Reading the Arthashastra: The rule of law

The science of punishment and the science of government

The concept of dandaniti, variously translated as the science of punishment, the science of chastisement, and in Dr Shamasastry’s translation, even as the science of government may be better understood to be the imposition of the rule of law. Dandaniti is central to Rajdharma—the morality of governance—and is discussed at length in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. In the Arthashastra, Kautilya suggests why and how the rule of law ought to be applied.

That sceptre on which the well-being and progress of the sciences of Anvikshaki, the triple Vedas, and Varta depend is known as Danda (punishment). That which treats of Danda is the law of punishment or science of government (dandaniti).

It is a means to make acquisitions, to keep them secure, to improve them, and to distribute among the deserved the profits of improvement. It is on this science of government that the course of the progress of the world depends.

“Hence,” says my teacher, “whoever is desirous of the progress of the world shall ever hold the sceptre raised (udyatadanda). Never can there be a better instrument than the sceptre to bring people under control.”

“No,” says Kautilya; for whoever imposes severe punishment becomes repulsive to the people; while he who awards mild punishment becomes contemptible. But whoever imposes punishment as deserved becomes respectable. For punishment (danda) when awarded with due consideration, makes the people devoted to righteousness and to works productive of wealth and enjoyment; while punishment, when ill-awarded under the influence of greed and anger or owing to ignorance, excites fury even among hermits and ascetics dwelling in forests, not to speak of householders.

But when the law of punishment is kept in abeyance, it gives rise to such disorder as is implied in the proverb of fishes (matsyanyayamudbhavayati); for in the absence of a magistrate (dandadharabhave), the strong will swallow the weak; but under his protection, the weak resist the strong. [Arthashastra I:4]

In other words, Kautilya eschews a harsh imposition of punishments in favour of their measured but efficient use.

Now it is not known whether Ravikiran Rao referred to fourth chapter of Book I of the Arthashastra but his article on counter-terrorism policy in this month’s Pragati but some of his arguments reflect the Kautilyan view—especially the need to have a co-operative citizenry.

Beyond terrorism, there is abundant evidence that the modern Indian state is failing in its practice of dandaniti. In this week’s Economic & Political Weekly, Andre Béteille has an excellent essay on constitutional morality in India, where he says that the people of India “are destined to oscillate endlessly between the two poles of constitutionalism and populism without discarding the one or the other”. When even the chiefs of India’s famously disciplined armed forces brazenly disobey orders issued by constitutional authority, and internal security is almost entirely cast in the framework of competitive communalism, you know that the pendulum is well into the populism phase. A swing back towards constitutionalism is way overdue.

Even if Prof Béteille is right and endless oscillations are destiny, the modern day dandaniti should aim to keep their amplitudes small.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

6 thoughts on “Reading the Arthashastra: The rule of law”

  1. Sir,

    I am amazed at your assertion in the above article that ‘the Chiefs of the armed forces brazenly disobeyed orders’. If asking for a review of an order for which no reasons are either given or understood, is considered disobedience, then one really wonders about many things including author’s understanding and the motive.
    My understanding of the situation, as gleaned from media reports, is as follows(I am open to correction, of course):-
    1. The Chiefs conveyed the unhappiness of the armed forces over the 6th CPC Recommendations. A Committee of Secretaries is formed that gives recommendations. Based only on the issues raised earlier, a first reaction of satisfaction is issued by the Chiefs.
    2. A closer examination however reveals that, as usual, the bureaucrats have done the armed forces in by selective acceptance and changes. This is seen, rightly in the view of this commentator, as yet another trick by the bureaucrats to lower the Services yet again, by selectively using available information. The Chiefs are now left with no option but to appeal to the political leadership, that is the actual Government, to look at the mess created by the secretariat types.
    4. Surely, that is not disobedience-not by a long stretch!

    Now, coming to the other and the main part of the article, one has to agree that in our country, there is apparently rule by looking at the face. After all, how many politicians in the last 60 odd years have lost their career by being implicated in corruption cases. And how many bureaucrats? And has anyone, particularly the media, ever focussed, on a dedicated basis, on the life style of our politicians and bureaucrats and tried to correlate that with their known sources of income? Because to do that would amount to biting the hand that feeds!

    So Sir, unless there is critical media gaze on the doings of the administration- political, bureaucratic, judicial,educational, military, academic and developmental and so on, this country would continue to live on the culture of largesse, so typical of our feudal past that the rulers of the day consider themselves to be the heir to.

  2. Brijesh,

    The disobedience of orders is a matter of fact. Now there is no doubt that the armed forces are dissatisfied with the pay commission report—and please, let’s not oversimply the matter by pitching it as a babus vs faujis tussle—but the simple fact is that for the first time in the history of independent India, the armed forces refused to implement a Cabinet decision. [Also see this article]

    You can argue whether there was merit in their case, but you can’t argue that they disobeyed a legitimate decision. (If you wish to join debate, here’s the place for it)


    Do you really mean to say that the ordinary voting Indian is unaware of the shenanigans of the political class in general, and the person who they are voting for in particular? Regardless of our view of the role of the media, I don’t think it is reasonable to contend that if only the people knew how corrupt their politicians were, they’d do something about it. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

    The reality is worse. The people are party to the whole sordid business. They seek and reward those who provide them with largesse. The fault, dear Brijesh, is not it the stars, but in ourselves…as Prof Beteille points out.

  3. Our politicinas fully honor their part of the contract laid out in the Arthashastra – NOT !!
    And BTW, forget about Arthashastra, lets first get to a point where we have a semblence of Rule of Law.

  4. Note: comments that are personal attacks have been deleted. You are welcome to strongly disagree, but please keep the discussion civil.

    Quite obviously, if you won’t keep the discussion civil, I will.

  5. Sir,
    This article has been really useful for me.I am a first year law student and have political science as a subjest.Being a law student the Dandaniti is of great importance to me.thank you for writing about it as topics like these are hardly discussed anymore

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