I’ve always been fascinated by the world’s most renowned fighters throughout history. From the mythical Greek heroes to accounts of modern soldiers excelling under fire. One of the groups that has always appealed to me are the Nepalese Gurkhas or Gorkhas.
Every young schoolboy grows up hearing tales of the fearsome reputation of the Gurkha regiments in battle. Similar to the French Foreign Legion, the Nepalese Gurkhas meet many of the requirements of Article 47 of Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention regarding mercenaries but are exempt under clauses 47 (e)&(f).¹ They are most well known for their use of the Gurkha knife, the khukuri. I won’t go into the details of their actions within the various military campaigns that they have been involved in. I’ll leave it up to you, gentle reader, to follow this trail and acquaint yourself with their exploits. Needless to say, it makes for some thrilling reading.

There was a time when I was deluded by the current popular opinions about what it takes to be an effective warrior. Comic books and Hollywood blockbusters have ensured that we all, to a greater or lesser extent, expect that a great warrior is made by his or her physical abilities. They are usually portrayed as having the physique of a body-builder to represent their innate power.

This is of course because the idea has ultimately been fed by the Comic Book industry. In the comic book medium, the artist and writer have to convince the comic-book reader of the effectiveness of the hero or heroine sometimes with only one panel of artwork. The easiest way to do this? Portray them as having gigantic muscles.

Because of this social programming, we expect there to be something physically different about the warrior. Even where some historical material is drawn on for a Hollywood Blockbuster such as 300, we see a bunch of Spartans with chiseled abs, well-defined pecs and bulging biceps that look as though they would be quite comfortable in a typical 21st century gymnasium. You could just as easily picture them working the squat machine in between protein shakes as facing the wrath of the Persian Empire.

This is of course not a historically accurate representation of a warrior elite class at all when you consider that the factors that drive the modern body-building and strength-training industry did not exist a few hundred years ago. Add to that the fact that nutrition was not always so comprehensive in the past and it is unlikely that you would have encountered many people at all with towering, chiseled physiques. Even the famous turn-of-the-century strongmen and strongwomen performers were far more functional in appearance than modern body-builders.

We have certainly invested very heavily in appearances in our modern culture. If you were to consider the level of personal, financial and time-based investment required to be a modern high-level body-builder in terms of nutritional supplements and training time, it would not have been sustainable for people of the past to even consider attaining to this. The struggle for survival was often all that mattered to our ancestors.

So my early research into the mystery of what makes the Gurkhas great warriors was off to a bad start. I looked at their physical stats expecting to find something different about them, but beyond possible changes in blood chemistry which can be expected from living at high altitudes, I could find nothing too far out of the ordinary mentioned in any accounts of their historical actions. And yet they regularly did things that few people would be capable of doing.

What was it about them?

It was staring me in the face, locked away in their customary war-cry Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali (Nepali: जय महाकाली, आयो गोर्खाली) (Glory to Great Kali, Gorkhas approach!)¹

Kali is of course a Hindu goddess who’s earliest appearance is as a destroyer. She is sometimes associated with death. The secret to their combat-effectiveness was simply that they were unafraid in the face of danger. I quote from the Wikipedia article on Gurkhas : The former Indian Army Chief of Staff Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, once stated that[7] “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha.”¹

This insight brought to mind the Code of Bushido, also known as the Way of the Warrior (as a matter of interest, the word Bushido has been derived from the Chinese characters for Wushu, traditional martial arts.). The Code of Bushido was a code of ethics which grew out of the martial traditions associated with the Samurai Class.

Of course, the Samurai Class was another warrior elite class from history. Their ideology and virtues collided with a more contemporary set of values in the Second World War. A famous quote by Yamamoto Tsunetomo from the book Hagakure (a controversial exposition of his views on Bushido) is as follows:

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim. We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”²

I believe that this explains the power of warrior elites like the Gurkhas and the Samurai more elegantly and poetically than I can, but I will try to elaborate. It is hard for us to understand the perspectives of these warrior elite classes from our somewhat pampered 21st century mind-set.

To a greater or lesser extent, we are all bound by a subconscious and powerful fear of death. This fear of death prevents us from performing at our highest level of efficiency because that could cost us our lives. Unfortunately and contradictorily, this fear of death can, in some circumstances, cost us our lives. An example may be someone climbing a steep cliff face and then becoming paralysed by a fear of falling near the top. Unless he or she manages to overcome their fear and either continue or climb down, they will eventually fall to their death without some form of rescue intervention.

As you can imagine, being paralysed with fear in the middle of a self-defence situation is not of much use. This has prompted just about every traditional martial art to deal with the subject of this fear of death in some way to allow the student to operate effectively. Many methods have been used such as ritual or religious instruction, conditioned response and exposure. Traditional Chinese Martial Arts has dealt with the subject often through the path of personal awareness and meditation. By cultivating states of mental calm and clarity, the student can maintain control over their own mind and body. This allows them control over feelings of fear and the ability to act in dangerous circumstances.

Written by SiXiong Lester Walters, head of Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia

1. Wikipedia contributors, “Gurkha”, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gurkha (accessed November 28, 2016)
2. Yamamoto, T., Tsunetomo, Y., & Wilson, W. S. (2000). Hagakure: The book of the samurai. Japan: Kodansha International.