Who exactly was Chanakya, the ancient genius that wily Indian politicians are being compared with?

Modern-day Chanakya?
Modern-day Chanakya?
Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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Chanakya is often called the Machiavelli of India and that is a horrid example of a Eurocentric world view.

The conqueror looks down at any previous achievements of the conquered civilisation with a disdainful patronisation. Chanakya lived almost 1,700 years before Machiavelli, and Kalidasa, the literary giant of Sanskrit literature, lived 1,000 years before William Shakespeare. Chanakya’s Arthashastra and Chanakya Neeti are more comprehensive works of statecraft and politics than Machiavelli’s Prince. Similarly, Kalidasa’s work has influenced many generations of poets and storytellers in various classical Indian languages.

Yet, both these geniuses are patronisingly called Machiavelli and the Shakespeare of India, as if it is some sort of compliment bestowed by the superior white race to the barely civilised brown men. Kalidasa deserves another article dedicated to him. This is about Chanakya.

Chanakya (311 BC to 283 BC), born in Pataliputra in eastern India, was the genius behind the establishment of the first pan-Indian empire. His life is shrouded in myth. From Takshashila in modern-day Pakistan to Pataliputra to various south Indian cities, there are many claimants to his place of origin. He was an acharya (professor) of politics and economics in the ancient university of Takshashila when Alexander’s marauding army entered India after ransacking Persia. Folklore says that Chanakya had to flee Takshashila.

He then spent the next few years trying to unite Indian kingdoms against the foreign invader. He found that the Indian rulers were busy fighting each other, and some like Amby invited Alexander to invade his rival Porus’s kingdom. The war between Porus and Alexander, in which Porus surrendered after a tough battle, is often glorified by Greek historians. Porus was a minor king and contemporary Indian sources hardly mention this war.

Chanakya, who had faced the brunt of the invasion, feared that Alexander may overrun India like how he had done Persia. He met the powerful monarch of Magadha, Dhanananda, for help. For Dhanananda, Alexander was a minor nuisance, one among many marauders who had an eye on the fabulous wealth of India. Dhanananda was confident in the strength of his powerful army. He refused any help to Chanakya on the advice of his prime minister, Rakshasa.

Dhanananda’s astute prime minister, who was once a friend and colleague of Chanakya in Takshashila, was sure that Alexander wouldn’t dare to march beyond Punjab. True to his predictions, Alexander’s army was exhausted after the war in Persia and the rumours about Dhanananda’s mighty army made them nervous. The Greek army rebelled against Alexander and the invader had to return to his native land empty-handed and die en route.

Chanakya vowed to replace Dhanananda, who was more feared than respected by his subjects. He envisaged a strong pan-Indian empire and found a protégé, Chandragupta, to fulfill his dream. The rivalry between Chanakya and Rakshasa in this pursuit forms the plot of the 4th-century play, Vishakdutta. This ancient political thriller has all the ingredients of a modern-day potboiler. Spies, amoral women, poisoning, intrigue, political maneuvering, rapidly changing alliances, murder, forgery—there is nothing the two friends turning political rivals wouldn’t do for victory.

In one of the most famous episodes, Chanakya takes the help of King Parvateswara (Porus) to defeat Dhanananda. Chanakya promises Parvateswara half of Dhanananda’s kingdom for the effort. After the victory party, Chanakya sends visha kanyas (poisonous maidens) to Parvata’s chamber in the guise of arranging pleasure for the king. These maidens assassinate Parvateswara.

Rakshasa aligns himself with Malayaketu, the son of Parvateswara. Chanakya acts fast. He offers half the kingdom to Vairochaka, the younger brother of Malayaketu. In a vicious early morning operation on the day of his coronation, a freak accident kills Vairochaka. Chanakya claims that Rakshasa had tried to kill Chandragupta and Vairochaka is a poor victim of Rakshasa’s conspiracy. Rakshasa strikes back by sending a series of assassins to finish Chandragupta.

Chanakya wants to bring Rakshasa to Chandragupta’s side and weaken Malayaketu. But none of his inducements of power, position, or money work on the principled Rakshasa. Chanakya decides to isolate Rakshasa from his allies. A drama is played out in the court of Chandragupta, where the king expels Chanakya and openly praises Rakshasa, saying he would have been better off with Rakshasa as the prime minister instead of Chanakya. Meanwhile, Chanakya fabricates evidence to show that Rakshasa is willing to sacrifice Malayaketu and join Chandragupta’s camp. Malayaketu falls for this deceit and expels Rakshasa.

However, even this does not make Rakshasa change sides. Chanakya unleashes the next weapon. Chandragupta’s secret service captures Rakshasa’s close friend, Chandanadasa, on fabricated charges. The king announces the date of his execution. Rakshasa obtains his release by surrendering himself and agreeing to become the deputy to Chandragupta.

The Buddhist version of this story has a more bone-chilling episode. In this, Chanakya induces Dhanananda’s son Pabbatta to rebel against his father. Chandragupta and Pabbatta manage to kill Dhanananda. After the victory, Pabbatta wants the entire kingdom for himself, as he is the rightful heir. Chanakya makes him promise that he would abide by the rules of a contest and the winner would get the entire kingdom. Each claimant has to remove a necklace from the neck of his sleeping opponent, without waking him up. Pabbatta fails in the attempt.

When it comes to Chandragupta’s turn, he cuts off the head of Pabbatta while he is asleep and wins the contest. Chanakya argues to the angry courtiers of Pabbatta that Chandragupta has won in a fair manner. Pabbata had died before the necklace was taken.

Such amoral acts made Chanakya a master politician. Modern-day Indian politicians are proud to be called Chanakyas of the present era. Even a democrat like Jawaharlal Nehru used the pen name Chanakya to publish a highly critical article against himself, warning Indians about the dictatorial tendencies of Nehru.

However, the legacy of Chanakya is not just amoral politics. In the two books attributed to him, Chanakya Neeti and Arthasashtra, Chanakya covers all aspects of administration. This is where he differs from Machiavelli. Chanakya asks the king only to forego ethics in the times of war and against enemies, whereas for Machiavelli, politics is devoid of ethics at all times, and is only a means to attain power.

Chanakya lays strict ethical codes for administration during peace, along with an elaborate structure for social security of the weak and oppressed in Arthashastra. Though there are many passages in Chanakya Neeti that are misogynic in nature, it too provides a highly ethical code for society to abide by.

The strategist is a product of his culture and times. His morality is based on the apad dharma or the moral code during the time of crisis. Ancient Indian epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat illustrates how Indian thought on ethics and morality has evolved over the ages.

In Ramayan, the hero, Lord Rama, who is the epitome of dharma (or morality, for the lack of a better English word to describe it), uses the principles of apad dharma on a few occasions. When it comes to Mahabharat, the side that won uses all tricks that could be termed as dubious, to win against their rivals. Whatever the winning side does is justified as the need of the hour. A lesser evil can be done if it results in the greater good is the argument that justifies such acts. Who decides what is greater good is a moot question. Often, the victor decides what is good.

Chanakya was a successful politician. We can argue about the ethics of his methods, but he laid the foundation of the first Indian empire that brought peace and prosperity to a highly populous area. The legacy of Machiavelli is ruthless colonisation, the slave trade and the extermination of many cultures. The difference lies in such details.

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