Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, June 12, 2020

Old Stories of the Diety Agni

Today we have a guest post byRichard Bejtlich in which he discusses what may be the oldest martial arts manual extant. Richard is the founder of Martial HistoryTeam and a jiu-jitsu practitioner with Team Pedro Sauer.

The Agni Purana

By Richard Bejtlich, founder, Martial History Team

Most martial artists are familiar with East and South-eastern Asian styles through practice and movies, but many are not aware of the martial traditions of other parts of Asia. India, with a population of over one billion people, is home to a rich martial tradition. India offers opportunities for study that are sometimes lacking in other countries.

For example, although there are discussions of warfare in old Chinese documents, one does not find detailed extant (i.e., still surviving) manuals of warfare until the 16th century. One example is 正氣堂集 (Zheng Qi Tang Ji), "Compilation of Vital Energy,” by 俞大猷 (Yu Da-You), who lived 1503–1579, and was a Ming dynasty Chinese general. Another is 紀效新書 (ji xiao xin shu) "New Book of Military Efficiency," written by another general, Qi Jiguang, who lived 1528-1588.

One of the oldest, if not the oldest, extant Indian military manuals is the Agni Purana, a Sanskrit text. “Agni Purana” means “old stories of the deity Agni.” The 1904 translation and commentary titled Agni Puranam (not “Agni Purana,” incidentally) by Dutt M.N. dates the text to the “8th or 9th century,” while Martial Arts Studies of the World (2010) dates it to the 8th century. Phillip B. Zarrilli’s book on the Indian art of Kalarippayattu, When the Body Becomes All Eyes, claims the text was written “no earlier than the 8th century.” Whatever the exact date, this book contains specific material on martial matters many centuries before many other extant book on martial arts.

The Agni Purana is not purely a martial arts text, however. In fact, only four of its 382 or 383 (depending on the edition) chapters address martial content. In this sense the book is more like an early encyclopedia of Indian thought. The four chapters of interest to martial artists are numbered 249-252. They are available online, although split between two volumes, available as Agni Purana English translation parts 2 and 3 at The four chapter headings are “science of archery,” (twice), “method of using a noose,” and “the mode of wielding the sword, maces, etc.” In the format available online, the text occupies about eight pages of text.

The emphasis on archery is not unique to Indian martial arts. Those familiar with Japanese traditions will remember that the samurai were first known for their expertise as mounted archers. The four martial chapters of the Agni Purana belong to the Dhanur Veda tradition of Indian martial arts. Dhanur Veda means “science of the bow,” although scholars apply the term to all ancient Indian martial arts. Some Indian martial arts still practiced, such as Kalarippayattu, trace their origins to Dhanur Vedic texts, including the Agni Purana.

The four martial arts chapters of the Agni Purana are short enough to read in their entirety, but in brief they discuss topics such as warfare via chariots, elephants, and horseback, plus combat by infantry and wrestling. The text includes five types of weapons, such as arrows and similar missiles, spears, the noose (as a weapon that is thrown but retained, unlike an arrow or spear), swords, and unarmed combat. Zarrilli noted that the chapters reflect a progression that might resonate with modern martial artists, saying “The consummate martial master progresses from training in basic body postures, through technical mastery of techniques, to single-point focus, to even more subtle aspects of mental accomplishment.”

Readers looking for additional free book-length material on Indian martial arts might enjoy two older texts published by the Internet Archive:

On the Weapons Army Organisation and Political Maxims of the Ancient Hindus by Gustav Oppert, published in 1880, 182 pages, with a special focus on the text Nitiprakasika aka Niti Prakashika aka Neeti Prakashika:

The Art of War in Ancient India by P C Chakravarti, published in 1941, 252 pages.

Indian martial arts may not be as popular, in terms of practice, when compared to their East and South-eastern Asian styles, but they offer several texts worthy of modern study. In this respect they are similar to historical European martial arts (HEMA), although texts like the Agni Purana are comparatively brief and lacking the illustrations found in many European manuscripts. I encourage readers familiar with these Indian traditions and their texts to share what they know!

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