Key thinker: Kautilya (c. 300 BC)

Kautilya (c. 300 BC)


Kautilya (also known as Chanakya and Vishnugupta) was born into a family of Brahmins, the highest Hindu varna and caste, and educated at Taxila (in present day Pakistan). Most of what we know about Kautilya’s life is derived from various legends, traditions, and oral histories; no historical documents have survived ( Kautilya is believed to have been highly learned, and to have possessed some knowledge of astrology and medicine, as well as Greek and Persian teachings, which had been introduced to the region through the Zoroastrianism (

Kautilya was the author of Arthasastra (‘the science of material gain’), a comprehensive treatise on political science. While the existence of the text had been known for some time, an ancient copy, written on palm leaves in the grantha script, was only rediscovered in 1904. It was published in Sanskrit and English in 1905 and 1909, respectively (see 4.1. Introduction). Arthasastra was written as an instruction manual for Chandragupta Maurya (c. 300 BC), the founder of the Mauryan empire in northern India, whom Kautilya served as a political advisor (

The Mauryan empire was one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world, and the first to encompass most of the Indian subcontinent ( Kautilya was instrumental in helping Chandragupta overthrow the powerful Nanda dynasty (see 4.2. Unfolding the Philosophical Foundation). Kautilya’s achievements are commemorated in Buddhist, Jain, Kashmiri, and Vishakhadatta traditions ( While each of these accounts emphasizes different aspects of Kautilya’s life, all four agree that he is the architect of Chandragupta’s ascension.


Since the text was first rediscovered, Arthasastra has sparked a debate about what kind of political theory Kautilya is advancing in his book. Arthasastra is composed of 5 books, 150 chapters and 6000 verses which cover 180 topics; the scope and ambition of this work make it difficult to narrow in on its overarching political theory. Any comprehensive interpretation of Kautilya’s political thought is further complicated by the fact that some sections of the book were written by Kautilya himself, while others were compiled from older texts, and others still written by other scholars (see 4.2. Unfolding the Philosophical Foundation). 

Kautilya’s ruthless and calculated approach to statecraft in Arthasastra has led some scholars to argue that it is an early statement of political realism, comparable to Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (see Key concept: Realism in Chapter 25 on Niccolò Machiavelli). In his famous lecture ‘Politics as Vocation’ (1919), the German sociologist Max Weber even claimed that Kautilya was far more ruthless than Machiavelli (Boesche, 2002). But a closer consideration of the philosophical foundations of his thought reveals a political thinker that is concerned as much with the moral conception of what is good or bad in politics, as he is with securing power (see 4.2. Unfolding the Philosophical Foundation).

Kautilya’s ethico-political doctrine is derived from Anvikshaki, which can be translated as ‘the science of inquiry’ (see Key concept: Anvikshaki (Philosophy of Science)). Kautilya argues that the three philosophical categories of Samkhya, Yoga, and Lokayata can be reconciled to form a practical political philosophy. While the realpolitik of Machiavelli and others advocates the rational use of power to realize the moral aim of preserving one’s self (or one’s power) at the expense of others, Kautilya’s political thought attempts to supplement it by introducing a moral politics of collective happiness (see 4.2. Unfolding the Philosophical Foundation).

For Kautilya, the state is responsible for ensuring the collective happiness of its citizens. It can do so by promoting values such as enjoyment, non-injury, truthfulness, and altruism (see 4.2. Unfolding the Philosophical Foundation: Key points). Kautilya argues that the state is composed of seven elements: a king; a council of ministers; the countryside; a fort; the treasury; the army; and its allies. Although all seven elements of the state are equally important, Kautilya argues that the king with perfect or ideal qualities can balance out imperfections in the other six elements (see 4.2. Unfolding the Philosophical Foundation).

While the first five elements of the state make up its domestic administration, the final two pertain to foreign policy. Kautilya’s foreign policy is expressed in the mandala (‘circle of states’) model, which lays out the strategic position of states in a regional or world system (see 4.3. Circles of States and Foreign Policy). Within this model, Kautilya argues, states must pursue a six-fold foreign policy, which maximizes their power (see Key concept: power) and allows them to conquer other states. Although states should always be prepared for war, peace can also be a strategically beneficial foreign policy option at times.

In Kautilya’s political theory, foreign and domestic policy must always be aligned. He argues that any state should ensure internal stability before it can engage in war (see 4.3. Circles of States and Foreign Policy). For Kautilya, a ruler’s ability to conquer a state depends on how the subjects of that state perceive their actions. If a war is deemed unjust, or if the leader of the conquered state is still seen as virtuous in the eyes of their subjects, then the power of the conquering ruler is diminished (see 4.3.1. The Ends of Political). Foreign policy and domestic policy, then, are not merely a matter of brute force, but of political skill and intrigue.

The views expressed in Arthasastra have been criticized by some as sexist and casteist (see 4.4. Untangling the Knots of ‘Gender’ and ‘Caste’). Some parts of the text show Kautilya as a conservative thinker, who believes that the main role of wives is the reproduction of the family, or that they should be dependent on their husbands and sons (see 4.4.1. The Many Faces of Womanhood). For Kautilya, the household is still governed by what Mary Astell calls the ‘domestic sovereign’, whose power in the domestic sphere is unchecked (see Chapter 8 on Mary Astell). In other passages, however, Kautilya ascribes political agency to both men and women; rejects the separation between the personal and political spheres of politics; and argues that women are as rational as men.

Kautilya’s casteism poses a similar challenge for scholars. He suggests that states should institute a rigid social order that groups people into four categories (varna), which each fulfil different social functions (see 4.4.2. The Groundwork of Social Order). But at times it is unclear whether Kautilya is referring simply to varna or to casteist hierarchies, which ascribe a social function to individuals at birth. While the former implies a cooperative division of labour, the latter institutionalizes hierarchical superiority and inferiority as ‘natural’. Some have argued that, like Plato (see Chapter 2 on Plato), Kautilya intends to prevent social mobility and justify the continued rule of his own social class (Brahmins) through his political theory. Others, however, suggest that such casteist elements were only later added to Arthasastra by other authors (see 4.4. Untangling the Knots of ‘Gender’ and ‘Caste’: Key points).

Further Reading

Olivelle, P. (2013). King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India: Kautilya’s Arthasastra. New York: Oxford University Press.

Boesche, Roger. ‘Moderate Machiavelli? Contrasting The Prince with the Arthashastra of Kautilya’. Critical Horizons 3, no. 2 (18 February 2002): 253–76.

Bisht, M. (2019). Kautilya’s Arthashastra: Philosophy of Strategy. New York: Routledge. 

Liebig, M. and Mishra, S. (eds). (2017). The Arthasastra in a Transcultural Perspective: Comparing Kautilya with Sun-Zi, Nizam al-Mulk, Barani and Machiavelli. New Delhi: Pentagon Press.

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