Kautilya and his Arthasastra
An introduction to the rich diversity of the ancient Indian discussions on statecraft, economy, and law and the problems arising out of anachronistic interpretations of the past to address contemporary political exigencies.
In 1896, nine years before the rediscovery of the Kautiliya Arthasastra, Manmath Nath Dutt wrote the following in the introduction to his English translation of the Kamandakiya Nitisara.
Admitting their exalted superiority in matters of philosophical and theological speculation, some people of the present generation boldly launch the theory that our literature lacks in works which may serve as a guidance of practical life. To disabuse the popular mind of this perilous misconception, we might safely assert that Hindu writers paid no less attention to practical morals and politics. It was Chanakya, the Machaival [sic] of India who first reformed this Science … The author, of the work which is the subject of our translation, was a disciple of Chanakya who raised the first Maurya king Chandra Gupta on the throne of Pataliputra (B.C. 319.) Tradition fully corroborates this date. (emphasis added)
If, as Dutt notes a little later, ‘even school boys of India’ knew the Indian science of polity then who was he trying to disabuse? Towards the end of the introduction, it becomes clear that his audience was the West, particularly Indologists and the colonial administration. Western scholars such as Max Müller, while acknowledging India’s metaphysical achievements, had claimed that India had ‘no place in the political history of the world.’ Dutt tried to contest such assertions by drawing attention to the pre-colonial Indian tradition of Science of Polity. He further claimed an early date for the best-known text of that tradition and tried to demonstrate the practical achievements of that tradition by linking it to the foundation of India’s first large scale empire. Similar claims were voiced with greater conviction after the discovery of the Kautiliya Arthasastra.
This course will take students through the modern life of an ancient text that was fortuitously discovered at a time when nationalist politics was taking root in India and when Japan’s spectacular victory over Czarist Russia had demolished the myth of the invincibility of the West. Unsurprisingly, Kautilya soon emerged as, borrowing from K.V. Rangaswami Aiyangar’s glowing tribute, India’s reply to Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Bacon. We can add Sun Tzu and Hobbes to Aiyangar’s list. The text has subsequently been used by a variety of political actors including Nehru, Ambedkar, and Golwalkar. Ambedkar’s observations on the Arthasastra will turn our attention to its marginalisation in the pre-colonial India. Similarly, the engagement with Golwalkar’s selective appropriation of the text will turn our attention to the many lives of Kautilya. The course will use the Dharmasastras of Manu and Yajnavalkya, Vatstayayana’s Kamasutra, and Kamandaka’s Nitisara to locate the Arthasastra in the larger body of ancient literature. After examining the ancient and modern avatars of the treatise, the course will examine state, economy, law, and diplomacy from the perspective of the Arthasastra.
The course will introduce students to the rich diversity of the ancient Indian discussions on statecraft, economy, and law and to the problems arising out of anachronistic interpretations of the past to address contemporary political exigencies.