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!


  1. I remember these in bits and pieces as my dad used to tell me stories when I was a kid.

  2. Its actually quite amazing how much of the Arthashastra is actually in common usage and knowledge in India, and always through the oral traditions. Would love to know if you remember anything from what your dad told you...I keep remembering things that my grandmother quoted or her favourite sayings/proverbs.

  3. [I came to your blog from nitin/offstumped.]

    I think it is good that you are reading a text as important as this and writing notes for interested readers.

    Firstly, I would like to know which book you are reading. Is it original in sanskrit, or a translation? Can you read sanskrit? If you are reading a sanskrit-commentary, then, which one. If you are reading a translation, please let us know which one.

    I am asking these questions not to belittle your effort, but to request you to go to the original sources, when you can. It is quite well known that Wendy-Doniger (for example) and many others who have translated the sanskrit texts have heavily mis-translated the originals because of their biases.


  4. Hi. Not offended at all. It is a very valid question especially since most translations are not only very flawed but their colonial "editing" has ensured that a lot of the meaning has been contorted.

    I read Sanskrit although it takes more time than reading Hindi. I have the old Ramashastry version from 1915 (in a tattered photocopy now although its now available online). Plus, I find the Hindi translations are closer so I am working with Ramachandra Shukla and Ramchandra Varma Shastri's translations. I also have the RP Kangle edition for reference as well as the Penguin India version.

    I am aware of issues of translations and so interject commentary when I find a problem as well as try using a more neutral term. So for example I don't use "pure" (which is used in many English versions) for its extreme quality. I also don't use "sacred" as Indic traditions dont have the sacred vs profane binary like the Abrahamic faiths. Instead I rather clean vs unclean.

    Thank you for reading. This blog was started as a deeply personal project so I am happy and grateful that it finds readers. Best wishes

    This blog is not a "translation" but my reading of the text. In a way it goes back to the classic Indic tradition of a scholar commenting on an earlier text and thus furthering a theory or way of thinking.

  5. My daughter bought sukra neeti.
    I thought the god of daityas, surkra charya tells us to kill and steal.
    But surprisingly he did not tell so.
    He was telling all the good things, like any other good guru !
    Kumaraswamy vullaganti

    1. Thanks for your comment. Agree and that is because Indic traditions don't take a simplistic, black/white, binary view of good and evil. Best wishes

  6. Pls give us more on this topic with quotes from the text. Will be very interesting:)

    1. Thank you. This is my translation of the text with commentary. Hence the title of the blog. I hope to update again soon.