The Pulse | Diplomacy | Politics | South Asia

India Does Not Follow ‘Arthashastra’ in Its Foreign Policy

Some believe that Indians “must” follow Kautilya, but not that Western strategy must follow Machiavelli.

Krzysztof Iwanek
India Does Not Follow ‘Arthashastra’ in Its Foreign Policy
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi’s foriegn policy strategy is inspired by Kautilya, while the Chinese are inspired by Sun Tzu – we read such sentences often. And the more they are written, the more shallow and less useful they become. It is very easy to claim, but how does one actually prove that today’s decision-makers have their source of inspiration in a treatise written in ancient times when technology, warfare, and state administration were so vastly different from what they are now?

Kautilya is believed to be an author of a fascinating ancient Sanskrit treatise on statecraft, “Arthashastra.” Let’s leave aside academic deliberations on when exactly the work was composed, whether it was written by one author or many, and whether the author’s name was Kautilya, Chanakya, or Vishnugupta. While such discussions are important to understand history, what concerns us here is that many claim that “Arthashastra” remains an inspiration for Indian foreign policy even today.

Let me be brutally honest: In its crude form, this belief often signals intellectual laziness, an attempt by the author to appear versatile without reading much, and to summarize complex processes with a short, suggestive maxim. Thus, “India follows Kautilya while China follows Sun Tzu” stands next to such hot takes as “Chinese play Go while Indians play chess.” While attractive on the surface, these statements fail to explain anything in depth when we try to apply them in order to understand contemporary national behavior. 

The Circle of (Political) Life, or the Timeless Rules of “Arthashastra”

For those interested in the theory of ancient Indian statecraft, “Arthashastra” is a treasure. Its author had a keen sense of politics, a capability to define general rules and was a realist to the bone. Kautilya’s pragmatism is perhaps the most known aspect of his writings. “Arthashastra” is long review of advice for kings, and some is cynically honest. It includes not only such obvious solutions as spying on other rulers and one’s own subjects, but also sending out assassins to murder rival kings, gifting women to foreign nobles to gain their support, or even keeping the king’s own son occupied with sex so that he would not plot to overthrow his father.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

On the general level, “Arthashastra” offers valuable conclusions on the nature of power, conclusions which are mostly applicable across time and space. But, being such, they could have been arrived at by others elsewhere and in different times (and indeed, they often were). Take Kautilya’s best-known observation about the rajamandala: the circle of kings. A neighboring king was a potential foe and thus the neighbor of the neighbor was a potential ally against this foe, and so on, Kautilya observed. Some are quick to generalize and jump to the present by pointing out that the situation is similar. Isn’t Pakistan India’s enemy and Afghanistan India’s partner against Pakistan (at least in some ways)? First, however, things are much more complex now, and second, the “circle of kings” rule is a wise but general observation of history. “This is, no doubt, almost always valid,” points out one of “Arthashastra” translator L.N. Rangarajan.

Apart from such general conclusions, “Arthashastra” offers a whole array of advice on specific policies and surely many authors and rulers were not smart enough to invent them independently. The problem is that the more specific they are, the less applicable they are to the 21st century. When hostages are exchanged between kingdoms to make sure an agreement will be kept, Kautilya suggests, it is better for a king to send a son “who is illegitimate, less wise, less brave and less expert in the use of arms.” When an envoy is being sent to a foreign state, it is prudent for him to make contact with jungle chiefs on the way. An army should not consist of Brahmins (priests) because the enemy is “likely to disarm Brahmin troops by prostrating himself before them.” This is all fascinating from the point of history and culture, but how does one translate any of this into modern strategy? “Elephant forests” are more important than “productive forests,” because war elephants are crucial in waging wars, Kautilya argues. Any idea how New Delhi can use this advice in its border dispute against China in 2020?

Look Into Our Forefathers’ Eyes

There are, I must admit, counterpoints to my perspective. Quite a few authors do believe that “Arthashastra” is an important source of inspiration for Indian policy. And by these authors I do not mean the above-mentioned “lazy intellectual” pundits and professors who throw in one remark about Kautilya in their articles to make them look more appealing. Apart from this tribe, there in fact are researchers who have devoted their time to serious study of “Arthashastra” and its linkages with contemporary Indian political thought. These include, for instance, S.K. Mitra and M. Liebig, the authors of “Kautilya’s Arthashastra. An Intellectual Portrait,” as well as research undertaken in such places as the Indian Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. 

Mitra and Liebig present at least two general conclusions with which I must agree. First, they point out that contrary to common belief, “Arthashastra” was not completely “forgotten” as a treatise, and then rediscovered in the 20th century. Following one of India’s foremost historians, Romila Thapar, as well as various references, they point that the text was known to many authors throughout ages and remained a source of inspiration in political thought. Second, they define the contemporary Indian state as characterized by “hybridity” – not a state completely based on the colonial British model but rather a mixture of institutions and practices left from the colonial period alongside earlier, pre-British, political customs. The latter conclusion paves the way for authors such as Kautilya to find their place in India’s modernity.

However, one fails to find a really convincing and evidence-based example of how New Delhi’s current methods are taken straight from Kautilya’s playbook. As for internal politics, the authors claim, for instance, that “[t]he most important aspect of the modern state in India is that it draws on the Kautilyan heritage of the King as a provider of order.” Just as with the concept of rajamandala, is not this a rather common perception, and not something on which Kautilya holds a copyright? Had “Arthashastra” not been composed, would modern Indians not expect their state to be a provider of order?

The authors’ conclusions toward foreign policy are equally unconvincing. They state, for instance, that “Kautilyan foreign policy has a directionality […]: the political unification of the Indian subcontinent.” This is an anachronism. The authors look at India, a large state as it is now, and apply teleology to earlier history by looking for a factor that helped in reaching the present conditions (believing that unification of India was what Kautilya wanted and strove for). But ancient Indians did not have to view their geography and history the same way we see them now. L.N. Rangarajan points out that Kautilya’s analysis is “essentially theoretical” as it “does not deal with a particular state in a historical time, but with the state as a concept.” At the same time, historians tend to agree that “Arthashastra” is written from a perspective of a middle-sized kingdom – not a specific one indeed, but dealing with this kind of a state in general (and this is hardly something modern India can relate to). Being a realist, Kautilya advised rulers of such states to look for achievable targets and to take reasonable risks – a large-scale conquest of a whole subcontinent was not one of them, and such idea does not seem to appear anywhere on the pages of “Arthashastra.”

At the same time, Mitra and Lieibig are right in pointing out that there is a steadily growing interest in once-neglected Kautilyan thought among Indian scientists and experts. But that does not automatically mean Indian foreign policy is being inspired by it. More likely, this could be an offshoot of the rising overall interest in studying realism as a trend within Indian foreign policy debates (as well as rising realism in the practice of this policy). But stronger interest in Kautilya may as well be the result, rather than the source of such processes. Thus in a nutshell, “Arthashastra” does not seem to be an inspiration for Indian foreign policy in any major way – or, for that matter, for the country’s internal politics either.

Rage Against the Learning Machine, Rage Against the Cultural DNA

The above conclusion does not mean that history and culture do not matter in a country’s internal politics. There is an abundance of evidence that they do. As for India, the obvious example is how the idea of ahimsa (non-violence), so crucial in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions, informed Gandhi’s strategy against the British. By extension this affected the behavior of a large part of the Indian independence movement. But the same ahimsa has little application when it comes to foreign policy (and the idea that it could work had to be discarded right after India gained independence). A large part of the country’s cultural and historical backdrop, while so significant internally, has little impact on how a nation enacts its foreign policy, as eventually every state has to adapt to the international developments and methods followed in international relations.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Furthermore, my conclusions do not seek to diminish the importance of Indian history or its ancient heritage. But overemphasis of this heritage may push us in the opposite direction: It creates a risk that some commentators will build an image of India as a country stuck in its past. Is there any dishonesty or threat in saying that New Delhi solves some of its problem also by learning from others and adapting to the ever-changing reality? Must we always argue that such steps are based on the interpretation of the country’s remote history, even though we clearly see they are not? Why must non-Western countries be kept in their cultural confines to a point that the Indians must be pragmatic and strategic because of Kautilya and the Chinese because of Sun Tzu, while the Europeans and Americans can simply “be” pragmatic, without anyone claiming that their entire strategy is based on Machiavelli? 

Take the case of the India-U.S. nuclear deal. After New Delhi’s 1998 nuclear tests, Washington burdened India with sanctions. India did not back down when it came to the development of its nuclear weaponry but at the same time strove for a better partnership with the United States. This resulted in the signing of the 2005 deal, which opened the way for New Delhi and Washington to cooperate in civil nuclear technology. Most commentators agree that this was one of the biggest successes of recent Indian foreign policy. At the same time, however, the most significant aspects of these developments – nuclear power, international economic sanctions, the domination of a global hegemon – are all typical to our times. It would be difficult to find their antecedents in antiquity. I believe Kautilya would have been proud of New Delhi at that point – the country’s policymakers acted with cold pragmatism and with focus on the national interest. But I doubt that they pushed through the nuclear deal by spending hours on reading the “Arthashastra” in search for inspiration. Can we not recognize their actions for what they were – well-thought out and successful but based on contemporary circumstances – rather than insist they had to be driven by ancient strategic thought?

Assessing the importance of history and culture is tricky, because it is usually statistically unmeasurable. There is thus a risk of an overemphasis in both ways. A radical neglect of history and culture turns people into learning machines: Driven only by worldly needs and pragmatic at nearly every step. But an overemphasis on history and culture defines people by their past and their community. In such view, it is as if these factors are something akin to DNA – something which cannot be rejected or modified within a single individual’s life. The truth does not always lie in between, but when it comes to significance of history and culture in the life of nations, it does.