The Arthashastra

The Arthashastra is a manual on statecraft written by Kautilya, also known as Chanakya. Kautilya was an advicer to the first king of the Maurya empire, in the 3rd century BCE. The Arthashastra is a “mirror of princes,” a book of secret advice given directly to the ruler, and as such a contribution to the same genre as Sunzi’s Art of War or Machiavelli’s The Prince. All three books describe politics as a ruthless game in which only those succeed who stop at nothing to enhance their power, yet The Arthashastra is be far the most cynical of the three, and the king who followed it would become the most ruthless. The goal is expansion in general, potentially of the whole world. A king, Kautilya explained, has to lie and decieve, torture, imprison and kill, and these acts must sometimes be carried out also against the innocent and for no other reason than to intimidate others. Friend and family-members were targets too — in fact, a king had to be particularly suspicious of friends and family-members.

“The arrow shot by the archer may or may not kill a single person. But stratagems devised by wise men can kill even babes in the womb.”

“Every neighbouring state is an enemy and the enemy’s enemy is a friend.”

Kings needed information, Kautilya advices, and they should have a wide network of spies. They should be careful about what they eat since poisoning a king was the easiest way to get rid of him. A good way to reduce the risk of assassinations is to employ a body-double — someone who looks a lot like the king. Kings should not trust merchants since they always try to avoid paying taxes. The economy should be tightly controlled and made to serve the king’s own ends. Ordinary people should be intimidated by displays of the king’s awesome power and he should surround himself with an aura of the divine.

The manuscript to the The Arthashastra was discovered in 1905 and it was not previously known. It is the only text from Vedic times which does not treat religious or philosophical matters. The discovery produced a sensation since it showed a very different image of ancient India than the customary. Europeans were shocked to learn that Indians cared about more than spiritual matters. This was a thoroughly secular society, ruled by cynical men who worshipped martial virtues, not gods. This image was particularly appreciated by Hindu nationalists who came to believe that modeling themselves on Kautilya was the only way they were going to liberate their country from the British. It is said that The Arthashastra is taught in military academies in Pakistan to this day — as a way to better understand the mind-set of Indian politicians. Much as Sunzi’s Art of War, The Arthashastra is today sold to businessmen as a manual on how to get ahead in their careers [read more: Sunzi and Modern Management Techniques]

External links:

BBC, Incarnations: “Kautilya, the Circle of Power”

History of Philosophy without Any Gaps: “Kautilya and Ashoka”

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