The Political Culture of Chandragupta Maurya and the Empire

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The history of the ancient Indian Political Thought is of great significance and of practical utility for a clear understanding of the Political wisdom of our own ancestors. Kautilya (370-283 BCE), also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta, Dramila (among many other names) was the great Indian social, political, military and economist master strategist. He was a philosopher and a statesman of an outstanding class who had a great influence behind the rise of Chandragupta Maurya, the commencer of the great Mauryan dynasty. He remains an enigma in the world of statecraft and diplomacy for his ideas and uncompromising shrewdness to preserve the welfare of the state and the expansion of the kingdom. As a political thinker, he was the first to visualise the concept of a ‘Nation’ for the first time in human history. The chief political advisor to the great emperor Chandragupta Maurya, Kautilya is one of the most Intriguing character. The world had ever witnessed. His greatness lies in transcending the realm of politics and acquiring mastery in the field of economics, development studies and of course military sciences.

A versatile genius, Kautilya is undoubtedly the first great political realist. This is owing to his treatise on the ‘science of politics’ The Arthashastra, written around 300 BCE, some eighteen hundred years prior to Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, consider to be the most comprehensive quintessential text on political realism. The Arthashastra is indeed a masterpiece of stratecraft, diplomacy, and stratergy and is an example of non-Western literature that should be read as a part of “Realist” canon. In terms of offering frank and brutal advice to a king, kautilya makes Machiavelli seem mild.

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Max weber insightfully claimed, “a genuinely radical Machiavelliianism in the popular sense of the word, received its classical formulation in Indian literature as early as Kautilya’s Arthashastra”. In one vital way, Kautilya is different from the modern realists. Whereas modern realists are intent on defending the state, kautilya was an expansionist who wanted the kings to be world conquerors. Thus, as a political thinker-more, even, than Machiavelli- he defended and encouraged Imperialistic expansion and not merely defence of the state.

The most revered and serious concerns for realists of all streams have been ‘state survival’ and ‘national interest’. And the very reason why kautilya is the greatest of all realists is that every policy or stratergy he opines revolvs around the twin concerns of the development and protection of state interest and survival. For instance, his reinforcement of the concept of religious principle is to establish the concept of divine ordination of the king. He added the principle only to use religious superstitions in the service of the state because he says, “Thus the lowly folk should be silenced”. This makes the idea of revolt against the king doubly difficult.

However, crucial to make a sense of the period and context in which kautilya was writing and making his observation. The Mahabharata had identified the state as different from both the prince and populace. This idea of Dharmashastra tradition was taken up by the Arthshastra tradition which was pragmatic in outlook. However, both the traditions were concerned with the preservation and development of kingdom by whatever means. Both were found inter-woven with each other. What is germane to us is that the arthashastra tradition takes precedence in the ideas of kautilya. At the time when kautilya was leaving India, consisted of number of small stated which were constantly at war. The peace which Vyasa had so much yearned for in the Shantiparva was no where in sight. It was the time of alexander’s invasion and in contrast to the authoritarian rule he established there was much disunity. He was trying yo create, almost singlehandedly, order out of chaos peace out of war, and a public state out of a corrupt one. That is why his ideas are so complex.

The political thoughts of Kautilya, which are precisely known as Chanakyaneeti, are summarized in a book he wrote which is known as “Arthashastra”, a Sanskrit name which is translated as “The Science of Material Gain.” This book was lost for many centuries and a copy of it written on palm leaves was rediscovered in India in 1904 CE. The Arthashastra is a handbook for running an empire effectively and it contains detailed information about specific topics. Diplomacy and war are the two points treated in greater detail than any other and it also includes recommendations on law, prisons, taxation, fortifications, coinage, manufacturing, trade, administrations, and spies.

Kautilya’s Arthasastra is comprehensive, internally consistent, original and wide in scope. It contains sufficiently large number of significant concepts and hypotheses that clearly establish Kautilya as the founder of economics. The Arthashastra totally contains 5363 Sutras, 15 books, 150 chapters, and 180 Sections. The 15 Books contained in the Arthashastra can be classified in the following manner: Book 1, as a book on ‘Fundamentals of Management’, Book 2 dealing with ‘Economics’, Books 3, 4 and 5 on ‘Law’, Books 6, 7, 8 describes Foreign Policies. Books 9 to 14 concerns subjects on ‘War’. The 15th book deals with the methodology and devices used in writing the Arthashastra.

Arthashastra stands as one of the great political books of the ancient world, its ideas on the science of politics strikingly similar to those of Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Clausewitz, and even Sun Tsu. There is no reference to the emperor Chandragupta Maurya or to his kingdom Magadha in Arthasastra since it was meant to be theoretical treatise designed to instruct Kings everywhere and in all times. Kautilya is also credited with two other works, Chanakya Sutras (Chanakya’s Precepts) and Chanakya Rajanitisastra (Chanakya’s Statecraft).

According to Chanakya, the ruler should use any means to attain his goal and his actions require no moral sanction. The only problems discussed are of the most practical kind. Though the kings were allowed a free rein, the citizens were subject to a rigid set of rules. This double standard has been cited as an excuse for the obsolescence of the Arthashastra, though the real cause of its ultimate neglect, as the Indian historian Romila Thapar suggests, was the formation of a totally different society to which these methods no longer applied.

Arthasastra remains unique in all of Indian literature because of its total absence of specious reasoning, or its unabashed advocacy of realpolitik, and scholars continued to study it for its clear cut arguments and formal prose till the 12thcentury. Espionage and the liberal use of provocative agents is recommended on a large scale. Murder and false accusations were to be used by a king’s secret agents without any thoughts to morals or ethics. There are chapters for kings to help them keep in check the premature ambitions of their sons, and likewise chapters intended to help princes to thwart their fathers’ domineering authority.

But there is something to keep in mind that the Arthasastra is not a theoretical treatise on political science. It doesn’t concern itself with the question of the origin of the state and its nature. Nor does it refer to the various forms that the state organization is found to take. It’s primary concern is with the matter of administration. One cannot, therefore, deny the justice of Keith’s remarks :’ India offers nothing that can be regarded as a serious theory of politics in the wider sense of that term. But there was intensive study of the practical aspect of government and of relations between states ‘ In fact, the Arthasastra is more of treatise on administration than on politics and statecraft, wherein every single aspect of human life is subject to the jurisdiction of the state. His detailed work clearly laid down an organizational set-up, and there was a clear-cut division of ethics and politics. However, he was of the opinion that politics devoid of ethics is dangerous to the prosperity and security of the entire kingdom. In all matters of state, dharma should be the guiding factor. In many ways, Chanakya was compared to Machiavelli in certain matters of statecraft because of his ruthless and shrewd tactics and policies reflecting an approach to statecraft including warfare.

Kautilya was in favour of a strong state. He thought that even the powers of the king are justified because they lead to the good of the state. To ensure rightful exercise of powers by the king, Kautilya gives elaborate instructions on the education and training of the princes, which almost remind one of the education of the Guardian class in Plato. This may also because kautilya’s Arthasastra was a product of a period of turbulence. This strong emphasis became the basis of consolidating perhaps the first centralized government in India. There is also a glimpse of the idea of a welfare state in his thought.

This paper would study Vishnugupta Chanakya’s (also known as Kautilya) life closely along with going into the depths of his art of statecraft which is one of its kind. It is considered an ideal weapon for any statesman, especially in India, even today. A person who has excelled in all his endeavours in politics and has an excellent grip over all the strategies and tactics to be used in politics, is termed as Chanakya, amongst the common man in India. Chanakya is highly revered for his ideas of statecraft, which this paper would examine closely and would come out with a conclusion if his ideas are really a weapon of all times.

Compared by many to Italian statesman and writer Machiavelli and by others to Aristotle and Plato, Chanakya is alternately condemned for his ruthlessness and trickery and praised for his sound political wisdom and knowledge of human nature. All authorities agree, however, that it was mainly because of Chanakya that the Mauryan Empire under Chandragupta and later under Ashoka became a model of efficient government. As Chanakya says, “The earth is supported by the power of truth; it is the power of truth that makes the sun shine and the winds blow; indeed all things rest upon truth.” Therefore, let’s begin our search for truth.

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