Chanakya: India's Truly Radical Machiavelli

January 29, 2015 Topic: Domestic Politics Region: India

Chanakya: India's Truly Radical Machiavelli

Max Weber once wrote that compared to Chanakya's the Arthashastra, "Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless."

The Arthashastra also contains foreign policy advice for special cases. Some of these deal with neutral states or potentially treacherous allies. Others deal with how to deal with oligarchies (or democracies), recommending sowing dissension among such states in order to weaken them. This policy has often been used by China and Russia in dealing with nomadic confederations in Central Asia. Kautilya also recommends using bribery or conciliation as necessary.

In short, the Arthashastra contains a wealth of recommendations on a variety of situations that can be useful and practical in modern times. Implicit in it is a warning to avoid idealizations and abstractions while remaining pragmatic.

Influence and Legacy

The Arthashastra was influential in ancient and classical India, but disappeared from widespread usage sometime in the 12th or 13th centuries as a result of invasions and conquest. It was not rediscovered until 1904, when an old manuscript was found in a private collection (other manuscripts were subsequently discovered).

Since then, many of its maxims and ideas have influenced Indian thought, and especially among the realist school of Indian political thinking. Another Indian work, the epic the Mahabharata continued to exert substantial influence across India and featured similar ideas on power and realism. However, for much of the modern era, independent India’s thinking on politics and international relations were derived not from the Arthashastra or similar works, but from the non-alignment and pacifism of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, who were perhaps loosely inspired by the example of Asoka, grandson of Kautilya’s king. Asoka abjured realpolitik and attempted to run his empire on the principles of morality and peace (the Mauryan Empire fell apart quickly after Asoka’s death).

Despite this, the influence of the Arthashastra and its ideas have found their way into Indian thinking, as well as influencing many non-Indians. While Indians can and do read Western political thinkers, including realists like Machiavelli and Hobbes, many policymakers feel more comfortable if they can find a precedent for their policies in their own country’s literature and history. The modern Indian concept of non-alignment itself may be a reflection of Kautilya’s advice for a nation to only follow its self-interest and not get locked into permanent enmity or friendship with any other nation. After the end of the Cold War, India has begun to apply more of the Arthashastra’s maxims as it has grown in confidence and ability and realized the necessity of pursuing its own interests, regardless of their normative component. Expect this to continue for the foreseeable future.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri is a South Asia columnist for The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter: @AkhiPill.