International Conference on ‘Kautilya and the Contemporary World’, University of Delhi, 17 Mar 2019
Keynote Address by Dr Arvind Gupta, Director VIF, ‘The relevance of Kautilaya’s Arthasastra’ 1

I would like to thank the organizer for inviting me to this conference on Kautilya and the Contemporary world. The initiative taken by the Delhi University to hold this conference is laudable. The theme of discussion is apt as it compels us to think about an outstanding Indian thinker, statesman and a practitioner of statecraft, i.e Kautilya or Chanakya. I hope that the conference will stimulate the young minds gathered here and attract them to deeper studies of ancient Indian states craft which we have ignored.
Kautilaya’s Arthasastra written in 4th century BC is one of the most exhaustive treatises on statecraft. Unfortunately, while people know of Aristotle, Plato, Machiavelli, Max Weber, and others, the knowledge about Kautilya and his Arthasastra is rare.

In 1992, American scholar George Tanham stirred up a hornets’ nest when he charged in an essay that Indians lacked a tradition of strategic thinking. Many Indian scholars countered him pointing out India had a rich tradition of strategic thinking quoted in venerated ancient texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Arthasastra, Thirukural and the Panchatantra belonging to different ages. The Cholas, Marathas, Rajputs, and Mughals were adept at statecraft and warfare. They would not have been successful unless they thought strategically.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that there was hardly any systematic study of Indian ancient texts from the point of view of identifying the main ingredients of Indian strategic thought. Indian texts are still not part of global political science or international relations discourse. Few Indian or foreign universities teach these texts as part of security and strategic studies. People know Plato, Aristotle, Marx, and Machiavelli but rarely Kautilya. It is a pity considering Arthasastra is a vast treatise on statecraft. A lot more systematic work needs to be done by scholars, particularly Indians, in the area. The lack of knowledge of Sanskrit and regional languages is a major hindrance. Authentic translations of these texts are not available. Archival sources have not been tapped. However, more significantly, the Indian educational system has not placed emphasis on the exploration of the rich Indian traditions in strategic thinking. The Chinese are devoting considerable attention on ancient Chinese philosophies like Sun Tzu, Confucius, Mencius and others, but in India, such studies have been few and far between.

The Arthasastra is a rich treasure of strategic thinking in ancient India. Written in Sanskrit by Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, around 321 BC in Magadha, it deals extensively with issues of state, society, economy, administration, law, and justice, internal security, defence, diplomacy, foreign policy and warfare. Divided into 15 books, it has 6,000 sutras. The text lay hidden for centuries and was discovered in 1905 in Karnataka. R Shamasastry was the first person to translate the text in 1915. Today, Kangle’s English translation is considered the authentic and widely used by scholars.

The Arthasastra is a practical manual of instruction for kings telling them how to rule, keeping in mind the welfare of the subjects. Although the text is secular, as it does not use any religious values, it is nevertheless rooted in Dharma, the code of conduct for everyone. The basis of rule is the ultimate welfare of the subjects. This generation of wealth, fair distribution, internal and external security is required. To achieve these material aims a fair and efficient system of governance is a must.

The King is set lofty ideals—he sees his happiness in the well-being of his subjects and offers them yogakshema, i.e. security and well-being. The Arthasastra was written in times when the subcontinent was divided into a number of small and mutually hostile states. Therefore, it was necessary for a king to not only protect his state but also deal with hostile kings and expand his territory. A king could perform his functions only if he was a strong leader with a strong intellect and ever ready to train himself in sciences.

Among the numerous dimensions of statecraft developed in the Arthasastra, mention can be made of three that would be relevant even today. The Saptanga Theory of state attributes delineates seven Prakrits or elements of the state. These are king, his minister, the country, the fortified city, the treasury, the army and the ally. The theory of the ‘circle of kings’ or the Rajamandala Theory is essentially a description of alliances a king has to make with friendly states to deal with the enemy state and his friends. The Arthasastra also delves into three kinds of powers, namely, the power of knowledge, the power of treasury and the power of army. Four kinds of wars are described: the kutayudha (tactical fighting), mantrayudha (diplomatic war), prakashayudha (open war) and tushnim yudha (secret agents’ war).

The Shadgunya ascribes six attributes to foreign policy—samdhi, vigraha, asana, yana, sanshrya and dwedhibava, which can be translated as making peace with a stronger king, making war when prospering, staying quiet when the enemy is equal in strength, marching when possessed of excellent qualities, seeking shelter when depleted in power, following a dual policy of making peace with a stronger king and war with a weaker king. The king has four strategies or upayas—sama (friendship), dama (gifts), bheda (division) and danda (punishment)—in the conduct of foreign policy. The treatise is particularly rich on the army’s composition, war preparedness and warfighting. The role of intelligence and craft of spying is well-developed and can teach a trick or two to modern spymasters.

Arthasastra has detailed treatment of traitors and enemies. It has clear advice when king should use force against them and when reconciliation be preferred. Arthasastra deals with the dangers originating from the outer region as well as the interior2. These issues are relevant even today.

How relevant is the Arthasastra today? Clearly to apply the Arthasastra to contemporary circumstances literally is not possible. Yet there are insights that are based on human psychology and behavior. These have universal application. For instance, the duties of a king and the leadership qualities described in the Arthasastra are relevant for today’s leaders. The Shadgunya provides a clear basis of foreign policy and the seven measures of state refer to components of national power. In Kautilya's descriptions, we have a theory of the comprehensive national powers. The theory of war is apt even today, when the war is information space is becoming relevant. The nature of espionage has not changed in its essential. The need to have sound governance is felt even today. Arthsastra’s insight into internal discords and how to deal with them is relevant today.

There is a need for a critical investigation of the Arthasastra with an objective of making it relevant to today’s conditions. There is also a need to do comparative studies compare Arthasastra with other non-Indian texts such as Sun Tzu’s and other Indian texts. It would bring out the true worth of the Arthasastra and also situate it in the body of Indian strategic thought.

Luckily, there is growing recognition of Kautilya and his Arthasastra in India. Arthasastra is not just for kings. Its teaching can also be used to develop leadership qualities. Some enterprising enthusiasts have set up an institute in Mumbai to teach leadership qualities to youngsters looking for careers in the corporate world and politics and written popular books on the Arthasastra. The text is being introduced in training courses for soldiers and diplomats. But there is no systematic effort on the part of the establishment to revive traditions of Indian strategic thought and answer the ridiculous charge that India lacks a culture of strategic thinking. Arthasastra and ancient India statecraft must be taught in the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration and in other state & military academies.

Kautilya was undoubtedly a realist. The state should acquire power and deal with adversaries and enemies in a clinical fashion. Western authors have regarded Arthasastra as immoral. Max Weber said in a lecture that compared to the Arthasastra, Machiavelli’s The Prince is “harmless” 3. Kautilaya’s realism goes beyond that of modern realist like Hans J. Morgenthau.4

In the popular imagination, Kautilya is compared with Machiavelli for ruthlessness and unethical conduct. Both texts argue that ends justify the means. However, this is a limited understanding of the Arthasastra. As RK Kangle, who wrote a detailed book on Kautilya's Arthasastra, explains, the ends justifying the mean is only against the enemies. It does not apply to normal, personal relationships. This distinction must be kept in mind. The Pakistani military studies Kautilya to understand the supposedly devious Indian mind. This is an over simplification and a gross distortion of Kautilya. The perception must be rectified.

There are several other texts, many in regional languages, that can be classified as having rich strategic content. These must be studied systematically and included in curricula. The Arthasastra must be adapted to suit contemporary realities. A new Arthasastra for contemporary geopolitical realities should be evolved.

  1. This address is an expanded version of Author’s article, “Need for a Modern Arthasastra”, The New India Express, 14 Apr 2014.
  2. RP Kangle, the Kautilya Arthasastra part II, book 9, chapter 5, Motilal Bnarshi Das publisher Pvt Ltd, Delhi, 9th reprint, 2019 P. 420.
  3. Prof Tridib Chakraborti, “Contemporary relevant of Kautilya mandala theory and diplomacy”, Politico, volume 5 No 2, 2016, p. 23.
  4. Ibid, p. 23.

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