Arthashastra

Definition

by
published on 06 April 2014
Mauryan Ringstone (World Imaging)

The Arthashastra is the title of a handbook for running an empire, written by Kautilya (also known as Chanakya, c. 350-275 BCE) an Indian statesman and philosopher, chief advisor and Prime Minister of the Indian Emperor Chandragupta, the first ruler of the Mauryan Empire. The title Arthashastra is a Sanskrit word which is normally translated as The Science of Material Gain, although Science of Politics or Science of Political Economy are other accepted translations for Kautilya’s work.

Content

The Arthashastra summarizes the political thoughts of Kautilya. This book was lost for many centuries until a copy of it, written on palm leaves, was rediscovered in India in 1904 CE. This edition is dated to approximately 250 CE, many centuries after the time of Kautilya, but the main ideas in this book are largely his. The book contains detailed information about specific topics that are relevant for rulers who wish to run an effective government. Diplomacy and war (including military tactics) are the two points treated in most detail but the work also includes recommendations on law, prisons, taxation, irrigation, agriculture, mining, fortifications, coinage, manufacturing, trade, administrations, diplomacy, and spies.

The ideas expressed by Kautilya in the Arthashastra are completely practical and unsentimental. Kautilya openly writes about controversial topics such as assassinations, when to kill family members, how to manage secret agents, when it is useful to violate treaties, and when to spy on ministers. Because of this, Kautilya is often compared to the Italian Renaissance writer Machiavelli, author of The Prince, who is considered by many as unscrupulous and immoral. It is fair to mention that Kautilya's writing is not consistently without principles in that he also writes about the moral duty of the king. He summarizes the duty of a ruler, saying, “The happiness of the subjects is the happiness of the king; their welfare is his. His own pleasure is not his good but the pleasure of his subjects is his good”. Some scholars have seen in the ideas of Kautilya a combination of Chinese Confucianism and Legalism.

Kautilya’s book suggests a detailed daily schedule for how a ruler should structure his activities. According to his view, the duties of a ruler should be organized as follows:

  • First 90 minutes, at sunrise, the ruler should go through the different reports (revenue, military, etc.).
  • Second 90 minutes, time for public audiences.
  • Third 90 minutes for breakfast and some personal time (bath, study, etc.).
  • Fourth 90 minutes for meeting with ministers.
  • Fifth 90 minutes for correspondence.
  • Sixth 90 minutes for lunch...

Kautilya goes on to describe an exhausting schedule in which the king has roughly four and half hours to sleep and the rest of the time is almost entirely involved in running the kingdom.

The Arthashastra offers a list with the seven components of the state: The king, the ministers, the country (population, geography and natural resources), fortification, treasury, army, and allies. Kautilya goes on to explain each of these individual components and stresses the importance of strengthening these elements in one’s kingdom and weakening them in the enemies’ states by using spies and secret agents.

One of the most interesting ideas presented by Kautilya is the “Mandala theory of interstate relations”. A mandala is  a schematic visual representation of the universe, which is a common artistic expression in many Asian cultures. Kautilya explains that, if we can imagine our kingdom in the centre of a circular mandala, then the area surrounding our kingdom should be considered our enemies’ territory. The circle surrounding our enemies’ territories belongs to our enemies’ enemies, who should be considered our allies since we will share many interests with them. The circle surrounding our enemies’ enemies territory will be the allies of our enemies. Kautilya then goes on analysing twelve levels of concentric circles and offers detailed advice on how to deal with each state according to the layer they belong to in the mandala construct.

The various types of foreign policy are also explained in the Arthashastra: peace, war, neutrality, preparing for war, seeking protection and duplicity (pursuing war and peace at the same time with the same kingdom).

Legacy

Kautilya was a pioneer in diplomacy and government administration. His merit was based not only on
coming up with very important practical advice for government, but also in organizing his theories in a systematic and logical fashion. Kautilya’s political vision had a heavy influence on Chandragupta, the first Indian ruler who unified Northern India under a single political unit for the first time in history. Even today, the Arthashastra is the number one classic of diplomacy in India and, within this category, it is one of the most complete works of antiquity. A number of institutions in India such as universities and diplomatic offices have been named after Kautilya in honour of his work. Even important political figures like Shivshankar Menon, who became the National Security Advisor of India in 2010 CE, have been influenced by Kautilya’s ideas.

 



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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 350 BCE - 275 BCE
    Life of Kautilya, Indian stateman and philosopher, chief advisor and Prime Minister of the Indian Emperor Chandragupta.
  • 340 BCE - 298 BCE
    Life of Indian Emperor Chandragupta, first ruler of the Mauryan Empire.
  • 322 BCE - 298 BCE
    Reign of Chandragupta, first ruler of the Mauryan Empire.

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