Essays & Reviews

India’s Arthashastra: A Combination of Machiavelli and Clausewitz?

Akhilesh Pillalamarri, a South Asia columnist for The Diplomat, wrote a short summary, for The National Interest website, of the ancient Indian treatise, the Arthashastra, often compared in substance and style to Machiavelli’s The Prince.  The Arthashastra is a treatise on how successfully to govern a state, including how to preserve and enhance the power of the state in an hostile international system. You can read it here. The Arthashastra was ostensibly authored by “Kautilya,” mostly likely the pen name of Chanakya (c. 370 – c. 283 BCE), an Indian minister to Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan Empire.

According to Pillalamarri, Kautilya lays out a theory of the international system called the “circle of states,” or rajamandala.  Hostile states are those that border the ruler’s state, forming a circle around it. In turn, states that surround this set of hostile states form another circle around the circle of hostile states. This second circle of states can be considered the natural allies of the ruler’s state against the hostile states that lie between them.

The Arthashastra describes the guiding principles necessary to secure the goals of the state within this circle of states. These include: a ruler ought to develop his state by augmenting and exploiting its resources and power; the state ought to try and eliminate enemy states; those who help in this objective are friends; a state ought to stick to a prudent course; a ruler’s behavior must appear just; and peace is preferable to war in attaining a goal. Under the framework of these principles, the Arthashastra describes six methods of foreign policy, all of which are designed to enhance the power of one’s state relative to other states and, if possible, to conquer or dominate them. These six methods are interdependent but can variously be used as the circumstances dictate (Pillalamarri describes them in a little more detail in his essay):  (1) making peace; (2) waging war; (3) doing nothing; (4) preparing for war; (5) seeking protection; and (6) dual policy/alliances.

In a previous posting, we discussed the complicated and conflicting impact that the Hindu scriptural epic, the Bhagavad Gita, might have had on India’s strategic culture. In Pillalamarri’s view, the Arthashastra was influential in ancient and classical India, but disappeared from widespread usage sometime in the 12th or 13th centuries as a result of invasions and conquest. It was not rediscovered until 1904.  Since then, he argues, many of its maxims and ideas have influenced Indian thought, especially among the realist school of Indian political thinking.  “However,” Pillalamarri concludes, “for much of the modern era, independent India’s thinking on politics and international relations were derived not from the Arthashastra or similar works, but from the non-alignment and pacifism of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, who were perhaps loosely inspired by the example of Asoka, grandson of Kautilya’s king. Asoka abjured realpolitik and attempted to run his empire on the principles of morality and peace (the Mauryan Empire fell apart quickly after Asoka’s death).”

Despite this, according to Pillalamarri, “the influence of the Arthashastra and its ideas have found their way into Indian thinking, as well as influencing many non-Indians. While Indians can and do read Western political thinkers, including realists like Machiavelli and Hobbes, many policymakers feel more comfortable if they can find a precedent for their policies in their own country’s literature and history. The modern Indian concept of non-alignment itself may be a reflection of Kautilya’s advice for a nation to only follow its self-interest and not get locked into permanent enmity or friendship with any other nation. After the end of the Cold War, India has begun to apply more of the Arthashastra’s maxims as it has grown in confidence and ability and realized the necessity of pursuing its own interests, regardless of their normative component. Expect this to continue for the foreseeable future.”

Henry Kissinger, in recent book World Order, discusses the Arthashastra at some length, describing it as a combination of Machiavelli and Clausewitz.  Kissinger emphasizes some particular aspects of the treatise, including:  (1) the ultimate goal of achieving security through hegemony rather than through an equilibrium of power, by neutralizing, subverting, and (when the opportunity presents itself) conquering it neighbors; (2) power is multidimensional and its factors are interdependent; (3) the wise ruler should seek alliances with one’s neighbor’s neighbors [the outer circle], while recognizing that no alliance should be viewed as permanent or binding; (4) the least direct course is often the wisest, for example, by fomenting dissension among one’s opponents; and (5) to this end, covert intelligence operations have particular importance.