Unjust conquests

On India’s strategic frontiers

In ancient Indian political philosophy, the establishment of the state is seen as an instrument to impose dharma, or the moral code, through dandaniti or the rule of law. It not only recognises plurality by enjoining the king to respect and conserve the culture and traditions of the country he annexes but also circumscribes annexation itself, limiting it to the Indian subcontinent.

Arthashastra has a twofold aim. First, it seeks to show how the ruler must protect his territory. Secondly it shows how territory should be acquired.

It may be remarked in passing that the rulership of ‘the earth’ contemplated in the shastra does not necessarily imply the conquest of the whole world. The field open for the operations of the would-be-conqueror (vijigisu) appears restricted to the region between the Himalayas and the sea. Territories beyond the borders of India are not included in ‘the territory of the Sovereign Ruler’. [Arthashastra 9.1.17-18]

One of the reasons for this may be that the conqueror, according to the shastra, is expected to establish a social order based on the varna and the ashrama system in the conquered territories and the establishment of such a social order outside the limits of India was perhaps considered impracticable or even undesirable. It may also be that such a conquest beyond the borders of India was regarded as unjust.

Arrian, the Greek historian, has remarked, “On the other hand, a sense of justice, they say, prevented any Indian king from attempting conquest beyond the limits of India” [R P Kangle, The Kautiliya Arthashastra, Part III, pp2-3]

Related Posts: The reading the Arthashastra series archive

Reading the Arthashastra: R P Kangle’s magnificent work

Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)
Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)

R P Kangle’s three volume compilation, translation and commentary on Kautilya’s Arthashastra is actually in print and available from the venerable Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. (Well, the flaky website requires you to create an order, then email it to the publisher with your credit card information, but it worked).

Leafing through the text, you realise that they don’t make scholars like Professor Kangle anymore. For this is not merely a translation of an old Sanskrit manuscript, but a veritable product of scholarly detective work, attention to detail, reverence of the classical language, mastery of it and of English, and, not least, a labour of love. As M V Rajadhyaksha writes in a volume commemorating Professor Kangle’s birth centenary:

He was a single-minded perfectionist, and not a scholar in a hurry. And he worked on his project silently. He would not make the solemn and self-complacent noises a publicity – hunting, ambitious scholar would make…

The Kautiliya Arthashastra, in three volumes, was first published by the University of Bombay in 1955. The second edition followed soon. The work sold well but the royalty Kangle received from the University was pitifully small. Motilal Banarasidass, the Delhi publishing house famous for its publication of books in the field, offered to publish the next edition. The third edition (really a reprint of the earlier edition) brought Kangle the handsome royalty of sixteen thousand rupees, a princely amount in those days. And Kangle donated the entire amount to the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bombay in grateful acknowledgment of what he had derived from the library, which had been like a second home to him, particularly after his retirement from the Educational Service. That he did this when the pension on which he had to subsist was quite meagre—and when his family responsibilities had not lessened appreciably—speaks much of his selflessness and of his unwillingness to translate his scholarship into easy money. [M V Rajadhyaksha/Perceptions on Kautiliya Arthashastra]

The first volume is an authoritative compilation (in Sanskrit) of Kautilya’s Arthashastra from a number of manuscripts and fragments. The second is an annotated English translation. The final volume is a scholarly discussion on the text and the debate and controversies regarding the book and its famous author.

The text of Rudrapatna Shamasastry’s 1915 English translation is readily available on the internet; but R P Kangle’s work is newer, deeper, more thorough and the ultimate resource for those who want to understand the roots of Indian statecraft.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

Samuel Huntington, RIP

He pointed out a geopolitical factor that remains politically incorrect to this day

“In this new world,” Samuel Phillips Huntington wrote in his 1996 book,The Clash of Civlizations and the Remaking of World Order, “local politics is the politics of ethnicity; global politics is the politics of civilizations. The rivalry of superpowers is replaced by the clash of civilizations.” Arguing that future conflicts will be sparked off by cultural factors rather than economics or ideology, he wrote that “the most dangerous cultural conflicts are those along the faultlines between civilizations.”

From the time Professor Huntington’s essay was published in 1993, it became fashionable, politically correct or both, to reject this uncomfortable thesis. But that should hardly be surprising: it is still fashionable, politically correct or both, to reject the thesis of balance of powers, millennia after it was first articulated.

Professor Huntington was onto something when he held that “that cultural identities, antagonisms and affiliations will not only play a role, but play a major role in relations between states.” India, in his book, was the core state of what he described as the “Hindu” civilisation: a choice of words which caused many to reflexively reject his hypothesis. Yet shorn of the famously incorrect interpretation of the word “Hindu” as a religion in the Semitic mould, there is much to recommend his thesis.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2007 interview:

NPQ | Your colleague Amartya Sen at Harvard criticizes your civilizational thesis, saying that “identity is not destiny” and that each individual can construct and reconstruct chosen identities. He argues that the clash-of-civilizations theory suggests a “miniaturization of human beings” into “unique and choiceless” identities that fit into“boxes of civilization.” What is your perspective on citizens who have multiple identities?

Huntington | I think that statement by Amartya Sen is totally wrong. I never argued that, and I realize that people have multiple identities. What I argue in my book, as I indicated earlier, is that the basis of association and antagonism among countries has changed over time. In the coming decades, questions of identity, meaning cultural heritage, language and religion, will play a central role in politics. I first elaborated this idea over 10 years ago, and much of what I said has been validated during that time.

NPQ | How do people with multiple identities negotiate that?

Huntington | They work out accommodations, and that’s been done for the past two or three centuries, at least. When you have increased migration of peoples and ethnic and religious minorities, you develop a set of rules and language the larger society can accept and the minority community can accept.

The larger society has to recognize some degree of autonomy for the minority: the right to practice their own religion and way of life and to some extent their language. Many of the most difficult questions concerning the role of ethnic minorities centers on language. To what extent are they educated in their own language or in the national language? To what extent does the society formally or informally become a country of two national languages? Or is only one language used in the public proceedings, courts, legislatures, executive branch and politics? These, as we know, can become very tricky issues. [Amina R Chaudary/NPQ]

In other words, the rest of the world—especially the “core-states” of the Islamic world and also the European Union—has to go through a process that India went through in the twentieth century. The Indian model is by no means perfect. It might not even be considered satisfactory by many. But it remains among the better ones that can negotiate in a world where there is an unprecedented churning of peoples, languages, cultures and identities. The atmosphere of rejection that greeted Professor Huntington’s thesis in academic & intellectual India missed the grand opportunity of elaborating how clashes could be managed in a civilised manner.

Samuel Huntington passed away on December 24th, on Martha’s Vineyard, aged 81. Even before we finished reading all his books.

Did you see the 1000ft sleeping Buddha anywhere?

Unless that old monk was exaggerating

The only clue you have is from a 7th century CE travelogue by Yuan Zhang (or Hiuen Tsiang, as he appeared in history textbooks of an older generation).

Going with difficulty 600 li or so, we leave the country of Tukhara, and arrive at the kingdom of Fan-yen-na (Bamiyan)…The capital leans on a steep hill, bordering on a valley 6 or 7 li in length. On the north it is backed by high precipices.
To the north-east of the royal city there is a mountain, on the declivity of which is placed a stone figure of Buddha, erect, in height 140 or 150 feet. Its golden hues sparkle on every side, and its precious ornaments dazzle the eyes by their brightness.
To the east of this spot there is a convent, which was built by a former king of the country. To the east of the convent there is a standing figure of Sakya Buddha, made of metallic stone (teou-shih) in height 100 feet. It has been cast in different parts and joined together, and thus placed in a completed form as it stands.
To the east of the city 12 or 13 li there is a convent, in which there is a figure of Buddha lying in a sleeping position, as when he attained Nirvana. The figure is in length about 1000 feet or so. [Yuan Zhang (Samuel Beal, trans.)/Si-Yu-Ki pp 49-51

Now Yuan Zhang’s accounts are believed to be generally accurate, but when he mentions a 1000 foot reclining Buddha, perhaps indoors, you won’t be blamed for saying “but that’s incredible!”. Yet archaelogists, led by the indomitable Tarzis, not only believe that it’s there somewhere, but have been looking for it for several years. They have yet to find the big one, but the search throwing up many unexpected rewards—like a “new” 62-foot sleeping Buddha.

Citing Masson, in his translation of Yuan Zhang’s work, Samuel Beal mentions that there were five statues. The Taliban destroyed two. Archaeologists just found a third one. The elusive 1000-footer apart, there should be one more.

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.

Reading the Arthashastra: War by diplomacy

Here’s an interesting paper by Roger Boesche on the Kautilyan doctrine of war and diplomacy:

Whereas Carl von Clausewitz said that war is just an extension of domestic politics, Kautilya argued that diplomacy is really a subtle act of war, a series of actions taken to weaken an enemy and gain advantages for oneself, all with an eye toward eventual conquest. In Kautilya’s foreign policy, even during a time of diplomacy and negotiated peace, a king should still be “striking again and again” in secrecy.

Because a king abides by a treaty only for so long as it is advantageous, Kautilya regarded all allies as future conquests when the time is ripe.


(A couple of years ago, Sunil Laxman had introduced Professor Boesche’s The First Great Political Realist—a slim, readable introduction to the Arthashastra.)

On the topic of agreements, Kautilya declares:

When the profit accruing to kings under an agreement, whether they be of equal, inferior, or superior power, is equal to all, that agreement is termed peace (sandhi); when unequal, it is termed defeat (vikrama). Such is the nature of peace and war. [Arthashastra VII:8]

There are two aspects to the assessment of benefits from an agreement: relative gains and the time dimension. An agreement is desirable when the gains from it outweigh the gains the enemy makes from it. Also, “whoever thinks that in the course of time his loss will be less than his acquisition as contrasted with that of his enemy, may neglect his temporary deterioration.” Simple as it seems, since an agreement between two states affects all others in the raja mandala, the actual business of calculating relative gains and summing them up is necessarily a complex exercise.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

The Five Hundred Swamis of a Thousand Directions

The Indian East Company

Rajendra Chola’s eleventh century naval expedition across the Bay of Bengal and the conquest of Southeast Asian kingdoms was, according to John Keay, one of “those rare examples of Indian aggression beyond the frontiers of the subcontinent”. The question that intrigues historians is just why did the Cholas embark on such a venture?

The ready answer is booty, for many of the Chola military expeditions involved securing wealth from conquered territories that would be generously given away to their subjects. But there is another angle, arising from the links between the Chola state and commercial interests of the merchant guilds. That’s where the Five Hundred Swamis of Aihole, or disai ayirattu ainnurruvar (the five hundred of a thousand directions) enter the scene.

Geoff Wade argues that “there seems little doubt that the Chola attacks waged on Southeast Asia port polities in 1025 and again in the 1070s, as well as the occupation of Sri Lanka in 1080, were all intended to expand the commercial interests of the polity’s merchants and thereby of the polity itself.” According to this theory, the Chola expedition was intended to break the Srivijaya empire’s hold over the straits of Malacca, to advance the interests of the Five Hundred Swamis.

The Five Hundred Swamis were established in Aihole, in the Raichur doab of what is now Karnataka, and had a second base at Pudukottai in Chola kingdom. An “supra-regional” association of itinerant merchants, it followed the conquering Chola armies, first in peninsular India, and then to their overseas forays.

So what became of them? According to some historians, the present day Lingayat community of Karnataka has its roots in the guild of the five hundred of a thousand directions.

Related Link: The Trading World of the Tamil Merchant, by Kanakalatha Mukund, via Google Books; Guilds in ancient India, on Kamat’s Potpourri

On liberal nationalism

Connecting liberalism, nationalism and realism

Let’s start with an axiom: all individuals are free, and from this freedom, they possess certain inalienable rights. They possess these rights and freedoms at all times, but in a state of nature, their ability to enjoy the freedom and exercise the rights is circumscribed by their individual power. In Indian philosophy, the state of nature is termed as matsya nyaya, or the law of the fishes, a condition under which the stronger fish eats the weaker fish. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, describes this as the time when “men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man (bellum omnium contra omnes).” Life, therefore, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

To better enjoy their rights and freedoms, individuals trade-off a part of their freedom for the security offered by a state. Hence Kautilya writes

People suffering from anarchy as illustrated by the proverbial tendency of a large fish swallowing a small one (matsyanyayabhibhutah prajah), first elected Manu, the Vaivasvata, to be their king; and allotted one-sixth of the grains grown and one-tenth of merchandise as sovereign dues. Fed by this payment, kings took upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the safety and security of their subjects (yogakshemavah), and of being answerable for the sins of their subjects when the principle of levying just punishments and taxes has been violated.[Arthashastra I:13]

In Western philosophy, this trade-off forms the basis of social contract theories. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that individuals cede all their rights in return for protection to a sovereign who is himself above the law. John Locke, writing after Hobbes, is more moderate: in his view, individuals surrender only some of their rights to a government that rules by the consent of the governed.

This trade-off forms the basis of modern liberal democratic states. The exact implementation differs from state to state, and depends on a number of factors. But most often, the social contract is codified in a constitution. Constitutions are not, and do not have to be either perfect or immutable. To varying degrees, they affirm the rights of the individual and offer an enlightened method to settle the differences between the interests of individuals. In sharp contrast to Hobbes’ Leviathan, modern constitutions also, to varying degrees, make the government itself subject to the rule of law.

The upshot is that the state is necessary for the practical enjoyment of individual rights and freedoms. The survival and security of the state—often termed “the national interest”—is directly connected to the ability of citizens to enjoy their freedom. Put in another way, the “national interest” is the well-being and development of all its citizens.

If we adopt this people-centric definition of the national interest, how should one regard territory? Is territorial integrity uncompromisable? Not quite. To the extent territory is necessary for the well-being and development of all citizens, holding the territory is in the national interest. Where territorial compromises enhance the well-being of citizens, they are in the national interest. In the state-centric formulation, the objective question is whether acquiring, keeping or parting with a particular piece of land enhances the survival and security of the state, or not.

While the establishment of a state allows individuals to enjoy their rights—abridged as they are—the relationship between states remains in the world of matsya nyaya or anarchy. To an extent, the development of international law and institutions like the United Nations allow states to pursue ‘rules-based’ relations. But the ultimate arbiter of international relations is power. It follows that to protect its national interests—whether expressed in the people-centric or state-centric terms—states have to maximise their power relative to others. This results in an international balance-of-power, which can be stable or unstable depending on the power dynamics obtaining at a particular moment in time. The objective of the state then, is to maximise its own power to ensure that the international balance-of-power is in its favour.

This is how liberalism, nationalism and realism are connected with each other. Liberalism (or libertarianism, in its American usage) is concerned about individual freedom. To enjoy freedom in practice, the individual gives up some of it to the state. The state, a nation-state in India’s case, exists to ensure the rights, freedoms and well-being (yogakshema) of its people. So ensuring the survival and security of the Indian state—by maximising its relative power internationally—is wholly consistent with allowing its citizens to live in freedom.

Reading the Arthashastra: Dealing with disaffection

Its causes and its remedies

Which of the three, Kautilya asks, is the worst—an impoverished people, a greedy people or a disaffected people?

He answers:

An impoverished people are ever apprehensive of oppression and destruction (by over-taxation, etc.), and are therefore desirous of getting rid of their impoverishment, or of waging war or of migrating elsewhere.

A greedy people are ever discontented and they yield themselves to the intrigues of an enemy.

A disaffected people rise against their master along with his enemy. [Arthashastra VII:5]

Kautilya enumerates eight categories of reasons for disaffection. They can be summarised to be in the nature of “doing what ought not to be done and not doing what ought to be done”. In today’s terminology, these would be called failure to provide good governance. In addition to righteousness and rule of law, “by carelessness and negligence…in maintaining the security of person and property of his subjects, the king causes impoverishment, greed, and disaffection to appear among his subjects.”

In Kautilya’s causal chain, “when a people are impoverished, they become greedy; when they are greedy, they become disaffected; when disaffected, they voluntarily go to the side of the enemy or destroy their own master.” This leads to a unambiguous injunction:

Hence, no king should give room to such causes as would bring about impoverishment, greed or disaffection among his people. If, however, they appear, he should at once take remedial measures against them. [Arthashastra VII:5]

How? As discussed in a previous post on internal security, Kautilya distinguishes between internal and external dimensions. For internal threats he recommends a two-pronged strategy. Distinguishing between disaffected people and their leaders, he advises reconciliation for the former and elimination of the latter.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

Pragati August 2008: Should India send troops to Afghanistan?

Issue 17 - Aug 2008
Issue Contents


Making a leader
Excerpts from a lecture on leadership and discipline
Sam HFJ Manekshaw

Our voice in our history
Academic freedom, private funding and historical research
Jayakrishnan Nair

On whether or not India has a coherent foreign policy

A survey of think-tanks
On China policy; Fixing the FATA; An Indo-Israeli alliance?
Vijay Vikram

Hold steady in Afghanistan
India is on the right track and it should stay that way
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza

A bigger military presence is essential
…if India is to shape Afghanistan’s future
Sushant K Singh

The myth of Taliban tribalism
The folly of trying to set tribes against each other
Joshua Foust

Monsoon Session 2008—What’s in store
Legislative brief
Sarita Vanka

When it’s good to slow down
The why and what next about rising inflation
V Anantha Nageswaran

The historical roots of the services sector
…calls for a strategy that plays to India’s strengths
Stephen Broadberry and Bishnupriya Gupta

Profiting from education
Resistance against commercialisation is fruitless
Atanu Dey

Four books about Pakistan
On nuclear proliferation, military politics and society
Nitin Pai