Friday, August 31, 2018

Who was Kautilya?

KautilyaMachiavelli should be known as the Italian Kautilya who wrote the Prince that should be dubbed the Italian Arthashastra or the Science of Material Gain, but who was Kautilya otherwise known as Chanakya?

Early Life

Just like his protégé and Emperor, Chandragupta Maurya, obscurity shrouded Kautilya’s background. He came from a family of Brahmins. His caste of origin predetermined his destiny to become an intellectual. He studied Hindu scriptures along with other sciences such as medicine and astrology. He studied in Taxila (modern day Pakistan) for further education. There, he possibly influenced by knowledge from the Greeks and Persians that arrived through traders traversing the famous Silk Route. He might had known about Persian politics and government and the conquest of Alexander the Great.

After his studies, he served as an official to the Nanda Kings until being alienated and finally disgraced from court. After his fall from grace, he wished for the downfall of the Nanda Dynasty. His loath towards the Nanda Kings led to the rise of the founder of the earliest major Empire in Indian history – Chandragupta Maurya.
Alexander the Great
Partnership with Chandragupta

Disgraced and out of job as an official, Kautilya dreamt of overthrowing the Nanda Kings. According to legend, he stumbled upon a young charismatic leader Chandragupta Maurya. He adopted Chandragupta and hoped this boy would be his sword that one day would bring the Nanda Kings their demise. He taught the kid and sent him to attend schools in Taxila where according once again to stories met with Alexander the Great that inspired him to build his own empire.
Chandragupta Maurya entertains his bride from Babylon
After his studies, Chandragupta said to have become a soldier and rose in ranks before finally launching a rebellion. Kautilya guided Chandragupta, campaigning to gain popular support, hiring mercenaries, and negotiating alliances. In 321 BCE, Kautilya dreams realized when Chandragupta defeated the Nanda Dynasty into submission and established his own Mauryan Dynasty.

As an influential figure standing beside Chandragupta, Kautilya gained the position of chief adviser or prime minister. He advised and contributed in the consolidation of the position of the Maurya Dynasty and organization of the government. He served Chandragupta until the Emperor’s death in 297 BCE and continued to serve his successor Bidushara.


Kautilya gained accolades from his famous political work called the Arthashastra or the Science of Material Gain. Lose for more than a millennium, the text of the Arthashastra reemerged in 1905. Since then it drew parallelism to the famous work of Niccolo Machiavelli The Prince even though the Kautilya lived more than thousand years before the Italian writer. As the Prince only fitted in about 90 pages, the Arthashastra exceeded that and had 15 sections covering a range of topic beyond political and encompassed even economics.
Niccolo Machiavelli
The Arthashastra and the Prince, however, aimed for the same goal, the protection, maintenance, and strengthening of power. Both disregard morality as part of politics. The Arthashastra even went further suggesting the poisoning of political enemies – surprising suggestion from a man with a religious background. The Arthashastra promoted the use of spies to maintain power. It promoted war as long as it would enhance the power of the King.

Unlike the Prince, however, the Arthashastra covered economic policies as well. It promoted state enterprises and investments, supervision of agriculture, and development of weapons industry.

The Arthashastra became a classical work in politics that inspired many leaders to this day. It served as a great contribution of India in literature and political thought.

Last Years

Kautilya’s later years, like his beginnings, clouded by mystery. No one knew how he passed away. One story suggested in 275 BCE, he was burned to death by a jealous political rival.

So much his life shrouded, Kautilya became an elusive figure. Yet his work had a profound effect in world history. He became instrumental in the foundation of India’s earliest empire. He showed India’s intellectual sophistication with his work Arthashastra. He fascinated many with his equally ruthless messages that rivaled Italy’s Niccolo Machiavelli. More amazing, Kautilya rivaled Machiavelli while living more than thousand years before the Italian thinker.  

See also:

"Kautilya." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (August 23, 2018).

Mishra, Patit Paban & Sudhansu S. Rath. “Kautilya.” Encyclopedia of World History. Edited by Marsha Ackermann. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008.

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