This treatise on government is said to have been written by the prime minister of India’s first great emperor, Chandragupta Maurya. Although often compared to Machiavelli’s Prince because of its sometimes ruthless approach to practical politics, Kautilya’s work is far more varied–and entertaining–than usual accounts of it indicate. He mixes the harsh pragmatism for which he is famed with compassion for the poor, for slaves, and for women. He reveals the imagination of a romancer in imagining all manner of scenarios which can hardly have been commonplace in real life.

The Institution of Spies

One of the most notorious features of the Arthashastra is its obsession with spying on the king’s subjects. Kautilya sometimes goes to amusingly absurd lengths to imagine various sorts of spies. He even cynically proposes using fake holy men for this purpose.

A man with shaved head or braided hair and desirous to earn livelihood is a spy under the guise of an ascetic practicing austerities. Such a spy surrounded by a host of disciples with shaved head or braided hair may take his abode in the suburbs of a city, and pretend as a person barely living on a handful of vegetables or meadow grass taken once in the interval of a month or two, but he may take in secret his favorite foodstuffs.

Merchant spies pretending to be his disciples may worship him as one possessed of preternatural powers. His other disciples may widely proclaim that “This ascetic is an accomplished expert of preternatural powers.”

Regarding those persons who, desirous of knowing their future, throng to him, he may, through palmistry, foretell such future events as he can ascertain by the nods and signs of his disciples concerning the works of high-born people of the country–viz. small profits, destruction by fire, fear from robbers, the execution of the seditious, rewards for the good, forecast of foreign affairs, saying, “This will happen to-day, that to-morrow, and that this king will do.” Such assertions of the ascetic his disciples shall corroborate (by adducing facts and figures). (1)

He shall also foretell not only the rewards which persons possessed of foresight, eloquence, and bravery are likely to receive at the hands of the king, but also probable changes in the appointments of ministers.

The king’s minister shall direct his affairs in conformity to the forecast made by the ascetic. He shall appease with offer of wealth and those who have had some well-known cause to be disaffected, and impose punishments in secret on those who are for no reason disaffected or who are plotting against the king.

Formation of Villages

Far from being single-mindedly aimed at preserving the monarch’s power for its own sake, like Machiavelli’s The Prince, the Arthasastra requires the ruler to benefit and protect his citizens, including the peasants, whom Kautilya correctly believes to the ultimate source of the prosperity of the kingdom. He therefore advocates what is now called “land reform.”

What practical argument does Kautilya offer the king for supporting poor farmers?

Lands may be confiscated from those who do not cultivate them and given to others; or they may be cultivated by village laborers and traders , lest those owners who do not properly cultivate them might pay less (to the government). If cultivators pay their taxes easily, they may be favorably supplied with grains, cattle, and money.

The king shall bestow on cultivators only such favor and remission as will tend to swell the treasury, and shall avoid such as deplete it. . . .

The king shall provide the orphans, the aged, the infirm, the afflicted, and the helpless with maintenance. He shall also provide subsistence to helpless women when they are carrying and also to the children they give birth to.

Elders among the villagers shall improve the property of bereaved minors till the latter attain their age; so also the property of gods.

When a capable person other than an apostate or mother neglects to maintain his or her child, wife, mother, father, minor brothers, sisters, or widowed girls, he or she shall be punished with a fine of twelve panas.

When, without making provision for the maintenance of his wife and sons, any person embraces asceticism, he shall be punished with the first amercement; (2) likewise any person who converts a woman to asceticism.

Whoever has passed the age of copulation may become an ascetic after distributing the properties of his own acquisition (among his sons), otherwise he will be punished.

Rules Regarding Slaves and Laborers

Slaves were not as common in ancient India as in other civilizations, partly because the lower castes were forced to take on voluntarily many unsavory tasks that would have been performed by slaves elsewhere. However, they did exist, and Kautilya’s regulations governing them are among the most liberal in history. Note how upper-caste slaves are protected from demeaning labor that was reserved for the lowest castes, and how the chastity of female slaves is protected (even ancient Judaism and Islam explicitly allowed a master to have sex with his slave women). It is unknown how widely observed these idealistic regulations were.

Compare these laws on slavery with those in Hammurabi’s Code and the Hebrew Bible. In what ways did caste affect the way slaves were to be treated?

Deceiving a slave of his money or depriving him of the privileges he can exercise as an Arya, (3) shall be punished with half the fine (levied for enslaving the life of an Arya).

A man who takes in mortgage a person who runs away, or who dies or who is incapacitated by disease, shall be entitled to receive back [from the mortgagor] the value he paid for the slave.

Employing a slave to carry the dead or to sweep ordure, urine, or the leavings of food; (4) or a female slave to attend on her master while he is bathing naked; or hurting or abusing him or her, or violating (the chastity of) a female slave shall cause the forfeiture of the value paid for him or her. Violation [of the chastity] of nurses, female cooks, or female servants of the class of joint cultivators or of any other description shall at once earn their liberty for them. Violence towards an attendant of high birth shall entitle him to run away. When a master has connection with a nurse or pledged female slave under his power against her will, he shall be punished with the first amercement; for doing the same when she is under the power of another, he shall be punished with the middlemost amercement. (5) When a man commits or helps another to commit rape with a girl or a female slave pledged to him, he shall not only forfeit the purchase-value, but also pay a certain amount of money [sulka] to her and a fine of twice the amount [of sulka to the government].

Capture of the Enemy by Means of Secret Contrivances

Unlike most political treatises, the Arthasastra makes highly entertaining reading, partly because of the mini-narratives in which Kautilya describes how a king may retain his power or preserve his life after he has been overthrown.

Contrivances to kill the enemy may be formed in those places of worship and visit, which the enemy, under the influence of faith, frequents on occasions of worshipping gods and of pilgrimage.

A wall or stone, kept by mechanical contrivance, may, by loosening the fastenings, be let to fall on the head of the enemy when he has entered into a temple; stones and weapons may be showered over his head from the topmost story; or a door-panel may be let to fall; or a huge rod kept over a wall or partly attached to a wall may be made to fall over him; or weapons kept inside the body of an idol may be thrown over his head; or the floor of those places where he usually stands, sits, or walks may be besprinkled with poison mixed with cowdung1 or with pure water; or, under the plea of giving him flowers, scented powders, or of causing scented smoke, he may be poisoned; or by removing the fastenings made under a cot or a seat, he may be made to fall into a pit containing pointed spears. . . .

Or having challenged the conqueror at night, he may successfully confront the attack; if he cannot do this, he may run away by a side path; or, disguised as a heretic, he may escape with a small retinue; or he may be carried off by spies as a corpse; or disguised as a woman, he may follow a corpse [as it were, of her husband to the cremation ground]; or on the occasion of feeding the people in honor of gods or of ancestors or in some festival, he may make use of poisoned rice and water, and having conspired with his enemy’s traitors, he may strike the enemy with his concealed army; or, when he is surrounded in his fort, he may lie concealed in a hole bored into the body of an idol after eating sacramental food and setting up an altar; or he may lie in a secret hole in a wall, or in a hole made in the body of an idol in an underground chamber; and when he is forgotten, he may get out of his concealment through a tunnel, and, entering into the palace, slay his enemy while sleeping, or loosening the fastening of a machine he may let it fall on his enemy; or when his enemy is lying in a chamber which is besmeared with poisonous and explosive substances, or which is made of lac, he may set fire to it. Fiery spies, hidden in an underground chamber, or in a tunnel, or inside a secret wall, may slay the enemy when the latter is carelessly amusing himself in a pleasure park or any other place of recreation; or spies under concealment may poison him; or women under concealment may throw a snake, or poison, or fire or poisonous smoke over his person when he is asleep in a confined place; or spies, having access to the enemy’s harem, may, when opportunities occur, do to the enemy whatever is found possible on the occasion, and then get out unknown.

Translated by R. Shamasastry (1915)

(1) Of course these prophets, being in the employ of the King, have reason to know what he intends to do.

(2) A small fine, between 12 and 96 panas.

(3) Aryan, an upper-caste person, a Brahmin.

(4) These are defiling tasks reserved for the so-called “untouchable” castes, who are considered beneath even slaves.

(5) Between 200 and 500 panas.



This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books. This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing. 

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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