An Ancient Treatise and the Making of Modern India

Asit Kumar Haldar, “Megasthenes in Chandragupta’s Court,” Bengal, early 20th century. Courtesy Anaya Vajpeyi
30 July, 2016

This post was originally published on Public Books.

In the intellectual history of modern India, 1909 was a turning point. That year Mohandas Gandhi, a middle-aged Gujarati lawyer based in South Africa, wrote his slim but Galilean freedom charter, Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule, which made the case for ending British colonialism in India. Vinayak Savarkar, eventually to be recognized as the father of Hindutva, or majoritarian Hindu nationalism, published an English translation of his Marathi history of the sepoy mutiny, The Indian War of Independence of 1857, anonymously signed “By an Indian Nationalist.” And in the same year, down south, R Shamasastry, the Chief Librarian of the Mysore Government Oriental Library, published the editio princeps of Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a Sanskrit work on politics and statecraft then thought to date from the reign of the Emperor Chandragupta (circa 321–297 BCE). Chandragupta was the founder of the Mauryan kingdom, the earliest imperial polity covering a huge swathe of the subcontinent, more or less the entirety of what we now think of as “India.”

The influence of Gandhi and Savarkar on the making of modern India is undisputed. But how did the Arthashastra, an erudite treatise from Indic antiquity, become one of the key books from ancient India to have an important career in modern times? The Arthashastra is not just a relic of a remote past; it continues to animate discussions about political life in contemporary India. Defense analysts, management gurus, and op-ed page pundits at Indian think tanks are fond of quoting the Arthashastra. According to the political psychologist and public intellectual Ashis Nandy, this text manifests, at least in the fantasy of modern-day hawks who like to flaunt their familiarity with the classics, an ideology of power that could be described as “controlled pathology,” though it cannot really be taken to advocate out-and-out tyranny or a state that might be called dictatorial.

In an engaging account of the rediscovery of a manuscript of Lucretius’s first-century BCE Latin didactic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by a papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, in the library of a Benedictine monastery in southern Germany, in 1417, Stephen Greenblatt argues that it was the appearance of this book in early fifteenth-century Europe that led to the “swerve” toward Renaissance Humanism. By putting Lucretius’s ideas back into circulation after centuries of amnesia about this text, Bracciolini, a so-called book-hunter, inadvertently became “a midwife to modernity.” Greenblatt traces Lucretius’s influence throughout the literature and arts of the Renaissance, a period in Europe’s cultural history that is by very definition about the “rebirth” of Greek and Roman antiquity a thousand or more years later.

The “swerve” toward modernity—what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre might have called an “epistemological breakthrough” marking the transition from the medieval to the modern world—can be seen in the work of a range of figures, including Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Hobbes, and many others, who over time brought about a profound change “from one way of perceiving and living in the world to another.” A case stands to be made, I would suggest, that the discovery of the Arthashastra in early twentieth-century southern India has a comparable role to play in the still-evolving elaboration of the idea of an Indian modernity.

In India today, the Arthashastra is considered analogous to Aristotle’s Politics and Machiavelli’s The Prince. Its topics include kingship, governance, and law in early India. Its perspectives on these subjects have proved to be as important to the project of Indian modernity as the theories of violence and non-violence, state, community, and self-rule authored by such political thinkers and founding figures of the postcolonial Indian nation as Gandhi, Ambedkar, Tagore, Savarkar, and their peers. British India’s foremost anti-colonial leader and free India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, brings up the Arthashastra half a dozen times in his classic popular history, The Discovery of India (1946), written in jail on the eve of Independence. Sixty years later, Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics, still treats this work as relevant to our times.


First things first: what does the title mean? A shastra is an authoritative work, a master manual or a scientific treatise, in this case about something called artha. What is artha? It can mean “meaning,” as in the meaning of a word. It can mean “substance,” as in the material, the stuff out of which anything is made. It can mean “purpose” or “goal,” the end that determines the means, the driver of an action or the reason for an undertaking. The title “Arthashastra” refers to both the substance and the purpose of political power. If power were a kind of material, of which kingdoms are made, and because of which the king can do things, then this book tells you in a rigorous and rational manner about the type of substance power is, what it might do in the world, and how best to put it to use—if you happen to be a king—to consolidate your own power, keep rivals in check, and take care of your people.

The Arthashastra has two sections, the first dealing with the governance of the kingdom (tantra, “home affairs,” so to speak), and the second dealing with foreign relations (avapa, “external affairs”). There’s a prefatory table of contents, and a concluding self-reflexive statement showing that the Arthashastra itself is a well-constructed text, ideal as a handbook for the ruler of a well-governed kingdom. All aspects of what we might think of as policy, planning, infrastructure, strategy, security, war, treaties, alliances, law and order, trade, taxation, revenue, property, fortifications, treasury, and defense are covered in a systematic fashion.

The Arthashastra is an encyclopedic, in many ways unique source of knowledge about the material culture of ancient India; it preserves information that has otherwise disappeared from the historical and literary record. Even though it does not refer to any historically specific domain, ruler, or set of kingdoms, it is replete with breathtaking empiricism, using a vast and specialised vocabulary to describe in detail a highly urbanised, diversified, and developed economy, polity, and society. (Translating this vocabulary is itself a stupendous task.) The Arthashastra does not, however, address the moral dimensions of sovereign power or political conduct. Those are subjects for a related but separate body of texts concerned with dharma, law or norms, in contrast to artha, the pragmatics of governing a kingdom.


In his new annotated translation of the Arthashastra, Patrick Olivelle, Professor Emeritus of Sanskrit and Indian Religions at the University of Texas at Austin, settles many questions about the date, authorship, architecture, and contents of the text that have dogged scholars since the first modern edition of 1909. The Arthashastra as we receive it, he argues, has its roots in textual materials dating somewhere between the mid-first century BCE and the mid-first century CE. These materials are lost and we only know of their existence because of references to them in the later literature. We are helped in temporally locating these materials with some precision, though, by references to coral, gold, and gold coins, which indicate that the text was written at a time when sea trade between India and the Mediterranean lands had already begun, and gold was being both mined and minted into currency on the Indian subcontinent.

The right way to think of the Arthashastra, then, is as the apotheosis and distillate of a tradition of political pragmatics in India between the mid-first century BCE and about 300 CE, of which the greatest exponent was the historical author whose name has survived in connection with this body of knowledge, namely, Kautilya. This body of knowledge is variously referred to within the tradition using a vocabulary of compounded words, all of which weave together one element connoting administration, governance, policy, punishment, rule, and so on with another connoting the science or discipline thereof. Next, sometime between 50 and 125 CE, an author, a real historical person with the name Kautilya (sometimes “Kautalya”), composed a work with the probable title Danḍaniti (literally, “Policy of Punishment”), which is still the core of the Arthashastra. This text has the aphoristic brevity, linguistic elegance, and structural compactness characterising much of classical sutra literature in Sanskrit. The final version, which comes down to us two millennia later, Olivelle calls the “Shastric Redaction” of Kautilya’s root text, a much longer and more elaborate treatise, the work of many hands between 175 and 300 CE. In this book, danḍa and dharma marry, as it were, to yield artha, an epistemological provenance of the theorisation of sovereignty according to which power has both bluntly punitive and subtly normative aspects.

According to Olivelle, Kautilya the author of the Dandaniti that is the spine of the Arthashastra chronologically preceded Manu, the author of the eponymous Manusmriti, or Laws of Manu, the text that stands in the dharma epistemological tradition exactly where the Arthashastra stands in the artha epistemological tradition. The Manusmriti, however, had stabilized before the process of shastric redaction that yielded the final Arthashastra.

Both texts—the Arthashastra and the Manusmriti—have been subject to philological and hermeneutical commentary and interpretation over the two-thousand-odd years of their respective trajectories, from the dawn of the Common Era down to the present. In the first millennium, in southern India, the Arthashastra seems to have been known, read, commented upon, and referred to a great deal, though it seems to recede from view somewhat in the second millennium, until its rediscovery in the twentieth century. More importantly, both Kautilya’s and Manu’s texts continue to animate discussions about political life even in contemporary India, which necessitates our taking them seriously as the repositories of living ideologies and not just as relics of a remote past.


Any reader of the Arthashastra would be struck by a couple of features of the world conjured through the text. First, the polity being referred to is both urban and urbane. People practice a variety of professions. The population of the city is largely mobile and transient. Men and women both work; there is a large and complex bureaucracy employed in the king’s service; the state must keep an eye on the traders, courtesans, actors, informants, spies, ascetics, secret agents, soldiers, artisans, officials, manufacturers, performers, moneylenders, and hundreds of other types of persons inhabiting and moving around in the city and its surrounding countryside.

A tint of the fourfold hierarchy of varṇa (social class + ritual status) normally referred to as “the caste system” seems only lightly and belatedly brushed onto this teeming, dynamic, and complex sociological picture. Olivelle argues, based on the work of scholars like Thomas Trautmann and Mark McClish, that the superimposition of the vocabulary and sociology of caste onto the basic structure of Kautilya’s text was due to the original text’s later redactors.

But even after this transformation, the sensorium of Arthashastra retains an ecumenical, diverse, and worldly flavor. The royal palace, the marketplace, the brothel, the government office, and the army camp are the hubs of most of the action in the Arthashastra, not the temple, the private home, the monastery, or the university. In the latter half of the text, we get an overwhelming sense of the importance of surveillance, stratagem, and counter-insurgency to the ruler’s control over his kingdom. People are not who they seem to be; identities are in flux. Enemies and rivals swarm within the kingdom and flourish abroad; the king must be vigilant at all times and trust no one.

The text’s focus is on the expansion of territory; plucking out “thorny elements” (kantakashodhana)—criminals, miscreants, spies, and so on—using surveillance, interrogation, detention, and punishment; the consolidation and management of subject populations; and the monopoly of military strength. To that extent, it is oriented toward realpolitik and reminds the modern reader of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Schmitt. Nehru writes about Kautilya: “Long before Clausewitz, he is reported to have said that war is only a continuance of state policy by other means.” In this scenario, soul-searching, ascetically inclined, and exilic monarchs like Janaka, Krishṇa, Rama, Siddhartha Gautama or Ashoka—kings at odds with power, who are valorised in other traditions of Indian political philosophy—have no place.

It should also be emphasised that the Arthashastra does not show us a “Hindu” society in the least: entirely preoccupied as it is with the institutions of government, law, and the military, it is devoid of reference to gods and goddesses, temples and shrines, worship and ceremonies, priests and other religious leaders. It belies every vision of either Vedic antiquity, saturated with sacrificial rituals and elemental deities, or of India’s purportedly timeless religious essence, so beloved first of the colonial historians with their Orientalist gaze, and today of the ruling right wing, bent on constructing a once and future Hindu Rashtra, India as a nation of, for, and by Hindus.

The urbane and canny denizens of Kautilya’s city-state, more wary of their local police superintendent, tax collector, and revenue officer than concerned with whatever rewards and punishments await them in the afterlife, look nothing like the pious Hindus we are today being told built India into the great civilisation it was thousands of years ago, before the advent of Buddhism, Islam, Western modernity, and other such “recent” encumbrances.


Olivelle’s meticulous scholarship puts to rest the most widely held belief about Kautilya—that he was in fact the Brahman Chanakya, the prime minister of Chandragupta, who founded the Mauryan Empire sometime around 320 BCE. When the Arthashastra was rediscovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, and subsequently published in constantly improving editions right into the 1960s, many Indian political thinkers and historians were only too happy to equate its author with the Brahman advisor to Chandragupta. Both the emperor Chandragupta and his Brahman prime minister, Chanakya, were taken to be near contemporaries of the Greek king Alexander (who came to India) and the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who was Alexander’s teacher.

The Arthashastra could therefore be seen as analogous to and contemporaneous with Aristotle’s Politics. Nationalists could argue that Indian antiquity had its own tradition of political thought to rival the Greek. This, added to India’s long history of glorious and enormous pre-colonial indigenous empires, from the Mauryan to the Gupta to the Mughal, could be presented as a strong argument against the continuation of the British Empire in India, to be defeated and replaced by Indian self-rule once again.

The Arthashastra became enfolded into the nationalist narrative of Indian thinkers and leaders struggling against colonial domination, as a sign of historical antiquity, political power, intellectual prestige, and cultural pride. Nehru’s retelling of prime minister Chanakya’s role in the founding of the Mauryan Empire is almost breathless with admiration for this kingmaker, who is somewhat implausibly described as “bold and scheming,” “proud and revengeful,” “simple and austere,” “unscrupulous and rigid,” and yet “wise” and conciliatory—all at once. Even today, almost seven decades after Independence, it takes a genuine effort of scholarly disambiguation to undo the mythical aura that surrounds the Arthashastra and its purported author.

Over the past century since its rediscovery, the Arthashastra has been attractive for modern Indian thinkers, especially its political leaders doubling as historians and intellectuals, for its empiricist breadth as well as its imagination of statecraft as a function of intelligence gathering, military strategy, and panoptical surveillance. It has appealed to nationalists—both secular and Hindu—more broadly because it seems to embody the impressive extent of philosophical achievement that prevailed in ancient India, proving that Indian intellectual culture was sophisticated to the highest degree, and that systematic knowledge pertaining to all aspects of life was cultivated, honed, and valued.


Olivelle proves definitively that there is no evidence whatsoever for equating Kautilya with the Brahman prime minister Chanakya. The myth of these two being one and the same came into circulation in the Gupta period (early fourth to mid-sixth century CE), when the playwright Vishakhadatta wrote his famous Sanskrit drama the Mudraraksasa, a story about the origins of the Mauryan dynasty and the founding of the Mauryan empire. It was likely written sometime in the late fourth or early fifth century CE, during the reign of Chandragupta II “Vikramaditya,” the greatest of the Gupta dynasts.

The Guptas explicitly modeled themselves on the Mauryas, building an empire whose territorial extension sought to match that of the Mauryan imperium five or six hundred years earlier. For the Guptas, the prestige of a tradition of political thought represented by the Arthashastra, a text very much under revision during their time, became further enhanced by rooting it firmly in the Mauryan period and by positing its Brahman authorship in this amalgamated but fictitious figure of Chanakya-Kautilya.

Building on earlier research by McClish and Trautmann, Olivelle makes it explicit that it was in the Gupta period that the idea of a Brahman advisor who was also a political theorist attached itself to the vision of ideal kingship, and was projected onto the then already-distant Mauryan past. With impeccable philological thoroughness, Olivelle undermines the political imagination that firstly posits the Arthashastra as a singular text (rather than as the summa of a textual tradition), secondly attributes the authorship of the Arthashastra to the Brahman Mauryan prime minister Chanakya, and finally treats Chanakya and Kautilya as alternative names for the same person.

Even if we were to accept that Chanakya actually lived and was Chandragupta’s advisor, his Brahman status, his intellectual perspicacity, and his inauguration of a tradition of political philosophy are propositions we can no longer simply accept as historical truths. No indication of the existence of this type of person, of his dramatic role in the establishment of the Mauryan Empire, or of his legitimation of any kind of absolutist monarchy is available. Moreover, what we know about Mauryan kingship is markedly at variance with the rather more intricate and ambitious prescriptions of Kautilya.

While philologists and historians would have no problem adjusting to this henceforth-permanent separation of Chanakya from Kautilya and the former’s severance from the authorship of Arthashastra, it remains to be seen how the culture warriors of the Hindu right, who currently claim to represent mainstream Indian opinion, will react to the paradigm-shifting implications of Olivelle’s opus.

For, like Faust or Shylock, the figure of Chanakya-Kautilya, wily Brahman, kingmaker, and strategist, has become stock and stereotype, equally likely to show up in Amar Chitra Katha comic books, in television serials, in the names of newspaper columns, or in the titles of learned books. Under a regime of the Hindu right, what was a harmless bit of myth-making stands to become a dangerous article of faith, and moreover to acquire sinister overtones, providing yet another symbol of idealised authoritarianism that Indian democracy simply cannot afford to perpetuate.

Although citizens of democratic India continue to mull over and quarrel about old texts like these, it could be argued that what keeps such works vital and relevant is not so much what’s in them as the fact that they exist at all, that they function as reminders of the deep foundations on which the edifice of Indian modernity rests with a degree of confidence and stability. Whatever we may make of such texts, depending on our ideological needs, our political vantages, and our imaginative capacities, we must remain grateful to scholars like Olivelle, whose immense labor and lucid analysis give us the building blocks with which to make or break, arrange or rearrange our past, our present, and perhaps, with time enough, our future as well.

This post is a collaboration between Public Books and The Caravan.