An unfortunate phenomenon that has crept into and accelerated over the years in public discourse especially after “independence,” is the exclusive emphasis on specialization. When we study the Sanatana tradition and practice of statecraft, it becomes clear that our ancients had an all-encompassing view of the world. This among others, is one of the roots of the evolution of the profound concept of Rta or the invisible Cosmic Order. Its offshoots in practical life include Dharma, Satya, Yajna, Dana and Tapas. This is the innate reason the term “Dharma” has been used as a suffix to almost every conceivable area of human activity: profession, education, marriage, social relationships, and statecraft.
There is an ocean of difference between “politics” and Rajadharma. Bharatavarsha is the only civilization that has evolved a lovely seamlessness between Rajadharma and Rashtradharma: when Rajadharma is fulfilled in a profound manner, it automatically culminates in and upholds Rashtradharma.
This is also one of the immortal messages of Kautilya.
When we talk about a country’s politics, it includes virtually all domains: wars, empires, military, economics, administration, religion, society, customs, culture and traditions.
With this backgrounder, we’ll try and explore Kautilya’s direct and indirect impact on most of these areas throughout Bharatavarsha’s long civilisational history.
To begin with, let’s look at these famous verses from the Arthasastra:
आन्वीक्षिकी त्रयी वारतनां योगक्षेमसधनो दण्डः |
तस्य नितिर्दण्डनीतिः ||
अलब्ध लाभार्था लब्ध परिरक्षणी |
रक्षितविवर्धिनी वृद्धस्य तीर्येषु प्रतिपदानि च ||
Which means, “Danda (punishment or the scepter of the ruler) is the means of the stability and welfare of Anvikshiki, Trayi and Vaarta. The rules that deal with Danda are called Dandaniti. Dandaniti is the means for acquiring that which is not acquired; it safeguards what has been acquired; it increases what is being safeguarded and it distributes this ever-increasing wealth and prosperity among the deserving.”
From one perspective, Kautilya’s enduring impact on India’s civilisational and political history is basically a real-life, practical exposition of these two verses. And this impact begins right from the dynasty he inspired and founded: the Mauryan dynasty. In fact, the Mauryan dynasty was Arthasastra in action.
The political history of Bharatavarsha’s civilization history is the history of its great empires including but not limited to the following:
5. Chalukya – Pallava
13. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s magnificent Sikh Empire
Now we can explore Kautilya’s influence on India’s history based on this classification.
While the Arthasastra places the greatest emphasis on Dharma, on the practical side of things, it is inherently imbued with the realization of the practical side of Dharma—that Dharma cannot be sustained by sweet-talk or Gandhian appeals to the “goodness of the heart” and phony universal brotherhood.
Thus, on the practical side, the Arthasastra it is mainly concerned with everyday realities like central and local administration, taxation, police, diplomacy, security, wars, army, bureaucracy and justice. Taken together, the Dharma aspect in all these realms reflects in its practical application as we shall see. In passing, this focus on practical realities is most visible while deciding on justice. Thus, Kautilya clearly says that if there is a conflict between Arthasastra and Dharmasastra, Dharmasastra should always prevail.
Another area in which this pragmatism is visible might sound harsh today. Chanakya advocates the use of temple funds in order to fill the empty treasury of the kingdom. In fact, we notice almost a photocopy of this practice in the Vijayangara Empire in which all the temples were directly under State control. Its funds closely scrutinized, accounted for, and were used for welfare activities, commerce, and in some cases, to fund war.
First, we can trace the direct and indirect impact of Kautilya on Indian history in his rules for royal or political succession. Here, we see his imprint in almost all of our great Hindu dynasties.
We have the case of the celebrated Samudragupta. The younger son of Chandragupta I, the father spotted his talent, competence, valour and acumen at an early age and nominated him as the successor, setting aside his eldest son. The fact that his succession caused no royal split or war is remarkable.
Next, we have Harihara I, the founding monarch of the Vijayanagara Empire who nominated his younger brother Bukkaraya, instead of his eldest son.
Even as recent as the 17th century, the Tanjavur Nayaka, Venkata II nominated his nephew Chikka Raya as the king, choosing him over his incompetent sons.
There’s another facet of this Kautilyan precept: we have the great example of the young boy Sri Harsha who was elected as King after his brother Rajyavardhana was murdered. Likewise, after Pallava Parameshwaravarman was killed in battle, the new king Nandivarman II was elected. Finally, we have the brilliant example of the bloodless transfer of power from the Hoysalas to the sons of Sangama who founded the Vijayangara Empire.
The oceanic contrast between this noble—even virtuous—tradition of deciding political succession in Hindu Empires becomes immediately evident when we notice the fact that royal succession in Muslim dynasties was synonymous with patricide and fratricide.
To a smaller extent, literature is another area where notice Kautilya’s influence. Chapter 8 of Dandin’s great work, Dashakumara-carita shows how solidly he had grasped the Arthasastra. Scholar-poets like Dandin were also advisers and counsels to the king.
Then we have Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa, a play whose subject is Chanakya himself.
This is the other vehicle through which Kautilya’s legacy was transmitted throughout Bharatavarsha.
Tragically, the new breed of scholars, writers and poets that had emerged after the Gupta Empire had imploded, began to condemn the Arthasastra as a “wicked book.” Thus, as early as the seventh century CE, this is what the celebrated Sanskrit Kavi Banabhatta says:
Evidently, this was a subconscious manifestation of the debilitating and long-term influence of Buddhism that had corroded the psyche of both Buddhist and Hindu kings of Bharatavarsha. In a classic case of misapplication, here, Bana confounds the virtue of renouncing wealth: that which is a virtue in the ordinary individual becomes fatal when the king embraces it.
And so, by the 12th or 13th century, when most of north and all of northwestern India had lost its freedom, we still notice many replicas of Banabhatta who actively dissuaded people from reading the Arthasastra. Needless, this faint-hearted phenomenon was a great mirror to the early stages of Sanatana Bharata’s downfall.
To be continued
The Dharma Dispatch is now available on Telegram! For original and insightful narratives on Indian Culture and History, subscribe to us on Telegram.