‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, translated by Thomas Cleary


For the last Sikhi Book Club of 2018, we discussed ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, translated by Thomas Cleary. The book can be found here.

The members began by reflecting that this is the oldest book we’ve done so far, and despite its short length, the book had many interesting applications to the modern world and spirituality. The ultimate message was about how to achieve your objectives in life without fighting. The direct translation was assisted by Thomas Cleary’s commentary on each paragraph. The principles underpinning the book were around a Taoist belief system. The book is essentially a treatise about war but is also about how to attain peace.

In terms of Sikhi, the members discussed that Sikhs should be engaged in warfare both on a spiritual and a temporal level. We have the concept of being ‘tyaar bar tyaar’ i.e. being in a state of constant situational awareness which ensures that one is ready to deal with anything. The book placed emphasis of knowing oneself before knowing (or directing) others. To truly know oneself, a Sikh has to look internally and connect with the Guru, as well as seeing the Guru in everyone around them.

It is also interesting to look through the lens of Sikh history when reading this book. There was some discussion around why the reign of the Sikhs ultimately failed and what lessons can be drawn from Sun Tzu. At the same time, some members felt that Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s method and philosophy of doing battle was on a different level to that presented in this book. For example, in Sikhi, death is not necessarily a defeat as if a Sikh is at One with Waheguru, there is no body to die. On a purely numbers-basis, Sikhs can be regarded as losers in historical terms. On the other hand in terms of quality and philosophy the Sikhs are great winners. As Sun Tzu says, what everyone knows is not called wisdom.

On a material and physical level, the book provides many pieces of useful advice on choosing your battles and assessing which ones can realistically be fought and won. It also highlights how to incorporate losses into the overall battle strategy, and how to use reward to motivate soldiers. There were parallels with some principles incorporated in Shaster Vidhya such as the importance of fluidity of movement, using different tactics to confuse and bewilder the enemy, and the use of momentum and force. Physicality and training within Sikhi is something which we commonly forget nowadays and the members collectively agreed this is something which needs a higher profile within Sikh circles.

The book ended with a chapter on the use of spies, which circled back to the original chapter discussing the importance of strategic planning. Sun Tzu placed emphasis on the importance of sharing only ‘need to know’ information i.e. sharing only essential information with soldiers in order to protect the integrity of strategic plans and also to avoid soldiers becoming disillusioned. Certainly this chapter provided many parallels with the modern day warfare, which is often now intelligence-based rather than based on physical confrontation. Ultimately all wars are wars of information now in one sense or another.

The members rounded off the discussion with a reflection on how valuable this book had been to read, given that the information within it was thousands of years old, and yet hardly utilised.

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