Just Like That | Chanakya's enduring lessons for India - Hindustan Times
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Just Like That | Chanakya's enduring lessons for India

Dec 03, 2023 09:00 AM IST

Unearthed in 1905 after centuries of obscurity, Chanakya's Arthashastra stands as one of the world's most insightful treatises on statecraft

The results of the five state Assembly elections will be out today, and then the preparations for the parliamentary elections due in 2024 will begin in all seriousness. During this election fever, where no stone will be left unturned to win the elections and all means, fair and foul, will be used by political adversaries to outsmart others, I am reminded of the fountainhead of our statecraft, who lived some 2,000 years ago, and deeply meditated on the intricacies of politics and the rules that should guide the winner.

Chanakya, also known as Kautilya, lived in the fourth century BCE(HT File) PREMIUM
Chanakya, also known as Kautilya, lived in the fourth century BCE(HT File)

The results of the five state Assembly elections will be out today, and then the preparations for the parliamentary elections due in 2024 will begin in all seriousness. During this election fever, where no stone will be left unturned to win the elections and all means, fair and foul, will be used by political adversaries to outsmart others, I am reminded of the fountainhead of our statecraft, who lived some 2,000 years ago, and deeply meditated on the intricacies of politics and the rules that should guide the winner.

I am, of course, talking of Chanakya, also known as Kautilya, who lived in the fourth century BCE, some two millennia before Machiavelli, who is generally hailed in the West as the founder of realpolitik. In any case, Chanakya’s achievements through the use of statecraft, which could be unsentimentally amoral, were of a much higher order. In the course of one lifetime, he groomed a king, deposed another, worked to throw out the mighty Greeks, united a fractious territory, put his nominee on the throne of Magadha, and helped consolidate a great empire—the Mauryan Empire—extending from the western pass adjoining Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal and stretching till southern India, arguably the first true empire in India’s history.

In addition, he wrote one of the world’s most incisive treatises on statecraft, the Arthashastra. Due to our lack of historical sensitivity, and the consequence of invasion and conquest—first the Muslims and then the British— sometime at the end of the Gupta empire in the 6th century CE, the Arthashastra was lost to posterity. It was rediscovered as late as 1905 by librarian Rudrapatna Shamasastry, in an uncatalogued group of ancient palm leaf manuscripts donated by an unknown pandit to the Oriental Research Institute, Mysore. It was only then that the world woke up to the greatness of India’s legacy in the field of political and economic theory.

There are many extant versions of Chanakya’s life, in the Buddhist, Jaina and Kashmiri literary corpus, as well as in the Sanskrit play, Mudrarakshasa by Vishakhadatta, dated variously from the 4th century CE to the 8th century. There is some controversy over where he hailed from, but Taxila (now in Pakistan) appears to have been in all likelihood his place of birth. However, all the versions agree that Chanakya, on being insulted by Dhanananda, the dissolute king of the Nanda dynasty ruling Magadha, took a vow to unseat him. There is also concurrence, although versions vary in the details, of how he discovered the future king, Chandragupta, who hailed from a poor family. It is said that Chanakya saw in the boy’s attitude and demeanour the qualities of a king. He then adopted him and trained him for this role.

Chanakya and Chandragupta’s initial attempts to directly attack Nanda were a failure. Lore has it that Chanakya learnt what the best tactic should be from a conversation between a mother and her son. The child was being scolded for burning his fingers by putting them in the middle of a steaming bowl of khichdi (hot gruel made with rice). She told him that the correct way was to start eating it from the sides, and in not doing so, he was making the same mistake as Chanakya who directly attacked Pataliputra, the capital of the Nanda kingdom.

Chanakya realised his mistake and made new plans, forming an alliance with Parvataka, the king of a neighbouring mountain kingdom, Himavaktuka, offering him half of Nanda’s kingdom. Secure in this alliance, he and Chandragupta began attacking the towns and regions outside Pataliputra, until they were in a position to attack the capital itself and defeat Nanda. Chandragupta was then crowned king and Chanakya became his chief adviser.

The master politician’s contribution now focused on strengthening and expanding the Mauryan empire and protecting it from enemies. That is why he articulated the four tools of sama, dama, danda, bheda—reconciliation, inducement, deterrent action and subversion—and the lesser-known asana, the strategic act of deliberately sitting on the fence.

In the cacophony of our democratic system, there are many lessons to learn from the life and writings of this towering personality. Firstly, the ability to speak truth to power. Secondly, to have a clear understanding of human behaviour. Thirdly, the importance of decisive leadership. Fourthly, the pivotal role of strategic planning and military preparedness. Fifthly, the key role of economic prosperity, for if the treasury is empty all pretensions to power are like hot air. Sixthly, the recognition that security is directly linked to the welfare of the people and the building of a harmonious society, for a country at war with itself can never be strong enough to face an external enemy. And, lastly, the use of dandaniti or adequate punishment for those who threaten the security and sovereignty of a country.

It is befitting that New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave is called Chanakyapuri. Director Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s landmark TV serial, Chanakya, made in 1991, set in motion several films and visual serials on this thinker, philosopher and strategist. Dozens of books have also been written on him. But despite all of this, I feel that his contribution was so great, and his life so eventful, that much more still needs to be done to highlight his life and achievements.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal

Unveiling 'Elections 2024: The Big Picture', a fresh segment in HT's talk show 'The Interview with Kumkum Chadha', where leaders across the political spectrum discuss the upcoming general elections. Watch Now!

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