Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The science of power

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?


Sujatha Bagal said...

Wow! Lots of information on a well-known historical character. The stories of his machinations I'd read obviously touched only the tip of the iceberg.

Kautilya was not around when Ashoka was king, was he?

Anonymous said...

Sunil, very succinctly put.

As regards to

politicians and students of politics, irrespective of their leanings, should read the Arthashastra. Or should they?

....if half our f#%$^&* politicians could read, we would not have the crap we have in government.

Sunil said...

Mirage......this book is much easier to read than the 15 book opus that the Arthashastra itself is. But it's rivetting.

Sujatha.....no, Kautilya wasn't around when Ashoka was king....but the Arthashastra certainly was! And Ashoka's economic policies largely mirrored what's in the Arthashastra, to extensive and intricate detail!

Arzan.......hehe.....but i might actually disagree with you. I looked at the educational qualifications of our mp's (it's on the lok sabha website), and was very surprised to find that a very large number are rather well educated. Nearly a third have advanced degrees (a masters, or a medical degree, or law degree, or even phd's). And some politicians pretend to be less educated than they are.....Laloo for example happens to have a masters degree (i think in political science).

But I will whole-heartedly agree that a majority of them are there for themselves and not for the nation. And think little about most of these aspects that the book raises. And i'm also sure that they haven't read much of the substantial political thought that exists. In a perverse way, we are to blame....by electing them (or not voting).

Still....point taken.

Minal said...

Very well put. In some aspects yes Kautilya seems to be mean but as you say we can take the finer aspects of his views and leave the rest.
However seeing the way politicians are heading, they look ot pick up the worse teashing and leave out the fine aspects! Somebody teach them something!

P.s: Your post has got me wanting to read Roger Boesche’s book for sure!

Abi said...

Hi Sunil,

Thanks for this wonderful review. I really liked the skill with which you brought out the 's.o.b'-ness of Kautilya, the realist.

Somehow, I didn't get the meaning of 'realist' in your review. In other words, since I have always described myself as a realist, seeing Kautilya in the realists' camp just rattled the wits out of me! I knew there was somthing wrong here.

I looked up the Wikipedia entry. The realism that you are talking about is the same as the realism in international relations (in the wikipedia entry). That put things in perspective!

The kind of stuff Kautilya advocates is absolutely chilling, no? Do the IR types actually talk like that? [The wikipedia entry seems to imply that they talk like that only .... ;-)]

Sunil said...

Minal......any reading of the Arthashastra is well worth the time. And there will be parts you agree with, and others you disagree with, but there's a tremendous amount of knowledge, and understanding of human nature there in that book.

Abi, thanks.
Basically......if your goal is to obtain absolute power, and create a supremely powerful state, then the path the Arthashastra advocates is absolutely correct. Of course....if your idea of a state is completely different, then the book only instills you with fear :-))

Still.....there's much to be learnt here, and there are some points you will agree with, irrespective of your ideology. The left will like some of his socialist schemes, and even social-empowerment...even though he advocated it so that the army would be strong. Strong foreign policy advocates will love his suggestions. And he's absolutely right that there are no "friendships" between countries. They are just arrangements of convenience.....The right will like greater power to the military and secret service, and less power to democratic movements.......

good stuff.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
This is interesting.
In a different age, Kautilya might have been a brilliant game theorist. Unfortunately, in his own age, he was a rather unlikeable person.

Then again, I never met a game theorist that I would have described as "likeable".

Brown Magic said...

loved reading this post since my senior thesis was on this dude and Leo Strauss - who you might be interested in looking into - the so-called father of neo conservatives.

and yeah - that Boesche book is so on the money - better than anything Indian author I used.

Sunil said...


I don't think Kautilya was "disliked" in his age. That was a very different time and place, and as a brahmin, and chancellor to king, he would automatically have commanded respect. Chandragupta's enemies wouldn't have liked him much though :-). But yes......amongst other things, he might indeed have been a good game theorist :-)

Brown magic.....I have heard of Leo Strauss, but know little about him. But Leo Strauss (or any neo-con) would have strongly objected to a lot of what Kautilya said.....especially with respect to economy, and internal administration. The book is indeed on the money. But for the real deal.....you do need to read the 15 book Arthashastra, and there are good Indian translations available.

Brown Magic said...

The reason I mentioned Strauss as the So-called father of neo-cons is that he never explicitly discussed his own politics and the connection can be as tenous as just that Paul Wolfowitz was his student at U of Chicago.

As for neocons disliking Kautilya's economic system and internal administration - I have not read a cohesive manifesto of neocons' view on domestic policies-it is a group defined by their foreign policy which is also unilateral and expansionist.

I am going to stop. I swore off the subject when I turned in my thesis.

However - I do recommend "on Tyranny" by Strauss. It will drive you insane expecially if you keep in mind that he maintained all great thinkers have an "exoteric" meaning for the general public and an "esoteric" meaning for the select few.

Sunil said...

Brown magic........excellent suggestion, and I will read on Tyranny some time.

However, there's one big difference between Strauss and Kautilya that stands alone. Strauss talked substantially about morality or what is "good". To Kautilya, it was all about power. If being good or moral helped in obtaining power, very good. If not.....too bad, there was no use for that.

There are other substantial differences too (at least from my little reading about Strauss. I haven't read any of his work itself).

Good suggestion, and thanks for your detailed comment.

Sourin Rao said...

Excellent writeup and in no way do I percieve Kautilya as a mean SOB. Power is a science and the collateral in maintaining power is human lives. As simple as that, and if you view this sans any passion or emotion, then it becomes apparent. The present day neocon thinking is not much different, if one was to draw parallels. What Kautilya espoused was the planning, the implementation of his plans may vary.

Thanks to Brown Magic, I will check out the book by Strauss.


Sunil said...

Sourin......there's no reason you can't be passionless and emotionless and be a sob :-)

I thought Kautilya was brilliant, and don't talk at all about what i agree or disagree with. For political thinkers, their study is incomplete without Kautilya.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the detailed write-up Sunil. Makes me want to read the book. I have been intrigued by Chanakya's character and work after studying a bit of his life history though the book 'Jwalamukhi Ke Phool' ('Flowers of a Volcano'), which was a prescribed book for our ISC course.

s c r a p s s t u f f s said...

Hmm, makes me want to read the book, although I would be tempted to read the Arthashastra first. Power may be a science, but getting it, cultivating it and preserving it needs more than that, it needs the art of wielding power.

Sunil said...

Srijith.....interesting. I did ISC as well (eons ago), but we didn't have any thing about Chanakya.

Scrapsstuffs......indeed, but it might be hard going reading the original Arthashastra itself, it's huge! But you're absolutely right.......wielding power is a long and extended process (which the Arthashastra also goes in to, to some extent). It is after all the science of power (obtaining and perpetuating it). But maintaining power is a whole new ball game from just obtaining power.

yesbob said...

you're made me run to the nearest bookstore

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sunil, this comment you made about our MPs caught my eye: a majority of them are there for themselves and not for the nation.

But surely the ultimate lesson of Kautilya (haven't read him, but will) and Macchiavelli and that line of thinking is that this is the case, and has to be the case? The King rules in the end to arrogate power to himself -- power is the final goal. He doesn't rule with some kind of benevolent aim of thinking of the nation. Seen like that, this "majority" of MPs you mention are simply following Kautilya far better than we give them credit for. They are in their jobs for what it brings them. Period.

And given that, the challenge before us citizens is simply put, though hard nevertheless: how do you get reasonable public policies and so forth through the prism of our lawmakers' self-interest? How do you make it clear to them that crafting good policy is in their self-interest?

There are times when I think this is the fundamental challenge, or dilemma if you prefer, of democracy.

Sunil said...

Run yesbob, run! :-)

Dilip.......yes indeed, in this line of thinking, power is the final goal. But in perpetuating this power, it was essential that the citizens were happy, and there was constant progress and reform for them. Otherwise, power had to be sustained by force, which itself was not sustainable. So, the MP's have got the "getting to power" part down.....but not the rest of it :-)

Anyway.....you correctly point out that the fundamental challenge of democracy is putting forth public policies that are "reasonable" but making the politician understand that it is in his/her interest as well. And for this you need at least 3 things. (1) A politician who is aware of needs and understands the consequences of his/her action, (2) an informed electorate, which is actively involved in the functioning of their elected officials (participatory democracy, which doesn't end with voting in elections) and (3) a team of good advisors that the elected official can rely on, and who are there to serve without themselves wanting power (Kautilya was one of them). Now, it's for you to decide what we've got out there....

Arun said...

It would be better to read Kautilya before making such statements as "the king rules to arrogate power to himself" and not to benefit the nation.

"Having acquired new territory {through inheritance, recovery of lost territory or capture of new territory}, the conqueror will substitute his virtues for the enemy's vices and where the enemy was good, he shall be twice as good.

He shall follow polices which are pleasing and beneficial to the constituents by acting according to his dharma and by granting favors and tax exemptions, giving gifts and bestowing honors.

...He shall adopt the way of life, dress, language and customs of the people [of the acquired territory], show the same devotion to the gods of the territory [as to his own gods] and participate in the people's festivals and amusements....He shall grant land, money and tax exemptions to the men distinguished for their learning, speech, dharma or bravery...The ill, helpless and the distressed shall be helped....All practices which are not in accord with dharma or which affect the treasury or army shall be discontinued and replaced by those in accord with dharma.....

Arun said...

Here is s'more:

"The pursuit of the people's welfare as well as the maintenance of the philosophic tradition, the Vedas and the economic well-being of the society are dependent on the sceptre wielded by the king. The maintenance of law and order by the use of punishment is the science of government. By maintaining order, the king can preserve what he already has, acquire new possessions, augment his wealth and power, and share the benefits of improvement with those worthy of such gifts.

"The progress of this world depends on the maintenance of order and the proper functioning of government.

"Some teachers say: 'Those who seek to maintain order shall always hold ready the threat of punishment. For there is no better instrument of control than coercion.' Kautilya disagrees for the following reasons.

"A severe king meting out unjust punishment is hated by the people he terrorizes while one who is too lenient is held in contempt by his own people. Whoever imposes just and deserved punishment is respected and honored.

"A well-considered and just punishment makes the people devoted to dharma, artha and kama. Unjust punishment, whether awarded in greed, anger or ignorance, excites the fury of even those who have renounced all worldly attachments like forest recluses and ascetics, not to speak of householders.

"When, conversely, no punishment is awarded through misplaced leniency and no law prevails, then there is only the law of fish [i.e., the law of the jungle.] Unprotected, the small fish will be swallowed up by the big fish. In the presence of a king maintaining just law, the weak can resist the powerful.

-- So I think I'm justified in thinking that this discussion is often off-base, until the book in question is actually read.

Arun said...

Finally, read the Penguins Classics "Kautilya - The Arthashastra" by L.N. Rangarajan - it is extremely readable.

Sunil said...

Arun......thank you for your long and well researched comments.

The Rangarajan book is indeed more than readable, i read it a few years ago. But it does not analyze it (or the personality of Kautilya) to any of the detail that Boesche's book does. Which is why i recommend the Boesche book here.

And Dilip's comment "the king rules to arrogate power to himself" is not off the mark in a sense. Kautilya advocates just rule, because unjust rule will weaken the king's power (by allowing anger and resentment to fuel revolt, or weaken loyalty). So, just rule is a way a king can consolidate power. For a conquering king, just rule is all the more paramount, because Kautilya rightly says that the people should only see one king replacing another, but their own lives should remain largely the same. If the king can improve rule, he immediately quells any resentment, and often even fosters loyalty (GWB should have read this before going to i-raq).

Thanks again for your thoughtful and excellent comments.

Arun said...

Sunil, the ability of the weak to resist the strong in no way adds to the power of the king. I'll read Boesche for additional perspective, certainly.

BTW, It is also my opinion that the Panchatantra represents an example in stories of the same ideas.

Anonymous said...

Hi ,
I heard about the book "Jwalamukhi ke Phool".Do u have it's ebook ?

Isha Pant said...

Hey Sunil,
This was a great piece about Kautilya. I am writing a paper about him as a dissenter. There's a clear divide between the ideology prevalent during his time and his realism. Therefore, he was rightly labeled by Boesche as the 'first political realist of the world.' I have read that and several other books on Kautilya for this paper. I would really appreciate if you could share your thoughts on this.
Thanks and take care
Isha :)