Kautilya (also known as Chanakya, c. 350-275 BCE) was an Indian statesman and philosopher, chief advisor and Prime Minister of the Indian Emperor Chandragupta, the first ruler of the Mauryan Empire. Kautilya belonged to the Brahmin caste (the priestly class), he was originally from Northern India and a professor of political science and economics at the University of Taxila. He was fully knowledgeable concerning the Vedas literature and it is also believed that he might have had some knowledge of Zoroastrianism.
The Fall of the Magadha & the Rise of the Mauryan Dynasty
At the time of Kautilya, India was mostly composed of a number of small independent states, with the exception of the Magadha kingdom, a realm that controlled most of Northern India, which was ruled by the Nanda dynasty. The fame of Kautilya is owed to the important role he played in the fall of the Magadha kingdom and the rise to power of the Mauryan dynasty. In order to accomplish this, he became an ally and loyal servant of Chandragupta, a noble member of the Kshatriya caste (the warrior rulers caste) who was related to the Nanda family, but he was an exile. Before he became Chandragupta’s ally, Kautilya was introduced to the Nanda king, who insulted him. Kautilya untied his sikha (lock of hair on male Hindus), and swore he would only tie it back once the Nanda dynasty was destroyed.
Kautilya and Chandragupta raised a small army that lacked sufficient military strength to take the Magadha throne directly. Therefore, Kautilya’s cunning strategies became useful: Chandragupta entered the capital of the Magadha kingdom, Pataliputra, where he triggered a civil war using Kautilya Chanakya’s intelligence network. In 322 BCE Chandragupta finally seized the throne putting an end to the Nanda dynasty and he established the Mauryan dynasty which would rule India until 185 BCE. After this victory, Chandragupta fought and defeated the generals of Alexander the Great located in Gandhara, present day Afghanistan. Following these successful campaigns, Chandragupta was seen as a brave leader who defeated part of the Greek invaders and ended the corrupt Nanda government and thus gained wide public support.
There are a number of accounts concerning Kautilya which describe him as both intelligent and ruthless. One of these accounts tells us that once the last Nanda was defeated and the imperial palace was occupied by the new Mauryan dynasty, Kautilya noticed a group of ants carrying grain out of a crack in the palace floor. After examining the crack he discovered hordes of Nanda soldiers in a basement below, ready for a surprise attack. Emotionless, Kautilya emptied the building leaving the Nanda soldiers locked up, and burnt the palace to the ground. It is also said that when the Nanda king was killed, Kautilya personally went to see the body and, just before tying up his hair, he ordered the body to remain uncremated, to discard it and turn it into carrion. This was a truly barbaric end and contrary to Indian tradition for any deceased and the highest insult for a man’s immortal soul.
Kautilya helped Chandragupta to turn the Mauryan Empire into one of the most powerful governments at that time. Pataliputra remained as the imperial capital and the initial territory controlled by Chandragupta extended all across Northern India from the Indus river in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the East. Later on in 305 BCE, the Mauryan Empire gained control of the Punjab, what today is part of Northern India and Eastern Pakistan, an area that had been controlled by the Macedonians.
The political thoughts of Kautilya are summarized in a book he wrote known as the Arthashastra, a Sanskrit name which is translated as “The Science of Material Gain”. This book was lost for many centuries and a copy of it written on palm leaves was rediscovered in India in 1904 CE. The Arthashastra is a handbook for running an empire effectively and it contains detailed information about specific topics. Diplomacy and war are the two points treated in greater detail than any other and it also includes recommendations on law, prisons, taxation, fortifications, coinage, manufacturing, trade, administrations, and spies.
The ideas expressed by Kautilya in the Arthashastra are totally practical and unsentimental. Kautliya 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 Machiavelli. It is fair to mention that Kautilya is not merciless all the time and he also writes about the moral duty of the king: he summarizes the duty of the king by 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.
Death & Legacy
How Kautilya died is not entirely clear. Some accounts say he starved himself to death, a common practice in Jainism. Other versions say he died as a result of a court conspiracy. What we know for sure is that his death took place when Bindusara, the second Mauryan ruler, was on the throne.
Kautilya was a pioneer in diplomacy and government administration. His merit was not only to come up with very important practical advice for government, but also to organize them in a systematic and logical fashion. Even today, the Arthashastra is the number one classic of diplomacy in India. His vision of a unified India would become a reality during the time of Ashoka, the third ruler of the Mauryan dynasty.
About the Author
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c. 350 BCE - 275 BCE