Forget Kissinger, India should use Arthashastra for world domination

There has been no end of self-congratulation by well-meaning Indians over the fact that grey eminence Henry Kissinger talked about Chanakya in his latest book. Sadly, this shows how we still need some white guy to validate us.

I, on the other hand, feel a little queasy, because I have been dreading the day the West discovers the Arthashastra. Because I have been hoping that it was our little secret, which we could use to, well, become number 1: more on that shortly. And because it means the gems of Indian thought have been accessed by the West, while their fifth columnists in India itself ensured that Sanskrit is destroyed in its birthplace.

That last, of course, is behind the godawful ruckus made by the usual suspects over the MHRD’s recent decision to restore Sanskrit to the Kendriya Vidyalaya curriculum. The venom with which these people attacked Sanskrit was a wonder to behold: and the word that leaped to mind was “crusade”. In action is the same cabal of leftists/religious fanatics who have conspired to denigrate Indian culture and civilization throughout the Nehruvian era.

The fact, though, is that despite the fact that Sanskrit is the liturgical language of Hindus (which is the primary reason the usual suspects are trying to kill it off), the body of non-religious writing in Sanskrit is enormous. In fact, it is likely that secular Sanskrit literature is greater in volume than that in any other classical literature, quite possibly as big as Greek and Latin put together.

Macaulay’s demeaning claim that all of classical Sanskrit literature had less value than a schoolboy’s shelf in Victorian Britain was pure self-deluding nonsense. If you take Sanskrit alone, and certainly if you take the manipravalam literatures (where there are words from another language – say Tamil or Malayalam – intermixed in), the amount of pure information is immense. That is the reason a number of schools and universities in the West have begun to teach Sanskrit (no, not love of India, sorry to disappoint).

A still from the show  Chandragupt Maurya.

Representational image

Of all these diamonds in our backyard -- for instance, Aryabhatiya in astronomy, Ashtadhyayi in linguistics, Mudrarakshasa in drama – quite likely the most sober, ruthless and practical is Chanakya’s Arthashastra. An exhaustive account of statecraft, this is astonishingly up to date even if you read it today, some 2500 years later. It stands to reason because human nature hasn’t changed much in a couple of millennia, apparently: people like power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As a practical manual of how to run a nation, the text is incomparable.

In fact, it also contradicts the occasionally-stated axiom (usually in hushed tones, as though it were a deep and important discovery) that the nation-state is a European concept, and that India is a civilization-state. Yes, it is true that there is a civilizational unity that holds all of India together, and it has been so since even before Chanakya’s time; yet, the day-to-day concerns of kings were exactly the same as elsewhere: the social contract with the public, and the strategic intent of empire-building.

In business literature, there are innumerable references to two strategists: Sun Tzu of China and his The Art of War, and von Clausewitz of Germany, and his On War. Sun Tzu is credited with having been the spiritual leader of China’s renaissance, and in particular the rise of military power.

An interesting thing about Sun Tzu is that much of his work is ambiguous and elliptical, so that you can see in it what you want to see. Nevertheless, it has been cited as a major influence by China’s Mao Tse Tung (especially his guerilla tactics), Japan’s influential shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (who held the West at bay) and Admiral Tojo (who defeated the Russians in the Yellow Sea in 1905), and Vietnam’s General Giap (who defeated the French at Dienbienphu in 1954).

Similarly, von Clausewitz is cited as an influence on the West, although his main claim to fame is a misquote: “War is the continuation of politics by other means” (he actually said “War is a continuation of policy with other means” which is less Machiavellian, and less colorful). Prussian generals, and later the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Lenin, as well as China’s Mao Tse Tung, were fans of his theories, including those about ‘total war’. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince was also a major influence on the way Western strategy has evolved.

And all these thinkers have been influential in the way business strategy has developed for example by Michael Porter at Harvard, who focused on competition, and later by CK Prahalad at the Michigan and David Teece at Berkeley, who focused on core competence.

In contrast, Chanakya has remained largely unknown in the West, and I have been happy that this is so, because the Arthashastra is simply superlative. I was astonished at the brutally honest realpolitik he espoused. For instance, Chanakya states categorically that your neighbor is going to be your enemy, sooner or later. This stands to reason, because there is ample opportunity for petty jealousies and animosities to fester. Just look at China itself: it has problems with its entire neighborhood.

And Chanakya may have anticipated Anatol Rapaport’s winning tit-for-tat strategy in the repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma game that diplomacy is basically all about.

Another Chanakyan gem is that if you are a minor but ambitious king you should engage with the Far Emperor, anticipating the day when you will need powerful, distant friends who have no immediate stake in disputes between you and your neighbor. You need to convince the Far Emperor that it’s better for him to ally with you, generally to the detriment of the neighbor.

That simple tactic is the essence of China’s munificence to many a (nasty) regime that is ostracized by the West for some reason or the other. China presents itself as the preferred Far Emperor, who will give them goodies like heavy weapons and diplomatic cover at the UN, rather than the other Far Emperor, the US, which will scold them.

That is precisely what India should do too: make itself the (benign) Far Emperor to various distant States biding the time they become more important. No, I don’t know which these States are. That’s why we have all these clever people in the Ministry of External Affairs.

Incidentally, the iron fist in China’s velvet glove is beginning to irritate some of its erstwhile clients, Exhibit A: Myanmar. This is an opportunity for India. Of course, this presupposes a strong military and a fair amount of money: without these, India cannot be an Emperor, far or otherwise.

To be honest, today India cannot compete with the de facto G2: US and China. But that’s no reason why we cannot aspire to create a G3 by 2020: US, China and India as three poles in a multi-polar world, more or less balancing each other out. As CK Prahalad notes, it’s not where you are now, but where you can be if you work towards a clear plan. This would be the very antithesis of non-alignment: you compete to get others to align themselves with you..

How about another goal: India to be a bigger economy than the US and China by 2050? Not easy, but not impossible either. There’s nothing like a ‘stretch goal’ to get people enthused. In fact, India was bigger than China, and the biggest economy in the world throughout most of history, except around 1600CE and then later after imperialists ruined the Indian economy post 1757CE, Plassey. See Angus Maddison’s magisterial work.

And one way of getting there would be to make our civilizational strengths part of the curriculum: tarka, vyakarana, and mathematics, along with a nice dose of the Arthshastra in social studies. In fact, we better do this, before the Arthashastra is also “digested” by the West and sold back to us at a premium, as yoga has been, and meditation, and soon, Ayurveda.

It appears as though Britain, and later, the US, used von Clausewitz in their rise to world power status; China used Sun Tzu. It would be natural for India to use Chanakya’s insights in its own bid for world power status. I hope the Defense Minister and the Foreign Minister are listening.

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Updated Date: Dec 02, 2014 07:25:20 IST

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