Parallel Lives, Large Legacies

Chanakya and Gandhi were both highly erudite, energetic individuals who left their mark on history, often by making it.

As India celebrates the 150thbirth anniversary of Gandhi, one wonders, how long can a person’s legacy last? In an era where Gandhi has been both maligned and mocked, how much longer will people remember what he stood for. The answer to this may be derived from the life of another Indian from 2000 years ago, Acharya Chanakya.

Chanakya and Gandhi were two highly erudite, energetic individuals who left their mark on history, often by making it. In recent years, even as Chanakya has been championed by the political right in India, Gandhi has been identified with the center-left. And yet, it is ironic that their lives followed parallel paths two millennia apart.

Both came from relatively privileged backgrounds for their times but chose to be professionals who found success rather far from their homelands – Chanakya, described in some accounts to be from the south of India, found professional success as a teacher at the university of Takshashila (near modern-day Peshawar) and Gandhi as a barrister whose legal career found more success in South Africa than in India.

Both pit their might against the greatest empire on the Indian landmass of their era. For Chanakya, it was Nanda rule in Magadha and for Gandhi, it was British rule over India.

Both then had a defining moment in their lives that turned them from scholarly professionals into empire-wreckers. For Chanakya, it was the humiliation at the Nanda court that led to his wrathful oath to depose the Nanda dynasty. For Gandhi, it was arguably the incident in 1893 when he was evicted from a train at Pietermaritzburg in South Africa because of his color.

Following these moments, they each set upon a long, laborious process – perhaps with more inner certainty about their goal than any of their contemporaries could imagine. They saw the incidents as more than a personal affront. It was symbolic of a larger malaise in the world around them. If Chanakya was appalled by the corruption and tyranny that kings and princelings were inflicting on the population, Gandhi rejected the systematic impoverishment and misrule by the British in India. To either, misgovernance was nothing short of evil. Where Chanakya embraced the leitmotif of Dharma to rally students of Takshashila university into a fighting force, Gandhi used Satya to galvanize the masses into political protestors and passive resisters.

Neither Chanakya nor Gandhi sought power for themselves yet were adept at grooming proteges. They were highly conscious of the challenge of inter-regnum when an empire collapses and wanted as orderly a transition as possible with as able a ruler as possible. Chanakya invested in Chandragupta Maurya to take over the throne of Magadha. Gandhi groomed Nehru – arguably the first among equals among his followers to lead free India.

Chanakya and Gandhi were teacher-activists. They created a new order by motivating through both words and through actions. They were content to be the power behind the scenes. Despite his overwhelming influence on the Indian National Congress, Gandhi chose to be elected its President only once (1924). In a sense, Chanakya and Gandhi were analogous to other great empire-builders and reinventors such as Li Si during the Qin dynasty in China, Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy and Otto von Bismarck in Germany.

Chanakya and Gandhi were acutely conscious of timing and never let their vision hijack their strategic patience. They also learnt from early reverses. Both the Jain and Buddhist biographers of Chanakya speak of how he waited years preparing for the rebellion in Magadha. The failure of Chandragupta’s coup d’état in the Magadha capital Pataliputra, inspired Chanakya to try a different tact now known to be a central tenet of guerrilla warfare – that of taking over the countryside ultimately forcing the cities to fall. Gandhi was seen by some of his contemporaries as a reluctant revolutionary. He learnt quickly from the Non-Cooperation movement that the masses were neither prepared nor fully capable of pursuing a non-violent movement to freedom. As late as 1929, he differed with Nehru if the time had come to ask for purna swaraj (complete independence).

History favors those who are patient. For both Chanakya and Gandhi, their biggest success came when the empire they were against, faced a hostile foreign threat. In Chanakya’s case, it was the Greek invasion. When Alexander came almost up to the fringes of the Magadha empire, routing and co-opting kingdoms in the west of the subcontinent, it up-ended the fragile relations between the janapadas of India and Magadha’s internal vulnerabilities were laid bare. In Gandhi’s time, the Japanese invasion and conquest of British territories from Singapore all the way to the north-eastern borders of India shook up public faith in the invincibility of the British empire. The subsequent 1946 Ratings Mutiny made the British Raj vulnerable.

And yet, Gandhi and Chanakya treaded a fine line during the invasions. Rather than exploit the moment by allying with the outsiders or fight the outsiders in alliance with the empires that they had otherwise resisted, they chose a third path. They called on their followers to repel and not cooperate with the invaders – whether Greeks or the Axis powers, before turning on the local empires.

Both were led by a conscious desire to preserve the integrity of the nation. Both saw India as a conscious whole. Chanakya refused to see India territorially as an agglomeration of janapadas and laid the seeds of the Mauryan empire. To him, the threat to territorial integrity came from India’s political and dynastic disunity. Gandhi refused to accept India as composed of “two nations” and laid the seeds of India’s unique brand of secularism. To him, the threat to India’s integrity came from religious and social disunity.

Both saw power as a means and not an end. Chanakya’s repeated exhortations to Chandragupta implicit in the Arthashastra were about power as a trust of the people and the need to preserve State’s legitimacy among the people by caring for them. Gandhi urged the State to focus on the poorest, for in his view, there was no greater objective of the State than alleviating their lives.

Both went to great lengths to co-opt those hostile to them in the interest of the country. After diligently out-maneuvering Amatya Rakshasa, the minister of the Nandas who ran an insurgency against the nascent Mauryan state, Chanakya reached out to Rakshasa to serve Magadha. This was not only in recognition of Rakshasa’s competence but also an effort to preserve the integrity and stability of the Mauryan state. Gandhi similarly offered to Jinnah to be independent India’s first Prime Minister in a bid to allay Partition and keep India together.

Both were political thinkers at heart but were amenable to use religious and cultural idioms to win people over towards their political promise. For Gandhi, it was ramrajya– the paradise of justice and prosperity in which the ruler looks after every citizen as a father would a child. For Chanakya, it was the idiom of bharatvarsha –wherein the Indian subcontinent’s political unity reflected its cultural harmony.

While Chanakya was able to put many of his ideas into action on Chandragupta’s enthronement, Gandhi did not live long enough to wield influence over the shaping of the new Indian State except through his legacy in the Indian Constitution (such as the abolition of untouchability). There is divergence in the way the ideological ends of their dogmas. Chanakya’s realism in foreign policy laid down formulae for realpolitik such as the concept of “circles of States” (such as the precept that a State should befriend the neighbor of its neighbor) contrasted with Gandhi’s Constructivist ideal that through peace between nations could be pursued through the shared norm of non-violence.

Chanakya saw the preservation of the State as the pre-eminent duty of the emperor. Gandhi saw the preservation of soul or the social fabric of the country as the State’s pre-eminent goal. Both ironically defined the State’s goals in terms of dharma and Gandhi arguably couched it in far more theistic terms than Chanakya. Rather than describe State-citizen relations as a social contract, Chanakya defined the duty of the emperor towards his people as one of a moral obligation. Gandhi defined service of the people as a duty towards God.

The political dynasties founded by their respective protégés – Chandragupta and Nehru – each reached their peak of uninterrupted power within the first three generations. There was a strong narrative about marginalization of the prevalent majority religion underlying the rise of their successors. Yet the political actors that succeeded their dynasties in power embraced important aspects of Chanakya and Gandhi’s legacy. Whether it was the Sunga dynasty’s policies towards the Indo-Greeks or Swacch Bharat.

It is no coincidence that Chanakya and Gandhi led parallel lives, or that the symbols of a sovereign India memorialize them both. India adopted the capitol of the Chanakya-guided Mauryan dynasty as its national emblem while Gandhi’s profile is ubiquitous on the national currency. They were both recorded in history as individuals with an acute consciousness of history spanning generations.  Do not be surprised if, just as we discuss Chanakya today, Gandhi’s legacy is recalled and debated by Indians in 4018.