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Kautilya, also called Chanakya or Vishnugupta (flourished 300 BCE), Hindu statesman and philosopher who wrote a classic treatise on polity, Artha-shastra (“The Science of Material Gain”), a compilation of almost everything that had been written in India up to his time regarding artha(property, economics, or material success). Chanakya’s birthplace is a matter of controversy, and there are multiple theories about his origin. According to one theory, he was born in Pataliputra or a town Kusumpur near it. According to the Buddhist text Mahavamsa Tika, his birthplace was Taxila. The Jain scriptures like Adbidhana Chintamani mention him as a Dramila, implying that he was a native of south India. According to some other Jaina accounts, Chanakya was born in the village of Canaka to Caṇin and Caṇeśvarī, a Brahmin couple. Other sources mention his father’s name as “Chanak”, and state that his name derives from his father’s name.
Chanakya was educated at Takshashila, an ancient center of learning located in north-western ancient India (present-day Pakistan). He later became a teacher (acharya) at the same place. Chanakya’s life was connected to two cities: Takshashila and Pataliputra(present-day Patna in Bihar, India). Pataliputra was the capital of the Magadha kingdom, which was connected to Takshashila by the northern high road of commerce.
Chankya and Chandragupta have been credited with defeating the powerful Nanda Empire and establishing the new Maurya Empire. Mudrarakshasa (“The Signet of the Minister”), a play dated variously from the late 4th century to the early 8th century, narrates the ascent of Chandragupta Maurya to power: Sakatala, an unhappy royal minister, introduced Chanakya to the Nanda king, knowing that Chanakya would not be treated well in the court. Insulted at the court, Chanakya loosened the sikha (lock of hair) and swore that he would not tie it back till he destroyed the Nanda kingdom. According to Mudrarakshasaa, Chandragupta was the son of a royal concubine named Mura, and spent his childhood in the Nanda palace. Chanakya and Chandragupta signed a pact with Parvataka (identified with King Porus by some scholars) of north-west India that ensured his victory over the Nanda empire. Their combined army had Shaka, Yavana (Greek), Kirata, Kamboja , and Vahlik soldiers. Following their victory, the territories of the Nanda empire were divided between Parvataka and Chanakya’s associate Chandragupta. However, after Parvataka’s death, his son Malayaketu sought control of all the former Nanda territories. He was supported by Rakshasaa, the former Nanda minister, several of whose attempts to kill Chandragupta were foiled by Chanakya. As part of their game plan, Chanakya and Chandragupta faked a rift between themselves. As a sham, Chandragupta removed Chanakya from his ministerial post, while declaring that Rakshasa is better than him. Chanakya’s agents in Malayaketu’s court then turned the king against Rakshasa by suggesting that Rakshasa was poised to replace Chanakya in Chandragupta’s court. The activities by Chanakya’s spies further widened the rift between Malayaketu and Rakshasa. His agents also fooled Malayaketu into believing that the five of his allies were planning to join Chandragupta, prompting Malayaketu to order their killings. In the end, Rakshasa ends up joining Chandragupta’s side and Malayaketu’s coalition is completely undone by Chanakya’s strategy. Once, Chanakya came across a mother scolding her child for burning himself by eating from the middle of a bowl of porridge rather than the cooler edge. Chanakya realized his initial strategic error: he was attacking Magadha, the center of the Nanda territory. He then changed his strategy and focused on capturing the areas located at the peripheries of the Nanda empire. With help of Suvashini, he drove a wedge between the King and Rakshasa. Finally, he defeated the last Nanda king and established a new empire with Chandragupta Maurya as the emperor. According to the Buddhist texts, Chandragupta was the son of the chief of the Moriya clan of Pippalivana. Chanakya once saw him leading a band of local youth, and was highly impressed. He picked Chandragupta as the leader of the anti-Nanda revolt.
Chanakya continued to serve as an advisor to Chandragupta after the establishment of the Maurya Empire. According to a popular legend mentioned in the Jain texts, Chanakya used to add small doses of poison to the food eaten by Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, to make him immune to the poisoning attempts by the enemies. Unaware, Chandragupta once fed some of his food to his queen Durdhara who was 7 days away from delivery. The queen, not immune to the poison, collapsed and died within few minutes. To save the heir to the throne, Chanakya cut the queen’s belly open and extracted the fetus just as she died. The baby was named Bindusara because he was touched by a drop (bindu) of blood having poison.
When Bindusara was in his youth, Chandragupta gave up the throne and followed the Jain saint Bhadrabahu to present-day Karnataka and settled in the place of Shravana Belagola. He lived as an ascetic for some years and died of voluntary starvation according to Jain tradition. Chanakya meanwhile stayed in the court as an advisor to Bindusara.
The real cause of Chanakya’s death is unknown and disputed. According to a legend, Subandhu, one of Bindusara’s ministers, did not like Chanakya. One day he told Bindusara that Chanakya was responsible for the murder of his mother. Bindusara asked the nurses, who confirmed the story of his birth. Bindusara was horrified and enraged. When Chanakya, who was an old man by this time, learned that the King was angry with him, he decided to end his life. Per the Jain tradition, he decided to starve himself to death. By this time, the King learned the full story: Chanakya was not directly responsible for his mother’s death, which was an accident. He asked Subandhu to convince Chanakya to give up his plan to kill himself. However, Subandhu, pretending to conduct a ceremony for Chanakya, burnt Chanakya alive.
Two books are attributed to Chanakya: Arthashastra and Neetishastra (also known as Chanakya Niti). 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 a compilation of some earlier texts written by various authors, and Chanakya might have been one of these authors. Neetishastra is a treatise on the ideal way of life and shows Chanakya’s deep study of the Indian way of life. Chanakya also developedNeeti-Sutras (aphorisms – pithy sentences) that tell people how they should behave. Of these well-known 455 sutras, about 216 refer Toraja-neeti (the dos and don’ts of running a kingdom). Chanakya used these sutras to groom Chandragupta and other selected disciples in the art of ruling a kingdom.
Compared by many to Italian statesman and writer Niccolò Machiavelli and by others to Aristotle and Plato, Kautilya is alternately condemned for his ruthlessness and trickery and praised for his sound political wisdom and knowledge of human nature. All authorities agree, however, that it was mainly because of Kautilya that the Mauryan empire under Chandragupta and later under Ashoka (reigned c. 265–c. 238) became a model of efficient government. Even then, Chanakya is regarded as a great thinker and diplomat in the history of the Sub Continent. Many Indian nationalists regard him as one of the earliest people who envisaged united India spanning the entire subcontinent.