Arthashastra: An Insight in Kautilyan Views on Law and Justice!

Posted on December 8, 2011 in Specials

By Akshay Ranade:

The history of tradition of Indian Politics is ancient and dates back during the time of Vedas. The discussions regarding politics are found in ‘smritis’ and ‘puranas’ by the name ‘dandaniti’. References to various political texts are available which studied and explored the concept of ‘dandaniti’. It is perhaps Kautilya’s Arthashastra which stands out to be thoroughly scientific and most authoritative interpretations of these ancient studies. Written in around 4th century BC by the Prime Minister of The Great Mauryan Empire Kautilya, also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta, Arthashastra is one of the most influential and comprehensive treatises in Political Science in the Indian Vedic Civilization. Regarded as quintessence of ancient Vedic wisdom in politics and economics, Arthashastra holds remarkable relevance in today’s times with some curious resonance with the thoughts and theories of various philosophers, economists and political scientists around the world.

Unlike many other writers in the polity, Kautilya is unique Indian political thinker who was both thinker and statesman. He participated in various social and political revolutions of his Age and abstracted from his study of conflicts some general principles capable of universal application and effective in all times and ages. With more and more studies in the field of politics and economics and with a modern outlook and understanding of world affairs, the relevance and appreciation of Kautilya’s ‘arthashastra’ is incontrovertible.

Arthashastra — An Introduction!

Arthashastra means the science (sastra) of wealth/earth/polity (artha). ‘Artha’ however is bit wider and an all-embracing term with variety of meanings. In ‘Arthashastra’ itself it is being used in various contexts, points out L N Rangarajan in his translation of Kautilya —Arthashastra. It is used in the sense of material well-being, in livelihood, economically productive activity trade etc. This is bit similar with ‘wealth’ which is defined in ‘Wealth of Nations’. In rather simple way, ‘arthashastra’ can be defined as ‘science and art of politics and diplomacy’. This treatise is divided into sixteen books dealing with virtually every topic concerned with the running of a state – taxation, law, diplomacy, military strategy, economics, bureaucracy etc. The book is a masterpiece which covers a wide range of topics like statecraft, politics, strategy, selection and training of employees, leadership skills, legal systems, accounting systems, taxation, fiscal policies, civil rules, internal and foreign trade etc. Arthashastra advocates rational ethic to the conduct of the affairs of the state. The emphasis is on codification of law and uniformity of law throughout the empire. In this essay we shall try to explore Kautilya’s views on legal systems, justice and king’s role in maintaining law and order as discussed in Arthashastra by Kautilya himself.

Kautilya on Law and Justice

Kautilya maintained that it is essential duty of government to maintain order. He defines ‘order’ broadly to include both social as well as order in the sense of preventing and punishing criminal activity. Arthashastra thus contains both the civil law and criminal law. Kautilya ascribed a lot of importance to ‘dharma’. According to him, ‘the ultimate source of all law is dharma’. He appealed in the name of ‘dharma’ to the sense of honour and duty and to human dignity, to moral responsibility and to enlightened patriotism. It’s quite intelligible that the judge in the arthashastra was called ‘dharmashta’ or upholder of dharma. He maintained that so long every ‘Arya’ follows his ‘svadharma’ having due regard to his ‘varna’ and ‘ashrama’ and the king follows his ‘rajdharma’, social order will be maintained.

Kautilya’s emphasis on duties of King in maintaining law and order in the society is so much that he writes in Arthashastra, “because the King is the guardian of right conduct of this world with four ‘varnas’ and four ‘ashramas’ he [alone] can enact and promulgate laws [to uphold them] when all traditional codes of conduct perish [through disuse or disobedience].”

The King was looked upon an embodiment of virtue, a protector of dharma. He too was governed by his dharma as any other citizen was. Thus if any actions of the King went against the prevailing notion of dharma, associations and/or the individual citizens were free to question him. He recalls every time that ‘dharma’ alone is guiding star for every king, or rather every individual and that following ‘dharma’ one shall have a life of dignity while social order prevailing in society. He remarks, “A King who administers justice in accordance with ‘dharma’, evidence, customs, and written law will be able to conquer whole world”. Kautilya recognized the importance of rational law or King’s law and its priority to ‘dharma’, ‘vyayhara’ and ‘charitra’. He maintained that King’s law was to be in accordance with the injunctions of the three Vedas wherein the four ‘varnas’ and ‘ashramas’ are defined. King was not the sole interpreter of dharma. In fact there was no specific institution vested with the authority of interpreting dharma. Every individual was deemed competent to interpret it. This was an important factor in ensuring the non-religious character of the Vedic state.

Kautilya did not view law to be an expression of the free will of the people. Thus sovereignty – the authority to make laws, did not vest with citizens. Laws were derived from four sources – dharma (scared law), vyavhara (evidence), charita (history and custom), and rajasasana (edicts of the King). Kautilya prescribe that any matter of dispute shall be judged according to four bases of justice. These in order of increasing importance are:

– ‘Dharma’, which is based on truth

– ‘Evidence’, which is based on witnesses

– ‘Custom’, i.e. tradition accepted by the people

– ‘Royal Edicts’, i.e. law as promulgated.

In case of conflict amongst the various laws, dharma was supreme. The ordering of the other laws was case specific. Rajasasana ordered the relationship between the three major social groupings — the citizen, the association, and the state. The constitutional rules at the state level were specified in the rajasasana but the constitutional rules at the level of the association were to be decided by the members of the association. The collective choice and the operational level rules of the association were also decided by the members of the association though the state did promulgate laws to safeguard the individual member from the tyranny of the majority in the association. Arthashastra outlines a system of civil, criminal, and mercantile law (now known as business laws). For example the following were codified: a procedure for interrogation, torture, and trial, the rights of the accused, what constitutes permissible evidence, a procedure for autopsy in case of death in suspicious circumstances, what constitutes defamation and procedure for claiming damages, valid and invalid contracts.

We see in Arthashastra that law was not viewed just as code of prohibition, nor was it limited to corrective justice of law courts. Its range was wider than morality itself and institutions were creation of law while traditions and customs rested on its sanctions. All ideas of society were moulded by it and law was blended with religion, with morality and with public opinion and by its subtle operations subjected the society to its will. The role of law in the society was to bring a just order in society and the tremendous task was to be shouldered by the King along with his subordinates. As rightly pointed out by Kautilya in his famous verse —

“In the happiness of his subjects lies the King’s happiness;

In their welfare his welfare.

He shall not consider as good only that which pleases him but,

Treat as beneficial to him whatever pleases his subjects”

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Is there anything in Kautilya’s ArthShastra about conduct in society when every-person is like a KING.Where each person has access to the Knowledge of rules & the knowledge possess by each Varna?Is there anything written about a decentralized society without a King or a Priest or any divide?

Akshay Ranade

Sorry for replying late… have been keeping a bit busy so was out of touch…!!!! firstly i did not get the question completely…!!!
“s there anything in Kautilya’s ArthShastra about conduct in society when every-person is like a KING” .. >> wud u plz elaborat emore on this..!!!


very good job bro… good.. arthashastra is one of most misunderstood and quite less known… its a treatise wch covers almost every aspect of polity..ur effort is indeed commendable ..!!

Akshay Ranade

thanx Rohit….i realize that Arthashastra is pretty misunderstood and also less known.. i have not read whole of arthashastra since its hard to get these days… it was one of my assignments to study Kautilya’s views on legal system and justice which prompted me with this post…!!! i plan to read much more on this… its incredible that we have so much in our past and we realize so less

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