Kautilya Compiles a Treatise on Practical Statecraft Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Kauṭilya’s Treatise on the Good is the most famous treatise on statecraft and administration belonging to the Arthaśāstra (science of government) school of thought.

Summary of Event

Kauṭilya (the politician), also known as Viṣugupta (the astronomer) and Cāṇakya (the moralist), was a peripatetic pundit from Taxila in the northwestern border of India (now a part of Pakistan). According to Jain tradition, Kauṭilya was born in Chanaka, a village in the Golla district of Taxila, son of a poor Brahman called Chani and his wife, Chaneshwari. After his wife suffered the humiliation of being poor at her wedding, Kauṭilya determined to become wealthy. He studied metallurgy to learn how to mint coins. Then he traveled to Pataliputra, capital city of the prosperous and powerful kingdom of Magadha, to serve King Dhanananda, who was reputed to be wealthy and haughty but generous to Brahmans. At the Nanda court, Kauṭilya prospered for a time, becoming the head of the royal alms office. He lost his job when he fell out of royal favor because of his unattractive looks and insolent manners. He thereupon vowed to put an end to the Nanda rule and began his wanderings as an Ājīvika ascetic in search of ways and means to realize his objective. Kauṭilya

During his sojourn, Kauṭilya chanced on a boy named Chandragupta of striking personality and disposition in a Magadhan village, bought him from his foster parents, and took him to Taxila, where he could train in a school. With the wealth Kauṭilya had accumulated through his minting skill, he raised an army, made Chandragupta its commander, and laid siege to Pataliputra. However, the siege failed to subdue the Nanda ruler, and the besiegers decamped. After a short while, however, they tried another strategy and defeated the Magadhan king. Chandragupta Maurya founded the Mauryan Dynasty, named after Chandragupta’s clan. The story of the Kauṭilya-Chandragupta connection, originating probably with works such as Kāmandaka’s Nītisāra (first half of eighth century c.e.; Kamandakiya Nitisara: Or, The Elements of Polity, 1896) and Viśākhadatta’s play Mudrārākṣasa (possibly fourth century c.e. or later; Mudraraksasam, 1900), is preserved in present-day Indian juvenile literature.

According to popular accounts, Kauṭilya fell out of favor with his royal disciple toward the end of his career, left Pataliputra, and became a forest-dwelling ascetic (vanaprastha). The Arthaśāstra (dates vary, c. fourth century b.c.e.-third century c.e.; Treatise on the Good, 1961) was probably composed in retirement.

Arthaśāstra means the śāstra (science) of artha (wealth or territory inhabited by humans). However, the term is best interpreted as “science of politics” or “science of government.” According to Kauṭilya, the source of people’s livelihood is Earth, which is inhabited by human beings, and the means of the attainment and protection of Earth is the arthaśāstra. The arthaśāstra, which eventually represented a school of political thought, was developed as an independent discipline beginning in the sixth century b.c.e. It arose as a reaction to the Buddhist teachings that emphasized the transience of the world and the lasting value of liberation (mokṣa). Prefering materialism over morality, the arthaśāstra writers divided the goals of human life into four categories: dharma (morality and justice), artha (wealth or material well-being), kāma (desires), and mokṣa (liberation or salvation). Among them, artha occupied the most prominent place. In his Treatise on the Good, Kauṭilya claimed that material well-being alone is supreme because spiritual and sensual pleasures depend on it. Accordingly, the arthaśāstras included the study of agriculture, commerce, animal husbandry, and other allied occupations, though by far the single most important subject was the art of governance and the ways and means of attaining sovereign authority. In short, the object of the arthaśāstra was to counsel the prince in the attainment of material welfare and in the art of good government.

Kauṭilya’s Treatise on the Good echoes all the earlier arthaśāstras and even harks back to a number of authorities mentioned in the Hindu epic Mahābhārata (400 b.c.e.-400 c.e., present form by c. 400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896), which stated that the king’s duty (rājadharma) consisted in providing security for his subjects and protecting morality and justice. Rājadharma is founded on daṇḍa (literally, rod or stick), or legitimate coercive authority, which is the basis of a political society or the state. For example, Vaivasata Manu, the first elected ruler of humankind in Hindu mythology, maintained that if the king did not employ daṇḍa when necessary, the strong would torment the weak, just as the larger fish devour the smaller ones in the river. Thus, the law of the fish results in the absence of either daṇḍa or the king. However, although Manu exercised coercive authority, he was no more than a dispenser of daṇḍa, which he held as sacred as dharma. Kauṭilya endorses the principles of daṇḍa by declaring that its administration constitutes the science of politics.

The central theme of Kauṭilya’s Treatise on the Good is the study of the state. The work is divided into fifteen books, 150 chapters, 180 sections, about 5,000 verses, and about 5,370 pithy statements (sutras). The first book deals with the education and upbringing of the prince. The second addresses civil administration, including the formation of village units, construction of forts, and the revenue system. Books 3-5 deal with civil law, legal proceedings, and punishments and duties of courtiers and councillors. The sixth book discusses the seven elements of politics—king, ministers, land, fort, treasury, army, and ally—and analyzes interstate relations. The seventh book deals with the six diplomatic policies. The eighth book enumerates and elucidates the various calamities befalling a kingdom, including their causes and cures. The problems of war occupy books 9-10, and the subsequent three books deal with diplomacy and espionage. The fourteenth book discusses the various magical ways and means of eliminating the enemy. Finally, the last book outlines the thirty-two methodological principles, or the method of science.

According to the Treatise on the Good, the state has a moral purpose: to bring about order. The ruler of the state must at all times be guided by dharma (righteousness or duty). Even though he wields the rod for the sake of maintaining order, he must, nevertheless, use his coercive authority judiciously. The king who is too severe with the rod, says Kauṭilya, inspires terror in his people, while the king who is too mild with the rod incurs his people’s displeasure, but the king who is just with the rod is honored by all. A truly Kauṭilyan ruler is a saintly king who has conquered the six basic drives pernicious to human nature: kāma (lust), kopa or krodha (anger), lobha (avarice), mana (vanity), mada (insolence), and harṣa (levity). In addition, he must be well versed in the four sciences: trayī (the three Vedas: Rigveda, Samāveda, and Yajurveda), anviksiki (the philosophy of Sāṁkhya, Yoga, and Lokāyata), varta (the science of economics consisting of agriculture, cattle breeding, and trade), and dandaniti (the science of government). In short, a ruler of men must be adept in the arts of virtue and valor.

The ruler is also enjoined to expand his realm by means of what Kauṭilya calls dharmavijaya (righteous conquest). He counsels against any victory by wanton destruction (asuravijaya) or because of excessive greed (lobhavijaya). He encourages aggression only against an enemy who is both active (śatru) and passive (ari). Hence, he insists on the total destruction of the enemy even by foul means in a strategic battle (kutayuddha). The Treatise on the Good devotes an entire book to describing the secret means such as magic or medicinal charms to injure an enemy. However, the victor must be guided by a strict code of conduct. After gaining new territory, he should cover the enemy’s faults with his own virtues and the enemy’s virtues with double virtues. In other words, the conqueror should govern all his conquered people strictly in accordance with the duties prescribed to kings.


Kauṭilya inspired subsequent generations of philosophers, poets, and political thinkers of India, including the poet Kālidāsa. In the eighth century c.e., the Treatise on the Good was taught formally in the schools of Varanasi, India. The influence of the Treatise on the Good declined after the Turkish conquest of northern India in the thirteenth century; however, as late as the eighteenth century, Kauṭilya continued to be ranked with such great political thinkers of ancient India as Vrihaspati and Shukracharya.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bandyopadhyaya, Narain C. Kauṭilya, Or, An Exposition on His Social Ideal and Political Theory. 1927. Reprint. Varanasi, India: Indological Book House, 1982. Extremely useful biographical information on Kauṭilya.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kangle, R. P. The Kautiliya “Arthaśāstra.” Bombay: University of Bombay, 1965-1969. The first part contains a magisterial translation of the Arthaśāstra and the third part a superb critical analysis of the work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mookerji, Radha K. Chandragupta Maurya and His Times. 4th ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1966. Important information on the Kauṭilya-Chandragupta connection and on the Treatise on the Good by a distinguished historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ray, Ranjan K. An Introductory Study of Kauṭilya’s “Arthaśāstra.” Calcutta, India: K. Ray, 1966. A basic overview of the theories and concepts of the Treatise on the Good.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raychaudhuri, Hemchandra. Political History of Ancient India from the Accession of Parikshit to the Extinction of the Gupta Dynasty. 7th ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996. A classic work, first published in 1923, on the political history of India.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sil, Narasingha P. Kauṭilya’s “Arthaśāstra”: A Comparative Study. 2d ed. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. A bibliography on Kauṭilya and a comprehensive comparative analysis of the texts of Plato, Aristotle, and Machiavelli, as well as of the Arthaśāstra.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sil, Narasingha P. “Political Morality Versus Political Necessity: Kauṭilya and Machiavelli Revisited.” Journal of Asian History 9, no. 2 (1985). A revisionist study of an older standard comparison between the ideas of both authors.
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