Kautilya Who? – Trying to Comprehend India’s “Strategic Culture”


At the beginning of the 21st century, we see a re-balancing among the major longue durée cultures – Euro-Atlantic, China and India – as the center of gravity of world affairs is shifting towards Asia. This implies the necessity to become (better) acquainted with the internal resources of Indian and Chinese culture. For understanding India’s “strategic culture,” Kautilya’s opus magnum Arthashastra is of paramount importance.

By Michael Liebig

If you look beyond the headlines, Germany is currently undergoing two basic adjustment processes: First, the (rapid) re-alignment of the German economy to the transformation of the world economy, shifting of its center of gravity to Asia (plus the rising weight of Latin America). And secondly, the parallel (but slower) adaption of German foreign policy to the multipolar world system, in which likewise Asia is getting steadily more important. Both adjustment processes mean that Germany’s self-development becomes in a new way interlinked with powers outside of Europe or the larger “West”. These adjustment processes necessitate a cultural reorientation beyond the “eurocentric” framing.

Cultural Multipolarity

A living culture is never autarchic; a self-regenerating culture depends on the interchange with other cultures. During the past decades, German culture had been strongly influenced by Anglo-American culture, which belongs to the same civilizational space as Germany’s. During the coming decades, European culture will be strongly influenced by Chinese and Indian culture – both outside Euro-Atlantic cultural space. The Chinese and Indian cultures are very ancient – longue durée – cultures with great internal resources. Like European culture, they are more than 2500 years old – and they are alive and kicking.

Already in the 18th and 19th century, some of Germany’s greatest minds – Leibniz, Wolff, Goethe, the Humboldt brothers or Hegel recognized that the interchange with Asian cultures represents an enormous opportunity for European culture. From a perspective of cultural history, the German indologist Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943)[1] and the philosopher Georg Misch (1878-1965) have analyzed the indications of cross-feeding between Vedic-Brahmanic philosophy and European philosophy, notably the Ionian philosophers, Pythagoras, Plato, Augustinus, Thomas Aquinas and the “mysthics” of the Middle Ages.

Yet, Vedic-Brahmanic philosophy and Graeco-European philosophy are distinct expressions of self-developed cultures. All longue durée cultures have specific, quasi-genetic features which are the result of an evolutionary process, a succession of many intra-cultural transformations triggered by internal and external influences.

All longue durée cultures have generated quite specific conceptions of social life; they have developed distinct notions of “society”, “order”, “power”, “economy”, “state” or “inter-state relations”. Like the culture as a whole, these categories are the result of an evolutionary transformation process. While the meaning of such core notions of social life has changed over time, there remains a “transfinite” conceptual continuity – conditioned by the longue durée culture.

When we think about “society”, “order”, “power”, “economy”, “state” or “inter-state relations” in Euro-Atlantic space, the formative influence of Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke or Marx on these concepts has at least a latent presence. When the educated Indian or Chinese does the same, he or she will likely also refer to these European thinkers, but he or she will first think of Confucius, Menzius and Sun Tsu or the Mahabharata and Kautilya’s Arthashastra. We have to acknowledge that there is an asymmetry in the mutual understanding of the three longue durée cultures. This asymmetry is the result of the superiority of (modern) European culture and its scientific-technological manifestations which turned India into a colony and China into a semi-colony. In the 21st century, the balance between Asia and Euro-Atlantic space is being re-established. So we, in Euro-Atlantic space, better try to grasp the history of ideas within Chinese and Indian culture. Otherwise, we might be up to nasty surprises.

India today is a country of 1.3 billion people and becoming one of the world powers. It should be obvious that the conceptional “DNA” of Indian statecraft didn’t begin with Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru or the economic reforms of Prime Minister Rao in the 20th century. There is a tradition of Indian statecraft and diplomacy which goes back at least 2500 years. And, one can safely assume that this tradition has exerted a formative influence on Indian politics up to the present.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra

In 321 B.C., 26 years after the death of Plato and one year after the death of Aristoteles, Chandragupta Mauriya became the ruler of the Mauriya Empire which extended from the Indus Valley to the Ganges plains. Four years earlier, in 325, after reaching the Indus, Alexander the Great had to abandon his attempt to conquer India. Chandragupta’s “brain trust” and “chancellor” was Canakya Kautilya. The Brahmin Kautilya was not just a political operative, but a theoretician. He is in fact a co-founder of political science. He authored Arthashastra,[2] a vast volume on statecraft – more than 600 pages in English or German translation.

Zimmer writes: “Arthashastra shares many features with Plato’s Politea and Nomoi and with Aristoteles‘ Politics, and can stand up to these works.” He adds that Arthashastra equally can be compared to Thomas Hobbes‘ Leviathan and Niccolo’s Machiavelli’s The Prince. I think, Zimmer’s assessment is correct. And I may add, in Thucydides‘ Peloponnesian War there are echos of Kautilya as well.

When reading Arthashastra, you feel a chill breeze. Kautilya is a political realist up to the point of touching the pain barrier. Max Weber wrote that, compared to Arthashastra, Machiavelli’s The Prince is “harmless”. Kautilya’s central notion is power. The purpose of the state is preserving and expanding its power. Strengthening the state internally and externally, is the supreme duty of the absolutist ruler. But absolutist rule does not imply personal tyrannical extravaganza. If the ruler fails in his duty, his overthrow is not just legitimate, but mandatory, because a weak ruler brings disaster upon the state.

When reading Kautilya several empires come to mind: The Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great, Alexander’s Graeco-Persian Empire, the Roman Empire or the empire design of Frederick II Hohenstaufen. And, obviously, there are parallels to the Chinese Empire at its height.

The Kautilyan state is a cast society (with similarities to the one in Plato’s Politea): The religious-intellectual elite cast, the Brahmins; the warrior caste, the Kshatriyas; the merchants and land-owners (Vaishyas); and the peasants and artisans (Sudras) – and there are the indigenous/non-Arya outcasts, socially even below Greek or Romans slaves.

The Kautilyan state and society have a “logical” design: While the ruler is absolute, he is the (supreme) functionary of state. The Kshatriyas serve the internal and external security of the state, along with an elaborated judicial system. And, the Kautilyan state is administered by an almost “technocratic” state bureaucracy.

The “working casts” of the Vaishyas and Sudras provide the material foundation for the state and society. Their capacity to generate wealth is the basis of the strength of the state. Their economic activities are thoroughly supervised and regulated – but they must not be unduly oppressed. Why? Arbitrary mistreatment reduces economic efficiency and output. On top of this, arbitrary oppression nurtures political unrest.

The key position in Kautilyan state and society, however, have the Brahmins: Not only do they shape the beliefs and thinking of society, but they steer (or manipulate) state policy by the intellectual and political “guidance” they exert on the absolute ruler.

Zimmer points to the coherence of Kautilyan state and society and the core concepts of Vedic-Brahmanic philosophy for individual life: First acquiring wealth (artha) along with pleasure (kama), but within morality (dharma) – then, only towards the end of life, comes the attainment of spiritual salvation (moksha). Thus, Indian culture features an explicit duality of materialism and religious spirituality. The Brahmins are (or at least should be) a-materialistic, but they are no anti-materialistic. The explicit materialist dimension of India’s cultural “DNA” is challenging the assertion that the West’s economic (capitalist) dynamism has been the unique result of Protestant-Puritan ethics, which sees material success as evidence of God awarding (predetermined) salvation.

Arthashastra is not merely about (ancient) political science, it is an economic treatise as well. The book elaborates various economic occupations – agriculture, crafts, mining, trade – and their regulation and taxation. Various infrastructure measures – road and bridge building, water management, agricultural ameliorations – are outlined. But also, state-controlled brothels, bars serving alcoholic beverages and gambling houses are presented as an important source of state revenue. I’m not aware of any economic treatise in the West that could compare with Arthashastra – at least until the mercantilist writings of the 17th century. In addition, Arthashastra contains a large and detailed section on criminal and civil law.

Diplomacy and Intelligence

However, the largest sections of Arthashastra cover diplomacy and warfare. Kautilya advocates prudence in pursuing the two basic foreign policy aims: Securing the state’s security against foreign aggression and expanding the state at the expense of other states. To these ends, diplomacy and (intelligence) “covert operations” are preferable to waging war. Employing guile in statecraft is better than fixating on military force. The ruler and his advisers must carefully calculate the correlation of forces before launching war. Short-term gains through immediate action must be balanced against a long-term gains by waiting for the right moment to act.

Kautilya develops a “foreign policy geometry”: The Kautilyan state is surrounded by concentric circles of surrounding states. The states of the first circle are “natural” enemies, because they stand in the way of the state’s “natural” expansionist drive. A second circle of states represents potential allies because their interests are colliding with those of the second circle. The third circle of states are potential enemies because they have converging interests with the first circle and conflicting interest with the second. Kautilya anticipates the dictum: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Kautilya lists various diplomatic ruses, among them:

  • for secretly preparing an aggression and achieve surprise
  • for sowing dissent in (and thus weakening) a targeted state
  • for isolating a targeted state from (potential) allies
  • for delaying/diverting aggression by another state
  • for camouflaging one’s own weakness until strength has been recovered
  • for inciting conflict between other states to one’s own advantage

Most astonishing is that Arthashastra contains a section on intelligence – and it’s at least of equal rank with Sun Tsu’s treatise The Art of War. For the Kautilyan state, intelligence is a crucial instrument of state policy – internally and externally. Therefore there has to be an intelligence service – a special organization within the state bureaucracy. He distinguishes intelligence officers and operational agents. And he differentiates the various intelligence functions.

Most important is internal security:

  • information gathering on the mood in the general population
  • secret monitoring of the state bureaucracy to preempt high treason
  • counterintelligence against the penetration by foreign spies
  • covert actions to (secretly) kill internal enemies of the state

In respect to foreign intelligence, Kautilya lists:

  • spying in foreign courts
  • (mobile) intelligence collection in foreign countries for identifying strengths and weaknesses
  • covert ops for destabilizing foreign countries
  • covert ops killing secretly foreign state officials

Kautilya also specifies various intelligence techniques for gathering information and recruiting agents and agents-of-influence: corruption through money, sexual entrapment, blackmail and exploiting resentments. He outlines “covers” for spies in foreign places: merchants, wandering monks/nuns, entertainers/showmen, astrologers etc. Intelligence reports must be transmitted in code. For internal security, Kautilya sees informants in bars, brothels and gambling houses as particularly valuable for collecting information.

The vast conceptional content of Arthashastra is not the exclusive creation of just one man – Kautilya. He himself refers to more than 100 source books, which however have all been lost. Thus, Kautilya has synthesized Ancient India’s accumulated knowledge on statecraft, economics, military strategy, judicial and intelligence matters.

Over the past 2300 years, the Indian elites have drawn on the conceptional content of Arthashastra. In 1915, a first English translation was published, followed by German (1926), Russian (1959) and Spanish (2008) translations. Up to the 1990s, there was hardly any interest in Kautilya outside India, but, since – parallel to the growing international weight of India – the importance of Kautilya has increasingly been realized in the West.

Of course, today’s India is by no means resembling the “Kautilyan state”. In the same way, neither is Britain “Hobbesian” nor is Italy “Machiavellian”. Yet, about Hobbes and Machiavelli we know a lot and we recognize that these two thinkers have significantly influenced the Western way of statecraft. Kautilya has significantly shaped the Indian way of statecraft. If we want to understand India’s “strategic culture,” we should better learn more about Kautilya and his Arthashastra.


[1]Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India, Ed. by Joseph Campell, New York, 1951

[2]Kautilya, The Arthashastra, Ed. by L.N. Rangarajan, Penguin Classics, New Delhi, 1992; Johann Jakob Meyer, Das altindische Buch vom Welt- und Staatsleben, Das Arthcastra des Kautilya, Graz, 1977 (1926)

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