Chanakya and Machiavelli – Two Realists in Comparison
By Jaideep A.Prabhu
“Politics,” Ronald Reagan once said, “is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” Today, the former US president’s words may seem trite, but a few centuries ago, such sentiments would have had serious repercussions. The publication of The Prince, for example, resulted in violent reactions in Europe—its author, Niccolò Machiavelli, was burnt in effigy by the Jesuits, his books were blacklisted and penned into the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Inquisition in Rome, and several books were written to denounce Machiavelli’s “dangerous” and “immoral” teachings.
This prophet of statecraft and diplomacy, however, for many scholars of political theory remains one of the brightest names coming out of Italy during the fecund period of the renaissance. It would be an interesting and profitable exercise to juxtapose Machiavelli’s works on statecraft and diplomacy, The Art of War, Discourses on Livy, and the (in)famous The Prince, in which he opined on how a state should be run, with the Indian realist Chanakya’s Arthashastra . In the Western tradition, these of Machiavelli’s works are considered the principal texts of realism in diplomatic manoeuvring. Chanakya, who is also known to history as Kautilya or Vishnugupta, was the advisor to Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire in 321 BCE after defeating the Nanda dynasty and Alexander the Great’s ambassadors in northern India. The Arthashastra, written circa 320 BCE, was rediscovered in 1904 by R. Shamasastry and translated into English by 1915. Oddly, this text has remained neglected despite the exuberant efforts of British and German “Indomaniacs” of the imperialist era. By juxtaposing it with Machiavelli’s thoughts, I hope to reintroduce the Arthashastra to mainstream political chitchat and in the process of doing so, diminish the farcical asinine notion of an intellectual divide between “East” and “West.”
It is important to understand why these particular texts were chosen. After all, there exist umpteen books just in the West on statecraft and political power. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, to name a few, all deal explicitly with the same subject. In a circuitous manner, so do Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. And of course, Machiavelli himself studied Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s The Republic and Laws. The Islamic World offers Al-Farabi’s Aphorisms of the State, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, Averroes’ The Decisive Treatise Determining the Nature of the Connection between Religion and Philosophy, and Avicenna’s The Healing. However, Machiavelli’s works make a good comparison to the Arthashastra because like Chanakya, Machiavelli makes a distinction between ethics and political science. Unlike the aforementioned theorists, neither Machiavelli nor Chanakya are interested in the ideal state or the fullest moral development of political men. They are more concerned with the security of the state against external threats and internal harmony. Furthermore, despite other works on politics and statecraft, Machiavelli represents, in the West, the first clear break with idealism and morality, and is the first to suggest that the root of state power is force. For Machiavelli, as Harvey Mansfield notes, as for Chanakya, the fundamental fact is how the prince rules instead of who rules.