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Beyond the Circle of Kings

Deepshikha Shahi’s philosophical-literary study of the Arthashastra lays the foundation for a new era in global IR theory.

Stumbled upon by accident in the early 20thcentury, Kautilya’s Arthashastra is one of the most remarkable ancient Indian works ever discovered. Supposedly written by Chanakya, the prime minister of an early North Indian emperor, it contains detailed descriptions of immense bureaucracies, elaborate theoretical frameworks which attempted to explain international relations, and firm statements on the duties and responsibilities of the king. In an increasingly multipolar world, it has often seemed that the Arthashastra could provide the non-Eurocentric ideas required to expand the academic discipline of international relations (IR) into a “global” one.

Unfortunately, rather than seeing Kautilya as a member of a distinct intellectual tradition in his own right, studies of his work — such as the famous “Circle of Kings” theory or his cold-blooded thoughts on assassination – have been used to shoehorn him into a pre-existing school: Realism. Kautilya has been depicted as an unscrupulous, and Machiavellian/Kissingerian schemer devoted only to the maximisation of power at all costs. Uncritical studies of his ideas abound, fitting models thousands of years old to a drastically different world in an interesting but not revolutionary way. Far from using the text to enrich modern IR with new ideas, the field of Arthashastra studies has, in general, stripped it of context and has been unable to articulate a distinctive philosophy in its own right.

Kautilya would not have described himself as cold-blooded or even as a “Realist”. He came from a different historical tradition, and his theories of state behaviour were built on a philosophical basis, different from the Western one. At last, a scholar has stepped up to articulate a clear path to understanding the Arthashastra on its own merits,starting with its philosophy rather than its conclusions. In the process, Deepshikha Shahi’s Kautilya and Non-Western IR Theory lays the foundation for a new era in building truly global theories of international relations.

A New Old Philosophy

Considering that Kautilya is quite upfront with his philosophical base – it appears in the first book of the Arthashastra — it is surprising that most modern scholars of Kautilya do not attempt to examine how his famous models emerge. This is one of the key problems that Dr Shahi tackles. To her, Kautilya is representative of a distinct school of non-Western international relations built on a different set of assumptions, and arriving at a different set of conclusions.

Western “realpolitik”, she points out, seems based on an Augustinian view that the world is fallen thanks to the original sin of humankind and that one must either “eat or be eaten” no matter what the moral costs. Western “moralpolitik”, on the other hand, is a response criticising the use of violence and preferring the use of morally superior methods. There is a wide and ever-present gulf between the two.

But Kautilya, argues Shahi, uses a moral framework to temper all his apparently amoral methods. Furthermore, she shows that his amoral methods serve moral goals. To him (despite the Western claim that he is the “first great, unrelenting realist” and other similarly dramatic proclamations) there is no gulf between the modern ideas of realpolitik and moralpolitik.

Why is that? Kautilya’s philosophical base is an eclectic mix. Its first elements are the “orthodox” schools of Samkhya-Yoga, which holds that primordial matter evolved from interaction with the spirit, believes in the separation of soul and the bodily elements to which it is attached, and calls for moderation and non-violence to achieve well-being of both. To this, he adds the apparently-contradictory school of Lokayata, which is relentlessly empirical, admits to no independent soul or even consciousness beyond the body. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, Lokayata believes in moderation and non-violence to achieve well-being (otherwise a would-be hedonist would die of gluttony before s/he is able to really enjoy life).

At their intersection is a worldview which demands that humans – whether they be made of bodies or souls or both – must be provided for both materially and spiritually. There are limits to acceptable action and the goals of action. And this perspective clearly informs every aspect of the Arthashastra – and, most importantly, guided the behaviour of ancient Indian states (the example she chooses is the Mauryan Empire), whether they were consciously following the Arthashastra or not. In doing so, her book has struck upon a rich, previously unexplored literary-philosophical vein with tremendous potential.

Towards Global International Relations

By positioning Kautilya as an “eclectic” thinker firmly astride the gap between “realist” and “reflectivist” debates in modern IR, Dr Shahi offers a basis for fresh scholarship which can move the discipline beyond the feedback loops into which it seems to have settled of late. It also provides a breath of fresh air to Indian studies of the Arthashastra, whichhave tended to be nativist, proclaiming Kautilya’s “superiority” and focussing on the fragments which seem most recognisable to modern IR rather than studying the text as a whole to discern the nuances of ancient Indian strategic thinking.

Kautilya and non-Western IR Theory has developed a convincing theoretical and methodological foundation that could potentially transform the field of Arthashastra studies. But more importantly, its ideas can be used to study other ancient Indian theories of state behaviour and develop larger ideas on international relations based on non-Western philosophies and historical experiences. Though it will take a lighthouse to shine a light through the many questions have been asked and remain to be asked, Dr. Shahi provides a lamp to guide the way.

General readers may find the book to be a tad too theoretical for easy reading, though it’s worth digging into, especially for those interested in history and international relations. (If you are an IR scholar then you have no excuse not to read this.) For behind the careful theoretical positioning lie clear new ideas and insightful, constructive critiques of the modern Eurocentric discipline of IR. Overall, Kautilya and non-Western IR Theory is an important contribution to global, and especially Indian, understanding of strategic culture.

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About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.