Who Was Chanakya?

An illustration of Chanakya. Editorial credit: ArunjithKM / Shutterstock.com.
An illustration of Chanakya. Editorial credit: ArunjithKM / Shutterstock.com.

Chanakya lived in India during the 4th century BC. He was a teacher, economist, philosopher, and royal advisor. His literary works are thought to be the root of political science and economics in India. He is also credited with contributing to the theory of classical economics, which is the idea that governments should not control the market. Historical accounts suggest that Chanakya played a significant part in founding the Maurya Empire by helping Emperor Chandragupta gain power. He became the political advisor for Emperor Chandragupta and later served the same role for Chandragupta's son Bindusara.

Sources Of Information About Chanakya

Little is known for certain about Chanakya because few historical documents exist from his lifetime. Most of the information about his life and influence over India has been obtained from four primary sources. These sources are considered semi-legends and can be found in the Buddhist text, Mahavamsa; the Jain text, Parishishtaparvan; the Kashmiri text, Kathasaritsagara; and the Vishakhadatta text, Mudrarakshasa. Each legend shares a common theme that Chanakya was disappointed by King Nanda and sought revenge by promoting the rule of Emperor Chandragupta.

There is some confusion over his exact name. In his book, the Arthashastra, Chanakya refers to himself as Kautilya. This name is thought to come from his family. Once, the same book refers to his name as Vishnugupt. Some academics believe Kautilya and Vishnugupta could be different people, however.

The Buddhist Version Of Chanakya’s Biography

Chanakya’s Childhood

Chanakya grew up as a Brahmin in Takshashila under the rule of the Nanda Kings. According to the Buddhist account of his life, he grew canine teeth, a sign of royalty. His mother worried that his teeth would lead to him to become King and that afterward, he would forget about her. To show his mother that she had no reason to worry, he broke off his canine teeth. Later in his life, King Dhana Nanda held a ceremony for Brahmins. Chanakya attended, and when the king saw him with his broken teeth and misaligned feet, he threw Chanakya out of the event.

Chanakya’s Search for Revenge

Embarrassed and outraged, Chanakya cursed the King. The King demanded his arrest, but Chanakya escaped with the help of Prince Pabbatha, King Dhana Nanda’s son. He ran to live in the Vindhya Forest where he spent his time turning one gold coin into more with the help of his keen knowledge of economics. He used this trick until he had 800,000,000 gold coins. Chanakya hid all of his money and set out to search for a person worthy of ruling the land. During his search, he came upon a group of children playing a game of king and robbers. One of these children, Chandragupta, was pretending to be a king and cut off the arms and legs of the robbers. Chanakya watched as he reattached the limbs. Witnessing this, Chanakya wanted to learn more about the boy. Chandragupta had been born into a royal family; his father was killed, and his mother forced to run away. The boy grew up with a foster father. Chanakya paid the foster father 1,000 gold coins and took Chandragupta away.

Choosing A Successor

Chanakya had to decide who would become Emperor: Prince Pabbatha or Chandragupta. He gave both boys a necklace made of woolen thread. To test their skills, Chanakya asked Pabbatha to take the necklace off of Chandragupta’s neck without breaking it or waking him up. The boy was unsuccessful. On a different night, Chandragupta attempted the same challenge. He was successful by cutting off Pabbatha’s head. Chanakya began a 7-year training program with Chandragupta to teach him about royal responsibilities.

Chanakya’s Revenge Accomplished

When Chandragupta was grown, Chanakya unburied his treasure of golden coins and hired an army. The army was unsuccessful in overthrowing King Dhana Nanda. By chance, the two were walking around when they heard a mother reprimanding her son for throwing away the edges of a piece of cake. She criticized him and said he was like Chandragupta who had tried to overthrow the kingdom from the center instead of first attacking the outskirts. Armed with a new plan, Chandragupta and Chanakya once again gathered an army and began attacking the outer parts of the city, working their way to the center. They assassinated the King, took his treasure, and Chandragupta assumed the throne.

Chandragupta’s Heir

Chandragupta’s son was Bindusara. When Chandragupta’s wife was pregnant, she ate some poisoned food that Chanakya had left for Chandragupta in an attempt to strengthen his immunity against poison. When Chanakya saw that she had eaten the poisoned food, he killed her to save the baby.

Chanakya’s Books and Legacy

Two of Chanakya’s known books are the Chanakya Niti and the Arthashastra. The Chanakya Niti is a collection of proverbs, also known as aphorisms. Some scholars believe that these verses and phrases were compiled from previous works. The Arthashastra defines the responsibilities and duties of a political leader. It also concerns political issues, including financial, war, welfare, and international relations policies.

The legacy of Chanakya lives on through depictions of his character in theater, television, movie, literary, and academic publications and productions. Some of these have been created as recently as 2015, which shows his continued importance in Indian culture. Additionally, the Arthashastra was recommended by the country’s former National Security Advisor, who believed it was a clear explanation of pertinent strategies.

Several places have been named in his honor as well. These places include 3 institutions: Training Ship Chanakya, Chanakya National Law University, and Chanakya Institute of Public Leadership. Other places with his name include the New Delhi neighborhood Chanakyapuri and the Chanakya Circle in the city of Mysore.

Chanakya In Modern India

As previously mentioned, the literary works of Chanakya continue to be relevant in modern-day India. He is credited as having been one of the first people to have the vision of a united Indian subcontinent and is often referred to as the architect of the first Empire of India. His ideas behind police duties, judicial systems, charitable donations, prevention of war, and elimination of enemy kings have provided a framework for the India of today. These theories have also earned him the nickname of the Indian Machiavelli. One of his most well-known quotes is: “Never share your secrets with anybody. It will destroy you.”


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