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Arthashastra: The Science Of Good Governance

The ArthashastraThe Arthashastra by Kautilya

My Rating★★★★★

THE SCIENCE OF GOOD GOVERNANCE

The Arthashastra is the most comprehensive treatise of statecraft of classical times, and perhaps of all time.

The Arthashastra is written mainly in prose but also incorporates 380 shlokas, which adds a vital poetic flourish to this otherwise down-to-earth classic. The text of this extraordinarily detailed manual contains fifteen books which cover numerous topics viz., the King; a complete code of law; foreign policy; secret services; civic responsibilities, and so on.

In trying to understand Kautilya‘s analysis, we have to keep in mind the fact that in the Kautilyan view, the king encapsulates all the constituents of a state, he has expounded the theory in terms of the king – any king. In other words, what Kautilya calls the ‘interest of the king’ would nowadays be termed ‘National Interest’.

A Note About The Translation

This translation by Rangarajan is a good reference book if you are coming back to Arthashastra for reference, but not particularly good for a first reading. It is too well catalogued and too practical for that. The verses should be read in the order Kautilya arrayed them rather than in this re-arranged fashion that helps to make much better sense of it, but somehow takes away the spirit.

The translation also contains a useful Index of Verses (By Textual Order) — it is meant to assist in finding out in which Part and Section a particular verse of the text has been included.


The Branches Of Knowledge

Traditionally, in classical Indian texts, the four branches of knowledge are considered to be:

1) Philosophy,
2) The Three Vedas,
3) Economics, and
4) The Science of Government

Kautilya tells us that these are, indeed, the four fundamental branches of knowledge because one can know from these four branches of study all that is to be learnt about Dharma [spiritual welfare] and Artha [material well-being]. {1.2.8-9}

Artha, literally wealth, is thus one of four supreme aims prescribed by Classical Indian tradition. However, it has a much wider significance and the material well-being of individuals is just a part of it. The ‘Artha’ of Arthashastra is an all-embracing word with a variety of meanings.  In accordance with this, Kautilya’s Arthashastra maintains that the state or government of a country has a vital role to play in maintaining the material status of both the nation and its people.

The Arthashastra is thus ‘the science of politics’ with a significant part dedicated to the science of economics. It is the art of government in its widest sense — the maintenance of law and order as also of an efficient administrative machinery The subjects covered include: administration; law order and justice; taxation, revenue and expenditure; foreign policy; defense and war. Its three objectives follow one from the other: promotion of the welfare of the subjects leads to acquisition of wealth which, in turn, makes it possible to enlarge the territory by conquest.


The Instruction Manual

The Arthashastra is essentially a treatise on the art of government and is, by nature, instructional. It seeks to instruct all kings and is meant to be useful at all times wherever dharma is held to be pre­eminent. And because it is instructional, it is basis is the practice of government. The majority of the treatise is a Manual of Instruction for kings and officers of the state.

There are three distinct parts in this manual:

1. The Manual of Admi­nistration
describes the organization of the apparatus of the state and prescribes the duties and responsibilities of every key official, either for maintaining order or for collecting revenue. There are, naturally, parts devoted to budgetary control, enforcement of civil service dis­cipline and the public’s civic responsibility.

2. The Code of Law and Justice
covers both civil and criminal law and is, basically, a Penal Code; the extensive and graded penalties and fines prescribed in it have the twin aims of deterring transgressions and collecting revenue for the state.

3. The third part is a Manual of Foreign Policy, the pri­mary aim of which is acquisition of territory by conquest.

These three manuals correspond to the three objectives of the state – wealth, jus­tice and expansion — A stable and prosperous state, which only a just administration can secure, is a prerequisite for accumulation of wealth which is then used to augment the territory.

Justice —> Wealth —> Expansion —> More Wealth, and so on

… as long as Justice is not compromised. Which is why the prime focus of The Arthashastra is good administration that ensures the perpetuation of justice and posterity in the kingdom.


Against Reductionist Arguments

Before we move on, we should face the unfortunate fact that both Kautilya the author and his masterwork the Arthashastra are much misunderstood. Popularly known as Chanakya, he is maligned and often ridiculed as a teacher of unethical, not to say immoral, practices and as an advocate of the theory that ‘the ends justify the means.’ ‘Chanakyan’ has entered Indian vocabulary as the equivalent of ‘Machiavellian’.

Most people know little of what Kautilya actually said in the Arthashastra. The only thing they can recall is the superficial aspects of the ‘mandala’ theory, based on the principles: ‘Every neighboring state is an enemy and the enemy’s enemy is a friend.’ This is, no doubt, almost always valid. Nevertheless, to reduce Kautilya’s theory on foreign policy to just these two observations is to do him a grave injus­tice. Indeed, the theory deals with not just three states, but with a twelve. Here is a sample of how much more nuanced that simple understanding could be, with a little effort:

This popular view is not only simplistic but untrue. A through reading of the treatise is required to appreciate the range and depth of the Arthashastra. It is a pioneering work on statecraft in all its aspects, written at least one thousand five hundred years ago.

Even the condemnation of Kautilya as an unethi­cal teacher and the equivalence established with Machiavelli (itself based on gravely erroneous conception of that great master!) is based on ignorance of his work.

Kautilya’s is always a sane, moderate and balanced view. He placed great emphasis on the welfare of the people. His practical advice is rooted in dharma. But, as a teacher of practical statecraft, he advocated unethical methods in the furtherance of national interest, but always with very strict qualification. But these are often ignored or just plain unknown to the majority.

Just as Kautilya’s important qualifications to his advocacy of unethical methods is often ignored, so is the voluminous evidence in the Arthashastra of his emphasis on welfare, not only of human beings but also of animals. Welfare in the Arthashastra is not just an abstract concept. It covers maintenance of social order, increasing economic activity, protection of livelihood, protection of the weaker sections of the population, prevention of harassment of the subjects, consumer protection and even welfare of slaves and prisoners.

In short, the Arthashastra is a mixture of both what we applaud today and what we consider to be reprehensible. Kautilya has a great deal to say about civic responsibility; the obligation of every householder to take precautions against fire is mentioned; so is a prohibition on cutting trees in public parks. Consumer protection and vigilance against ex­ploitation of the people by government servants are aspects which we consider good. Equally, some of Kautilya’s suggestions will be seen by us as unethical. What is essential is that we understand both aspects and use them to learn history as well as to apply to the modern situations.


The Kautilyan Conception of The State

Dr. Kangle, in his magisterial work on Kautilya, notes that ‘the kind of state control over the economy Arthashastra presupposes is not possible without an efficient administra­tion. We, therefore, find in it a description of an elaborate administra­tive machinery.’

A ruler’s duties in the internal administration of the country are three-fold: raksha or protection of the state from external aggression, palana or maintenance of law and order within the state, and yoga­kshema or safeguarding the welfare of the people. These duties also meant that the King needed an elaborate support system.

The highly centralized Kautilyan state was to be regulated by an elaborate and intricate system as laid out by Kautilya. While at first glance we might think that this high centralization is repulsive, we should also appreciate the difficulties of the time. Most of the empires of the world relied on tight centralization to ensure some degree of success. Also, in Kautilya’s eyes, everything was in the service of one goal: Justice.

The extensive responsibilities of the state for promoting economic wellbeing and preserving law and order demand an equally extensive administrative machinery.  Any text on Arthashastra thus has to contain details of the organization of the civil service as well as the duties and responsibilities of individual officials.

Thus we can see how The Arthashastra was bound to be an elaborate manual that dealt with every minute aspect of administration and daily life.

The Arthashastra is a through discussion on the science of living, along with being a valuable historical document on the conduct of administration. It is thus supremely valuable for the historian but also for a modern political scientist or sociologist or economist or administrator.


A Modern Kautilya

All this shows us how close to modern life and administration the Kautilyan ideas come. Reading ancient books is the best way to rid ourselves of modernist fantasies — except for communication and transport, in the basic institutions, we are still where we were. and it is these two things (advance in communication & transport) that has made our institutions slightly more efficient, but also a lot more complex and thus just as bad at dealing with real things, while giving the illusion of a lot of activity.

The same thing can be said of the role of technology in daily life as well. We can get more things done because we can, but precisely because we can, there are always more things to do.

The Red Queen’s laugh reverberates through our modern lives and modern states.


Reality And The Ideal

The picture of the ideal Kautilyan state that emerges from our discussion above is one of a well-run state, prosperous and bustling with activity. But if we are to comprehend clearly Kautilya’s teachings and apply them judiciously to the modern world, we also have to be aware of the essential characteristics of the work. The treatise is about an ideal state – not that such a state actually ever existed or is even likely to exist now or in the future. To the extent any of the six constituent elements of a state – the ruler, the ministers, the urban and the rural population, the economic power and the military might – differ from the ideals Kautilya has set out, to that extent the advice given by him has to be modified.

I cannot imagine that much would change if a modern Kautilya were to write an Arthashastra today, except that he would have a broader, faster reach, and a better chance of enforcing things. But the basics of what he wants to do would not change much, nor would the how, only the means/instruments of effecting them would be easier., But unless those means are not available to the people, their range also increases, and hence real control would remain as difficult today as it was then.


The Illusion of Governance?

This realization should lead us to wonder why Kautilya attempted such an elaborately and minutely planned state architecture — we should consider the possibility that perhaps this level of intrusion into daily life was required, at least at the planning level, precisely because real control was so impossibly difficult? Maybe the Plan was needed for any semblance of governance? This reminds me strongly of Kafka’s Castle administration and their reliance on the awe of the villagers. Maybe the illusion of minute micro-managed and all-pervasive governance can cover up for the inability to really govern?

Isn’t it the same today?


The Best in the Market

We have seen that the Arthashastra is an exhaustive and detailed inventory of everything a state should do and everything every minor official should do. A more detailed secular constitution of governance and daily life cannot be imagined. With this legacy, it is no wonder that the much less ambitious Indian Constitution is still the longest in the world, the most detailed and most concerned with trying to micro manage the nuts and bolts of administration.

We have also seen how the problems that Kautilya tried to tackle are more or less the same as what modern states fail spectacularly at, even when aided by more gee-whiz technology. And this immutability of problems and of solutions is precisely why the level of detail that Kautilya goes into is still valuable for government officials, administrators and citizens.

A better guidebook has not hit the market yet.

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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