Good Governance is Sound Politics

Kautilya’s advice on how not to lose power.

It is said that Kautilya would stop at nothing “to achieve his purpose”, for “he was unscrupulous enough”.[1] His text, the Arthaśāstra is touted as a treatise advocating cunning and deceitful means to acquire power. Thus, Kautilya and the Arthaśāstra have come to represent politics devoid of principles. Is that really the case? As Devdutt Pattnaik claims, did Kautilya really stray from the path of Rama and Krishna by subordinating dharma to artha? A good way to examine this is to look at Kautilya’s advice to kings on how not to lose power.      

I. Dharma is Supreme

राज्ञः स्व-धर्मः स्वर्गाय प्रजा धर्मेण रक्षितुः ॥ 

अरक्षितुर् वा क्षेप्तुर् वा मिथ्या-दण्डम् अतोऽअन्यथा ॥

rājñaḥ sva dharmaḥ svargāya prajā dharmeṇa rakṣituḥ || 
arakṣitur vā kṣeptur vā mithyā daṇḍam atoऽanyathā ||

As the duty of a king consists in protecting his subjects with justice [dharma], its observance leads him to heaven. He who does not protect his people or upsets the social order wields his royal sceptre (danda) in vain.

KA 3.1.41

Kautilya writes that the king is the dharmapravartaka–one who champions dharma. Protection of dharma is the raison d’etre of the kingdom, and artha is required for carrying out the acts of dharma 1 (1.7.7); the two are not in conflict. This is the basis for writing a whole śastra dedicated to artha

When it comes to succession, the king should never pass the throne to an undisciplined prince who hates dharma and artha, even if he is his only son. 2 (1.17.51) Similarly, whether it is his own son or the enemy, the king has to impartially apply the danda in accordance to the violation committed by them. 3 [3.1.42] A king should never let familial love or politics to override dharma. 

Advising the king to be righteous, Kautilya writes that an unrighteous king will be deserted by his subjects even if he is powerful. On the other hand, a righteous king, though weak, will be supported and followed by his people even in his downfall. 4 (7.5.17) Secondly, according to Kautilya, a king who mistreats his people faces the wrath of Lord Varuna. 5 (4.13.43) Such is the importance given to justice and fairness, both of which are aspects of dharma.

II. People first–‘Not me, But you’

प्रजा-सुखे सुखं राज्ञः प्रजानां च हिते हितम् | 

नाऽआत्म-प्रियं हितं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु प्रियं हितम् ||

prajā.sukhe sukhaṃ rājñaḥ prajānāṃ ca hite hitam |
na’ātma.priyaṃ hitaṃ rājñaḥ prajānāṃ tu priyaṃ hitam ||

“In the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the King and in the welfare of his subjects his own welfare; what pleases him personally is not beneficial to him, but whatever pleases his subjects is beneficial to him.”

KA 1.19.34

The king’s personal likes and dislikes have no say in the policies and actions of the state. He has to use his danda ‘to make acquisitions, to keep them secure, to improve them, and to distribute among the deserved the profits of improvement.’ 6 (1.4.3) By making his subjects prosperous, the king should become Lokapriya (loved by the people). 7 (1.7.1) That being the case, he should not ‘give room to such causes as would bring about impoverishment, greed or disaffection among his people. If, however, they appear, he should’ immediately counter them. 8 (7.5.28) 

By doing what does the king incite his subjects? Kautilya gives a lengthy list:

  • By insulting the good and commending the wicked; by causing unnatural and unrighteous slaughter of life.
  • By neglecting the observance of proper and righteous customs; by doing unrighteous acts and neglecting righteous ones.
  • By doing what ought not to be done and not doing what ought to be done; by not paying what ought to be paid and exacting what ought not to be taken.
  • By not punishing the guilty and severely punishing the less guilty; by arresting those who are not to be caught hold of and leaving those who are to be arrested.
  • By undertaking risky works and destroying profitable ones; by not protecting the people against thieves and by robbing them of their wealth.
  • By giving up manly enterprise and condemning good works; by hurting the leaders of the people and despising the worthy.
  • By provoking the aged, by crooked conduct, and by untruthfulness; by not applying remedies against evils and neglecting works in hand.
  • By carelessness and negligence of himself in maintaining the security of person and property of his subjects, the king causes impoverishment, greed, and disaffection to appear among his subjects. 9 (7.5.19-26)

The zeal to portray Kautilya as a cold-blooded strategist has eclipsed his humane approach to governance. Rarely would one know that he calls for providing ‘the orphans, the aged, the infirm, the afflicted, and the helpless with maintenance’ and supporting the ‘helpless women when they are carrying and also to the children they give birth to.’  Kautilya would want his king to be ever mindful of the fact that he exists for serving the people, not to enjoy the power and privileges that come due to his position.

III. Dandanīti: The wisdom concerning statecraft

आन्वीक्षिकी त्रयी वार्त्तानां योग-क्षेम-साधनो दण्डः |
तस्य नीतिर् दण्ड नीतिः |
अलब्ध-लाभ-अर्था लब्ध-परिरक्षणी रक्षित-विवर्धनी वृद्धस्य तीर्थे प्रतिपादनी च ||
तस्याम् आयत्ता लोक-यात्रा ||

Kautilya Arthasastra 1.4.04

ānvīkṣikī trayī vārttānāṃ yoga.kṣema.sādhano daṇḍaḥ, tasya nītir daṇḍa nītiḥ, alabdha.lābha.arthā labdha.parirakṣaṇī rakṣita.vivardhanī vṛddhasya tīrthe pratipādanī ca. tasyām āyattā loka.yātrā. 

The means of ensuring the pursuit of philosophy, the three Vedas and economics is the Rod (wielded by the king) ; its administration constitutes the science of politics, having for its purpose the acquisition of (things) not possessed, the preservation of (things) possessed, the augmentation of (things) preserved and the bestowal of (things) augmented on a worthy recipient. On it is dependent the orderly maintenance of worldly life.

Danda, literally rod or staff, is the symbol of royal sovereignty. Among other things it represents the power to punish; danda is thus translated as punishment, and dandanīti as rule by force/punishment. Manu Pillai in his instructively titled articles: Keeping order with Violence and Violence as a way of life interprets dandanīti in the same way. He gives an account of horrifying punishments listed in the Arthaśāstra and writes that Kautilya ‘wholeheartedly recommended’ punishments. He also notes that as per the historian Upinder Singh, Kautilya ‘condoned torture as a means of interrogation’. He concludes with the following quote from manusmrti: “Punishment alone governs all beings, punishment alone protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep…. The whole world is kept in order by punishment, for a guiltless man is hard to find.” All this suggests that Arthaśāstra and dandanīti are all about using violence in the form of punishments to hold power. However, Kautilya was against wanton use of punishments and torture. 

Kautilya clearly states that he has listed the painful punishments mentioned in the works of previous masters, but the dharma is to use simple punishments on the “offenders who have not been cruel”. 10 (4.11.26) Further, Kautilya advises caution in use of torture, lest the fear of pain might drive an innocent to confess to the crimes even though he has not committed them. Kautilya even gives a list of people who should not be tortured 11 (4.8.14), and also mentions penance for awarding wrong punishments. 12 (4.13.42) 

As seen in the opening quote of the section, Kautilya defines dandanīti as the means for fostering and protecting knowledge, and creating, augmenting and distributing wealth. Thus understanding it as merely a means to inflict violence or induce fear in the subjects is against his philosophy. Remember, the king has to gain legitimacy by winning the love of his people by doing good to them and not by terrorizing them through punishments.

The danda signifies the Royal authority and responsibility of a king to carry out the tasks that ensure the progress of the world. Punishment is just one of the forms of dandanīti needed to prevent the fate of matsyanyāya. A king who understands this will act wisely. He will avoid the extremes of severity and mildness in employing the danda and ensures the wellbeing of his subjects:

सुविज्ञात-प्रणीतो हि दण्डः प्रजा धर्म-अर्थ-कामैर्योजयति ।।

दुष्प्रणीतः काम-क्रोधाभ्यां अवज्ञानाद्वा वानप्रस्थ-परिव्राजकानपि कोपयति । किं-अङ्ग पुनर्गृहस्थान् ।।

suvijñāta.praṇīto hi daṇḍaḥ prajā dharma.artha.kāmair yojayati |
duṣpraṇītaḥ kāma krodhābhyām avajñānād vā vānaprastha parivrājakān api kopayati |
kiṃ aṅga punargṛhasthān ||

When the king applies danda wisely, it enjoins his subjects to dharma, artha, and kāma, else if he applies it out of passion, hatred or contempt, it angers even the ascetics, not to mention the householders.

KA 1.4.11-12

IV. Dharma of the Vijigīṣu– ‘Might is not Right’

Vijigīṣu literally means one who is desirous of victory. As long as the desire is limited to obtain the obeisance of the opponent, the King is Dharmic, else he is a lobhi or asuri:

त्रयोअभियोक्तारो धर्म-लोभ-असुर-विजयिन इति ।।

तेषां अभ्यवपत्त्या धर्म-विजयी तुष्यति ।।

भूमि-द्रव्य-हरणेन लोभ-विजयी तुष्यति ।। 

भूमि-द्रव्य-पुत्र-दार-प्राण-हरणेनासुर-विजयी ।। 

trayo’abhiyoktāro dharma.lobha.asura.vijayina iti ||
teṣām abhyavapattyā dharma.vijayī tuṣyati ||
bhūmi.dravya.haraṇena lobha.vijayī tuṣyati ||
bhūmi.dravya.putra.dāra.prāṇa.haraṇenāsura.vijayī ||

There are three kings who attack, out of them:
i.  The Dharma Vijayin seeks only obeisance.
ii. The Lobha Vijayin seeks land and wealth.
iii.The Asura Vijayin seeks land, wealth, wives, sons, and lives.
KA 12.1.10-13

Contrary to the popular perception, the Arthaśāstra calls for moral considerations even in war. For instance, after conquering a fort, the king should give abhaya (freedom from fear) to those who have fallen, trying to escape, without weapons, disfigured 13 (13.4.52). In the Hindu tradition, abhayadāna refers to the assurance of a life of dignity and respect to the distressed people by granting them freedom from fear. As the Pañcatantra says abhayadāna is the foremost dāna 14 (endnote: It could be understood that abhayadāna is foremost dāna that can be given to a person in distress, in cases where people are not suffering from explicit dangers adhyātma vidya is considered to be the foremost dāna.):

न गोप्रदानं न महीप्रदानं न चान्नदानं हि तथा प्रधानम् |
यथा वदन्तीह महाप्रदानं सर्वप्रदानेष्वभयप्रदानम् ||

na gopradānam na mahīpradānaṃ na cānnadanaṃ hi tathā pradhānam,
yathā vadantīha mahāpradānaṃ sarvapradāneṣvabhayapradānam.

Not the gift of cows, not the gift of land, not even the gift of food is such an important thing, since, they say here, the truly great gift among all gifts is the gift of fearlessness.

Pañcatantra 1.385

Sri Krishna with abhayamudra, granting the villagers freedom from fear of Kaliya sarpa. Flickr

Further, the king should not mindlessly plunder other kingdoms. Only the gains obtained by a dharmika king from an adharmika are pleasing to both his own subjects and others. On the other hand, gains seized from a dharmika enrages everyone. 15 (9.4.10-11) Kautilya also writes that the vijigishu should never covet the slain king’s sons, land or wives, instead he should reinstate the slain king’s relatives in suitable positions. 16 [7.16.26] This points back to the idea that the king should be a dharma vijayin.

About the conduct towards the subjects of newly conquered territory, Kautilya says that the King should replace the vices of the previous king with his virtues, and the virtues of the previous King with twice as many virtues. In short, his conduct should be “agreeable and beneficial to the subjects”. 17 (13.5.4)

As to the local customs and practices of a conquered territory, the king should show respect for the “festivals in honour of deities of the country, festive gatherings and sportive amusements.” He should also honour “all deities and hermitages, and make grants of land, money and exemptions to men distinguished in learning, speech and piety, order the release of all prisoners and render help to the distressed,” the orphans and the afflicted. 18 (13.5.11)


The intrigues and deceitful tactics, which are made to be the only ideas worth knowing from the Arthaśāstra, definitely have an important role in Kautilya’s strategies. However, Kautilya presents them as unprecedented measures to be applied when it is impossible to attain peace through “politically correct” means. More importantly, Kautilya commands that such tactics should be used only against “dūshya-s” (tainted) and “adhārmikas” (unrighteous); honest subjects should never be targeted by such tactics. 19 (05.2.69) 

The more we understand Kautilya and compare it with the way he has been portrayed, the more we get that not just the devil but also “God is in the details.” After all, the objective of Kautilyan policy is not to drag the Kingdom into unnecessary trouble to satisfy the king’s greed for power, but to make the kingdom prosperous and provide an atmosphere to enjoy the prosperity. 

As shown in the essay, Kautilya advises the king to place the interests of his subjects above his own, to make them prosperous, impartially deliver justice, and never misuse his power. In other words, the king should not give his subjects any reason to be disappointed with him.  It is not by resorting to cunning strategies or brute force but through selfless and dedicated service that the king wins the love of his subjects, and secures his royal seat: 

विद्या-विनीतो राजा हि प्रजानां विनये रतः |

अनन्यां पृथिवीं भुङ्क्ते सर्व-भूत-हिते रतः ||

vidyā vinīto rājā hi prajānāṃ vinaye rataḥ ||
ananyāṃ pṛthivīṃ bhuṅkte sarva.bhūta.hite rataḥ ||

The king, possessed of Vidya and Vinaya, and devoted to fostering Vinaya in the subjects, will uninterruptedly rule over the earth, being devoted to the welfare of all beings.

KA 1.5.17

[1] Discovery of India, Nehru.



ii. Arthashastra Translated into English by R. Shamasastry

More Stories
ಸಂನ್ಯಾಸ ಗೀತೆ (ಚಾಗಿಯ ಹಾಡು)- ಯುವಶಕ್ತಿಯ ಚೈತನ್ಯದ ಚಿಲುಮೆ