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Endogenous Politico-Cultural Resources: Kautilya's Arthashastra and India's Strategic Culture

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  • April 19, 2012


    Michael Liebig, a doctoral scholar at Frankfurt University's political science department, gave a presentation on his still underway Ph.D. thesis titled “Endogenous Politico-Cultural Resources: Kautilya’s Arthashastra and India's Strategic Culture” at IDSA on 19 April 2012. The session was chaired by Col. (Retd.) P.K. Gautam and attended by IDSA scholars, serving military officers and historians. Germany and France have an excellent tradition of Indology. Col. Gautam welcomed Mr. Liebig and appreciated the enduring German interest in Indology with the stage having been set in the past by Max Muller. Likewise in India, the Indian Army studies German strategic thinkers such as Otto von Clausewitz and the generalship of combat leaders such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Wilhelm Guderian. He noted that all ancient theoretical works in Sanskrit including Kautilya’s Arthashastra began with a salutation to Sukra (the preceptor of demons) and Brahaspati (the preceptor of gods). The chair referred to the observation that English poetry is a small body of verse almost completely surrounded by scholars, and pointed out that the case is just the reverse in the case of the literature in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali and Prakrit—a large body of literature frequented, pitiably, by few scholars.1

    The chair set the stage for the talk by Liebig by giving a brief overview of the period 600 BC to 312 BC to include Bimbisara, Ajatasatru and Shishunag, when the Magadh kingdom emerged victorious over its rival kingdoms/republics of Kashi, Kosal, and Vrijis. The kingdom then gave way to the usurper Mahapadma Nanda who inaugurated a short-lived dynasty till 321 BC when Chandargupta Maurya, a protégé of Kautilya—his guide and mentor—acquired the throne and expanded towards north-west India to exploit the power vacuum created by Alexander The Great’s departure. Later, Chandragupta Maurya became a Jain ascetic and starved to death according to Jain tradition. His son Bindusara succeeded him in 297 BC, followed by Ashoka, who later converted to Buddhism. It is significant that the scripts of the Ashokan pillars were deciphered in 1837 and the historical existence of the vast Ashokan empire was confirmed in 1915, thanks to the work of archeologists like Alexander Cunningham, John Marshall, and others.

    But what about Chanakya, also known as Kautilya or Vishnugupt? Who discovered him? Although the Puranas, Panchtantra, Buddhist and Jain scriptures do mention Kautilya’s Arthashastra, there was no written compilation of the work available for the lay public. The credit for making it available must go to the Sanskrit scholar and librarian, R. Shamasastry. In his preface to the 1915 English translation of Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Shamasastry mentions that an unnamed pandit from the Tanjore district handed over a manuscript with a commentary by Bhattasvamin to the Mysore Government Oriental Library. Shamasastry translated the work from this manuscript. Later, other manuscripts of the Kautilya Arthashastra were discovered; besides, Indian scholars such as T. Ganapati Sastri and Indologists from Europe kept adding to its editions and interpretation. An excellent edition for the English-language reader has been done by Professor R.P. Kangle of Bombay University, which was published in three parts between 1961 and1965 as Kautilya Arthasastra. The first part of Kangle's book, in the introduction, provides the status and location of the various manuscripts of the work.

    Presentation by Michael Liebig

    Michael Liebig presented his preliminary findings which were based on interviews with nearly a dozen scholars and policy-makers in Delhi over the last month. His research question was: Is Kautilya relevant for India in contemporary times? Liebig’s analysis approaches the question at three levels: (1) Is Kautilya an endogenous politico-cultural resource of India and what is his relationship to other such resources? (2) Is Kautilya a factor of influence in India's strategic culture and what is the relative weight of this influence? (3) Liebig differentiates between the latent and manifest (or “intentional”) influence of the Kautilya Arthashastra.

    Liebig referred to three books directly relevant to his research. The first is Harald Müller’s Weltmacht Indien/India as World Power, 2007 (Müller is the Director of the Frankfurt Institute of Peace and Conflict Research). In this book, Müller raises the question of Kautilya's influence on modern India's strategic culture. The second is Alfred Hillebrandt’s Altindische Politik/Ancient Indian Politics, 1923, an excellent analysis following Kautilya’s “Seven Factors of Power”, which provides a comprehensive understanding of Kautilya that does not reduce him to just a “realist” in inter-state relations. Liebig emphasized that Kautilya means a lot more than “realism”. The third book, and the immediate basis for his research, is Johann Jakob Meyer’s 1926 translation of the Kautilya Arthashastra from Sanskrit into German—recently made available online at 

    Liebig said that the interviews conducted by him and the available literature show that Kautilya is present in the Indian public mind as a “metaphor”. The metaphor has two aspects: (1) the cunning politician getting the job done, and (2) the historical personality who unifies India. What became apparent from the interviews was that India has a broad spectrum of politico-cultural icons including Kautilya, Buddha, Asoka, Akbar, Aurobindo, Gandhi, and Nehru, to name a few. This bandwidth of endogenous politico-cultural resources is a crucial catalyst for India's identity. They are simultaneously key for India’s soft power stance, besides her growing economic and military strength—this is because India has become one of the key actors in the “concert of powers” in the multipolar world.

    With regard to Kautilya’s influence on India’s strategic culture, Liebig places the University of Dhaka-based Rashed Uz Zaman’s work as one which affirms the extant Kautilayan way of thinking.2 Other authors who take that position are Adda Bozeman, Marcus Kim, Bharat Karnad, Harald Müller, and Christian Wagner.

    In his seminal work, Discovery of India, Nehru devoted five pages to Kautilya and five to the Mauryan Empire. Liebig revealed that conflicting views emerged during the interviews on Nehru’s perception of Kautilya. One view contends that the Indian independence movement needed Kautilya vis-à-vis the colonial power in order to demonstrate that the ancient Arthashastra was at par with, or even superior to, the ancient and medieval works of European political theory, for example, Machiavelli’s The Prince. But after Independence, Kautilya was discarded. The second view was that there was much ambiguity in Nehru’s policy between 1947 and 1964—consisting of an opaque mix of idealism and Kautilyan realpolitik. The third view claims that there was no ambiguity: Nehru was exclusively, or at least predominantly, an idealist in the Ashoka-Gandhi tradition who paid a high price in the defeat at the hands of China in 1962.

    In summary, Liebig said that his preliminary thesis is that Kautilya is indeed a key factor influencing India's strategic culture and that India since independence has been on a learning curve through which, slowly but steadily, the relative weight of the “Kautilya factor” has increased in her strategic stance.


    Issues such as secure borders as envisaged by Kautilya, the conflicting views of whether the Arthasastra is a multi-author compilation or not, and Megasthenes’ account of the Mauryan Empire were discussed. A key aspect of discussion was that Kautilya does not represent a simplistic “realism”, but that the Arthashasatra dwells on the idea of “value- based” legitimacy of the ruler—his obligations towards the people in terms of socio-economic prosperity, rule of law, and religious tolerance. It was suggested to Liebig that it would be worthwhile to find out whether Kautilya influenced Gandhi, and, if so, to what extent.

    Liebig criticised the work of Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (2002) as ignoring the comprehensive, holistic character of Kautilya's work. Instead, Boesche selectively picks up quotes to argue that Kautilya stands for “realism”, thus missing the “eigenvalue”—in Weberian terms—of the Kautilya Arthashastra. When comparing Kautilya to Machiavelli, it was explained that the latter was narrower in his focus, for example, leaving out the question of the economy. He wanted to unify Italy and keep foreign powers out of Italy, whereas in the case of Kautilya it was the concept of a conqueror (vijigeshu) consolidating an empire in the whole Indian subcontinent up to present-day Afghanistan.

    In response to a question on the Arthashastra’s relevance to the art of war, it was shown that Kautilya’s work can be conceptually relevant in modern times. Kautilya emphasiSed the need for advanced military technologies—during his time notably war elephants, covert operations, irregular warfare, and intelligence. Today, there are similar conceptual issues such as cyberwar and intelligence which fit well into this mould.

    During the discussion, Liebig argued that there is a near total absence of knowledge and understanding of Kautilya in Europe. While Indologists do know him and have done quite some research on him, in the social science discourse—notably political science and sociology—Kautilya is practically non-existent. This, despite the fact that Kautilya is an indispensable part of world knowledge of political theory. Kautilya, Chanakya, or Vishnugupt, must be given his rightful place in the international social science discourse of international studies.
    Liebig emphasised that Kautilya is an important component of India’s wide spectrum of politico-cultural resources. India is a land of cohesiveness in diversity, which has not been achieved in European history. India’s politico-cultural resources are indeed relevant for today's world. India needs to consider how China has popularised the study of Confucian thought and culture by opening Confucius Centres all over the world.

    Summing Up by Chair

    Col. Gautam thanked Mr. Liebig for his presentation. He noted that in South Asia and India it is ironic that Kautilya is not sufficiently studied in a multidisciplinary mode. One reason for this could be the politicisation of such work. Chanakya belongs to the 3rd Century BC, from an empire that covered areas in present-day India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (practically the entire Indian subcontinent). Kautilya’s thought and philosophy needs to be studied in a contextual yet rigorous, scientific, and a-religious manner, and not on the initiative of the religious right wing. This can be compared to the communalisation of the Urdu language post-Partition (by linking it primarily to Islam) and its decay in northern India, whereas the language is based on the Khadiboli of Delhi. But this is now changing and Kautilya too needs to be studied in that spirit.

    The chair also raised the issue of (mis)quotation of Kautilya out of context in various instances. This does more harm than good as he is misunderstood. For example, the historian Kaushik Roy concludes that in its counterinsurgency strategy, India employs Kautilyan bhedneti (divide and rule) where it employs Hindus and Christian Nagas from Nagaland to crush Muslim Kashmiri insurgents.3 This information is false and the analysis is based on flawed logic. The Indian military posts units to peace and field areas on rotation, not on caste or communal lines. The challenge for future scholars and scholarship is also to become aware of such spoilers and obstacles and conduct a proper study of Kautilya and his philosophy.

    Report prepared by Col. (Retd.) P.K. Gautam, Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.

    • 1. Ramkrishan Bhattacharya, “Preparing and Publishing Sanskrit Texts: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, Journal of Asiatic Society, Vol. LI, No.4, 2009, pp.1-12.
    • 2. See Rasheed Uz Zaman, “Kautilya: The Indian Strategic Thinker and Indian Strategic Culture”, Comparative Strategy, Vol. 25, 2006, pp. 231-247.
    • 3. See Kaushik Roy, “Just and Unjust War in Hindu Philosophy”, Journal of Military Ethics, Vol.6, No.3, 2007, pp. 232-245.