Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Genius of Chanakya, the Man of Destiny.

We all have our Hero(s)/Heroine(s)... who have influenced us at some point or the other in our lives, who we have looked up to and literally worshipped and still do... who have always been larger than life... and will forever remain so - in our hearts and thoughts. From the fictional characters to the greatest sportspersons, from the silverscreen and entertainment Czars/Czarinas to the historical figures, from the epics and the mythological figures to the legends of another age, another time... our Hero(s)/Heroine(s) have been drawn from everywhere... Today, I will write about a legendary character, a seminal figure, who walked on this earth like a colossus... well over 2 millennia ago and whose legend continues to live on... He was the first great political realist, a Master strategist, the world's first "Management Guru," and a true Man of Destiny... I refer to 'Chanakya' (also known as 'Kautilya').

Chanakya (c. 350-283 B.C.) was an adviser and Prime Minister to the first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (c. 340-293 B.C.), and is regarded as the architect of his early rise to power. His actual name is believed to be Vishnugupta (The "Arthaśhāstra" identifies its author by the name 'Kautilya', except for one verse which refers to him by the name 'Vishnugupta'. One of the earliest Sanskrit literature to explicitly identify 'Chanakya' with 'Vishnugupta' was Vishnu Sarma's "Panchatantra," written in the 3rd century B.C.) Chanakya is considered as a pioneer in the field of economics, preceding Ibn Khaldun in writing about it by about a millennium and a half. Chanakya was a Professor or teacher at the Takshashila University and is widely believed to be responsible for the creation of the Mauryan empire, the first of its kind (Empire) on the Indian subcontinent. He is generally called 'Chanakya' but, in his capacity as the author of the "Arthashastra," he is referred to as 'Kautilya' which means 'kautil neeti'. He was not only a Master politician but also a Master at the shrewd art of diplomacy.

Birth and Early life: There are several versions regarding the birth of Chanakya. According to the Jaina version, Chānakya was born in the village of 'Canaka' in the Golla district to Canin and Caneśvarī, a Maga Brahmin couple. The Pali version says that he was a Brahmin from Takshila. Other versions: The classical Sanskrit play by Vishakhadatta, "Mudrarakshasa," is one popular source of the Chanakya lore. (The play has been dated between the 4th and the 9th century C.E).

A South Indian group of Brahmins in Tamil Nadu called 'Sholiyar' or 'Chozhiyar', claim that Chanakya was one of them. Though this may sound quite improbable, considering the vast distance between present day Tamilnadu in the South and 'Magadha' in Bihar, it finds curious echos in the "Abhidhānchintāmani," where Hemachandra claims that Chankya was a "Dramila" ("Dramila" is believed to be the root of the word "Dravida" by some scholars).

There is also a claim that Chanakya belonged to a Brahmin group from modern day Kerala. In true Hindu tradition he is said to have persuaded the Emperor Chandragupta Maurya to forsake his throne, and to join him in moving to the last phase of one's life, viz., 'Sanyasa'. Accordingly, he took the Emperor along with him to South India where both of them carried out a prolonged meditation and finally achieved 'Moksha'.

Kautilya was educated at 'Taxila' or 'Takshashila', (now a part of Pakistan). The new states (in present-day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh) through the northern high road of commerce along the base of the Himalayas maintained contact with 'Takshashila' and at the eastern end of the northern high road (uttarapatha) was the kingdom of 'Magadha' with its capital city, 'Pataliputra', now known as Patna. Chanakya's life was connected to these two cities, Pataliputra and Taxila.

In his early years he was tutored extensively in the Vedas - Chanakya is said to have memorized them completely at a very early age. He was also believed to have been tutored in mathematics, geography, the legal systems of those times and science (including astronomy and ayurveda) along with religion. Later he travelled to Taxila, where he was widely believed to have became a teacher of politics. Chanakya taught subjects using the best of the practical knowledge acquired by the teachers. The age of entering the University was sixteen. The subjects (areas or branches of study/education) most sought after in and around India at that time ranged from law, medicine and warfare, among other disciplines. Two of Chanakya's more famous students were Bhadrabhatta and Purushdutta (widely believed).

Political turmoil in Western India (during that time) caused by the Greek invasion, forced Chanakya to leave the University environment for the city of Pataliputra (presently known as Patna, in the state of Bihar, India), which was then ruled by the Nanda King, Dhana Nanda. Although Chanakya initially prospered in his relations with the ruler, but being a blunt or straightforward or should I say, undiplomatic person, he soon fell out of favour with the King Dhana Nanda, who now disliked him. This led to Chanakya being removed from an official position.

Chanakya, the author: Two books are attributed to Chanakya,viz., "Arthashastra" and "Nitishastra" which is also known as "Chanakya Niti." The "Arthashastra" discusses monetary and fiscal policies, welfare, international relations, and war strategies in detail. The "Nitishastra" is a treatise on the ideal way of life, and shows Chanakya's in depth study and knowledge of the Indian way of life.

The title of "The Indian Machiavelli:" Chanakya is known as "The Indian Machiavelli" in the Western world. But, I disagree. Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527) - was a philosopher, writer and Italian politician, considered to be the founder of modern political science. As a Renaissance Man, he was a diplomat, political philosopher, musician, poet, and playwright, but, foremost, he was a Civil Servant of the Florentine Republic. But, take a look at the time he lived (his birth and passing away, that is): 3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527; and compare that with Chanakya's - (c. 350-283 B.C.) Chanakya preceded Machiavelli by over a millennium! Hence, it is a misrepresentation to refer to Chanakya as "The Indian Machiavelli," it could (and should) certainly be the other way round. Chanakya/Kautilya was the world's first "Management Guru" and I cannot, absolutely cannot believe that Machiavelli or anyone else, including the present day "Management Gurus" - both Western and Indian - have not read the "Arthashastra" and the "Nitishastra," and then derived 'inspiration' from them.

Foundation of the 'Maurya Empire': At the time of Alexander the Great's invasion, Chanakya was a teacher at the Taxila University. The King of Taxila and Gandhara, Ambhi (also known as Omphis or Taxiles), signed a treaty with Alexander and did not fight against him. Chanakya viewed the foreign invasion as an invasion against the Indian culture and sought help from the other (local) Kings and advised them to unite and fight Alexander. Porus (Parvateshwar), a King of the Punjab, was the only local King who was able to challenge Alexander at the 'Battle of the Hydaspes River', but was defeated.

Chanakya then went to 'Magadha', further East to seek the help of King Dhana Nanda, who ruled over the vast Nanda Empire, that extended from Bihar and Bengal in the East to the eastern Punjab in the West; but he was denied any help. In all forms of the Chanakya legend, it is mentioned that he was insulted and thrown out of the Nanda Court by the King Dhana Nanda, whereupon he swore revenge.

While in Magadha, Chanakya chanced upon Chandragupta, in whom he spotted great military and executive abilities. Although a mere 'dasi-putra', that is, 'the son of a maidservant' (by the Magadha King Nanda), Chandragupta was highly intelligent, courageous and physically powerful. Chanakya was impressed by the young Prince's personality and intelligence, and immediately took him under his wings - to fulfill his silent vow. He began sowing the seeds of the dream of building an Empire that could protect the Indian territories from foreign invasion into his disciple Chandragupta. As he grew up, Chandragupta Maurya, with the help of Chanakya, began laying the foundation of the Maurya Empire. Chanakya cared little for the fact that due to his low birth (i.e., being a 'dasi-putra') Chandragupta should not and could not approach the throne or become the ruler. A man of immense discretion, Chanakya's desire was that only a ruler of extraordinary capabilities should be raised to the exalted position of the 'King of Magadha', so that the offensive launched by the 'Yavanas' (Greeks) could be repulsed.

Chanakya's vow of keeping his 'sikha' untied: Legend has it that Chanakya had vowed or taken an oath to leave his long 'sikha' unknotted or untied until he succeeded in humbling the Nanda Kings (the contemptuous ruler of Magadha, King Dhana Nanda and his drunkard and wastrel Princes). True to his oath, it was only after he had engineered a swift demise of the debauched and worthless rulers of the Nanda dynasty, did this great man tie up his tuft of hair (sikha) again.

The 'sikha,' its importance, and the "Mahabharata:" The 'sikha' (also called 'shikha') is a Sanskrit word that refers to a long tuft, or lock of hair left on the top or on the back of the shaven head of a male Orthodox Hindu. Though traditionally all Hindus were required to wear a 'sikha', today it is seen mainly among Brahmacharya, 'celibate monks' and temple priests. The 'sikha' is tied back or knotted - to perform religious rites. Only funerals and death anniversaries are performed with the 'sikha' tuft untied or with dishevelled hair. Dishevelled hair is considered inauspicious, and represents times of great sorrow or calamity. In our Great epic, the "Mahabharata," Draupadi took an oath in the assembly of the 'Kauravas' or 'Kurus', after she was insulted by Dussasana, that she would remain with dishevelled hair until the enemies (the Kauravas) were destroyed and she (Draupadi) has had her revenge. Both Draupadi and Chanakya were from two different eras ('yugas'), yet they have left their footprints on the sands of time and their actions have had far-reaching and epoch-making consequences.

Conquest of the 'Nanda Empire': Chanakya had trained Chandragupta under his guidance and together they planned the destruction of the King Dhana Nanda. The "Mudrarakshasa" of Visakhadutta as well as the Jaina work "Parisishtaparvan," talk of Chandragupta's alliance with the Himalayan King Parvatka, who is sometimes identified with the King 'Porus'. It is noted in the "Chandraguptakatha" that both Chandragupta and Chanakya were initially rebuffed by the forces/armies of Nanda. Regardless of this, in the ensuing war, Chandragupta faced off or fought against Bhadrasala – the Commander of the King Dhana Nanda's armies. He was eventually able to defeat Bhadrasala and the King Dhana Nanda in a series of battle, that ended with the siege of the capital city - 'Kusumapura' and the conquest of the Nanda Empire around 321 B.C; thus laying the foundations of the powerful 'Maurya Empire' in Northern India by the time he was about 20 years old.

Conquest of the Greek territories (annexed by Alexander the Great) and the Greek General Seleucus I Nicator: After the downfall of the Nanda dynasty, it was not difficult for Chandragupta to win the support of the citizens of Magadha, who responded warmly to their new, heroic, and handsome young ruler. The Kings of the neighbouring states rallied under Chandragupta's suzerainty and the last of the Greeks headed by Alexander's General, Seleucus (Seleucus I Nicator - Satrap 311–305 B.C., King 305 B.C–281 B.C) - were defeated. It is believed that Chandragupta had established himself so firmly in the Punjab that when, in 306 or 305 B.C., Seleucus I Nicator crossed the river Indus in an endeavour to recover the erstwhile provinces of (i.e., the territories conquered by) Alexander the Great, he found the Mauryan Emperor confronting him with such formidable force that he was constrained to make peace on terms which appear, prima facie, to have been wholly in favour of the Mauryan Emperor. Under those terms, Seleucus not only acknowledged Emperor Chandragupta’s sovereignty over the Punjab and Gandhara, he also ceded to him parts of Arachosia and Gedrosia, while he himself received only 500 elephants in return. This treaty was sealed by a matrimonial alliance between the two royal houses - with Seleucus giving a daughter or niece in marriage to the Emperor Chandragupta or, possibly, to his son Bindusara.

With the dual obstacles of the Nandas and the Alexander's troops (under his General, Seleucus - Seleucus I Nicator) out of the way, Chanakya Pandit used every political device and intrigue to unite the greater portion of the Indian subcontinent. Under the Prime Ministership/guidance of Chanakya, Emperor Chandragupta Maurya conquered all the lands up to Iran in the North West and down to the extremities of Karnataka or the Mysore State in the South; from the Himalayas on the North to Burma on the East. 'Pataliputra' (presently known as 'Patna', in the state of Bihar, India) was the Capital city. It was by his wits alone that this skinny, austere and ascetic Brāhman directed the formation of the greatest Indian Empire ever seen in history (ie., since the beginning of the Kali Yuga). Thus the indigenous Vedic culture of the sacred land of 'Bharata' was protected and the spiritual practices of the citizens of this great land could go on unhampered.

Therefore, by the time he was only about 20 years old, Chandragupta, who had succeeded in defeating the Macedonian satrapies in India (thereby annexing the erstwhile Greek territories of Takshashila, Punjab and Sindh) and conquering the Nanda Empire, had established a vast Empire (of his own) that extended from the Bengal and Assam in the east, to the Indus Valley in the west... which he were to further expand in the subsequent years.

Although many great savants (expert or wise persons) of the science of 'niti' such as Brihaspati, Shukracharya, Bhartrihari and Vishnusharma have echoed many of these instructions in their own celebrated works (e.g., "Brihaspati Samhita" of "Garuda Purana," "Shukra-Niti," "Niti-Shataka" and "Panchatantra" respectively), it is perhaps the way that Chanakya applied his teachings of 'niti-sastra' that has made him stand out as a significant historical figure. The major lesson that this great Pandit (a learned or wise person) teaches us is that, lofty ideals can become a reality if we intelligently work towards achieving our goal in a determined, progressive and practical manner.

Prediction from the "Vishnu Purana" and the appearance of Chanakya Pandit: Dr. R. Shamashastry, the translator of the English version of Kautilya's "Arthashastra," quotes a prediction from the "Vishnu Purana" fourth canto, twenty-fourth chapter, regarding the appearance of Chanakya Pandit. This prediction, incidentally, was scribed fifty centuries ago, nearly 2700 years before this great political scientist and man of destiny was to appear. The prediction informs us: "(First) Mahapadma then his sons - only nine in number - will be the lords of the earth for a hundred years. A brahmana named Kautilya will slay these Nandas. On their death, the Mauryas will enjoy the earth. Kautilya himself will install Chandragupta on the throne. His son will be Bindusara and his son will be Ashokavardhana." Similar prophecies are also repeated in the "Bhagavata," "Vayu" and "Matsya Puranas."

Some quotes from the "Arthashastra:"
  • Whoever imposes severe punishment becomes repulsive to the people; while he who awards mild punishment becomes contemptible. But whoever imposes punishment as deserved becomes respectable. For punishment when awarded with due consideration, makes the people devoted to righteousness and to works productive of wealth and enjoyment; while punishment, when ill-awarded under the influence of greed and anger or owing to ignorance, excites fury even among the hermits and the ascetics dwelling in the forests, not to speak of the householders.

Book I : "Concerning Discipline" - Chapter 4 - "Determination of the Place of Varta and of Dandaniti."

  • If a King is energetic, his subjects will be equally energetic. If he is reckless, they will not only be reckless likewise, but also eat into his works. Besides, a reckless King will easily fall into the hands of his enemies. Hence the King shall ever be wakeful.

Book I : "Concerning Discipline" - Chapter 19 - "The Duties of a King."

  • All urgent calls he shall hear at once, but never put off; for when postponed, they will prove too hard or impossible to accomplish.

Book I : "Concerning Discipline" - Chapter 19.

Following are the links which lead to the various chapters of the "Arthashastra:"


His later life and his final bow: Chanakya lived to attain a ripe old age and passed away around 283 B.C. He was cremated by his grandson/disciple Radhagupta who succeeded Rakshasa Katyayan (the great-grand son of Prabuddha Katyayan, who had attained 'Nirvana' - the state of being free from both suffering and the cycle of rebirth - during the same period as the Gautama Buddha) as the Prime Minister of the Maurya Empire, and was instrumental in backing Ashoka to ascend the throne. There were three non-traditional belief paths in the society those days: the 'Jaina', the 'Buddhist' and the 'Ajivaka'. Ajivaka practising Chanakya brought about the downfall of the Jaina Nandas and their coterie of Jaina Ministers. (Chanakya's Uncle was a Jain too, while a group of Jains backed Chanakya in his political machinations). Later on, Chandragupta Maurya converted to Jainism - on abdicating his throne, whereupon his son Bindusara who was an Ajivaka, became the Emperor. Even Ashoka was a practising Ajivaka, but before his accession to the throne he became a Buddhist. Bindusara was born before his father became the Emperor (hence, the legend mentioned below may not be true). Emperor Ashoka's daughter was married in 265 B.C. and his son Prince Kunala was 18 years of age in 269 B.C., which indicates that even the Princes married early in those days. Ashoka was born 310 B.C. while his father Bindusara was born around 330 B.C. 'Bindusara' means 'one who encompasses all that is needed to be known'.

According to a legend, (which is a later jaina invention) it is believed that while Chanakya served as the Prime Minister of Chandragupta Maurya, he started adding small quantities of poison in Chandragupta's food - so that he would get used to it and develop resistance to poison. The aim for such an action was to prevent the Emperor from being poisoned by enemies. One day the Queen, Durdha, shared the food with the Emperor (the Queen was in the family way then). Since she was not used to eating poisoned food, she died. Chanakya was determined that the baby should not die; therefore, he cut open the belly of the dead Queen and took out the baby. A drop ('bindu' in Sanskrit) of the poisoned blood had by then touched the baby's head, and hence Chanakya named him 'Bindusara'. Bindusara later went on to become a great Emperor in his own right and also fathered the greatest Mauryan Emperor since Chandragupta - Emperor Asoka.

When Bindusara became a youth, Chandragupta renounced the throne and followed the Jain saint Bhadrabahu to present day Karnataka and settled in a place known as 'Shravana Belagola'. He lived as an ascetic for some years and died due to voluntary starvation - as per the Jain tradition. Chanakya meanwhile stayed on as the Prime Minister of the second Mauryan Emperor, Bindusara. Bindusara also had another Minister named Subandhu who did not like Chanakya. One day, he told Bindusara that Chanakya was responsible for the death (murder) of his mother. Bindusara then asked the nurses who confirmed this story, thereby causing him to become very angry with Chanakya.

It is said that Chanakya, on hearing that the Emperor (Bindusara) was angry with him, took certain decisions. He thought that he was in any case at the end (or at the last stage) of his life. He then donated all his wealth/possessions to the poor, widows and orphans and sat on a dung heap, prepared to die by total abstinence from food and drink (including water). Bindusara meanwhile heard the full story of his birth from the nurses and rushed to beg forgiveness from Chanakya. But Chanakya did not relent. Thereafter, Bindusara went back and vent his fury on Subandhu, who asked for time to seek pardon (forgiveness) from Chanakya.

Subandhu, who still hated Chanakya, wanted to make sure that he (Chanakya) would not return to the city. Therefore, he arranged for a 'ceremony of respect', but unnoticed by anyone, slipped a smoldering charcoal ember inside the dung heap (on which Chanakya sat). Aided by the wind, the dung heap swiftly caught fire, and the man who laid the foundation of the Maurya Empire and authored the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, "Arthashastra" was burnt to death.

Chanakya's two main philosophies were, "A debt should be paid off till the last penny" and "An enemy should be destroyed without a trace." Ironically, Subandhu too followed the same philosophies in order to destroy him.

Thus was the very tragic end of this political, economic and military genius... but was it really the end? His name is very much alive and his two books - the "Arthashastra" and the "Nitishastra" or "Chanakya Niti" - are still widely read and will continue to be read by generations to come... but who remembers Subandhu? Where is he today? If at all his name comes up, it is only because of Chanakya, the man he supposedly 'destroyed', but who in turn rose like the proverbial sphinx through the pages of history to mesmerize generation after generation of scholars and lay people of all ages, for over 2 millennia and will continue to fascinate... He was truely a Man of Destiny, who made history bow before him.

Note: Information gathered courtesy Wikipedia and the Internet Indian History Sourcebook.

Photographs: (in clockwise order)

1) A sketch of (arguably) the greatest political, economic and military genius - 'Chanakya'.

2) A painting depicting the Court of the Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, where (especially) Chanakya, played an important part in the foundation and governance of the Maurya dynasty. (Wikipedia)

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