Much of our knowledge about state policy under the Mauryas comes from the Arthashastra written by Kautilya (more popularly known as Chanakya), who was a Brahmin minister under Chandragupta Maurya. Though it was written at the end of the fourth century BC, it appears to have been rediscovered only in 1905, after centuries of oblivion. The treatise in its present form is most likely not the text written by Kautilya, though it is probably based on a text that was authored by Kautilya; and in no case can the text in its entirety be ascribed to Kautilya, on account of numerous stylistic and linguistic variations.
The book, written in Sanskrit, discusses theories and principles of governing a state. It is not an account of Mauryan administration. The title, Arthashastra, which means “the Science of Material Gain” or “Science of Polity”, does not leave any doubts about its ends. According to Kautilya, the ruler should use any means to attain his goal and his actions required no moral sanction. The only problems discussed are of the most practical kind. Though the kings were allowed a free rein, the citizens were subject to a rigid set of rules. This double standard has been cited as an excuse for the obsolescence of the Arthashastra, though the real cause of its ultimate neglect, as the Indian historian Romila Thapar suggests, was the formation of a totally different society to which these methods no longer applied.
Arthashastra remains unique in all of Indian literature because of its total absence of specious reasoning, or its unabashed advocacy of realpolitik, and scholars continued to study it for its clear cut arguments and formal prose till the twelfth century. Espionage and the liberal use of provocative agents is recommended on a large scale. Murder and false accusations were to be used by a king’s secret agents without any thoughts to morals or ethics. There are chapters for kings to help them keep in check the premature ambitions of their sons, and likewise chapters intended to help princes to thwart their fathers’ domineering authority. However, Kautilya ruefully admits that it is just as difficult to detect an official’s dishonesty as it is to discover how much water is drunk by the swimming fish.
Kautilya helped the young Chandragupta Maurya, who was a Vaishya, to ascend to the Nanda throne in 321 BC. Kautilya’s counsel is particularly remarkable because the young Maurya’s supporters were not as well armed as the Nandas. Kautilya continued to help Chandragupta Maurya in his campaigns and his influence was crucial in consolidating the great Mauryan empire. He has often been likened to Machiavelli by political theorists, and the name of Chanakya is still reminiscent of a vastly scheming and clever political adviser. In very recent years, Indian state television, or Doordarshan as it is known, commissioned and screened a television serial on the life and intrigues of Chanakya.
Kosambi, D. D. The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965
Thapar, Romila. A History of India, vol I. England: Penguin, 1966
Arthashastra. edited by T. Ganapati Sastri, translated by R. Shamasastri (Mysore, 1958)