An Ancient Treatise and the Making of Modern India

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

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.

Keywords: Hinduism Kautilya Arthashastra Chanakya Mauryan Empire Guptas Manusmriti ancient india