Saturday, August 27, 2011

Chanakya's Chant by Ashwin Sanghi

Authors Note: This book review has been published in association with Vodafone Crossword Book Awards - 2010. Please click here to know more about the awards.

An exciting read!

Chanakya's Chant is author-entrepreneur Ashwin Sanghi aka Shawn Haigins' second offering after the 2007 The Rozabal Line that went on to become a national bestseller. It has been nominated for the Vodafone Crossword Book Awards for 2010 - in the Popular Award category - along with nine others. I do not know who will win, but since 'win' is one half of 'Ashwin' ... he may already be half way through *smile*

Chanakya is no stranger to us. Through history books, the Amar Chitra Katha comics and the TV series by the same name, along with his two seminal works, the Arthashastra and the Nitishastra, we all claim to "know" him. Though his life and works have been lost to us, due to the antiquities of time, yet several attempts have been made to reconstruct his persona. However his legend has lived on and will continue to do so.

In Chanakya's Chant, the author has relied on his own imagination along with materials culled from various sources, including perhaps Mudrarakshasa (The Signet of the Minister) - a historical play in Sanskrit by Vishakhadatta. There are two narratives that runs parallel to each other: one is that of Vishnugupt/Kautilya aka Chanakya - the son of Chanak and the other is that of Pt. Gangasagar Mishra - a modern day Chanakya like figure. They are separated by over two millennia and there is no physical similarity between them yet they are very much alike: cold, calculating, cunning and motivated by higher ideals. Their stated aim is to unify India (for Pt. Mishra it was of course a much truncated version). Neither of them wished for nor received any material gains, nor did they desire for roads and statues to be built after them. They were selfless in the truest sense and they were the followers of the doctrine of "ahimsa" - in their own way.

Chanakya had Chandragupta Maurya while Pt. Gangasagar has Chandini Gupta - a slum kid he is determined to install as the PM of India, as their protégés. Chandragupta - from whatever we can gather about him - was valiant and sharp, however in the book he comes across as a tad puppetish. Which is fine, since Chanakya is the focus of the narrative, but a little more assertive and cerebral Chandragupta wouldn't have disappointed. Chandini by contrast is much beholden to Pt. Gangasagar, though she does display some spark and spunk sporadically. However, come to think of it, it could just be that both were simply following the paths outlined by their respective gurus and did so because of their immense faith in them, all the while learning via osmosis ... which do not make them puppets, but clever! And ideal examples of guru and shishya (protégé).

Both the narratives flow along quite well, pulling you into their midst and going back and forth 2300 years - taking you through the ups and downs, the struggle, the revenge, the cunning, the wars and battles, the intrigues, the mind games, the spies and vishkanyas, the battle of instinct, changing loyalties and promises. The book encompasses history, religion and politics among other things in quite a mouthwatering mix.

Chanakya's character is much more strongly etched, which is not surprising, and even though the author has borrowed quotations from others and attributed them to Chanakya ... none can say that the great man himself had not said similar things. However, the cuss words mouthed by him seem too undignified to have been uttered by the great man himself. I'm sure Chanakya's cuss words too would have sounded erudite *smile*

The author hasn't changed the names of places too much. E.g., Taxila is not called Takshashila. Peshawar is not called Pushkalwati or even Purushapura or Pushpapura - perhaps for the ease of reading.

Chanakya - one of the most illustrious among the students to have graduated from the famed Takshashila University authored the world's finest treatise on political duties, statecraft, economic policies, state intelligence systems, administrative skills and military strategy, called the Arthashastra, consisting of 15 books. He also ably guided Chandragupta Maurya to lay the foundations of the great Mauryan Empire, and also served as his prime minister. Emperor Ashok the Great was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya.

Takshashila, the place where this university existed, is currently in Pakistan, and gets its name from Taksha, who was the son of Bharath (the brother of Shri Ram). Taksha ruled over the kingdom of Taksha Khanda, which even extended beyond modern day Uzbekistan, and Tashkent - the present day Uzbek capital also gets its name from Taksha/Takshashila. As to why modern scholars and experts are so keen to classify the Ramayan and the Mahabharat as 'mythology' instead of the history of the Treta and Dwapar Yug ... my guess is as good as yours. And why they try their bestest to restrict them within the current landmass of India, with a reluctant reference to Sri Lanka and Gandhar (in modern Afghanistan) ... I have not a clue.

Frankly, Chanakya is considered to be the first great political realist, a master strategist, the world's first "Management Guru" and a true Man of Destiny (Yug Purush). To my mind, he is the Shri Krishna of Kali Yug (the age of Kali - the era in which we live). He is the third among famous political strategists to have walked on this land, after Shri Krishna and Shakuni. Yes, Shakuni. Shri Krishna's successful guidance of the Pandavas in the Mahabharat is legendary and the Bhagavad Gita is universally renowned, as the jewel of India's spiritual wisdom, yet let us not forget that without Shakuni's cunning, the Kauravas were nothing really. It took someone of the caliber of Shri Krishna to finally outwit Shakuni.

Sadly our knowledge of Shakuni is limited. I see a repeat in the face-off between Chanakya and Rakshas but here too our knowledge of them is sketchy at the most. Ashwin has however tried to flesh it out a bit.

The central theme of Chanakya's Chant is a Shakti Mantra that is uttered by both Chanakya as well as Pt. Gangasagar Mishra:

"Adi Shakti, Namo Namah
Sarab Shakti, Namo Namah
Prithum Bhagvati, Namo Namah
Kundalini Mata Shakti
Mata Shakti, Namo Namah"

(translated: Primal Shakti, I bow to thee All-encompassing Shakti, I bow to thee That through which God creates, I bow to thee Creative power of the Kundalini Mother of all, to thee I bow.)

It is generally believed that Chanakya's views on women were a tad regressive. However I have always felt that his utterances towards women were not per se but w.r.t specific events and contexts.

Chanakya apart from being a great teacher was also a master strategist with deep insights into warfare, military technology and plans ... including the art of intelligence gathering. Whatever he has said could be interpreted in the light of the above. He was farsighted and hence may have meant his writings to be a cautionary note for the future generations - since he may not have believed that his generation has seen the last of the mischief mongers and mlechchas.

Could it not be that vested interests have tweaked his works to suit their needs? Just as our scriptures, etc was tweaked, e.g., to make 'aagre' (to lead) turn into 'aagne' (into the fire). A widow is supposed to lead the funeral procession of her deceased husband and not immolate herself on his pyre to commit 'Sati' (known as 'Satidaha' in Bengal – meaning 'the burning of Sati')

It took immense efforts under extremely trying circumstances (since the vested interests fought tooth and nail) from a succession of social reformers lead by the great Iswarchandra Vidyasagar to point that out and finally abolish 'Sati'.

Yet we still see it and much more happening under the guise of 'our ancient customs and traditions' of which there is no shortage of upholders. Sadly.

In 2009, we commemorated the bicentennial or the 200th anniversary of the birth of two historic figures, whose ideas and actions shaped the modern world - the evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin and President Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States (US), who successfully led the US through its greatest internal crisis, the American Civil War, preserving the Union and ending slavery. On the other hand, we succeeded in completely overlooking another important occasion - the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Arthashastra - (written in the period 321 - 296 B.C.) - the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, authored by the world's original political realist, Chanakya. Chanakya's long forgotten wisdom from the 3rd and 4th century B.C. was restored to modern India when Dr. R. Shamashastri of Mysore discovered a manuscript of the Arthashastra in 1904, then edited and published it to great acclaim in 1909.

So, in a way Ashwin Sanghi's novel has come at the right time. Chanakya is timeless and therefore there cannot be a time or era when he or his teachings can ever become redundant.

Chanakya's Chant has revived our interest in the life and teachings of the great Chanakya. I am keen to know more about him and Chandragupta Maurya ... and I wonder what would India (and her people) been like had they lived in today's times. If only ... we could find visionaries and leaders like them - so personified by Pt. Gangasagar Mishra and Chandini Gupta, even their circumstances and/or events that they are a part of ring a bell with the reader.

We all know that Chandragupta fared well even after Chanakya decided to retire and write his treatises. But for a modern Chandragupta, that may be difficult, nay impossible, given the gargantuan proportions of the challenges we as a nation face.

However, there is a need for some serious introspection, a need for soul searching - to understand as to where we went wrong in the last millennium or in the last one thousand years, that the great Empires and the Vedic civilization collapsed. That this great land saw the advent of conquerors after conquerors ... the ones who could not be rebuffed or defeated, and this land was plundered of her wealth and saw the forced demise of a part of her culture. Paying mere lip service to our culture and traditions and reminiscing about our past glories will not do and is not enough. A glorious past is no guarantee for a shining future unless we are prepared to jettison petty-mindedness for serious intent to execute the common goal of making India (Bharatavarsh) emerge as a great power in the 21st century.

In these times of turbulence and violence - the Kali Yug - Chanakya's thinking, his teachings and his philosophy are even more relevant. Each of us needs his guidance like never before. 'Coz a nation is made great by her people. And we all know a weak spine cannot support a strong and righteous mind ... and vice versa.

Details of the book: Chanakya's Chant/ Ashwin Sanghi/ Publisher: Westland/ Pages: 441/ Paperback/ ISBN: 978-93-80658-67-4/ Price: Rs.195/

Photograph: The book jacket cover of Chanakya's Chant. Picture courtesy: link.
About the author: Ashwin Sanghi (born January 25, 1969): An entrepreneur by profession, Ashwin Sanghi writes extensively on history, religion and politics in his spare time, but historical fiction in the thriller genre is his passion and hobby. Sanghi holds a master s degree from Yale. He lives in India with his wife Anushika and son Raghuvir.

His first novel, The Rozabal Line, was originally published in 2007 under his pseudonym, Shawn Haigins. The book was subsequently published in 2008 and 2010 in India under his own name and went on to become a national bestseller.


  1. i have alwaz wanted to study chanakya nitis.... searchd it on google but den were toooo long to read :P.. but will try n follow dos up soon...

  2. I could not relate Chanakya's chant to Chanakya or to the story. Chanakya despised women and Gangasagar is the guru of Chandini. Chanakya chant worships the supreme feminine energy but yet Chanakya views about women are to be completely ignorable

  3. @Suman Saurabh: Welcome to my blog.

    Well, the original manuscripts of Chanakya’s works are lost in the mists of time. The books and commentaries are based on a manuscript that was discovered a little over a century ago... and then transcribed and edited. ~ Manuscripts have a limited shelf life, usually about a few hundred years, and so, have to be copied. Sometimes they require translation or transliteration. ... With the passage of centuries there is a change in phonetics, language(s), a change in the meanings and connotations of words and phrases, and so on. Also, the cultural and social milieu does not remain the same. Therefore, the later translators probably leave their mark. ~ The decline of the Gupta era brought with it a lot of changes, especially the stratification of society... based on various aspects, including on gender lines. So, mistranslation of the texts is a possibility. The manuscripts that exist belong to this period. Besides, Chanakya and Kautilya may have been the same person. However, Vishnugupt probably was a redactor of Chanakya’s works.