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Kautilya’s Arthashastra

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  • Amb. Shivshankar Menon, National Security Advisor
    October 08, 2013

    Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director IDSA,
    Ladies and Gentlemen.

    Thank you for asking me to speak at this seminar on Developing Indigenous Concepts and Vocabulary: Kautilya’s Arthashastra. This is indeed a welcome initiative that the IDSA is carrying forward. I was impressed by the range of scholarship reflected in the papers that are being presented here and look forward to reading them. We have come a long way in the year since your first seminar. My congratulations to Arvind Gupta and all those who have contributed to this exercise.

    Your seminar is a welcome initiative because, in my opinion, the study of Kautilya is one of the significant ways in which we can become more self conscious about the strategic culture that we have, and in which we can contribute to its evolution. Too much of our earlier scholarship on the Arthashastra attempted to apply the Arthashastra mechanically or formulaically to present policy dilemmas or issues, such as how to deal with Pakistan or our nuclear policy. This may yield some useful insights in a tactical sense. In fact, it is my belief that the results of a Kautilyan analysis would not be very different from our present nuclear policy or policy towards Pakistan. But the larger point is that a mechanical application of “Kautilyan” formulae to our present condition does not contribute to building our capability to think strategically. Your seminar, on the other hand, will do so.

    What then should we be studying of the Arthashastra?

    Exactly what you are proposing to do -- the concepts and, even more significantly, the ways of thinking that the Arthashastra reveals. This is useful because in many ways the world which we face today, (of multiple states, of several major powers, of an uneven but lumpy distribution of power among those major states even while the system has one predominant military power), is similar to the world that Kautilya operated in when he built the Mauryan Empire to greatness. There are no exact parallels in history, but there are certainly ways of thinking conditioned by context and similar circumstance. While our technologies and experiences may be very different from those Kautilya knew, human nature, politics and state behaviour do not appear to have changed quite as much or so drastically as to be unrecognizable. In other words, since Kautilya’s time theories have multiplied and changed drastically, politics has not.

    That may explain why the Arthashastra is so integral to our strategic culture, and to the ways in which the ordinary Indian thinks of these issues. The Arthashastra is certainly not the only work that has shaped our strategic culture, for there are other works from the past, like the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata, that also play a formative role in popular thinking. Besides, the modern Western overlay of the nineteenth and twentieth century on our academic thinking is now very strong. But there is no gainsaying the fundamental importance of the Arthashastra in our thinking. Kautilyan ideas of mandalas, of the basic functions of the state, of the necessity and justification for the use of force, and of raisons d’etat, are part of the popular vocabulary and thinking on politics and international relations in India. Much of this is unselfconscious and instinctive today. Your work here is therefore important in bringing us to the next stage of self-aware thinking on these issues.

    The last few years have already seen considerable progress in this direction. Since the time when the IDSA’s first Director K. Subrahmaniam ploughed a lonely furrow, there has been a significant increase in the number of Indian scholars, think-tanks and institutions teaching, researching and commenting on strategic issues. The problem now is not one of quantity but of quality, of coherence, and of analytical rigour in that effort. Most important is the issue of relevance to Indian conditions and needs, which can not result from the wholesale borrowing of concepts and ways of thinking from abroad. I welcome the IDSA continuing to lead this effort, as it has from the beginning, and am most impressed by all that you have done under Arvind Gupta’s leadership to achieve these goals.

    With these few words, let me wish you success and fulfillment in your work on Kautilya, encourage the IDSA to continue this good work, and wish your seminar great success.

    Thank you.