Remembering Chanakya


Pavan K. Varma’s book harks back to Chanakya’s Arthashastra, and its relevance in today’s chaotic world

We have forgotten Chanakya so we talk of Machiavelli. We probably never read Arthashastra, that wonderful treatise on statecraft, so we quote The Prince.

More than 2000 years have lapsed since Chanakya, the astute man behind the rise of the Mauryas, wrote the book, but it is more relevant today than ever before.

Here’s why: Chanakya talks of the importance of law and order, punishing the wrong-doers, measures to curb corruption, war preparedness and foreign affairs. In his book of over 6000 shlokas and sutras, Chanakya tells us in no uncertain terms that a leader has to lead by example. The ship of a State without an able man at the helm is likely to sink sooner than later.

Now fast forward to 2012-13: The Delhi gang-rape tragedy and the masses demanding capital punishment for the guilty, innumerable scams involving top political leaders and Pakistan-India skirmishes on the border. Not to forget the alleged lack of decision making ability at the top with the widely lampooned hamming.

We could do worse than reading Chanakya! He really had a grasp over things you and I, and many, many more illustrious ones, ignored. And to think this man started it all almost in Hindi film fashion: his father had been killed by the Nanda ruler, Dhana, in Magadha. Chanakya wanted to settle scores but first he had to flee Pataliputra for his safety. He landed in Taxila (near Rawalpindi in modern-day Pakistan) from where over a period of a few years he rallied kings and nobles, soldiers and republics, deposed the Nanda king, enthroned Chandragupta, resisted the advance of the otherwise indomitable Alexander, then settled down to write the treatise that beats all state policy documents: Arthashastra.

Yet our historians and our political scientists have not spared more than cursory glance at the man or his work. If credit has been apportioned to him, it is courtesy some economists. And that, safe to say, has been measly.

Throughout our history books, our academics have concentrated on Chandragupta, Bindusara, Ashoka and so on. The accounts are replete with tales of warrior kings, bloody battles and epic wars. The crumbs have come Chanakya’s way.

Time then for atonement, if not in full, at least in part. A step in the right direction has been made by the persuasively skilful Pavan K. Varma, who has used Chanakya’s timeless work to pen together his own take on the ills afflicting the nation today. Aptly – or is it gratefully? – called Chanakya’s New Manifesto (published by Aleph) it sheds light on the forgotten strategist. And asks ever so subtly: why do we look towards the West for inspiration, for approval? No shenanigans, no loud speakers, Pavan whispers: Chanakya wrote Arthashastra some 1,800 years before Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince. Shh.

Yet Pavan claims, with some substance, that his is neither a feel-good, get-nostalgic book, nor an escape to a mythical glorious past from a chaotic present. As he says in the book, “To invoke Chanakya is not to take refuge in India’s glorious past and hope that magically those days will return. On the contrary, it is to derive inspiration from the past, since the past tells us that India is capable of new and audacious thought.”

So, finally Chanakya gets credit. And for once is not regarded as a precursor of Machiavelli, a man who thought the end explained the means. Rather, he is presented as a pragmatist who lived by a value system and a man devoted to dharma. It is only when national interest is involved does he evoke the mantra of the end justifying the means.

Pavan plays both smart and grateful. He makes Chanakya his benchmark, his ready mantra, and goes on to give a chilling account of a society-polity that seems to be fumbling for lack of direction. He provides no quick-fix solutions.

“Moral exhortation will not work as a means to eliminate corruption. Anna Hazare will be admired not emulated”, Pavan writes.

Time to doff off our topis to Chanakya! Thanks Pavan for the new manifesto.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2016 9:01:31 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/books/remembering-chanakya/article4319840.ece