Chanakya: The Indian Machiavelli

ChanakyaChanakya has been called the “Indian Machiavelli” because his writings have a political pragmatism similar to that seen in Machiavelli’s own work. He has also been called “Kingmaker” because, as one book description notes,

Striving to make Chandragupta`s position secure in an unstable and dangerous time, Chanakya championed a policy of realpolitik. He deployed a large network of spies, ensured testing for the king`s food and shelter; averted disasters through keen detection like that of ants carrying rice through cracks in flooring. He was not averse to spreading rumors to win over an opponent to the king`s side. Behind all this was the burning desire to stir the country`s ruler to sweep away the vestiges of Greek rule that remained behind Alexander`s invasion and return from India.

According to Wikipedia, Chanakya lived c. 370–283 BCE and was an Indian teacher, philosopher and royal advisor to the first Maurya emperor Chandragupta. He was also “a professor of economics and political science at the ancient Takshashila University.”

Chanakya played an important role in the rise of the Maurya Empire,  which ruled most of the Indian subcontinent. Chanakya was chief advisor to both Chandragupta and his son Bindusara.

Chanakya is traditionally identified by two other names: Kautilya and Vishnu Gupta. In the 4th century BCE, he wrote the ancient Indian political treatise called Arthashastra. This has been variously translated as “science of politics… to help a king in “the acquisition and protection of the earth,” “treatise on polity,” “science of material gain,” “science of polity,” and “science of political economy.” You can read it in several places, including here (PDF version here).

Other works include Chanakya Neeti and Chanakya Sutra. These were lost for more than a millennium, but were rediscovered in 1915. Not a lot is known about his life, but enough has allowed scholars to put together reasonable biographies. More has been surmised – which helped to make it the subject of a 47-part video series:

In his paper, Moderate Machiavelli? Contrasting the Prince with the Arthashastra of Kautilya, author Robert Boeshe wrote,

Max Weber was the first to see that the writings of Machiavelli, when contrasted with the brutal realism of other cultural and political traditions, were not so extreme as they appear to some critics. “Truly radical ‘Machiavellianism,’ in the popular sense of that word,”Weber said in his famous lecture “Politics as a Vocation,” “is classically expressed in Indian literature in the Arthashastra of Kautilya (written long before the birth of Christ, ostensibly in the time of Chandragupta [Maurya]): compared to it, Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless.” In this article, I contrast Machiavelli’s writings to those of Kautilya (c. 300 B.C.E.) and question why Machiavelli omitted the harsher aspects of political domination such as spies, assassination of enemies, and torture. Could it be that he was afraid to tell a prince about the harsher characteristics of tyrannical rule? If so, why?

Weber’s observations were written in a 1919 essay called Politics as a Vocation. In in, Weber noted:

Truly radical ‘Machiavellianism’, in the popular sense of that word, is classically expressed in Indian literature in the Arthasastra of Kautilya (written long before the birth of Christ, ostensibly in the time of Chandragupta): compared to it, Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless.

Read the full essay here.

Another reference linking Chanakya and Machiavelli was made in the DNA India publication, May, 2013, in an article titled, “Conference mulls Rabindranath Tagore’s relevance to India’s foreign policy.” In it, the unnamed author notes:

Former career diplomat Amitava Tripathi said Tagore had no alternative to use of soft power to reach out to the world because India was at that time a colonised country with low level of development and little scope for exercising hard power.

At a session on “Tagore’s Influence on the Ethos of Indian Foreign Policy”, Tripathi stressed the need for culling out lessons emanating from Tagore’s message of peace, internationalism, brotherhood and humanism.

Tripathi said, “For conventional diplomats like us versed in Kautilya and Machiavelli, sometimes it is difficult to appreciate Tagore’s supra-nationalism because we are confined to working within the nation-state framework in diplomacy whereas he is looking at the universe”.

“Essentially, it was a choice between Tagore the foreign policy philosopher and the foreign policy practitioners,” said Tripathi.

The article poses some interesting questions about Tagore and modern India’s politics.

In his essay, Kautiyla: Politics, Ethics and Statecraft, Pravin Chandrasekaran writes:

Kautilya, frequently referred to as the Machiavelli of India, was famous for his realist approach to diplomacy. Foreign relations were determined by self-interest and power rather than by ethical considerations. In the Arthashastra he writes that nations must act in their political, economic and military self-interest and that foreign policy or diplomacy is practiced as long as the self-interest of the State is served. He saw the inter-kingdom dynamics as a constant warfare, either in war or preparing for war. In this constant tensed discourse, diplomacy was the tool to build alliances and ensure the safety and power of the kingdom. The highest morality for the king was the prosperity of his people and his kingdom, and the methods to achieve this were not subject to ethical criticism.

Among the maxims are these nuggets from his various works:

  • A man is great by deeds, not by birth.
  • There is no austerity equal to a balanced mind, and there is no happiness equal to contentment; there is no disease like covetousness, and no virtue like mercy.
  • Even if a snake is not poisonous, it should pretend to be venomous.
  • In a state where the ruler lives like a common man, the citizens live like kings do. And in the state where the ruler lives like a king, the citizens live like beggars do.
  • Economic prosperity creates prosperity for the people. If the people are prosperous, even a leaderless state can be governed. People’s fury is greatest of furies 
  • Accomplishment of the task depends on guarding the secret of the counsel. One who leaks out counsel destroys the task.
  • Counsellors (Ministers) are those who see the true implications what ought to be done and what ought not to done.
  • One addicted to vices does not accomplish tasks.One addicted to gambling does not accomplish any thing.
  • An enemy should be won over by the use of political science.
  • Those who blindly believe in destiny do not achieve any thing. 
  • Excessive courtesy should never be trusted. 
  • Through association of good even one with out virtue becomes virtuous.
  • One should have friendly connection with the ruling elite.
  • Even in the performance of allotted duties, the master should be praised. 
  • The rulers duties are stated to be five: punishment of the wicked (dusht) , rewarding the righteous, development of state revenues by just means, impartiality in granting favours and protection of the state.
  • Undesirable persons become favourites by acting according to the reading of the ruler’s mind.
  • The wise ones should first look to their own self protection.
  • Those who serve rulers are said to function in fire.

Is Chanakya akin to Machiavelli? It is difficult to say yes, based solely on the brief introduction here. Many of the aphorisms I have read are not political, but social or religious. Certainly there are parallels in their two lives – including their military service. Wikipedia notes this story about his military career:

Once, Chanakya came across a mother scolding her child for burning himself by eating from the middle of a bowl of porridge rather than the cooler edge. Chanakya realised his initial strategic error: he was attacking Magadha, the center of the Nanda territory. He then changed his strategy and focused on capturing the areas located at the peripharies of the Nanda empire. With help from Suvashini, he drove a wedge between the king and Rakshasa. Finally, he defeated the last Nanda king and established a new empire with Chandragupta Maurya as the emperor.

He deserves further study and a fuller reading of his works.

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