How does Kautilya’s Arthashastra compare to the modern canon of economics and political science?

Arthasastra is more like a manual for the administrator than a theoretical work on polity or administration.
Here is the synopsis of the Arthasastra –

General –
1. It presents the idea of a government that has respect for religion and customs.

2.The welfare of the people should be the priority of the policies laid down by the government.

3.The main aim of the government is to maintain law and order, punish the wicked and protect the peaceable citizens.

4.Kautilya emphasises on the role of an able and energetic monarch for the proper functioning of the government (in present times, the President or Prime Minister or King).

5.The happiness of the citizens lies above the personal comfort of the King. The King’s happiness should reside in the happiness of his subjects.

6.Skill in intrigue is a better qualification for kingship than either power or enthusiasm. (NaMo vs RG?)

7.The king should avoid injuring women and property of others and should shun falsehood and haughtiness.
Political – 
1.The king should rule with help of state officials and consult his ministers.

2.Kautilya emphasised on the need of civil services – “Sovereignty can be carried on only with assistance.

3.The size of the Council of Ministers should depend on the circumstances and requirements of the country (recently, a similar change has been brought forth by Modi).

4.The king should personally attend to the needs of the minors, the aged, the afflicted, the helpless and women.

5.Espionage and intelligence departments have been stressed upon. Kautilya also advocates the use of torture for extorting confessions. (CIA?)
Economic – 
1.Kautilya refers to 18 departments of administration – a few being revenue, mint, exchequer, excise, commerce, etc.

2.He pays special attention upon finance and then treasury.

3.The supritendent of agriculture was required to assess land at rates varying according to the different methods of irrigation thus protecting every farmer’s interest.

4.The wealthy should give gold (in present day, pay more taxes) to the king. This is the policy of thinning the rich by exacting exessive revenue from their accumulated wealth (present day tax brackets).

Thus, it can be seen that the methods of administration advocated in the Arthasastra holds relevance even in today’s modern times.

In short, If you take the time to read it or atleast skim through – you will find that it corresponds well to most management and humanitarian laws being promoted now. Everything management of people (Efficient clean governance) to fair justice (Everyone is the same under the eyes of the Law) to proper treatment of prisoners and female captives (preventing violence against civilians and POW rights) to taking care of the land (Environmentalism). It also deals with how to behave in Diplomacy, Cunningness, etc. Most people in Government have to read this – Machiavelli has gotten out of favor due to Arthashastra.

What is relevance of Kautilya’s Arthashastra in 21st century?

Arthashashtra is a great historical document. How relevant is it in today’s time?

Well, not very much. Arthashashtra describes the functioning of an extremely centralist monarchy. The ideas and systems it describes are not really suitable for a working democracy. A dictator can however get a few pointers, though. Most of the things that are written in Arthashashtra are known to people today. However, one must remember that they were pioneering ideas when they were written.


8 thoughts on “How does Kautilya’s Arthashastra compare to the modern canon of economics and political science and its relevance?”

  1. Need for a Modern Arthashastra??

    In 1992, American scholar George Tanham stirred up a hornets’ nest when he charged in an essay that Indians lacked tradition of strategic thinking. Many Indian scholars countered him pointing out India had a rich tradition of strategic thinking quoted in venerated ancient texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Arthashastra, Thirukural and the Panchatantra belonging to different ages. The Cholas, Marathas, Rajputs and Mughals were adept at statecraft and warfare. They would not have been successful unless they thought strategically.

    Be that as it may, the fact remains that there was hardly any systematic study of Indian ancient texts from the point of view of identifying the main ingredients of Indian strategic thought. Indian texts are still not part of global political science or international relations discourse. Few Indian or foreign universities teach these texts as part of security and strategic studies. People know Plato, Aristotle, Marx and Machiavelli but rarely Kautilya. It is a pity considering Arthashastra is a vast treatise on statecraft. A lot more systematic work needs to be done by scholars, particularly Indians, in the area. The lack of knowledge of Sanskrit and regional languages is a major hindrance. Authentic translations of these texts are not available. Archival sources have not been tapped. But more significantly, the Indian educational system has not placed emphasis on the exploration of the rich Indian traditions in strategic thinking. Source:-newindianexpress

  2. The emergent Kautilya discourse in India:-
    Significantly, Liebig associated the rise of India as a great power with the manifest and latent presence of Kautilyan thought in modern India. Liebig said that for the past few years, an emergent ‘Kautilya discourse’ can be observed in India. The timing seems not accidental: the latent Kautilyan impulse underlying India’s striving for a great power status has become self-conscious as India has in fact become a great power. Since 1947, India has gone through a ‘Kautilyan-realist learning curve.’ The self-realization process is part of India’s political tradition to “re-use the past” (in meeting contemporary politico-strategic challenges).

  3. The relevance of Kautilyan thought in modern India:-
    Tracing the relevance of Kautilya in modern India, Liebig described how Jawaharlal Nehru did thoroughly study the KA in the winter of 1930/31 while in prison. Nehru’s engagement with the KA is a first indicator of the ‘manifest presence’ of Kautilyan thought in modern India. Such discursive engagement we also find in India’s current President Pranab Mukherjee and NSA Shivshankar Menon. A second indicator of ‘manifest presence’ is the ‘Chanakya metaphor’ – i.e. an explicit, but non-discursive reference to Kautilya: the cunning statesman who gets things done whatever it takes. The third indicator of manifest presence is the phenomenological presence of Kautilyan thought in the contemporary life world of India: a) symbolically in street names, names of educational institutions or businesses or pen-names, and b) media-related, but non-discursive: TV series, Kautilya ‘guide books’, Chanakya niti or comics.

  4. Interpreting the Arthashastra: Methodological & Theoretical Puzzles??

    The central concept cluster in the KA is the saptanga theory: the seven state factors (prakriti). This concept cluster represents a paradigmatic advance in the evolution of political theory/theorized statecraft. The saptanga theory provides a comprehensive understanding of (state) power as the aggregate of the seven prakriti and staatsraison (raison d’etat) as the optimization of the seven prakriti. The saptanga theory also provides a ‘benchmark’ for assessing the correlation of forces between states, which is the basis for the shadgunya theory – the six ways of conducting foreign policy. The third (text-immanent) concept cluster is the matsya-nyaya theory: a political anthropology which provides an understanding of conflicts of interest and power struggles in and between ‘political communities’.

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  6. (1) Sorry to say that your answer takes such a general/broad-brush tone that it could be about any moralistic book. I think most of us were expecting specific quotes tied to specific principles/maxims of modern economics.

    (2) I am most interested to know which part says that “everyone is the same under the eyes of the Law” — could provide a reference?

    1. Dear Eric, I just gave the headings because you could always good Arthshastra – environmental care and you would get google books to show you that heading.

      Secondly, not all moralistic books talk about management and they don’t talk about environmentalism or prisoner of war treatment. Arthashastra does.

      The law comes under how the King should dispense justice – if the prince is wrong then to kill the prince…it’s widely quoted.thanks

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