A great many books have been written about Chanakya, known also as Kautilya, Vishnu Gupta, and Vishnu Sharma. Having lived over 2,000 years ago his legend continues to fascinate numerous readers even to this day. Perhaps, unfortunately, he’s best known to have “avenged” the then ruler of Magadha – Dhanananda – by “helping” Chandragupta Maurya ascend to the throne. This presumed ability of his – vengeance – seems to be the most enthralling aspect to most people. His Arthashastra – a great many believe – is a work that highlights scores of ways to dethrone kings and usurp kingdoms. Owing to this misplaced belief, he is often, and unwisely, compared to Niccolo Machiavelli. Alas, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Chanakya was not a vengeful person, nor a ruthless and bloodthirsty conspirator as it is wrongly believed. He wasn’t even “Prime Minister” of the Mauryan empire under Chandragupta Maurya. He was a wise sage who arduously studied, respected and followed the teachings and wisdom of the Vedas all his life. And the Vedas don’t endorse unwise qualities like vengeance. They are shunned beyond doubt.
This becomes clearer when we measure the life of Chanakya according to six Vedic principles: 1. Vasudha-Eva-Kutumbakam (Accepting the whole world as one and one’s family), 2. Samarpan Bhaav (Dedication), 3. Lokasangraha (Welfare of all beings), 4. Shubh Laabh (Ethical Profits), 5. Nishkaama Karma (Deeds without greed) and 6. Ati-Hyaastha-Varjayet (Shunning extremes).
- Vasudha-Eva-Kutumbakam (Accepting the whole world as one and one’s family): Yes, he did support the idea of nation-states, yet he strongly upheld the Vedic belief that the nation-state exists “not just for the welfare of its citizen” but also for “the whole world.” This is evident from the very first stanza of Arthashastra “I, therefore, write this book for the greater good and uplifting of the world…”.
- Samarpan Bhaav (Dedication): When he saw the sad state of his nation Chanakya was depressed and sought revocation; but then realized, contemplating on Vedic literature, that vengeance is a dangerous and that it can harm even the one who is holding on to it. He then decided to work to establish a single empire for the greater good. He certainly dedicated many years of his life to it. Legend has it that he found Chandragupta when was a teenager, then educated, nurtured and mentored him to be King. It was at least over a span of two decades. This is a testimony of Samarpan Bhaav (Dedication),
- Lokasangraha (Welfare of all beings): According to Chanakya, this was the supreme duty of everyone, including the King. This is evident in Book I of the Arthashastra which reads “… King… shall maintain his subjects in the observance of their respective duties by exercising authority; keep up his personal discipline by receiving lessons in wisdom, and endear himself to the people by bringing them wealth and doing good to them.” Also, “… The King shall keep away from hurting the innocent and their property; avoid not only lust, even in a dream, but also falsehood, haughtiness, and evil proclivities; and keep away from unrighteousness and uneconomical transactions.”
- Shubh Laabh (Ethical Profits): This was the key economic objective which the King had to observe not just among his subjects but also for himself. In Chapter 7 of Arthashastra he notes “Not violating righteousness and economy, he shall enjoy his desires. Then he shall never be devoid of happiness. He may enjoy in an equal degree the three pursuits of life, charity, wealth and desire, which are interdependent on each other. Anyone of these three, when enjoyed in excess, hurts not only the other two but also itself.” Chanakya held that wealth is as important as desire and charity; but that this is possible only by “wealth of their knowledge”.
- Nishkaama Karma (Deeds without greed): Apart from other altruist attitudes, Chanakya upheld the idea of deeds without greed. While mentioning the “Duties of the King” he writes, “A King by overthrowing the aggregate of the six internal enemies, namely lust, anger, greed, vanity, haughtiness and overjoy, shall restrain the sense organs…” Also, in the same chapter, “The King may enjoy his desires but only by ensuring non-violation of righteousness and no harm to the economy. “
- Ati-Hyaastha-Varjayet (Shunning extremes): Balance is a key ingredient according to teachings of Kautilya in Arthashastra. While he clearly shunned negative qualities, he also mentioned that people should shun extreme and senseless goodness for the sake of unworthy people. “In the woods”, he says “that tree is chopped first which is straight.” The essence of life, according to him was ” finding the balance between good and bad actions, happiness, and unhappiness, pain and pleasure, cries and laughter.”
The ultimate question that concerns people is whether Chanakya followed these ideals himself. It’s easier to write and teach than to actually practice oneself. Interestingly, Chanakya was a recluse. He was never married and, had no children. Many legends, including those critical of him, agree that he left the capital as soon as he found a credible prime minister for his disciple and new King – Chandragupta Maurya. Even when he stayed in the capital of Mauryas – Pataliputra (modern day Patna) – he lived in a shed like a hermit and never sought the luxuries of the palaces. While he wrote about the materialistic aspects of life, he lived as if a lotus in a dirty pond – untouched by the desires of life.
It’s hard to comprehend a genius like Chanakya; but it’s even harder to understand the absolute qualities of selflessness, dedication, and brilliance of this legend.