Chanakya: The man behind the force of power

Although there is scant information on the life of this man, he nevertheless is remembered as the master of statecraft and the wizard of diplomacy. His treatise, the Arthashashtra, gives us a rare insight into the evolution of systems of governance in India.

Behind every powerful and successful ruler there has invariably been an astute thinker and advisor. Such an individual has often not merely been of courtly use or influenced the ruler but has made an impact on the times and in the long run has contributed to the development and enrichment of culture. Among the many in India, Chanakya (or Kautilya) stands tall as the celebrated author of Arthashastra and the brain behind the establishment of a strong central power in India under Chandragupta Maurya (345 BC – 300 BC).

Reliable information about his life is virtually unavailable and that which is available ends up being conflicting. There are innumerable controversies both related to his name as well as the time and authorship of Arthashastra. Conventionally, it is believed that his time coincides with Chandragupta Maurya who ascended the throne of Magadha in 321 BC and his name has been derived from ‘Chanak’, his birthplace.

Born into a Brahmin family, Chanakya studied the science of warfare, architecture and medicine in Takshila University and also spent time teaching there. Dhananand, the last of the kings of the Nanda dynasty, invited him to join the Magadha Empire which at that time had Pataliputra (now Patna) as its capital. It is learnt that he despised Dhanananda who was an oppressive and avaricious king. In fact, once when Chanakya entered the assembly uninvited and occupied the main seat Dhanananda was so angry that he ordered his servants to drag him away. Chanakya was so upset that he pledged to avenge this behaviour by destroying the Nanda dynasty. He left Magadha and by chance, met Chandragupta who was living in exile. The shrewd Brahmin, in pursuit of his aim, saw his opportunity and befriended the future monarch. Chandragupta assured him that he would listen to his advice and travelled the extent of north western India where he trained people who lived along the borders.

Roman Conquest

When Alexander invaded India in 327 BC and defeated many border-lying states, he was impressed by the bravery of the army trained by Chandragupta and asked him to become his ally. This was a good opportunity for the Indian general to acquaint himself with the European method of discipline and warfare.

When the Macedonian leader was forced to turn back because of his own soldiers, he handed over the responsibility of managing the conquered territory to the Kshatrapas. With his death, later in Babylon in 323 B.C., Chandragupta and Chanakya seized the opportunity to regain the territory conquered by Alexander. They roused the people against the Greeks who were foreign invaders and with the help of the people on the borders of the northwest region, wrested territories from them and then went on to attack and defeat Dhanananda, the Magadha king. The defeat was possible because Chanakaya was the prime figure in creating discontent among the subjects of Dhanananda. His role in overthrowing the Nanda dynasty in Magadha has been so important that in the absence of Chanakya it is said that the change would not have been possible.

His pledge of dethroning Dhanananda was accomplished within two years after Alexander’s death (in 322BC) and at the age of twenty-five, Chandragupta ascended the throne and established the Maurya Empire. For the first time in recorded history, a vast centralized empire (Magadh) was established in India with Pataliputra as its capital. Chanakya worked as the chief advisor and prime minister of Chandragupta.

Chanakya’s legacy

The later years of this unusual man are not known because of the lack of reliable biographical source material. So, whether he remained with Chandragupta for the rest of his life or returned to his village and lived like a common man for the rest of his days, no one will really know. What remains as part of history is the Arthashastra, which was written by him.

Although he is known more for his Arthashashtra than as a founder and philosopher guide of Chandragupta and the Maurya Empire, his name cannot actually be found in the Arthashashtra. There is of course the concluding shloka of the work which states that it, (Arthashashtra) was composed by the person who rescued the weapons and the land that was in the possession of the Nanda kings.


The manuscript of the Arthashastra was discovered in 1904 and published by R. Shamasastry in 1909. It is generally assumed that this treatise was composed at the end of the 4th century BC. Consisting of fifteen chapters, its first five chapters focus on the internal administration of the State. The sixth to the thirteenth chapter deal with the State’s relations with adjoining states and the last two chapters are made up of assorted material. The work consists of 6000 verses. In addition to these, there are four hundred and thirteen maxims which have been added that have not been ascribed to Kautilya.

This treatise is actually on the Arthashashtra which is a science concerned with acquisition and protection of earth. It is, as such, a science of statecraft or of politics and administration and explains the techniques of governance rather than political philosophy. For a clearer understanding, it would be worth taking a look at the contents of this monumental document.

The Arthashashtra mentions seven essential elements of the State, according to their relative importance – the king (swami), the minister (amatya), the territory with people on it (janapada), the fortified capital (durga), the treasury (kosha), the army (danda) and the ally (mitra).

The king or the ruler is identified with the State and monarchy or the rule of a single individual is considered to be a normal form of government. A strong centralized power is advocated as it was believed that Alexander could conquer India because the small republics could not withstand the powerful aggressor. Even though the King is all powerful he is in fact the servant of the State. His first and foremost duty is to protect his subjects from anti-social elements and natural calamities. In short, he must look after the yogakshema (welfare, well being and development) of the subjects.


The Arthashashtra does not advocate a police or a tax-gathering state, but envisages a welfare state and it is the rulers’ responsibility to protect the social order (or the system of varnas and ashramas). This protection is given through danda (punishment), which is exercised with justice. In order to be able and just, the king has to do more than just acquire learning. He must be able to exercise control over his own senses and his passions.

After the king, the minister is the next most important person in the kingdom. He is appointed by the king who assigns him specific responsibilities, one such being to advise the monarch. However, it is not imperative that his advice be taken. Apart from this, he is responsible for ensuring that various undertakings are carried out such as leading troops, settling and developing new territories and of course recovering fines and taxes.

The order of importance now moves to the territory and the people, then to the fortified capital. Here, extensive details about fort construction are given because of the important role it plays in defending the State. The treasury is considered next because it determines the strength of the State. One of the sources of filling the treasury is the duty charged for goods that are imported, the other comes from agriculture in kind. Open demands are made on citizens to replenish the treasury.

Defending the State

The defence of the State depends on the fort and the army. And in the case of the army, it can be used for offence as well as defence. If, in the process, the army is defeated in battle, the king is rendered helpless and he is at the mercy of the enemy. The treatise elaborates on how soldiers should be drawn from all four varnas, details their training requirements, emphasizes the sort of weapons they should use and suggests precautions to be taken while planning an expedition (including keeping ready physicians and surgeons with medicines, instruments and bandages). The ruler is not spared exclusion – in fact, advice is given on how to foil an ambitious king’s imperialist designs.

A strong army attracts allies. So, if a kingdom has military strength, allies would choose to build ties with it; but if the army’s power weakens, allies would either abandon their ties or take advantage of the vulnerable State. An ally is encouraged to be a support to the state and not participate in any way in its internal matters.

Nation and Prosperity

The Arthashashtra is a comprehensive treatise which aims at teaching kings about statecraft with the intention of ensuring an efficient administration for the prosperity and wellbeing of its subjects. In modern terms, it is concerned with public administration, the role of the central executive, consultative bodies, the civil service and provincial and local government., a well-knit hierarchical administrative machinery, salaried administrators and the delegation of power and duties. In addition to this there is the system to ensure accountability and control and a means for meting out punishment to those that err. This is perhaps the oldest text on public administration anywhere in the world and it provides an important source material for understanding Indian history and culture.

The name ‘Chanakya’ or ‘Kautilya’ symbolizes diplomacy and statesmanship and emphasizes the role of power in politics and the belief that small republics cannot survive invasion and so a strong central power is necessary. As importantly, it represents the view that social order should be preserved and insists on the relevance of educating leaders to ensure social tranquillity. Although Chanakya’s emphasis on monarchy may seem out of date today, his views on foreign relations still stand firm and it would be well worthwhile to reflect on the way he responded to the needs of his time and crafted a treatise that was both relevant and effective. In the broader perspective, he plays an important role in the evolution of systems of governance.

Author: V.V. Kshire
Illustrations: Ravindra Joshi
Source: Heritage India Volume 1, Issue 3 (2008)