Reading the Arthashastra: On declaring war

Calculations of relative power

The decision to go war, according to the Arthashastra, is a rational one—the king should choose war or peace, whichever is most advantageous. So Kautilya is not a pacifist, but neither is he a warmonger, for he advises that in the event expected advantages are of equal character, “one should prefer peace”, for war always comes at a disadvantage.

If that sounds reasonable, it was ignored in the decades following his death. The vast empire his protege Chandragupta Maurya founded in the fourth century BCE quickly fell apart after Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhist pacifism. As Paddy Docherty writes in The Khyber Pass, “The decline of the Mauryan dynasty after Ashoka was dramatic…Princes schooled in otherwordliness—in a concern for Dhamma and the freeing of oneself from the ego—make bad rulers.” (pp 57)

Kautilya used calculations of relative power to determine war or peace decisions: peace with kings with equal or superior power, and war against weaker kings. The metaphors are pithy: attacking a stronger king will meet the same fate as that of a foot-soldier opposing an elephant; attacking an equal power is like the mutually destructive collision between two unbaked mud vessels; attacking a weaker king is like a stone hitting an earthenware vessel.

When confronted with superior power, Kautilya advises pragmatism: the weaker king should submit to the stronger one and take the attitude of a conquered king. Or, alternately, seek the protection of a stronger power. For his part, he advises the stronger king to accept proposals for peace from the weaker one, lest the latter be provoked into war. Here it is implicit that Kautilya thinks that such a confrontation is undesirable and hence, to be avoided.

What about a king of equal power who resists proposals for peace? The answer, well, is what we would today call tit-for-tat.

When a king of equal power does not like peace, then the same amount of vexation as his opponent has received at his hands should be given to him in return; for it is power that brings about peace between any two kings: no piece of iron that is not made red-hot will combine with another piece of iron. [Arthashastra VII:3]

That’s consistent with the conclusions of modern game theory: tit-for-tat is the optimum strategy for iterated prisoner’s dilemmas.

One important factor tempers the war or peace decisions derived from calculations of relative power—the disposition of the people.

When a king in peace with another finds that greedy, impoverished, and oppressed as are the subjects of his ally, they do not yet immigrate into his own territory lest they might be called back by their master, then he should, though of inferior power, proclaim war against his ally.

When a king at war with another finds that greedy, impoverished, and oppressed as are the subjects of his enemy, still they do not come to his side in consequence of the troubles of war, then he should, though of superior power, make peace with his enemy or remove the troubles of war as far as possible. [Arthashastra VII:3]

Kautilya doesn’t explain why this should be so. But we can make some inferences: in the first case, the weaker king can neutralise his weakness by weakening his stronger adversary’s hold over his estranged citizens. In second, popular support adds to the strength of a weaker power, narrowing the gap.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.