Conflict in the Vālmīki Rāmāyana: A South Asian Perspective on Just War Theory

Raja Ravi Varma’s rendition of Ravana fighting the vulture Jatayu, while abducting Sita, Rama’s wife.

Since time immemorial, it has been ingrained in our minds that the central theme of the Rāmāyana is the war between darkness and light, and the subsequent victory of good over evil. Most variants of the Rāmāyana, like the Kampanrāmāyanam, appear to preach the same; with their black-and-white heroes and villains, and clear-cut definitions of what is good and what is evil. Rāma, the divine Vishnu avatar, is the epitome of goodness and the very embodiment of justice, while Rāvana, the Rākshasa, is a symbol of evil, greed, lust—all vices that a ‘moral’ individual should not indulge in.

However, in other retellings, the characters are portrayed as morally grey: there are no watertight categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Rāma is not perfect; he is not a god, but rather a god-man who has to live within the confines of mortality with all its vicissitudes. Similarly, Rāvana is not always evil; many retellings paint him as a tragic figure undone by his passions. In light of these revelations, the war between Rāma and Rāvana may not have been the just outcome we presume it to be, and indeed, a closer analysis tells a different story.

An framework for analyzing the conflict between Rama and Ravana would be the just war theory, a doctrine of military ethics first formalised by Stanisław of Skarbimierz, a Polish rector. It lays down seven criteria—all of which must be met—to justify war. I will not be presenting all seven of them: the Rāmāyana war cannot be reconciled with at least one of the four criteria of right cause, right intention, last resort, and right conduct, thereby breaching the nature of a ‘just’ war. This in turn illustrates the fact that war is not a simple do-or-do-not situation: it is a complicated layered event shaped by circumstances and ‘moralistic’ principles. There are far too many retellings of the Rāmāyana; here we focus mostly on the Vālmīki Rāmāyana for the narratives and plot structures.

It would be helpful to first present the circumstances that caused the war. When Rāma and Lakshmana leave Sitā in their hut in pursuit of the golden deer that Sitā desired, Ravana kidnaps Sitā. Vowing revenge, Rāma, aided by the Vānara, wages war on Rāvana, and defeats him. However, why precisely did Rāma wage war on Rāvana? Were there other reasons besides bringing his wife back, and did these reasons rationalise the use of violence?


Is there an appropriate cause to justify violence? In the Vālmīki Rāmāyana, the sanctity of the world is endangered by demons who terrorise Brahmin sages and defile their rituals, so the gods call upon Vishnu to restore its purity. Vishnu takes the form of Rāma, whose sole mission in life is to end the demons’ menace for which he must face Rāvana (who is the leader of the demons) in battle. This pre-decided calling to restore cosmic balance seems to justify the bloodshed in the Rāmāyana. It is said that in waging offensive war against Rāvana, Rāma is not only condemning the violence and evil that Ravana is committing, but also the targeting of said violence towards ascetics of the religious principle of Hinduism as well. Moreover, Rāma is further authorized to kill violent forces and therefore protect the world by virtue of being born as a Kshatriyā, one of the warrior caste. By a slightly twisted logic, this principle does not seem to have been violated.


Right intention is a subset of right cause. We may define this as whether the motivation behind upholding righteousness is pure and independent of selfish desires. For Rāvana, the intent seems to be to promote conflict—it is thus self-serving and hence condemned. However, Rāmā falters here as well. The desire to get his wife back (which is what the intention seems to be at first glance) is self-serving, for all intents and purposes. However, in many places in the Rāmāyana, Rāmā mentions that he is not retrieving his wife out of affection for her; rather, it is to redeem his lost honor. He carelessly mentions this in the Yuddha Kāṇḍa, when Sitā is brought out to him, all decked up. He tells her that she is free to go, now that the prestige of his clan has been restored. He further goes on to say that she could now choose to be with Sugrīva, Vibhīshana, or even his brothers –clearly all lesser beings (pardon my usage of the term) than him. Rāmā thus redeems himself by waging war, and then seeks to absolve himself of any blame in Sitā’s misfortunes by disassociating himself from her. Further, the suggestion that she should now associate herself with less-godly men is something that I see as a mark of arrogance and an indication of the fact that Sitā was merely a tool for self-preservation; now that the job is done Rāmā has no use for her anymore, and in fact would leave her to beings less accomplished than him. I feel that leaving her to lesser-beings also indicates that he cares only about himself, it does not matter if others have to face the consequence of having an unchaste (since that is what Rāmā presumes about Sitā) wife. Many would justify this by saying that as long as the cosmic balance of the universe was restored, such individual actions need not matter. I would, however, prefer to discard this utilitarian notion with respect to this point. I feel that both Rāmā and Rāvana waged war with the wrong intention. This criterion of the just war theory has been violated.


More important than that, however, is whether war was absolutely the last resort. Were all prior attempts at peace exhausted before the parties turned to war? It is interesting to note that when Rāmā is exiled by Dasharatha, he calmly accepts his fate, while Lakshmana is incensed. He goes so far as to say that “violent means are the only way to seize control, while leniency results in defeat” (II.18.8). Rāmā placates him and they go their way. When Sitā is kidnapped, however, Rāmā becomes uncharacteristically enraged, and it is Lakshmana who calms him. Many other instances in the text stress on the importance of peaceful means of resolving conflict, and the attempts made by Hanumān, Lakshmana, and Vibhīshana to resolve conflict via discourse. But because they are at the bidding of Rāmā, who has decided upon war, they are forced to engage in violence. What I find most interesting is that in both cases Rāmā loses his honor, but in the former the authoritative legitimacy of his father deems the cause not worthy of a rebellion. One of the tenets of the just war is the presence of a legitimate authority; something we will not go into much detail. However, Rāmā’s willingness to avoid war in face of his exile seems to stem from his obedience of his father’s wishes—in other words, a respect for authority. Many sociological studies suggest that this has something to do with caste –not only is Dasharatha a human, but he is also a Kshatriyā, the only caste allowed to wield weapons. Rāvana is half-Rākshasa, half-Brahmin; thus, both his caste and his demon blood (which also robs him of humanly moral principles) deprive him of any legitimacy to wield weapons and wage war. It is often suggested that Rāmā declared war outraged at Rāvana’s audacity to declare himself king and adopt the ways of the Kshatriyā caste.

The principle of last resort finds prominence in Rākshasa military ethics as well. Both Vibhīshana and Kumbhakarna chastise him and urge him to rethink his decisions. War is to be avoided whenever possible, and when it becomes inevitable, it is best to be on the side of the ‘righteous’ (as illustrated by Vibhīshana’s defection to Rāmā’s army). However, it is clear that both Rāmā and Rāvana avoid peaceful counsel. The principle of last resort has thus not been obeyed.


Military ethics during actual fighting are held in high regard in the Rāmāyana. Though we do not get to see deviation from these principles in the actual war, there are several other instances in the text which depict that both Rāmā and Rāvana were susceptible to disobeying these principles.

In the Kiṣkindhākāṇḍa, Rāmā, in order to forge an alliance with Sugrīva, agrees to slay his brother Vāli. As Sugrīva and Vāli fight, Rāmā hides behind a tree and shoots an arrow at Vāli, breaking the code he has staunchly adhered to all this while. As Vāli lies dying, he reproaches Rāmā for his cruel act. Rāmā does not justify this action, but tries to nullify the military ethics by saying that they do not apply to animals. This disregard for ‘lesser’ beings perhaps foreshadows Rama’s callous behaviour with Sitā in the Yuddha Kāṇḍa. Besides, this goes on to show that the major alliances of this unjust (as we have already established) war were established on shaky grounds, further adding to its demerits.

In contrast, Rāvana might well be commended for listening to his counsel as they steered him on the ethical path. Not only was Vibhīshana successfully able to talk him out of slaying Hanumān as slaying an emissary breaches the code, but he also listens to his counsel when they advise him against killing Sitā.

Throughout the Rāmāyana, Rāmā recites several tenets of military ethics from time to time e.g. “a foe who does not resist, is in hiding, cups his hands in supplication, approaches seeking refuge, is fleeing, or is caught off guard—[one] must not slay any of these” VI.37.78; however, he seems not to follow them (at least, the one about fleeing is violated when he kills Marīchā, who is in the guise of the golden deer). It would be fair to say that Rāmā is indeed hypocritical in his approach to right conduct; and it is Rāvana who (albeit reluctantly) upholds them. Nevertheless, this criterion, too, has been nullified.


While the epic defies the logical principles of just war, it adheres to a Hindu code of moral supremacy. Throughout the Rāmāyana, great importance is placed on the morality of the leader, and non-defensive, punitive war is justified for the defence of morally superior ideas (Hindu cosmic balance, in this case); quite unlike western philosophical thought. Further, adhering to strong, defined moral principles allows a leader to gain and maintain political legitimacy. If we were to see this in the context of the principle of last resort, it may be inferred that since Rāvana’s ideology was not consistent with Rāmā’s, Rāmā did not deem him a legitimate ruler.

Perhaps we may attribute the complex nature of the war to moral relativism; a concept most famously crafted by Plato and explored by Nietzsche, but rarely mentioned in Hinduism. There is no universal moral philosophy that dictates a code for distinguishing right from wrong, and therefore there are different viewpoints on morality, each shaped by its culture, history and society; with no viewpoint considered superior over others. What to some may seem a clash between two males whose egos could not be adequately massaged without military slaughter, to others may be the coming of the divine Lord and the redemption of their sins. It is up to the reader to choose which camp they belong to.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of The Creative Process by The Mumbai Art Collective.