History Vignettes

Kautilya's Awesome Blueprint for Village Administration

BySandeep Balakrishna

In this Series


In Chapter nine of the Arthasastra, Kautilya prescribes harsh punishment to a Purohita or Brahmana who commits a crime: banishment or imprisonment.

In the Chola period, we meet one such Purohita. He had teamed up with a gang of robbers and inflicted various crimes in his village and surroundings for a considerable period. When this news reached him, the provincial governor immediately seized the Purhohita’s entire property and sold it to the village and donated the sale proceeds to the village temple. The Purohita was eventually caught, banished from the village and his entire family was deprived of livelihood.

Now we can look at Chapter five of the Arthasastra:

a king who has depleted the treasury may pay salary [to Government employees] by giving forest produce, cattle, or fields along with small cash payments…If the king acquires wasteland or untillable land, he must pay only in cash and not by giving lands, village etc.

We have two examples in Hindu history that show a direct influence of this rule.

A Seventh Century copperplate inscription found in Gujarat tells us that Shiladitya II paid hiranya (gold) for acquiring a tract of wasteland in the Saurashtra region.

Similarly, another inscription dated 1402 shows that Bukka II reclaimed some land in the Tanjavur region. Earlier in the year, this land had been devastated by floods. For acquiring this damaged land, Bukka II paid Panam (coins).

In fact, we can cite hundreds of such examples in Hindu history spread over several centuries.


Quite obviously, no discussion on the Arthasastra can be complete without talking about administration. Kautilya deals in minute detail about the twenty-eight departments in the second Adhikarana (chapter), which is encyclopedic. This level of detail is truly amazing given the fact that in the third century BCE, the government machinery wasn’t so complex or specialized as it is today. We can say that this eventually became the blueprint for the Hindu system of administration and bureaucracy ever since.

We can consider a small example. This Adhikarana has a term, Adhyaksha-pracara, or Duties of Superintendents. We see a direct usage of this same term in a eleventh century inscription found at Belava, near Dhaka. It talks about a donation granted by a Pala feudatory, Bhojadeva Varman and contains this line:

अन्यांश्च सकलराजपादोपजीविनः अध्यक्षप्रचारोक्तान् ...
anyāṃśca sakalarājapādopajīvinaḥ adhyakṣapracāroktān

The exact words appear in another eleventh century grant by the Sena ruler, Vijayasena, found at Barrackpore in West Bengal.

Then we have yet another incredible grant of his son, Ballalasena, which gives an exhaustive list of Government officials in his administration. Here’s the list: Rajanyaka, RagnI, RaNaka, Rajaputra, Raajaamatya, Purohita, Mahadharmadhyaksha, Mahasandhivigrahaka, Mahasenapati, Mahamudradhikari, Antaranga-Bruhaduparika, Mahaakshapatalika, Mahaprateehara, Mahabhogika, Mahapilupati, Mahaganastha, Chauroddharanika, Nauka-bala-hastyashva-gO-mahishajaavika, divyaaprutaka, gaulmika, dandapashika, dandanayaka, vishayapati.

This number is exactly 28. The inscription concludes with the same words:

anyāṃśca sakalarājapādopajīvinaḥadhyakṣapracāroktān

This among others, reflects the foundational genius of Kautilya. In fact, this Sena and similar inscriptions are the umpteenth proof of the unbroken Sanatana civilization in all areas of our national life and Hindu history.

Perhaps another crucial area of the Kautilyan administrative machinery lies in his foresight of recognising the fact that the smallest unit of administration should have the greatest freedom and the least amount of control from the central government. This is the village unit. Thus, for hundreds of centuries, every village in Hindu India was a self-contained and self-sustained world in itself.

Three fundamental reasons were responsible for the endurance and longevity of the village system in India:

1. The Sanatana social organization that was premised on duties.

2. The Hindu cultural edifice that has an inbuilt mechanism for ensuring and sustaining social harmony.

3. Timely delivery of justice and guarantee of punishment

From the Mauryan era onwards, the history of Bharatavarsha shows that the village headman was also a magistrate and had wide-ranging powers. The extraordinary feature of this system is that under Hindu rule, the structure and setup of village administration was almost uniform throughout our history and geography. Numerous foreign travelers from the time of say, Meghastenes, have noted with surprise how villagers would calmly carry on their farming even as war was raging just in the distance of their eyesight. The first deadly blow that this Hindu village system received was, quite obviously, during Islamic invasions.

We can now look at some examples of how the Kautilyan foundation of village administration operated in Hindu history.

1. In 1012 CE under the Chalukya king Vikramaditya V, the Ummacchige village (now in Yellapura) was a great educational hub. The village administration was entrusted to a body known as the 104 Mahajanas (the familiar North Indian surname, Mahajan is derived from this legacy). They were in charge of ensuring the proper conduct of temple worship, for overseeing the Gurukula that imparted education, for making food and accommodation arrangements for ascetics, they maintained water supply and irrigation, and had the power of policing and punishing criminals. The king had only a nominal say in all of this.

2. Next, we have the famous Uttaramerur inscription of the tenth century in the regime of Parantaka Chola I. This renowned inscription deals with village committees which were empowered to administer the whole village. Extensive research has already been done on it so we don’t need to repeat the same here.

3. Then there’s an incredible Kadamba inscription found at the Sorade village near Shimoga. By all standards, the inscription shows a glorious facet of a typical Hindu village. It proudly declares that “all inhabitants of this ancient village are devoted to the observance of Pranayama and other Yoga practices and are fully in control of their sense organs.” On one occasion, a few rowdy elements in the king’s service raided the village and attempted to kidnap cows. The valourous village policeman named Chiladalara Bopadalara fought with them singlehandedly and beat back the royal cow-lifters. Then, the overjoyed and grateful villagers made him a gift of wet and dry lands. Not just that. They granted a perpetual tax exemption these lands. The inscription which talks of this donation concludes as follows:

If the king himself tries to nullify this gift, we will banish him from this village just like we banished his cow-thieves!

In fact, a comprehensive volume can be written documenting this fascinating and phenomenal history of the Sanatana village system. Indeed, our villages were the real guardians of the best traditions of the Sanatana social and cultural life. As recent as the 1930s, several generations of villagers had never stepped out of their tiny havens. Today our billion-dollar “think tanks” and “governance schools” speak in a perfumed fashion about village autonomy, last-mile governance, last-mile delivery and assorted feel-good vacuities. But this empty and belated realization has come after first uprooting an unbroken system of extraordinary local governance. This system had endured for over two millennia because it stood on the edifice of a spiritual culture. The brutal battering ram of the demonic Nehruvian apparatus annihilated it using a simple device: corrupting culture. Which Kennedy School of Government can teach culture?

Next, we see Kautilya’s imprint on India’s civilizational history in his strictures for punishing corrupt government officials. In general, their wealth was confiscated and the official was banished or jailed. Even in this realm, we can cite scores of examples, but a representative instance will suffice.

We see this exact punishment in the reign of Rajaraja Chola. In 1234 CE, the village assembly of Rajasundari Chaturvedimangalam dismissed a village accountant who had been cheating the villagers by writing false accounts. The assembly banned all his descendants from getting any government employment for four generations. His property was confiscated and auctioned to the village.

To be continued

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