Chanakya: Lessons for the modern diplomat from a classical strategist



By Gaurav Sharma

The annals of Classical or early phase of Indian history is replete with literary master-pieces. Contrary to popular belief, not all of these ancient Indian texts sermonize religious doctrines or philosophize spiritual truths.

Some works focus entirely upon reality as is seen by the naked eye. The Arthashastra, is one such unique piece of Indian literature that is brutally honest in its approach towards life, as visualized within the ambit of power.

The pragmatic treatise on the art of statecraft and governance, summarily shatters that Western cliche that Indians were primarily a bunch of ethereal spiritual thinkers in neglect of their material existence.

While focussing solely on worldly matters, the Arthashastra puts forth a comprehensive and ruthless strategy for achieving power.

The strategies for achieving power include the four great pillars of dealing with neighbouring powers, a mixture of : appeasement(Saama), gift or bribery(Daan), division or split(Bheda) and reward or punishment(Danda).

Such a strategy not only provided an unprecedented wealth of detail about early India but was also instrumental in inspiring the Nationalists or freedom fighters of India to establish a realpolitik for an aspiring India in the 20th century.

“The discovery of the Arthashastra was crucial in building the consciousness of Indian nationalists, in constructing a sense of India’s past and in setting the tone for what modern India can stand for”, says Indian diplomat Shiv Shankar Menon to BBC.

Authored by Chankaya, also known as  Kautilya and Vishnu Gupta, the Arthashastra is a treatise that was written somewhere around the 4th century BC.

A historical Sanskrit play called Mudrarakshasa narrates the fascinating role that Chanakya played in the ascent of Chandragupta Maurya into power. The play’s literal meaning, the “The Signet of the Minister” signifies the cunning tactics through which Chanakya changes the landscape of the Indian subcontinent.

It is believed that after being ridiculed by the of the Nanda dynasty, Chanakya untied his Shikha or lock of hair, considered as the symbol of discerning intellect, and vowed not to tie it back until he crushed the Nanda kingdom.

Indeed, through his guile and wit, Chanakya devises a shrewd political strategy of isolating his enemy’s allies. By using a deadly concoction of spying and deceit, Chanakya is gradually able to force Rakshasha, the last minister of the Nanda dynasty to surrender.

The conception of usurping power, as laid forth in the Mudrarakshasa and the Arthashastra, as a whole, bodes much lesson for the modern day geopolitical and diplomatic warfare that each country is inextricably involved in.

Many compare the Arthashastra with Machiavelli’s The Prince, a 16th Century political treatise which disrupted the western moral and religious beliefs by propounding harsh political pragmatism.

Max Weber, a German sociologist however opines such a comparison as naive.

“Truly radical “Machiavellianism”, in the popular sense of that word, is classically expressed in Indian literature in the Arthasastra of Kautilya: compared to it, Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless”, says Weber in his essay Politics as a Vocation.

Comparing with different accounts of power and politics, such as Aristotle and Plato, in the same historical era, finds a unique perspective in the Arthashastra.

Merciless instructions such as, “An arrow released by an archer may kill a single person, but a strategy unleashed by a wise man, kills even those still in the womb”, are some of eccentric prescriptions that distinguish Chanakya’s doctrine from popular notions on power.

Chanakya describes a king or a ruler as someone who desires to conquer or yearns for power. For expanding power the king must hold a great deal of wealth, yet he stops short of advocating a free market.

In fact, Chanakya is deeply suspicious of traders. He explicitly warns the kings to be vigilant to the practise of under-invoicing, a tactic undertaken by traders to avoid custom duty.

When caught under-invoicing, Chanakya proposes a strict penalty of eight-times the custom duty. He goes a step further, by advising the ruler to keep all economic activities under check, closely reminiscent of the socialist model of governance.

On corruption, Chanakya describes more than forty ways of embezzlement and advises the ruler to keep a watchful eye on the state officials.

In a splendid simili, the master political strategist encapsulates the impossibility of detecting corruption: Just as a fish moving inside water cannot be known when drinking water, even so, officers appointed for performing work cannot be known when appropriating money.

Employing another imaginative analogy, Chankaya brings to fore the dubious ways in which officers might be working: It might be possible to know trace the path travelled by birds, but not the ways of officers moving with their intentions concealed.

The need for the ruler to establish smooth relations with the ruled, is given paramount importance in Kautilyan governance.

The guidelines for ceding mistrust and uncertainty among the populace include creation of an aura of miraculous power, making liberal use of illusions and manipulations through spies.

In the unlikely event of exposition of the wrongs committed by the king, a hefty punishment is to be meted out to the reprobates. These include whip lashes, scorpion bites, burning joints, heating in the sun for days, stroking with cane among other tortuous measures.

To eliminate the risk of assassination, the ruler can and should use a double, a preventive act already employed by politicians of the modern age.

Chanakya’s conception of power can be compared to a giant banyan tree which towers above as a shining beacon of majestic power but the whose roots lie embedded in an intricate web of secrecy, manipulation and constant spying.

This is very much how governments function in today’s day and age. There is a visibly pretty side of diplomatic dialogues and peace talks with a dark underbelly of spy networks which perpetually monitor the citizenry and other power structures.

In a broader context, Chanakya visualized and solved the same problems that we are facing today: A multi-polar world comprising of a complex mixture of bureaucracy, citizenry and diplomacy, all seething with an underlying current of vicious power.