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....


  1. Good job on trying to blog the arthashaastra.

    However, there is something I would like to point out here.

    It is 'daana' and not 'dama'. 'Dama' means 'punishment'. 'daana' in this context means 'political sacrifice' and not 'material wealth although one may also suggest that this implies the power to bribe'. Although chaaNakya talks about seemingly unethical ways to manage a state, it is political pragmatism than 'bribery' or 'corruption' as we know today.

    For more clarifications, please read Shri Shamashastry's translation which can be found here.

  2. Thanks for the correction and pointing out the mistake. And thank you, I do know of Shamashastry's translation (one of the ones I am considering).

    Regardless of the spelling error above, I stand by the idea that Chanakya's reference is to the use of material wealth for political purposes - including bribes. In the later chapters, he provides ample examples of using material wealth as inducements (bribes in brutally honest terms), lures and traps. I dont have a "moral" issue here but am simply pointing out that Chanakya's realpolitik approach ensures that wealth is yet another tool of exercising power.