Friday, 20 November 2009

Self knowledge: What a King Must Learn:

Chapter 1; Section 1:

Chanakya begins this chapter by pointing out that a king must develop four kinds of knowledge:

1. Anvikshaki or self-knowledge,
2. Knowledge contained in the three Vedas (Rg, Sama and Yajur) for the understanding of philosophy, culture and rituals.
Interestingly enough, at this stage, apparently the Atharva Veda was not considered a "Veda."  Any history student who can shed some light on this?
3. Knowledge of economic issues, especially farming and animal husbandry (key factors in agrarian times).
4. Knowledge of statecraft - curiously termed as "dand niti" (or politics of punishment/power).

However, Chanakya notes that other scholars have disagreed and takes their views into account, pointing out that earlier texts (possibly Manu - although this may be debatable in terms of the historical timeline. Or is there an earlier Manu?) consider only the last three: Vedic, Economic and Statecraft as necessary for a king.

In contrast, the Devaguru Brihaspati believes that "understanding" or reason is necessary but only knowledge of economic organisation and statecraft are necessarary for a king.  Indeed he considers that since Vedic knowledge is used by cunning individuals for their own political and material goals, the knowledge of the Vedas serves little purpose.

Interesting to realise that obviously even in those times, there was an awareness of the use of "spin" in political action, and the use of religion for purposes of power.  

Meanwhile, the Daityaguru Shukracharya holds that only statecraft has to learned by a king. All other forms of knowledge arise from an understanding of statecraft and are motivated by it.  May this be considered as an early articulation of power for the sake of power?

Chanakya returns to his point that the four forms of knowledge are necessary, despite earlier scholarly claims. He holds that good and evil, right and wrong, truth and deception, profit and loss can only be determined by knowledge.  However he places anvikshaki, self knowledge, as the most important, explaining that this self-knowlege comes from study, discipline and scepticism (my paraphrasing and translation here of a rather complex sloka).

Scepticism or a "lack of faith" is not necessarily linked to divinity, but seems to approximate the Greek definition of the term.  Instead it appears to be the ability to be guided by logic, consideration of good/evil, profit/loss, right/wrong on a completely intellectual level and not relying on divinity or indeed social norms and religious texts for guidance. (I could be completely off base here but this is what I get out of it).  I can understand how the combination of the three can lead to self-knowledge.

It appears that Chanakya's text links in at this point to other cultural concepts: of the four purusharthas, but also of the idea of the remorseless action taken without consideration of fear or greed which the Bhagwad Gita declares is the appropriate behaviour for a warrior.

Indeed I am reminded of the Dhammapada at this stage which explains a worthy follower of Buddha is created only by entering the deepest forest, finding a cave with a dead body in it; the follower must then spend time with the cadaver, laughing, fearing, desecrating it; the follower must learn to love and hate and abhor the cadaver; hold it in disgust and horror. And all at the same time. Once the follower reaches the stage of being unmoved by the corpse, then he/she is ready follow the path set by Buddha.

The Dhammapada echoes some of the earlier Hindu thought on reaching balance and peace necessary for unflinching action that is untainted by fear, greed, love or hate.

It appears to me that Chanakya's idea of anvikshaki is quite similar to this, except applied specifically to the training of a king.  He declares that only with this self-knowledge can a king determine the issues of state. More importantly, it is only this self-knowledge that can allow a decisionmaker to remain calm in times of loss and upheaval, to remain balanced despite happiness or sorrow, and thus ensure the best decisions for the state.

Indeed, for this reason, Chanakya declares that anvikshaki is the lone stable and consistent factor in statecraft.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Beginning: Respecting the Cunning Within

Chanakya divides his Arthashastra into 15 chapters and 160 sections.  Their division and placement within the text suggests a didactic function.
He begins with a chapter on A King's Responsiblitities that contains sections on a king's education, briefly covers the motivations of enemies and appropriate modes of conducts, moves on to the appointment of various kinds of officials, and then to a ruler's behaviour.  While I will deal with all the 20 sections in this first chapter separately because each section throws up fascinating insights into the society of the time and on views of politics, some immediately eyecatching insights (just based on the contents list):

1. The chapter considers not only a king's behaviour as a ruler but also advises on how a ruler may protect against other members of the royal family who may be conspiring for power;
2. Outlines appropriate behaviour for a prince who has been taken prisoner;
3. Provides detailed guidelines on the various levels of a king's security detail, including his personal bodyguards. Curiously echoing the Russian anti-terrorism maxim of "kill the women first," Chanakya believes that women should form the inner circles of bodyguard for a king because of their greater dedication and loyalty. 
For this section, I was most intrigued by the opening verse for this book.  As with all classical Indian literature, theatre, performance, Chanakya begins with saluting his gurus, and invoking their blessing.  However, unlike most other scholars, Chanakya invokes and salutes, "Daityaguru" (guru of the demons) Shukracharya as well as "Devguru" (guru of the gods) Brihaspati.  Indeed, Shukracharya takes precedence over Brihaspati in Chankya's invocation, as more important of the two.

In some commentaries, scholars suggest that Shukracharya was a more successful advisor/political ideologue as his advice of cunning conduct in politics and war allowed the cosmically weaker and thus disadvantaged Daityas to constantly upset the Devas. In comparison, the Devas had to plead the great Trinity of Shiva, Vishnu or Brahma for help everytime they were beset by the Daityas (curious echo of the modern political idea of intervention by a regional or global power in the struggles for supremacy of smaller states here!).  Chanakya implicitly suggests that for all his wisdom and goodness, Brihaspati's political advice was less than effective.

By privileging Shukracharya's advice as the model for politics, Chanakya signals right at the outset that his treatise will make no allowances for ethics, morality or religious norms. Instead, it has a sole imperative: power, its acquisition, expansion, and retention, all of which requires the ruler to develop and practise the cunning within.  And boy does he set out to create a manifesto for this aim with relish.

While considering this initial invocation, I was reminded of Keat's opinion that despite all professions to the contrary, Milton was of the "devil's party" as Paradise Lost is a far greater work of literature than Paradise Regained.  Chanakya too may be considered very much of the Daitya's party as he finds very little of interest in the conduct of the "gods" and the virtuous.

More tomorrow!

Monday, 16 November 2009

Why Blog the Arthashastra? And Why Now?

I have long been fascinated by the Arthashastra, partly because so few people seem to be familiar with it, so few political theorists refer to it, and because for some reason it does not attract nearly as much attention from the Western world as other classical Indian texts such as the Kamasutra, the Vedas or the Manusmriti.  And yet it is an extraordinary treatise not only on civil and criminal law, but also on the organisation of a state and appropriate behaviour of a ruler.

As a child, I learned about the text because my grandmother would quote the four basic principles of attaining a material goal (and the tools at the disposal of a ruler): "sama, dama, dand, bhed" she would pronounce with relish. Indeed, the greatest weapons in hands of a leaders are: sama - wisdom, intelligence and understanding; dama - material wealth although one may also suggest that this implies the power to bribe; dand - force, brutality, and violence brought to bear in order to achieve one's ends; and finally, bhed - secrets, information, all that the modern world qualifies as "intelligence."

When I finally read the text as a grown-up, and after studying Macchiavelli's The Prince at university, I was amazed by its incredible modernity.  Chanakya is secular (as in not interested in religious mores), extraordinarily inclusive (roles for women, the economically disenfranchised and the physically or mentally disabled within structures of power), surprisingly liberal in his ideas of a civil society, and amazingly dispassionate about ethics as only imperative of power are considered.  Indeed in its amoral, dispassionate study of power, Chanakya far supersedes Macchiavelli. 
Of course the Arthashastra is not entirely Chanakya's brainchild. He refers to earlier texts on politics, governance and law, and debates the advantages and disadvantages of these earlier (and now lost to us) treatises. He also compiles rules, regulations and laws of the land, often merely as a proto-constitutional guideline, and at times with explanations and debates.

This blog will (hopefully) not only follow my readings from the text but also my reactions, opinions, and thoughts about its validity and application to the modern era.  Like Chanakya, I will try to remain amoral and dispassionate (although this may not be possible), considering the text only within the political domain.  I hope that blogging my reading will help my understanding of Chanakya's principles and the foundations of Indian political theory.

On a personal note, I am beginning a new novel and require some writing discipline. As some of you may already know, when I write, I stop reading fiction and eventually even stop reading in English. Somehow my mind separates my writing (in English) with the rest of myself (by reverting to Hindi).  This process also means that I am beginning a re-reading of the Arthashastra, partly because its fascinating but also because I find it relaxing, which of course aids creativity.  Moreover, I hope that by blogging regularly about a specific topic, I will be able to focus on the novel with some level of discipline and rigour. 

I would love to engage in a discussion with others who follow or study political thought. So please do leave a comment if you find this blog.  This hopefully will be a communal enterprise.

And so it begins....