Reading the Arthashastra: The proper use of détente

Using hostile peace to tilt the balance

By distinguishing enmity and offensive action, Kautilya makes a sophisticated argument about the use of a ‘hot peace’ to accumulate economic power, that will, in time, allow a state to defeat the counterpart—by military force, if need be.

He classifies three types of what Dr Shamasastry calls “neutrality”. But this translation is not very appropriate, because Kautilya is not advocating sitting on the fence. One needs to study the Sanskrit, but from the context, the word “quiescence” may be more appropriate. Quiescence can be:

“Keeping quiet, maintaining a particular kind of policy is sthana; withdrawal from hostile actions for the sake of one’s own interests is asana; and taking no steps (against an enemy) is upekshana.” [Arthashastra VII:4]

The first arises out of a stable balance of power, where the adversaries are compelled to keep to their places. The second is deliberate, similar to what has been termed “masterly inactivity”, the phrase most famously used to describe colonial British policy towards Afghanistan under Governor-General Sir John Lawrence. It also refers to a state of détente. Finally, the third variety of quiescence arises from dereliction of duty, or impolicy.

Kautilya favours the policy of “keeping quiet after proclaiming war” when it can strengthen one’s own state and inflict injuries on the enemy. The latter could be due to exploiting the enemies internal troubles or, interestingly, through seizing an advantage by influencing patterns of trade: by “(preventing) the import of his enemy’s merchandise, which was destructive of his own commerce” or drawing “that valuable merchandise…to his own territory, leaving that of his enemy”. In fact, in what might militate against the contemporary view on the issue, Kautilya sees inward immigration from neighbouring states as a benefit. He places immigration in the benefits side of the analysis in several places in the Arthashastra.

This, according to Kautilya, is the way to both impoverish the enemy and not only accumulate, but also exhibit one’s own power.

So under what conditions does the king “march after proclaiming war”? The case for offensive action is based on the internal condition of the enemy and the geopolitics without. The enemy’s internal troubles must be beyond redemption, the state in a terminal decline and its people ready to desert their master. External conditions require a favourable disposition among the front and rear allies. The offensive action could be taken independently or in partnership with the allies depending on the circumstances.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

4 thoughts on “Reading the Arthashastra: The proper use of détente”

  1. Nitin: most interesting theory. Sounds like the Master had current data at his disposal. To conceive such detailed formulations in the absence of much data indicates sheer genius.

    Related to the current issues at hand – had a question for anyone who can share some light/opinion. Can a state declare war on a sub-national or governmental entity of another state that it is officially at peace with? Does that declaration inevitably lead to war between the states or is there another way out. More to the point – was this what Narayanan’s declaration was all about?

  2. Nitin

    This is most interesting; by this yardstick Pakistan is ripe for bold indian intervention.

    We should have used this opportunity to incite an insurrection within Paapistan, perhaps with help from ass-kickanistan.

    However, since the arthashastra is document written by a — gasp — brahmin who will not believe in “syncretic kashmiriyat” or some such, our politicos may well have not read the arthashastra.

  3. Good explanation, Nitin. In passing, “upekshana” means laziness, inaction, negligence. On the subject of this blog post, I recommend reading the strategy of the battle of Narmada fought between Pulikeshin II and Harshavardhana of kanauj, and how Pulikeshin won the battle with an arguably superior force.

    Keep them coming!

  4. The tactics and realpolitik of The Art of War by Sun Tzu has similar connotations. War after all is too important a thing to be left to the generals.

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