Artha Shastra

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ARTHA SHĀSTRA A work on statecraft, the Artha Shāstra of Kauṭilya advises the king on the running of the state, foreign policy, and war. In ancient India, the three ends of man were kāma (love), artha (wealth and political success), and dharma (religion), and for each of them there was a shāstra, or "science," made up of a body of written works. Artha Shāstra, then, is the science of economics and politics, though in practice works of this science are largely about kingship. The Artha Shāstra of Kauṭilya is one of the books of this science, and it makes reference to a great many previous works of artha shāstra that have not survived; it appears that it eclipsed its predecessors.

The Artha Shāstra was composed by someone named Kauṭilya, who is usually identified with Chāṇakya, the able Brahman minister of Chandragupta Maurya. However, there are many features of the text that show it belongs to a later period, about 150 a.d. But it is the culmination of a long tradition of theorizing about statecraft, by Brahmans who worked for the king as ministers rather than as priests or religious teachers, codifying their wisdom about statecraft and putting it in writing to pass on to succeeding generations. Thus the Artha Shāstra of Kauṭilya is put in the form of advice to a king, as if given by a Brahman minister. The roots of this science certainly go back to the period of the Mauryas, and probably long before.

The artha shāstra tradition is notable for the cool, rational pursuit of interest, and this real-politik is especially characteristic of the Artha Shāstra composed by Kauṭilya. For example, according to the doctrine of the "four means," the king should consider conciliation, gifts, sowing dissension, and force, in that order of preference, as ways of dealing with an adversary. Force or warfare is the least desirable, not because of moral considerations but because it entails loss of men and treasure, so that even the winner is poorer at the end; and conciliation is the most desirable for the opposite reason, that it costs nothing. Another concept, that of the "circle of states," has the same effect. A king desirous of conquest should take into account that the neighboring king in whose direction he hopes to expand is a natural enemy; that the enemy of one's enemy is one's natural ally; that the next two states are the enemy's ally and the ally's ally; and so forth. To the rear is a neighboring king who is also a natural enemy, the "heel-catcher" who trips one up from behind; his neighbor, one's natural ally, a "rescuer" to whom one calls for help; the heel-catcher's ally; and the rescuer's ally. A king whose territory touches both one's own and the enemy's, the middle king, is in a position to tip the balance one way or the other by a very small expenditure of force. Finally, a large, powerful kingdom in the region, at a distance from the conqueror and his enemy, called the neutral king, is also able to affect the outcome of a contest by a small interjection of force. The doctrine of the circle of states identifies the fields of force that an expansionist king must take into account when taking action. This atmosphere of cool rationality, in pursuit of greater power and territory by the king, pervades the Artha Shāstra of Kauṭilya. It presupposes continuous conflict of interest among neighboring kings seeking empire, and advises the king how to act under such circumstances, including the use of spies and secret practices as well as the threat of military force.

Kingship is the political norm for the Artha Shāstra, but it devotes one of its fifteen books to the "republics" (gaṇas or saṅghas), in which political power was not centralized in the hands of a king but was broadly diffused across a warrior class, which formed policy in deliberative assemblies. Kauṭilya recognizes that the strength of these republics lies in their strong sense of unity and collective responsibility, making them the hardest of adversaries and the strongest of allies. He advises the king to use secret agents to stir up trouble among them by sowing false rumors, as a way of undermining the republic at the source of its strength. Republics of this archaic kind had a long history in India, and continued at least until the Gupta period. In the Artha Shāstra they are seen not from within, but from the viewpoint of a king trying to get the better of them or to recruit them as allies.

About half of the fifteen books of the Artha Shāstra are concerned with running the kingdom, and half with foreign affairs and war. The treatment of internal affairs begins with Book 1 on the training of the prince. It shows the life of the king to have been very strenuous (at least in this ideal portrait), continuously considering matters of state or hearing petitioners adjudicating disputes, and it allows only four and a half hours for sleep. A great deal of attention is paid to the appointment of government servants, and the testing of their integrity by the use of secret agents, as well as the use of spies to report on the temper of various factions within the kingdom and in that of the enemy. There are large numbers of spies and secret agents, disguised as students, monks, nuns, ascetics, householders, and traders. The king must be continuously on guard against disgruntled princes and queens whose affections have strayed elsewhere. The Artha Shāstra makes cautionary mention of kings killed by a brother, a son, or a queen, the latter using such means as a poison-smeared anklet or belt-jewel or mirror, or a weapon concealed in a braid of hair. Great care is taken to check the king's food for poison, and birds whose behavior indicates the presence of poison should be kept on the palace grounds. The overall impression is that the king has a strenuous life, living under carefully guarded conditions and relying, therefore, very heavily on spies to take the pulse of popular feeling. The strength of kinship is its centralization of power in the hands of one man, but that makes it vulnerable to being overturned by killing that one man, the inverse of the condition of republics, in which power was diffused and shared by many; coup d'etat was a common fate of ancient kingdoms. This vulnerability made for an intense concern with security arrangements, and the heavy use of spies to overcome the king's isolation.

Book Two

The most valuable part of the Artha Shāstra is Book 2, the longest of the fifteen books, which lays out the duties of the heads of government departments in great detail. There are several overall tendencies of this section. One of them is that the king is to be an economic manager, not only taxing every kind of produce, but acting to promote the growth of production. Thus at the outset of Book 2 we read about means of settling the countryside with taxpaying farmers, by shifting people from the city to the country or by attracting peasants from neighboring kingdoms, providing them with land, seed, and cattle for plowing, and a tax holiday for bringing new land under cultivation. Agriculture was the largest sector of the economy, and the king's share of the crop made up the largest part of his revenue, so that a policy of extending agriculture was a matter of enlightened self-interest for states. In terms of manufacturing, the royal household was itself a large producer of goods, such as textiles, for its own use but with a surplus sold in the market. As the protector of widows and orphans in the absence of kin, the king had a body of people that constituted a workforce of his own and that produced for the palace, making it largely self-sufficient, and for sale.

Another tendency in Book 2 is to oversee the market and regulate it in detail. The overall goal we can infer from the passages on the superintendent of the market is not so much to maximize the king's take in taxes—although that is a constant consideration—as to prevent what are seen as "evils" of a free, price-making market, namely the evil to consumers of high prices in the case of a shortage of goods and the evil to merchants of low prices in the case of a glut. In both cases, the superintendent of the market is to sequester all supplies of the commodity and establish a single market at a fixed price deemed to be fair to buyers and sellers, for the general good. When foreign merchants bring goods to the city gate, they are to declare them for sale at a certain price, three times, and the superintendent of trade is to confiscate the excess if a competition of buyers raises the prices. A sense that everything has a fair price, which the king should endeavor to enforce, governs the sale of land as well. Such attempts to restrain the ability of supply and demand to set prices inevitably provoked various kinds of evasion, and measures against them are addressed at length.

A third tendency we can identify in this book is the royal oversight of forests, and the care taken to assure the supply of forest products of all kinds, especially elephants, which were a critical element of military might. A census of wild elephants was kept, and mature elephants were trapped and trained for labor and for war. The four canonical elements of the army (foot, horse, chariot, and elephant) plus the logistical section (oxcarts) each had their superintendents. The importance of the forest to the king was both economic and military, and it was necessary to husband it rationally, taking a long view.

A final tendency in Book 2 is a frank recognition of the problem of misappropriation of funds by government officers, who were in charge of large amounts of money. Just as it is not possible not to taste a drop of honey or a drop of poison placed on the tongue, it is not possible for government officials not to taste of the money that passes through their hands, if only a little bit, the Artha Shāstra says; just as one cannot tell when a fish in water is drinking, it is impossible to tell when government officials are embezzling. A considerable amount of attention is given to the problem of detecting those who are peculating and identifying those who are promoting the growth of the royal wealth and who deserve, therefore, to be rewarded.

Books Three and Four

Books 3 and 4 are devoted to law. The first of these gives the eighteen topics of disputes at law that may come before the king or his judges for adjudication, which consist of what may be thought of as a law of contracts, concerning marriage contracts and those between buyers and sellers or employers and employees. The second, called "Removal of thorns," is a kind of rudimentary criminal law, in which the state acts on its own initiative to redress an act deemed to affect the general good. Book 5 ("Secret conduct") continues this theme, but in respect to the king's officials and the detection of treason.

The remainder of the Artha Shāstra has to do with foreign policy and war. Book 6 is on the circle of states doctrine; Book 7 on the six measures of foreign policy, namely peace, war, staying quiet, marching, seeking refuge, and the dual policy of making peace with one and war with another; Book 8 on calamities of state. Books 9 and 10 concern the preparation and execution of battle, with a list of battle arrays for the army with descriptive names like "staff," "snake," and "circle," and subtypes such as the undulating line called "moving like a serpent" or "cow's urination." Book 11 is about republics; Book 12 on the policies a weaker king should adopt; Book 13 on besieging a fort; Book 14 on "secret practices" used in warfare, including various potions to increase endurance or cause the enemy harm. The final Book 15 is a brief analysis of the "method of the science," that is, the logical or rhetorical devices of artha shāstra.

Thomas R. Trautmann

See alsoGuptan Empire ; Mauryan Empire


The best translation of the Artha Shāstra of Kauṭilya is that of R. P. Kangle: The Kauṭīlya Arthāśtra, Part II (Bombay: University of Bombay, 1963). Part I of Kangle's work is a critical edition of the Sanskrit text, and Part III is a study. On the date and structure of the text, see Thomas R. Trautmann, Kauṭilya and the Arthasastra: A Statistical Investigation of the Authorship and Evolution of the Text (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971).