Kautilya’s Radical Idea

The Arthashastra’s conception of the state, with self-imposed limits, was a startling one for its times.

Today, civilisation is is beneficial for a lot of people. It’s given us supermarkets, fast food, healthcare, and the Internet. Humankind has never been this educated, this peaceful, or lived this long.

But civilisation hasn’t always been so pleasant for us. The life of the hunter-gatherer is much more simple and healthy than the life of the farmer, who is subject to famine and tyranny. The only major danger that a hunter-gatherer society might face is absolute, unrestricted warfare.

It took centuries, if not millennia, for humans to see civilisation – settled, sedentary lives governed by a state – as something to aspire to. In Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest StatesJames Scott traces out how we went from happy hunter-gatherers to miserable cultivators.

This process is simple. In its territory, the early state monopolised the use of force. By controlling and using violence, the state coerced peasants to grow a small set of easily-assessed seasonal crops, to give up their surplus. It built walls to keep them in. It developed religions to justify its behaviour. Its goal was simple: survive. Its approach to that goal was even simpler: extract surplus, backed up by violence. With slavery, corporeal punishment, record-keeping, patriarchy and war, early states developed the extractive mechanism that laid the foundation for civilisation as we know it.

Such a simplistic approach to governance, of course, was not sustainable. Early states collapsed often – thanks to disease, ecocide and politicide. Cooping up large populations in primitive cities was a recipe for disastrous pandemics. Ruthlessly exploiting the environment led to deforestation, salinization, and ecological collapse. Finally, continual, unrestricted fighting – to capture other states’ surplus (citizens and agricultural land), by internal elites who wanted to capture the surplus, or by disaffected peasants – was another cause of collapse.

Enter the Arthashastra

Into such a fraught political economy arrives the fascinating document called the Arthashastra. While there is considerable controversy over who composed it and when, the earliest possible date to which it can be assigned is the 3rd century BCE (though Olivelle and Trautmann both place it much later). By this point in human, and specifically Indian history, the state was more sophisticated and had developed better ways to collect and redistribute surplus.

The Arthashastra is often seen as a cold-blooded manual on political strategy, meant to describe how a king can conquer his foes. This conception is partially because of the association of its supposed author, Kautilya, with Chanakya, the prime minister of the powerful Mauryan emperor Chandragupta. But this document is much, much more than that.

The four primary goals of human life, according to Hindu theoreticians, are dharma (roughly “social order”/”law”)artha (“wealth”)kama (“love”/”sexual pleasure”)and moksha (“enlightenment”)To Kautilya, none of these can exist without artha. This view is fundamental to understanding the Arthashastra.

To Kautilya, the King is important, but he is not the state. The King sits at the centre of a complex web of political and material relationships. He holds considerable power. But, as Upinder Singh points out in Political Violence in Ancient India, he is not a despot. His goal is to maximise the wealth of the state, to which the Arthashastra is a guide. As we shall see, this approach is quite different from other early states.

The Kautilyan Solution

A pragmatic approach to violence and wealth maximisation is the hallmark of Kautilyan thought.

प्रजासुखे सुखम् राज्ञः प्रजानाम् तु हिते हितम्The happiness of the people is the happiness of the king; Their success is the success of the king. His taxes should be reasonable. He should take good care of all of his subjects.

On the other hand, if there is no King, the strong will prey on the weak, the big fish will eat the small (matsya-nyana, “The Law of the Fish”). This is no good to anyone.

Hence, Kautilya implies, violence must be used, but only to enforce order. The King holds the rod, or danda, always ready to inflict just punishment – no more, no less. He should keep a close eye on his subjects, and dispassionately punish those who step out of line.

Even this punishment should serve to fill the coffers of the state. Fines are prescribed for most offences, and sentences of mutilation or imprisonment can be commuted by paying a fine. Further, prisoners don’t serve “jail sentences” as we understand them. Instead, they work in state-led enterprises, or serve in dangerous missions in enemy territory (like a sort of ancient Indian Suicide Squad).

If one thinks about it, this is quite a revolutionary idea. This conception of the state is not to extract surplus and wealth, but to maximise it. Thomas Trautmann calls this “entrepreneurial”, as indeed it is. The Kautilyan state, in stark contrast to early states, does not own all land and people. It only gets a share in what they produce – so it has every reason to “grow the pie”. This gives the state an interest in the survival of the citizens, and the citizens an interest in the survival of the state. It is a subtler approach to this goal than the ham-fisted extraction that came before.

Not only is this effective, but also pragmatic. As pointed out, early states were very prone to three sorts of collapse. The Arthashastra implicitly deals with all of them.

By keeping his subjects happy, by monitoring them, and inflicting the bare minimum of violence, the king keeps internal politicide at bay. By conciliating his rivals and not levying high tributes on his vassals, he forestalls external politicide. By carefully exploiting environmental resources, ecocide can be managed. And by following Kautilyan ideas of city layouts, disease is no longer an existential threat to the state.

Supriya Nair has argued that state monopoly of violence was the “price to be paid for an orderly society.” This is indeed the case. What makes the Arthashastra interesting is the fact that it (out of pragmatism, not morality) regulates and minimises the use of violence, to make sure that such an orderly society is as materially wealthy and pleasant for its subjects as possible.

In the brutal, arbitrary, and divided political landscape of the ancient world, dominated by conquering empires from Rome to China, it is a refreshing, if not revolutionary, philosophy.