In 1904, a copy of an ancient book which had been lost for more than 1400 years was discovered in India. A modest book written on palm leaves, its outward appearance was proven to be deceiving as the book contained surprisingly detailed information on how an effective government should be run, treating wide-ranging topics from war, diplomacy, law, taxation, agriculture, how to manage secret agents, when it is useful to violate treaties, even when to kill family members.
It was a copy of a book that was written by Kautilya (350-275 BCE), a minister of the Mauryan empire. Called Arthashastra, commonly translated as “The Science of Material Gain”, the book is a major classic of diplomacy even to this day. Within this category, it is one of the most complete works of antiquity.
This leads to many questions about this extraordinary book’s origins. How did it come about? How did one man have so much detailed knowledge of every aspect of an empire? How could one book make any difference in its time? The answers to these questions bring us to a unique time in Indian history and introduce us to two very strong figures in the philosophy of governance.
It is useful to understand the period of intellectual history of India in which Arthashastra was written. The two Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the sacred text Puranas, as well as Buddhist and Jain texts, all mention the ancient empire of Magadha. Like in the ancient Chinese concept of ‘Warring States’, according to Buddhist sources, northern India had the famous sixteen Mahajanapadas (“great realms”) between ca. 600-300 BCE, before the Magadha Empire emerged victorious.
Two of India’s greatest empires, the Mauryan Empire and Gupta Empire, originated from Magadha. The two empires saw advancements in ancient India’s science, mathematics, astronomy, religion and philosophy. The periods in which these empires ruled were considered by many as the “Golden Age” of India.
It was a period of many ideas and progress. The Upanishadic thinkers and philosophers, as well as the Buddha with his followers dominated the philosophical scene, embodying the transitory and ever changing nature of the empirical world. As far as they were concerned, worldly pleasures were not worth pursuing and were to be shunned. This emphasis on asceticism and renunciation led to reactions from the Lokayata thinkers, who would argue the opposing point.
Lokayata refers to the school of thought within Indian philosophy that rejects supernaturalism. The Lokayata thinkers, therefore, argue that matter alone is real – there was no such things as life after death, soul or God. It was in this intellectual environment that Kautilya lived and fine-tuned his writings leading up to the Arthashastra. More recently, in 2014, Shivshankar Menon argued that, “Arthashastra itself emerged from the collision of India’s 6th century BCE Enlightenment (Upanishads, Buddhism and Lokayata) and the power politics of the Magadhana and North Indian state system in subsequent centuries. Both were worlds in rapid change.”
Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, was born with the name Vishnugupta. He belonged to the clan of Kutala of the Brahmin caste (the priestly class) from Northern India. He was therefore known as Kautilya.
His name Chanakya came from the ancient custom in India to venerate one’s father and teacher to the end of their lives. One mode of veneration is not to directly utter the name of the father or the teacher as it may amount to an insult. To solve this conundrum, as the name of Kautilya’s father was Chanakya, Kautilya also became known by the same name as a sign of respect to his father so the name could be uttered without any sign of disrespect to the venerated person.
To some extent, this reverence to one’s parent extended to the mother – as proven by the future emperor of the Mauryan Empire. As the name of Chandragupta’s mother was Mur, he was called Maurya which means “the son of Mur.” He became known as Chandragupta Maurya, and his dynasty was therefore called the Maurya dynasty. There are many versions of Chandragupta’s origins. Some texts have called Chandragupta a grandson of a chief of a village of peacock tanners, while Vishnu Purana and the play Mudrarakshasa refer to him as the illegitimate son of the woman named Mora and a Nanda prince.
Incidentally, the puranas also refer to the Nanda clan as offspring of low birth, therefore placing Chandragupta in the Shudra caste (the lower class). The more popular version comes from the Buddhist and Jain texts which refers to Chandragupta as a member of the Kshatriya caste (warrior class), specifically of a clan called “Moriya”, which originally ruled a forest kingdom by the name of Pipallivana (now Uttar Pradesh).
At the end of 327 BCE, Alexander the Great of Macedonia invaded the valley of the river Kabul and conquered Taxila. He then defeated the Indian king Porus at the river Hydaspes, and reached the eastern border of the Punjab with the purpose of continuing his journey on to the kingdom of Magadha in the Lower Ganges valley. However, Alexander changed his plan and by the end of 325 BCE, the Macedonian king had left the area of what is now known as Karachi and his admiral Nearchus was forced out of Patala.
This invasion, although it may have been viewed by Alexander as somewhat of a failure, changed the course of Indian history. Young Chandragupta Maurya, pupil of Kautilya who was teaching at the university in Taxila, had seen the Macedonian army and decided to raise and train his own army using a similar strategy. Four years later, in 321 BCE, Chandragupta seized the throne of Magadha, putting an end to the Nanda dynasty – the rule of Northern India at the time, and established the Mauryan dynasty.
What would make Kautilya, a respected Brahmin and scholar, help his young, inexperienced pupil of low birth with this massive and bloody undertaking? According to legends, years before he became Chandragupta’s ally, Kautilya was introduced to the Nanda king who insulted him. Kautilya vowed to never forget this insult. He untied his sikha (lock of hair on male Hindus), and swore that he would only tie it back once the Nanda dynasty was destroyed.
There are further accounts concerning Kautilya which not only give us clues into his possible motives of helping Chandragupta, but also a window into his personality. These accounts describe him as both intelligent and ruthless. When 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 many Nanda soldiers in a basement below, ready for a surprise attack. Emotionless, Kautilya emptied the building, therefore leaving the Nanda soldiers trapped as he proceeded to burn the palace to the ground. The same accounts also said that when the Nanda king was killed, Kautilya personally went to see the body and, just before tying up his hair, ordered the body to remain uncremated, discarded, and turned into carrion— an insulting end for one’s soul for any deceased man in the ancient Indian tradition.
In 317 BCE, one of Alexander’s successors, Peithon, the satrap of Media, tried to subdue the leaders of the eastern provinces who united against him. This war offered Chandragupta the opportunity he needed and he was able to reclaim Taxila, the capital of the Punjab, when another one of Alexander’s successors, Seleucus, tried to conquer the eastern territories again. However, the war was proven to be inconclusive, and the Macedonian offered a peace treaty to Chandragupta. Chandragupta recognized the Seleucid Empire and gave Seleucus five hundred elephants; Seleucus recognized the Mauryan Empire and gifted the eastern territories to them, including Gandara and Arachosia. Finally, there was epigamia, which can either mean that the two dynasties intermarried, or another form of recognition of the union of the Macedonians with the Indians.
Chandragupta had now united the Indus and Ganges valley and built a formidable empire. The child of a Shudra, if he was one, had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. In this new empire, there were a number of innovations in war and statecrafts, such as inspectors, secret services, and retirement plans for prostitutes. This was due to the book Arthasastra, written by Kautilya, his teacher and now main advisor.
A Greek visitor of the empire, Megasthenes, who was an ambassador of Seleucus Nikator and had come to the court of Chandragupta, gave a rather unusual description of the caste system in India as he knew it, referring to seven instead of the usual four classes of people. It was likely that he was describing an attempt at reform by Chandragupta, which is plausible as Chandragupta was not deeply attached to orthodox Brahmanism, preferring instead the Lokayata philosophy. According to the ancient scriptures of the Jainists, Chandragupta abdicated at the end of his life in favor of Bindusara, and converted to the Jain faith. He died as an ascetic, having fasted to death. His loyal advisor Kautilya died soon after also by starving himself to death.
Arthashastra contains 150 chapters which covers three parts. The three parts are national security issues, administration of justice, and economic development policies. It argues in favor of an autocracy managing an efficient and solid economy. It also discusses the ethics of economics and the details of the duties and obligations of a king— going so far as to prescribe a rigorous schedule of a virtuous king which would only allow the king four hours of sleep at nights, insisting that “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”. The book also offers an outline of the entire legal and bureaucratic framework for administering a kingdom, with descriptive cultural details on topics such as mining, agriculture, medicine and the use of wildlife. It also focuses on issues of welfare and the collective ethics which hold a society together.
The Arthashastra offers a list with the seven components of the state. They are the king, the ministers, the country (which includes population, geography and natural resources), fortification, treasury, army, and allies. It goes on to explain each of these individual components and stresses the importance of strengthening these elements in one’s kingdom as well as weakening them in the enemies’ states by using spies and secret agents.
While the Artashastra played a key role in the establishment of one of India’s greatest empires, its teachings were rejected by the mainstream voices of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, which promoted dharma (right conduct) and ahimsa (non-injury) as their highest ethical ideals of religion and civilization. The book shares many common philosophical and practical views with Machiavelli’s The Prince (15th century CE) – a work considered by some to be unscrupulous and immoral. Some scholars have also seen a combination of Chinese Confucianism and Legalism in the ideas of Kautilya.
The Mauryan Empire unified the subcontinent for the first time and contributed to the spread of Buddhism. Most of our knowledge about the Mauryan period in general and the rule of Chandragupta in particular is obtained from two important literary sources: The Arthashastra, written by Kautilya, and Indica, written by Megasthenes. Accounts of Pataliputra and Magadha are available in the Indica of the Greek historian Megasthenes (c. 300 BCE) and in travel diaries of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang (4 to 5, and 7 CE).