Kautilya’s approach to conflict resolution: Sam, Dam, Dand & Bhed

This article by U. Mahesh Prabhu is a part of The Kautilya Project of Vedic Management Center

Arthashastra, compiled, edited and commented by Kautilya a.k.a. Chanakya a.k.a. Vishnugupta, speaks more about administration, organization, clandestine operations, economy and diplomacy than war. Considering this, many political and diplomatic commentators often consider(ed) Arthashastra to be of lesser significance than the likes of The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Now, could that be considered logical? Does it make Arthashastra “less significant” in modern times?

To answer this question, we need to understand the idea of war. War, as a noun, is a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country. The apparent objective of war is to uproot the cause of conflict. For example, if a ruler of a nation is creating too much of a nuisance and limited strikes prove futile, then it becomes essential to push that ruler into submission or, even, slay him. But, what if even his successor retorts similarly? Once you’ve won a war, you could install a handpicked ruler in his place or annex that nation. Annexing a foreign land is often mired in conflict and chaos. It gives rise to dissent and often results in rebellion. Therefore, even if you win the war, the solution is far from achieved.

Vyasa, in Mahabharata, speaks vehemently about the costs of war. Krishna, the principal advisor, and strategist of the Pandavas, too was against the war. He tried to avert the war, but when there was no viable solution at hand, it became increasingly necessary to wage war to attain a solution. Before the great battle of Mahabharata, Pandava prince Arjuna got cold feet. He argued with Krishna “I don’t need a kingdom soaked in the blood of my relatives… although they are up in arms against me.” Krishna, eventually, convinced Arjuna to rise and fight. Some may call Krishna a hypocrite – but they’ve certainly not understood his teachings compiled in Bhagavad-Gita. 

War yields disastrous consequences, true, but it’s also the last resort. In the Arthashastra, Kautilya proposes three approaches before the war: साम: or Sam (implying patience to understand your adversary), दाम् or Dam (persuasion through gifts or material wealth) and दण्ड: or Dand (imposing apt punishments). When these three fail, a ruler is advised to use भेद: or Bhed (or brute force) to force the adversary into submission. [rml_read_more]

This is by far the most practical idea applied by Vedic kings since time immemorial, practical even to this day. When disagreements arrive, and are not substantially settled, conflicts grow. Identifying and allaying disagreements is the object of Sam, which is derived from Sanskrit word समाधान् or Samadhaan or patience. In the absence of patience, nothing sane is ever accomplished. But patience doesn’t mean absolute submission to the whims and fancies of your adversary. It means paying attention to your adversary’s argument and understanding his/her perspective. But too much patience is not advisable. Excessive patience can make you appear cowardly or weak and compromise your interests.

To ensure that your patience isn’t mistaken for weakness, you must show your strengths (non-masculine) discreetly – wealth. This is done through Dam or Damya i.e., “taming” (with gifts) in Sanskrit. You don’t take a beast with your bare hands. One of the most popular ways of taming a beast is by offering something that appeals to its senses – food or sex. A wild male elephant is tamed by bringing in a tamed female elephant. Beasts were tamed in ancient India by first trapping them and then by offering food. In the case of Dam, the taming is best done by offering gifts. Human beings are complex. They may speak one thing but expect another. Understanding your adversary is crucial. This understanding only comes through Sam.

Very often, gifts work perfectly. But there are times when they don’t. There are two major reasons for this: you either haven’t understood your opponent’s mind or your opponent is hell bent on an armed conflict. In such cases, before retorting to an all-out conflict, it’d help to see if some show of strength could work. This can be achieved through Dand, which could be by imposing punishment or even a display of strength.

Physical prowess doesn’t mean everything. Advancement of men from brute animals to the top of the food chain is a testimony to this. There are many beings who are stronger, bigger and mightier than men, but it is man’s sheer intellect that has got him this far.

Brawn can be often outdone through the brain, provided the latter is used well. To even consider that wealth can outdo the brain is stupid because wealth is a result of brawn. मन: or Mana or mind is greater than शरीर or sharira or body which is the primary tool for brawn. “If the mind is at peace, the body is at peace. If the mind is disturbed, it’s only a matter of time before the body gets diseased,” argued a great mind in Ayurveda, Sushrutha.

The body is strong because the mind thinks it to be strong. If the mind thinks, or is made to think, that the opponent is stronger, it’ll generate fear which will greatly undermine the capabilities of the body. Whether it is petty fist fights or complex conflicts, the mind is the ultimate player of the game. If you want to defeat your adversary, attack his mind. With Dand, this can be done through tactical manoeuvres.

Today, nations are as strong as their economy. If you, as a leader of a nation, can show your opponent that you can wreak havoc on the opposing nation’s economy, the opposition will back off. Self-preservation is the fundamental focus of the mind. Why do you think despots and dictators suppress every one of their own people but don’t nuke other countries even when they have nukes? Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, was the lone greatest reason why two superpowers of the time United States of America and Union of Soviet Socialist Republic never went to war, although they had stockpiles of arsenal to destroy the planet many times over.

In the case of institutional conflicts too, Dand often works. Says Kautilya in Arthashastra, दण्डस्य हि भयात् सर्व जगत् भोगाय कल्प्यते or Dandasya hi Bhayaat Sarva Jagat Bhogaaya Kalpyate – it is by fear of punishment that people refrain from doing unrighteous things.

Bhed, or the ultimate resolve, is often war in case of politics and diplomacy. No country is ready for war today. In ancient times, wars were fought on allocated fields. Today, there are no holds on where war can come from. Such a war is not something we are ready to face. Nobody wants war – the despots and religious fanatics, too, wouldn’t want war if they knew its absolute consequences.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu deals directly only with Bhed – war. Given the fact that Kautilya speaks of three major approaches before the war, it must have made him appear practical and wise to any sane being. His work has not been recognized in the West because it is in Sanskrit. Most of the translations available are by people who’ve little or no idea of administration, management, politics, diplomacy, or even war. Besides, most who know Sanskrit don’t know English or vice versa. Those who know both, often have problems with translating skills. The resulting work is often boring to read.



  • What if bhed doesn’t work as well. E.g pakistan.

    • The strategy works only if applied correctly. In case of Pakistan- there have been more than one blunders. We stuck with Ahimsa and the went to UN and cried. The strategy was seldom adopted. We were either too foolish or too naive as a nation while dealing with Pakistan. We care more about international PR than actual result on th ground. Pakistan is pain because this strategy was never understood let alone followed.

  • My thoughts on Synergy Vs Conflict.
    Synergy vs Conflict between two parties A & B is determined by three dimensions.
    Parties A and B can be two people, two teams, two organizations, two products, two cultures, two chemicals, two foods

    Compulsion 0——-[3——-5——-7]———10 Strong Affinity
    No Opinion 0——-[3——-5——-7]———10 Strong Opinionated
    No Voice 0——-[3——-5——-7]———10 Highly Vocal

    Synergy to accomplish extraordinary is achieved when the two entities sit at the centre of above 3 dimentions.
    The goal of a manager is to assess these qualities of people in the team and bring them to the centre.

    – Good food is a result of synergy of good quality ingredients merged using Heat/Cold
    – Good product is a result of synergy of good quality minds merged using Direction, Communication, Co-ordination, Enrichment
    – Just like bad/low quality ingredients or bad/low quality cooking or conflicting ingredients make bad food,bad/low quality minds or bad/low quality management or conflicting minds make bad products.

    In the end, what a manager should be and should do?

    – Have Clarity of Thought to achieve the Vision of his Director
    – Trust those associates who has Clarity of Thought and History of Qualitative and Quantitative accomplishments.
    Bring Synergy in the Team

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