Dharmayuddha: Feasibility and Problems
A Dharmayuddha, as described in Mahabharata, was the rules of engagements followed by the belligerents as the code of honor in ancient India. It was meant to provide both sides an even ground to compete with each other for victory. They are considered chivalric and fair and they make the war more like a game and not an outbreak of all out hostilities.
A good Wikipedia article about Dharmayuddha can be found here.
The most famous rules are as follows along with my view of their usefulness (Green ones are feasible according to me and the application of Red ones seem to be difficult and impractical):
1. Fighting must begin no earlier than sunrise and end exactly at sunset: It provides troops with adequate rest at night. Also provides a sense of security at night to relieve the troops of their mental stress. But also causes the troop to be caught off guard by an enemy trying to exploit this vulnerability by breaking the rules. Such events have been seen again and again in the history of India, Indian army being surprised by the foreign enemies before dawn (Purus against Alexander, Prithwiraj against Ghori etc).
2. Multiple warriors may not attack a single warrior: I think that directly contradicts the principle of force concentration which is one of the basic manoeuvres employed in the battlefield. This rule severely decreases the manoeuvrability of an army preventing decisive victory hard to gain.
3. Two warriors may duel, or engage in prolonged personal combat, only if they carry the same weapons and they are on the same mount (no mount, a horse, an elephant, or a chariot): No problem if the rule is limited to the dueling of distinguished warriors, but if it is applied to the common troopers as well, the concept of Chaturanga (combination of infantry, cavalry, elephant and charioteers) army becomes pointless. None can be deployed to their full potential; like Elephants can’t be used to break enemy ranks and cavalry can’t charge enemy infantry. This will severely hamper development of diverse tactics.
4. No warrior may kill or injure a warrior who has surrendered: This perfectly synchronizes with modern rules of engagement.
5. One who surrenders becomes a prisoner of war and will then be subject to the protections of a prisoner of war: This is a very good principle providing security to POW of both sides.
6. No warrior may kill or injure an unarmed warrior: It’s a very chivalric rule. But that will prevent a belligerent to pursue a routed army giving them chance to regroup.
7. No warrior may kill or injure an unconscious warrior: That’s a very good principle. There is no point in harming a soldier who is not even able to defend himself.
8. No warrior may kill or injure a person or animal not taking part in the war: It will prevent collateral damage of a battle to a large extent. So it’s a very desirable principle. But it will also prevent armies to employ some sorts of desperate last line defenses like scorched earth policy. It will also prevent commerce raiding and these types of offence.
9. No warrior may kill or injure a warrior whose back is turned away: This has same problem as point 6. Letting the enemy regroup and attack again is never a desirable option.
10. No warrior may strike an animal not considered a direct threat: I think this rule prevents killing of the chariot horses or the mounts of the warriors. This certainly does not make sense. Because killing the mounts is easier than killing a horseman in many situations, especially in those days of unarmored horses.
11. The rules specific to each weapon must be followed. For example, it is prohibited to strike below the waist in mace warfare: This should be applicable to dueling elite warriors only. As these rules, if applied to common troopers, would prevent development of sophisticated weapons tactics.
12. Warriors may not engage in any 'unfair' warfare whatsoever: Off course the word ‘unfair’ needs further explanation. Anyway war is not a game and thousands of lives of soldiers depend on the decision of their commanders. ‘Fairness’ seems a little bit luxury here.
13. The lives of women, prisoners of war, and farmers are sacred: Certainly it’s a good principle. It will prevent collateral damage and spoils of war like the 8th point.
14. Pillaging the land is forbidden: It is a humane principle. But if the victor does not wish to capture land, he does not have any prize according to this rule. Anyway this rule will prevent complete destruction of the enemy.
As can be seen, Principles of Dharmayuddha have mixed usefulness. Some of the rules are insufficient to allow troop maneuvering according to the battlefield needs. Other rules prevent unnecessary destructions of resources and population by the victors.
Anyway, in war the lives of the troopers are precious and a commander should try to bring minimal number of casualties to his own army. The lives of common soldiers are a very costly price to pay for the chivalrous glory of the elite warriors. The war should be ended with as less damage as possible. But some rules of Dharmayuddha tend to convert the potential war of maneuver to a war of attrition wearing down both sides increasing over all damage. A little more maneuvering, than what Dharmayuddha permits, is often necessary to save thousands of lives.