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Topic: Evolution of Indian Administration: Kautilya’s Arthashastra

The machinery of the government designed in Kautilya’s Arthashastra does not closely resemble our modem-day polity, it reflects clearly some of the principles which form a part of the science of Public Administration.

Principle of Unity of Command

To begin with, the principle of unity of command is reflected in the fact that the king is the sole source of authority. All his ministers and state servants derive their authority from him and are removable or punishable by him. The principle was so well developed by Kautilya that it appears as if he is suggesting that the king was God himself. He says: “Divine punishment also falls of those who treat kings with disrespect/?” Though Kautilya advocates one-man rule, the ruler is by no means an autocrat. A democratic concept enters in his analysis when he makes the ruler responsible to the public. The element of public accountability is clear when he says that it is the duty of the king to protect his subjects and thus when he (the king) performs this duty, he goes to heaven.”

Division of Work

However, sovereignty is possible only with appropriate help or assistance. A single wheel, said Kautilya, cannot move. Hence the king employs several ministers and divides the work of the government among the several departments and even determines the workload of each of the major departments. This bears a certain resemblance to the modem-day rules of business. Kautilya discusses the workload for each department. Kautilya describes in minutest details the practices of agriculture, ascertaining all prospects such as water, season, plant varieties and every imaginable task related to agriculture as the responsibility of this department.

Principle of Coordination

The principle of coordination is a natural corollary of this division of labour. The principal coordinator will be the king himself, taking the help of his trusted council of ministers.

Job Classification

The practice of job classification also appears to have attained a high degree of sophistication during Kautilya’s times. Special tests were prescribed for holding special types of jobs. In each department, the workload was divided among special officers. For instance, Book II of the Arthashastra describes the duties for nearly thirty adhyaksas. The adhyaksas are classified into four categories: (1) those in charge of state goods; (2) those in charge of state establishments; (3) those in charge of mining and industry and (4) those who control trade.” Classification on the basis of jobs is made in every department. Job classification by itself ensures the presence of another important principle and that is of hierarchy. The highest offices of the state are referred to as amatuas,” Three grades of amatyas are recognized, the highest, the middle and the lowest, according to the degree of qualifications possessed.” Another name for an executive officer is yukta, one who is employed or appointed. There are yukta, upayukta and iaipurusa in every department.” Of these, the yukta is obviously the head of the department, the upayukta is a subordinate officer, of whom there may be more than one in a department, while the tatpurusas are the servants of the lowest category.” At yet another point in the Arthashastra, the hierarchy under an adhyaksa is described. An adhyaksa has under him a lekhaka (clerk), a rupadarsaka (inspector of coins), a samkhyayaka (accountant), a nivigrahaka (keeper of the balance), in charge of actual goods and an uttaradhyaksa who appears to be a sort of supervisor to keep a watch over the activities of the subordinate staff.

Planning and Budgeting

Elements of planning and budgeting of expenditure are shown in the budget and accounts under fifteen heads. All the different sources of income are together called the ayasarira (the body of income). Revenue was obtained chiefly from agriculture and other taxes, state trade and state goods. The body of expenditure was called vyayasarira. The state exercised a rigid control over economic planning. However, planning during that time had a different connotation from what it has today. Today, the state fixes a plan for economic development spread over a certain number of years, lays down priorities in the matter of development, allocates resources in men and capital in accordance with these priorities and watches over the progress of the plan in the various fields from year to year. In the Arthashastra, we do not find these phenomena. Whatever planning there is, appears only in connection with the preparation of the budget and the fixing of the quantum of revenue expected from each type of economic activity, with control exercised mainly to ensure the recovery of this revenue.” The emphasis in modern planning is on development while that in the Arthashastra is on control.


Another distinctive feature of the administrative system in the Arthashastra is the marked leaning towards decentralization. Out of the seven prakritis, one is janapada or state territory. The king is asked to look personally into the affairs of the state.” This makes one assume that the state has to be small if personal attention is to be given. There are indications that a janapada is to contain 800 gramas with a sthanika at its centre.” It is stated elsewhere that the samahartr should divide the Janapada into four divisions for revenue and administrative purposes. All officers of the state worked under him. He was something like a home minister in a modern state. He may be regarded as a sort of governor or administrator in the countryside.” Each division was under an officer called sthanika. Under the sthanika, there are to be junior officers called gopas, each in charge of five or ten villages. With their help, the samahartr is to maintain a record of all towns and villages. This information is useful to the samahartr when he prepares the budget. It may also be assumed that the gopas would be forwarding their records to the samahartr through their respective sthanikas. The gopa is responsible for maintaining a record of all agricultural and other holdings in the village, census etc. For maintaining order, the samahartr has the pradestrs who are stationed at the headquarters of the gopa and sthanikas. Their function is the suppression of crime and investigation of thefts and robberies. They were therefore more of police officers than revenue officers.

Next in line is the village headman who is referred to as the gramika or the gramakuta. He too is a state servant and can send a person into exile.” Finally, there is a reference to the gramasvamin, owner of the village. He is also a state servant and not the owner of the village as it may appear, since there is a prohibition against granting a village as a gift or pension. He is required to compensate for any loss of property suffered by passing caravans.

The will of the village would be expressed through its prominent inhabitants. These may be identified with the gramavrddhas, village elders. A number of du ties are assigned to them in various chapters of Book II of the Arthashastra. They have to act as guardians of minors and help in settling boundary disputes etc. It may be assumed that the gramika would be consulting the village elders on matters relating to the village. But, whether they formed a village panchayat or a village assembly is more than what one can say on the evidence of this text. With the centralized administration visualised in it, the village assembly or panchayat, even if it is assumed to exist, can hardly be expected to play any significant role. Power in the rural area is centred in the hands of the samahartr with an army of subordinates under him spread over the countryside. That leaves little scope for initiative by people at the village level.

Welfare State

One important fact which makes the Arthashastra leap out of its times is the notion of the welfare state. Though it supports the concept of one-man rule, it is\by all means a benevolent monarchy. As U. N. Ghoshal puts it:
"The Arthashastra, on the one hand, has avowedly for its end the security and prosperity of the state. Accordingly, its rules of kindly conduct are determined primarily with reference to the interests of the state alone."
The king’s duties are also defined in elaborate detail in Books I and III. His mission is the yogakshema of the people which implies their welfare, happiness and prosperity. As already mentioned, the text asserts: “In the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king.” Time and again, the text also mentions that the ruler is to take care of the people like a father. The ideal set before the ruler is that of a paternalistic rule. The ideal of the welfare state is supported by means of assigning it as the duty of the king to maintain the minors, the aged and those in distress.

There is in the Arthashastra a reference that villages in new settlements are to enjoy certain privileges and concessions in the initial stages, though in the course of time they would be trea ted at par with other villages. This may safely lead us to conclude that the state as visualised by Kautilya was by no means a police or tax-gathering state alone but cherished the ideals of a welfare state. The guidelines on crisis administration contained in the Arthashashtra are of immense value.


Attention from Political Philosophy to Political Science

It is noteworthy that Arthashastra shifted attention from political philosophy to political science. Political philosophy was the favourite arena of the Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s idealism is in sharp contrast with the practical realism of Kautilya. The aim of the Arthashastra is to show how a state ought to be ruled. Kautilya is not talking in terms of a perfect state or ideal state involving communism, abolition of property and even of family. The Arthashastra is speaking in terms of a highly materialistic world that is at times perceived by Kautilya keeping the moral angle aside. It is written with the practical aim of showing how the government ought to be run.

Kautilya and Machiavelli

Was Kautilya really rejected by India? Some modern scholars may look with horror at what he advocates, particularly violence, conspiracies, black magic etc., and especially, when he advocates them in such a straightforward manner. The horror is felt because of the cruel and ostensibly immoral practices recommended in the text. From that point of view, it would be embarrassing to put forth the Arthashastra as the symbol of Indian political thought together with what Greece has to offer by way of Plato’s Republic and Laws, and Aristotle’s Politics. But, the fact is that Kautilya is recommending such measures only against enemies and traitors in emergencies. We have the story of Machiavelli repeated, though in a milderform. The ‘fault’ of Kautilya as that of Machiavelli lies in openly saying something that has always been practised by states everywhere. But, by drawing a parallel between the immorality preached by both alone would mean a condemnation of both the thinkers and thus the significance of both these works would be lost. This would be a wrong course of action. Machiavelli’s philosophy is based on his apprehension of the political reality around him. He therefore reached the conclusion that politics and ethics do not mix easily. That does not mean that he disregarded ethics or morality. What he means is that there is a difference between individual and public morality.

Yet, there is a fundamental difference as regards the aims with which these two books were written. The Prince was written with the intention of advising the king how to maintain his rule. The aims of the Arthashastra are yogakshema and rakshana of the subjects.

The Arthashastra has a practical utility because it imagines all kinds of eventualities and suggests solutions. But, these situations are not all imaginary. Each one of them can conceivably arise, given the political conditions presupposed in the work.

Kautilya and Max Weber

For students of public administration, a broad comparison between the precepts of the administrative system enunciated by Kautilya and the characterization of the bureaucratic model propounded by Max Weber would also appear to be pertinent and interesting. It should be appreciated that there are perceptible differences between the socio-political and economic settings in which Kautilya and Weber lived respectively, and they observed and articulated their views accordingly. Even though both were looking at monarchical polities, the ancient Indian monarchy had several features of a ‘traditional’ authority system, while the German monarchical state of the late nineteenth century had evolved into a ‘modern’ system, imbibing certain characteristics of legal rational authority. Hence, the temporal and spatial difference between the two settings are significant. Moreover, Weber was a student of systematic historical sociology and formulated typologies of administrative systems in the context of their environmental settings. Kautilya, however, made no such serious attempt at theory-building. At best, he described and discussed empirical reality and was normative and prescriptive in his treatment. Such normativism is not prominent in Weber’s bureaucratic model, since his was essentially an ideal-type construct based on an imagination of the accentuation of a given set of attributes. Despite these differences, however, it is interesting to note that both Kautilya and Weber had certain common concerns and ideas regarding the administrative system.

One can surmise that Kautilya, like Weber, was keen on the efficiency and rationality aspects of administration. Kautilya’s maxims of administration, which can be culled from his analysis, would include characteristics like hierarchy, defined competence of each office, selection by merit, promotion by seniority-cummerit, compensation, training and discipline. Weber’s concern for separation of officials from the means of administration is rooted in his advocacy of high ethical conduct in bureaucracy. Similarly, Kautilya’s stress on controls and even on a spy-network to keep surveillance over the officials highlights his concern for a ‘clean’ administration.
In fact, Kautilya in the Arthashastra refers to the multiple types of corrupt practices indulged in by state officials. He was keen on curbing these practices and accordingly, advocated a higher level of strictness and control in administration.

The basis of the Weberian bureaucratic model is “authority”, which implies a willingness of the receiver of the orders to obey them, while Kautilya’s analysis focuses on the concept of’ control’ which, in Weberian analysis, would be akin to ‘power’ around which coercive instruments are used for getting the orders obeyed. Thus, Kautilya and Weber differ on the basis of legitimacy of authority; much of the force of Weberian theory lies in promoting professionalism based on internalized sanctions rather than external fiat.

The Arthashastra has many insights and lessons to offer even to the present-day students and practitioners of government administration. Its conceptual and applied significance is likely to increase still further.

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