Contribution of Itihasas to International Law-A Case Study of Ramayana and Mahabharata

India is one of the countries in the world which has a very long history and the existence of the country can be traced back to millenia.


The region of South Asia, which now includes around eight countries has always been called the Indian subcontinent owing to the vastness of the Indian geography, the rivers, mountains and the presence of natural resources, varied culture and the existence of Indian civilisations, namely the Indus Valley civilisation, which has put India on the global map since the ancient times. The historicity of India has contributed to the world in terms of culture, religion, literature, arts and science. India is the birthplace of the religion Hinduism.


Hinduism is the religion of the majority of the people in India and Nepal. Indian literature, epics and stories have contributed immensely to various factors that form an important part of the society in the current world.


This study tries to trace the contributions of Indian epics to International Law. Indian works like Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Laws of Manu, The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are great contributors to concepts of warfare, statehood, geography, also humanitarian principles. This study focuses on contributions made by the Ramayana and Mahabharata. 


The significance of this study is to analyse the contributions made by the Ramayana and Mahabharata - to International law especially in fields like war, diplomacy and statehood. I felt it was important to analyse this area as in the International arena these works are generally looked as books with religious importance or as stories. I am personally interested in learning about ancient Indian history and wanted to learn something more about it when I realised that a lot of discussions regarding diplomacy or governance which happens in the present world have been analysed and dealt with in the past.


This study is to prove that the contributions made by Indian literature are substantial and have played an important role when it comes to framing laws and policies. The discussions of conventional and unconventional warfare, treatment of diplomats and prisoners of war are no new concepts to this world and have been highly discussed in the past.


My study would try to show the contributions made in different fields especially - warfare, diplomacy and governance. For instance, the concept of war is definitely not a new term or something that came up only during the 20th century. War has been a component which has existed since the ancient times and the mentions of war, the aftermath and the rules and forms of warfare form a major part of ancient Indian literature and has extensively been covered in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Hinduism, like most religions, believes that war is undesirable because it involves the killing of fellow human beings and hence should be avoided as a means of settling disputes.


However, it does specify that there might be situations when it is better to wage war than to tolerate evil. Hinduism 1 and Indian literature have categorised war to be Dharma Yuddha (righteous war), and Adharma Yuddha (unrighteous war) which are major contributors to the terminologies ethical and unethical warfare.


The usage of weapons of mass destruction has been debated and there have been instances when Lakshmana, Arjuna have refrained from using unconventional weapons as they felt it was Adharma. Humanitarian principles, the treatment of prisoners of war, wounded soldiers are seen in these texts especially in the Ramayana, it is said that medicines and immediate care were given to the soldiers of the opposition as well and all were given the same respect at the time of death.


Also there are versions of the Ramayana whereby Sita (when Hanuman meets Sita in Ashokavanam) tells about innocent men and women who were kept as prisoners by Ravana and that she wants Rama to free them.


Diplomacy, the importance of diplomacy and the treatment to be given to diplomats, mediators and foreign relations have been seen in ancient Indian literature. Hanuman, Krishna, Vibhishana have been great examples of Diplomats and mediators. The treatment given to such diplomats and people who respect another kingdom or land, are the earliest contributors to the respectful treatment that foreign ambassadors and representatives who represent another country get from the receiving State.


In the Ramayana, the conflict escalates to war when Ravana the demon king disrespected Hanuman who comes to talk about peace. These texts term war as an ‘undesirable’ element and how maximum efforts are taken to avoid war as it causes destruction and is a major threat to humanity. 


Krishna from the epic Mahabharata plays a role of a mediator as he tries to explain the concept of Dharma and how the Pandavas deserve their share of the Kingdom of Kuru. When these mediations fail this lead to the famous ‘Kurukshetra war’. Also, Krishna offers to become the charioteer for Arjuna. Krishna promises that he won’t take up to arms in the battlefield and when Arjuna sees that the opposition in the war were his own relatives and he refused to fight them, Krishna explains how war becomes an inevitable element because of the nature of man, the meaning of war, life, responsibilities of man and this conversation between Krishna and Arjuna is the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ which is a contribution not only to literature or religion but to the concepts of philosophy, human life, ethics and warfare. 


In the Valmiki’s Ramayana, Valmiki talks about ‘Araajake dhanam’ which is basically the description of a anarchic 2 state due to the death of Dasaratha and the problems a government and the people face if there is no one to take responsibility as a ruler to the state. These are problems that occur even in the present day International system and when there is a problem that occurs in a governance the immediate reaction turns out to be violence, which leads to terrorism as well.


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Author works as a teacher/facilitator taking subjects - History and Economic Applications for Middle and High school. She is extremely passionate about Indian culture and literature.


Also read

1. War and Non-violence in the Holy Gita

2. Hanumanji was an ideal diplomat and spy

3. Gandhi, Ahimsa and Christianity  



1. Hinduism and International humanitarian law”.International Review of the Red Cross Vol 87, 1 No.858, June 2005, Accessed on 11th November 2020.

2.  “Book II: Ayodhya Kanda - Chapter[Sarga] 67”. Valmiki Ramayan, November 2009 , 2 ayodhya/sarga67/ayodhya_67_frame.html. Accessed on 11th December 2017

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