Saturday, 5 December 2009

A King's Education Continued: Duties for the Four Stages of Life

Sorry for the delay in posting this but its been a rough, hectic week. But onwards...

Book 1, Chapter 2 continued:

After pointing to the duties of the four varnas, Chanakya continues to outline the duties of the four ashrams, or stages of life. I find it curious that he begins this list with the grahastha ashram, or the second stage. But I suppose it is not that odd given that his primary preoccupation is with the stage of life that contributes to political and economic activity.

NB: Hindu tradition divides human life into four stages: Brahmachara or study and growth and development; Grahastha or "householder" stage or when a person marries, raises a family and grows professionally; Vanaprastha stage that is for preparing to renounce material pleasures and preparations for the final stage; Sanyasa or renunciation when a person gives up all material attachment to follow spiritual growth.

1. Chanakya begins by listing the duties for the second or "householder" stage of life. These involve earning a living by taking up a profession indicated by the tradition set up by one's ancestors. Is this the first sign of rigidity perhaps?

But I don't read this as a stricture from Chanakya but rather a suggestion. It would make sense to follow in the path of the elders, especially in a primarily agrarian society.

He also explicitly points out that a man must marry a woman according to his social circumstance and station (how terrifically modern and practical!). However he does point out here that this marriage may be with someone of a different "people" or "tribe."

Echoing obviously the discomfort with female menstruation found in many cultures, Chanakya further indicates that sexual relations within marriage must be carried out only after the menstrual cycle and only after ritual cleansing. Funny, just how many ancient cultures found this aspect of human biology discomfitting!

The final duty for the householder is more interesting from a social angle: only after gods, ancestors, guests and servants have been duly fed and taken care of can the house-holder eat his own food. I like the emphasis on taking care of others first, especially those who are economically and socially inferior or dependent. Definitely this is an incipient/early articulation of social responsibility as a necessary aspect of citizenship!

2. For the student or a young person in preparation, Chanakya lists another set of duties. Not only does he recommend independent study (I like this!), chastity (teenage pregnancies were frowned upon even back then, I guess), ritual ablutions and learning the rites, but also points to the necessity of begging for one's sustenance.

This is a an ancient tradition where the students would be required to leave the gurukul or school to organise the food for themselves, their teachers and the school itself, irrespective of a student's social status and political power.

The practice seems intended to instill a sense of equality within the student group and to teach humility to the scions of powerful dynasties. It seems like a more effective way of teaching humility and responsibility than accepting support from parents. I wonder if there is a way to adapt this idea to modern education? Would make for an interesting experiment.

Chanakya's final injunction here is that a student must develop self-discipline by following the example of the teacher, the sons of the teacher (indication again of inherited professions), and in their absence, of a reputable adult.

AHA!!!! I just realised the reason for the strange order in listing the four stages!

3. The third stage requires a person to revert to many of the habits of a student - living with frugality and eliminating sexual pleasure and desires, and focussing on independent study (I assume here Chanakya means study of religious texts and meditation).

And now he gets very specific on the elements of material frugality: one must sleep on the floor, and dress in deer hide (as opposed to more comfortable fabrics like silk, cotton or wool). This is also the stage where a person must offer service to gods, ancestors and guests. Moreover, the diet in this stage must shift to steadily to only eating what is found in the forest or vana (Ah! Hence the name!)

Wow! This is a real tough one as reverting to a frugal, modest life after one has followed a life of pleasure is always much harder. The emphasis here seems to be on re-learning humility and modesty as well as finding ways of eliminating physical desires.

4. Finally, the fourth stage of life is renunciation. The first duty here is to bring an end to the dominion of the five senses: I guess this is why the earlier stage is so focussed on controlling material pleasure.

Chanakya points out that this requires not beginning any new projects and cutting oneself off from social groups and affiliations (including family). In this stage, a person must rely on charity for sustenance (and I assume whatever the forest will provide) and should not work for a living.

Moreover a person should not stay in a single place, even in a forest, but rather roam from one place to the other, refusing to form any attachment to any place of living. This final one seems like a real tough stricture: having cut off family and friends, this seems to require even giving up the last vestiges of attachment to the physical world.

Chanakya seems to think that by such renunciation, together with bathing in clear waters, self-study and meditation, a human being cleanses one's inside and out.

I wonder if this is in meant to be an elaborate preparation for facing death? Especially as in the Hindu tradition, death is meant to be a passage to another life? It would make sense in this case to give up all baggage from a current life in order to begin afresh.

Living as I do - in the West - I am always fascinated by people who tell me they follow Buddhism or other "eastern" philosophies/lifestyles because they find the Biblical traditions harsh. Yet to me this "eastern" articulation of life seems like a much harsher view of human life, especially as it has no possibility of any intervention from any deity or power beyond the self to offer comfort or support. Far from being comforting or safe, this is definitely one long school of hard knocks! On the other hand, I like the fact that the ultimate responsibility and ultimate power is left to the individual.

Interesting paradox again: seems that Hinduism requires identity to be simultaneously social and family driven while also being ultimately - and remorselessly - individualistic.

In the final verses of this chapter, Chanakya starts to tie up the two ideas of social structure and stages of life. This one has made me think a lot. Next post will be about the summing up verses but also about my thoughts on this chapter which really has posed more questions than provided answers.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A Kings Education: Importance of Vedic Knowledge

Note to earlier post: Having considered the book once again I believe I should be talking in terms of Book 1, Chapter 1 instead of chapters and sections. So this post onwards, the posts shall discuss books, chapters, verses.

Book 1, Chapter 2: The range of Vedic knowledge required by a king.

This chapter is more complex, taking on issues of the four varnas (NB: no, I won't use the term "caste" which actually says very little about the organisation of Hindu society and reflects far more about the European one which coined the term initially and then exported it willy-nilly to India). It also takes on the issues of duties during the four ashrams or stages of life. It also advises specific behaviour for a king regarding these two points.

The chapter begins with a verse that lists the most important knowledge for a king:

1. These include the three Vedas: Rg, Yajur and Sama;

2. Chanakya also adds Atharva Veda to the list here. I assume its because the Atharva Veda already existed at this point and provides crucial commentary required for understanding the other three. Interestingly, he adds this fourth in conjunction with "itihaas" or history.

3. He includes history in this verse as necessary for a king. Some modern commentaries seem to suggest that Chanakya was referring solely to the Mahabharata as "history" but it seems more logical to assume that he was also referring to knowledge of lineages, battles, past events.

Interestingly he explains in the next verse that an cultured man comprises of the following six areas : education (sometimes translated as phonetics), ritual and ceremonial requirements, grammar (or language as a whole), etymological interpretation (or making meaning), ability to create and understand verse, and astronomy. These six form a humans body parts, including eye, mouth, heart, feet, heart and here I am stumped: something called "nasika." Any ideas on this one?

Update: As Rishabh points below: the missing sense and word is nose. Doh!

Then Chanakya moves on to explaining that the Vedas explain the necessary duties for the four varnas: Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. According to his list, these include the following:

Brahmans must study the Vedas and ancient texts, must teach curious students and advise patrons, must carry out necessary rituals, and preside as priests at rituals carried out by the patrons.

Moreover, they must give in charity what they can and receive patronage from those with material wealth. They are the only ones with the capacity to receive charity as well as the requirement to give charity.

Curiously enough, there is no indication from Chanakya that the students or patrons are limited by varnas.

must also study the Vedas, get rituals and ceremonies done by the Brahmins, give in charity, make a living out of their martial ability and protect the people.

Again, curious that Chanakya points to charity as a key duty for a Kshatriya. I am reminded of the Jain belief that only a Kshatriya is capable of being the Mahavira as such a great spirit is marked by a limitless ability to give of oneself.

The Vaishyas are required to study the Vedas, support rituals and ceremonies (I assume by giving money), give charity, carry out agriculture, animal husbandry and trade.

And finally the Shudras are required to serve the "twice born" (Brahman, Kshatriya and Vaishya): this seems to be where most European translators stopped reading and declare the Shudras as the downtrodden, proleteriat and so forth.

But Chanakya continues his list by pointing out that the Shudras are also responsible for agriculture, animal husbandry and trade. Moreover, they are also artists and artisans, performers and actors, as well as poets.

Indeed, despite the infamous Manusmriti's often vile and limiting strictures on society, that text does point out that all humans are born as Shudras, and it is only after education and ritual "second-birth" that a human may be counted as Brahman, Kshatriya or Vaishya.

In contrast, Chanakya's view seems more liberal and appears to imply that Shudras - having acquired knowledge and education - are as capable of being "twice born" as all others. This means that acquiring the right training could allow anyone to become a priest or a warrior or a trader. This appears to be more logical given Chanakya's real-politik stance on the running of a state.

This also appears to resonate also with the idea of Bharata's Natyashastra (treatise on drama) as the fifth Veda which is accessible to all humans. Thus technically even the artists and poets who studied only Bharata's text could be considered to be studying the Vedas, blurring the social lines in ways that contradict Manu's far more rigid stance.

Considering the various text, I wonder if rather than edicts, these were more in nature of debates on the classification and organisation of society, with Chanakya taking a proto-realist stance while Manu's appears to be a proto-Neocon one.

It also appears that these varna classifications were far more fluid than we have been brought up to believe in Chanakya's era. Does this mean that social conditions determine how strict or liberal the social categorization would be in Indian history?

Also, it throws open an interesting case in point for modernity (and me personally) in India: As a Kshatriya-born woman, who chooses to work as a writer, do I count as a Shudra? Especially since I don't remember ever undergoing a "yagyopaveet" (second-birth) ceremony!

Does this also mean that a Shudra who found a guru, studied the Vedas, became a warrior and acquired the practise of sacrifice and charity could be a Kshatriya. The story of Eklavya really resonates here with me: wouldn't he be the perfect warrior and thus the perfect Kshatriya in the Mahabharata?

This reading is throwing up a lot of questions! And all feedback would be welcome.

The next post will take on the next set of verses in this chapter as they are really making me questions a lot of what I know and think about ancient India.

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....