Kautilya on the Crooked Business of Politics
The ancient Indian treatise on rulership, and the pragmatics of maintaining power
There is perhaps no headache greater than that of being a head of state. Or, in fact, being the head of anything. From the ancient world to the present day, it has been recognised that to be a ruler is to be condemned to a life of constant vigilance. You have to spend your days on the look-out for plots and enemies. You have to keep an eye on the unfolding power-plays within your court. And you rarely sleep easy in your bed.
It’s all pretty exhausting: whether you are a monarch ruling over some corner of the ancient world, or the boss of a global media empire, like Logan Roy in the TV series Succession. It’s not even just a human thing. Research among baboons shows that being high-ranking can be as stressful — albeit in different ways — as being low-ranking. The best kind of baboon to be is a middle-ranking one, if you want a comfortable life.
Still, the lure of power is seductive. And so, if you cannot resist the temptations of power, you will need your wits about you. And you will need some good advice for how to navigate through the squalls and the storms that are a fact of life for those in power. This is where the Indian philosopher Kauṭilya comes to the rescue with his Arthaśāstra, or “Treatise on Success.”
The Crooked Kauṭilya
Like many Indian philosophers, we don’t know much about Kauṭilya. His name literally means something like “the crooked one,” and this name fits well with the often amoral prescriptions of the text.
This crooked philosopher is also traditionally identified with the lawmaker Cāṇakya, who lived around 300 BCE, and was prime minister to Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan empire. However, both internal evidence from the text and archaeological evidence make this early dating unlikely. Things get more complicated still when the final verse of Arthaśāstra names a third author: Viṣṇugupta. Many have tried to argue that these three were one and the same. But it’s perhaps safer to assume that this text, like many Indian texts, was woven together from multiple threads, and the product of many hands.