Reading the Arthashastra: sovereignty, power and happiness

Rediscovering Indian Realism: the elevation of happiness

Just why does a state need a foreign policy? Foreign policy, according to Kautilya is the “source” of peace and economic growth.

Acquisition and security (of property) are dependent upon peace and industry.

Efforts to achieve the results of works undertaken is industry (vyayama).

Absence of disturbance to the enjoyment of the results achieved from works is peace.

The application of the six-fold royal policy is the source of peace and industry. [Arthashastra,VI:2]

These four lines underline a profound political philosophy: that the fundamental objective of foreign policy should be to allow the nation to acquire and secure material gains, through economic growth and peace. Peace itself is defined as the undisturbed ability to enjoy the fruits of economic growth.

Depending on the direction of a state’s economy, Kautilya places them in three “positions”— deterioration, stagnation and progress. Foreign policy does not merely depend on the state’s absolute position—but its relative position vis-a-vis its allies, adversaries and other states in the international system. For instance, if pursuing a particular policy hurts the enemy more than it hurts the protagonist, Kautilya argues that the temporary losses may be neglected. Similarly, if two adversaries expect to acquire equal gains in the same period, he advocates that they make peace with each other. Obviously, if a policy hurts the protagonist but hurts the enemy less, then that policy must be abandoned.

The bulk of Book VII deals with the six policy options—peace, war, neutrality, marching (mobilisation), alliance and a dual strategy of pursuing war on one front and peace on the other—and how they might be applied in the contexts of relative deterioration, stagnation or progress.

In the Kautilyan framework, states have three elements: sovereignty, power and end. What goes into these elements is interesting.

Sovereignty is constituted by the king, the minister, the country, the fort, the treasury, the army and the friend. Translating them to the modern context is instructive. Taken together king and minister become president, prime minister and the Cabinet. Country in the Kautilyan sense is territory. It is interesting that he should split the fort and the army. A straightforward analogy would be defence and offence. But stretch it a little and we could conclude that the fort stands for deterrence and the army for compellence. In today’s context these would refer to the nuclear arsenal and the armed forces respectively.

The counter-intuitive component of Kautilyan sovereignty is the “friend”. In other words, there is an element of sovereignty that lies outside the state’s borders—it depends on the quality of the relationship the state has with others, and the quality of the states it has relationships with.

The second element—power—is defined simply as “strength”. It is of three kinds: intellectual strength that comes from the power of deliberation; the strength of sovereignty that comes from a strong finances and armed forces; and physical strength that comes from martial power. The first is the core of what contemporary scholars would describe as “soft power”; the second and third are aspects of “hard power”.

It is the third element of a state—the end—that is brilliant. Kautilya simply says “happiness is the end”. And there are three types of this end, corresponding to the type of power by which they are attainable.

And so we come to:

The possession of power and happiness in a greater degree makes a king superior to another; in a less degree, inferior; and in an equal degree, equal. Hence a king shall always endeavor to augment his own power and elevate his happiness. [Arthashastra, VI:2]

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

2 thoughts on “Reading the Arthashastra: sovereignty, power and happiness”

  1. Good job. Reminds me of a study of foreign policy advocated in Arthashastra that I did as part of a humanities project some years ago.

    Looking forward to more follow-up articles on this one ๐Ÿ™‚

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