Alternative Cosmovisions: The Practices of Statecraft in Ancient India

Disciplinary boundaries were not invented when ancient texts were written. Philosophers studied anything they found important and challenging where the rigidities of disciplines evaded them. For this reason, in ancient India, some significant texts discussed issues related to both the macro (the metaphysical questions of cosmos) and micro (application of this cosmic vision to human behaviour). In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that often the macro and the micro were so intertwined and braided with each other that a relational (study of relations) understanding rather than a substantialist (study of objects) understanding was privileged. This is true for texts related to strategy and politics too, which were very much embedded in the cultural/philosophical milieu that they were composed in.

One such text, which can offer significant insights to students of politics and strategy is Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Anthony Parel, in an interesting article, comments on the Indian political canon, where he draws attention to the ancient text of Arthashastra and its influence on Mahatma Gandhi. Parel notes that one of the most important ideas that took root in Arthashastra was political science. The science of politics, as he argues, “was to create cultural conditions necessary (emphasis mine) for the pursuit of four great ends of life – the purusharthas – which were ethical goodness (dharma), wealth and power (artha), pleasure (kama) and spiritual transcendence (moksha)”

In Arthashastra, issues under discussion ranged from the micro to the macro and from simple to complex, i.e. they focused on individual details which contributed to societal order; to matters which were relevant to the practice of effective statecraft and to philosophical discussions and debates, which brought value to the domain of politics and strategy. This relationship was holistic, composite, and relational and can be articulated as the “political” question in Arthashastra, drawing our attention to significant issues related to state and statecraft.

This short commentary on “Alternative Cosmovisions: The Practices of Statecraft in Ancient India” aims to highlight and discuss the meaning that some of these ideas hold for a student of International Relations. Thus, rather than resorting to some mainstream theories in International Relations and “fitting” these paradigms and approaches to ancient Indian strategy and thought, I would focus on the cosmovision – which not only governed ancient India but in many ways gave meaning to concepts like power, justice, morality, social and political order amongst others.  In the context of Arthashastra, as in other ancient texts, the cosmovision offered by dharma needs deliberation. Dharma, in Hindu philosophy, was not equated with a theocratic framework but understood more as a way of life, which became the normative guide for the king and subjects in political and social affairs. In the “ideal type” state of Kautilya, dharma thus became the reflective basis for “knowing, understanding and judging” the political phenomenon (The “ideal type” was not a moral ideal but a benchmark/template referred to by Weber to identify similarities and differences).  The inspiration for this cosmovision was the concept of dharma– which etymologically derives its root from dhrdhairya (stability) or dharti (earth), which meant to hold together. Significantly, in a civilisational entity like India, such cosmovision(s) received a plural interpretation, and various philosophies addressed some pertinent question related to the cosmic understanding of the universe and its application to the social and political domain. In order to emphasise this cosmovision, Arthashatra becomes an appropriate entry point, more so because it is considered bereft of moral values and norms.  It would be interesting to highlight how this cosmovision becomes instructive to respond to some of the contemporary problems that the 21st-century witnesses.

This short commentary on “Alternative Cosmovisions: The Practices of Statecraft in Ancient India” aims to highlight and discuss the meaning that some of these ideas hold for a student of International Relations. Thus, rather than resorting to some mainstream theories in International Relations and “fitting” these paradigms and approaches to ancient Indian strategy and thought, I would focus on the cosmovision – which not only governed ancient India but in many ways gave meaning to concepts like power, justice, morality, social and political order amongst others.

Against this backdrop, I would like to flag off three insights relevant to the students of International Relations in general and South Asian studies in particular. These insights would be relevant for engaging with ancient thought at a meta-theoretical, conceptual and policy level. The meta-theoretical questions will be useful for understanding ways through which knowledge can be acquired and organised. In comparison, the conceptual question is useful for getting indigenous in, where vocabularies such as power, order, morality, rights, and duty got a distinct meaning given the overarching cosmovision of these pre-colonial societies. Third, the policy suggestions are instructive of certain insights that can be helpful for providing direction to some complex problems witnessed by the 21st-century.

First, the insights on the meta-theoretical framework that Arthashastra conveys through the concept of Anvikshiki is significant. The notion of Anvikshiki (philosophy of knowledge) addresses the question of what constitutes knowledge, i.e. should knowledge be dependent on positivist tradition or a reflectivist tradition.  Anvikshiki was one of the four types of vidyas (knowledge) that Arthashastra emphasised – the other three types being:  Vedas (religious chants), Varta (economics) and Dandniti (political science).  Meaning investigation has been termed as the “lamp of all sciences” in Arthashastra. In other words, Arthashastra notes that only by means of Anvikshiki (logical reasoning) can one know what is a spiritual good and evil in Vedic lore, material gain and loss in economics, good policy and weak policy in the science of politics. Thus, as a philosophy of knowledge, it sought to define the meaning of knowledge in holistic-relational terms rather than through a compartmentalised way of thinking. By embracing contradictory systems of thought (darshanas or ways of thinking) of Indian philosophy —Samkhya-Yoga and Lokayat, which can be identified with both positivist and reflectivist traditions, the concept of Anvikshiki negated dogmatic thinking, thus emphasising plural (eclectic) ways to make sense of phenomenon/reality.

Second, this framework of Anvikshiki was mediated through the cosmic vision of dharma—emancipating the idea of state and statecraft, whose primary function was to provide order and stability in a fluid/changing environment. Multiple means and stratagems such as upadhas (tests of deception), upayas (tactics such as gifts, reconciliation, dissension and force) and sadgunya (six methods of foreign policy) had to be directed towards increasing the capacity of the state so that there is order, and stability. In other words, the idea of state and statecraft can be considered as “ideal types” for understanding what “political” means. The meaning of “political” becomes an important starting point to dwell on the importance of non-western philosophy or geographies of thought,  as it draws our attention to an alternate cosmovision, which offers a different understanding of the universe and how this vision could potentially inform some of the concepts useful to a student of International Relations and Political Science. Notably, the definition of “political” thus was not only about placing the political institution as an organised structure (state) at the centre of political activity but on emphasising the limits of “political” action when it came to physical and natural environment so that social and political order could be maintained. The purposive existence behind the entity called the state and the tools employed by statecraft as an auxiliary medium, therefore, needs to be reckoned with. All had to be directed towards providing strength to the state, which was a moral force and an agency of dharma. The study of “political” was comprehensive. It demanded that one carefully examines the study of relations and interactions between human and non-human practices and behaviour regarding appropriate code of conduct—all of which was inspired by the “cosmovision” of dharma.

The meaning of “political” becomes an important starting point to dwell on the importance of non-western philosophy or geographies of thought,  as it draws our attention to an alternate cosmovision, which offers a different understanding of the universe and how this vision could potentially inform some of the concepts useful to a student of International Relations and Political Science.

Third, at the policy level, this wisdom holds significant lessons for state and statecraft. This is because these “ideal-type” versions, in many ways, act as an illustration of how the “political” should be understood. Consider the “ideal-typical” state in Arthashastra, which was constituted of seven elements: King (leader), a council of ministers (intellectual power), Janapada (population and territory), Durga (fortress-defensive power), Kosha (treasury- economic power), Danda (military-offensive power, Mitra (ally), which are indicative of a plural form of power. These were known as the seven limbs of the state – saptanga – or the seven constituent elements. Thus, the saptanga theory, which categorically identified the ideal type qualities/excellencies of the state, determined whether a state would evolve into an inferior entity or a superior entity. This was significant, given that the excellences, as termed by Kautilya himself, specified the primary parameters of each of the elements that constituted the state. Notably, there were certain excellencies (qualities) with which each of the seven elements were associated. Thus, the entities (read state) were not given; they evolved organically. The character of an entity could be influenced by its dominant features, which then led to determining the inferior and superior status of the state. In fact, eight-tenth of the text was devoted to internal issues related to the entity/state; and they are suggestions for cultivating, grooming, and maintaining them and also guarding them against weakening. The intricate link between the constituents and their qualities and the relationship between the whole (state) and the parts (capacity) indicate relational thinking.

In this backdrop, the mandala, which laid out strategies and tactics for external engagements, becomes significant. To regulate/discern fluidity and increase the capacity of the state, Arthashastra suggests a six-fold foreign policy method (sadgunya), which indicates an adaptive strategy, obviating any logic for rigidity in foreign policy. Three objectives identified with the state were: wealth, justice, and expansion. It is interesting to note that justice formed the central referent point; as Kautilya wrote, Artha (wealth) followed dharma. Yogakshema (security and well-being of the people) was considered the primary end goal.  This notion of “political” thus had a sense of holism attached to it, ranging from addressing both macro and micro issues. While at a macro level, the idea of a state was reflective of a moral agency facilitating order (understood) as dharma, at the ­­micro-level, dharma had to be understood as a duty. One can also say that in many ways, dharma was a fluid interlocuter that gave meaning to concepts like power, order, morality, justice, rights etc.

Medha Bisht

Medha Bisht

Medha Bisht is a Ph.D from Diplomatic Studies Division, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She currently serves as Assistant Professor at the South Asian University, New Delhi.

Leave a Comment

Login

Welcome! Login in to your account

Remember me Lost your password?

Lost Password