A Synopsis by Amrutha MK (Research Associate, NIAS) – on “The Arthaśāstra and the Statecraft Tradition”
Lecture given by Prof. Mark McClish on 31 March 2021

Series Title: Sanskrit Language & its Traditions: A Journey Through its History and Contemporaneity
Organised by: NIAS Consciousness Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India
Email: niasconsciousnessprogramme@nias.res.in 

Prof. Mark McClish presented the eleventh lecture titled “The Arthaśāstra and the Statecraft Tradition” for the series “Sanskrit Language and its Tradition: A Journey through its History and Contemporaneity” on 31 March 2021. The lecture examined Arthaśāstra, a foundational treatise on statecraft and governance, to understand “the expert nīti tradition” and presented some original arguments on the compositional history and the social history of the statecraft tradition. According to Prof. McClish Arthaśāstra is unique in its own way as it was fully engrossed in the statecraft tradition and operated outside the traditional “priestly, theological, or philosophical imaginaire”. He argued that Arthaśāstra took a distinct path from that of religious texts and opted for “amoral and functionally secular” points of view. It presented “a simultaneous threat and opportunity to religious thinkers” as it operated outside the traditional imaginaire. Further, he presented his own theory concerning the compositions and development of the text, focusing on the classical period from about 600 BCE to 800 CE. In his opinion, Arthaśāstra particularly in its original form provided a proper “lens” to examine the nīti tradition and its history.

Prof. McClish gave a detailed account of various names and titles from Sanskrit and Prakrit sources of the statecraft tradition, that shared certain technical concepts and pragmatic ideas on governance. As stated by Prof. McClish, “nīti proper” maintained its identity as a “distinctive discourse and tradition” on statecraft whereas daṇḍanīti was considered as an “extended form” of nīti tradition and rājadharma included moral and ritual obligations of the ruler along with the discussions on practical matters of governance. He pointed out that the “greater nīti tradition” could be found in different forms as treatises on law and conduct, the epoch of great war, fables collections and proverbial wisdom in Sanskrit texts like Cakṣuska Arthaśūtra and Cākṣuṣīya Arthaśāstra and so on. In his opinion, the moment we see nīti as an “expert tradition”, the “social history” of the statecraft tradition can be understood clearly. He claimed that nīti as an expert tradition was characterised by three “disciplinary features” which included a set of technical concepts, techniques and rules for royal governance, and defining “disciplinary subjectivity” as a way of seeing the world. He stated that in dharmaśāstra and in epics “abridged versions” of nīti teachings were present and Pañcatantra or Nītisāra presented a broader view and accessible renditions to literary audiences. On the other hand, Arthaśāstra was directed to royal councillors. To provide an overview of Arthaśāstra, he explained the “structural features” i.e., “the style, content, and approach” of the text and pointed out that it consisted of “technical terms and taxonomies, context-specific instruction, advice, and deliberations engaging different points of view on topics”. In addition, he discussed the compositional features of the text and suggested that the text was simply divided into two as “domestic and foreign policies”, and presented a detailed account of the fifteen books.

In the next section, Prof. McClish’s aim was to solve some existing problems regarding authorship by tracing the “compositional history”. He pointed out that the text was subdivided into two “different and competing segmentation schemes” which included 180 topics and 150 chapters. He identified “two different and redundant schemes” for the division of the text into different units. Besides, he observed that both topics and chapters operate at the “same level” of the text in terms of textual division and “neither one is a clear subdivision or articulation of the other”. Since both showed different “logic of subdivision”, he argued that the composition could not be from a single person or the same period. Taking an example from chapter 2.34, he argued that the “thematic coherence” was present in terms of topics though it had a different segmentation scheme. Based on these findings, he opined that the chapter and verses were not original to the text. Then, he moved on to discuss the extent of redaction of the text.

Based on philological and textual sources he argued that the chapter, verses, and colophon were written over the topics and the redactor has introduced some citations into the text. In addition, Prof. McClish produced a tentative outline of the earlier recension of Arthaśāstra with seven books. An important point he mentioned based on these findings was that any reference to dharma and similar accounts were later additions. From this, he identified the problem with attribution of text and concluded that earlier recension of Arthaśāstra processed no attribution to Kauṭilya, Cāṇakya, or Vishnugupta. Apart from this, he also provided an account on the dating of early recension and of redaction. He discussed the place of Arthaśāstra in early nīti tradition and refuted the claim that Arthaśāstra was developed out of dharmaśāstric tradition. He further discussed five features of the “disciplinary subjectivity” of nīti tradition and examined their characteristics in a detailed manner. Prof. McClish pointed out that though Arthaśāstra was a manual directed towards the king, he argued that Arthaśāstra primarily intended to educate aspiring councillors about the proper techniques of governance and provided them with certain advice and strategies. The lecture provided a detailed account of the inner life of nīti tradition through an elaborate and systematic study on the textual tradition of Arthaśāstra. This comprehensive lecture was followed by an active question and answer session.

Lecture Synopsis Author: Amrutha MK, Team NIAS CSP

Click on the thumbnail below to watch the full lecture video

Follow us on –