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Kautilya


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(c.300 bc)

Kautilya (also known as Chanakya and Vishnugupta) is known as the author of the Arthashastra (which can be translated as The Art of Well‐being or The Science of Polity), a book which is part political philosophy, part manual of statecraft. Although the Arthashastra had been referred to in other ancient books, a full text was only rediscovered in 1904, when an ancient copy, written on palm leaves, was handed over to an Indian librarian by an anonymous donor.

Kautilya was a political adviser in the service of Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan empire which stretched across the north of the Indian subcontinent. The Arthashastra describes the means by which a state should be established and maintained in the face of the threat of competing powers and an inherent danger of social instability. In the absence of the state, people are subject to the ‘law of the fishes’, whereby the stronger swallows the weak. The role of the king is to enhance the prosperity of his people, increasing the power of the state, and expanding the territory through conquest. The prosperity of the people is enhanced through the promotion of trade, the development of infrastructure (such as dams and communications), and the strict enforcement of a system of law and order. A comprehensive list of crime and punishment is set down, ranging from being publicly smeared with dung for minor theft to being boiled alive for sleeping with a queen. The power of the state stems from a strong basis in trade which is harnessed through a taxation system run by a well‐maintained civil service.

The issue of territorial protection and conquest is the basis of Kautilya's most incisive political thought, and can be taken to be an early guide to the field of international relations. Here he deals with a wide variety of strategies, which can be used independently or in combination, to deal with different situations according to the relative strengths of the opposition. These strategies include conciliation (through flattery, bribery, or other inducements), sowing dissent amongst the opposition, forming coalitions with other rulers, consolidation, and the use of hostility and force. Different circumstances are described, along with the appropriate choice of strategy, the likely outcome, and the appropriate pay‐offs for the actors involved. Kautilya has been compared to Machiavelli in the breadth of his statecraft, and also for his willingness to use deceit and intrigue, not just against opponents but also to bolster the king's reputation with his people. However, the Arthashastra exhibits a repeated commitment to the welfare of the people, and principles of order and justice. The duty of a conqueror, for instance, is to ‘substitute his virtues for the defeated enemy's vices, and where the enemy was good he shall be twice as good’.

Subjects: Politics.


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