It’s been a year since I started studying International Relations at the University of Sydney. I have taken various units such as the Foundations of IR, Forces of Change in IR, International Organisations, International Security and Globalisation & Governance as a part of core, mandatory, units in my course. I have found that many units repeat praise for Chanakya’s Arthashastra for being “path breaking”. However, the fact that Chanakya’s international relations strategies and policies were inherently Brahmanical, thus being extremely casteist, racist and misogynistic, is overlooked.
Chanakya, who also goes by the names Kautilya and Vishnugupta, is already considered to be a patriarch in Indian schools’ history lessons. India’s education system might have its roots in British Macaulay’s system, but the syllabus today is extremely brahmanical and praises Brahmins and other “self-proclaimed” upper castes. The history lessons don’t mention that the oppression which the elites boast about is, in fact, wrong.
In India, the upper caste accounts for 30%, including 5% Brahmins. The remaining 70% from oppressed groups have scant government representation, leading to their lesser influence. Indian history highlights only the privileged upper caste individuals, resulting in their overrepresentation. This stems from distorted history, stolen opportunities.
After 25 years of studying and working in India, where I was repeatedly taught about the cunningness of the upper castes as the Brahmanical “intelligence”, I thought I would finally get another perspective, and have ample space to talk about the history and literature of the oppressed native people of India. But the unit that I took last semester — Foundations of IR — had a week dealing with Non-Western International Relations, where the lecturer spoke about the contributions to IR theories (or existing ones) from places like Asia (China and India). While we learnt about Sun Tzu from China, it was Chanakya from India. This was again repeated this semester in International Security in IR.
Chanakya, the strategist behind the 322 BCE Maurya empire, is often recognized as a realist advocating war for royal glory. While accurately labelled a realist, repetitive research on him may not be warranted. Widely acknowledged as a realist who justifies war, he is also a horrific caste oppressor, and is one of the precursors to the horrendous caste system that still prevails in much of Asia. There are many right-wing groups in the present day Hindu nationalist India that liken Chanakya and political scientists such as Machiavelli (Italian diplomat from the 15th century), quoting the excerpts of various scholars, while successfully hiding his identity as the one who systematically enabled caste system inside India.
Chanakya’s Arthashastra legalises several forms of discrimination which were prevalent in ancient Indian society. The text encompasses divisions based on social status, caste, and gender, reflecting its hierarchical nature. It discusses the varna system (Varnashrama dharma), where individuals were categorised into different castes with varying rights and privileges. This hierarchical structure often led to the marginalisation of lower castes and the oppression of those considered “untouchables”. Moreover, gender discrimination is evident as the text’s treatment of women is reflective of the patriarchal norms, limiting their agency and opportunities. It advocates control over women’s body, mobility and outlines their subordination to male authority.
The upper castes were the first ones to get formal education in India and its through them that Chanakya became a subject of research in the western world. Henry Kissinger, in his book World Order (2014) states that — according to the Bhagavad Gita (Holy book of Hinduism) and the Arthashastra (written by Chanakya) — it is acceptable to kill one’s enemies and ignore the morality issues. German Sociologist Max Weber also claimed that Chanakya in Arthashastra was more “radical” than Machiavelli. However, these comments have been manipulated into praise for Chanakya. Of course, all this is brahmanical influence at play.
The University of Sydney, ranked 19th globally, has the potential to move beyond praising a caste-supporting figure. Researching and discussing the counter narrative, rather than focusing solely on the privileged Brahmin perspective, is essential. A publication from John Hopkins University titled “Reexamining Kautilya and Machiavelli: Flexibility and the Problem of Legitimacy in Brahmanical and Secular Realism” by Stuart Gray critiques the flawed comparisons between Machiavelli and Chanakya. Gray argues that while some see Chanakya as nontraditional and radical, he aligns more closely with conservative “brahminical” standards. This nuanced perspective challenges prevailing views.
Studying figures like Chanakya and various other realists, or even liberals, Marxists, and feminists, within the context of IR theory is crucial. However, it’s equally vital to delve into the societal harm they may have caused. It’s important that we research, learn and discuss their shortcomings as well. While discrimination was once ignored, it’s now a crime. Those responsible for any wrongdoing should not be celebrated, as perpetrators of crimes should not be glorified.