Ramayana War
The difference between Dharma Yuddha and Jihad

Introduction Many people from very diverse quarters say that all religions have a concept of…


Many people from very diverse quarters say that all religions have a concept of “holy war”. In this, at least, they are all equal. Thus, the recent cases of self-defence against Muslim attacks by Buddhists in Thailand and Myanmar are taken to prove that even the ostensibly non-violent Buddhists have their notion of “holy war”, now on display. Similarly Hinduism has its own dharma yuddha, literally (they say) “religious war”.

Some add that the one exception to this rule, hence the most peaceful religion of all, is Islam. We have all heard about jihad, thinking this is the “holy war” par excellence, but now we are told that we have been mistaken all along. Even Osama bin Laden didn’t know true Islam, he was wholly wrong about the meaning of jihad. They assure us that jihad is merely an inner struggle against the evil in ourselves, not a war against unbelievers. At the very most, it can be a struggle in self-defence when the unbelievers attack us. Let us see what the truth of this can be.

Dharma Yuddha

The proverbial war in the Hindu worldview is the great war of the Bharata clan, on which the mega-epic Mahabharata elaborates. This epic philosophizes profusely on the principles of dharma yuddha even as it describes the successive episodes of a real-life war. Yuddha means “struggle, war”. Dharma, “sustenance, that which sustains”, effectively means “maintaining the correct relation between the part and the whole”, “playing your specific role in the whole that you are part of”. It approximately means both “religion” in the sense of “relating to the cosmos” and “ethics” in the sense of “correctly relating to the beings around you”. Dharma yuddha means “struggle in accordance with ethics/Dharma”, “chivalrous war”. But does the epic describe a dharma yuddha at all?

Kurukshetra War

Kurukshetra War

First off, there is no religious conflict on the horizon. The Bharata war pits two branches of the same family against each other. They practise the same religious tradition, just as they have the same teachers, live in the same area, speak the same language and share the same ethnicity. Clearly, dharma yuddha does not mean “war against the unbelievers”. No command is given anywhere to take up hostilities with a religious out-group, nor with any linguistic or ethnic or any other group either. Coincidence has it that two groups of cousins are in a position to compete for the same throne, and attempts at finding a peaceful compromise fail.

But secondly, the actual war is only partly a dharma yuddha. The rules for a dharma yuddha are articulated, but fall into disuse the longer the battle rages. The reader is treated to a complete contemplation of the principles of dharma yuddha, but the epic’s characters are shown as practising them less and less. During the build-up to the war, the Pandava brothers with their friend and adviser Krishna make several attempts to solve the conflict peacefully, and are rebuked by their Kaurava cousins even when they express willingness to make great concessions. They only resolve to make war once they have no other option. And even when the war starts, Arjuna finds all kinds of reasons to forfeit his claim and withdraw from the battle, until Krishna convinces him that it has become necessary.

During the war, however, they let the rules of “justice in war” relax gradually, commensurate with the other party’s breaches of the code of chivalry. Thus, when the enemies’ leader Karna has fallen from his chariot, the rule that someone in an incapacitated state should not be attacked, would normally apply. Yet, Krishna orders to strike him while he is down. Karna had been a party to the forced disrobing of princess Draupadi, an un-ethical act, so Krishna is not impressed when he now invokes the well-known rules of ethical warfare: “Where was your Dharma then?” So, the other side’s breaches of Dharma are increasingly used as a justification for breaking Dharma too.

The battle rages for eighteen days. The change it has wrought, is best realized by Krishna’s brother Balarama, who has missed the battle. He has gone on pilgrimage along the Saraswati river and returns just at the end of the hostilities. He is amazed and indignant at the size of the destruction and the decline into non-Dharmic behaviour. But that is how war goes: at the start, as in 1914, you march off with a flower in your gun, singing songs of victory, you even play football with the enemy soldiers during breaks; but as soon as you have seen some of your comrades die, you get angry and eager for revenge by any means, so war becomes more cruel the longer it lasts.

Mahabharata War, Halebidu

Mahabharata War, Halebidu Temple Carving

The epic is by no means a children’s story in black and white, or a hagiography for a saintly Krishna. The bad guys always have a decent motive or a legitimate excuse for their conduct (for instance, Duryodhana has welcomed the illegitimate son Karna after the latter was spurned by the Pandavas), and the good guys have their own past to blame for the misfortunes that befall them. They are all far from perfect, and the dharma yuddha is an ideal which they try to uphold as long as the going is good, but which they betray more and more as the battle gets grimmer.

The concept of Dharma Yuddha is akin to the later European concept of Just War. The Just War theory is linked with names like Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius. It lays down that war should only be started in self-defence, after attempts at a peaceful solution, and with a real chance of victory. During the war, the means used should be commensurate with the aim, non-combatants should be spared, and peace overtures from the other side should be answered. The same principles are already articulated briefly in the Dhanurveda and the Mahabharata.


In Islam, the first blood that flows is that of an unbeliever who laughs at the Muslims praying with their bottoms up in the air: he is hit by the Muslims with an animal’s bone. There is no trace of self-defence: an unbeliever exercises his freedom of expression and the Muslims decide to become violent. Later, Mohammed would have a handful of critics assassinated and another handful formally executed. This is the model and justification for the murders or attempted murders of writers, cartoonists, film-makers and other critics of Islam during the modern age.

When Mohammed and his followers migrate to Medina, they are welcomed but soon realize that unlike the natives, they have no source of income. So, they start attacking caravans. Mohammed is credited with organising 82 raids (ghazwa, hence also razzia) and with leading 26 of them in person. The passengers were held in captivity until their families paid the ransom. Mohammed gave permission to his men to rape their hostages. At first he instructed them to practise coitus interruptus (often cited in pro-Islamic arguments as proof of how progressive Mohammed was, even condoning birth control!), later he decided that it didn’t matter.

These raids set the pattern for “holy war” against the unbelievers. They were called jihad fi sabil Allah, “exertion on the path of Allah”. Mohammed used the money gained to buy weapons and horses to equip his growing army. Nothing “internal” there, no character struggle against the evil tendencies within oneself, only an external military endeavour. Given the repeated Muslim initiative to strike first, it is also not required that the other side commits aggression; self-defence is no requirement. All Mohammed’s subsequent struggles against various categories of unbelievers are called jihad. So we have it on Mohammed’s own testimony that jihad means a military struggle against the unbelievers.

Jihad in History (Image courtesy: Historyofjihad.org)

Jihad in History (Image courtesy: Historyofjihad.org)

When Islamic or pro-Islamic apologists (such as David Cameron in May 2013, after a British soldier was murdered by two Muslims in Woolwich) say that an act of violence against unbelievers is a “betrayal of Islam”, they imply that an Islamic court would punish the murderers. But in fact, before an Islamic judge, the culprits could easily invoke the precedent behaviour of Mohammed himself. The words and acts of the Prophet are the basis of Islamic law. All fatwas (juridical advice) ultimately answer the question in this form: what has Mohammed done in a similar situation? The only reason for doubt in some judges’ mind could be that in a particular case, an act of violence would yield such negative publicity as to do Islam more harm than good. But the mere fact that the Islamic cause was furthered by violence against the unbelievers would be a sound emulation of the Prophet’s precedent. Whether it was strategically wise to kill soldier Lee Rigby (and thus mobilize British public opinion against Islam) is questionable, which is why the British Muslim Council tried to limit the damage by falsely swearing that the act was un-Islamic; but it was at any rate fully in accordance with Mohammed’s precedent and hence with Islamic law (shari’a).

There are hundreds of farewell letters, farewell video and suicide notes in which Islamic fighters and terrorists explicitly say that they are going to pay the ultimate price for the sake of Islam. For instance, Mohammed Atta of 9/11 fame and Mohammed Bouyeri, who killed Theo van Gogh, said that Islam made them do it. Not “Islamism” or “fundamentalism” but Islam. I take them seriously and believe them at their word. By contrast, the “experts” overrule these men’s first-hand testimony and assure us that it may have been any reason but not Islam.

Where from then the claim that this jihad is merely the “little jihad,” while the real jihad or “great jihad” is an internal struggle?

Firstly, note that all the above is not really being denied by this claim. Jihad is relabeled as “little jihad,” but is acknowledged nonetheless. Preachers who have to motivate their flock to overcome the evil tendencies in themselves like to picture this as a heroic enterprise, so they compare it to a war. But of course, the metaphor of a figurative holy war is only possible because the physical holy war exists.

The comparison happens to be particularly popular in Sufism, a movement originating in the grey zone around Islam. Mostly, Sufism drew from East-Persian Buddhism and from Turkic Shamanism. The ecstatic trance pursued by the “whirling dervishes” is nothing but the shamanic trance witnessed in, for example, Genghis Khan. The fana’ (annihilation) described by the Sufi poets is an adaptation of the Buddhist nirvana. This preservation of non-Islamic influences was aptly recognized by wary Islamic theologians. Mansur al-Hallaj was beheaded for saying: Ana’l Haqq (“I am the True One”/Allah), an adaptation of the Upanishadic saying, Aham Brahmasmi, “I am Brahma.” Only after Sufism was sufficiently assimilated did orthodox Muslims judge it useful for propaganda purposes among the masses.

With success, for Sufi music, though only superficially Islamic, is very popular in Pakistan and Bollywood. Sufi phrases have hoodwinked many would-be “experts” into exclaiming that here is the “real, peaceful Islam”. In reality, Sufis mostly became sweet-talking Muslims who were just as hard-headed when it came to fighting the infidels. The Sufi master Muinuddin Chishti, venerated even by silly Hindus, acted as a motivator and spy in the conquest of North India by Mohammed Ghori. At any rate, if you think that “peace” and “inner struggle” are the real Islam, take the test and try to convince a shari’a court that war against the unbelievers is un-Islamic.

Khalistani Dharma Yuddh

The Sikhs are a Hindu sect particularly devoted to Vishnu in his incarnations as Rama and Krishna. Most of the Sikh Gurus are named after them, for example, Guru Govind Singh was named after Krishna, the “cowherd” (govind). He founded a military order, the Khalsa, in order to defend Hindu dharma. But in the 19th century, the Sikhs, with their history of resistance against the Moghul empire, saved many British colonizers during the Mutiny, perceived as an attempt to restore the Moghul empire. Out of gratitude, the British decided to upgrade Sikhism, not just by reserving many army jobs for Sikhs, but by turning Sikhism into a separate religion.

This Sikh separatism caught on, and by the 1920s Sikhism was led by a faction pushing for a distinct religious identity. Since they could not start altering their holy Granth, a collection of hymns with Hindu themes, and standing proof of Sikhism’s Hindu character, they altered or reinterpreted everything else. Thus, for their holiest shrine, the Sanskrit name Hari Mandir (“Vishnu temple”) was replaced with the Urdu name Darbar Sahib (“revered court-session”). Hindu icons such as the Vishnu statue in the Hari Mandir were removed, along with the Brahmins serving them. To take distance from Hinduism, Islamic concepts were borrowed or Hindu terms were reinterpreted in an Islamic sense. Thus, an Islamic fatwa became the Sikh hukumnama (“command-letter”).

In this climate, it was inevitable that among separatist Sikhs, dharma yuddha (in its Punjabi pronunciation: dharam yuddh) would be emptied of its Hindu content and take on the meaning of jihad: war against the unbelievers. In India this means in effect: war against the Hindus. In the 1980s, this term was used for the wave of terrorism against the Indian state and for the creation of a Sikh state called Khalistan (“land of the pure”). This struggle was supported by the global hub of terrorism, Pakistan (also “land of the pure”), even though there is a historical hostility between the Sikh community and Pakistan, the successor state of the Moghul empire. It also had the sympathy of many Sikhs in the West as well as from poorly informed Westerners. Though the Khalistani struggle in India died out in the early 1990s, there still are some centres of Khalistani ideology in the West.

Painting of Sikh battles against Mughals

Painting of Sikh battles against Mughals (Pic Courtesy: Google Image Search)

The Khalistanis’ sense of religion is proverbially crude. This recrudescence resonates well with the cluelessness about the fine points of religion among the “secularist” class, which holds the reins of power in India. Every hazy prejudice by a Western tourist can also be heard from the mouth of Indian journalists and cabinet ministers. Government-sanctioned schoolbooks teach that all religions are basically the same. They are all assumed to preach government-sanctioned ethics and, except for casteist Hinduism, they are all presented as egalitarian. Since the existence of jihad cannot be entirely denied to any Indian who follows the news, the next line of defence is to shield Islam from criticism by alleging that all religions are the same. One way to do this is to spread the false notion of “Hindu terrorism”, another is to blur the terminology and equate Hindu “chivalrous war” with Islamic “holy war.”

Thus, the use of dharma yuddha as a synonym of jihad, “war against the unbelievers,” is unhistorical and incorrect.

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  • suchindranath@gmail.com'
    December 15, 2015


    It is very simple. Dharma Yudha is intended to protect Dharma. To preserve truth, virtue, and beauty, through generosity, compassion and moderation. It is waged by Aryas who are proscribed from jealousy, lust (including greed) and cruelty. Jeehad is waged by Mahamuttons to enforce their anti-law (Sharia) through destroying truth, virtue and beauty and by celebrating plunder, cruelty, greed, lust, in the name of Allah as per the instructions of Mahomet.

  • raghu6mujje@gmail.com'
    December 2, 2015

    వెేంకట రఘు పవన్ ముజ్జె

    Very much detailed and pearls of truth !

  • rnekkanti@rediffmail.com'
    December 1, 2015

    Satish N

    People like Elst shall find place in ICHR. Such real gems are left out for their foreign origin but desi commies out there to vilify every bright aspect of aborigins history, tradition, culture, was given mandate to ‘rewrite’ our history text books eulogising barbarian invaders as benevolent rulers.

  • shajiulah.khan@rediff.com'
    November 21, 2013


    Can you elaborate a bit more on jihad? That is, of course, after you have read it and understand it from the Quran. Till then, this article itself should be reported for slander.

    • yvetterosser@gmail.com'
      September 5, 2015

      RamRani Yvette Rosser

      For many years Koenraad Elst studied the Quran, Sunnah, Hadiths and other Islamic texts. He is multilingual and has done in-depth investigations into Islam and Islamic scriptures written over several centuries, including jurisprudence. He has done research into the implementation of Sharia’ laws historically and in the modern context. When he quotes directly from the Islamic holy texts, word for word, he is often accused of slander and blasphemy because the uninformed are hard pressed to believe that such extortions to murder and rape are found verbatim in the Quran and other texts considered sacred to Muslims. The earlier Surahs written in Mecca were more liberal and humanistic, but according to Muhammad they are over written by the more violent and less tolerant verses written in Medina. So those who say Islam is a religion of peace, quote from the Mecca verses and those who promote violent jihad quote from the Medina verses, which according to Muhammad, superseded the Mecca surah.

  • hillaryrao@gmail.com'
    October 22, 2013

    H Rao

    wonderful.. cleared many doubts… excellent… India facts is rocking..

  • seekerfromchina@gmail.com'
    October 19, 2013


    As a previous poster mentioned “Without deeper research we tend to equate all religions as same in their goals and paths.”
    So I decided to get some research done myself and not take everything at face value.

    Starting off on the concept of Jihad :
    I should therefore, like a reference for the statement : “In Islam, the first blood that flows is that of an unbeliever who laughs at the Muslims praying with their bottoms up in the air: he is hit by the Muslims with an animal’s bone. ”
    I have not been able to find this incident on repeated google searches. What I do find, however, is an incident where the intestines of a camel were placed on Muhammad while he was praying and those watching this were laughing and finally his daughter came and removed it from his back.
    So please do provide a reference Dr.
    Thank you.

  • vidyasagarbb@gmail.com'
    October 18, 2013


    Wow! good write up presenting many historical truths with convincing logic. Eye opener for me against an attempted malice. Its a pity that Our own home minister does these irresponsible statements more than once just for cheap appeasing by minorities who themselves believes in jihad kind of bloody war on innocents.

  • rathod.dilip@yahoo.com'
    October 17, 2013


    Great Revelation.

  • nirvikalpa@gmail.com'
    October 16, 2013


    Very lucid. The need is to make the ‘secularists’ understand this…

  • harshadspatel9@twitter.example.com'

    A great article. Kudos to the writer

  • yog.wankhede@gmail.com'
    October 16, 2013

    Yogesh Wankhede

    Great article…little correction…should be ‘Karna’ instead of ‘Duryodhana’…Karna climb down chariot to repair its wheel….Duryodana was killed by Bhima in ‘Gada Yuddha’.

  • m.mohan@jnu.edu'
    October 16, 2013

    Murali Mohan

    Dear Dr. Elst,
    can you please explain the Vaishnava-Shaiva violence in South India?

    • vasuerfolg@gmail.com'
      October 27, 2013


      Can you tell with concrete historical proof WHEN, WHERE, HOW and WHAT violence existed between Vaishnava and Shaiva sects? If you are quoting from the misguided Dashaavathaaram movie from the crypto-muslim called Kamala Haasan, then you have your facts wrong.

  • inyourinterest@rediffmail.com'
    October 15, 2013

    NK Sarma

    Wonderful and a great eye-opener on sikh sectt

  • vrugonnab@rediffmail.com'
    October 15, 2013


    great piece of writing, just one correction. It’s Karna, that falls from chariot, not Duryodhana.

    • vasuerfolg@gmail.com'
      October 27, 2013


      Of course, the author has only mentioned Karna as the one who fell from the Chariot, and not Duryodhana. So, why this unnecessary “correction”?

  • ramaswamy@vedanta-kolkata.org'
    October 15, 2013

    L Ramaswamy

    Thank you Mr Elst for clarifying various doubts. Without deeper research we tend to equate all religions as same in their goals and paths. How great a blunder it is. It defeats our own cause. Thanks once again.