Kauṭilya (fl. c.321–c.296 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F023-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

Article Summary

Kauṭilya is famous as the author of the Arthaśāstra, a political treatise often compared with Machiavelli’s The Prince. Although its influence on subsequent political and literary writers is noteworthy, tradition has remained somewhat ambivalent about it, especially because of its seemingly ruthless prescriptions for efficacious government. On a closer reading, however, Kauṭilya is assiduously concerned to secure the welfare and wealth of the citizens of a state under a just government, of which the king, although the sovereign, is just one among seven institutes. Upon the king falls the duty of safeguarding the good of the people in as dharma-sanctioned a way as possible; the ‘rule of the rod’, intrigues and stratagems are reserved for combatting internal and external threats.

Kauṭilya did not leave behind any information about himself, but it is generally believed that he was a minister in the kingdom of Maurya Candragupta, who ascended to power after defeating the Nandas in Magadha country. Since Candragupta promulgated the Gupta Empire circa 320 bc, Kauṭilya (which is a nickname; his real name was Cāṇakya) is believed to have lived and written the Arthaśāstra, the work for which he is famed, around 321–296 bc. A number of Western scholars have, however, proffered a much later date, closer to the early years of the Common Era or even later.

The Arthaśāstra is a comprehensive treatise on statecraft that gives cohesion to the political thinking of Kauṭilya’s predecessors. It is tersely written, and organized into fifteen books comprising 150 chapters. Like most classical Indian writings on politics, it is mostly instructional in content and lacks theoretical depth on questions such as the ideal state, the origin of the state, and so on. Kauṭilya gives no arguments to ground his political precepts, or to explain why he makes the pursuit of wealth the principal end. He emphasizes the significance of sensual pleasure (for both king and people), and upholds dharma (law) as the beacon of socially ordered conduct; but mokṣa (spiritual enlightenment and escape from the material world) warrants no place in the Arthaśāstra. Kauṭilya’s apparent advocacy of the ‘rule of the rod’ has traditionally been controversial; nevertheless certain of his important teachings were appropriated by the Dharmaśāstras (for centuries the basic legal/moral canons deferred to in India) and, on a close reading, he is mainly concerned to guarantee the citizens’ wellbeing. Kauṭilya’s sovereign king is just one of seven institutes of the ideal body politic; the others are the ministers, the territory and its subjects (janapada), the fort, the treasury, the rod-bearing army, and strategic allies.

The Arthaśāstra creates a secular ethos, but religious life and wisdom are given prominence by the appointment of the purohita, a Brahmanical priest-chancellor who is to be consulted by the monarch at every decisive step in the affairs of the state. Kauṭilya also describes laws restricting forms of marriage, the urban location of the major caste-groups, the duties of caste-groups, and inter-caste mixing. But beyond this, he cannot be said to be an advocate for the sort of inward-looking Hindu state that has been a feature of post-independence Indian political thought. To be sure, the idea of a nation-state, loosely federated or unified, or even of a representative democratic state, never took root in pre-modern Indian political thinking.

Kauṭilya is quite conscious of the diversity from ancient days of the Indian regions and accordingly allows for a degree of flexibility in matters of law and justice. The king is expected to attend each morning to pleas and petitions from subjects who may come from all walks of life and from different castes or regions. When meting out justice, the king or the state is not in a position to make laws; rather, the sovereign court’s jurisdiction is to negotiate between (1) dharma, (2) custom or settled community law, and (3) commercial and personal transactions and written edicts. The king may overrule the latter two sources of law, but he cannot put himself above dharma, in accordance with which all disputes and contradictory judgments are to be decided (Arthaśāstra 3.1.40–4). This precept entails that the king should maintain detailed codes of law, judge each case on its legal merit and mete out punishment proportionate to the offence, not in whimsical excess. The king’s ministers, the purohita, the ascetics, the queen and prince, the gods and, above all, dharma are a check to any possible deviation. (Note that these are broadly ancillary to the principal institutes: the queen is married to the king; the purohita, independently of the ministers, counsels the king; ascetics and leading citizens echo the territory’s subjects; the gods are the heavenly guards of the fort and the treasury; and dharma is the impersonal rule and codes of transcendental ethics symbolized in the rod.) Kauṭilya is credited with having been among the first to set down codes of law, as distinct from listing desirable prescriptions and customary rules regardless of their moral or philosophical merits.

Kauṭilya accorded an unusually important role to philosophy in the training of the king. He called this art anvīksīki, understood as the art of reasoning and learning in traditional disciplines (notably Sāṅkhya, Yoga and Lokāyata), alongside the Vedas, economics and politics. The king is expected to maintain a regime of study of this material throughout his life. The study of reasoning is undertaken more for its applications in matters of law than for its employment in speculative philosophy (tarka). Despite this positive register for philosophy, Kauṭilya does not employ philosophy per se in thinking through moral issues and problems in politics. Perhaps the idealistic tendencies of philosophy in the Upaniṣadic tradition made him cautious about philosophy’s true worth in the more realistic pursuits of state-making. A life of detached asceticism is not worthy of the philosopher, whose life of practical activity is accomplished if it culminates in providing further instruments by which the state can ensure the protection, prosperity and sovereign stability of the people; there is no state without happy people.

Following a comprehensive treatment of topics connected with internal administration, Kauṭilya devotes a substantial discussion to foreign policy and diplomacy. The king, through his emissaries and envoys, should maintain harmonious relations with neighbouring kingdoms; however, he should be vigilant and alert to possible threats to his kingdom. To this end he is advised to deploy spies and secret agents disguised as ascetics, who, through magical spells and propaganda can create dissension among neighbouring populations, and eventually insurgency. In case an enemy should prove to be powerful, the king should enlist the help and sanction of other neighbours, in a roulette of diplomacy common in international relations anywhere.

Citing this article:
Bilimoria, Purushottama. Kauṭilya (fl. c.321–c.296 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F023-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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