the ‘philosophy’ as Indian, rather than qualifying the ‘soldier’, and also in offering my ideas as one philosophy among many (‘An Indian philosophy …). I am cognizant of the diversity of India being well represented in the Indian Armed Forces … with soldiers who may described themselves as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsees, Christians, and so on, respectively. Admittedly, the concept of dharma is not necessarily limited by any specific characteristics of a religion. In fact, it is fair to describe dharma as a philosophical concept, rather than a religious concept; as a way of being that is not institutionalized. However, every soldier, indeed every individual, seeks a personal philosophy that aids that individual’s way of being. In my observation, subscribing to a specific religion is for many individuals a powerful way of accomplishing that search. Thanks, Satish, for this opportunity to elaborate on my thoughts, Krishna.

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