Realpolitik In Ancient India

Renaissance Italy had Machiavelli. Nineteenth century Prussia had Otto von Bismarck. Ancient India had the Arthashastra*–a political manual attributed to Kautilya, chief minister to India’s first emperor, Chandragupta Maurya , in the fourth century BCE.**

Kautilya described his subject as the science of being a king, which he summarizes as “the acquisition of what is not acquired, the preservation of what has been acquired, the growth of what has been preserved, and the distribution among worthy people of what has grown.”  All that acquiring, preserving and growing sounds pretty abstract, but in fact the Arhtashastra is a hard-nosed manual of practical government administration, with detailed instructions on how to manage a complex bureaucracy, organize a national economy and run a spy network.  Kautilya doesn’t hesitate to get down to the nitty-gritty of running an empire.  He suggests a timetable for the king,** a strict curfew to help prevent crime, and rules for the management of slaughterhouses. (Not to mention detailed instructions for state operated breweries and state management of prostitution.  The man doesn’t miss a trick.****)

Kautilya explicitly say that the first duty of a king is to protect his subjects, but the idealism gets lost in the details of running an empire.  Some things don’t change.

*  Variously translated as the Treatise on Polity, the Treatise on Material Gain and the Science of Material Gain. (You get the idea.)
**The text as it exists today may date from as late as the fourth century CE.
***Only 4 1/2 hours of sleep.  Kings are busy men
****Sorry. I couldn’t resist.


  1. dad on September 20, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    BOOO! ****Sorry. I couldn’t resist

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