Home Contemporary Indian Military Leadership With Roots in Vedic Period Literature

Contemporary Indian Military Leadership With Roots in Vedic Period Literature

Nations conduct their relations through various means in which diplomacy takes its predominance due to the way it shapes these relations, keeping in mind the long term strategic national interests. However when they want to exert their will on the other and diplomacy is found to be inadequate, use of force becomes necessary. In this context the purpose of maintaining a military force by a country is to be always ready to go to war when called upon to do so and come out victorious each and every time. This capability, to a very large extent, depends upon the quality and morale of leaders and the led.  Therefore it is one of the most observed and studied areas of military science, yet its precise definitions and measurements remain elusive.


In its very basic form it may be said that leadership stems from the concept of reciprocity. It simply would mean that every follower at some point of time requires a leader. Hence when we consider leadership, we are dealing with two quite separate entities: the process that goes on between the leader and the led (which could be mainly emotional although there is an intellectual content also); and the aspect of leadership that concerns itself to the end state towards victory. This conflicting demand of the human aspects on one side and the war aims needing ruthlessness of execution on the other, requires a very fine skillful balancing by the leader.  


Leadership is also perceived by some as a management function, meaning thereby; the coordination and use of resources optimally to achieve its objectives. But a deeper analysis would tell us that military leadership is much beyond management functions, wherein it has an element of charisma, which is something of an intangible, and inspires idealism from the followers. So a good leader almost effortlessly is able to motivate his men. At micro level this art of leadership acquires critical dimensions, for it may involve the ultimate sacrifice by all concerned i.e.laying down one's life for the country. Therefore men have to be trained and motivated for cheerful willingness to perform their individual duties that demand the highest efficiency, both physical and mental. Hence, leadership cannot be defined in isolation,  it has to factor in an environment of danger, uncertainty and turmoil. It is of utmost importance that the psyche of a military leader has to understand the philosophy of war, and essence of military leadership in combat conditions.


Now, military leadership in our land had always been associated with the ‘Varna’ or Caste System[i]. The ‘Kshatriyas or the Warrior Classes’ were the natural inheritors of the national security and mantle of military leadership. Things did not change much with the arrival of the Arabs, Moghuls and other invaders from the North West. The Moghuls and other contemporary dynasties also perpetuated the tradition of inheritance-based leadership. There is a very strong case for the leadership traits of Vedic era and the contemporary Indian Military thinking also forming the basis of such an evolution.The Vedic period[ii] extends from the ‘Origin of Vedas to the time of Bhagwad Gita’; wherein Mahabharata has been extensively quoted in the present context for the greater wisdom of justification for war (Dharmyudh) and selfless sacrifice by the soldier as the greatest virtues of all. The four Upvedas[iii]  that represent distinct branches of knowledge have a separate portion on Dhanurveda (Military science). Another level of literature called Darshanas[iv] deal with aspects of origin of the universe in six documents named Vaishesika (Atomic theory), Nyaya (Theory of matter), Sankhya (Theory of matter and soul), Yoga (Discipline of body and mind), Vedanta (Philosophy) and Mimansa (Rituals of Vedas). Finally we have more popular and well known epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Ramayana[v]. It has innumerable anecdotes giving insight into social conditions and values prevalent during that period. Lord Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, is known as Maryada Purushottam[vi] - “A person who is excellent in following the righteous norms of the society.” He was always conscientious of his duties to the society and demonstrated unparalleled  idealism and perseverance in upholding social norms, irrespective of the sufferings that he and his family had to undergo.           Rama’s fight with Ravana also depicts a number of qualities of a good leader (Seth Ritesh, 2009)[vii] – “Vision and Mission” (Lord Rama gave a concrete vision and a mission to the army led by Him to defeat the Rakshasas and rescue Sita), “Plans and Strategies” (Sending search parties, building overseas bridge, etc. were chalked out), “Clarity of Goals” (It enabled the army to put its heart and soul in the mission of rescuing Sita), “Social Responsibility” (This mission was coupled with nobleness of the cause – freeing people from the atrocities of Ravana), “Principle of Equality” (Though a king, he treated everyone equally and developed relations with common people like ferrymen, Shabari, etc.), “SWOT Analysis” (Hanuman analysed the situation, assessing the strengths and weaknesses and opportunities and threats of the enemy’s camp), “Lead by Example” and “Follow the Code of Ethics”.


Mahabharata[viii]. Mahabharata narrates roles of innumerable kings, leaders, administrators, sages, advisers, teachers and diplomats in thousands of episodes connected with day to day affairs of the state conflicts and human society. Two heroes who stand out as the wise personalities, selfless performers, dispassionate advisers with a very high degree of situational awareness ideal are Lord Krishna, considered to be an incarnation of the God itself, and Bhishma Pitamaha, the eldest of the Kaurava and Pandava family. The army, as defined in Mahabharata, is the main agency through which the king handles enemies. A military organisation functions best if it is well guided. The army is blind and ignorant. Hence, farsighted leaders should guide it appropriately (Mb.2.20.16). Soldiers brimming with enthusiasm for battle are the prime sign of achieving victory (Mb.6.3.75).


Bhagwad Gita[ix]. Bhagwad Gita is considered to be the culmination of the wisdom of the entire mosaic of Vedic literature on military science. The teachings of Gita are also for everyone in all walks of life. It addresses the whole humanity and proclaims that actually you are not this ‘genetic bodily system’. “If you are a leader you will be a better leader, if you are a warrior you will be a better warrior, if you are a manager you will be a better manager, so on and so forth”.  


Despite modern theories on leadership and organisational developments, the Vedic Indian literature provides core values to very many aspects of these developments which still derive their relevance.  To take an example, say, attitude towards work, which emphasizes  individual gains at the cost of the organization and society at large, is described as unworthy of an individual. It boils down to offering one’s life and efforts for the good of others is all that is relevant. These are still required in the world, more so in the present context in the field of leadership. 



Value and Ethics. They form the bedrock of leadership irrespective of the era or arena. The ancient education was basically aimed at personal growth of the individual. The Vedic Ethos relevant to leadership revealed by the ancient scriptures are “Archet dana manabhyam” (Worship people not only with material things but also by showing respect to their enterprising divinity within), “Atmana Vindyate Viryam” (Strength and inspiration for excelling in work comes from the Divine, God within, through prayer, spiritual readings and unselfish work), “Yogah karmashu Kaushalam, Samatvam yoga uchyate” (He who works with calm and even mind achieves the most), “Yadishi bhavana yasya siddhi bhavati tadrishi” (As we think, so we succeed, so we become. Attention to means ensures the end), “Parasparam bhavayantah shreyah param bhavapsyathah” (By mutual cooperation, respect and fellow feeling, all of us enjoy the highest good both material and spiritual), “Tesham sukhm tesham shanti shaswat” (Infinite happiness and infinite peace come to them who see the Divine in all beings) and  “Paraspar Devo Bhav” (Regard the other person as a divine being. All of us have the same consciousness though our packages and containers are different).


Organisational Structure. The current organisational structures of the Army too find great resemblance to the Vedic period, thus providing credence to the leadership theories of Vedic times. The strategy or tactics of war-fighting of the military has undergone tremendous change but the structure of army has remained unaltered. The section (smallest sub-unit), organised for basic tactics of fire and move, consists of approximately 10 soldiers and is akin to Patti of the Vedic era. Three Sections/Pattis will constitute a Platoon/Senamukha which is capable of occupying defences of a locality. A Company of modern army can be compared to Gumla (90 men) or Gama (270 men) of yester years in their personnel strength and tasking. A Battalion (1,000 men), smallest cohesive unit to fight a battle, is like Vahini (810 men) in organisation and role. Thereafter, Brigade/Division/Corps are similar to the erstwhile Pritna/Camu/Aneekini respectively in their structure, personnel strength, resources and tasking.



Leadership Qualities in Army of Vedic Period


General. The doer of all good acts, lovable, independent, competent, giver of happiness to others, grant power to others (delegating), invincible, afford protection to his people, straight and just, intellect and honour (Ch.XIV; Sl. 9); Sharp and brilliant, lustrous, fast (Ch.XXIX; Sl .20); Quick, internally pure, believing in progress, active and valorous, knowledgeable (Ch.XXXIII, Sl. 85).


Physical Qualities. August personality, beautiful and healthy body, vigour, strong in body and soul, prowess, long-lived, maintains the vitality of the body.


Mental Make-up (including ethics). Virtuous, good-natured, propitious, graciously minded, controller of his senses, free from vice and irreligion, dignity, quick, patient mind, charitable, benevolent in thought and spirit, friendly, lover of truth, behave in religious spirit, dutiful, serviceable, large-hearted, peaceful through austerity, considerate, cool, impetuous, steadfast, endowed with wisdom, desires enterprise, free from favouritism, extremely wise, fearless, boldness, learned, educated, full of knowledge, most thoughtful, Master of spiritual knowledge, enmity to fraud, antagonism to the thoughtless, self-effulgent.


Leadership Qualities in Modern Army


Traits, Theory of Leadership.  Ambition, energy, desire to lead, honesty and integrity, self-confidence, intelligence, high self-monitoring, relevant knowledge.


Big Five Factor Model. Extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, openess to experience.


Charismatic Theory of Leadership. Personal ability, self-confidence, confidence of subordinates, ideological issues, use of personal example, vision, articulation, personal work, environmental sensitivity, sensitivity to followers’ needs, unconventional behavior.


Transformational Leadership Theory. Charisma, inspiration, intellectual stimulation, individualised consideration.


Authentic Leadership Theory. Positive psychological capabilities, greater self-awareness, self-regulated, positive behavior, confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, transparent, moral, future orientation, giving priority for developing associates.


Conclusion. The emerging concepts of leadership certainly find some of their roots in the scantily documented Vedic literature. The Vedic leadership concepts and principles have relevance in the Indian Military Leadership, wherein the study of Arthashastra and Mahabharata form part of the curriculum in the higher echelon training. In this globally fast-changing era, skills related to leadership will not serve their purpose well unless they flow from a value-based pure mind. A person has to embrace the spiritual dimension beyond its physical, social and economic dimensions as it purifies the mind of a leader and a decision maker. With the purity of mind the leader is able to concentrate, contemplate and mediate to approach ambiguous situations with perfection and divinity.


Views expressed by the Author are personal.Author is a serving army officer.




[i] Lieutenant YV Athawale, IN, “Changing Nature of Leadership in the 21st Century”, USI, Jan 1998.

[ii]  Paul Deussen, The Philosophy of the Upanishads - Authorised English Translation by AS Geden, 1906.

[iii]Ibid, p.542.

[iv]Ibid, pp 555-556.

[v]Valmiki, SrimadValmiki Ramayana, (Gorakhpur : Gita Press, 1958)

[vi]GoswamiTulsidas, Shri Ram CharitManas, (Gorakhpur : Gita Press, 1962)

[vii] https://sites.google.com/site/riteshseth/Home/general-reads/management-lessons-from-ramayana

[viii]  P. Lal, Mahabharata of Vyasa, Asia Book Corporation of America, 1970

[ix]JayadyalGoyanka, Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Gita Press

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Devesh Agnihotri

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