Kautilya’s Rajadharma is Civilizational Perspicuity

A Civilizational View

A civilization is a confluence of cultures that produce enduring ideas and ideals about life. They elevate people and provide joy over considerable stretches of space and time. The quality of ideas a culture generates and the impact of these ideas in animating a people positively, are the true articles of a civilizational constitution. Civilizational memories are deep, powerful and timeless. Bharata stands unique amongst all nations as a living civilization, unrivaled in the sheer expanse and richness of the ideas it has produced about life and the universe. The Indic civilizational ideas of dharma as action that is in consonance with the universal rhythm or rta, the formulation of karma as a principle of momentum and potentiality, the depth of yoga as a science of alignment of the physical with the all-pervasive universal energy – all provide a life design that adorns the collective DNA of the people who have inherited this sacred land. Any formulation and articulation of Indian national interest that does not accord an important, if not a central role to this foundational dimension of civilization, is unlikely to find organic currency with the most important constituent of our nation – the people.

State Design and Civilization 

Security, identity and prosperity are the eternal concerns of any state and these fundamental questions of societal organisation have animated human imagination for thousands of years. Many a great thinker, from Confucius to Aristotle have produced enduring ideas that have guided their respective civilizations. In all of the ancient world, however, it is Kautilya who stands tall as the preeminent thinker on statecraft. He was a political realist with an acute understanding of both the dynamics of power as well as human frailties. His real genius lies in his synthesis of Rajadharma,  the theory of power and state responsibility , or, with the civilizational potential of the nation. In doing so, he emerges as a master designer with an immaculate blueprint for an Indic civilizational state. The Arthashastra outlines a societal design with unlimited upside potential for human imagination, but minimal downside risks of excessive authority or hedonistic tendencies.

Kautilya’s Formulation of Rajadharma 

This vision is captured in the following sutra from the Arthashastra:

सुखस्य मूलं  धर्मः धर्मस्य मूल अर्थ: 
अर्थस्य  मूलं राज्यं  राज्यस्य मूलं  इन्द्रिय जयः 
इन्द्रियाजयस्य मूलं विनयः विनयस्य मूलं वृद्धोपसेव: 

sukhasya mūlaṃ dharmaḥ dharmasya mūla artha:
arthasya mūlaṃ rājyaṃ rājyasya mūlaṃ indriya jayaḥ
indriyājayasya mūlaṃ vinayaḥ vinayasya mūlaṃ vṛddhopaseva:

This can be represented as a hierarchy beginning with Indriya Vijayi of the rajan and culminating in sukha of the entire population.

In one magnetic sweep, Kautilya captures the entire essence of nation building, when he clarifies the inextricable link between man-making and institutional design. He exhorts that the state (or king) should draw legitimacy only from the pursuit of Yogakshema of its people, and only a leadership that has gained control over its senses, termed by Kautilya as Indriyavijayi, can afford to stake a claim to power. Sukham, or joy, is the highest aim. Achieving it is possible only through dharma, or righteous action in consonance with universal order. Dharma can flourish only when it is undergirded by Artha, or economic prosperity. 

In some ways, this is similar to liberal institutional theories of democracy, which ascribe and limit the role of state to maintaining order and building institutions for people to exercise their passion and creativity to generate economic value and grow. In this modern formulation, Indriyavijayi is hoped to be subsumed under institutionalisation and constitutional morality and Rajyam is substituted by nation-state, but the imagination ends there. This stunted imagination leads not to Sukham but to the ‘disenchantment’ that even Max Weber had the intuition to predict. 

It was the end of western imagination that equated Artha, or production of wealth, with Sukham. That led to the proliferation of a productised version of democracy without scope for contextualisation. We now know that it did not lead to the End of History as Francis Fukiyama would have us believe. The result was just the limitation of the linear thinking that exemplifies such modernist theories. 

If there is one lesson we can learn from the events in the last three decades from the political arena, as well as developments in fields like behavioral economics, it is this – Homo sapiens is not Homo economicus, there is more to us. Humans yearn for meaning, for belonging and for a deep sense of purpose. It is the critical link of dharma that builds a cognitive map in the minds and hearts of the Janapada that simultaneously provides an elevated vision to life, and constrains the excessive tendencies of power – not through some agency that mediates the transactions, but through a solidarity of objective about the meaning of life itself. 

Kautilya had the civilizational perspicuity to nestle his theory of statecraft within the civilizational ethos of this nation. That is far better design than trying to foist a set of different historical experiences upon a people who have experienced something far superior. It is the job of our generation to synthesise and provide a rejuvenated vision for humanity. This is essential, not esoteric. 

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, perhaps came closest to giving us a formula for what such synthesis can look like, when he added an Indic touch to the values of the Enlightenment. He said what India needs is Spiritual Liberty, Political Equality and Economic Fraternity’

Achieving this requires us to cultivate what Kautilya, and Yudhistira before him, identified as the kernel of civilizational continuity – the idea of Maryada. We are in the throes of an age dominated by the idea that humanity advances by only upending what has come before. Purveyors of this telos would do well to reflect on this idea of Maryada. Kautilya was a chief preceptor of the ‘nature of power’. His meditation on power and statecraft is profound. He clearly recognised that power corrupts and so he addresses the question of cultivating humility and a recognition of mortality by emphasising on Maryada. Every generation, every leader has the responsibility of respectfully engaging with the past and synthesising the needs of the present with the wisdom of the past. This has been the Indian way neither dogmatic nor disrespectful but always dharmic

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