Sri Chanakya Pandit, also known as Kautilya, or sometimes as Vishnugupta, attained lasting fame over 2300 years ago for two reasons: his Sanskrit writings on polity and the practical and effective counsel he gave to King Chandragupta Maurya, who conquered most of India under his guidance. Of his writings, Artha-shastra is the best known work, and many editions have come out in English. As implied by its title, Artha-shastra is a scripture of economic development meant for being studied by kings and court pandits. Some of its topics are: king's duties, qualifications of ministers, formation of villages, tax collection, proper punishments for offenders, training of spies, declaring war and making peace, protecting the citizens, etc.
Chanakya's Niti-shastra is this great court pandit's second most famous work. Niti is variously translated as "the science of morality", "common sense", "expediencey" or "ethics". Hence Sri Chanakya Niti-shastra contains sagacious wisdom that may be applied in our daily affairs with profit. In other words, Chanakya herewith teaches us how to be happy in mundane life. If the devotee can improve his execution of devotional service to the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna by taking practical counsel from Chanakya Pandit, then the value of these proverbs will be increased. Past acharyas have said that just as a woman who has a lover serves her own husband even more attentively, similarly the devotee, though always absorbed in thoughts of the Lord, carries out his so-called mundane activities with even greater expertise.
Once, while on a morning walk with his disciples, our spiritual master Srila Prabhupada was queried by a lady devotee who said, "Chanakya Pandit must have been a great devotee!" His Divine Grace replied, "No, he was just a politician." It can be said that Chanakya's uncanny ability to outguess the enemy at every step and to guide his king to resounding victory has caused his name to stand out as one of history's most profound political thinkers. Today in India's capital of Delhi, the diplomatic housing enclave still bears his name: Chanakya Puri.
The British scholar Dr. F.W. Fleet has written, "Kautilya (Chanakya) is renowned not only as a king-maker, but also for being the greatest Indian exponent of the art of government, the duties of king's ministers and officials, and the methods of diplomacy." We are told that the East India Company urged its British officers to study the writings of Sri Chanakya Pandit if they at all hoped to be successful in ruling India.
In his Artha-shastra, Chanakya Pandit identifies himself as being responsible for the overthrow of the corrupt Nanda dynasty of Magadha (present-day Bihar State in Northern India). A brief account of how he accomplished this is herewith given.
About 2300 years ago, the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great invaded the Indian sub-continent. His offensive upon the land's patchwork of small Hindu empires proved to be highly successful due to the disunity of the petty rulers. It was Chanakya Pandit who, feeling deeply distressed at heart, searched for and discovered a qualified leader in the person of Chandragupta Maurya. Although a mere dasi-putra, that is, a son of a maidservant by the Magadha King Nanda, Chandragupta was highly intelligent, courageous and physically powerful. Chanakya cared little that by birth he should not have dared to approach the throne. A man of acute discretion, Chanakya desired only that a ruler of extraordinary capabilities be raised to the exalted post of King of Magadha so that the offensive launched by the Yavanas (Greeks) could be repulsed.
It is said that Chanakya had been personally offended by King Nanda, and that this powerful brahmana had vowed to keep his long shikha unknotted until he saw to the demise of the contemptuous ruler and his drunken princes. True to his oath, it was only after Chanakya Pandit engineered a swift death for the degraded and worthless rulers of the Nanda dynasty that this great brahmana was able to again tie up his tuft of hair. There are several versions relating the exact way that Chanakya had set about eliminating the Nandas, and it appears historians have found it difficult to separate fact from folk legend as regards to certain specific details.
After the Nanda downfall, it became easy for Chandragupta to win the support of the Magadha citizens, who responded warmly to their new heroic and handsome young ruler. Kings of neighbouring states rallied under Chandragupta's suzerainty, and the last of the Greeks headed by Alexander's general Seleucus were defeated.
With the dual obstacles of the Nandas and Alexander's troops out of the way, Chanakya Pandit used every political device and court intrigue to unite the greater portion of the Indian sub-continent. Under the Prime Ministership of Chanakya, King Chandragupta Maurya conquered all the lands up to Iran in the Northwest and down to the extremities of Karnataka or Mysore State in the South. It was by his wits alone that this skinny and ill-cladbrahmana directed the formation of the greatest Indian empire ever before seen in history (i.e. since the beginning of Kali-yuga). Thus the indigenous Vedic culture of the sacred land of Bharata was protected, and the spiritual practices of the Hindus could go on unhampered.
Although many great savants of the science of niti, such as Brihaspati, Shukracharya, Bhartrhari and Vishnusharma, have echoed many of these instructions in their own celebrated works*, it is perhaps the way that Chanakya applied his teachings of Niti-shastra that has made him stand out as a significant historical figure. The great Pandit teachers us that lofty ideals can become a certain reality if we intelligently work towards achieving our goal in a determined, progressive and practical manner.
Dr. R. Shamashastry, the translator of the English version of Kautilya's Artha-shastra, quotes a prediction from theVishnu Purana (fourth canto, twenty-fourth chapter) regarding the appearance of Chanakya Pandit. This prediction, incidentally, was scribed fifty centuries ago, nearly 2700 years before this political heavyweight and man of destiny was to appear. The prediction informs us: "[First] Mahapadma, then his sons—only nine in number—will be the lords of the earth for a hundred years. A brahmana named Kautilya will slay these Nandas. On their death, the Mauryas will enjoy the earth. Kautilya himself will install Chandragupta on the throne. His son will be Bindusara, and his son Ashokavardhana." Similar prophecies are also repeated in the Bhagavata, Vaya and Matsya Puranas.
In presenting this work, I have traced out and referred to two old English versions of Chanakya Niti-shastrapublished at the close of the last century.** However, these apparently were translated by mere scholars (not devotees) who seem to have missed many subtleties of Chanakya's vast wit and wisdom. Another unedited and unpublished manuscript of Chanakya Niti-shastra with both English translation and Latinised transliteration produced by the Vrindavana ISKCON Centre was also referred to. It was, however, the learned Vaishna pandit and Sanskit scholar Sri V. Badarayana Murthy of the South Indian Madhva School who helped me see the depth and import of these verses from the original Devanagari. A very few shlokas which were perhaps irrelevant or otherwise not useful for our Vaishnava readers have been omitted.
I have been told that our blessed spiritual master His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada had expressed a desire that Sri Chanakya Niti-shastra be properly translated into English. It is hoped that our present rendering will be at least useful, if not instructive, to the reader. Let us examine now a few words on the science ofniti, or common sense, from the pen of Srila Thakur Bhaktivinode, the great 19th century devotee pioneer of the worldwide propagation of Lord Chaitanya's divine message.
Taking the two words "common sense" right up to their highest level, he has written:
Man's glory is in common sense,
Dictating us the grace,
That man is made to live and love
The beauteous Heaven's embrace.***
In other words, the real goal of niti, indeed the goal of life, is to realise one's eternal position of Krishna consciousness. The Bhagavad-gita confirms Srila Thakur Bhaktivinode's view in the final line of its last shloka:dhruva nitir matir mama. A translation of that full verse runs: "[Sanjaya said:] Wherever there is Krishna, the master of all mystics, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power, and morality (niti). That is my opinion."