The Arthashastra

The Arthashastra is a manual on statecraft allegedly written by Kautilya, also known as Chanakya. Kautilya was an adviser to Chandragupta, the first king of the Maurya Empire, in the third century BCE. The Arthashastra is a “mirror of princes,” a book of secret advice given directly to a ruler by one of his advisers. As such it is a contribution to the same genre as Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. Both books describe politics as a ruthless game of power, yet the Arthashastra is by far the most cynical. A king, Kautilya explained, has to lie and deceive, 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. Friends and family members are targets too – in fact, one should be particularly suspicious of friends and family. It is better to be feared than loved.

The manuscript to the Arthashastra was rediscovered only in 1905. The find produced a sensation since it showed a very different image of ancient India than the one commonly held at the time. It is the only text from Vedic period which does not deal with religious or philosophical matters. Kautilya’s society was thoroughly secular and ruled by people who worshiped martial virtues, not gods. In the early part of the twentieth century this was a description particularly appreciated by Hindu nationalists who advocated armed resistance against 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 mindset of Indian politicians. And much as Sunzi’s Art of War, the advice contained in the Arthashastra has been peddled by manuals on “how to get ahead in business.”

External links:

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

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