In this endeavor to explore ancient political thoughts, we’ve been to China and Greece, now we are going to India. Chanakya is our protagonist today and his political ideas are a combination of Confucianism, Philospher Kings and Aristotelian Politics plus a distinct flavor of Utilitarianism (a moral philosophy which I’ve explored in another post altogether). He is the less well-known predecessor of Machiavelli, who is famous (or notorious, you be the judge) today for his work, The Prince. Any more about Machiavellian politics would be covered in another post because he deserved it and I don’t do spoilers 😉
We know Confucius, Sun Tzu, Plato and Aristotle conceptualized their ideas in idea-conducive periods of Golden Age, War and Democratisation (for both Plato and Aristotle) respectively within their own geographical boundaries. How about Chanakya? What was India like back then that led to Chanakya and his political ideas? Chanakya rose in an era when the Nanda’s Dynasty grew in power. This empire gained dominance over the northern half of the Indian subcontinent and was able to hold off Greeks and Persian’s invasions. This rise was owed to outstanding generals which the sovereigns relied upon for tactical advices (similar to Sun Tzu). However, the rulers recognized that civil foundations are also indispensable to the sustenance of the empire, hence ministers were also valued, just as Confucius had proposed. These ministers were streamlined positions for scholars (an approach supported by Mozi, an advocate of a purer version of Confucianism that does away with the importance of family as it can breed nepotism). One of these scholars produced, similar to Confucius, was Chanakya.
Chanakya was a 300-200 BCE Indian scholar who first studied, where he was believed to have been exposed to Plato, Confucius, Mozi, and Aristotle’s ideas during his studies, leading him to draw inspiration from them. After his studies, he went into teaching and subsequently he went into politics. He became the advisor of King Dhana Nanda, a situation similar to Sun Tzu as he was also an advisor to a sovereign. Chanakya, similar to Confucius, left the court he served in due to an alleged dispute. With the probable thirst for revenge, Chanakya groomed Chandragupta Maurya to become Nanda’s rival. This plot for revenge eventually came to fruition when Chandragupta overthrew Dhana Nanda and founded the Mauryan empire, which spanned to almost the whole of India. Chanakya then became chief advisor to Chandragupta, which was the last position he held before starving himself to death as he was accused by Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara, of poisoning his mother. Quite a drama indeed. (Most of these are taken from The Politics Book, I’m just paraphrasing).
Chanakya do share the same sentiment as Confucius that the sovereign must be moral exemplars. On top of that, however, he also emphasized that the sovereign must also be capable, to be trained for the job. He must therefore “learn the various skills of statecraft, such as military tactics and strategy, law, administration, and the arts of diplomacy and politics, but in addition he should be taught the skills of self-discipline and ethics in order to develop the moral authority necessary to command the loyalty and obedience of his people.”(The politics book | Hardback, 2013). So here we can see that although Chanakya saw the need for the sovereign to be moral exemplars, he differed from Confucius in the sense that he saw it as a mean to an end – to command moral authority. This approach highlighted Chanakya’s pragmatism and Utilitarian characteristic. However, make no mistake because this does not make Chanakya immoral in any sense at all. That is because the end in which he advocated the sovereign to seek is the welfare and happiness of the state, which in extension, is the welfare and happiness of its people.
The end justifies the means
The pragmatic and Utilitarian nature of Chanakya can be most prominently seen by what he advised sovereigns to do in order to maintain power. Chanakya do not see moral rules as inviolable, which is natural since the end he pursue was for the sovereign to command moral authority so that the subjects can obey and exercise the will of the sovereign in order to serve the welfare and happiness of the people. This logical equation has an implication: if there are other means that are considered necessary to protect and achieve people’s welfare and happiness respectively, then morality becomes secondary and thus, violable. Chanakya hence advocated for the sovereign to use underhanded methods to gain and maintain power. One such example is in his advocacy of the sovereign to use tactics ranging from “encouraging dissent in the enemy’s ranks, and forming alliances of convenience with other rulers, to the simple use of military force. In deploying these tactics, the ruler should be ruthless, using trickery, bribery, and any other inducements deemed necessary.” (The politics book | Hardback, 2013). In addition, similar to Sun Tzu, he also advocated for espionage. However, he went further than Sun Tzu as he also advocated for internal espionage as it can ensure social stability. He was, very surely, the inventor of state surveillance. This then extended to the justification of political assassination etc. In spite of all these, Chanakya maintained that moral authority can still be maintained but with the effort of the sovereign to “substitute his virtues for the defeated enemy’s vices, and where the enemy was good, he shall be twice as good.”.
Probably inspired by Mozi and Confucius, Chanakya advocated for a civil structure where the ministers take the central role in managing various societal aspects. These ministers must be well-versed in their own field or specialty so that they can effectively serve the end of advancing the welfare of the state and its people. In addition, these ministers must act as advisors to the sovereign. Perhaps it was a recognition of the limitation of the sovereign as a human being that led him to believe that the 2nd opinions of ministers are very important. However, there could be another reason: self-importance. This is mere speculation but what was common between Confucius and Chanakya was that they were both ministers/advisors that left their role on bad terms. Is it a mere coincidence that both of them think of their own role as very important and central in their political ideas? Maybe? That’s just a playful thought on my part. In any case, Chanakaya emphasized the importance of the ministers/advisors through a chariot analogy. He said that the sovereign is but one of the wheels of the chariot and the chariot cannot move with only one wheel. The other wheel represents the ministers/advisors that must work hand in hand with the sovereign to move the chariot (which metaphorically represents the advancement of the welfare of the state and the people).
Unlike the political thinkers that I’ve featured before, Chanakya did not have a lasting lagacy. That’s because his works were, unfortunately, not well known in the west. His works were only rediscovered in the early 20th century and became iconic after India won its independence in 1948. Nonetheless, his idea were translated into and tested in reality during his time and civilization. Advising Chandragupta Mauryan, he helped the sovereign that he served to defeat Nanda, founded the Mauryan Empire which spanned across almost all of the Indian subcontinent. The empire was considerably resilient, having fended off Greek invaders led by Alexander the Great. For several centuries that followed in the Mauryan Empire, Chanakya’s ideas endured – until the Mauryan Empire got wiped out by the Islamic and Mughal forces in the Middle Ages.
I only find 2 problems with Chanakya’s political idea. Firstly, expecting the sovereign to be well-versed in the entirety of statecraft while maintaining outstanding moral qualities can be rather ambitious. Yes he did mention a capable mentor to guide each sovereign (which is an idea borrowed from philospher kings) but that is insanely difficult to achieve. Take parenting today for example: even till today, we struggle to make our children become good moral characters or become successful in their studies hence career. Achieving both would be a tall order for the mentor to achieve. If anything, I suspect, that Chanakya did not consider the difficulty of helping the sovereign reach his expectations. Perhaps he thought too highly of what a mentor such as himself are capable of. The second criticism is that there remains a deep contradiction between morality and the underhanded means that Chanakya advocated. He maintained that moral authority can be preserved but in order to do so he issued yet another tall order: the sovereign is to replace his enemies’ vices with his virtues and where they were good, he ought to be twice as good. That is rather vague in the sense that it is unclear how such an oversimplified mathematical multiplication and substitution can be translated into reality.
Chanakya was an Indian scholar who was inspired by Confucius, Mozi, Plato and Aristotle. He became involved in politics which led him to episodes of dispute and revenge. Chanakya saw morality as important but also conditional. Morality, in Chanakya’s view, is a mean to an end and that end is for the sovereign to command moral authority over his subjects. Based on the principle of “The end justifies the means”, morality becomes conditional and underhanded means in helping the sovereign to maintain and increase power become necessary. He therefore advocated for espionage, state surveillance and political assassination. Chanakya also maintained that the civil structure should be facilitated by ministers which must be appointed based on merits, an idea that was possibly inspired by Confucius and Mozi. These ministers were indispensable in Chanakya’s political thought as he likened them to be the second wheel necessary to move the chariot forward. Chanakya left a definitive legacy in the civilisation of the Mauryan Empire. Personally, I thought that, on both matters of the qualities and abilities of the sovereign, and the maintenance of moral authority in spite of underhanded means; Chanakya was too ambitious and did not think through the efficacy and feasibility of his ideas. Even though he was a hardcore pragmatist, he was also a hopeless idealist. Nonetheless, his ideas were comprehensive, served as the precursor to Machiavelli’s equally ruthless analysis of politics and shaped the history of India considerably.
The politics book | Hardback (2013) Available at: https://www.dk.com/uk/9781409364450-the-politics-book/ (Accessed: 16 January 2017).