Life and Thoughts Chanakya – Kautilya

Posted on August 13, 2010


When ever I have spoken to friends about Kautilya (K) or his master piece Arthashastra (A), they looked at me sheepishly, as if saying, why I wanted to talk about that smarty, teacher of unethical practices and advocate of the theory that the end justifies the means. Both K (known as Chanakya(C)) and his masterpiece are misunderstood. He is compared to Machiavellain. He laid great emphasis in the welfare of the people. As a teacher of practical statecraft, he advocated unethical methods to pursue national interests. It was the victory of Dharama over Adharama. Do not read his thoughts with an India centric perspective. The teachings of the great preceptor of statecraft have global applications.

Nearly hundred years ago, Swami Vivekananda said, what India brings to the world is intellectual capital and spirituality. While the world has accepted India as a fountainhead of spirituality, it has taken the success of the Indians American community for the world to sit up and take notice. The community has used its intellect to make correct decisions, taken risks and worked hard. Fortunately, they continue to retain and espouse Indian values. Humility is what one associates with them. Making Profit, earning money was considered healthy in ancient Bharat provided it was distributed for the benefit of others. So also a number of Indian Americans have donated large sums of money to the IIT’s.  This essay is dedicated to the Indian American community. They have used their clout to change the way the American Government views India. Coming after Pokran II and the sanctions that followed it was no mean task. I would urge all Indians to shed their inhibitions of the Nehru/Indira era & to share their knowledge with the world.

This essay is based on inputs from Kautilya, the Arthashashtra by Shri L N Rangarajan and The History & Culture of Indian People by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan.

Artha – From ancient times, the aim of all human endeavor was dharma, artha, kama and moksha meaning moral behavior, wealth, worldly pleasures and salvation. Of these dharma is the most important. It signifies the concept of righteousness and ones duty to family, society and universal order. Artha follows dharma but it has a much wider significance than merely “wealth”.

The material well being of human beings is closely linked to it. The government plays an important role in helping its inhabitants to generate wealth. The aim of pursuing successful economic policies is to increase the revenues of the state and its people. A depleted treasury cannot serve its citizens but a full treasury if achieved by high taxes does not serve any purpose either. This assumes two things – maintenance of law & order and administrative machinery. Thus A, attaches importance to economics, dandaniti (use of a rod to maintain law & order) and the welfare of people (success of administrative system).

A is thus, the art of governance in its widest sense. The subjects covered include administration, law & order, taxation, revenue, foreign policy, defence, war. K was not the originator of the science. He acknowledges that it is based on similar treatise of the past. There are believed to be thirteen individual teachers of A before K.

Who was Kautilya? His name was Vishnugupta. He is believed to be from Kerala or a North Indian who was born & educated in the university town of Taxila. A knowledgeable person he landed up in the court of the Magadha (in Bihar) king Dhana-Nanda to display his knowledge. Humiliated by the King, he vowed not to tie his forelock knot again until he had destroyed the Nanda dynasty. While searching for a person who would help him achieve his objective, he came across Chandragupta, took to him to Takshila and gave him education fit for a future king. Whether K existed in 320 BC or 150 ad in no way undermines the greatness of his thoughts and writings.

Strategy – They started attacking the Nanda Empire but failed. According to tradition  they understood the reasons for their failure when they heard a women scold her child “You will burn your fingers by eating the chapatti from its center just like Chandragupta (CG) who is invading kingdoms in the hinterland rather than from the frontiers”. K overhead this and immediately changed tactics, began to attack from the frontiers. What CG was doing earlier was to try and capture the interior areas. After capturing one area he would go for another but would face a revolt in the area previously captured. So when you  capture, go step by step, take the outer areas first, establish physical control, that way your opponents have to keep on moving inland, keep up the pressure and they have to succumb.

You cannot stand in the center and win a war. Remember the fate of Abhimanyu, he entered the Chakravuyaha, got right in the centre, and could not withstand the attack from all sides. K and CGupta changed their strategy and began attacking from the frontiers till they converged on Pataliputra, defeated the Nanda king and installed CG as king.

History – Alexander invaded India in 326 BC. The nature and effect of his raid on India are highly overstated. He never crossed the Beas and thus never fought any of the brave kings of Bharat. His conquest of Punjab had no permanent impact, politically, administratively or in a cultural sense. But his invasion affected Indian politics to the extent that it promoted the political unification of India. Smaller states merged into big ones, paving the way for the growth of the Indian empire founded by Chandragupta and guided by Kautilya. It opened up communication between India and Greece at a great cost though. His visit inflicted untold sufferings upon India, rape, massacre, plunder on a scale that was unknown to us Indians. He prepared us by similar actions by the Muslim invaders. CG began the war of liberation around 321 BC and became king in about 324 BC. In 305 BC, he defeated the Greek king, Seleucus, who had succeeded Alexander in the eastern part of the empire. His empire extended up to Mysore in the South, Persia in the North-West, Gujarat in the West and probably Bengal in the East.

Arthashastra broadly covers fourteen areas.

  • One deals with the King – his training, appts of minister etc.
  • Two describes the duties of various officers of the state and gives a complete picture of the states activities.
  • Three is concerned with law and administration of justice.
  • Four is on suppression of crimes.
  • Five is a sundry collection of topics including salaries of officials.
  • Six is on foreign policy and constituent elements of state.
  • Seven is an exhaustive discussion on the way in which each of the six methods of foreign policy may be used in various situations.
  • Eight relates to calamities.
  • Nine is on preparations of war.
  • Ten is concerned with fighting and types of battle arrays.
  • Eleven is on how must a conqueror deal with a number of chiefs rather than one king.
  • Twelve shows how a weak king when threatened by a stronger one must overpower him.
  • Thirteen is concerned with the conquest of the enemy’s fort by fighting.
  • Fourteen deals with occult practices.

It is not possible to cover the entire treatise in this article so have individual articles.

I – Foreign Policy –  “The welfare of a state depends on an active foreign policy”. 6.2.1. One of the main reasons for India’s downfall is that we turned inward looking, ceased to be abreast with the developments in the world. “An enemy’s destruction shall be brought about even at the cost of great losses in men, material and wealth”. 7.13.33. Post independence India’s rulers have not followed this. Pakistan has been supporting terrorism in India for over a decade now. Leave aside defeating their designs we have failed to do anything by which they pay for their deeds, we have offered them Most Favored Nation Status, eased Visa restrictions.

“A king weak in power shall endeavor to promote the welfare of his people. For power comes from the countryside, which is the source of all activities”.  7.14.18,19. No Indian Prime Minister, weak or strong has followed this dictum. The Marxists of Bengal have followed this dictum to carry out land reforms program in rural Bengal, i.e. why they have ruled over Bengal for over 25 years.

“One should never submit spinelessly not sacrifice oneself in fool hardly valor. It is better to adopt such policies as would enable one to survive and live to fight another day”.  7.15.13-20,12.1.1-9. After spending months in Kargil unnoticed, Pakistan could not live with pressure from the U.S. and India’s armed forces. Having made a point, it withdrew, only to bring India on its knees at Quandhar followed up with killings, during Bill Clinton’s visit and of Amarnath yatris. More than 1,000 people have lost their lives in Jammu and Kashmir this year, more than Kargil and the cost to Pakistan is! A friend of mine had this great ability to swallow any humiliation. When she was on a weak wicket or knew it was a battle she could not win, she would keep quiet and bid her time. As and when the tide turned, was in a position of strength, she would come down heavily on the people who had humiliated her in the past.

The basic principles that govern the Kautilyan theory of foreign policy are –

  1. “The king shall develop his state i.e. augment his resources and power for him to embark on a conquest”. What it meant that a prosperous state which looked after its people, had high rates of economic growth had the where withal to undertake military conquests. For what ever reasons, India is not a prosperous state today, cannot take on the burden of a conquest, high defense expenditure. On the other hand, we have the U.S. Economic prosperity and superior military power have made it the world’s only superpower. It embarks on military and economic conquest. Export its products and culture, Intel chips, McDonalds, Microsoft products and may be chicken legs shortly.
  1. “The enemy shall be eliminated”. If only Prithviraj Chauhan had digested this there might never have been any Muslim rule in India, if only Indira Gandhi had resolved the J and K issue in 1971, how many women would not have become widows today.
  1. “Those who help are friends”. Ask the Pakis what it means to have friends in China, Saudi Arabia. Russia has stood by us during last thirty years yet we seem to be so smitten by Bill Clinton. If Al Gore does not become President, the party with the U.S. might just be over. Be friends with the U.S. but remember, it is the U.S. that continues to impose sanctions on us, did not sell us supercomputers or prevailed upon Russia against giving us the technology for the cryogenic engines. In the process, we have ignored France, a country that is known to pursue a foreign policy independent of the U.S and is keen to further diplomatic, military ties with India. As for our former rulers, the Brits continue use the Muslim-Pakistan card against us yet. In August 2000, why did the British Home Minister visit Mumbai’s Jama Masjid?
  1. “A prudent course shall always be adopted”. One has to be practical, be guarded against spineless submission and foolhardy valor.
  1. “Peace is to be preferred to war”. We have taken this policy to the other extreme. Peace is to be preferred when the relative power equation between a king and his enemy is not likely to change as a result of any action. It seems this realization seems to have dawned on our government, hence we do not want to go to war with Pakistan; however, grave may be the provocation. One may ask, was this always the case? Was the falling defence expenditure of the nineties responsible or our inability to explode a nuclear bomb before 1998, although it was known that Pakistan had achieved nuclear capability way back in 1987?

Kautilya is of the view that peace can be made with enemy, purely as a temporary measure, provided it gives time to the conqueror to build up strength before conquering the enemy. Pakistan has been playing this game with us ever since 1947. Amazing that K’s tactics have been forgotten in the country of his origin and are so ably followed by our enemies.

  1. “The king’s behavior, in victory and defeat, must be just”. Hey, what does this mean, said the Muslim invaders and the British?

The six methods of foreign policy areSamdhi, making peace, by concluding a treaty. Vigraha, hostilities could mean a conventional war, a secret war or a proxy war as is known today and an undeclared war. The last twenty years have seen proxy and undeclared wars become more effective. Instead Pakistan prints fake Rs 500 rupee notes to destabilize the Indian economy and provides shelter to Mumbai’s underworld who extort money from businessmen, Bollywood.

War, in the context of foreign policy means a diplomatic offensive to fighting battle. We are using the U.S. in our great diplomatic offensive against Pakistan; want them to declare them a terrorist state. What prevents us from doing so ourselves. What have we done to increase the cost of their supporting terrorism? We could deny Pakistan International Airlines the right to fly over India, take on the ISI representatives head on in India but we are a secular country!

Asana means staying quiet and Yana is preparing for war. Samsraya is seeking protection from a stronger king ( just like Japan is under the U.S. nuclear protection umbrella) and Dvaidhibhava is the policy of making peace with a neighboring king in order to pursue, with his help, the policy of hostility towards another. It is determining our policy towards Bangladesh. We are keeping her in good humor so that the Pakis cannot play the Pan Islamic card against us. At the recent UN Millenium session, the Bangladeshi PM asked Pakistans’s General Mushharaf to apologize for 1971. Never. It’s like asking the Japanese to apologize to the Chinese. !

Progress and Decline – “Any activity which harms the progress of the enemy engaged in similar undertakings is also progress”. (7.1.20-22). Internal Security has plagued India for centuries. Threats were both external and internal. Till about the 300 BC, the threats did not result in mass destruction, plunder and rape so their impact was not as bad as the invasions of Alexander, Huns, Kushanas, Muslims and Christians. India’s economic fortunes dwindled with the advent of the Christian rule. Today, a substantial portion of our attention and revenues are spent on internal security issues. Imagine if there were no problems in Jammu and Kashmir and North East. Scarce Resources would be spent on education and health of Indians in the sub continent. (There are some 2 crore Bangaldeshi’s in India). According to the Home Ministry, the Cost of ISI Terror in the decade 1988-1998 resulted in Rs 64,500 crs spent on Internal Security. Think of how productively the money could have been spent.

The countries that do not want to see India progress ensures that we get bogged down with our own problems. I could give another example of a similar strategy used by my colleagues. As Factory Accountant in Levers, I was responsible for material planning. When I had my own department under control, adequate stocks of all materials, my attention shifted on the Shop Floor to see how I could reduce manufacturing costs. The production managers did not like this. To keep me on my toes, they would ensure that a certain material went out of stock or create a problem for me. This meant that I had to rush back and resolve the crisis.  I was off their back na.

Setting out on a Campaign – “After the king has increased his strength he shall set out on a campaign against the enemy, choosing a time when the enemy does not have all his forces mobilized”. (7.4.14). “He shall set out on a campaign when he finds that the enemy’s troubles with one constituent of his state cannot be compensated by the other constituents, the enemy’s subjects have become impoverished, disunited due to oppression by the troops or ill-treatment by their monarch and thus have become susceptible to enticement to desert” (7.4.15). This is what Kargil was all about.

Treaties –  “Non-intervention, negotiating a peace treaty and making peace by giving a hostage-all mean the same thing, since the aim of all three is to create confidence between the two kings” (7.17.1,2). Some feel that a treaty when backed by a hostage is more stable. K disagreed. An agreement made on oath or word of honor is stable in the world and the next. (We believe in re-birth). Not keeping hostages is fine when you are dealing with decent guys but not when you are dealing with a country whose reason for existence is hatred for Bharat. After defeating Pakistan in 1971 India took 93,000 soldiers as prisoners of war yet released them without any substantial gains. What happened?

Mrs Gandhi and her advisors were clear that a lasting solution must be found in J and K. The vacation of Paki territory and release of POW was subject to a categorical agreement by Pakistan to recognize the Line of Control as the international border. Amidst a hardening of stands, Bhutto sought a one to one meeting with Mrs. Gandhi where he agreed that the J and K issue should be resolved; the LOC could gradually be converted into an international border. However, he requested that these should be verbal commitments only since a formal agreement would endanger his survival in power and democratic rule, deepen hostility against India in Pakistani public opinion. He conveyed that over a period of three to five years, he will be agreeable to convert the LOC into a de jure border. Despite being defeated, Pakistan retrieved its men and territory in return for verbal promises. Inspite of some attempts, he went back on his Word.

Treaties by the Weaker King –  “A weak king, attacked by a stronger king whose armies had already started moving against him, shall quickly submit and sue for peace with the offer of himself, his army, treasury and territory”. (7.3.22) lets take the Indo China War of 1962. Every one in the Indian Government knew that there was no way we could take on the Chinese militarily yet Nehru told the press in October 1962 that he had ordered the army to throw out the Chinese from our territory. Knowing the Chinese resolve to take area in Ladakh, I wish he had the guts to accept Chou-en-lai’s proposal of 1960 where by China would accommodate India in the North East if India were to accept the line of control in Ladakh. He would have saved his countrymen the scars of humiliation.

Liberating the Hostage – “The hostage shall liberate himself by his own efforts or be helped by clandestine agents adopting various disguises (, using entertainers, attendants (adopted by Shivaji when he escaped from Agra), and avoiding recapture.

Choice of Allies – “When there is a choice between two allies, the one amenable to control, though temporary is preferred because he remains an ally as long as he helps. The real characteristic of friendship is help”. (7.9.9-12). If I have two friends who are very dear, the one who helps me willingly is a true friend. The constant ally giving small help shall be preferred. The temporary friend giving substantial help is likely to withdraw for fear of having to give more or will expect it to be repaid. The constant ally, giving small help continuously, does in fact give great help over a period of time”. (7.9.13-17). How would you classify Russia, U.S, Britain? “An ally mobilizing quickly, even if he is less mighty, is preferable because he does not allow opportune time for action to pass”. (7.9.18-21) “Troops that are in one place can be brought under control by conciliation or other means”. (7.9.22-25). C realized the disadvantages of scattered troops in a country where the topography varies from region to region. “An ally who helps monetarily is preferable because one can always use money but troops only sometimes”. (7.9.26-30). C was a smarty; he knew that money gave you the flexibility to do what you want with it. In the 1960s, the U.S. gave us wheat under the PL 480 scheme but not money. This way they helped their farmers. If they had given us dollars, we might have bought wheat from Australia instead.

“An ally who is likely to grow in power after defeating the enemy and thus become uncontrollable shall be embroiled in a conflict with his own neighbor or such actions would be taken as would oblige the ally to remain obedience, in return for help received”. (7.18.). This reminds me of a colleague. He used his juniors to fire missiles at other departmental heads and at people within his department. With time, the junior became powerful. Then he would sideline them until they came back to him and pleaded for help.

Planning a Campaign – K lists eight different factors which have a bearing on success or failure. If the king concludes that he is superior to the enemy he should go to war. The first factor is power. One is not foolish to attack a stronger adversary. Power has three constituents – intellectual power, military might, morale. The next two factors are place and time. This means terrain and season when battle will be fought, estimated duration of war. The next is deciding on the right type of troops and the right season for setting out. Another factor is the danger of an internal revolt against him. A manager must never go on leave if he is unable to nominate a person to do duty for him in his absence. Next is what does he hope to achieve and the extent of losses. The last factor is the possibility of treachery. When taking decision to set out on a campaign, it is imp for the King and his councilors to sit together. K warns against a king showing undue kindness or weak qualities. Once you decide to go for a military campaign, it must be pursued steadfastly.

An in depth analysis helps the king in making correct judgement. If you then realize, that your opponent is stronger then the campaign must be abandoned. If you do an in depth analysis of your strengths and weaknesses before getting into a negotiation, it enables you, to invariably make a better decision. K maintains that a king faced with losses should save the best of his resources; he should save himself to fight another day. That is what Bhutto did in 1972 and Gen Mushraff in 1999.

“A conqueror, having assured himself about his superiority in power, place and time shall leave behind a third of his army to protect his capital.” (9.1.34). The Pakis have through the ISI, set up bases in the country; Mumbai is just one hot spot. (During the Kandhar hijacking crisis and the recent attack on Chhota Rajan, key players were found in a Mumbai suburb, Jogeshwari.) As and when the next conventional war happens, the Indian army will not only have to fight the enemy across the border but one within. Which means that an army that is already over stretched fighting anti-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir and the North East will have to retain a portion of its troops for internal security? I remember an army colonel telling me that only the Army could match the fire power of Mumbai’s underworld.

“A small revolt in the rear outweighs a large gain at the front.” (9.3.1-8). For years the Pakis have attacked us from the rear in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, the condition of Indian Muslims. All along they have maintained that the Muslims of Pakistan are one. The recent announcement in London by Altaf Hussain, exiled leader of the Mohajir movement, that partition was the biggest blunder in history and the common plateform that he shared with non Punjabi Paki leaders has broken a carefully preserved myth about Pakistan being the home of the sub-continents Muslims. It was followed by a visit of MQM leaders to New Delhi, allegedly at the behest of an NGO. I do not know whether the Ministry of External Affairs has a hand in their visit but it is brilliant strategy and is bound to put the Pakis on the defensive.

Against an attacking Confederacy – “7.14 deals with a situation where a king is beset by a confederacy of allies and needs to recoup his powers and build up his strength. The first step is to break the unity of the confederacy.” Let’s look at a Finance Manager who is upright, honest and has become a pain for the other head of departments. The HODs or allies would identify managers who work for the finance manager, win them over to their side, encourage them to revolt i.e. they would sow seeds of dissension. This akin to breaking the unity of a confederacy.

“When the king under attack cannot afford the time needed to sow dissension among the members of the confederacy, Kautilya advises that it is best to make peace by making concessions, with the time bought by peace, he shall try to remedy his weaknesses. What to do is to remedy each type of weakness is given.” (7.14.14-28). Moral of the story is never take a panga; pick up a fight till you have the power to back it. Or else, wait; build your strength and then attack. You must be able to swallow your ego to do this.

The Weak King – Kautilya cautions against spineless submission and foolhardily valor. It is better to give up what will be taken by force and live to fight another day. Only if the circumstances are not conducive to peace shall he fight.  A weak king may try to reduce his losses by suing for peace. Equally, he can employ clandestine methods to kill or weaken the aggressor. “Peace can be sought even after the aggressor starts his campaign by offering him useless things. (12.1.24-31). If this fails an envoy can be sent to dissuade the aggressor from continuing his campaign. If this is also useless, the aggressor can be killed or undermined by provoking rebellions and attacks. (12.2.8-10). Or, he can be assassinated” (12.2.2-7).

In 1663, Shivaji was unable to take on the powerful Shayista Khan because of which he became a homeless wanderer. With the help of secret agents, he obtained minute details of Khan’s camp and arranged a surprise attack at night. With about fifty followers he entered Khan’s harem in the evening. After midnight, Shivaji and his men attacked the inmates and hacked people indiscriminately. In 1664, he could not bear the brunt of Jay Singh’s attack and sued for peace.

In 1914, the British govt decided that a border between India and Tibet and Tibet and China be laid down. At a tripartite agreement held in Simla, the three parties signed the agreement. Unhappy with the demarcation of the border between Tibet and China but not in a position to do any thing about it, the Chinese signed the agreement then only to capture Tibet in 1950.

Two very good examples of students who followed Kautilya’s Arthashastra.

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