In India, everyone is a Chanakya today – political leaders such as Amit Shah or Sharad Pawar or Ahmed Patel, vote mongers, media managers, news analysts, psephologists, market strategists, even fixers. As if a classical gloss to brinkmanship makes actions heroic, even historic. But contrary to what we believe, Chanakya was not just a player. It was the modern reinvention of Chanakya as a Machiavellian figure that made him so.
European thinkers like Max Weber were as much to blame for this as were early nationalist historians like Kalidas Nag who, uneasy with the potential anarchy of unallayed political cunning, loudly proclaimed that Indian politics had more to do with dharma than the worldly ideal of artha. So, Chanakya was reduced to realpolitik and nothing but.
I do not speak of one true Chanakya, for he is a chronologically and territorially elusive figure. More legends swirl around his name than do historically verifiable facts. That is what makes Chanakya more of an idea than a biographical entity. There are at least three Chanakyas that we encounter in history.
The Chanakya of artha and niti
The first is the Kautilya of the Arthashastra, a text that has been more precisely dated and philologically processed than the writer itself. The author of the Arthashastra is indeed a certain Kautilya but alas, not the Chanakya of legend, the mastermind behind the rise of the mighty Mauryan empire, who children read of in their Amar Chitra Katha comics.
The Arthashastra is a text of governance, neither moral nor immoral. It is simply about efficacy and efficiency. This ancient text appears surprisingly ‘modern’. It posits a division between civil and criminal law, sets up a differentiated regime of taxes and fines, speaks of crisis and calamity amelioration as central to the exercise of power (something our politicians could learn from), appears indifferent to the caste status of subjects, assigns property rights to women of various positions, and above all, speaks of multiple constituents of the state, a surprise in monarchical times, involving not just the king but as importantly, minister, ally, settlement and indeed the people, whose rage or krodha is to be assiduously avoided.
Not surprisingly, B.R. Ambedkar, who burnt the Manusmriti and raged against the fratricidal god Krishna, found Kautilya to be the one ancient Hindu figure worthy of his respect. Arthashastra or nitishastra became a distinctive tradition of political thinking in India, and came to be pitted against the dharmashastras and their more obviously Brahmanical system of caste-based social regulation. For whatever the dharmashastras might say, India actually saw innumerable lower caste kingships in the past, proving that artha and niti could indeed cut through prescribed caste hierarchies.
The Chanakya of drama
The second Chanakya we meet is the Chanakya of theatre. Vishakhadatta’s 14th-century play Mudrarakshasa became a model for many early Indian narratives, like the first novel in Kannada, Kempu Narayana’s Mudramanjusa (1823). The Leftist theatre activist Habib Tanvir, despite his taste for modernist and progressive theatre, felt compelled to stage this classical Sanskrit play because of its gripping political drama.
New plays on Chanakya were written throughout the 20th century in many languages, from D. L. Roy’s 1911 Bengali play to G. P. Deshpande’s 1987 Marathi one. Then came the Chanakya movies, too many to list here. Sisir Bhaduri’s acting career took off with playing Chanakya in Roy’s play and then in its 1939 cinematic adaptation. N.T. Rama Rao too played Chanakya in 1977. On television, Chandraprakash Dwivedi directed and played Chanakya in 1991, and Manoj Joshi dedicated his 2009 Mumbai production on Chanakya to Tukaram Ombale, the police constable who died in the 26/11 terrorist attacks.
Note that the Chanakya of theatre is not a man of backroom intrigue, hidden from public view. He is held up in glaring spotlight, displaying the limits and pathos of realpolitik, and vulnerable to democratic criticism. Chanakya, by the way, is never alone on stage. He is always paired with Chandragupta – the Kaliyuga Brahmin with the Shudra, the kingmaker with the king, the philosopher with the ruler, locked in an intimate battle over the political. On stage and screen, another poignant question is also asked – could there be a woman to Chanakya, is intimacy and devotion possible in politics?
The wise Chanakya
And then, there is the yet other Chanakya of common sense – the Chanakya of Chanakyasutras or wise aphorisms, sold as cheap chapbooks on railway platforms even today, as also the Kautilya of Panchatantra, the five techniques of worldly efficacy, the most widely translated book in the world before the Bhagavad Gita claimed that position in modern times.
This Chanakya speaks not only to kings but also to ordinary householders who seek a place under the sun. This Chanakya teaches not what we narrowly call politics.
He teaches the difficult art of being politic, in everyday life and everyday relationships, in the grey zone that is neither righteous nor entirely unrighteous. But being politic is not realpolitik, because it is not about victory as much as efficacy. And being politic is no less a virtue than being moral, sometimes even kinder because it is less absolutist.
Perhaps, then, Chanakya is but a name, a highly charged star-name, which various people claim at various moments. But we should be careful who we assign that name to, lest Chanakya – the Chanakya of rational governance, the Chanakya of theatrical aesthetics, the Chanakya of popular lore and wisdom – is diminished into a mere political fixer. Or into a lonely lost Brahmin, shorn of his alter-egos – the Shudra, the woman, the commoner.
The author is a historian and professor at Centre for Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.