The Artha Sastra means sastra (science) of Artha (earth/wealth/polity) (Prakash 5).The Artha Sastra is one of few written documents that represent ancient India’s political views. The authorship of the Artha Sastra is credited to Kautilya (also known as Chanakya) and it is believed to have been written around 300 B.C. (Boesche 10). According to R. Shamasastry (3), “This Arthasastra is made as a compendium of almost all the Arthasastras, which, in view of acquisition and maintenance of the earth, have been composed by ancient teachers”. Kautilya’s Artha Sastra is comprised of 15 books (Samasastry 2).
Chandragupta Maurya (c. 317-293 B.C.E), who is known for being the first emperor of India, united India by defeating the Nanda kings and by stopping the invasion of Alexander’s successors (Boesche 10). Kautliya was the chief minister of Chandragupta’s court (Prakash 4). In order to govern efficiently and expand the vast Mauryan Empire that was even larger than the Mughal Empire or the British Empire in India, a constitution was needed (Boesche 12). In this situation, Arthasastra was written and came into play.
Arthasastra deals with all aspects of an empire. Kautliya gave utmost importance to the four sciences. These are:
- Anvikshaki (philosophy)
- Trayi (the triple Vedas- Sama, Rig, and Yajur, deals with four classes (Varnas) and four orders (ashrams))
- Varta (agriculture, cattle breeding and trade)
- Danda-Niti (science of government). (Samasastry 9; Ghoshal 128)
Reason for this, according to Samasastry’s word,
“Righteous and unrighteous acts (Dharmadharmau) are learnt from the triple Vedas; wealth and non-wealth from Varta; the expedient and the inexpedient (Nayanayau), as well as potency and impotency (Balabale) from the science of government.” (10).
Kautliya believed that these four sciences should be taught only by specialist teachers (Samasastry 15).
Then he explained the efficiency of learning (vidhyasamarthyam) and enforced that the disciples including the prince(s) should strictly follow it (Samasastry 16).
Unlike today’s government, ancient empires were ruled by kings; but like today’s government, ministers played an important role in ancient times too. So Kautilya wrote about duties and responsibilities of a king as well as the importance of skilled and knowledgeable ministers. According to Samasastry, words that Kautilya used to warn a king are:
“If a king is energetic, his subjects will be equally energetic. If he is reckless, they will not only be reckless likewise, but also eat into his works. Besides, a reckless king will easily fall into the hands of his enemies. Hence the king shall ever be wakeful.” (51)
In his point of view, a king’s day and night should be divided into eight nalikas (1.5 hours) or according to the length of the shadow and each division should be passed fulfilling certain duties (Samasastry 51). Besides this, a king should attend the court on a regular basis and should listen to the petitioners and take appropriate action to avoid public disaffection (Samasastry 51). He also alerted the king about six enemies: kama (lust), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), mana (vanity), mada (haughtiness), and harsha (over joy) (Samasastry 16).
Obviously, Kautliya wanted to represent the king as an ideal figure to the nation to win the support and loyalty. Since in ancient India, high priest and other priests were important figures, he advised they should be chosen with caution and only the most qualified one should be appointed as high priest (Samasastry 21). While talking about ministries, Kautilya wrote about a conversation between few people and advised that a king should take all of these opinions into consideration while forming the council of ministers (Samasastry 19-20) and encouraged the king to discuss each and every matter with a mantri parisad (council of ministers) that were divided in two levels. The inner cabinet were made of a chief minister, chief priest, military commander and crowned prince, while the outer cabinet were represented by prominent members of the society (Prakash 10). Even after someone is selected as a councillor or a priest, he should be kept under close observation and examined from time to time to check his loyalty to the king (Samasastry 23). According to Prakash (9), Artha Sastra also introduced the concept of saptaganga (state having seven elements) (Kautilya: Book 6, Ch. 1; Sarkar, 1922:167-9; Verma,  74:80; Rao 1958:82). These are:
- Swami (Monarch)
- Amatya (Officials)
- Janapada (Population and Territory)
- Durga (Fort)
- Kosa (Treasury)
- Bala (Military)
- Surhit (Ally)
Only a combination of these seven elements would help a king establish a prosperous state. Kautliya also discussed the importance of choosing a rightful heir to the throne, since the future of the empire is dependent on it. So he set up a guideline to train a prince or steps that a king might take in absence of a rightful heir (Samasastry 45-50). He also legalized the use of spies as a necessary precaution to test government figures’ loyalty to king and to avoid enemy invasion. But he enforced that only those free of any family bonds and members of sudra caste should be used as spies (Samastry 28-31).
Since the Mauryan Empire was a rapidly expanding empire, as a chief minister Kautliya tried his best to perfectionize the science of warfare. Expansion of the kingdom was his foremost priority. His plan was to build a skilled and superior army. In order to achieve this goal, his suggestion was that the commander and even the king should be trained in all kinds of warfare and weapons (Boesche 22). He advised that the king should not trust other people when it comes to war and military matters, and he should supervise everything himself (Boesche 22). In Kautilya`s point of view, there are three kinds of war: open war, concealed war and silent war (Boesche 22). Open war is predetermined and happens face to face, while concealed war is mostly about guerrilla warfare (Boesche 22). On the contrary, silent war is all about secrecy. According to Boesche (23), Kautilya originated the concept of secret war (Mojumdar 63). Kuatilya documented different approaches to infiltrate enemies and weaken their power in the Artha Sastra (Boesche 23-24). He favoured all necessary means including use of spies, prostitutes, and even the elders of the army when it comes to war (Boesche 22). He believed in the expansion of a kingdom (Boesche 28). That is why he suggested that any state showing sign(s) of weakness should be attacked and invaded in a favourable condition considering loss of men, wealth and profit (Boesche 28). He also gave utmost importance to defense. That`s why he described a blue print of a well protected fort in the Artha Sastra (Samasastry 66-70). With the intention of giving his army the best chance of victory, he described briefly about marching against an enemy, marching in hostile territory, unifying forces with allies, calculating the favourable time of an invasion, and other warfare techniques in several books of the Artha Sastra.
In order to govern the vast Mauryan Empire, Kautilya developed a complicated and organized network of bureaucracy. He divided responsibilities into thirty categories and employed thirty adhyaksas (chiefs) to look after each category (Prakash 13). Adhyaksas were provided with a house and a handsome salary. To encourage the bureaucrats, he also developed a reward system by which each bureaucrat would get a part of the taxes as an incentive (Prakash 13). Besides, Kautilya realized that the continuity of a successful state depends on an interactive system between tax payers and state government as well as on trade and commerce. So, bureaucrats in the Mauryan Empire were responsible for providing three kinds of goods – the quality control machinery, the system of currency and system of weights and measures (Prakash 13). He also promoted imports as a way of enriching the state with goods that either they did not have or the production was really expensive (Prakash 13). His taxation system was equally sophisticated. According to Prakash (11), “Kautilya visualized a ‘dharmic social contract’ between the King and the citizens”. The superintendant of tolls was responsible for taking taxes from merchants, while adyaksas were responsible for taking taxes from other tax payers (Prakash 13, Samasastry 155). He also documented specific instructions to the superintendant of tolls on how, where and when merchants should pay their taxes (Samasastry 155). Counterfeiting was a punishable crime in the Mauryan Empire. On the other hand, citizens of the Mauryan Empire also enjoyed specific tax free trade and the janapads (districts) had the right to ask for tax remission under special circumstances (Samasastry 156, Prakash 11).
According to Prakash (12), “Kautilya did not view law to be an expression of the free will of the people”. In Kautilya`s point of view, law should be based on dharma (scared law), vyavhara (evidence), charita (history and custom), and rajasasana (edicts of the king) (Prakash 12). He visualized a royal court having 6 members – 3 with the knowledge of dharmasastras (sacred law) and 3 ministers of the king. He also described brief penalty system in accordance with the offence committed in the Artha Sastra.
Female figures did not possess a high status in ancient India`s male-dominated society. The same was true for Kautilya. He was in favour of using women as spies. He also legalized prostitution and brought it under taxation system. Although, aniskasini (women from upper caste who did not leave their work) were allowed to earn their livelihood by spinning, they had to do all their transactions in dim light to avoid being seen by men (Jaiswal 51). Women who were involved in service of the king were considered a treasure of the state and enjoyed a handsome salary and protection (Jaiswal 54). Besides, intercourse with a girl against her will or intercourse with a minor girl was a punishable crime (Jaiswal 53).
The Artha Sastra deals with all aspects of a well-constructed government as well as a monarchical empire. Kautilya succeeded in constructing a constitution that shaped a vast successful empire. Some of these rules are still in play.
Boesche, Roger (2003) “Kautilya’s “Arthaśāstra” on War and Diplomacy in Ancient India” Journal of military history, Vol. 67, No. 1.
Ghoshal, Upendra (1923) A History of Hindu Political Theories. London: Oxford University Press.
Jaiswal, Suvira (2001) “Female images in Artha Sastra of Kautilya” Social Scientists, Vol 29 No.3 /4.
Mojumdar, Bimal (1995) The military system in ancient India. Calcutta: World Press Ltd.
Prakash, Aseem (1993) “State and Statecraft in Kautilya’s Arthasastra” Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University, Bloomington
Shamasastry, Rudrapatnam ( 1967) Kautilya’s Arthashastra ( 1967), eighth ed. Mysore, Mysore Printing and Publishing House.
Related topics for further investigation:
- Chandragupta Maurya
- Bindusara Amitraghata
- Mauryan Empire
- Nanda Empire
- Jain tradition
Noteworthy websites related to the topic:
Article written by Fazla Chowdhury (April, 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.