history, literature

Statecraft and the Indian tradition of democracy

The fragment from the Burning Archive this week is Kautilya, Arthshastra. This may be well known by Indian readers, but perhaps not readers from other cultures. ‘Arthshastra’ means statecraft, although is sometimes translated in the more pedestrian oxymoron of ‘political science’.

Arthshastra is in a way the perfect text for the Burning Archive. It has a story of retrieval from oblivion, or miraculous survival. I have on the podcast told similar stories. In Episode 26 on Beowulf, I told the story of the escape from fire and a burning library of the single surviving manuscript of this poem, without which we may not have Lord of the Rings and fantasy literature in its current form. In Episode 78 I tell the story of how the great Russian epic, the Lay of Igor’s Campaign was discovered in the late 18th century, imperfectly translated, and then destroyed in the Moscow fires caused by Napoleon’s invasion in 1812.

The story of Arthshastra is similarly fit for the Burning Archive. It was composed some time between the 2rd century BC and 3rd century CE. It was known to be influential until the 12th century, but then was lost or went underground, perhaps due to the Persian, Mughal or Muslim rule over India. It was known of, but considered lost by colonial era scholars. Then in in 1905 a Tamil Brahmin from Tanjore walked into the newly  opened Mysore Oriental Library with a copy of the Arthashastra in Sanskrit, written on palm leaves.

The work of translating the text written in early Sanskrit began. It is a complex text with a antique, practical context, and woven densely with code. One recent British translater, Patrick Olivelle, described his 2013 Oxford University Press translation as the “most difficult translation project I have ever undertaken”. Many interpretations are possible because of the complexity of the ideas, the intricacy of the text, and the long bridge between ancient Sanskrit and modern languages.

Still over the next two decades the Arthshastra became known, translated and studied around the world. It informed the strengthened heritage of Indian political thought, as India moved to break the British Yoke. It became known as one of the greatest manuals of statecraft – better than Machiavelli, because less cynical, and more focussed on implementation in practice, rather than systems in theory. It has also been compared to Sun Tzu and other classics. In ways the scholarship of the Arthshastra is still young, with much before it. It might be contrasted with the tired, exhausted Western tradition of squeezing new interpretations of what Aristotle meant by democracy or why Plato wanted to expel the poets from the Republic.

Arthshastra includes 15 books on topics such as Training, and Superintendents, Justices (he knew government was a people business), Eradication of Thorns, Secret Conduct, Calamities, Battle, War, Confederacies, the Weaker King, Capturing a Fort, and Esoteric Practices.

It proposes a kind of pre-modern welfare state. It cultivated sophistication in diplomacy. It respected the rule of law and the importance of diverse council. It practised magnanimity and to defeated. It supported institutions of wise counsel, advisors, and public consultation. It argued that Dharma (political virtue) can build Artha (wealth or power). Dharma provides rules and virtues that bind both the ruler and the ruled, in the democratic ethos of India.

“Dharma is law in its widest sense—spiritual, moral, ethical and temporal. Every individual, whether the ruler or the ruled, is governed by his or her own dharma. To the extent that society respected dharma, society protected itself; to the extent society offended it, society undermined”

The Arthshastra evoked the importance of ordinary virtue in both the rulers and the ruled. It spoke of these duties common to all: abstaining from injury (to living creatures), truthfulness, uprightness, freedom from malice, compassionateness and forbearance.

You could say this is the democratic ethos PM Modi refers as part of India’s ancient traditions as the Mother of Democracy.

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