I had searched for a good analysis and study of the Arthashastra, and recently found and read Roger Boesche’s excellent analysis The first great political realist: Kautilya and his Arthashastra. The book is crisply written, and analyzes Kautilya’s Arthashastra, while trying to understand it’s author, the legendary Kautilya (or Chanakya).
Boesche approaches Kautilya after a thorough understanding of western political thought, from Plato, Aristotle and Thucydides through Machiavelli. And in his opinion, without the slightest doubt Kautilya was the first great political realist.
I first read Machiavelli’s “The prince” some seven years or so ago, and was chilled by his pragmatic approach towards obtaining and securing power. But if this were to be a canine world, Machiavelli would be a friendly Labrador puppy compared to Kautilya the fierce Rottweiler.
A bulk of Indian philosophical thought drifted towards Dharma or Kama, or the attainment of moksha. But Kautilya would have none of that, and wrote the 15 book Arthashastra. Shastra (science), and Artha, a word which means “object, purpose, end and aim”. Kautilya’s Arthashastra relentlessly pursues one Artha; achieving complete power. Power was a science, not an art. In this he remains committed to absolute “realism”, indifferent to dogma, morality or religion. Kautilya, as chancellor to Chandragupta Maurya, was instrumental in creating one of the largest and most powerful empires of the ancient world, immediately after Alexander the Great’s death.
Power was political, economic and military. Any two without the third resulted in incomplete power. And in this quest for power, dogma and customs were powerful tools to achieve it, but “If a royal edict conflicts with law or custom, edict shall prevail”.
His goal remained to enable the king to achieve complete power. And perhaps it is because he did not have any ambition to rule himself that he was able to consistently remain focussed to this goal, devoid of morality or justification. In his opinion, the king had to be disciplined and hard working (sleeping only 4 hours a night). A king should never allow an “undisciplined son” to rule, since that could cost him his kingdom. And a king had to avoid anger and lust, because a kingdom was at stake. To Kautilya, the king was an omnipotent father figure, who’s only goal should be to become a “Chakravarti”, and rule the “world” (he did of course believe that the only world that was worth conquering was only the Indian subcontinent. This dream of his was completed under Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka, who ruled from the borders of Persia to Bengal, and from the Himalayas down to the Andhra and Tamil lands, who though not conquered (due to Ashoka’s discovery of Dhamma), accepted him as “Chakravarti”).
To achieve this, Kautilya advocated an elaborate spy state. A king should never have a single councilor, but three. One would be too powerful, two could plot together to overthrow him, but three would keep each other in check (the Romans tried this later, with “Triumvirates”). Every minister needed to be constantly tested; with piety (by spreading rumors of an immoral king), or material gain, or lust, or fear. And his schemes to counter disloyalty were chilling. For example, if a minister was becoming powerful, Kautilya advocated that his son be incited against the minister, and be encouraged to kill his own father (out of loyalty to the king). Once this was done, the son had to be put to death under the charge of patricide (to prevent any chance of remorse, or revenge against the king in the future). Or alternatively, he suggested that the minister be told that the queen loved him, and then have him put to death instantly the moment he came close to the queen’s quarters. Kautilya believed in an elaborate bureaucracy of spies, and even listed 40 different ways of embezzlement and ways to catch an embezzler. He suggested that alcohol be freely available in the kingdom, but only in alehouses owned by the state, with bartenders as spies detecting public opinion. Arrests on suspicion were permissible, and torture permitted if the circumstances demanded it. The ends justified the means.
The state always had primacy, even over religion. It was essential that the state used religion to gain political power (by building temples and gaining goodwill, and controlling revenue and priest appointments there. Or by spreading superstition that the king was the representative of God, and opposing him would result in a thousand rebirths). He very strongly discouraged all active citizenship. Large gatherings and community celebrations could result in sharing of opinions, which could result in a threat to the king, and so needed to be banned.
Kautilya advocated a socialist monarchy, with a centralized economy, and fortified treasuries as the most important buildings in a kingdom (not palaces). The treasury after all was key to the army. Without a prosperous economy, there would be no army, and Kautilya clearly recognized that (unlike most early political thinkers, who thought little of economic details). Kautilya clearly felt that the king had to be just in his rule, so advocated varying land and income taxes (according to productivity and ability to pay), and large credit schemes (but with the ruler as the creditor). He encouraged trade and traders (by even allowing them to own land) but disliked trader guilds. He regarded the people as the most important army of all. He recognized that the sudras (fourth and bottom in the caste hierarchy) were a powerful tool to achieve political power, and so considered them “full Aryans”, and strongly advocated their serving in the army (as opposed to tradition of Kshatriyas alone fighting), and granting them many rights of citizens. The dharmasutras advocated an army of Kshatriyas, with Brahmin or Vaishya conscripts in time of need. Kautilya was openly scornful of that, saying that enemy troops would “win over Brahmin troops by mere prostration”. But he loved the strength and large numbers of shudras. In his socialist monarchy, Kautilya advocated large rewards to the army and to the bureaucracy.
His most chilling appraisal comes with foreign policy. Here, he was an unabashed expansionist (in the name of Dharmic rule) with no moral obligations. All neighbors were enemies and the enemy’s enemy was a friend. So, if countries were in a line, countries 1, 3, 5, 7 could be friends, as could 2, 4, 6. But countries 1, 2, and 3 could NEVER be friends. This status would change as soon as country 1 conquered country 2. From that very instant country 3 (a friend) would be the new enemy. A king had to prepare for war with the plan to conquer. Spies would be used extensively in the enemy camp, working on frightened, greedy, enraged or proud members of that society, while spies would remain in one’s own army, to ensure that there was no chance of a coup against the king. Kautilya was also perhaps the first to recognize three types of warfare. Open war, concealed (guerilla) war, and a third, a silent war, where the king would talk smilingly of peace and brotherhood, while using spies and assassins to destroy the opponent. And if a king lost a war, he should shrewdly regain his kingdom, using bribery and women to create quarrels in the enemy camp. Treaties were to be observed only when the king was himself weak.
Kautilya was one mean s.o.b, but was supremely perceptive, and human nature has changed little. So much of this remains familiar to most of us, directly or indirectly. And it’s clear that the hard right or the extreme left really speak the same language (socialists, communists, neo-cons, ultra-nationalists all seem to have borrowed incomplete bits from the Arthashastra). After reading Boesche’s excellent analysis, it seems obvious that politicians and students of politics, irrespective of their leanings, should read the Arthashastra. Or should they?