Indian History Part 38 The Mandala Theory

Canberra, 12 March 2015

Over the eons human nature has remained unchanged. Similarly ever since the advent of nation-states their behaviour has also remained closely adhering to the past in a time honoured manner. It is this constancy in the behaviour pattern of both humans and States that make the concepts put forward in the treatise Arthasastra written by Kautilya, the Prime Minster of the Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta sometime around 350 B.C., relevant even today. The book takes an extremely pessimistic and cynical view of human nature—laying down the darkest iteration of human behaviour as the baseline for judgement—and lays out what ‘must’ be done, rather than what ‘ought’ to be done, in order to stabilise a world inhabited by imperfect human beings. Even so, this book formed the conceptual and intellectual basis for the prosperity of the great Mauryan Empire.

Since the Maurya dynasty was so successful, it was only natural that most of the medieval kings ruling in the Indian sub-continent adopted the Maurya traditions in administration, policing and bureaucracy. Further they looked to the teachings of Arthasastra to understand and practice the doctrine of diplomatic relations. One of the fundamental factors of this doctrine is the pragmatism attached to the process of a State going to war; whereas the concept of dharma—which means doing the right thing, in a very generic manner—is far removed from a State initiating a war. The in-built pragmatism of the book makes it discount the concept of the divine right of the king to rule, a belief that had been cultivated from the beginning of the entrenchment of the concept of ‘kingship’ in ancient India.

Kautilya was a realist dealing with the material world and therefore the book does not mention or take recourse to intuition as a contributing factor to decision-making. Neither does it refer to the ‘ultimate’ meta-physical reality which is part and parcel of basic Hindu philosophy. He looked at the base side of human nature as the fundamental point to develop national strategy, in a similar manner that Machiavelli developed his maxims in Europe, centuries later. In fact Kautilya preceded Machiavelli by hundreds of years and could be considered Machiavelli’s intellectual ancestor in matters of diplomacy and international relations. The concept of the election of a king to put an end to anarchy and the relationship between the State and the king, as elaborated by Kautilya has distinct similarity with the Contract Theory of State and kingship developed in the Western world at a much later stage. However, Kautilya also opined that if the authority of the king becomes unlimited, then it defeats the very purpose of electing a king since the State would then have reverted to the concept of ‘might is right’. In the first place this situation was what the election of a king was supposed to avoid.

Although opposed to giving a monarch overarching authority, Kautilya supported an oligarchic system of governance where an enlightened elite ruled the rest. He stated that this system would create a group of people that would be cognisant of the government’s responsibility to provide the greatest value for the State. He also advocated for a strong military elite to be the direct advisors to the king who was always the commander-in-chief of the military forces by virtue of his position. In creating the wealth of the nation, it was clear to Kautilya that ‘the ends justify the means’. [In modern terms this concept is considered morally flawed and many analysts have stated that sufficient emphasis has not been laid on the necessity to be ethical in all acts of governance.] However, Kautilya’s policies on international relations are sophisticated, multifaceted and cunningly calculative in nature. The book also takes into account the complex relationship between war and diplomacy. Even while violating the then contemporary ethical concepts of diplomacy, the entire Arthasastra has been written with absolutely no thought or consideration given to personal aggrandisement of the king or any of his officials but purely with the pragmatic aim of enhancing the power and glory of the Mauryan Empire.

In more recent times as compared to the antiquity of the Arthasastra, all powerful Chalukya kings from the time of Pulakesin II onwards, followed a logical sequence of invasion and conquest, going about it in a clockwise manner, almost always starting first in the north of the kingdom. Even when not bend on conquest, the Chalukya king can be seen perambulating his borders, doing rounds of his neighbours and riding the bounds of his territory on a continual and constant basis. This was their way of defining the ‘raja-mandala’ the diagram of a concentric ‘circle of kings’ as explained in Kautilya’s Arthasastra.

Any analysis of the Mandala Theory must accept that the central precepts of the concept would create a definitive possibility of a nation-state/kingdom being in a state of perpetual animosity and enmity with its neighbours. Further the theory must be viewed only as a tool of diplomacy, written contextually and specifically for the Mauryan period and therefore, one that cannot be imported and superimposed verbatim onto the practice of international relations in any other timeframe. All neighbours need not be perpetually antagonistic and opposed to the central state and through history it is seen that some are even willingly subservient to the more powerful neighbour. It is seen that the Mandala Theory has been overused and quoted out of context, especially in recent times—not often based on adequate theoretical analysis that brings about a clear understanding of the concept.

Geo-politics of the Mandala Theory

The Mandala was originally a religious diagram used as a meditational aid, the term being a compound Sanskrit word meaning ‘sacred circle’ (‘manda’ meaning essence; and ‘la’ denoting a container or possessor). Over the passage of time it was gradually adapted to denote political formations. It is also seen that in some of the ancient Indian political texts and discourses, mandala has been used to indicate an entity specifically distinguished as the State, in its conventional meaning. This is understandable since in ancient times the meaning, understanding and definition of a State was somewhat different to the definition and perception of a nation-state that was developed in later times.

In the ancient Indian context, a State was not necessarily territorially defined with fixed or rigid geographical borders, but was a polity defined by its central core—both geographic and the seat of power. It could contain a number of secondary cores with not even a common administration to connect them and could also be a conglomeration of feudatories and vassal states, owing allegiance to a central power. In such a formation the centre of influence could, and often did, shift from one core to the other, dependent on a number of varied factors. In other words, the concept of ‘statehood’ was fluid and ephemeral. Essentially, the concept highlighted the importance of charismatic and strong leadership that was a critical requirement to hold the fluctuating and contingent State together.

Connection to Indian Cosmology

In Indian cosmology the Mandala design is depicted as a map where Mount Meru is the centre and the core axis of the world. Mount Meru is a sacred mountain with five peaks in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmology and is considered to be the centre of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universe. In ancient Indian belief, cosmic power was considered as entering the centre of a scared place; the connotation being its integration with a higher consciousness. This also resonated with the concept of ‘centring’ of the humans with the sacred and their subsequent diffusion outwards into action. Around the centre, the immediate and innermost circle is divided into four lands or ‘dvipas’ one out of which, called the Jambudvipa meaning the ‘land of the rose-apple’, is earth. The next circle is the sea, which is followed by a circle of land, then another of sea, and so on to infinity.

The seas are filled with liquids—the innermost being saltwater followed by treacle, wine, butter, honey etc. It is this cosmological concept that was difficult for the ‘scientifically’ trained and oriented Western (mainly British) philosophers and historians to understand. It was also this description of the universe as viewed within the Hindu (Indian) spiritual and metaphysical sense that made Thomas Babington Macaulay state contemptuously in 1835 [and perhaps more importantly, displaying his ignorance and inability to understand the intricate nature of this overarching philosophy, buttressed by an inborn arrogance in considering everything ‘Hindu’ unworthy of detailed study], ‘History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long—and geography made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter’. (Quoted on page ix of Volume II in this series From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History) It was also this attitude of condescending superiority that resulted in the concept of raja-mandala being completely discarded in the 19th century attempt at reconstructing Indian history through the lens of the science of history rather than analysing it within the construct of the broader Indian ethos and spiritual understanding.

Mandala therefore must be considered more a State-defined circle rather than the State per se. It could be created by a single, all-powerful central core with peripheral areas of influence or it could consist of a number of different centres each with its own circle of influence, varying in importance to different degrees.

The regional system of the day has been described by Gesick as, “…a patchwork construction of larger political units, in which the secondary and tertiary centres preserved a great deal of their internal autonomy in exchange for acknowledging the centre’s spiritual authority.

Lorrain M. Gesick,

‘Introduction’ in L Gesick (ed)

Centres, Symbols and Hierarchies: Essays on the Classical States of Southeast Asia, 1983

If the Mandala was centred on one single claimant to power at the core, he was acknowledged as the ‘Chakravartin’, literally translated as the ruler of the wheel and meaning the ruler of the universal wheel, or the Universal Emperor. This obviously relates back to the Hindu cosmology wherein the monarch integrates vertically to the divine and horizontally across the territories to the people and resources, more often than not organised as feudatories. The fundamental advantage of such a system was that it unified the realm from disintegration and protected it from divisive external forces, both political and spiritual.

The Mandala Theory in its sacred religious dimension was part of the spiritual system that acted as a device for concentrating and centring the human connection to the divine, which was represented as the ‘essence’ resident in a deity. It was the process that facilitated the achievement of spiritual prowess through merging the human with the divine. When this concept was applied to the political field in religious societies, the political leader—in this instance the king—being at the centre of power could claim a degree of divinity or at least a closer relationship to divine power than the others. The power of the Chakravartin was therefore derived from the central divine entity and so was far greater than the power vested in him through mere economic and military power.

Raja-Mandala (The Circle of States)

Raja-Mandala is the manifested interpretation of the cosmic mandala on earth and was based on the presumption that everyone, both gods and humans, would practice Dharma, righteousness, according to the laid down scriptures. The triumph of Dharma led to political harmony, established and exhibited through an orderly hierarchy of kings and rulers. However, this system is also under threat at all times because of the prevalence of ‘matsya-nyaya’, which could be explained as the ‘big fish eats little fish syndrome’ and needs constant adjustments to be kept in the correct balance.

In the raja-mandala the Maharajadhiraja, ‘the great king of kings’, took the place of Mount Meru at the centre of the axis. The States immediately surrounding the core were considered natural enemies, the next layer as potential allies, the next layer being the allies of one’s enemies and so on, expanding outwards till the layer was sufficiently removed from the central core and ceased to have any significant influence, thereby becoming irrelevant. Raja-mandala is diagrammatically divided by vertical and horizontal radials into four quadrants that corresponds to the four ‘dvipas’ or land masses of the cosmic mandala map. A great king, or one ambitious enough to want to be one, would attempt ‘digvijaya’, the conquest of the four quarters, in a bid for universal conquest and domination. On successful completion of such a conquest, the king becomes a Chakravartin, the term also interpreted as the wheel-turning world ruler, who was capable of welding to the hub at the centre a network of spreading spokes. The spokes spread out into the concentric circles and the kings within each circle, with their own centres of power, accept the self-centring world order established by the Chakravartin.

Establishing such a circular order and thereafter maintaining it properly were exacting tasks and not for the faint-hearted. It demanded a sequence of almost permanent perambulation by the king of his own domains as well as securing the borders of the kingdom. Once again the title Chakravartin alludes to this constant circling of the central figure in a manner reminiscent of turning a wheel. It is to be noted that during these cycle of moves, symbolic submission was offered to the powerful Chakravartin by the lesser kings and graciously accepted. Actual wars, with all the destruction and wastage that it brought to both the victor and the vanquished, were avoided. If conflict did actually take place, they were invariably of very low intensity and normally followed a ritualised form of warfare that avoided unnecessary bloodshed.

Kautilya developed this theory further to form the basis for defining all relations in the world order, detailing the theory of foreign policy and interstate relations based on the raja-mandala. The cosmological principles were interpreted, firmly based on the maxim that a friend’s friend is a friend and an enemy’s friend is an enemy. Kautilya founded six fundamental principles that guide foreign policy. One, the pursuit of resources by the Vijigsu, who is described as one desirous of conquest or the conqueror, through the conduct of victorious campaigns. This was essential to increase the power of the State—intellectual, economic and military—which in turn required the king to continually project power. The intimate relationship between power and progress of a State was acknowledged, as was the need to create and execute the right policies in governance.

Two, the elimination of all enemies of the State. It was the bounden duty of the king to strive to achieve greater power in relation to the potential or actual adversary by enhancing the overall strength of the State. In doing so the king had to continually build up his own strength while also denuding the strength of the enemy, keeping in mind that relative power was always a dynamic equation and needed constant attention and monitoring even the slightest change in the balance. Three, the State needed to cultivate allies, create new ones when needed and also provide assistance to them in times of their need to continue to retain them as allies. Such assistance could take the form of resources or military assistance if invaded by an adversary. However, invasion of an ally by an enemy would indicate a failure on the part of the central king to monitor the increasing strength of a potential threat. The consequences of such a situation developing was considered detrimental to the power and status of the primary king. Four, the ability of a king to be prudent in his dealings with both allies and adversaries alike, as opposed to foolhardy valour. The adage, ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ was very clearly articulated in the explanation of this principle and the king cautioned and discouraged from trying to display personal bravery and courage in battle irrespective of the way the battle was swinging.

Five, a State should always prefer peace over war, through the practice of diplomacy, formulation of treaties, creation of alliances and, if and when necessary, even the adoption of a posture of neutrality. War should only be attempted as a last resort because it wastes the resources of the State in a disproportionate manner to what it achieves. Six, if a war has been fought, then justice should be even whether in victory or defeat. This is the paving stone for further peace and the development of a stable society, the foundational requirement for strengthening the State to a situation of unassailable position.

Kautilya recognised the State as the primary source of positive law stating that the raja-mandala theory was not a social contract theory regarding the origin of the power of states. The State had to function independent of social customs and traditions and the law had to be based on political authority and legal legitimacy, the combination of which should surpass all sectarian, communal and ethnic considerations. The raja-mandala essentially lays down the function and structure of an inter-state system where the middle kingdoms in the circles could also follow a neutral policy towards the central authority. The Vijigsu primarily followed a policy that at all times created as many allies as possible, while tolerating even the neutrality of kingdoms that were at least removed through two concentric circles.

Three Principles. The beauty of the raja-mandala theory lies in the fact that it is constructed with strict adherence to three principles—of the centre, of symmetry and of cardinal points. It works as a system with the clear understanding that destructive wars could obliterate the entire system with both the victor and the vanquished finally succumbing to external pressures in their weakened state. Therefore, the Vijigsu, the conqueror, was never seeking the destruction of other kingdoms but their submission and homage to his glory and power.

“The first principle is constant; the latter two vary according to the nature of the Mandala. Symmetry can be bilateral or dynamic—rigid and well-defined, or absolutely fluid. The cardinal points may be precise in number, the amount depending upon the mandala situation; or the points may be infinite, and non-existent as in a circle.”

Jose and Miriam Arguelles,

Mandala, p.13

Of the three principles, the centre corresponds to the Chakravartin and is always a constant based on the notion of a divine king radiating his power outwards. It was imperative that the Chakravartin was a person of prowess, achieved not through lineage or descent but through a merit-based system grounded on personal achievement. This created a forward looking leadership that evoked personal power tinged with devotion, giving rise to the concept of ‘devaraja’ or the king of gods, who was a repository of virtuous behaviour and unadulterated merit. The raja-mandala displayed strategic symmetry that could either be bilateral or multi-lateral in a fluid sense. The cardinal points in turn relate to symmetry. Dependent on the Chakravartin and his ability to speak universally through moral ‘conquest’, the points could extend outwards to infinitely.

Raja-mandala was essentially a network of loyalties that united somewhat unequal kingdoms and created an increased sovereign power that was bestowed on the Chakravartin—who was accepted because of his demonstrated merit—and used for the overall common good. It directed the smaller kingdoms towards unification with the central and more powerful kingdom as an ideal for mutual protection. Raja-mandala is an apt description of the complexity of international relations and the continually fluid and varying interests of the disparate stakeholders.


The Mandala Theory of the cosmos existed in religious texts much before it was adapted to suit the needs of governance, statefcraft, and diplomacy. In tailoring it to the requirements of the Maurya period, Kautilya created a masterpiece of statecraft that has relevance even today. In fact it is opined by many historians that Alexander’s ‘defeat’ at the borders of India—generally attributed to rebellion in his Army and their reluctance to go deeper into the sub-continent after the Battle of Jhelum with Porus—can be attributed to the then prevalent philosophy that structured the Indian concepts regarding international relations, politics, diplomacy, war and the employment of military forces. These same precepts were subsequently adapted and written into the Arthasastra by Kautilya.

Kautilya was the ultimate pragmatist when it came to State power and can be truly called the ‘first great political realist’. Four fundamentals that are still relevant and will continue to be so into the foreseeable future can be distilled from his discourse, which was based on an exposition of the Mandala Theory. One, even the closest of allies could become an adversary dependent on circumstances and the prevailing environment. Two, all governments would be well-advised to never have a balanced equation of power with a neighbouring State and must at all times exert their energies to ensuring that the balance is always tipped in their favour. Three, all elements of diplomacy are subtle acts of war and a nation is in reality in a perpetual state of conflict. Therefore, an effective foreign policy should always be geared as a preliminary move towards conflict and war. [This is the earliest reference to the fact that war is a continuation of politics, put forward in a slightly more nuanced manner to the opinion expressed by Carl von Clausewitz in his much acclaimed classic On War, written in 1832.] Four, all States deplete their own resources through usage and therefore would be on the lookout for new resources, to be obtained through trade, alliances or in extremis through the use of force. These are four universal truths that still prevail, irrespective of the manner in which they are analysed.

The final realistic assessment that Kautilya makes is to state that rulers, in the contemporary political scenario Governments, are judged only by their ability and success in defending national security and advocating the interests of the State; not by any other standards, either moral or political. A truism if ever there was one!

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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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 Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. 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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