Chanakya was an ancient Indian teacher, philosopher, economist, jurist and royal advisor. He is traditionally identified as Kauṭilya or Vishnugupta, who authored the ancient Indian political treatise, the Arthashastra, a text dated to roughly between the 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century CE. As such, he is considered the pioneer of the field of political science and economics in India, and his work is thought of as an important precursor to classical economics. His works were lost near the end of the Gupta Empire in the 6th century BCE and not rediscovered until the early 20th century.
Chanakya assisted the first Mauryan emperor Chandragupta in his rise to power. He is widely credited for having played an important role in the establishment of the Maurya Empire. Chanakya served as the chief advisor to both emperors Chandragupta and his son Bindusara.
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
According to the Buddhist legend, the Nanda kings who preceded Chandragupta were robbers-turned-rulers. Chanakya was a Brahmin from Takkāsila (Takshashila). He was well-versed in three Vedas and politics. He had canine teeth, which were believed to be a mark of royalty. His mother feared that he would neglect her after becoming a king. To pacify her, Chanakya broke his teeth.
Chanakya was said to be ugly, accentuated by his broken teeth and crooked feet. One day, the king Dhana Nanda organized an alms-giving ceremony for Brahmins. Chanakya went to Pupphapura (Pushpapura) to attend this ceremony. Disgusted by his appearance, the king ordered him to be thrown out of the assembly. Chanakya broke his sacred thread in anger, and cursed the king. The king ordered his arrest, but Chanakya escaped in the disguise of an Ājīvika. He befriended Dhananada’s son Pabbata, and instigated him to seize the throne. With help of a signet ring given by the prince, Chanakya fled the palace through a secret door.
Chanakya escaped to the Vinjha forest. There, he made 800 million gold coins (kahapanas), using a secret technique that allowed him to turn 1 coin into 8 coins. After hiding this money, he started searching for a person worthy of replacing Dhana Nanda. One day, he saw a group of children playing: the young Chandragupta (called Chandagutta in Mahavamsa) played the role of a king, while other boys pretended to be vassals, ministers, or robbers. The “robbers” were brought before Chandragupta, who ordered their limbs to be cut off, but then miraculously re-attached them. Chandragupta had been born in a royal family, but was brought up by a hunter after his father was killed by an usurper, and the devatas caused his mother to abandon him. Astonished by the boy’s miraculous powers, Chanakya paid 1000 gold coins to his foster-father, and took Chandragupta away, promising to teach him a trade.
Chanakya had two potential successors to Dhana Nanda: Pabbata and Chandragupta. He gave each of them an amulet to be worn around the neck with a woolen thread. One day, he decided to test them. While Chandragupta was asleep, he asked Pabbata to remove Chandragupta’s woolen thread without breaking it and without waking up Chandragupta. Pabbata failed to accomplish this task. Some time later, when Pabbata was sleeping, Chanakya challenged Chandragupta to complete the same task. Chandragupta retrieved the woolen thread by cutting off Pabbata’s head. For the next seven years, Chanakya trained Chandragupta for royal duties. When Chandragupta became an adult, Chanakya dug up his hidden treasure of gold coins, and assembled an army.
The army of Chanadragupta and Chanakya invaded Dhana Nanda’s kingdom, but disbanded after facing a severe defeat. While wandering in disguise, the two men once listened to the conversation between a woman and her son. The child had eaten the middle of a cake, and thrown away the edges. The woman scolded him, saying that he was eating food like Chandragupta, who attacked the central part of the kingdom instead of conquering the border villages first. Chanakya and Chandragupta realized their mistake. They assembled a new army, and started conquering the border villages. Gradually, they advanced to the kingdom’s capital Pataliputra (Pāṭaliputta in Mahavamsa), where they killed the king Dhana Nanda. Chanakya ordered a fisherman to find the place where Dhana Nanda had hidden his treasure. As soon as the fishermen informed Chanakya about its location, Chanakya had him killed. Chanakya anointed Chandragupta as the new king, and tasked a man named Paṇiyatappa with eliminating rebels and robbers from the kingdom.
Chanakya started mixing small doses of poison in the new king’s food to make him immune to poisoning attempts by the enemies. Chandragupta, who was not aware of this, once shared the food with his pregnant queen, who was seven days away from delivery. Chanakya arrived just as the queen ate the poisoned morsel. Realizing that she was going to die, Chanakya decided to save the unborn child. He cut off the queen’s head and cut open her belly with a sword to take out the foetus. Over the next seven days, he placed the foetus in the belly of a goat freshly killed each day. After seven days, Chandragupta’s son was “born”. He was named Bindusara, because his body was spotted with drops (bindu) of goat’s blood.
The earliest Buddhist legends do not mention Chanakya in their description of the Mauryan dynasty after this point. Dhammapala‘s commentary on Theragatha, however, mentions a legend about Chanakya and a Brahmin named Subandhu. According to this account, Chanakya was afraid that the wise Subandhu would surpass him at Chandragupta’s court. So, he got Chandragupta to imprison Subandhu, whose son Tekicchakani escaped and became a Buddhist monk. The 16th-century Tibetan Buddhist author Taranathamentions Chanakya as one of Bindusara’s “great lords”. According to him, Chanakya destroyed the nobles and kings of 16 towns and made Bindusara the master of all the territory between the eastern and the western seas (Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal).
According to the Jain account, Chanakya was born to two lay Jains (shravaka) named Chanin and Chaneshvari. His birthplace was the Chanaka village in Golla vishaya (region). The identity of “Golla” is not certain, but Hemachandra states that Chanakya was a Dramila, implying that he was a native of South India.
Chanakya was born with a full set of teeth. According to the monks, this was a sign that he would become a king in the future. Chanin did not want his son to become haughty, so he broke Chanakya’s teeth. The monks prophesied that the baby would go on to become a power behind the throne. Chanakya grew up to be a learned shravaka, and married a Brahmin woman. Her relatives mocked her for being married to a poor man. This motivated Chanakya to visit Pataliputra, and seek donations from the king Nanda, who was famous for his generosity towards Brahmins. While waiting for the king at the royal court, Chanakya sat on the king’s throne. A dasi (servant girl) courteously offered Chanakya the next seat, but Chanakya kept his kamandal (water pot) on it, while remaining seated on the throne. The servant offered him a choice of four more seats, but each time, he kept his various items on the seats, refusing to budge from the throne. Finally, the annoyed servant kicked him off the throne. Enraged, Chanakya vowed to uproot Nanda and his entire establishment, like “a great wind uproots a tree”.
Chanakya knew that he was prophesied to become a power behind the throne. So, he started searching for a person worthy of being a king. While wandering, he did a favour for the pregnant daughter of a village chief, on the condition that her child would belong to him. Chandragupta was born to this lady. When Chandragupta grew up, Chanakya came to his village and saw him playing “king” among a group of boys. To test him, Chanakya asked him for a donation. The boy told Chanakya to take the cows nearby, declaring that nobody would disobey his order. This display of power convinced Chanakya that Chandragupta was the one worthy of being a king.
Chanakya took Chandragupta to conquer Pataliputra, the capital of Nanda. He assembled an army using the wealth he had acquired through alchemy (dhatuvada-visaradan). The army suffered a severe defeat, forcing Chanakya and Chandragupta to flee the battlefield. They reached a lake while being pursued by an enemy officer. Chanakya asked Chandragupta to jump into the lake, and disguised himself as a meditating ascetic. When the enemy soldier reached the lake, he asked the ‘ascetic’ if he had seen Chandragupta. Chanakya pointed at the lake. As the soldier removed his armour to jump into the lake, Chanakya took his sword and killed him. When Chandragupta came out of the water, Chanakya asked him, “What went through your mind, when I disclosed your location to the enemy?” Chandragupta replied that he trusted his master to make the best decision. This convinced Chanakya that Chandragupta would remain under his influence even after becoming the king. On another occasion, Chanakya similarly escaped the enemy by chasing away a washerman, and disguising himself as one. Once, he cut open the belly of a Brahmin who had just eaten food, and took out the food to feed a hungry Chandragupta.
One day, Chanakya and Chandragupta overheard a woman scolding her son. The child had burnt his finger by putting it in the middle of a bowl of hot gruel. The woman told her son that by not starting from the cooler edges, he was being foolish like Chanakya, who attacked the capital before conquering the bordering regions. Chanakya realized his mistake, and made a new plan to defeat Nanda. He formed an alliance with Parvataka, the king of a mountain kingdom called Himavatkuta, offering him half of Nanda’s kingdom.
After securing Parvataka’s help, Chanakya and Chandragupta started besieging the towns other than Pataliputra. One particular town offered a strong resistance. Chanakya entered this town disguised as a Shaivite mendicant, and declared that the siege would end if the idols of the seven mothers were removed from the town’s temple. As soon as the superstitious defenders removed the idols from the temple, Chanakya ordered his army to end the siege. When the defenders started celebrating their victory, Chanakya’s army launched a surprise attack and captured the town.
The Kashmiri version of the legend goes like this: Vararuchi (identified with Katyayana), Indradatta and Vyadi were three disciples of the sage Varsha. Once, on behalf of their guru Varsha, they traveled to Ayodhya to seek a gurudakshina (guru’s fee) from king Nanda. As they arrived to meet Nanda, the king died. Using his yogic powers, Indradatta entered Nanda’s body, and granted Vararuchi’s request for 10 million dinars (gold coins). The royal minister Shakatala realized what was happening, and had Indradatta’s body burnt. But before he could take any action against the fake king (Indradatta in Nanda’s body, also called Yogananda), the king had him arrested. Shakatala and his 100 sons were imprisoned, and were given food sufficient only for one person. Shakatala’s 100 sons starved to death, so that their father could live to take revenge.
Meanwhile, the fake king appointed Vararuchi as his minister. As the king’s character kept deteriorating, a disgusted Vararuchi retired to a forest as an ascetic. Shakatala was then restored as the minister, but kept planning his revenge. One day, Shakatala came across Chanakya, a Brahmin who was uprooting all the grass in his path, because one blade of the grass had pricked his foot. Shakatala realized that he could use a man so vengeful to destroy the fake king. He invited Chanakya to the king’s assembly, promising him 100,000 gold coins for presiding over a ritual ceremony.
Shakatala hosted Chanakya in his own house, and treated him with great respect. But the day Chanakya arrived at the king’s court, Shakatala got another Brahmin named Subandhu to preside over the ceremony. Chanakya felt insulted, but Shakatala blamed the king for this dishonour. Chanakya then untied his topknot (sikha), and vowed not to re-tie it until the king was destroyed. The king ordered his arrest, but he escaped to Shakatala’s house. There, using materials supplied by Shakatala, he performed a magic ritual which made the king sick. The king died of fever after 7 days.
Shakatala then executed Hiranyagupta, the son of the fake king. He anointed Chandragupta, the son of the real king Nanda, as the new king (in Kshemendra’s version, it is Chanakya who installs Chandragupta as the new king). Shakatala also appointed Chanakya as the royal priest (purohita). Having achieved his revenge, he then retired to the forest as an ascetic.
According to the Mudrarakshasa version, the king Nanda once removed Chanakya from the “first seat of the kingdom” (this possibly refers to Chanakya’s expulsion from the king’s assembly). For this reason, Chanakya vowed not to tie his top knot (shikha) until the complete destruction of Nanda. Chanakya made a plan to dethrone Nanda, and replace him with Chandragupta, his son by a lesser queen. Chanakya engineered Chandragupta’s alliance with another powerful king Parvateshvara (or Parvata), and the two rulers agreed to divide Nanda’s territory after subjugating him. Their allied army included Bahlika, Kirata, Parasika, Kamboja, Shaka, and Yavanasoldiers. The army invaded Pataliputra (Kusumapura) and defeated the Nandas. Parvata is identified with King Porus by some scholars.
Nanda’s prime minister Rakshasa escaped Pataliputra, and continued resisting the invaders. He sent a vishakanya (poison girl) to assassinate Chandragupta. Chanakya had this girl assassinate Parvata instead, with the blame going to Rakshasa. However, Parvata’s son Malayaketu learned the truth about his father’s death, and defected to Rakshasa’s camp. Chanakya’s spy Bhagurayana accompanied Malayaketu, pretending to be his friend.
Rakshasa continued to plot Chandragupta’s death, but all his plans were foiled by Chanakya. For example, once Rakshasa arranged for assassins to be transported to Chandragupta’s bedroom via a tunnel. Chanakya became aware of them by noticing a trail of ants carrying the leftovers of their food. He then arranged for the assassins to be burned to death.
Meanwhile, Parvata’s brother Vairodhaka became the ruler of his kingdom. Chanakya convinced him that Rakshasa was responsible for killing his brother, and agreed to share half of Nanda’s kingdom with him. Secretly, however, Chanakya hatched a plan to get Vairodhaka killed. He knew that the chief architect of Pataliputra was a Rakshasa loyalist. He asked this architect to build a triumphal arch for Chandragupta’s procession to the royal palace. He arranged the procession to be held at midnight citing astrological reasons, but actually to ensure poor visibility. He then invited Vairodhaka to lead the procession on Chandragupta’s elephant, and accompanied by Chandragupta’s bodyguards. As expected, Rakshasa’s loyalists arranged for the arch to fall on who they thought was Chandragupta. Vairodhaka was killed, and once again, the assassination was blamed on Rakshasa.
Malayaketu and Rakshasa then formed an alliance with five kings: Chiravarman of Kauluta (Kulu), Meghaksha of Parasika, Narasimha of Malaya, Pushkaraksha of Kashmira, and Sindhusena of Saindhava. This allied army also included soldiers from Chedi, Gandhara, Hunas, Khasa, Magadha, Shaka, and Yavana territories.
In Pataliputra, Chanakya’s agent informed him that three Rakshasa loyalists remained in the capital: the Jain monk Jiva-siddhi, the scribe Shakata-dasa and the jewelers’ guild chief Chandana-dasa. Of these, Jiva-siddhi was actually a spy of Chanakya, unknown to his other spies. Chandana-dasa sheltered Rakshasa’s wife, who once unknowingly dropped her husband’s signet-ring (mudra). Chanakya’s agent got hold of this signet-ring, and brought it to Chanakya. Using this signet ring, Chanakya sent a letter to Malayaketu warning him that his allies were treacherous. Chanakya also asked some of Chandragupta’s princes to fake defection to Malayaketu’s camp. In addition, Chanakya ordered Shakata-dasa’s murder, but had him ‘rescued’ by Siddharthaka, a spy pretending to be an agent of Chandana-dasa. Chanakya’s spy then took Shakata-dasa to Rakshasa.
When Shakata-dasa and his ‘rescuer’ Siddharthaka reached Rakshasa, Siddharthaka presented him the signet-ring, claiming to have found it at Chandana-dasa’s home. As a reward, Rakshasa gave him some jewels that Malayaketu had gifted him. Sometime after this, another of Chanakya’s agents, disguised as a jeweler, sold Parvata’s jewels to Rakshasa.
Sometime later, Rakshasa sent his spies disguised as musicians to Chandragupta’s court. But Chanakya knew all about Rakshasa’s plans thanks to his spies. In front of Rakshasa’s spies, Chanakya and Chandragupta feigned an angry argument. Chandragupta pretended to dismiss Chanakya, and declared that Rakshasa would make a better minister. Meanwhile, Malayaketu had a conversation with Chanakya’s spy Bhagurayana while approaching Rakshasa’s house. Bhagurayana made Malayaketu distrustful of Rakshasa, by saying that Rakshasa hated only Chanakya, and would be willing to serve Nanda’s son Chandragupta. Shortly after this, a messenger came to Rakshasa’s house, and informed him that Chandragupta had dismissed Chanakya while praising him. This convinced Malayaketu that Rakashasa could not be trusted.
Identification with Kauṭilya or Vishnugupta
The ancient Arthashastra has been traditionally attributed to Chanakya by a number of scholars. The Arthashastra identifies its author as Kauṭilya, a gotra or clan name, except for one verse that refers to him by the personal name of Vishnugupta. Kauṭilya is presumably the name of the author’s gotra (clan).
One of the earliest Sanskrit literatures to identify Chanakya with Vishnugupta explicitly was the Panchatantra.
K. C. Ojha proposes that the traditional identification of Vishnugupta with Kauṭilya was caused by a confusion of the text’s editor and its originator. He suggests that Vishnugupta was a redactor of the original work of Kauṭilya. Thomas Burrow suggests that Chanakya and Kauṭilya may have been two different people.
- Two books are attributed to Chanakya: Arthashastra and Chanakya Niti, also known as Chanakya Neeti-shastra. The Arthashastrawas discovered in 1905 by librarian Rudrapatna Shamasastry in an uncatalogued group of ancient palm-leaf manuscripts donated by an unknown pandit to the Oriental Research Institute Mysore.
- The Arthashastra discusses monetary and fiscal policies, welfare, international relations, and war strategies in detail. The text also outlines the duties of a ruler. Some scholars believe that Arthashastra is actually a compilation of a number of earlier texts written by various authors, and Chanakya might have been one of these authors.
- Chanakya Niti is a collection of aphorisms, said to be selected by Chanakya from the various shastras.
Arthashastra is serious manual on statecraft, on how to run a state, informed by a higher purpose, clear and precise in its prescriptions, the result of practical experience of running a state. It is not just a normative text but a realist description of the art of running a state.
– Shiv Shankar Menon, National Security Advisor
Chanakya is regarded as a great thinker and diplomat in India. Many Indian nationalists regard him as one of the earliest people who envisioned a united India spanning the entire subcontinent. India’s former National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon praised Chanakya’s Arthashastra for its precise and timeless descriptions of power. Furthermore, he recommended reading of the book for broadening the vision on strategic issues.
The diplomatic enclave in New Delhi is named Chanakyapuri in honour of Chanakya. Institutes named after him include Training Ship Chanakya, Chanakya National Law University and Chanakya Institute of Public Leadership. Chanakya circle in Mysore has been named after him.
Several modern adaptations of the legend of Chanakya narrate his story in a semi-fictional form, extending these legends. In Chandragupta (1911), a play by Dwijendralal Ray, the Nanda king exiles his half-brother Chandragupta, who joins the army of Alexander the Great. Later, with help from Chanakya and Katyayan (the former Prime Minister of Magadha), Chandragupta defeats Nanda, who is put to death by Chanakya.
Books and academia
- An English-language book titled Chanakya on Management contains 216 sutras on raja-neeti, each of which has been translated and commented upon.
- A book written by Ratan Lal Basu and Rajkumar Sen deals with the economic concepts mentioned in Arthashastra and their relevance for the modern world.
- Chanakya (2001) by B. K. Chaturvedi
- In 2009, many eminent experts discussed the various aspects of Kauṭilya’s thought in an International Conference held at the Oriental Research Institute in Mysore (India) to celebrate the centenary of discovery of the manuscript of the Arthashastra by R. Shamasastry. Most of the papers presented in the Conference have been compiled in an edited volume by Raj Kumar Sen and Ratan Lal Basu.
Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwin Sanghi is a fictional account of Chanakya’s life as a political strategist in ancient India. The novel relates two parallel stories, the first of Chanakya and his machinations to bring Chandragupta Maurya to the throne of Magadha; the second, that of a modern-day character called Gangasagar Mishra who makes it his ambition to position a slum child as Prime Minister of India