Patrick Olivelle, trans. King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India: Kauṭilya's Arthaśāstra. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xxvii + 753 pp. $160.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-989182-5.
Reviewed by Richard Davis (Bard College)
Published on H-Asia (April, 2015)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
Ancient Indian Political Thought
The Arthaśāstra attributed to Kauṭilya is one of the most important, and least read, of all Sanskrit works for the reconstruction of India’s classical past. Widely known and cited through the time of Daṇḍin, in the early eighth century CE, the work seems to have fallen into abeyance starting in the ninth century. It resurfaced in about 1905. A single manuscript of the work was found in Tanjore, and it was gradually published by Rudrapatna Shamasastry at the Mysore Government Oriental Library. Since then, a few more manuscripts of the Arthaśāstra have been uncovered, along with fragmentary commentaries, and a dedicated lineage of scholars have tackled this lengthy, intricate, and historically rich work.
Patrick Olivelle joins this parampara (a succession of teachers and disciples) with his complete annotated translation of the Arthaśāstra. His title indicates the principal concerns of the work: King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India. Olivelle bases the translation on the critical edition revised in 1969 by R. P. Kangle. This new translation clearly supplants all other translations of this work into English, including those of Kangle (1977) and L. N. Rangarajan (1992). For many years, those of us who teach the Arthaśāstra in our classes have had to make do with these adequate but unsatisfactory translations. Olivelle’s new translation, therefore, is a major contribution to the study of classical South Asia, and deserves to reach a wide audience of historians, Indologists, and teachers of South Asian studies. It will also provide a valuable resource for all scholars who study premodern state organization.
The Arthaśāstra sets out a strong vision of kingship and governance, in the form of prescriptive guidelines for the king and his advisers. The work presupposes the rule of an absolute monarch who seeks to enact his will through an elaborate bureaucratic apparatus. The range of topics treated by the author is immense. Kauṭilya has often been referred to as the “Indian Machiavelli,” to point to his practical and non-moralistic outlook on statecraft. But this comparison does not do justice to the comprehensiveness of Kauṭilya’s investigation and prescriptive explication of all matters within a polity. The Arthaśāstra provides far more details of nitty-gritty concerns in the world of an absolute prince than Machiavelli would do centuries later.
The author Kauṭilya has long been identified with Cāṇakya, the Brahmin prime minister of Candragupta Maurya, founding monarch of the Mauryan Empire. Cāṇakya’s shrewd machinations became legendary in later Indian dramas and story literature. This would suggest that the Arthaśāstra, or some core parts of it, date from the fourth century BCE, and record the views of this extraordinary royal adviser. Kangle held to this position. Enticing as it may seem, this identification has been substantially disproven by subsequent scholarship.
Olivelle reviews the scholarly question, and presents a convincing account of the complex authorship and dating of the Arthaśāstra. There were, he argues, three phases in the composition of the text that we now have: the composition of an early expert on the topic of artha, dating to the mid-first century BCE; the “Kauṭilya recension,” which integrates that earlier work with various other expert bodies of literature to create a broad vision of royal conduct and governance, dated to 50-125 CE; and the “Śāstric recension,” a further expansion dating to 175-300 CE, the recension that has been preserved in the manuscripts available to us.
Techniques of governance and the exercise of political power, artha, formed an important discipline of knowledge in classical India. The Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya refers to numerous other experts in the discipline, though it is not certain how many of them composed autonomous texts. Kauṭilya’s work so successfully synthesized much of this discipline, evidently, that other previous works in the field failed to be transmitted. In his recension, Kauṭilya drew on earlier works in artha, and integrated into it other expert traditions of knowledge as well. In this way, the Arthaśāstra is able to provide detailed guidance in such matters as fort construction, metal working, jewelry making, masonry, and many other areas of specialist knowledge. Kauṭilya even refers to an independent work on methods of torture, the Kharapaṭṭa. Presumably the king, as lord of the entire domain, needed to have knowledge sufficient to supervise and evaluate the many state activities carried out under his sovereign rule. The Arthaśāstra provided the most serious textual effort in classical India to meet this royal need.
If Kauṭilya the author of the Arthaśāstra was not Cāṇakya the Mauryan minister, as Olivelle and others have persuasively argued, then when and why did that identification come about? Following historian Thomas Trautmann, Olivelle accepts the historical existence of Cāṇakya, and he goes on to postulate that the identification of the erudite author of the Arthaśāstra with the famously astute Mauryan minister was first established after the Śāstric recension of the text had been completed, in Gupta times. Olivelle suggests this was one of the many ways that the Gupta dynasty sought to link themselves as successors to the great Mauryan Empire centuries earlier. Viśākhadatta, the Gupta period playwright, had the Śāstric recension of the Arthaśāstra available to him when he composed his drama portraying the political intrigues of Cāṇakya in the Mudrārākṣasa.
Olivelle is among the most prolific of all modern translators of classical Sanskrit, and has now demonstrated great mastery in his work on many of the most central compositions in Sanskritic literature: the Upaniṣads (1996, 1998), Pañcatantra (1997), Dharmasūtras (1999), Manusmṛti (2004, 2005), Buddhacarita (2008), and Viṣṇusmṛti (2009). So when he says that the Arthaśāstra has been his most difficult translation project, and that he has devoted five years to the translation, it should give a strong indication of the scope, difficulty, and importance of this work. The Arthaśāstra is difficult because of the technical vocabulary throughout much of the text, and the lack of an existing apparatus of commentaries and other aids in the genre of arthaśāstra that could provide assistance. In his “Note to the Translation,” Olivelle provides some intriguing indications of how he has dealt with some of these problems. One hears of Inuit with their proverbial twenty words for snow. Olivelle had to deal with Kauṭilya’s equally expansive lexicon of words for various categories of spies and secret agents. Topics like bookkeeping, taxes, tariffs, fines, and other sources of royal revenue all had their extensive sets of technical terms. The many specialized members of the royal bureaucracy had individual titles that had to be rendered in English. Olivelle also provides extensive and valuable endnotes that explain his translational choices.
The Arthaśāstra is a work of exceptional importance for understanding the history of classical India. Olivelle’s careful, painstaking, and transparent translation of Kauṭilya’s great treatise is an exceptional work as well, and an outstanding contribution to the field of Indian studies.
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