FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY: Part 11

Canberra, 20 May 2013
THE GLORY OF THE MAURYAS
Section IV
Kautilya and the Arthashastra
Kautilya: A King’s Mentor
Kautilya, also called Chanakya, is often maligned as a teacher of unethical and even immoral behaviour in statecraft by a number of historians, analysts and commentators. Perhaps no other assessment could be as biased and farther from the truth. In the Indian vocabulary there is also a tendency to equate the term ‘Chanakyan’ with ‘Machiavellian’. Even this is untrue. The misunderstanding and misinterpretation is due to a very limited knowledge regarding the range and depth of the treatise—Arthashastra—that Kautilya wrote regarding, what according to him, was the ideal manner of ruling a kingdom. The key to Chandragupta Maurya’s success was the incisive advice that he received from his mentor, Kautilya, although he remained an obscure personage for a century after Chandragupta was acclaimed by historians as an Emperor of great import in world history. Even in the Itihasa-Purana, the ancient genealogical records, Chanakya was reported as the chief minister of Chandragupta and was not equated with the persona of Kautilya, the author.
The ‘discovery’ of Kautilya and his monumental treatise, the Arthashastra, came about by sheer accident—as has been the case in a number of instances in Indian history, starting from the ‘discovery’ of the Harappan Civilisation. In 1904, an unknown scholar (pundit), a learned man from Tanjore district (in today’s Tamil Nadu) came to the Mysore Government Oriental Library and handed over a palm-leaf manuscript of an ancient Sanskrit text to the librarian, Dr Shamasastry. The text, now known as Kautilya’s Arthashastra, was translated by Dr Shamasastry in the pages of the Indian Antiquity in 1905. The Maharaja of Mysore encouraged the publication of the full text as Volume 37 of the Bibliotheca Sanskrita Mysore in 1909. This publication restored the fame of Chandragupta’s mentor Kautilya and also brought to light the great text—the Arthashastra.   
Chanakya’s Origins. Kautilya was ignored by Brahminical writers for centuries after his death and the first mention of his name is seen only in the Puranas that are dated at around 5th century AD. There are two sources that give details of the origins of this most enigmatic Brahmin to emerge from ancient Indian history. The first is a Taxila-originated Buddhist source, the ‘Mahavamsha-tika’ written in 10th century AD, which states that he probably studied in Taxila; was ugly with a bad complexion; but excelled at stratagem, the study of the Vedas and occult, and was good at intrigue and diplomacy. The other source is the writings of Hemachandra, a Jain historian of 12th century AD, who reports that Kautilya was the son of Chanaka, who was a Dramila (Dravidian). What seems to be believable is that Chanakya was the son of Chani a Brahmin and a devout Jain from Chanaka sect and his wife Chanesvari who were Dravidians, possibly from Kerala, and that his real name was Vishnugupta. The name Kautilya seems to have been derived from his mother who was of the Kutila gotra. Chanakya is supposed to have been born with a fully developed set of teeth, which was believed to be the portent of royal power at that time. His father broke the teeth to ensure that his son avoided a life of sin and perdition that royal power represented. [Even at that time, the concept of power corrupting and individual was prevalent!]
Irrespective of the veracity of any of these claims regarding his origin, it is certain that after attaining a high level of proficiency in traditional Brahminical knowledge, Kautilya went to the Nanda court seeking patronage but was ill-received by the king. It is also reported in some sources that he was ‘insulted’ both for his looks and for his audacity in seeking to work at the court of the Nandas, at that time at the height of their power and glory, and unceremoniously thrown out. He left vowing vengeance, determined to avenge the insult and pledging to bring down the dynasty. He thereafter started his wanderings as an itinerant scholar. It was during this time of restless wandering that he met Chandragupta and took on his mentorship. There is a story attached to this meeting. One day, when he was resting during his wandering life, Kautilya saw a boy playing the role of a king with his friends and watched the game. The boy seemed to Chanakya to be extraordinarily gifted and of royal bearing. He approached the boy and asked for a gift from the ‘king’. The boy is supposed to have pointed at a herd of cattle (that obviously did not belong to him) and gifted it to Kautilya saying, ‘the Earth is for the enjoyment of heroes.’ On inquiry Chanakya found out that the boy was of royal lineage and was being fostered by a local ‘hunter master’ [possibly a minor landlord of minimum importance in the nearby village]. He ‘bought’ the boy for 1000 kahapanas and together they continued the journey towards Taxila. Kautilya thereafter took on the role of teacher and mentor and educated and trained Chandragupta with a single-minded purpose, grooming him to overthrow the Nandas and become the king of Pataliputra. [The manner in which the Nandas were defeated and Chandragupta installed on the throne has already been covered in Section I]
Kautilya – The Author
Even today there is doubt and debate regarding the identity of the person who wrote the Arthashastra and also whether or not it is just a compilation of truisms by Kautilya and his disciples. As recently as in 1968, T R Trautmann a renowned scholar declared that, ‘Kautilya’s Arthashastra, while composed by a single person, has no one creator.’ He however accepted that it was compiled by a single person. It is certain that other works, also called ‘Arthashastras’, were in existence when Kautilya started to put his book together. Kautilya himself acknowledges in his book the existence of these works. However, his Arthashastra is a much more refined and improved treatise and there is definitive proof of a great deal of original thought that has been included in fashioning the book. Kautilya mentions schools of thought that he differed and disagreed with and reasons for doing so. Further, the book is an integral whole with uniformity of style and a constancy of logical analysis that precludes any notion of it being a mere compilation, by one or a group of people, of traditional wisdom handed down over the years.
Professor R P Kangle, undoubtedly the greatest Arthashastra scholar, states categorically that it is Kautilya’s work, stating that the doubt regarding its authorship is mere scepticism of scholars and not criticism. [This is proof positive for me regarding the identity of the author, since I know of no greater expert than Prof Kangle on the subject.] On the other hand, the exact date of its publication is still not possible to determine, but it can be assumed with reasonable certainty that the treatise was published sometime in the 4th century BC.
As an author, Kautilya did not respect tradition and exalted reason over textual prescriptions. He was also openly contemptuous of superstitions, declaring that, ‘man should act in faith with himself and not the stars.’ He had almost no interest in religion other than to manipulate it to enhance royal power and he used wandering ascetics, holy men and scholars as spies. The book occasionally mentions philosophy and ethics, in one place stating, ‘Philosophy is the lamp that illuminates all sciences; it provides the technique for all action; it is the pillar that supports all Dharma.’ However, he considered philosophy as the theoretical framework necessary to provide coherence to policy and not as purely abstract thought inquiring into the basic fundamentals of reality. It has been incorrectly interpreted, perhaps because of the inherent pragmatism of the book, that Kautilya espoused the theory that morality had no place in the pursuit of power. This belief, prevalent in both Indian and Western analysis of the Arthashastra, has been causal in creating a negative appeal for the treatise and detracting from the true value of the book. The directives Kautilya provides in the book broke with tradition in another respect too. Neelakanta Sastri, an eminent historian, comments, ‘The mass and variety of statistical information which the Arthashastra requires the officials of the state to collect and arrange for ready reference… is something unique in all Indian political literature.’
‘The polity of the Mauryan Empire was… in part a culmination of the development of an indigenous tradition of imperialism which began to take shape under the Nandas and in part comprised wise borrowings and adaptations from contemporary foreign models, immediately Hellenic, but ultimately traceable to the Achaemenid Empire of Persia.’
K A Neelakanta Sastri, Age of the Nandas and Mauryas, Benares, 1952
Arthashastra: The Treatise on Polity
Arthashastra is a serious manual on statecraft, on how to run a state, informed by a higher purpose, clear and precise in its prescriptions, the result of practical experience of running a state. It is not just a normative text but a realist description of the art of running a state.
Shiv Shankar Menon, Indian National Security Advisor, 2012
The title of the book itself is open to different interpretations and has been translated in different ways—R P Kangle ‘Science of Politics’; A L Basham ‘Treatise on Polity’; D D Kosambi ‘Science of Material Gain’; G P Singh ‘Science of Polity’; and Roger Boesche ‘Science of Political Economy’. [I have preferred to go with A L Basham’s interpretation since it gives a holistic understanding of what the book stands for; the book is not merely about economics or politics as separate entities, nor does it only deal with the politico-economic aspects of governance. It is a text that encompasses all aspects of governance and of ensuring the well-being of a state.] Arthashastra deals with the vast variety of subjects that are involved in ruling a kingdom and covers all aspects of the theory and practice of government. Without doubt, this book is the most important document that deals with diplomacy, socio-political and economic issues, and secular knowledge to come out of ancient India. 
Chanakya’s Arthashastra… discusses the duties of the king, of his ministers and councillors, of council meetings, of departments of government, of diplomacy, or war and peace. It gives details of the vast army that Chandragupta had, consisting of infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants. And yet Chanakya suggests that mere numbers do not count for much; without discipline and proper leadership they may become a burden.
Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, Penguin Books, 1981, pp. 126-127    
 The Arthashastra is a guidebook for kings while it is also a rulebook for the general citizenry. While it is concerned with the civil and political institutions and ways in which a ruler can operate them, it is not a text of political philosophy but one that deals with political craftsmanship. Written in Sanskrit, it describes an ideal government and details the politico-economic necessities as seen through the prism of contemporary assumptions. The description of the functioning of the Mauryan government given in the book is correlated and confirmed by other sources. More importantly the book is today universally acknowledged as a major treatise on politics, economy and governance. Although, the exact date of its writing is difficult to ascertain (as mentioned earlier), there is general agreement that the core of the book was written in the early Mauryan era (sometime between 4th and 3rd century BC) with some additions having been made in post-Mauryan times. It is indeed a genuine text from the Mauryan times, written by Kautilya but given some refinements and final touches (especially in Book 2) by an unknown editor around 3th century AD.
The Arthashastra—written 18 centuries before Machiavelli penned his classic, The Prince—provides a great insight into human nature and weaknesses. Further, long before Clausewitz articulated his acclaimed theories on politics and war, [This is not to suggest that Clausewitz was aware of the writings of Kautilya, which could not have been the case considering the date when Clausewitz’s book was published and the discovery of the Arthashastra] Kautilya stated that war is only a continuance of state policy by other means; that war must never be an end in itself but must serve the larger ends of policy; and that it was better to win over an intelligent adversary than crush him. [The case of the Prime Minster of the Nanda dynasty (considered intelligent and efficient) being appointed to the same position by Chandragupta after he became king points to the actual practice of this dictum. See Section I] In Kautilya’s treatise the state was seen not as a moral order but purely as a system of power relations defined by the limits of what was feasible to achieve. Pragmatism pervades every description of the means to govern the kingdom and he declared that the ruler’s ability to hold and exercise complete control over the kingdom was dependent on the seven pillars of power—the king’s character and personal qualities; the qualities and qualifications of the ministers and councillors; the wealth of the chief city or capital; the wealth and prosperity inherent in the provinces of the kingdom; the economic stability of the treasury; the strength and capability of the army; and the success of the nation’s foreign policy and diplomacy culminating in its ability to cultivate allies.
How Arthashastra relates to the Indian Way of Life
In the Indian way of life, the four great aims of human endeavour are dharma, artha, kama and moksha. These can be very loosely translated as moral behaviour (dharma), wealth (artha), worldly pleasure (kama) and salvation (moksha). Moksha is unambiguously the highest ideal and represents the highest level of self-realisation through liberation. This liberation—from the repeated cycle of death and rebirth—is attained through releasing the divine in the human body; the spiritual in the physical; and the soul within the mind-body complex; thereby achieving a timeless state of the soul. Obviously the pursuit of the other three endeavours contributes directly to the achievement of moksha. Dharma is the absolute concept of righteousness and encompasses the idea of duty. This duty, in an ever expanding manner, starts with the duty to oneself, to one’s ancestors, to the society at large and finally to the universal order. This belief in duty can be equated, in an overarching manner, to a very broad combination of spiritual, moral, ethical and temporal laws. Each individual human being has his/her own dharma to fulfil.
In Kautilya’s treatise the term ‘artha’ has a much wider significance than the narrow meaning of mere wealth and is used to mean in a number of varied but interconnected things. It is used to denote material well-being, economic and productive activity, and wealth in terms the ‘wealth of a nation’. Material well-being of an individual is but a small part of the equation; the contribution of the individual towards the state and that of the state towards an individual’s well-being was considered a critical bond. Although an important part of Arthashastra was the ‘science of economics’, the book was essentially the art of government in the widest possible sense. It is more about the ‘science of politics’ and the role of economics within it, the connection being the need for the state to promote the welfare of its subjects through the acquisition of wealth and the enlargement of territory.
Ruling a Kingdom
The Arthashastra lays down the need for a clear administrative process and how such a system should be developed and implemented and presupposes that a well-governed kingdom would subscribe to an efficient enforcement of law and order. The detection and punishment of criminals and the enforcement of law and order (dandaniti) is considered critical to the maintenance of the fabric of society and forms an integral part of Arthashastra. Danda, meaning staff, was considered the sceptre wielded by the rulers and equated to the army; kosadanda being the art of employing a combination of economics and military power that emanated from the treasury and the army. [This is the same process that in contemporary security processes is called a whole-of-government approach to national security and the creation and application of both soft and hard power using all elements of national power.] A nation was considered to be prosperous when economic stability, law and order and efficient administration could be ensured by the king. Towards this goal, the Arthashastra prescribed, in detail, the duties and responsibilities of all persons involved in the running of the kingdom, starting from the king himself and going down all the way to the lowest tax collector/police inspector/bureaucrat. In addition to the fundamental internal administration of the bureaucracy, the king had three primary roles—raksha, the protection of the state from external aggression; palana, the maintenance of internal law and order; and kshema, safeguarding the welfare of the state and the people. These roles could only be performed optimally if the king maintained strict personal discipline and lived daily according to the detailed prescription given in the Arthashastra. The emphasis was on the king’s ability to discharge his duties efficiently.
 In Arthashastra foreign policy was completely oriented towards ensuring the prosperity of the nation, which in turn was dependent on the acquisition of new territories either through the settlement of virgin territories or through conquest. At the time that the Arthashastra was written, the political environment was of a large number of small kingdoms of varying power and size vying for domination. In this situation, it was better for a kingdom to nurture its own expansionist ambitions than become the target of somebody else’s expansionist ambition. Therefore, Arthashastra is very detailed in its explanation of inter-state relations, and regarding dealing with other kings, either peacefully or in a warlike manner. Preparing for war was considered integral to ensuring the well-being of the state. Essentially bilateral relationship with another state was considered to be one of the two; either a state of war or one of benign peace. These relations could be further divided into six forms—agreement with mutual pledges meaning peace; offensive operations—war; indifference—neutrality; making preparations and marching—short of war; seeking protection—forming alliances; making peace with one while waging war with another—double policy. Arthashastra goes into great details regarding how a king could and should obtain information regarding other states through the use of spies and informers. It also explains the famous [at times made infamous through unscrupulous or misinformed use of the term] ‘Mandala Theory’, which is essentially based on the premises that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and that ‘a nation that shares a border with one’s own state should be considered an enemy’.
Conclusion
Arthashastra, although discovered only in the early 1900s, is one of the better sources of information that provides general secular knowledge regarding ancient India. As mentioned earlier it is not a text of political philosophy, but its philosophical premise is entirely Vedic in nature, considering heterodoxy a crime worthy of punishment through fines. It gives information of a highly formalised society—with 331 prescribed offences that attracted fines; severe laws that permitted 18 different types of torture, to be administered one per day, to obtain confessions from criminals; and death penalty administered in different ways. The picture that emerges is of a society held together by an ubiquitous system of secret police and the strength of the army, both centrally controlled and employed at the will of one single individual—the Emperor.
Truly radical ‘Machiavellianism’, in the popular sense of that word, is classically expressed in Indian literature in the Arthashastra of Kautilya (written long before the birth of Christ, ostensibly in the time of Chandragupta): compared to it, Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless.
Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, 1919      
 

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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