Chanakya and Machiavelli - Two Realists in Comparison

Chanakya and Machiavelli - Two Realists in Comparison

by Jaideep A Prabhu - Mar 1, 2012 01:13 PM +05:30 IST
Chanakya and Machiavelli - Two Realists in Comparison

Così nasce dal ferro un secol d’oro (Thus from iron was born a golden age) – Jacopo Nardi

Politics is not a place to save one’s soul, but it is the only place one may save one’s nation – Max Weber

“Politics,” Ronald Reagan once said, “is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” Today, the former US president’s words may seem trite, but a few centuries ago, such sentiments would have had serious repercussions. The publication of The Prince, for example, resulted in violent reactions in Europe—its author, Niccolò Machiavelli, was burnt in effigy by the Jesuits, his books were blacklisted and penned into the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Inquisition in Rome, and several books were written to denounce Machiavelli’s “dangerous” and “immoral” teachings.

This prophet of statecraft and diplomacy, however, for many scholars of political theory remains one of the brightest names coming out of Italy during the fecund period of the renaissance. It would be an interesting and profitable exercise to juxtapose Machiavelli’s works on statecraft and diplomacy, The Art of War, Discourses on Livy, and the (in)famous The Prince, in which he opined on how a state should be run, with the Indian realist Chanakya’s Arthashastra . In the Western tradition, these of Machiavelli’s works are considered the principal texts of realism in diplomatic manoeuvring. Chanakya, who is also known to history as Kautilya or Vishnugupta, was the advisor to Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire in 321 BCE after defeating the Nanda dynasty and Alexander the Great’s ambassadors in northern India. The Arthashastra, written circa 320 BCE[1], was rediscovered in 1904 by R. Shamasastry and translated into English by 1915. Oddly, this text has remained neglected despite the exuberant efforts of British and German “Indomaniacs” of the imperialist era. By juxtaposing it with Machiavelli’s thoughts, I hope to reintroduce the Arthashastra to mainstream political chitchat and in the process of doing so, diminish the farcical asinine notion of an intellectual divide between “East” and “West.”

It is important to understand why these particular texts were chosen. After all, there exist umpteen books just in the West on statecraft and political power. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, to name a few, all deal explicitly with the same subject. In a circuitous manner, so do Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. And of course, Machiavelli himself studied Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s The Republic and Laws. The Islamic World offers Al-Farabi’s Aphorisms of the State, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, Averroes’ The Decisive Treatise Determining the Nature of the Connection between Religion and Philosophy, and Avicenna’s The Healing. However, Machiavelli’s works make a good comparison to the Arthashastra because like Chanakya, Machiavelli makes a distinction between ethics and political science. Unlike the aforementioned theorists, neither Machiavelli nor Chanakya are interested in the ideal state or the fullest moral development of political men. They are more concerned with the security of the state against external threats and internal harmony. Furthermore, despite other works on politics and statecraft, Machiavelli represents, in the West, the first clear break with idealism and morality, and is the first to suggest that the root of state power is force.[2] For Machiavelli, as Harvey Mansfield notes, as for Chanakya, the fundamental fact is how the prince rules instead of who rules.[3]

The texts, due to the environment in which they were written, permit only some lateral comparisons. Christian Europe was socially quite different from early Hinduism, and the ordering of society as prescribed by the Manusmriti allowed Chanakya to come to different conclusions than Machiavelli regarding domestic policies. Therefore, I am more concerned with the commentaries on foreign policy in the texts, where there are more similarities.

Regarding the Governance of States

Central to the state is strong leadership. Chanakya and Machiavelli both conclude that legitimacy is very important to the ruler as well as the subjects because legitimacy purports an authority that does not exist in practice. The Arthashastra does not spend much time discussing the legitimacy of the ruler, but simply implies that the first ruler had divine origins:

People, overwhelmed by the law of the fishes,[4] made Manu, son of Vivasvat, their king. And they assigned one-sixth of the grains, one-tenth of the commodity and money as his share. Maintained by that, kings bring about the well-being and security of the subjects.[5]

Vivasvat, according to RP Kangle, is a reference to the sun god. This is not the same as the divine right of kings as understood in Europe. Chanakya uses Hindu cosmology to sanction the monarchy as the preferred system of government. Implied is the sanctity of the king even though he is not divine, and although the king is the final arbiter of the land, he is to be aided by an able system—the Arthashastra divides the state into seven components: svamin (the ruler), amatya (the minister), janapada (the territory with the people settled on it)[6]durga (the fortified capital), kosa (the treasury), danda (the army), and mitra (the ally).[7] The Arthashastra declares, “One wheel alone does not turn and keep the cart in motion.”[8] Machiavelli also comments on the notion of divine authority, but more as a gimmick to lend authority to the ruler beyond his physical means. Machiavelli notes in the Discourses,

…although we have seen that Romulus could organize the Senate and establish other civil and military institutions without the aid of divine authority, yet it was very necessary for Numa, who feigned that he held converse with a nymph, who dictated to him all that he wished to persuade the people to; and the reason for all this was that Numa mistrusted his own authority, lest it should prove insufficient to enable him to introduce new and unaccustomed ordinances in Rome. In truth, there never was any remarkable lawgiver amongst any people who did not resort to divine authority, as otherwise his laws would not have been accepted by the people; for there are many good laws, the importance of which is known to the sagacious lawgiver, but the reasons for which are not sufficiently evident to enable him to persuade others to submit to them; and therefore do wise men, for the purpose of removing this difficulty, resort to divine authority.[9]

Although Chanakya does not explicitly state a similar opinion, his use of the sun god to imply divine authority indicates that he would have agreed with Numa and Machiavelli. As Machiavelli states, “the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often even more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”[10] For Machiavelli, however, options other than a monarchy exist, though he thinks it difficult to advocate rule by more than one man except in strained circumstances. In the Discourses, Machiavelli states that a “dictatorship, whenever created according to public law and not usurped by individual authority, always proved beneficial…it is the magistracies and powers that are created by illegitimate means which harm a republic, and not those that are appointed in the regular way.”[11] He further describes three forms of government in their healthy and corrupt states: monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic, “liable to be corrupted that they become absolutely bad…monarchy becomes tyranny; aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy; and the popular government lapses readily into licentiousness.”[12] In The Prince, Machiavelli very lucidly outlines the strengths and weaknesses of rule by one man and rule by an oligarchy:

The entire monarchy of the Turk is governed by one lord…But the King of France is placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords…he who considers both of these states will recognize great difficulties in seizing the state of the Turk, but, once it is conquered, great ease in holding it. The causes of the difficulties in seizing the kingdom of the Turk are that the usurper cannot be called in by the princes of the kingdom, nor can he hope to be assisted in his designs by the revolt of those whom the lord has around him…but, if once the Turk has been conquered, and routed in the field in such a way that he cannot replace his armies, there is nothing to fear but the family of this prince…The contrary happens in kingdoms governed like that of France, because one can easily enter there by gaining over some baron of the kingdom, for one always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men…can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed. Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you.

Noteworthy is the emphasis Machiavelli places on conquest. For a ruler to create opportunities for other benefits to his people, he must first guard the realm, and if possible, expand his territory and sphere of influence. Like Chankaya, the primary responsibility of a ruler for Machiavelli is the security and well-being of his people. While Machiavelli states unequivocally that “[a] prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline,”[13] Chanakya concurs, adding, “Carrying out his own duty by the king, who protects the subjects according to law, leads to heaven; of one who does not protect…the condition is the reverse of this.”[14] The Arthashastra comments on the duties of a king other than the security of the realm because it was intended to be a full-fledged manual for statecraft, not just a guide to foreign policy. The duty of an Arthashastran king is expressed not in terms of rakshana (to defend) or palana (take care of), but yogakshema. This includes not only security and material well-being, but also assistance in adherence to the purusharthas. The Purusharthas are the four principles of Hindu life, namely, dharmaarthakama, and moksha. It was the king’s duty to ensure that his subjects could lead a life of honesty and justice (dharma), have opportunities to make gains in terms of education, employment, etc., (artha), be able to enjoy their lives through the arts and other sensual pleasures (kama), and hopefully, develop spiritually to eventually attain freedom from the cycle of rebirth (moksha).[15] It is in the pursuit of this aim that Chanakya talks of foreign policy.

Although Machiavelli does not set his prince such high standards, much of Chanakya’s thinking holds true for him too. While Chanakya, a brahmin, is firmly set in Hindu philosophy and sees the world through the spectacles of Hindu cosmology, Machiavelli describes the world through human nature, the ends both advocate being quite similar. The foundation of Machiavelli’s political thought is revealed in one line in The Prince: “The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always do so when they can, and for this they will be praised not blamed.”[16] Although political equilibrium is the ideal a prince should strive for, it remains illusory and “all human things are kept in a perpetual movement, and can never remain stable, states naturally either rise or decline.”[17] Machiavelli’s argument follows that since interstate relations are always dynamic and every state seeks expansion of its powers, it is best that one’s own state maintains a position of strength. Furthermore, Machiavelli, like Chanakya, sees beyond the reign of one king to the stability of the realm. For Machiavelli, a prince should endeavour to not only secure his domain during his time but even after him. As Louis Althusser explained, “Machiavelli is interested in only one form of government: the one that allows a state to last.”[18] In Machiavelli’s own words, “[t]he welfare, then, of a republic or a kingdom does not consist in having a prince who governs it wisely during his lifetime, but in having one who will give it such laws that it will maintain itself even after his death.”[19] Similarly, the Arthashastra has “avowedly for its end the security and prosperity of the state.”[20] Chanakya advises that a king should not install on the throne one who is unfit to rule even if he is an only son.[21] The ultimate goal of the king and his government is the health of the state, not the lineage of the ruling family. This is not to say that Chanakya does not favour the law of primogeniture: he does. He even countenances a family oligarchy if a calamity were to befall the Kingship. However, he is insistent that an unfit person should not rule. According to one scholar, Chanakya’s work “deals with a monarchical constitution.”[22] Thus, Chanakya’s loyalty is to the state and not to any ruling family. This offers a counter to those who see Chanakya’s treatise as promoting monarchy holding dictatorial powers.

On Defence and the Military

Machiavelli’s thoughts on the actual conduct of warfare are as detailed as Chanakya’s but are in another work of his, The Art of War. It is similar in nature to Sun Tzu’s most famous work by the same name. The Arthashastra devotes eight of its fifteen chapters to various aspects of war, diplomacy, foreign policy, espionage, and covert operations. Needless to say, the conduct of war is seen as central to the well-being of a state. This does not mean that these political theorists were warmongers—on the contrary, Machiavelli declares in The Art of War that “he who practices [war] will never be judged to be good, as to gain some usefulness from it at any time he must be rapacious, deceitful, violent, and have many qualities, which of necessity, do not make him good.”[23] And yet he also states that a prince must “not depart from the good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity.”[24] Although Chanakya does not explicitly speak against war, he is very much aware that peace is essential for the stability of any political system. Like Machiavelli, he stresses that war be used as the last resort as it causes loss of money and life. Machiavelli warns,

The object of those who make war, either from choice or ambition, is to conquer and to maintain their conquests, and to do this in such a manner as to enrich themselves and not to impoverish the conquered country. To do this, then, the conqueror should take care not to spend too much, and in all things mainly to look to the public benefit.[25]

Similarly, “[i]f there is equal advancement in peace or war,” Chanakya declares, “[one] should resort to peace.”[26] The whole purpose of Chanakya’s foreign policy is to increase one’s power at the cost of one’s enemies. Power, Chanakya takes care to define, is of three kinds: the power of knowledge is the power of counsel, the power of the treasury and the army is the power of might, the power of valour is the power of energy.[27] Thus, warfare need not be the only means to increase power. However, if it came to war, Chanakya saw three kinds of warfare that could be waged: open war (traditional war), concealed war (guerrilla war), and silent war (openly praising the enemy while sending spies to assassinate him, sabotage his kingdom, and sowing dissention among his officials).[28] Chanakya sees four strategies through which power can be exercised: saama (peace), daana (gift), bheda (dissention), and danda (force). As a result, Chanakya discusses issues of military strategy as part of his chapter on foreign policy and diplomacy. Chanakya would agree with Karl von Clausewitz that war was the continuation of politics by other means. In fact, he delineates six measures of conducting foreign policy: entering into a treaty (peace), doing injury (war), remaining indifferent (neutrality), submitting to another (seeking shelter), and resorting to peace with one foe and war with another (dual policy).[29] Obviously, peaceful negotiation was best, followed by the giving of gifts, sowing dissention among the enemy, and finally war. When war came, Chanakya advised that it be fought as chivalrously as possible. If one was stronger than one’s opponent, one should follow the rules of warfare. If one was equal or weaker than one’s aggressor, one should recourse to any means necessary to attain victory. Chanakya even countenanced crops and stores to be burnt down, trees to be cut, and civilians to be captured as part of his total war.[30]

Machiavelli echoed such thoughts himself. Machiavelli’s advice to his prince is that “there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second.”[31] Even more clearly, in the Discourses, he writes,

And doubtless, if the Florentines had attached their neighbours to themselves by treaties of amity, or by rendering them assistance, instead of frightening them off, they would now be the undisputed masters of Tuscany. I do not mean to say by this, however, that arms and force are never to be employed, but that they should be reserved as the last resort when other means fail.[32]

“Although deceit is detestable in all other things,” Machiavelli writes, “yet in the conduct of war it is laudable and honourable; and a commander who vanquishes an enemy by stratagem is equally praised with one who gains victory by force.”[33] He emphasises again that “one’s country must be defended, whether with glory or with shame; it must be defended anyhow.”[34] Machiavelli, many scholars seem to agree, represents a departure from the humanist values of non-violent diplomacy. Felix Gilbert’s seminal book on the politics of the chaotic period between the first expulsion of the Medici from Florence to their second expulsion, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, argues that Machiavelli had learned about the “crucial importance of force in politics”[35] in the twenty years since the appearance of French and Spanish troops in Italy. He further argues that although the Discourses dealt more with the establishment of republics, the “dominating idea” in the Discourses and the Prince is the foundational nature of force for any state.[36] Although we do not know much about Chanakya’s background, it is a fair assumption to say that Alexander’s invasion of India and the subsequent defeat of the Indian kings by Alexander due to the constant fighting between the Indian kingdoms themselves underscored in Chanakya’s mind the necessity of a strong and unified state and the centrality of force in politics. Thus, both Chanakya and Machiavelli came to the same conclusion and were formed by similar experiences. What is striking is the universal applicability ascribed to their laws. Gilbert writes on Machiavelli, “[the] Prince and the Discourses were intended to reveal the laws which govern the world of politics,”[37] while LN Rangarajan regards Chanakya “as a great preceptor of statecraft, whose teachings have a universal validity.”[38]

Since both of our subjects believe in the primacy of force, it is not surprising that they devote much effort to explaining what force is and how it should be used. Machiavelli, for example, having learned from the incessant wars between the Italian states themselves and also between France and Spain, is particularly concerned that the state should have its own arms. Chanakya cynically declares, “When one has an army, one’s ally remains friendly, or even the enemy becomes friendly.”[39] Since laws are upheld by force, it is apparent that the prince should be armed. Machiavelli clearly indicates that “there cannot be good laws where there are not good arms, and where there are good arms there must be good laws.”[40] As Mansfield points out, Machiavelli abjectly repudiates the Christian notion that the meek shall inherit the earth.[41] A key point Machiavelli wishes to make is that the prince not rely on mercenaries or auxiliaries. He says,

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you…no principality is secure without having its own forces.[42]

Again, in the Discourses, he stresses, “[s]uch princes and republics of modern times as have no national troops for defence or attack ought well to be ashamed of it,”[43] and in The Art of War, he repeats again, “I say to you that no army is of more use than your own.”[44] Machiavelli’s adamance on this issue stems from his conviction that auxiliary troops are not under the prince’s control but under the control of he who sends the troops, and mercenaries, as stated above, cannot be trusted. In his time, Italian city states rarely had standing armies—even larger European states struggled to afford one—and most cities relied almost exclusively on mercenaries. The French invasion of Italy revealed the weakness of this policy, and Machiavelli’s repeated warning is similar to that of a child having burnt his fingers.

The Arthashastra does not prohibit the use of mercenaries, probably because they augment an already vast force the king possesses. Chanakya categorises the army in several groups, each group or combination of groups best suited for certain kinds of missions. Chanakya’s army consists of maula (the standing army), bhrita (the territorial army), sreni (the militia), mitra (the ally’s army), amitra (alien forces), and atavi (tribal forces). Of these six types—sreni obviously refers to mercenaries—the first three were drawn from the citizens of the country.[45] Chanakya also prefers that any force be composed of elements earlier in the list than later. The last two, amitra and atavi, were deemed untrustworthy and unreliable, plunder being their only goal, and hence to be used only as a last resort or as disposable troops.[46]

Like Chanakya, Machiavelli also comments on how troops should be drawn. His schema, thankfully, is far simpler. Machiavelli believes that men should generally be drawn from the populace through a draft. “Since it is necessary…first to find men, you must come to the Deletto of them.”[47] For this, he advises that the draft be drawn from “the peasants, who are accustomed to working the land, are more useful than anyone else.”[48] Chanakya’s advice is identical. “A kshatriya army, trained in the art of weapons, is better, or a vaisya or a shudra army, when possessed of great [numbers],”[49] Chanakya opines.[50] Upon the creation of armies and matters of military strategy, Chanakya and Machiavelli expound in much detail. Machiavelli’s Art of War deals exclusively with military matters, the prince’s first duty. Chanakya also focuses in great detail upon strategy, formations, discipline, potential problems, payment, equipment, training, battalions and divisions, and other organisational factors in Books Two, Eight, and Nine of the Arthashastra.


It is important to understand Chanakya’s and Machiavelli’s worldview, their weltanschauung, before looking at their aphorisms on diplomacy. Machiavelli is clear even in his Discourses, where he seems more interested in the ideal form of government than the realpolitik of the Prince, that “it is impossible for a republic to remain long in the quiet enjoyment of her freedom within her limited confines; for even if she does not molest others, others will molest her, and from being thus molested will spring the desire and necessity of conquests.”[51] Chanakya’s view of the world extends not only to the kingdom’s immediate neighbours but beyond that to encompass the whole world.[52] Of course, Mauryan dynasty maps were not as sophisticated as to show the entire planet, but in his system of twelve concentric mandalas or circles, Chanakya divides the world into enemies, allies, allies of enemies, allies of allies, and so on.[53] In its entirety, Chanakya’s matrix consists of seventy-two elements (!) that could be reduced only upon conquest.[54]

Ambassadors were not permanent in Chanakya’s or Machiavelli’s time. In both cases, envoys served a secondary function of intelligence gathering. As Sir Henry Wotton punned succinctly, “an ambassador [was] an honest man who [was] sent to lie abroad.”[55] Especially with the strengthening of international law, when protection was granted to messengers, ambassadors were useful assets in an enemy’s court. Chanakya, true to his style, explains in detail the qualifications of an envoy—there are multiple kinds with varying degrees of power—and their duties, even how they should conduct themselves when in the enemy’s court. These thoughts are grouped along with his teachings on the training of spies, counsellors, and assassins, revealing the purpose of embassy in the Arthashastran mind. Usually, the envoy was not paid and allowed only a travelling allowance, just as in medieval Europe. However, envoys were mostly drawn from the king’s courtiers and were therefore paid in other ways.[56]

Oddly missing is a thorough discussion on the ars arengandi in Machiavelli’s writings, particularly since he himself played ambassador on several occasions. His writings indicate through historical examples, particularly in the Prince, the influence of emissaries on politics in communicating with other states. Despite lacking the exhaustive training his Venetian counterparts received, Machiavelli’s experience is unquestionably proven in a 1522 memo to Raffaello Girolami, an inexperienced colleague. In what by now should not be surprising, Machiavelli’s advice to Girolami closely resembles Chanakya’s thoughts. Both our theorists emphasise the “analysis of the political situation and the personality of the audience.”[57] Machiavelli states, “successful diplomacy begins with a thorough analysis of the nature of the sovereign to whom the envoy is sent.”[58] The envoys should strive to learn the “state and essence” of the enemy’s government.[59] Chanakya writes,

[An envoy] should observe terrains suitable for stationing an army, for fighting, for reserves and for retreat, for his own state and for the enemy…he should find out the size of forts and the country as well as strong points…defences and weak points…he should notice graciousness in speech, expression and eyes of the enemy, esteem of the envoy’s words, inquiries about his wishes, keen interest in talk about the qualities of the envoy’s master.[60]

The question, of course, is why was something so essential to the functioning of a state not included in the three principal texts he wrote on statecraft? William Wiethoff argues that this is because Machiavelli’s ideas on diplomatic functionaries were conventional for the time. Much of what Machiavelli explained to Girolami had been standard practice in medieval Italy. Just as Chanakya assumes that no king would hurt a brahmin emissary because it was understood in Indian society that brahmins were not to be harmed, Machiavelli sees no point in reiterating the accepted wisdom of his time.

Despite the emphasis on negotiation, neither Chanakya nor Machiavelli believed that treaties were binding.[61] In fact, both thinkers considered some treaties as made to be broken, to lull the enemy into a false sense of security. Politics is for both men as much about breaking promises as it is making them. The king who wants to outmanoeuvre a short-sighted enemy should enter into an alliance with him to create a false sense of confidence, and then discovering the weak points of the enemy, strike him.[62] Machiavelli also agreed that it seldom happened that anyone could “rise from low condition to high rank without employing either force or fraud,” and it was less censurable if the fraud were concealed.[63] Chanakya and Machiavelli both spend considerable time delineating the nature of such conspiracies and frauds and how the prince or king should avoid them. The Arthashastra also mentions various methods—wine, women, wealth, gambling, assassination—a king could use to destabilise his enemy.[64] According to C. Formichi, both Machiavelli and Chanakya agreed that 1) Nations are always hostile and need to be eliminated with whatever methods available, 2) Reasons of State must prevail over all other sentiments, and 3) There are no limits to absolute sovereignty.[65]

Fiscal Policy

There is one aspect of the state that Chanakya and Machiavelli disagree on: economics. For Chanakya, economics was central to the well-being of the state. The basis of state power was financial power.[66] Wars were fought and policies were formulated on the basis of gain, and usually, money was a good measure of success. The Mauryan state had an extensive tax code to support its ventures. The Arthashastran state regulated all aspects of economics but was not a collectivised state. Although the state controlled key industries, legalised and taxed alcohol, prostitution[67] and gambling, and prescribed severe punishments for financial duplicity, the king could not seize land from a farmer as long as the farmer paid his taxes. Chanakya even prohibited the state from making deals that hurt individual merchants and many areas of business were off-limits to the state.

Machiavelli’s thoughts are radically different. He emphatically states, “there cannot, therefore, be a more erroneous opinion than that money is the sinews of war.”[68] Machiavelli’s argument is that one cannot wage war with gold but needs iron. Without the strong spirit of good soldiers, an excess of gold merely encourages neighbouring states to plunder the prince’s realm.[69] Money is a necessity, Machiavelli argues, but a secondary one that good soldiers could overcome. In the Prince, Machiavelli warns that principalities that are acquired by fortune, by wealth or gift, are the hardest to hold because the prince has not demonstrated his virtu to the people yet. What are we to make of this stark reversal on realpolitik by the arch-realist of the modern era? It seems unlikely that Machiavelli suddenly chose to venerate the human spirit—in fact, Machiavelli’s take on human nature appears quite bleak. From the examples Machiavelli cites in the Discourses to support this view, one gathers that Machiavelli does not abnegate the power of money but merely implores the prince not to rely solely on it. It is obvious that Machiavelli sees the importance of fiscal health for he considers the problems of paying a large standing army. However, Machiavelli still rejects the centrality of pecuniary matters in the functioning of an army let alone a state. The only possible reason I can suggest is that Machiavelli’s prince did not seek global hegemony but merely the security of his realm. Ideally, Machiavelli’s prince used his enemy’s resources to replenish his own needs. The Arthashastran king, however, sought world domination. Perhaps the king did not posses a long-term strategy to do this but constant conflict and realignment of politics plot the king on a course to defeat or world conquest. This required far larger resources of money and strategic materials than Machiavelli’s prince could dream of.[70] It may also be because when Machiavelli wrote his treatises, he had firmly in mind the political situation in Italy at the time, while Chanakya’s labour was unconstrained by any historical context.


The tragic truth behind Chanakya’s and Machiavelli’s thoughts was expressed most concisely by Machiavelli himself: how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin.[71] It is overly simplistic to mark these two theorists as cold-hearted realists and demonise them, for both placed many caveats upon the use of extreme force. Chanakya forbade the king from attacking another just king, for the aggressor could not hope to hold the gains he made against just king.[72] Machiavelli agrees with Chanakya, saying, “one cannot call it virtue to kill one’s fellow citizens, betray one’s friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion.”[73] As regards cruelty and mercy, Machiavelli states, “he is to be reprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficent purposes. The lawgiver should, however, be sufficiently wise and virtuous not to leave this authority which he has assumed either to his heirs or to any one else; for mankind, being more prone to evil than to good…”[74] Thus, Mansfield’s statement about Machiavelli can be extended to describe Chanakya as well: for both these men, “there is just one beginning—necessity.”[75] Even in victory, both recommend generous behaviour towards the vanquished, letting them keep their traditions and treating captives well—both sought stability and order internally as well as externally.[76] Both project a sense of paternalism towards the subjects of their realms, yet both are cognisant of the fact that the security of the realm is sometimes paid for by a high body count, hopefully the enemy’s.

The Arthashastra is separated from the Prince, Discourses, and the Art of War by eighteen centuries and a vastly different culture, and yet their resonance with each other is remarkable. One cannot but help reconsidering structuralist notions of power, leaving for them the Foucauldian knowledge-is-power panopticon. The signs and signifying practices in Chanakya’s and Machiavelli’s world seem to conform into a unitary constructed reality, a reality that differs in all aspects but the nature of power. What does this say of Hannah Arendt’s view that violence indicates the loss of power?[77] Furthermore, what does this leave of Ranajit Guha’s carefully crafted relationship between dominance, hegemony, and power? The strongest argument for a closer analysis of a structuralist notion of power seems to me to be in the cultural differences and the time separating Machiavelli and Chanakya. In a world as dynamic as ours, anything that lasts for so long with so few changes deserves another look. There is no doubt, however, that both men have acquired a sinister reputation over the years. Indians prefer to project the image of their messenger of peace, Mohandas Gandhi, and ignore the full implications of the Arthashastra. Machiavelli, needless to say, caused much debate among Europeans over his legacy—the authoritarian Machiavelli of the Prince, or the republican Machiavelli of the Discourses? The pagan Machiavelli, or the Christian Machiavelli?[78] This is obviously an absurd reduction. As Lord Acton said of Machiavelli, “a sublime purpose justifies him, and he has been wronged by dupes and fanatics, by irresponsible dreamers and interested hypocrites.”[79] To conclude, it is best to let Machiavelli defend and define both, himself and Chanakya: my profession is to govern my subjects, and defend them, and in order to defend them, I must love peace but know how to make war.[80]

[1] There are debates regarding the exact date the Arthashastra was written. See RP Kangle, The Kautilya Arthashastra (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988), Volume 3, 59 – 116. Indologists date the text from as early as the fourth century before the Common Era to the third after. However, the dating of this text shall have no serious repercussions on our study of its dictums.

[2] Felix Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guiccardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 154.

[3] Harvey Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 238.

[4] Law of the fishes (matsyanyaya) — big fish eat little fish. The origin of authority and eventually the state is seen as rising from a Hobbesian anarchy. And similar to Hobbes’ thesis, the alternative to the state is anarchy. However, there does not seem to be any social contract as Hobbes or Jean-Jacques Rousseau would suggest in their works.

[5] Arthashastra 1.13.5-7. See RP Kangle, Volume 2, 28.

[6] “Land in itself had little value in Arthashastran India as there was plenty of virgin land to be had for free. The Arthashastra does not even mention land in its list of inheritable property. Land became valuable only when made productive by human labour.” See Abraham Eraly, The Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilisation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000), 380.

[7] Arthashastra 6.1.1. See Kangle Volume 2, 314.

[8] Arthashastra 1.7.9.

[9] Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, Chapter XI. Online. Available from, accessed February 12, 2012.

[10] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book I, Chapter XXV.

[11] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book I, Chapter XXXIV.

[12] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book I, Chapter II.

[13] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XIV. Online. Available from, accessed February 12, 2012.

[14] Arthashastra 3.1.41. See Kangle, Volume 2, 195.

[15] Kangle, Volume 3, 117 – 118.

[16] Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter III.

[17] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book I, Chapter VI.

[18] Miguel Vatter, Between Event and Form: Machiavelli’s Theory of Political Freedom (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000), 22.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Kangle, Volume 3, 131.

[21] Arthashastra 1.17.51. See Kangle, Volume 2, 48.

[22] Radhagovindha Basak, Some Aspects of Kautilya’s Political Thinking (Burdwan: Burdwan University Press, 1967), 3.

[23] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Art of War, Book 1. Online. Available from, accessed February 12, 2012

[24] Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter 18.

[25] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book II, Chapter VI.

[26] Arthashastra 7.2.1. See Kangle, Volume 2, 325.

[27] Arthashastra 6.2.33. See Kangle, Volume 2, 319.

[28] Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and his Arthashastra (Oxford:Lexington Books, 2002), 109.

[29] Arthashastra 7.1.6. See Kangle, Volume 2, 321.

[30] Bharati Mukherjee, Kautilya’s Concept of Diplomacy: A New Interpretation (Calcutta: Minerva Associates, 1976), 33-34.

[31] Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XVIII.

[32] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book II, Chapter XXI.

[33] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book III, Chapter XL.

[34] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book III, Chapter XLI.

[35] Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, 154.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 170.

[38] LN Rangarajan, The Arthashastra (Delhi: Penguin Books, 1992), 31.

[39] Arthashastra 8.1.56. See Kangle, Volume 2, 389.

[40] Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XII.

[41]Mansfield, 187.

[42] Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XII.

[43] Machiavelli, Discourses, Chapter XXI. See also, Chapter XLIII, where Machiavelli again mentions the “uselessness of mercenary troops, who have nothing to make them fight but the small stipend they receive, which is not and cannot be sufficient to make them loyal, or so devoted as to be willing to die for you.”

[44] Machiavelli, The Art of War, Book I.

[45] Rangarajan, 684.

[46] The standing army depended upon the king for its existence and was under constant training. This was therefore the best army in terms of equipment, training, and loyalty. Some campaigns the king may wish to lead may need a larger army. The territorial army was next in preference because of its close proximity to the king—it was usually drawn from the capital and the surrounding areas. It was easily mobilised and more obedient. Sreni, the militia, were next because they were drawn from common citizens of the entire realm. These troops were reliable because in the success of the king lay their success. Their expectations for reward and other gains made them useful. Chanakya preferred friendly forces next. They were understood to have similar interests as that of the king, and they were hopefully as well-trained as the king’s own army. Amitra and Atavi were forces Machiavelli would probably describe as auxiliaries—they were not under the direct control of the king. However, they provided bodies if and when needed. Amitra were alien forces whose interests coincided with those of the king’s for a limited period. Atavi were jungle forces—in Chanakya’s time, there were certain jungle tribes that a king allowed to exist in his kingdom that were not part of his jurisdiction. They had no rights as citizens, but were extended the same protection as any citizen. In return, they would provide troops if needed. See Rangarajan, 684-685.

[47] Machiavelli, The Art of War, Book I.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Arthashastra 9.2.21. See Kangle, Volume 2, 412.

[50] In Hindu society, people were divided into four broad groups. The brahmins, the highest group, were priests, scholars, and counselors in the royal court. Kshatriyas were nobility, and were considered the warrior caste. It fell to them to rule and to defend society. The next caste, the vaishyas, were merchants, financiers, and artisans. The lowest caste, the shudras, worked in service industries and were artisans. Outside the caste system were the non-Aryans, mlecchas. Chanakya does not consider them in his work.

[51] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book 2, Chapter XIX.

[52] RP Kangle translates the opening line of the Arthashastra as, “This single treatise on the Science of Politics has been prepared mostly by bringing together the teaching of as many treatises on the Science of Politics as have been composed by ancient teachers for the acquisition and protection of the earth.” (emphasis mine). See Arthashastra 1.1.1. Kangle, Volume 2, 1.

[53] Rangarajan, 557.

[54] Arthashastra 6.2.13-28. See Kangle, Volume 2, 318-319.

[55] Harold Nicholson, Diplomacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958)

[56] Kangle, Volume 3, 208.

[57] William Wiethoff, “A Machiavellian Paradigm for Diplomatic Communication,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 43, No. 4, (November 1981): 1093.

[58] Memoriale a Raffaello Girolami quando al 23 d’Ottobre parti per Spagna all’Imperatore, in Opere, ed. Alessandro Montevecchi (Torino: Unione Tipografico, 1971), 2: 223.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Arthashastra 1.16.8-12. See Kangle, Volume 2, 37. For general rules of diplomatic conduct, see Arthashastra 1.16.8-35 in Kangle, Volume 2, 37-39.

[61] For the Arthashastra on treaties, see Rangarajan, 580-603. Chanakya also states that any contract made with fraudulent intent is invalid. See Rangarajan, 501.

[62] Arthashastra 7.6.13. See Kangle, 339.

[63] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book 2, Chapter III.

[64] Roger Boesche, “Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ on War and Diplomacy in Ancient India,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Jan. 2003): 24.

[65] Benoy Kumar Sarkar, “Hindu Politics in Italian,” Indian Historical Quarterly, Volume I (1925), 551-552.

[66] Eraly, 387.

[67] Prostitutes were educated in their craft at the state’s expense (!) and were taxed at a uniform 12.5%.

[68] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book II, Chapter X.

[69] “I maintain, then, contrary to the general opinion, that the sinews of war are not gold, but good soldiers; for gold alone will not procure good soldiers, but good soldiers will always procure gold. Had the Romans attempted to make their wars with gold instead of with iron, all the treasure of the world would not have sufficed them, considering the great enterprises they were engaged in, and the difficulties they had to encounter. But by making their wars with iron, they never suffered for the want of gold; for it was brought to them, even into their camp.” See Ibid.

[70] In modern nuclear parlance, this is the difference between Chanakya’s MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) and Machiavelli’s MUD (Mutually Unacceptable Damage). The theory is that it is not necessary to have the power to obliterate the planet as the US and USSR did during the Cold War. French, Israeli, British, and now Indian nuclear programs are far more modest—they possess enough nuclear weapons to make any potential aggressor think twice before attacking. Similarly, Chanakya’s king had a global vision, while Machiavelli’s prince was content to rule a strong but bounded power.

[71] Machiavelli, Prince, Chapter 15.

[72] Arthashastra 7.5.16-18. See Kangle 335.

[73] Machiavelli, Prince, Chapter 8.

[74] Machiavelli, Discourses, Book I, Chapter IX.

[75]Mansfield, 55.

[76] George Modelski, “Kautilya: Foreign Policy and International System in the Ancient Hindu World,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Sept. 1964), 558.

[77] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1970), 44-46.

[78] See Sebastian de Grazia’s Machiavelli in Hell (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

[79] Introduction to LA Burd’s edition of The Prince (Oxford, 1891), xxxiv.

[80] Machiavelli, Art of War, Book I.

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

An Appeal...

Dear Reader,

As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.

Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.

We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.

Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber
Comments ↓
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.