Art by Devdutt Pattanaik
By Devdutt

Published on 18th March, 2023, in Economic Times.

As per popular lore, Chanakya was a Brahmin from Taxila who enabled the rise of Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan Dynasty, 2300 years ago, at the time of the Greek invasion of India. He is credited with composing the Arthashastra, a book of political economy, as well as Chanakyaniti, a collection of aphorisms which have a rather pragmatic view of how to grab wealth and power in order to be a successful king. Chanakya’s texts focus on political ambition, economic success, and are rather indifferent to ethics, morality, spirituality and even caste.

But all information about Chanakya comes at least 500 years after the Mauryan Empire, from Buddhist and Jain lore, and Sanskrit plays. These include Sri Lankan Buddhist epics, Mahavamsa, Parishishtaparvan by Jain scholar Hemachandra; from fantasy tales such as Katha-sarit-sagar and secular Sanskrit plays such as Mudrarakshasa. All of these were written between 5th-12th Century CE. These were clearly inventions of rival religions who sought to rewrite history for their benefit.

Chanakya’s parents are told by oracles that Chanakya’s canine teeth suggest he will grow up to be a great king. Fearing this would mean he would indulge in violence, Chanakya’s teeth are broken. Thus, from king he becomes kingmaker, not directly involved in violence. Chanakya’s career reveals that he is a person who is easily triggered, who can be brutal in his decisions, manipulative when he has to be. He does not shy away from black magic nor gambling to generate wealth. He does not mind deception in order to defeat his enemies. However, his reverence for Jain monks comes across in two episodes.

He observes that Chandragupta Maurya is drawn to holy men. To demonstrate that all holy men should not be trusted, he invites all these holy men to the palace to give lectures to the king. The holy men are made to wait very close to the inner quarters of the palace where the beautiful palace women stay. Fine grains are put on the ground in the passage between the holy men’s living quarters and the inner quarters of the women. When the king sees the fine grains being shaken around, he understands that in his absence all these holy men pass through these corridors and peep into the windows to get a glimpse of the beautiful women who serve the king. This proves to him that all these religious leaders, other than Jain monks, succumb to the temptation of beautiful women.

Chandragupta realises that Jain teachers are the only ones who walk the talk. They have mastery over their senses. In fact, he is so moved by their sermons, when a famine hits, he decides to give up his royal robes to his son, and becomes a Jain monk. He realises that even the most powerful man in the land cannot control nature and bring forth rain. We must learn to move on, passing on the reins to the next generation. Like the monks who resisted the beautiful palace women, the king has to resist the temptation of the throne and know when it is time to walk away.

The other story deals with Chanakya’s death. In one version, Chanakya fasts to death (a Jain ascetic practice) after he is wrongly accused of murdering the king’s mother. In another version, after Chanakya is killed by political rivals, they reach his home and find a sealed box, which they suspect is his legendary treasure. When they open the box, they find a bottle of scent and a manuscript. They open the bottle and a beautiful smell comes out of it. The manuscript, however, informs them that whoever smells the contents of the bottle will never be able to enjoy the pleasures of life, and if they do enjoy it, it would be at the risk of death. That they all have to live a celibate, monastic life in order to survive. These men test it out, making others smell the perfume. They see that those who smelt the perfume die if they eat tasty food or listen to sweet music. Their eyes start to bleed if they see something pretty, and so the only way to survive is to live a highly monastic life.

And so, Chanakya’s rivals are not able to enjoy the pleasures that come with political success and are forced to live monastic lives. Thus, in death, Chankaya brutally educates people that monasticism is the only way to counter the dark ugliness of political manipulation and greed.