18 April 2014

*** Need for a Modern Arthashastra

By Arvind Gupta
Published: 14th April 2014 06:00 AM

In 1992, American scholar George Tanham stirred up a hornets’ nest when he charged in an essay that Indians lacked tradition of strategic thinking. Many Indian scholars countered him pointing out India had a rich tradition of strategic thinking quoted in venerated ancient texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Arthashastra, Thirukural and the Panchatantra belonging to different ages. The Cholas, Marathas, Rajputs and Mughals were adept at statecraft and warfare. They would not have been successful unless they thought strategically.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that there was hardly any systematic study of Indian ancient texts from the point of view of identifying the main ingredients of Indian strategic thought. Indian texts are still not part of global political science or international relations discourse. Few Indian or foreign universities teach these texts as part of security and strategic studies. People know Plato, Aristotle, Marx and Machiavelli but rarely Kautilya. It is a pity considering Arthashastra is a vast treatise on statecraft. A lot more systematic work needs to be done by scholars, particularly Indians, in the area. The lack of knowledge of Sanskrit and regional languages is a major hindrance. Authentic translations of these texts are not available. Archival sources have not been tapped. But more significantly, the Indian educational system has not placed emphasis on the exploration of the rich Indian traditions in strategic thinking.

The Arthashastra is one ancient such text that is a rich treasure of strategic thinking. Written in Sanskrit by Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, around 321BC in Magadha, it deals extensively with issues of state, society, economy, administration, law and justice, internal security, defence, diplomacy, foreign policy and warfare. Divided in 15 books, it has 6,000 sutras. The text lay hidden for centuries and was discovered in 1905 in Karnataka. R Shamasastry was the first person to translate the text in 1915. Today, Kangle’s English translation is considered the most authentic and widely used by scholars.

The Arthashastra is a practical manual of instruction for kings. The first five books deal with administration, while the next eight cover foreign affairs and defence. The last two books dwell upon miscellaneous issues.

The king is set lofty ideals—he sees his happiness in the well-being of his subjects and offers them yogakshema, i.e. security and well-being. The Arthashastra was written in times when the subcontinent was divided into a number of small and mutually hostile states. Therefore, it was necessary for a king to not only protect his state but also deal with hostile kings and expand his territory. A king could perform his functions only if he was a strong leader with a strong intellect and ever-ready to train himself in sciences.

Among the numerous dimensions of statecraft developed in the Arthashastra, mention can be made of three that would be relevant even today. The saptanga theory of state attributes seven prakrits or elements of the state. These are king, his minister, the country, the fortified city, the treasury, the army and the ally. The theory of the “circle of kings” or the rajamandala theory is essentially a description of alliances a king has to make with friendly states to deal with the enemy state and his friends. The Arthashastra also delves into three kinds of powers, namely, the power of knowledge, power of treasury and power of army. Four kinds of wars are described: the kutayudha (tactical fighting), mantrayudha (diplomatic war), prakashayudha (open war) and tushnim yudha (secret agents’ war).

The shadgunya ascribes six attributes to foreign policy—samdhi, vigraha, asana, yana, sanshrya and dwedhibava, which can be translated as making peace with a stronger king, making war when prospering, staying quiet when the enemy is equal in strength, marching when possessed of excellent qualities, seeking shelter when depleted in power, following a dual policy of making peace with a stronger king and war with a weaker king. The king has four strategies or upayas—sama (friendship), dama (gifts), bheda (division) and danda (punishment)—in the conduct of foreign policy. The treatise is particularly rich on the army’s composition, war preparedness and war fighting. The role of intelligence and craft of spying is well-developed and can teach a trick or two to modern spymasters.

How relevant is the Arthashastra today? Clearly to apply the Arthashastra to contemporary circumstances literally is not possible. Yet there are portions that are based on human psychology and have universal application. For instance, the duties of a king and the leadership qualities described in the Arthashastra are relevant for today’s leaders. The shadgunya provides a clear basis of foreign policy and the seven measures of state refer to components of national power.

There is need for a critical investigation of the Arthashastra with an objective of making it relevant to today’s conditions. There is also a need to do comparative studies—compare Arthashastra with other non-Indian texts such as Sun Tzu’s and other Indian texts. It would bring out the true worth of the Arthashastra and also situate it in the body of Indian strategic thought.

In an effort to introduce the teachings of the Arthashastra in Indian security and strategic studies, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses has recently published some works on it and identified Indian and foreign scholars engaged in a deeper study of the text. National security adviser Shivshankar Menon has taken part in some discussions. Some enterprising enthusiasts have set up an institute in Mumbai to teach leadership qualities to youngsters looking for careers in the corporate world and politics and written popular books on the Arthashastra. The text is being introduced in training courses for soldiers and diplomats. But there is no systematic effort on the part of the establishment to revive traditions of Indian strategic thought and answer the ridiculous charge that we lack a culture of strategic thinking.

In popular imagination Kautilya is compared with Machiavelli for ruthlessness and unethical conduct. The Pakistani military studies Kautilya to understand the supposedly devious Indian mind. This is oversimplification and a gross distortion of Kautilya. The perception must be rectified. There are several other texts, many in regional languages, that can be classified as having rich strategic content. They must be studied systematically and included in curricula. The Arthashastra must be adapted to suit contemporary realities. A new Arthashastra for contemporary geopolitical realties should be evolved.

The author is director general, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

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