Political Philosopher: While the Philosophers of Ancient Greece Were Teaching in Athens, India's Own Great Mind, Kautilya, Was Forming Political Ideas That Would Be Studied Up until the Present Day

Article excerpt

There is a natural tendency to think of India as an emerging economy. In fact, it is re-emerging, regaining its economic and political strength. India has a tradition of strong domestic businesses. In the 18th century, admiring British officials described the Bengal-based banking house of Jagat Seth as being more powerful than the Bank of England. The country also has a long history of administrative and managerial theory and philosophy-its system of administration and bureaucracy is even thought to predate that of China. One of the founding fathers of this system was Kautilya, the north Indian scholar and soldier, whose works are still read and studied in India today.

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Life and works

Very little is known of the life of Kautilya, who is sometimes referred to as Vishnugupta or Canakya. He rose to prominence in the period following Alexander the Great's invasion of northwestern India in 327 BC. When Alexander's army withdrew into Afghanistan and Persia, the princes of the Punjab fought each other for control. One dynasty, the Nandas, seized power briefly, but, in 321 BC, they were overthrown and replaced by the prince Chandragupta Maurya, who had been an ally of Alexander. Kautilya played a prominent role in these events, and is supposed to have engineered the overthrow of the Nandas.

At all events, Chandragupta was a highly successful ruler and established the Mauryan empire, which flourished for several centuries, expanding to cover much of northern India. Kautilya was a prominent minister in the early Mauryan kingdom, and is sometimes described as Chandragupta's guru or teacher, especially in matters of politics and administration. His relationship can be compared to that of plato and Dion of Syracuse, or the Chinese Legalist philosopher Han Feizi and Qin ShiHuangdi, the first emperor of China. He was the thinker who influenced, or fried to influence, the man of action.

Over the course of 20 years, from about 320 to 300 BC, Kautilya wrote, or had written for him-it is not always clear from the texts-a series of what we would today call "white papers" on administration, which were collected together under the title Arthashastra. The work consists of 15 books, each divided into ten chapters of varying length. It is primarily an instructional manual for rulers and administrators, and was used in this capacity by the heirs of Chandragupta up to the end of the Mauryan kingdom.

Many of the chapters deal with technical matters. Book Two considers taxation and sets out the duties of the various administrators of the kingdom. Books Three and Four taken together amount to a fairly complete code of laws with notes on how justice should be administered. Books Nine through to Fourteen are concerned with war. But in other places, notably Books One and Six, Kautilya adopts a more philosophical tone. It is for these works that he is known as India's first political philosopher. Like Machiavelli, to whom he is often compared, Kautilya's thoughts on leadership and organisation remain valid today, and are just as applicable to the world of business as to politics.

Kautilya was writing at an intriguing time and place. India was midway between Europe and Asia, and thanks to Alexander's incursions and increasing trade over the Himalayas from China, India had been exposed to intellectual currents from both the East and West. The influence of Plato-who had taught Aristotle, who was in turn the tutor of Alexander-is clear-Kautilya's discussion of the training of rulers, for example, mirrors parts of The Republic. On the other hand, his stress on the need for rulers to be virtuous reflects the teachings of Confucius, while his chapters on war seem to owe something to Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Still other elements, such as the importance of wisdom in a leader, are common to both Eastern and Western political thought.

Wisdom and leadership

To these influences, Kautilya adds his own contribution: the notion that leadership is a kind of partnership between the sovereign and the people. …