Chanakya – the Indian Machiavelli

Who is Chanakya?

Chanakya is one of the foremost political thinkers the civilized world has seen and he authored the ancient Indian political treatise called Arthaśāstra. Also known as Kautilya or Vishnugupta, he was a professor of political science at the Takshasila University and the Prime Minister of Chandragupta Maurya. He has been referred to as The Indian Machiavelli, by the west, although Chanakya’s works predate Machiavelli’s by about 1,800 years. His foresight and knowledge coupled with politics of expediency helped found the mighty Mauryan Empire in India which was one of the first empires that ruled across the Indian subcontinent.

Chanakya is perhaps lesser known in world history compared to later political philosophers like Sun-Tzu and Machiavelli, but is definitely considered as the first genuine political theorist in Indian history. He lived in between 350BC – 275 BC and is regarded as one of the earliest known political thinkers, economists and king-makers. Chanakya has been accepted and revered as one of the legendary characters that shaped time through his vision and exemplary actions. He has played an important role in the making of India amidst tremendous upheavals and myriad’s of reversals. Celebrated as a shrewd statesman and a ruthless administrator, he comes across as the greatest of diplomats of the world. Although, he lived around the third century BC, his ideas and principles show concurrence and validity in the present day world. His book is still taken as reference on various political situations.

Chanakya greek invasion & Alexander the Great

Political turmoil in Western India at that time caused by greek invasion forced Chanakya to leave the University environment for the city of ‘Patliputra’ to ask Nandas (rulers of Magadha, one of the most powerful empires in India at that time) for help against the Greek invasion but was insulted, humiliated and driven out of the king’s court. He then vowed to take revenge against the Nanda dynasty and bring down the Magadha empire. He was responsible not only for helping Chandragupta Maurya usurp the throne , but also for uniting the Indian states for fighting against the attack by Alexander the Great around 327 BC.

Chanakya the king maker & Chandragupta Maurya

Folklore has it that on his way out of the city after his removal, Chanakya was hurt by a thorny bush. He then bought a pot of milk and poured on the bush so that ants could come and destroy the bush. It is said that at this moment he was observed by a young Chandragupta Maurya, the future Emperor and creator of the Mauryan empire. Chanakya took a promising young boy often from the streets and brought him up to become one of the greatest emperors of India.

Chanakya was the kingmaker who actually planned the unification of India for the first time under Chandragupta. Chanakya is also supposed to have induced Amatya Rakshasa from the enemy camp to serve as Chandragupta’s Prime minister.

The folklore in India differs in some aspects from the established mainstream history. He is often referred as the most crooked of diplomats (Kautilya in Sanskrit means “one who is very cunning”). It is said that Chanakya made Chandragupta join Alexander and become one of his Lieutenants. This trust was fostered by various means, including murders and misinformation. Soon he engineered a propaganda war in Alexander’s secondary army made up of mostly paid mercenaries that had come under Chandragupta’s command or influence. The propaganda was designed to break the main army’s strength by creating confusion. It is said that Alexander was well prepared for a war but could not instill confidence in his army. At the most opportune moment Chankaya made Chandragupta revolt. Chandragupta snapped logistics and communication links that were exposed systematically throughout to bribes and promises to ambitious warlords. Ensuing confusions were engineered by misinformation. Alexander was thus forced to try to retreat. However, he was advised to retreat by an unfamiliar and dangerous route. Confused and shaken, for some reason Alexander followed the suggestion and ventured through arid desert-like terrain, where most of his army reeled under heat, thirst, hunger, and disease. The returning army, already weakened by the climate, was attacked and brutally plundered.

With Alexander out, the images of Chandragupta and Chanakya were those of superheroes and helped make small kings submit easily. With each victory, their power increased, and soon the supposedly impossible was accomplished.

According to a legend, Chanakya started adding small amounts of poison in Chandragupta’s food so that he would get used to it. The aim of this was to prevent the Emperor from being poisoned by enemies. One day the queen, Durdha, shared the food with the Emperor while she was pregnant. Since she was not used to eating poisoned food, she died. Chanakya decided that the baby should not die; hence he cut open the belly of the queen and took out the baby. A drop (bindu) of poison had passed to the baby’s head, and hence Chanakya named him Bindusara.

Chanakya – author of Arthashastra & Neetishastra (Chanakya Niti)

Two books are attributed to Chanakya- the Arthashastra and the Neetishastra which is also known as Chanakya Niti. The Arthashastra discusses monetary and fiscal policies, welfare, international relations, and war strategies in detail. Neetishastra is a treatise on the ideal way of life, and shows Chanakya’s deep study of the Indian way of life. Chanakya also developed Neeti-Sutras (aphorisms – pithy sentences) that tell people how they should behave. Of these well-known 455 sutras, about 216 refer to raaja-neeti (the do’s and don’ts of running a kingdom). Apparently, Chanakya used these sutras to groom Chandragupta and other selected disciples in the art of ruling a kingdom.

We will publish short snippets from Chanakya’s book on a weekly basis. So please watch out this space for more.

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