Excerpts of a Dissertation on Kautilya… and some thoughts
I just came across an excerpt of a very well written dissertation written by Sunny Jiten Singh at Rutgers University titled “Kautilyan antecedents of the Westphalian order.” The title in itself was intriguing and interesting. It provoked a rather amorphous thought which I want to share with people anyway.
What the author points out is that many of the aspects of a state that the Westphalian system incorporates, were already done by the Kautilyan State. The author rightly points out that most of the Political Science and International Relations discourse considers the idea of the state as an European phenomena. Consequently, most lessons on political theory and political philosophy do not venture out beyond the Greek Trinity of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and stay within the Western world, with token mentions of Kautilya, Confucius and Sun Tzu (and if the department is really good, a bit of Dharmasastras).
If indeed the concept of a state and a hegemonic state (mandala) in India predates the British and the Mughals, the question ought to be asked: Shouldn’t the study of Indian political philosophy branch out beyond the study of the Indian National Congress and tit-bits of RSS and Jana Sanga? Although Kautilya does capture the imagination of many aspiring political thinkers (myself included) not much is explored about those thinkers who influenced Kautilya himself. After all, even the brightest people are influenced by others! Throughout the Arthashastra, Kautilya draws upon the teachings of previous gurus, including people like Shukraacharya, Brihaspati and Bheeshma (see Kangle’s 3 part series on Arthashastra). Kautilya also refers to various characters and scenes from the Mahabharata to examine the societal and political changes and similarities (“then and now” type analysis).
The problem is that these characters are often attributed to Indian mythology and hence are not given importance from a political science pedagogy point of view. Additionally, study of such people perhaps gets perceived as saffronization. But then, shouldn’t these things be studied at least at the University level? Where students can be expected to be more discrete and give this subject the careful treatment it deserves? One way to think about it is that regardless of the historicity of the epic and the Puranas, it is a ‘story’ that has been written which contain various political situations and political actions. In the Shanti Parva, Bheeshma’s advice to Yudhishthira is strikingly similar to the Kautilyan world view, and his advice to Chandragupta, which gives me reason to believe that these epics and“Pauranic gurus” like Shukraacharya and Brihaspati should not be passed off as mere cultural/religious/mythological symbols and caricatures but must be studied to understand the origins or may I dare say the inspiration source of Indian political philosophy.