There’s Something About Chanakya

Everyone seems to know who Chanakya was, going mostly by the once popular TV series, Chanakya, based on his recovered life-story. I say recovered because, in reality, there is very little that we know of this, to use a term sparingly, political theorist.

We know he was also called Kautilya since the Arthashastra, the significance of which I’ll get to in a moment, was written under that name. He was also called Vishnugupta. This multiplicity of names were common in an era that had few legal ramifications surrounding one’s name – unlike our modern day and age. The multiplicity of names could also be explained by the various historical sources (mostly four semi-legendary accounts) that have formed the basis of what we know of the man today.

As I as trying to articulate earlier, there seem to be a paucity of works on him apart from a work by him, which reveals a significant amount of details to us. More perhaps, than the four semi-legendary sources that I mentioned earlier.

The Arthashastra is significant for allowing not only to be a hard-to-find window into an obscure period of study, but also for providing the basis of one of the first accounts of state craft in India. The Arthashastra, divided into around fifteen parts, refers at various points to different aspects of what we would call political theory today. There are sections on “discipline” that would excite the modern Foucauldian, sections on law, government superintendents, sovereign state policy, war, on capturing a powerful enemy, etc. There are even sections relating to the conduct of courtiers, invaders and even what are called the removal of “thorns”. For his so-called pragmatism, Chanakya is often referred to as the Indian Machiavelli. However, this comparison does not take into account the fact that Machiavelli lived and wrote more than 1500 years after!

I don’t wish to jump onto the patriotic bandwagon with this fact to claim that we were far “advanced” than the West in modern statecraft, nor do I agree with the comparison. These two cases are context-specific and need to be seen in their own proper specific time and space. However what the Arthashastra shows us, undoubtedly, is the science of warfare/polity preached at that time. And that that particular sight is very grim.

Few regard the link between this particular piece of writing and the rise of Ashoka as Emperor, yet here is a plausible link. What it teaches us today, apart from historical specificities is that State policy may grow out of written ideas, and vice-versa: that written ideas come from State practice. This reading then does nothing more or less than offer us an insight into the State-Theory dialectic.