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Understanding Kautilya’s Four Upayas

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • June 20, 2013

    The four upayas or approaches, i.e., ways of realising aim or object have existed since the period of the epics and the Dharmasastra. The upayas are sama- dana- behda- danda: conciliation, gifts, rupture and force. The upayas have a wider application, being useful in securing the submission of anyone. In a 1954 essay “The Four Upayas of Hindu Diplomacy” in The Indian Year Book of International Affairs published by The Indian Study Group of International Affairs, University of Madras in 1954 R. Bhaskaran invited attention to history to show that upayas existed in the Dharmasastras, Sukra Niti, Agni and Matsya Puranas, and Nitisara of Kamanadaki, besides many other texts. The South Indian Jain scholar Somadeva Suri, in the Nitivakyamitra written in the 10th century, mentions the four upayas. In Sanskrit literature, the upayacatusthaya or the “four expedients” and the “turiya” or fourth upaya invariably means Danda or force. By the time of the Ramayana, these four upayas had become such well-known commonplace that the poet could put these quite casually in a soliloquy. For example, Hanuman argues “Here the situation is beyond the three upayas and the fourth alone is indicated. One can not negotiate with demons nor bribe people abounding in wealth. A strong nation cannot be divided against itself, only superior force can win.” (R. Bhaskaran, “ The Four Upayas of Hindu Diplomacy” in The Indian Year Book of International Affairs published by The Indian Study Group of International Affairs, University of Madras in 1954). In Mahabharata and later Smrtis, the upayas are mentioned as well and in the famous commentary on Yajnavalkya (the Mitaksara), the four methods are held applicable not only in diplomacy but in all human relationships, including those between father and son, and teacher and pupil. Further, each upaya has many variations or procedures. V.R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, in War in Ancient India (1944), noted that the Puranas and later niti works like that of Kamadakiya add three more upayas to the original four—upeksha, maya and indrajala. Maya is an aspect of danda, and upekha and indrajala aspects of bheda. In this commentary, in order to avoid complexities, I prefer to stick to the basic four.

    Interestingly, without any reference to Kautilya, the 20th century pioneer of power politics theory Hans J. Morgenthau, in the chapter of different methods of balance of power in his book Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, (1966) mentions that “The balance of power can be carried on either by diminishing the weight of the heavier scale or by increasing the weight of the lighter one.” His chapter has sections on: 1.) Divide and Rule; 2.) Compensation; 3.) Armaments; and 4.) Alliances. The four sections are very close to the Kautilyan concepts of bheda (divide and rule), dana (compensation), danda (armaments) and sama (alliances).

    It appears that the four upayas are not well studied by scholars and are often used in a casual, off-hand manner. Another variation, in its worst form, is the issue of (mis)quotation of Kautilya out of context in various instances. A few examples can be provided to demonstrate this:

    (a) The historian Kaushik Roy in an article “Just and Unjust War in Hindu Philosophy”, in the Journal of Military Ethics (Vol. 6, No. 3, 2007, pp. 232-45) concludes with the bizarre idea 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. This conclusion is false and the analysis is flawed logic. Worse, it has been constructed and painted in an artificially manufactured Kautilyan framework. In reality, the turn-over or rotation of units is a practice followed by the army since independence. Units spend two to three years in field and operational areas, and their identity is well-known. The author fails to provide any evidence to support his claim. Such a statement is based on incorrect or partial/superficial understanding of military operations. The Indian military posts units to peace and field areas on rotation, never on caste or communal lines.

    (b) The word ‘Kautilya’ is being used by some Western and Indian scholars very loosely, as advocating the concepts of treachery, cunningness, and divide and rule. A Norwegian scholar from PRIO, Ashild Kolas, in her article “ What up With Territorial Council” in the December 2012 issues of The Seminar, on selective peace talks with various insurgents by Indian negotiators in Assam, writes: “ is obvious that Kautilyan tactics remain popular with India’s security establishment.” The author, however, does not clarify what she means by “Kautilyan”. The work of Kautilya includes 6,000 sutras and has been described as a “library of ancient India” by German Indologist Johann Myer in 1926. It appears that this is again Ms Kolas’ superficial understanding of the four upayas.

    (c) Cascading and repetitive use of secondary sources continues. To sound profound, with little clue on the text of the Arthasastra, weak formulation continues. For this, there are some more examples which must be explained. Some Western scholars are very enamoured to use selectively borrowed secondary ideas of some Indian authors. A book written by a former intelligence officer, Asoka Raina, titled Inside RAW: The Story of India’s Secret Service (1981) alludes to ancient Indian scriptures and the laws of Manu and Kautilya on intelligence. In his journalistic account of the Sino-Indian rivalry titled Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier (2012), Bertil Lintner picks up from Raina’s work and a similar work by former BBC correspondent Subir Bhaumik’s Troubled Periphery: Crisis of India’s North East (2009). Lintner again parrots sama-dana-bheda-danda being employed as an evil strategy by the Indian state in the Northeast. These authors ignore the post-colonial nation building experience. It is no wonder that vague accounts based on superficial reading of secondary sources flourish in most of the writings by Western authors who cannot then be called scholars on Kautilya (barring, I must add here, Indologists). This is best exemplified further by the work of Terry Crowdy in his The Enemy Within: A History of Spies, Spymasters and Espionage (2006), who assumes the fiction of Vishakanyas as to be true, whereas in fact it is based, as alluded to, on the 5th century CE play Mudrarakshaka by the playwright Vishakhadatta.

    (d) In a very comprehensive survey of the history of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Nani Gopal Mahanta, in his book Confronting the State: ULFA’s Quest for Sovereginity (2013) again puts forward an idea incorrectly. Mahanta at page 142 writes that the basic premise of Kautilyan statecraft of four upayas is: “...that longer the negotiations, the easier it is to wear down rebel leaders.” A careful reading of the Kautilya’s Arthsastyra (KA) shows that this concept of “wearing out by delaying” is not mentioned anywhere in the text. It is obvious that this is Mahanta’s own idea or a commentary or bhasya which must be attributed to his analysis, and not to be fired from Kautilya’s shoulder.

    Arthasastra sutra 22 in chapter 13 of Book One, “Concerning the Topics of Training”(1.13.22) mentions: “Those, however, who are enraged or greedy or frightened or proud, are likely to be seduced by enemies.” Kautilya further suggests that “He( the King) should manage those who are discontented by means of conciliations, gifts, dissention or force.” I do not agree with Kautilya, but at the same time I need to add here that Kautilya cannot be faulted as he just explained the practical aspects of state craft during a specific period of history. Experience in independent India of the 20th and early 21st century shows that insurgents are not enemies. The word dushman or enemy is never allowed to be used by the Indian military to describe the misguided countrymen. Out of the four ways or upayas of sama- dama- -bheda- danda, it is clear that bheda or ‘divide and rule’ would not work in the long run in a counter insurgency. Yes, some force or danda may be required, perhaps minimal. The main argument is that all the four upayas are not to be applied in a rigid template on issues of internal security in dealing with insurgents in a nation-building process.

    Thus it is important to locate the text of traditional indigenous knowledge in their correct context. By picking up one idea such as bheda and then saying it to be a Kautilyan idea is limited understanding of it. Scholars should avoid false attribution and heresy accounts when the working text of the Arthasastra is not fully known to them. It is better, as is given in the Arthasastra, to mention that what one writes other than the text is a bhasya or a commentary and not necessarily what Kautilya said. Thus this commentary.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.