Chanakya’s Arthashastra

Chanakya of the Mauryan Empire (326BCE to 180BCE) wrote the Arthashastra, a great political treatise that revolutionised the Indian political thought.  Dr. Shama Shastri discovered this great epic in 1904 and published it in 1909. The Arthashastra collects and summarises the political ideas of various schools from 600 BCE onward and is remarkable in its practical approach. It describes a highly regulated state with a sizeable bureaucracy, intent on using every means to protect itself and expand and profit materially. Chanakya in his treatise has discussed Foreign Policy, Statecraft and Warfare as these were and remain the basic instruments used to achieve National Interests.

There is no doubt that this treatise is the work of a genius, who spoke of matters which have held relevance down the ages to contemporary times with striking infallibility. The military writings of Chanakya precede those of Machiavelli and Clausewitz by centuries but seldom has this fact been acknowledged, much less credited outside India. Quite remarkably, long before Clausewitz said “War is only the continuance of state policy by other means”, Chanakya had already written it. Most of his views were so farsighted that they appeared to be prophesies. He created controversy by saying ‘The ends justify the means’ and the ruler should use any means to attain his goals and his actions required no moral sanctions. The Arthashastra is unique given its rational approach and an unabashed advocacy of realpolitik, the writings in the book being dimensionally novel.

The word Arthashastra consists of two words, Artha and Shastra and can be translated as “science of economics,” to help a king in “the acquisition and protection of the earth.”  A number of historians have translated Arthashastra in different ways: some say it is a “treatise on polity,” others emphasise the economic importance of the word in calling it a “science of material gain,” Arthashastra as a “science of political economy,” however Chanakya’s Arthashastra can be rightly called as “timeless laws of politics, economy, diplomacy, and war.” In this work, Chanakya offers a wide-ranging and truly fascinating discussion on war and diplomacy. Arthashastra discusses the subjects of economics of state affairs, foreign policy and other instruments of governance. The Arthashastra contains 15 Books, 155 Chapters, 168 Sections, and 5348 Shlokas. The major subjects covered in the Arthashastra are:

  • Concerning Discipline
  • Duties of Government Superintendents
  • Law
  • Removal of thorns
  • Conduct of Courtiers.
  • The end of Sixfold Policy.
  • Concerning Vices and Calamities.
  • The work of an Invader.
  • Relating to war.
  • Concerning a powerful enemy.
  • Strategic means to capture a fortress.
  • Secret Means.
  • The Plan of a treatise.

Arthashastra is a compendium of books that analyse how the political world works and not very often stating how it ought to work, books that frequently disclose to a king what calculative and sometimes brutal measures he must adopt in order to preserve the state and the common good. The Arthashastra is a text on political science, and is not primarily concerned with the society and its organisation and hence the Arthashastra does not lay down rules in social matters. Also, unlike the works of other philosophers, Chanakya’s Arthashastra is a practical book of rugged political realism, which is devoid of impotent idealism.

Arthashastra was meant as an advice to a king, and it addresses issues at a strategic level and all that is required to facilitate the smooth running of a successful nation state. Arthashastra was written at a time when the Indian subcontinent was divided into small states, which were constantly at war with each other. Chanakya being a visionary understood the importance of a united subcontinent, which would be powerful enough to withstand all the vagaries that were likely to be thrown at it by its adversaries. In line with this, Arthashastra advises the King to find new territories so that the economic might of the state grows and advises against being content because if he became too passive the state was likely to fall prey to another king seeking more territories.

Arthashastra covers the all major subjects of statecraft including starting successful economic enterprises, taxation, revenue collection, budget and accounts besides stating the conditions required for creating the environment necessary for people to earn their livelihood. In order to do so the ruler was responsible for ensuring protection of the state from external aggression, maintenance of law and order and safeguarding the welfare of the people. It states that aim of the successful economic policies should be to not only increase the revenues of the state but also ensure that welfare of the people is not ignored maintaining a balance between the two.

For maintenance of law and order it advises that detection and punishment of criminals and anti-social elements is necessary for upholding the social and moral values of the society. It also states that a nation state should ensure compliance of clear-cut laws and punitive measures to prevent embezzlement and misuse of power by the state officials. It states that all means of power, either coercive or non-coercive, which are necessary should be employed in enforcing the laws. Arthashastra states that a ruler should separate religion from the political practice and he should avoid falling prey to blind dogmas of superstition. It advocates action and not resignation.

Arthashastra also discusses issues related to foreign policy, security strategy and warfare. It highlights the importance of forming allies, use of diplomats and actions based on interests of the state. Arthashastra is most famous for outlining the so-called Mandala theory of foreign policy. It does not say, “Prepare for war, and hope for peace,” but instead, “Prepare for war, and plan to conquer.” As per Arthashastra, diplomacy was just another weapon to be used in the warfare that was always either occurring or being planned for. Waging wars was thus a means of achieving the end which was the prosperity of the state. For waging wars one required wealth and acquiring wealth meant acquiring power. Thus the essence of Arthashastra was to provide a king with a set of principles, guidelines to be followed in order to advance the interests of the state, stay in power and prosper and towards that end the magnum opus discusses foreign policy, statecraft, economic measures, strategy and warfare.

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