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No authentic contemporary or even nearly con-temporary account of the life of Kautilya, also known as Chánakya and Vishnugupta, is available to us. All that we know of him is derived from traditions current about five centuries after his death. According to these traditions he was a very learned orthodox Bráhmana of eastern India who was highly versed in politics. He served the Nanda kings of Magadha (South Bihar) but, becoming alienated from them, helped Chandragupta to seize their throne. Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauyra dynasty of Magadha, appointed Kautilya his prime minister and by following his counsel made himself a great emperor.

Chandragupta is undoubtedly a historical person. According to the Roman historian Justin, Chandragupta established his kingdom by driving out the Greek governors whom Alexander had left in charge of the territories he had conquered in India. After Alexander’s death his general Seleucus marched with an army to India to recover the lost territories. He actually crossed the Indus but was obliged to make peace by ceding to Chandragupta vast territories, roughly corresponding to modern Afghanistan and Baluchistan, that were still in Greek possession. Chandragupta ruled over a vast empire that extended from the Hindu Rush all the way to Assam and probably included a large part of the Deccan. His reign probably covered the last quarter of the fourth century b.c.

According to tradition Kautilya played an important role as Chandragupta’s prime minister. But to what extent Kautilya actually helped his imperial master to acquire or maintain his vast empire cannot be determined exactly. His chief claim to fame is the composition of a treatise known as theArthaśāstra, which deals with the art of government in a very comprehensive manner. It has been mentioned and quoted by many writers down to the fifteenth century. But although the work was regarded as the authoritative treatise on the subject, no copy of the text was known to modern scholars until the discovery of a manuscript at the beginning of this century. It is a big book, containing 150 chapters divided into 15 sections. This manuscript was at first unanimously accepted as the genuine text of the long-lost treatise of Kautilya, but doubts have since been expressed by many scholars. Without going into the details of this question one may reasonably take the view that the text is theArthaśāstra of Kautilya with minor modifications introduced in later times.

Proceeding on this basis we may note in the first place the information that we maygather about Kautilya himself from the internal evidence of the Arthaśāstra. He was highly intellectual and well-read in the Hindu religious scriptures and in works on polity and other allied subjects. Since the book not only discusses political theories but also gives elaborate details of the administrative system, Kautilya evidently had that familiarity with the detailed work in various branches of administration that we would expect from one who held the high office of prime minister of a great empire. He was thoroughly conversant with the minute details of legal principles and of the administration of justice, with military science (including rules of warfare, strategy, offensive and defensive weapons, fortifications, battle array, etc.), and with the principles governing interstate relations, corresponding to modern international law. At the same time he showed practical knowledge of agricultural operations, maritime trade and commerce, both inland and foreign, the working of mines, animal husbandry, forestry, the textile industry, and even distillery operations, not to speak of sundry minor trades and occupations.

TheArthaśāstra also throws light on some special characteristics that distinguish Kautilya from other Indian statesmen and writers on polity. In the first place, he had a very rational mind and did not blindly accept the current views based on faith and tradition. The ancient Hindus held that the Vedas constitute the sole source of law; more liberal writers added, as supplementary sources, the conduct and customs of holy men. But Kautilya laid down four distinct sources of law, namely, sacred scriptures; the rules he laid down in the Arthaśāstra; customs; and edicts of kings. Each of these he considered more authoritative than the one preceding it. He explicitly stated that when sacred law is in conflict with the rational law, reason shall be held authoritative. No other Hindu writer before the nineteenth century had the courage to assert openly that the law made by the state or supported by reason may supersede the injunction of sacred texts. The bold statement of Kautilya shows that he did not regard politics as ancillary to religion.

Second, according to Kautilya, moral considerations have no place in politics. He advised the king to follow only that policy calculated to increase his power and material resources, and he felt no scruple in recommending dubious and sometimes highly unjust and immoral means to achieve that end. For this purpose he sketched an elaborate system for recruiting spies and training them.

Third, Kautilya preached the ideal of a strong centralized monarchy, which would gradually develop into an all-India empire, established by the ruthless conquest of smaller states, particularly the republican and oligarchic states that existed in large numbers in those days and were considered to be very powerful.

Kautilya often showed a surprisingly modern outlook. His view of the origin of kingship anticipates Locke’s theory of contract. “People,” he said, “elected Manu to be their king, to protect them from the evils of anarchy, and agreed to pay him taxes.” Fed by this payment, kings took upon them-selves the responsibility of maintaining the safety and security of their subjects. His conception of the different elements necessary to constitute a state is even more modern; it fulfills the requirements of twentieth-century international law for the recognition of a state.

More surprising is the fact that Kautilya preached a kind of state socialism, or state capitalism. The state, in his opinion, should conduct mining operations and carry on trade in commodities manufactured from mineral products, as well as producing and trading in various other commodities, including textiles, timber, and fishery and agricultural products.

To Kautilya, the ideal state was something like a modern welfare state. He clearly required the state to provide for the maintenance of children, childless women, and old, infirm, and diseased persons, who have no natural guardians to protect them. As a corollary it was provided that a person who was able to maintain his parents, wife, children, and minor brothers and neglected to do so, should be punished. Punishment was also to be inflicted upon a person who took to the ascetic life without making provision for the maintenance of his wife and sons. This was all the more surprising in a society that regarded ascetics with the highest veneration and held asceticism to be thesummum bonum of life.

If we regard the extantArthaśāstra as indeed mainly the handiwork of Kautilya, we must attribute to him keen intellect, versatile knowledge, wide experience of men and affairs, and bold, original ideas. He must also have been an able minister, a clever politician, and a great statesman—albeit without any moral scruples—whose only concern was with the development of the power and resources of an empire whose interests were entrusted to his care. We can easily visualize him devoting himself to the service of his imperial master with zeal and sincerity, undeterred, or rather unfettered, by considerations of either religion or morality.

R. C. Majumdar

[For the historical context of Kautilya’s work, seeIndian political thought; also consult the biographyofMachiavellifor similar ideas in a different context.]


Bhandarkar, Devatta R. 1929 Some Aspects of Ancient Hindu Polity. Lecture delivered February 1925. Benares (India) Hindu University.

Breloer, Bernhard 1927–1934 Kautaliya-Studien. 3 vols. Bonn: Schroeder.

The History and Culture of the Indian People. Volume 2: The Age of Imperial Unity. (1951) 1960 Bombay (India): Bharatiya Vidiya Bhavan.

KautilyaKautilya’s Arthasdstra. 3d ed. Translated by Dr.R. Shamasastry with an introductory note by the late Dr. J. F. Fleet. Mysore (India): Wesleyan Mission Press, 1929.

Modelski, George A. 1964 Kautilya: Foreign Policy and International System in the Ancient Hindu World. American Political Science Review58: 549–560.

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Kautilya (4th century B.C.), also known as Vishnugupta and Chanakya, is traditionally known as the author of the Arthashastra, the celebrated ancient Indian work on polity, and as the counselor of Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya empire.

Most of the details of the life of Kautilya are uncertain and shrouded in myth and legend. Ancient Indian tradition describes him as a native of Taxila (near Peshawar in modern Pakistan) who had journeyed to Pataliputra (Patna), capital of the Nanda empire, in search of recognition of his learning. There he was insulted by Dhana Nanda, last of the Nanda rulers, and the irascible Brahmin swore vengeance on the house of the Nandas. Pursued by Nanda soldiers, Kautilya escaped into the forests, where he met the young Chandragupta Maurya. Kautilya took Chandragupta to Taxila. This was the time when Alexander's legions were invading northwestern India. Alexander retreated from the Punjab in 325 B.C., and soon thereafter Chandragupta worked his dynastic revolution, killing Dhana Nanda and becoming the ruler of India. Indian tradition asserts that Kautilya had masterminded this revolution and continued as Chandragupta's counselor.

The Arthashastra

Whatever the nature of accounts of Kautilya's life, it is certain that Kautilya was a historical figure and that he was responsible for the compilation of a work on polity, a work that has exerted a profound influence on the development of political ideas in traditional India. The Arthashastra was believed to have been lost and was known only through references to it and quotations from it in subsequent works on law and polity in Sanskrit. It was discovered and published in the 1920s and immediately provoked extensive discussion on the nature of its contents and their implications for understanding the traditional Indian polity.

The Arthashastra is not a work on political philosophy, which it treats only incidentally, but a manual of instruction on the administration of a state and ways to meet challenges to it. Kautilya is a thoroughgoing political realist and often gives the impression of being amoral. He views the state as a seven-limbed organism which grows in war and whose purpose is to destroy its enemies and extend the territory under its control by all means, including aggression against and subversion of its opponents.

The work treats of the many departments of governmental administration and pays special attention to war, preparation for it, and its triumphant execution. The bureaucracy, as envisioned by Kautilya, must be all-pervasive, efficient, and honest. The king is the central point of this vast and sprawling bureaucratic structure, and Kautilya's exhortation to him is to be on guard at all times. Kautilya's Arthashastra is often compared to Machiavelli's Prince, with which it shares many common philosophical and practical views. In its spirit of realpolitik and machtpolitik it reveals an altogether surprising aspect of the Indian civilization.

Further Reading

The most scholarly edition and translation of the Arthashastrais by R. P. Kangle, The Kautiliya Arthasastra (3 vols., 1965). R. Shamasastry, The Arthashastra (1956), has long been a standard work of reference. M. V. Krishna Rao, Studies in Kautilya (1953; 2d rev. ed. 1958), presents the Arthashastra ideas in a popular style. U. N. Ghoshal, A History of Indian Political Ideas (1959), has extensive materials on the statecraft of Kautilya. □

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Kauṭilya (attributed author): see ARTHAŚĀSTRA; PUROHITA.