The Arthaśāstra is an Indian treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy. The author of the Arthashastra refers to himself as ‘Kautilya’, while the last verse mentions the name ‘Vishnupgupta’. Many scholars believe that the former was the gotra of the author, while the latter was his personal name. Most scholars, though not all, also believe that these names refer to Chāṇakya (c. 350–283 BCE), who was a scholar at Takshashila and the teacher and guardian of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of Mauryan Empire. Thus, the Arthasastra is dated 4th century BCE.
Some scholars believe that Arthasastra was written at a later stage. While the doctrines of the ‘Arthaśāstra’ may have been written by Chanakya in the 4th century BCE, the treatise we know today may have been edited or condensed by another author in the 2nd century AD. This would explain, some affinities with smrtis and references in the Arthaśāstra which would be anachronistic for the 4th century BCE.
Most scholars put the composition of the ‘Arthaśāstra’ to between 4th century BCE and 2nd century AD. The text was influential until the 12th century, when it disappeared. It was discovered in 1904 by R. Shamasastry, who published it in 1909 and the first English translation was published in 1915.
Translation of the title
Different scholars have translated the word “arthaśāstra” in different ways.
- R.P. Kangle – “science of politics,” a treatise to help a king in “the acquisition and protection of the earth.”
- A.L. Basham – a “treatise on polity”
- D.D. Kosambi – “science of material gain”
- G.P. Singh – “science of polity”
- Roger Boesche – “science of political economy”
Centrally, Arthasastra argues how in an autocracy an efficient and solid economy can be managed. It discusses the ethics of economics and the duties and obligations of a king.
The scope of Arthasastra is, however, far wider than statecraft, and it offers an outline of the entire legal and bureaucratic framework for administering a kingdom, with a wealth of descriptive cultural detail on topics such as mineralogy, mining and metals, agriculture, animal husbandry, medicine and the use of wildlife. The Arthasastra also focuses on issues of welfare (for instance, redistribution of wealth during a famine) and the collective ethics that hold a society together.
Comparison to Machiavelli
Because of its harsh political pragmatism, the Arthashastra has often been compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Is there any other book that talks so openly about when using violence is justified? When assassinating an enemy is useful? When killing domestic opponents is wise? How one uses secret agents? When one needs to sacrifice one’s own secret agent? How the king can use women and children as spies and even assassins? When a nation should violate a treaty and invade its neighbor? Kautilya — and to my knowledge only Kautilya — addresses all those questions. In what cases must a king spy on his own people? How should a king test his ministers, even his own family members, to see if they are worthy of trust? When must a king kill a prince, his own son, who is heir to the throne? How does one protect a king from poison? What precautions must a king take against assassination by one’s own wife? When is it appropriate to arrest a troublemaker on suspicion alone? When is torture justified? At some point, every reader wonders: Is there not one question that Kautilya found immoral, too terrible to ask in a book? No, not one. And this is what brings a frightful chill. But this is also why Kautilya was the first great, unrelenting political realist.—Boesche (2002, p. 1)
Max Weber observed
Truly radical ‘Machiavellianism’, in the popular sense of that word, is classically expressed in Indian literature in the Arthasastra of Kautilya (written long before the birth of Christ, ostensibly in the time of Chandragupta): compared to it, Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless.—Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation (1919)
However, these aspects form just one of the 15 books that comprise the ‘Arthaśāstra’. The scope of the work is far broader than popular perceptions indicate, and in the treatise can also be found compassion for the poor, for servants and slaves, and for women. For instance, Kautilya advocates what is now known as land reform, and elsewhere ensures the protection of the chastity of female servants or prisoners. Significant portions of the book also cover the role of dharma, welfare of a kingdom’s subjects and alleviating hardship in times of disaster, such as famine.
Arthashastra is divided into 15 books:
- Concerning Discipline
- The Duties of Government Superintendents
- Concerning Law
- The Removal of Thorns
- The Conduct of Courtiers
- The Source of Sovereign States
- The End of the Six-Fold Policy
- Concerning Vices and Calamities
- The Work of an Invader
- Relating to War
- The Conduct of Corporations
- Concerning a Powerful Enemy
- Strategic Means to Capture a Fortress
- Secret Means
- The Plan of a Treatise
The Arthashastra deals in detail with the qualities and disciplines required for a Rajarshi – a wise and virtuous king.
- “In the happiness of his subjects lies the king’s happiness, in their welfare his welfare. He shall not consider as good only that which pleases him but treat as beneficial to him whatever pleases his subjects” – Kautilya.
According to Kautilya, a Rajarshi is one who:
- Has self-control, having conquered the inimical temptations of the senses;
- Cultivates the intellect by association with elders;
- Keeps his eyes open through spies;
- Is ever active in promoting the security and welfare of the people;
- Ensures the observance (by the people) of their dharma by authority & example;
- Improves his own discipline by (continuing his) learning in all branches of knowledge; and
- Endears himself to his people by enriching them and doing good to them.
Such a disciplined king should: –
- Keep away from another’s wife;
- Not covet another’s property;
- Practice ahinsa (non-violence towards all living things);
- Avoid day dreaming, capriciousness, falsehood and extravagance; and
- Avoid association with harmful persons and indulging in (harmful) activities.
Kautilya says that artha (Sound Economies) is the most important; dharma and karma are both dependent on it. A Rajarshi shall always respect those councillors and purohitas who warn him of the dangers of transgressing the limits of good conduct, reminding him sharply (as with a goad) of the times prescribed for various duties and caution him even when he errs in private.
If the king is energetic, his subjects will be equally energetic. If he is lax (and lazy in performing his duties), the subjects will also be lax and thereby eat into his wealth. Besides, a lazy king will easily fall into the hands of enemies. Hence the Rajarshi should himself always be energetic. He shall divide the day and the night, each into eight periods of one and half hours, and perform his duties as follows:
|First 1½ hrs. after sunrise||Receive reports on defence, revenue, expenditure|
|Second 1½ hrs. after sunrise||Public audiences, to hear petitions of city and country people|
|Third 1½ hrs. after sunrise and Last 1½ hrs. before noon||Receive revenues and tributes; appoint ministers and other high officials & allot tasks to them|
|First 1½ hrs. after noon||Write letters & dispatches, confer with councillors, receive secret information from spies|
|Second 1½ hrs. after noon||Personal: recreation, time for contemplation|
|Third 1½ hrs. after noon and Last 1½ hrs. before sunset||Inspect and review forces; Consult with Chief of Defence|
The day shall end with evening prayers.
|First 1½ hrs. after sunset||Interview with secret agents|
|Second 1½ hrs. after sunset||Personal: bath, meals, study|
|Third & Fourth 1½ hrs. after sunset and First 1½ hrs. after midnight||Retire to the bed chamber to the sound of music, sleep|
|Second 1½ hrs. after midnight||After waking to the sound of music, meditate on political matters and on work to be done|
|Third 1½ hrs. after midnight||Consult with councilors, send out spies|
|Last 1½ hrs. before sunrise||Religious, household & personal duties, meetings with his teacher, adviser on rituals, purohitas, personal physician, chief cooks and astrologer|
Or some other time table which suits the king.
Hence the king shall be ever active in the management of the economy. The root of wealth is (economic) activity and lack of it (brings) material distress. In the absence of (fruitful economic) activity, both current prosperity and future growth will be destroyed. A king can achieve the desired objectives and abundance of riches by undertaking (productive) economic activity.
An ideal king is one who has the highest qualities of leadership, intellect, energy & personal attributes.
The qualities of leadership (which attracts followers) are: birth in a noble family, good fortune, intellect and prowess, association with elders, being righteous, truthful, resolute, enthusiastic and disciplined, not breaking his promises, showing gratitude (to those who help him), having lofty aims, not being dilatory, being stronger than neighbouring kings and having ministers of high quality.
The qualities of intellect are: desire to learn, listening (to others), grasping, retaining, understanding thoroughly and reflecting on knowledge, rejecting false views and adhering to the true ones. An energetic king is one who is valorous, determined, quick, and dexterous. As regards personal attributes, an ideal king should be eloquent, bold and endowed with sharp intellect, a strong memory and a keen mind. He should be amenable to guidance. He should be well trained in all the arts and be able to lead the army. He should be just in rewarding and punishing.
He should have the foresight to avail himself of the opportunities (by choosing) the right time, place and type of action. He should know how to govern in normal times and in times of crisis. He should know when to fight and when to make peace, when to lie in wait, when to observe treaties and when to strike at an enemy’s weakness. He should preserve his dignity at all times and not laugh in an undignified manner. He should be sweet in speech, look straight at people and avoid frowning. He should eschew passion, anger, greed, obstinacy, fickleness and backbiting. He should conduct himself in accordance with advice of elders.
Seven ways to greet a neighbour
Kautilya recommended seven strategies in dealing with neighboring powers to Chandragupta Maurya.The strategies are:
- Sanman – Appeasement, non-aggression pact
- Dana – Gift, bribery
- Danda – Strength, punishment
- Bheda – Divide, split, separating opposition
- Maya – Illusion, deceit
- Upeksha – Ignoring the enemy
- Indrajala – Faking military strength