Friday 27 July 2007


The Sunday Observer, February 2-8, 1992
The Real Chanakya is lost in CHANAKYA, the TV Serial

Shivanand Kanavi

Many viewers are beginning to see red on seeing saffron in the popular TV serial, Chanakya. This, in turn, has sparked off a debate in the media about the serial’s historical authenticity. Some have voiced skepticism over whether a saffron flag had existed in the fourth century B.C. Others have implied that Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi, the writer-director-actor of the serial, is using it to propagate Hindutva.

The Controversy is unnecessary. The serial, set against a historical backdrop, is fictional. In fact, the controversy would not have arisen if Doordarshan had learnt a lesson from the dispute over the historical authenticity of The Sword Of Tipu Sultan, and made an announcement before every episode that the serial is fictional. But who was Chanakya or Kautilya? We know nothing about his personal life. We have some details about Chandragupta Maurya from Greek sources, who refer to him as Sandrokottos. But even these reports survive as fragmented quotations in other works- the original is untraceable. As D D Kosambi points out, as far as Chanakya is concerned, we only have legends fictionalized through the famous Sanskrit play, Mudra Rakshasa, written by Visakhadatta in the fourth century AD.

Today, all we know about Chanakya is only through his work, Arthashastra. This work was studied until the twelfth century and then was lost for many centuries. It was rediscovered in 1905, but only in parts. As R P Kangle, in his preface to Arthashastra – Part II (Bombay University Publication, Second edition, 1972) points out, no entire copy of Arthashastra has been recovered so far. The ancient Sanskrit used in the text is also open to many interpretations besides the copiers’ errors and interpolations. At the end of it all, Arthashastra is a treatise on political economy and does not say anything about the author direct. Thus anybody claiming to know about Chanakya the person should not be taken too seriously.

But having said all this, one cannot help but be impressed by the author of the Arthashastra. In fact, we have to be extremely thankful to him for providing invaluable information about the economy and politics of fourth century Magadh. He writes in a clear-cut, terse style with no scope for cant.

A quick glance at the Arthashastra yields rich insights into the state of Magadh. The title translates as “the science of material gain”. In the very first verse, the author acknowledges his debt to other ancient theoreticians and modestly says that he has done nothing more than compile and survey other masters’ views. He puts fourth the aim of the book as teaching the ruler “how to acquire and protect his Kingdom”.

The state Magadh appears very privileged indeed. It was the main land-clearing agency in the primeval forests surrounding pockets of population in the Indo-Gangetic plain and later also in the Deccan. It was the largest landowner and the principal owner of mines. Even a quick scan of the Arthashastra yields a rich insight into Magadh. After detailing all the precautions the ruler should take against corrupt state servants, Chanakya admits that it is as difficult to detect an official dipping into the state’s revenues, as it is to discover how much water has been drunk by swimming fish. The monarch, as he emerges in the Arthashastra, far from wallowing in luxury, was the most hard-working person in the kingdom, with his entire day strictly charted out with time set aside for sports, consultations with ministers and the head of the treasury and army, receiving secret reports from spies, interspersed by short spells of leisure.

Strife for the throne is treated as a minor occupational hazard of kingship. In fact, Chanakya quotes a predecessor’s axiom: “Princes, like crabs, are father eaters!” The Arthashastra never contemplates any interruption in the policy of state, no matter what happens in the palace. Externally the armed tribal oligarchies maintaining tribal exclusivity and some democratic traditions are considered serious obstacles to the absolutist state, both politically and ideologically. Ways to break up and subdue these tribal oligarchies are detailed in chanakyaneeti. Secret agents are not only used to spy on officials but also to monitor public pinion and even try to mould it through disinformation campaigns.

As far as the economy was concerned, Chanakya vigorously prompted direct settlements on waste lands and clearing forests for cultivation. Land was divided into leased land, on which taxes were collected, and vast crown lands, which the state cultivated. Productivity was a paramount consideration and if a lessee’s heirs did not cultivate the land properly then the lease was cancelled.

There was a form of social security for the aged, infirm, widows and pregnant women. The state maintained buffer stocks, not only of grain but also of essentials like timber, rope, tools, etc. to be distributed to the public during times of crises like famines or epidemics. Prostitution and wine production were legalised and taxed; in fact, there were separate ministries for them.

A more developed cash economy cannot be imagined. But all this was confined to the towns. The villages belonging to the vast crown lands were like camps of forced labour –increasing productivity was the only thing that mattered. The villagers were allowed no diversions of any kind.

The state also maintained a huge standing army estimated at half a million with handsome salary for the soldiers. But the cash was mopped up by the state by retailing the essentials to soldiers at inflated prices. The state monopoly in mining was crucial and Chanakya says, “the treasury is based on mining, army upon the treasury. He who has both can conquer the whole wide earth!”

In the event of financial emergency, methods similar to modern deficit financing was practiced. Chanakya also suggests alternative methods like state loans and National debts and even framing charges on rich merchants and making them pay in times of emergencies!

Chanakya certainly evokes interests among historians and students of political economy – but the Arthahshastra is of interest to students of Indian philosophy as well. In the very beginning of the Arthashastra, Chanakya enumerates what he considers as sciences worthy of being studied by the prince, who is training to be the future king. There he mentions philosophy; three (not four) Vedas, economics and science of politics as the four sciences to be studied diligently. In fact, he disagreed with the followers of Manu who regarded only the Vedas, economics and politics as the sciences. Chanakya extolled philosophy as the “lamp of all actions, support of all laws”.

But what is starling is what Chanakya considers as philosophy. He mentions only Samkhya, Yoga and Lokayata. Samkhya, it may be noted, is an intensely atheistic Indian trend which was naturalistic in outlook. Yoga here is not the Yoga of asanas but another name for Nyaya-Vaiseshika. This school extols doubt, debate, inference, syllogism and moreover, the atomic and molecular theory of matter. The third leg of his triad-- Lokayayata, is another name for Charvaka, a primitive materialistic trend. This trend was apparently highly respected by Chanakya, whereas later it was suppressed by followers of Manu. Lokayata now remains only in the polemics against it by its opponents and none of its works have been discovered. As Debiprasad Chattopdyaya noted, Chanakya while extolling philosophy and putting himself apart from the followers of Manu on this question, was actually extolling philosophy, in the broad sense of the term, and particularly those trends in Indian philosophy that had rational elements in them. Chanakya, thus, emerges from the Arthashastra as clear-thinking, bold, and rational theoretician.

Having said this, I would urge you all to watch the fictionalised Chanakya every Sunday morning and enjoy the histrionics of Chandraprakash Dwivedi and Co.


anish said...

thank you for sharing this info about chanakya. have you read arthashastra? is it really so interesting? does kosambi write about himin any of his own books? thanks again

R___R said...


Your blog is on Chanakya is very informative. Probably you can also help with this also. Which is a better book to start:

- The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra

- The Arthashastra (Penguin classics)-