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Talk by Michael Liebig on "Relevance of Kautilya's Arthasastra for Modern Political Science"

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  • February 13, 2014

    The Military Affairs Centre at IDSA organised a talk by Michael Liebig, Visiting Fellow at IDSA on 14th February 2014 on the topic "Relevance of Kautilya's Arthasastra for Modern India." Michael Liebig gave a summary of his PhD thesis and pointed to follow-on research based upon it.

    The key points brought out by Liebig were:

    Endogenous politico-cultural resources (EPCRs) is a somewhat cumbersome term; it refers to 'classical' cultural assets which a) have remained intellectually stimulating and inspiring across time and b) have politico-strategic significance. India has a wide spectrum of EPCRs, ranging from 'idealistic' (Buddha, Ashoka, Gandhi) to 'realistic' (Kautilya, Kamandaka or, maybe, Nehru) positions. The relevance of the Kautilya-Arthashastra (KA) is explored mainly via expert interviews and qualitatively assessed. The thesis is a 'twin pack': 1) the interpretive exposition of the KA and 2) the exploration of the relevance of the KA – whereby 1) is the logical precondition of 2). The thesis represents an interdisciplinary cross-section of political science, sociology and Indology. Citing Meyer and Kangle, Liebig asserted that KA is a classical work of political theory and theorized statecraft and a foundational text of International Relations theory. Kautilya can indeed be characterized as a founder of the theory of political realism and his theoretical achievements are (at least) on a plane with Machiavelli. Nevertheless, the KA has been ignored or 'orientalized' in the political science discourse. Max Weber was the first Western social scientist to recognize the importance of the KA. He did so in his Politics as Vocation and in his sociology of religion studies on Hinduism.

    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'. The matsya-nyaya theory provides the foundation for operational policy-making – in the sense of enforcing one's (political) will against (political) resistance. Kautilya's political anthropology is the foundation of the upayas concept cluster (basic principles of politics) which however predates the KA. Of special significance is the normative dimension of the KA: the inter-relationship of purposive rationality and normativity in Kautilyan statecraft.

    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.

    However, besides the manifest presence, there's also a 'latent presence' of Kautilyan thought in modern India: the reference to Kautilyan figures of thought without mentioning the author or even thinking of him. That is often the case because Kautilyan thought figures are perceived as 'taken for granted', 'self-evident' or 'common sense'. The key for grasping the seemingly intangible and elusive 'latent' presence of Kautilyan thought is Pierre Bourdieu's sociological concept of habitus: the past 'incorporated' during (primary) socialization is shaping present patterns of perception, thought and behaviour – individually and collectively. The habitus is the, repository – 'carrier' or 'container' – of latent ideas which are 'forgotten' but efficacious. Without habitus concept, no adequate grasping of latent presence of Kautilyan thought in modern India is possible. The KA is one, but significant ideational ingredient of the habitus of the Indian Strategic Community and one ideational component of Indian strategic culture. That finding can be demonstrated when analyzing politico-strategic documents which do not explicitly refer to Kautilya. A key factor for the latent presence of Kautilyan thought is its affinity (in thought-style) with the epics Mahabharata (Bhisma dialogue) and Ramayana and the Panchatantra fables which play a prominent role in primary socialization.

    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).

    Michael Liebig concluded by saying that after establishing the relevance of Kautilya’s Arthashastra now the task is to firmly anchor the Kautilya-Arthashastra in the international political science discourse as a foundational text of theorized statecraft with an untapped idea and concept potential for tackling theoretical puzzles and empirical questions.

    Key points that were raised during the discussions:

    • Arthasastra covers almost every aspect of statecraft including diplomacy. For instance, the contemporary phenomenon of honey-trap finds a very detailed treatment in Arthasastra. Similarly, the concept of Rajamandala in the Arthasastra provides a framework for understanding and analyzing the behaviour of nations in contemporary international relations.
    • Kautilya’s Arthasastra has seven Prakrits or constituent elements of state, whereas in western conception of state only four elements find mention. Economy which is the basis of a state is missing in the western conception, whereas Arthasastra considers it as an important constituent of state.
    • Since the world has dramatically changed establishing the relevance of Kautilya’s work will require great amount of scholarship. One way to establish the relevance of Arthasastra is to explore the elements of universality in it, which transcends temporal dimensions.
    • The western discourse on peace and security is premised upon the belief that security or in other words military security is the precondition for peace, whereas the Indian discourse rests upon the belief that peace can be attained even without establishing the primacy of military hardware. For India, peace is both means and end; to the contrary western thinkers see peace merely as a goal attainable by achieving a high degree of military self-reliance. However, this fallacy of belief has led to war and conflict everywhere in the world. Kautilya who has been viewed as one of the first realist thinkers also echoes this Indian belief system and does not overstate the importance of military hardware for a state and therefore, his seven elements of state (saptanga theory) lays equal emphasis on all seven. Sapta means seven and anga means limbs. These elements he compares to the different limbs of the human body. These seven elements are the angas, which should be active and healthy for the smooth functioning of the state. Kautilya considered all these elements as being interdependent.
    • Though, Arthashastra does not influence the official thinking in India, many countries in West Asia follow the tenets of Arthashastra in a very serious fashion.

    Report prepared by Amit Kumar, Research Assistant, IDSA