By Anoop Verma
Popularly known as Chanakya, the ancient philosopher Kautilya occupies an important space in Indian culture and philosophy. He has seminally influenced the development of modernity in India through his political treatise, Arthashastra. Chanakya was the great political thinker and reformer. His basic purpose in Arthashastra is to delineate the art of statecraft. He preaches that a ruler’s first duty is to look after the welfare of the people. He was the chief strategist behind the rise of Chandragupta Maurya as a ruler of Magadha Empire.
Chanakya was born in the famous university town of Taxila. He must have flourished in the fourth century BC, as it is certain that Chandragupta Maurya ascended the throne around 321 BC. Chanakya’s father was a Brahmin called Chanak, who being a teacher knew about the importance of education. When he was still very young, Chanakya started reading the Vedas, which are considered to be the toughest scriptures for even the most experienced scholars. Such was the young boy’s devotion towards study that he managed to memorise most of the Vedic verses.
According to some traditional accounts Chanakya had been born with full set of teeth, which in those days was considered to be the mark of a future king. But his parents didn’t want him to be a king; they wanted him to be a renowned scholar. According to the legend, they had the infant’s teeth removed. Perhaps that is the reason why instead of becoming a king, Chanakya played the role of a kingmaker later in his life. His mastery of the Vedas, and of political strategy and intrigue, has been described at length in many ancient texts.
After attaining adulthood, Chanakya arrived in the court of king Dhana-Nanda, the Nanda of great wealth, who ruled over the vast Magadha Empire from Patliputra, which is the ancient name of Patna. In complete negation of what his name stood for, the king was extremely miserly in nature. The citizens of the country hated Dhana-Nanda because of his miserly and arrogant nature. Dhana-Nanda expedited the process of his own downfall when he made the mistake of insulting Chanakya. According to traditional accounts, Chanakya had started eating at a royal banquet, when Dhana-Nanda heaped insults on him, and ordered him to leave. This incensed Chanakya, and he immediately took the vow that he would not tie the knot in his forelock till he had destroyed every root and branch of the Nanda dynasty.
One day when Chanakya was passing through a village, he was amused to see a young boy enacting the role of a king; he was dispensing justice and giving orders to other kids of his own age who were playing the role of ministers. Out of amusement, Chanakya went up to the boy and beseeched him for alms. The boy obliged by grandly offering the ascetic an entire herd of someone else’s cows. Chanakya was impressed by the boy’s demeanour and he immediately took him under his wing. This boy was Chandragupta, who later become the king of Magadha. Chanakya brought the boy to Taxila and gave him the education fit for a king.
At first Chandragupta and Chanakya met failure when they clashed with Dhana-Nanda’s forces. One night they took shelter at the home of an old woman. They didn’t tell reveal their real identity as the king’s soldiers were looking for them. The old woman served them piping hot food, and Chandragupta made the mistake of starting to eat from the centre of the hot dish, as a result his fingers were hurt. The old woman said, “You are just like Chandragupta, because instead of eating from the sides of the dish, where the food is at normal temperature, you dip your fingers in the centre where it is hottest.” These words enlightened Chanakya. He realised that he must start attacking Dhana-Nanda at the borders of the empire. Accordingly he advised Chandragupta, who went into an alliance with the ruler of a neighbouring mountain kingdom and began harassing the forces loyal to Dhana-Nanda in the outlying areas.
Along with devising strategies for warfare, Chanakya also played the role of an able diplomat. He negotiated advantageous alliances with neighbouring kings and warlords. One day they became powerful enough to converge their forces on the city of Patliputra. Dhana-Nanda was driven out and Chandragupta Maurya was installed as the King of Magadha. Once the task of driving out Dhana-Nanda was accomplished, Chanakya retired from active life and devoted himself to developing his political philosophy, which is contained in Arthashastra. The term Chanakya-neti (statecraft of Chanakya) is used to denote the functioning of the government. Today Chanakya is regarded as brilliant theorist of statecraft. His teachings in Arthashastra have a timeless appeal.