Canny, contemplative and courageous, Chanakya is known as one of India’s most multifaceted and enduring gurus. His smart, sage advice, captured forever in the twin classic treatises-the Arthashastra and the Nitishastra – has both the detailing of a draughtsman and the wide-ranging wisdom of a genius. Scholar, teacher, visionary, political strategist, economic philosopher and royal adviser, Chanakya put forth invaluable lessons that changed the course of history.
Humiliated by Dhana Nanda, the ruler of Magadha, Chanakya turned adversity into strength and challenge into opportunity. Through clever diplomatic manoeuvres and wise confrontations, he choreographed young Chandragupta’s rise as the founder of the Mauryan empire, the first of its kind in power and territorial extent. Melding his knowledge with a shrewd observation of life, Chanakya outlined political and economic philosophies in a long-lasting body of pithy truths. And that is why, even centuries later, his work and his words matter in today’s world.
This book brings together the transformative incidents that shaped Chanakya’s life, and his most important sayings. From his understanding of the ideal way of life, you too can learn to be a little bit like Chanakya.
Chanakya was an ancient Indian scholar, teacher, philosopher, visionary and royal adviser, whose name is still a byword for sharp and effective political and economic strategies. Over centuries, stories about him have become part of classic lore. There are TV dramas and several books, both fiction and non-fiction, based on his life or the two treatises he authored: the Arthashastra and the Nitishastra. The Arthashastra is a treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, while the Nitishastra features his views on the principles that govern society and the ideal way of life.
Most accounts agree that Chanakya was a student and then a teacher at the ancient Takshashila University, and was the mastermind behind the first Mauryan emperor Chandragupta's rise to power at a young age in 321 BCE. Chanakya, in that sense, helped erect the first empire in archaeologically recorded history to govern most of the Indian subcontinent. Chanakya served as the chief adviser to both Chandragupta and his son Bindusara.
The author of the Arthashastra refers to himself as 'Kautilya', while the last verse mentions the name 'Vishnugupta'. Many scholars believe that the former was the gotra or clan name of the author, while the latter was his personal name. Most scholars also believe that these names refer to the same fourth century BCE scholar, Chanakya, who is acclaimed as a pioneer in economics and political science in India. For his shrewd understanding of political and diplomatic strategies, Chanakya is often called the ‘Indian Machiavelli’, although his works predate Machiavelli’s by about 1,800 years. Chanakya’s works were lost near the end of the Gupta dynasty (around the fifth century CE) and not rediscovered until 1915.
While the various names attributed to the author of the Arthashastra have created confusion, it is however, generally believed that Kautilya and Chanakya refer to the same person. In a book of fiction written in 1939 by A.S. Panchapakesha Ayyar, Three Men of Destiny, based on old stories and legends surrounding Chanakya, his wife Gautami explains his various names. She is not known to be a truly historical character, but in the book her grandmother asks her what her husband’s many names really mean. Gautami responds that Vishnugupta was the name given him because his paternal grandfather was called that too. Kautilya was the clan name or gotra associated with their particular group of brahmins. Some wickedly referred to him this way so as to hint at the kind of person he was (kutil means clever or cunning in Sanskrit). He was called Chanakya too, after his father who was called Chanak. And there were some who referred to him as Dramila or Tamila for they thought he came from the south, then known as Dravida country. He was also cruelly called Angula or the one-finger-high dwarf because he was rather short and unprepossessing in appearance.
The Mauryan dynasty’s rise after the Nandas were overthrown and the strategy behind it are attributed to Chanakya and his precepts that formed the body of the Arthashastra. Besides this and the Nitishastra, there also exist numerous Niti sutras as well, aphorisms that Chanakya is said to have used to instruct the young Chandragupta about kingship and living the ideal life. The Mauryan state was organized on very efficient lines, with an army and bureaucracy that ensured that adequate checks and balances were in place to prevent misuse of power, under the overall authority of the king.
Chanakya is said to have lived between 370 to 280 BCE. Scholars who have studied the Arthashastra in detail have attempted to shed light on who Chanakya really was, but there are different views on this. Several texts, including works of fiction, describe aspects of his life. For instance, there are different stories about and different reasons attributed to why he nursed a grudge against the Nandas, the dynasty that ruled Magadha for a century and a half before the Mauryas (fifth and fourth centuries BCE.). One story has it that his father was executed for speaking against the king, and Chanakya was forced to flee. Another story goes that he himself was humiliated by the Nandas because he was not good-looking, or because he occupied, without asking, a seat of honour in the assembly, and he swore revenge. There are differing accounts of his origin too. While one mentions that his father lived in Pataliputra, another goes that he came from the south or Dravida country. There is one common factor, however, in all the stories: that Chanakya was widely known for his learning.
Some early texts that refer to Chanakya and his life include the ‘Mahavamsa’, a historical poem written in Pali and regarded as an important Buddhist text as well. The earliest version is from around the mid-sixth century BCE, before Chanakya’s time, but it was compiled by different sets of monks, mainly in Sri Lanka for the next several centuries. Jain texts from a similar period that mention Chanakya’s struggle against the Nandas include a text found in Hemachandra’s Parisistaparvan. Works of fiction from ancient India that mention Chanakya include Somadeva’s Kathasaritasagar or the Ocean of Stories, and Kshemendra’s Brihat Katha Manjari. Kshemendra and Somadeva lived in Kashmir in the tenth and eleventh centuries CE respectively,. Nearly 1,400 years after Chanakya. A more famous piece of writing, a play dated anywhere between the fifth and eleventh centuries CE, is the Mudrarakshasa or ‘Rakshasa’s Signet’ written by the scholar and playwright Vishakhadatta. It tells the story of how Chanakya secured the throne for Chandragupta after thwarting the efforts of Rakshasa, a loyal minister of the Nandas.
It is believed that Chanakya met Chandragupta during his period of exile from Magadha. Chandragupta’s early life is obscure as well. Some texts hold that he belonged to a tribe of peacock tamers living in a small principality on the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, called Pippalivahana. Another version makes Chandragupta a Nanda prince whose mother was a slave woman and who had to run for his life when he found himself in danger.
Chanakya met Chandragupta in the course of his wanderings and moulded him into a challenger to the Nanda throne. Later as his adviser, he drafted rules that would help a king run his state efficiently. The Arthashastra has detailed guidelines and precepts on almost everything that defined a state: its ruler, the qualities he must possess, his ministers and officers, the army, war strategy and foreign policy, agriculture, forestry, artisan and guild-regulating actions, and even institutions such as the imperial household, the treasury and the granaries. It did not hope to create an idealistic state or king, but was written in a most practical manner: effective, and very efficient. In this respect, it has been compared to Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, written in the fifteenth century CE during the Renaissance in Italy.
The Arthashastra is Chanakya’s most famous work and has been in existence for more than 2,000 years. Some scholars believe that Chanakya relied on other arthashastras, or similar treatises written earlier. However, everyone is agreed that his is the most detailed and comprehensive one. In ancient times, manuscripts were written down on palm leaves and copied and re-copied, and these other arthashastras existed as palm-leaf scripts before Kautilya wrote his more detailed extensive one. Palm-leaf scripts were not long-lasting, but because Chanakya’s work was so exhaustive and detailed, subsequent copies were made of only this work and the earlier ones were all lost or forgotten. Chanakya’s Arthashastra has thus been described by historian Thomas R. Trautmann as a ‘book-killing’ book, in that it was deemed to be the most definitive version and few newer compiled versions were written after his.
Chanakya himself as the author made it clear that there were other arthashastrsa before his, and that his work was a refined and improved version of these previous lost works. But he also made systematic arguments, putting up definitions and opinions offered by writers and schools before him such as those of Manu, Parasara, Brihaspathi and Usanas, and he also discusses his specific reasons for disagreeing with them.
There is some disagreement on the period during which it was written, though Chanakya mentions that it was written to end the misrule of the Nandas. Historian R.P. Kangle believes it was written during the Mauryan period, but another scholar S.R. Gaoyal who subjected the Arthashastra to a comparison with the Indika of Megasthenes, a book that is now lost, favours a date long after the Mauryas. It has been argued that the Arthashastra contains no direct reference to the city of Pataliputra, the Mauryan empire or even to Chandragupta. However, both Kangle and Trautmann are agreed that it is a book of precepts meant for a hypothetical king, and the Nitishastra is especially ment for a king who would be ideal in every way.
There is also convincing evidence that the trade in luxury goods that the book brings up, more specifically trade in such goods with China and Rome, appeared much later. Trading of goods with fine silks from China took place at least 200 years after the Mauryas. Trade with Rome also grew substantially only in the first century CE. This was after sailors from afar learnt to negotiate the monsoon winds, and this knowledge was passed on by Greek sailors to Romans. Certain other references, such as the mention of Parasamudra foe Sri Lanka and of trade in pearls from south India, point to a later date for the Arthashastra. While there is disagreement over when exactly the Arthashastra was written, there is broad agreement that it can be placed at a time no later than 150 CE, as Trautmann too concludes. It can be concluded, as scholars have accepted too, that the Arthashastra and the Nishastra are texts associated with ancient India, compiled more than 2,000 years ago, and while they may not describe exactly what the Mauryan state was like, their references to a large and powerful empire are very close to what the Mauryan empire under Chandragupta Maurya and his immediate successors grew to be. For several centuries after this it was believed that Chanakya’s texts were well and truly lost. There were very few copies. People were totally unaware of them, especially in the centuries after the Gupta empire of the fourth and fifth centuries CE. In recent times it was thought to be lost though texts of the past and even works of fiction hinted at these works and even about Chanakya. Then an unknown pandit brought a manuscript to R. Shamashastry, librarian at the Oriental Research Institute, Mysore, who published a translation in 1906-08. This text formed the basis of later authoritative works on the Arthashastra by historian such as R.P. Kangle, Thomas R. Trautmann and L. Rangarajan. It is now much cited and greatly quoted, and is hailed one of the oldest written down texts of ancient India.
Scholars of the Arthashastra have different definitions of the text, which is actually a compilation of fifteen separate books called adikaranas. Trautmann defined it as the ‘science of wealth’ or more appropriately as the science of economics. Other scholars have tried to emphasize how complex a work it is. In ancient times, ‘artha’ was a concept that went beyond just wealth or material well being. It was considered one of the three classical goals, the others being ‘Kama’ (attachment) and ‘dharma’ (righteousness). Dharma meant living the right way by following a code of ethics and a value system: all the morals necessary for well being. Kama denotes attachment to the physical and sensual aspect of life.
The arthashastra states clearly that artha is superior to both dharma and kama for the latter two are dependent on it. All three, however, were deemed essential for the attainment of moksha, or salvation. This was a desirable goal in ancient times and it was believed that one’s actions in the present decided one’s future lives and the aim was to find salvation through right living in every way. In the times when the Arthashastra was written, the polity (the form or constitution of a politically organized unit) and the economy were interpreted as one unit. As scholars explain, in the time of the Arthashastra, the state which could mean the kingdom and its symbols such as the king, were identified with the economy: the different systems of production, revenue from which sustained the stat. The state ran in the king’s name and every economic activity was supervised, managed by or was dependent on the state in every way. The king had to make things secure for his people, to ensure an efficient economy and polity. The state played a crucial role in maintaining the material well being of the state and its people.
In the Arthashastra and Nitishastra, Chanakya left no aspect of a state and its citizens untouched and it is not surprising that his seminal and wide-ranging wisdom continues to inspire people.
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