You are here

Generality of Kautilyan Tenets Informed by Unique Indianness

Dr. Kajari Kamal is Research Faculty at Takshashila Institution, Bangalore.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • April 28, 2021

    Kautilya’s Arthashastra is, perhaps, the quintessential treatise on ancient Indian statecraft. Its policy prescriptions are universal and by virtue of their generality, it is averred that “they could have been arrived at by others elsewhere and in different times.”1 This suggests, almost reassuringly, that there is a broad convergence on the range of issues discussed and options explored in the practice of statecraft across geographies. While this is true at one level, it, however, underappreciates the distinctiveness that cultural and geographical contexts lend to the vocabularies of power, kingship and morality. The Arthashastra stands out in both its universality (in terms of the range of questions and answers) and particularity (of its embeddedness in Indian philosophical thought). This article concerns the latter, and in so doing, seeks to assert the unique character of the text which innately intertwines precepts of philosophy with principles of statecraft.

    The Arthashastra is broadly divided into three parts: political theory, problems of administration, and interstate relations, in that order. It is the discussion in the first part that establishes the theoretical underpinning of the text and alludes to its coupling with Indian philosophical tradition through the incorporation of ‘Anvikshiki’ (science of inquiry). The core branches of knowledge in the Arthashastra are Anvikshiki (Philosophy), Trayi or the Vedas, Varta (Economics) and Dandaniti (Political Science). While critical inquiry/philosophy (the Anvikshiki) is stated as an autonomous discipline, it is seen as the lamp for all branches of knowledge, means in all activities, and support for all duties and obligations:

    Pradeepah sarvavidyaanaamupayah sarvakarmanaam | Aashrayah sarvadharmaanaam shashwadaanvikshakee mataa || [KA, I, 3, 12]2

    Herein lies the genus of all ideas of Kautilyan statecraft and has a strong bearing on the text’s methodology too. But how does philosophy shape the realist tenets of statecraft? It flows directly from the understanding of the term ‘Anvikshiki’.


    Simply put, the term connotes critical/scientific inquiry, reasoned investigation, or logical argument. A combination of words ‘anu’ and ‘iksh’, ‘anvikshiki’ literally means to think/consider/reflect after; reconsideration. It is also seen as ‘Nyaya’, an orthodox school of Indian philosophy concerned with logic and epistemology. According to the commentator of Nyaya Sutra, Vatsyayana:

    Nyaya is the examination of things with the help of evidence (pramana). An argument based on observation and received belief is called an anvikṣa or reconsideration, and the discipline known as anvıkṣiki or nyaya is that which pertains to such arguments.3

    Kautilya also handpicks a set of three schools of Indian philosophy as the philosophical substructure of Anvikshiki. These are Sankhya, Yoga (Vaisheshika) and Lokayata, the first two are orthodox schools and the last heterodox. Each of these schools through their principal tenets lends a distinct character to the functioning and objectives of ancient Indian statecraft.

    ‘Anvikshiki’: Lamp of All Sciences

    The very first verse of the Arthashastra talks about it being a compendium of all previous Arthashastras, written with the objective of acquisition and maintenance of the earth. ‘Artha’, which is defined as the land (earth) inhabited by human beings, is seen as the wellspring of all economic activities and the science that deals with the protection of that land is the Arthashastra. The purpose of the scripture (to achieve wealth that has not been achieved and to maintain wealth that has been achieved), therefore, is aligned with the objective of knowledge which is essential in order to secure the desired objective (artha).

    Anvikshiki, according to Kautilya, is the illuminator of other branches of knowledge – Vedas, Economics and Political Science, because it investigates by means of reasoning what is spiritual good and evil in the Vedas, material gain and loss in economics, good policy and bad policy in the science of politics and the relative strength and weakness of these. Anvikshiki here is seen as an analytical tool to verify the utility of the recommendations of the established branches of knowledge in light of objective reality. Kautilya states that in a matter of dispute which has four feet – law (based on truth), transaction (based on witness), customs (commonly held view of men) and royal edict (command of the king), the royal edict based on Anvikshiki (rationalising tool) was supreme. The ruler who promulgated the edicts needed to be suitably trained to acquire a scientific temper based on retention through understanding, and rejection of false views and intentness on truth.

    ‘Anvikshiki’: Means of All Activities

    Anvikshiki or reasoned inquiry concerns itself with the acquisition of knowledge which is the prerequisite for a spectrum of activities, from mundane goals to elimination of suffering. The Arthashastra, in this regard, exemplifies a focused and purposeful use of reason. The three philosophical substructures (Sankhya, Yoga and Lokayata) provide a holistic approach to knowledge gathering combining empirical and inferential logic. Sankhya, based on systematic enumeration and rational examination relies on three means of knowledge (pramana) – pratyaksha (self-perception), anumana (inference) and shabda (verbal testimony); Yoga (Vaisheshika) believes in atomistic pluralism and analysis through breaking down and synthesis, and holds perception and inference as valid means; and Lokayata emphasises empiricism and considers perception as the only source of knowledge.

    But why is valid means of knowing an important aspect of statecraft? Perhaps, the importance of the acquisition of knowledge represented through the schools of Indian philosophy provides the theoretical underpinning for Arthashastra’s robust intelligence culture.

    The king with the eyes of intelligence and political science can overcome rival kings even if they possess greater economic and military resources.[KA, IX, 1, 15]4

    >Additionally, an accurate assessment of one’s comprehensive national power (through robust means of knowing) reveals a state’s relative strength which drives foreign policy making. Decision making in the Arthashastra relies on sound and corroborative knowledge. The ruler arrives at a policy choice through an analysis of information that he directly perceives, indirectly through communication by others, and through inference (forming an idea of what has not been done from what is done).

    ‘Anvikshiki’: Support for All Duties

    Each of the philosophical substructures that contribute to the text’s scientific/rational dimension, also lend it an ethical perspective, coalescing the rational and prudent with the ethical and abstract. Sankhya through its recognition of contrasting principles–purusha (observing mind) and prakriti (nature), alludes to both the cosmological and material, an uncompromising dualism perhaps typified by the importance of artha and dharma in the text.

    Kanad, the founder of Vaisheshika Darshan, had a lot in common with Kautilya. One, that dharma was defined as ‘material progress and spiritual fulfillment’ – a theme completely in tune with the goals of artha and dharma in the Arthashastra. Also, this darshan divides reality into six fundamental categories (padarthas) – dravya (substance), guna (quality), karma (action), samanya (generality), vishesha (particularity) and samavaya (inherence). The last one lays special emphasis on how wholes (avayavin) relate to their parts (avyava), which is reminiscent of the Saptanga theory5 of Kautilyan statecraft. Vaisheshika believes in the ‘whole’ inhering in its ‘parts’, similar to the Kautilyan ‘body politic’ inhering in its seven constituent organs (prakritis).

    The Lokayata (literally one which is popular) is the harbinger of materialist ideas and was distinct from the other two orthodox schools in disputing the truth of Vedic ritualism. Attainment of pleasure and avoidance of pain was its supreme ethic. Clearly alluding to the materialist basis of Kautilyan statecraft, it justifies the inclusion of prajaranjan (literally to please the subjects) as the ruler’s rajadharma (the dharma of the king).

    From the spiritualism of Sankhya to the materialism of Lokayat, philosophy in Kautilya’s Arthashastra taught the ruler to not only think rationally but also act rationally. The four branches of knowledge corresponded to the goals of trivarga (artha, dharma and kama) in the text. The interweaving of philosophy with statecraft lends Kautilya’s Arthashastra a unique comprehensive approach that is not limited to good economics and politics alone but extends to a reasoned, righteous approach to life in general. So, even if some of its tenets are resoundingly commonsensical, the lamp of philosophy credibly illuminates its Indianness.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. Krzysztof Iwanek, “India Does Not Follow ‘Arthashastra’ in Its Foreign Policy”, The Diplomat, November 03, 2020. Also, a number of scholarly expositions on Kautilya’s Arthashastra exhibit an essentialist interpretation of the text in political realist/realpolitik terms, substantially limiting its intellectual worth to a non-Western variant of classical realism and neorealism, glossing over its unique philosophical underpinning.
    • 2. R.P. Kangle, The Kautilya Arthashastra, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, 2014, p. 7.
    • 3. Peter Adamson and Jonardon Ganeri, Classical Indian Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vol. 5, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2020, p. 169.
    • 4. R.P. Kangle, n. 2, p. 407.
    • 5. Saptanga literally means seven parts/organs. The seven constituent elements of the Kautilyan state are Swami (ruler), Amatya (ministers), Janapada (territory and population), Durga (fort), Kosha (treasury), Danda (armed might) and Mitra (ally).