How Discovery Of Arthashastra Changed Sense Of India’s Past

Arthashastra, a two-millennia-old treatise on statecraft and the art of government, is believed to have been unread for almost a thousand years until its discovery in the early 20th century

Arthashastra is a two-millennia-old treatise on statecraft and the art of government

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In 1887, Indians featured prominently in the celebrations of British monarch Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. She had taken the ‘Empress of India’ title over a decade earlier as the British colonialists strengthened their hold over the jewel in their imperial crown after the 1857 uprising briefly threatened to end it.

An escort of Indian cavalry led the Queen to Westminster, the seat of the government in London, as part of the celebrations. India’s nominally-independent princes, who helped the colonialists strengthen their hold over India, were among those in attendance at a ceremony at Windsor Castle, where the Queen presented each escort member with a medal. In India, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee was also widely celebrated. The Mysore Government Oriental Library was among the landmarks built in 1887 as part of the commemoration.

Monumental Discovery

Around two decades later, an anonymous man would ironically bring a manuscript to the library built in Mysore to celebrate the British overlord and help boost the nationalist movement against colonial rule by revolutionizing the sense of India’s past. The Sanskrit manuscript turned out to be Arthashastra, a two-millennia-old treatise on statecraft and the art of government. It was until then believed to have been unread for almost a thousand years.

In his book Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, academic Sunil Khilnani writes Arthashastra ‘would help Indian nationalists imagine a realpolitik for an aspiring India of the twentieth century. He describes the text as a ‘self-help manual for a start-up nation.’ Khilnani quotes former Indian National Security Adviser and distinguished diplomat Shivshankar Menon saying that after the 1857 uprising, outsiders wrote many histories and falsely claimed there was no domestic tradition of history or statecraft in India.

To Menon, this is why Arthashastra’s discovery rightly or wrongly, was useful to the nationalists to help build a consciousness, a sense of India’s own past, and what India could do.

The contents of Arthashastra include chapters focussed on clandestine operatives, how to pacify a gained territory, surveillance, and investigation through interrogation and torture. Khilnani has called Arthashastra ‘eerily contemporary’ and the only complete text on non-religious matters from the classical or early period of Indian history.

Khilnani writes Arthashastra’s discovery ‘summarily exploded a Western cliché: that Indians were primarily ethereal, spiritual thinkers. Khilnani notes here was a ‘strategic work focused on worldly ends, advocating ruthless means to achieve and maintain power.’

Rudrapatnam Shamashastry, who looked after the ancient texts at the Mysore library and received the manuscript made of dried palm leaves, started publishing English translations of the Arthashastra in 1905. The translations sparked much interest in India and abroad, prompting him to keep releasing bits of the text as the interest grew.

A Timely Gift

The treatise provided new insights into early India. Khilnani writes it also proved to be a timely gift for those seeking freedom from colonial rule. The publication of the Arthashastra’s first translations coincided with Russia’s defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the battle of Tsushima.

Khilnani notes it was the first modern victory of an Asian nation over a European power and led many in Asia and India to believe that their star was now ascendant. He notes it encouraged Indians to think of themselves as part of a common Asian world. Kautilya or Chanakya, a minister of King Chandragupta who laid the foundations of India’s first imperium (Mauryan Empire) in the fourth century BCE, is believed to be the author of Arthashastra.

Khilnani writes the conception of power the Arthashastra embodies includes military might, but goes well beyond it, encompassing the use of wit and intellect, as well as guile, cunning, and deceit. He notes many compare it to the treatise that disrupted Western ethical and religious beliefs in the sixteenth century, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince.

But German social theorist Max Weber called such a comparison anodyne. Weber noted Arthashastra’s radicalism made The Prince look harmless. Chanakya has been mostly characterized as a political strategist, who tried to enhance the king’s power with expansionism at the heart of the strategy. Khilnani writes Chanakya specifies no particular territory or space to be subjugated and is potentially and rightfully the entire earth.

Ruthless Expansionism

The world Chanakya imagined is one in which one’s enemy’s enemy was one’s friend. The ruthless expansionary policy was only part of his vision for the state. The Arthashastra lays much emphasis on security and prosperity with concerns about the means to maintain a well-ordered state at its centre.

Chanakya imagined resources acquired through expansion, revenues from royal monopolies, trade, and taxes, as four main sources of wealth central to the empire. His prescriptions have been characterised as a ‘mixed economy’ while allowing and encouraging a ‘lot of private enterprise through the relief of taxation, the creation of infrastructure, and the maintenance of security.

Chanakya prescribed a vast bureaucracy to regulate economic and social life. The watchers had also to be watched. Propaganda, coercion, domestic espionage, and violence were among his tools of control apart from officialdom. Chanakya offered guidance on how a ruler should win over his own people:

The king should perform illusory acts to give him the aura of miraculous powers and should make liberal use of manipulation. He should also cultivate an army of spies.

Chanakya’s spies were often ‘monks’ with ‘shaven heads or matted hair’ and even nuns, who flitted among the populace and collected information. If needed, they seeded uncertainty, mistrust, and fear to reinforce the need for a powerful and paternal king.

Disturbingly Familiar

Khilnani writes Chanakya’s conception of the state is disturbingly familiar today. He likens it to an iceberg, one part towers above, a beacon of majestic power, while another part hides in the deep – a state of secrecy, duplicity, manipulation, and constant surveillance.

Khilnani notes Arthashastra’s author was a man who clearly understood the risks of power and captured the paradoxical instabilities of those who rule. The minds of the rulers are eternally filled with the fear of losing what they have acquired.

Khilnani writes Arthashastra has become a touchstone for foreign policy wonks in the nationalist slipstream, struggling to devise a distinctively Indian view of international relations and India’s place in the world.

Fascination Across Spectrum

Chanakya has fascinated Indian politicians across the spectrum—from the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the founding fathers of secular India, to the leaders of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeking to remake the country as a Hindu nation. Nehru called Arthashastra a pioneering text of intelligence studies. The supporters of a diametrically opposite Amit Shah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second-in-command, call him Chanakya.

Shah, who is known as a ruthless politician with uncompromising views, has described Chanakya as one of the ‘architects of cultural nationalism’ the BJP espouses. He has suggested their statecraft is drawn heavily from the vision conceptualised in Arthashastra.

Nehru and Hindu nationalists are like chalk and cheese. In 1937, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote an article interestingly under the pseudonym Chanakya implying, as Khilnani notes, that inside every democrat is a Chanakyan, a totalitarian temptation.

Nehru attacked himself in the article for his authoritarian and antidemocratic tendencies when he was a rising star of India’s national movement. He went on the contribute much to Indian democracy by helping build independent institutions to guard against such tendencies. Nehru’s bitter critics on the hard right, who swear by Arthashastra, are doing everything to undo his legacy to fulfil their totalitarian ambitions.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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