Moral Foundation Under Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra


Ajit Kumar AJIT KUMARWISDOM IAS, New Delhi.

Indian authors embrace Kautilya’s Arthashastra as a treatise on the reality of politics every bit as important as Plato and Aristotle’s ideals of politics. As D. D. Kosambi has put it, Athenian democracy failed rather quickly, while Kautilya’s ideas better fit the time and place, and made for a realistic politics. “The Greeks make excellent reading; the Indian treatise worked infinitely
better in practice for its own time and place.”
       It is his unrelenting, unsparing realism of Kautilya that makes so many authors liken him to Machiavelli. The word arthashastra literally means ‘science of wealth,’ although it is often
translated as ‘the science of politics.’ But Kautilya’s Arthashastra is clearly more like a science of political economy, because he emphasised the importance of a prosperous economy - a very centralised and government controlled economy - for a successful kingdom. “The source of the livelihood of men is wealth, in other words, the earth inhabited by men. The science which
is the means of the attainment and protection of that earth is the Science of Politics.”
      By our modern standards, we would not call his treatise a science, but it certainly is a hard-nosed, empirical look at the way the political world works, based on experience and observation of history and of his own time. Whereas Kautilya admitted that he was hardly the first to write an arthashastra, he did claim to have brought together “as many treatises on the Science of  Politics as have been composed by ancient teachers for the acquisition and protection of the earth.” However, he was clearly proud, even boastful, of the value of his science which he “composed for the acquisition and protection of this world and the next.” Science - not religion and not superstition – will bring success, and indeed, “The object slips away from the foolish person,
who continuously consults the stars . . . what will the stars do?” By contrast, Kautilya’s science, somewhat like Hobbes’, was supposed to be infallible, because it creates and “preserves spiritual good, material well-being and pleasures, and destroys spiritual evil, material loss and hatred.”
      Kautilya’s ‘science’ was for a king. Kautilya assumed that the empire that he helped to establish was good and could only be ruled by a powerful king. “For, the king, trained in the sciences, intent on the discipline of the subjects, enjoys the earth (alone) without sharing it with any (other) ruler, being devoted to the welfare of all beings.” Answering to the king was a vast bureaucracy of government officials who were to administer something like an absolutist
welfare state, what historian Stanley Wolpert has called a “socialized monarchy.”
       Even though Kautilya sought to defend - and expand - an empire or kingdom, whereas Machiavelli wanted to establish lawful government and probably hoped for an expansionistic republic like that of ancient Rome, Kautilya had similar moral principles that judged political actions by their results. As a result, like Machiavelli, Kautilya too has been accused of being immoral. Kosambi has written that in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, “there is not the least pretence at morality,” whilst Erich Frauwallner says that Kautilya has “no moral scruples,” and T. W. Rhys Davies labels Kautilya as “depraved at heart.” However, like Machiavelli, Kautilya judged actions by their results. The king must do what is “beneficial” for the whole kingdom and “bring
about security and well-being.” Kautilya’s goals for India’s empire were crystal clear. “Material gain, spiritual good, and pleasures: this is the triad of gain.” Paternalistic in almost a literal sense, the king “should favour the stricken (subjects) like a father.” Whereas the king himself, by means of his very centralised administration, should “maintain children, aged persons, and persons in distress when these are helpless,” judges in the kingdom should concern themselves with the affairs of “women, minors, old persons, sick persons, who are helpless [even] when these do not approach the court.”
In his Arthashastra, his ‘science of politics,’ Kautilya detailed a long list of ‘secret practices’ to destroy enemies whom he calls the ‘unrighteous’. However, Kautilya condoned all this violence because it would allow “for the consolidation of the kingdom” and enable the king to “destroy the enemies and protect his own people.”
In short, Kautilya judged a ruler’s actions not by the means but by the consequences or results. “In the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king and in what is beneficial to the subjects his own benefit.”
   Kautilya answers those who consider him immoral by showing again and again that the right action is often, perhaps even usually, the one in the king’s self-interest, that is, the right action in politics often brings about the general good. Kautilya recognised that social justice in the kingdom promotes the king’s power and interest; if the people are poor or oppressed, they will
become discontented and either support the enemy or slay the king. Kautilya himself argued in a long passage that social justice is usually in the king’s political interest. If a king favours the wicked and banishes the good, acts in an impious manner, punishes the good and rewards the evil, steals from and oppresses ordinary people, harms “principal men and [dishonours] those worthy of honour,” then he will create only greed and disaffection among the people. “Subjects, when impoverished, become greedy; when greedy they become disaffected; when disaffected they either go over to the enemy or themselves kill the master.” Promoting social justice and prosperity for his people is usually in the king’s self-interest.

Tuesday, 04th Feb 2014, 08:22:10 AM

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