Chanakya: The philosopher king-trainer in ancient India

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 3/19/2019 12:25:52 PM IST

 Chanakya (also known as Kautilya) was one the wisest Indian philosophers, who lived from 371 BC to 283 BC. He knew plenty about almost every subject: statecraft, economics, laws, warfare strategies, foreign policies, medicine, and astrology. He also authored the famous works “Arthasastra” (a treatise on the science of politics) and “Chanakya Nitti” (a treatise on the ideal way of life).

According to a popular legend, Chanakya bought Chandragupta Maurya as a young lad from a cowherd in a certain village, having seen in the boy the promise of future greatness. He brought the young Chandragupta with him to his native city of Takshashili, the most renowned centre of learning located in north-western ancient India, and had him educated there in Political Science and Military Arts, among others.

Chanakya managed the first Maurya emperor Chandragupta’s rise to power at a young age. He helped to overthrow the powerful Nanda Empire in 322 BC, put Chandragupta on the throne, and consolidated his empire by a fusion of several small independent states. Thus, Chanakya played an important role in the establishment of the Maurya Empire, which was the first empire in the Indian subcontinent.

Earlier, India was invaded by several foreign forces, not of the least of which was the Greeks under the leadership of Alexander the Great. Describing about this particular period, R.N. Mukherji writes: “The country had hardly recovered from the shock of Alexander’s victorious march ... which had dislocated its indigenous political organisations .... The battle of India’s independence against these heavy odds called for a leader of exceptional ability and vision who would infuse new life …into the drooping spirits of a defeated people, and organise a fresh national resistance against alien domination. Fortunately the country produced such a leader in young Chandragupta who had already been prepared in advance for his great mission in life by the Brahmin Chanakya …. Chanakya’s superior vision and insight led him to discover in this youth … who would be able, under his direction, to free the fatherland of foreign rule.” In other words, Chanakya was instrumental in preventing the balkanisation of the Indian subcontinent which had been ravaged by foreign invasions. Furthermore, Chanakya guided Chandragupta to defeat the forces of Seleucus I Nicator, one of the Generals of Alexander, who had to sign a treaty ceding the territories of Kabul, Kandahar, and Baluchistan to the victor.

Chanakya was also an extra-ordinary teacher. His philosophy of learning was not about mere the accumulation of information. He taught his students “how to think” (Aunveekshikeu). His teaching method was more of a guidance to raise the next generation. Here’s an example of how he taught his students on the art of ruling:

Students: “What should a king do after he conquers a kingdom?”

Chanakya: “How far can a single man reach? So, the first thing a king should do is to appoint ministers.”

Students: “But who should the king appoint?”

Chanakya: “You tell me.”

Students : “We’ll make our friends into ministers.”

Chanakya: “But because they are your friends, they will not listen to you.”

Students: “Then, we’ll make our relatives to be ministers.”

Chanakya: “because they are your relatives, they will not stop seeking favors.”

Students: “Okay, then, we’ll make people who are in need to be our ministers.”

Chanakya: “Need produces greed and you won’t be able to control them.”

Students: “If that’s the case, we’ll make the intellectuals to be ministers.”

Chanakya: “That is one virtue with many vices, because the intellectuals will think they are above everything”

Students: “Then, we’ll make those who are loyal to our families to be ministers.”

Chanakya: “Simple loyalty breeds slavery and slaves cannot be ministers. We need masters.”

Students: “Then, we’ll educate the young people and make them ministers.”

Chanakya: “Education alone with no experience will become disastrous.”

Students: “If that’s how everyone is, then we’ll make nobody to be ministers.”

Chanakya: “Make all of them into ministers but listen to none of them. Only listen to a spiritual person who doesn’t want power – someone who is selfless and beyond material attractions. Listen to him and nobody else.”

The ideal ruler, according to Chanakya, should have absolute mastery over himself and be “pre-eminent in virtue.” This is extremely important, because “If rulers are righteous, people are righteous; if they are sinners, people are also sinners; like ruler, like people.” In this, Chanakya echoes the wisdom of the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who was his contemporary. Thus, Chanakya was to Chandragupta what Aristotle was to Alexander.

According to Chanakya, a ruler should know something about everything, because leadership is a “responsibility” (Dharna) and not just a position. If a person wanted to be a great ruler, he would need to know at least five important subjects well: Leadership Dharna, Economics, Laws, Foreign Policies, and the Art of War. For that matter, even a learned ruler needs counsel and advice from others. “Governance is possible only with assistance. A single wheel does not move. Hence, ministers should be appointed and their counsel listened to,” says Chanakya.

In short, Chanakya was a “Rajas’ Guru” who was truly farsighted and visionary. He mentored both Chandragupta and his son Bindusara, the father of Ashoka the Great who was also, without a doubt, brought up in the teaching of Chanakya with the Arthasastra as his required textbook. Unquestionably, Chanakya had profoundly influenced at least three successive generations of the Maurya Empire. Though he chiefly played a behind-the-scenes role, he raised up leaders to shake up a big part of the then known-world. Without him, there might have been no Chandragupta and Ashoka the Great as we know them today. Such was the man Chanakya – the sage and king-trainer in Ancient India.

Mazie Nakhro

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