Ancient History

The Arthashastra – A Treatise on Statecraft and Military Strategy

The Arthashastra Summary – The western world generally assumes that ancient Indian literature lacked in strategic thinking. However, if we carefully examine some of the literature after the second urbanisation (emergence of the janapads) of the subcontinent we find a lot of material which tells us that ancient Indian writers were not devoid of the capability of writing treatises on statecraft and military strategy.

One of the pioneers in this type of literature is Kautilya’s Arthashastra. During his period society underwent a lot of changes with the rise and fall of empires, and invasions of the Yavans (Greeks) under Alexander the Great. The Kautilyan study on politics and war has become famous not only for the factual point of view but also because one can deduce that certain principles of war mentioned in it can be applied to this day.

This article is the first in a series of articles which will deal the Arthashastra and what it has to say about statecraft and military strategy (although the Arthashastra contains information on the administration of the state and economy).

The Arthashastra – DISCOVERY, AND DEBATE

The Arthashastra’s rediscovery in 1905 by Dr R. Shama Shastri aroused much interest and a fierce debate about its composition ensued among scholars. A critical examination of the text convinced some of the scholars that the Arthashastra was not the work of one individual. The reason for this is that it contains several schools of thought; which led scholars to conclude that it couldn’t have been written in its entirety in the 3rd century BCE.

However, there are many scholars who believe that Kautilya should be credited with the creation of this text as even though it contains some other schools of thought, the main body of the text was composed by Kautilya and the other schools were seen as an addition to the original text in later periods.


As written above some of the scholars believe the text was not written in 3rd century BCE but later. It is believed that Kautilya also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta was the author of the text. He became the Chief Minister of Chandragupta Maurya, the first Mauryan emperor after training him and helping him overthrow the Nanda Empire. According to Ganpat Shastri the author was Kautilya because he was born in Kautila gotra (a clan among the Brahmans of India), he was called Chanakya because he was born at Chanak and was named Vishnugupta by his parents.

Two verses from the Arthashastra support the traditional view are verse 1.1.19, which states that ‘this work easy to learn and understand, precise in doctrine, sense and wordiness, has been composed by Kautilya’ and verse 15.1.73., which states that ‘this shastra has been composed by him, who in resentment quickly regenerated the shastra and the weapon and the earth that was under the control of the Nanda kings’.

Later works such as Kamandaka’s Nitisara, Dandin’s Dashakumaracharita Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasha, and Banabhatta’s Kadambari support the traditional viewpoint of the Arthashastra’s date and authorship.

However, over the years this has been called into question on several grounds. The verses cited have been dismissed as later additions. It has been mentioned that Patanjali, in his work Mahabhashya, when talking about the assembly of the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta does not mention Kautilya; furthermore, Megasthenes who we know was associated with Chandragupta’s court, does not mention Kautilya in his Indica.

However, it must be remembered that the Mahabhashya is a book on grammar and only refers to historical personalities and events incidentally, in order to illustrate grammatical rules and Megasthenes’ Indica only survives in fragments paraphrased in the writings of later authors. The objection that the Arthashastra was the work of a scholar and not someone involved in politics is also not very convincing as it contains very pragmatic assertions and statements. A comparison of the Arthashastra and Megasthenes’ Indica reveals several differences for instance in their description of city administration, army administration, and taxation.

On the basis of such contradictions, it has been argued that the two works cannot be of the same time as we know for a certainty that Megasthenes was a contemporary of Chandragupta and therefore the Arthashastra may be of some other time, probably later. This reasoning, however, is not acceptable on various grounds; first, Megasthenes’ Indica has some gross inaccuracies with some stories appearing as fables rather than an acute observation (for e.g. stories of giant ants digging for gold) in fact two later western writers Strabo and Pliny are scathing in their criticism of Megasthenes. Second, the Indica has been paraphrased through second-hand accounts of later authors and the original text has not survived. The third reason is the nature of the text (Arthashastra) which we will discuss in the next paragraph.

Also Read: Achievements of Samudragupta

The nature of the text can be said to be somewhat similar to more recent works like Machiavelli’s “Prince” and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” as both of them were not interested in an ideal state and were more concerned with the security concerns of the state against external threats and internal harmony.

The Arthashastra does not contain any reference to the Mauryan Empire because it is not a descriptive account of the Mauryan empire it is actually a theoretical treatise which tells how a state should function, it discusses a potential, not an actual state. All the discussion is from the point of view of the Vijigishu (the would-be conqueror) or rather one who has imperial ambitions could follow this text to excel in his conquest.

Therefore there is a good reason to support a traditional view of the date and authorship of the Arthashastra because on the basis of the style of writing it seems earlier than certain texts like the Kama Sutra and Yajnavalkya Smriti. It mentions the Ajivikas as an important sect (a feature of Mauryan times), sangha polities and the administrative structure reflected in the text does not match any other historical period.


This is the first article in my series on the Arthashastra. The subsequent articles will discuss what has been said in the Arthashastra on statecraft and military administration (it may contain some notions for society too as no state can survive without its people ) so if you like my article stay tuned for more.

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