I just finished Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which is perhaps the greatest book I know of that I can’t recommend to readers.


So, first, what is it?  It’s a book on state policy: how to run a country, how to run a spy network, how to regulate commerce, who to appoint as ministers, how to manage allies and enemies, how to conduct war. It was written somewhere from 2200 to 1700 years ago in India, attributed to one Kautilya or Vishnugupta.  It’s often claimed that Kautilya was Chanakra, the wily minister of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the first Indian empire, but this is unlikely.

It’s often compared to Machiavelli. On the whole Kautilya counsels the king to be virtuous: he must avoid dissipation, reward loyalty, punish criminals, put down bandits, encourage (and not overtax) production. But when he’s cynical, he’s cynical.  He tells you how to recruit spies, how to double-cross your friends, how to poison people, even how a minister can declare himself king.

He’s also, truth to tell, extremely dry, and it’s not clear how much of his advice was followed, which is why I can’t urge anyone to run out and score a copy.  As Patrick Olivelle says about the similar Laws of Manu (which is coming up on the reading list, watch this space), the book dates from a time when northern India was often as not run by low-caste upstarts, by Buddhists (i.e. heretics), or by out-and-out mlecchas (barbarians)– Greeks, Kushans, Sakas. So Kautilya and Manu are both describing things as they think they ought to be.

But the thing is, more than most ancient books, Kautilya gives loads of details on everyday life: crop yields, names of measures, structure of the government, how a fort was laid out, how many yojanas the army could travel in a day, how to use elephants in warfare. (Pro tip: you can use a line of elephants as a makeshift bridge to cross a river!) That is, it’s a treasure trove of information useful in conworlding.

This will take a few posts to work through.  Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: magical formulas!

(As a warning, this is Kautilya at his worst and most credulous. But it’s entertaining.)

  • A powder made from lizards or stinking insects, a black snake, and panic seed, will cause instantaneous death.
  • For a longer death, try root of vyaghata (Casia fistula), flower of bhallataka (Semecarpus nacardium), and essence of an insect.  (Mad props to the translator, R. Shamasastry, for working out the botanical names.) The dosage for killing a man must be doubled to kill a horse, and quadrupled to kill an elephant.
  • Smoke from the burning of krikalasa (a lizard) and grihagaulika (a house-lizard) causes leprosy.
  • You can turn an animal white using oil prepared from mustard seeds kept for seven nights in the urine of a white goat. Didn’t work? Did you keep it in a bitter gourd for a month and a half?
  • Another way to bring on leprosy: make paste from gunja seeds which have been kept for seven nights in the mouth of a white cobra. (Is the cobra dead?  Doesn’t say. If not, that’s some impressive snake training.  And if it is, I’m not sure I want to retrieve seeds from a snake left out in the Indian sun for a week.)
  • The powder of a firefly mixed with mustard oil emits night at light. One of the few believable recipes!
  • A serum applied by roasting a pregnant camel along with saptaparna (Lechites scholaris) will make a journey of a hundred yojanas fatigue-free. If you have no pregnant camel on hand, dead children roasted in cremation grounds will do. This may be hard to get past the ethics committee at your lab.
  • Fast for three nights, then take the skull of a man who has been killed with a weapon. Grow barley in it, irrigating with goat milk. Make a garland from the sprouts; it will make you invisible.
  • Make a sack from the clothes of a man who died of natural causes, and fill it with the ashes of a dead Brahmin. You can then put the sack on your back and walk about invisible. Or perhaps people will just be too polite to acknowledge your presence.
  • Fast seven nights, get hold of three white hairs from a porcupine, and make a fire with 108 pieces of the khadira tree (Mimosa catechu), along with honey and ghee. Chant a certain mantra while burying one of the hairs at the entrance to a village.  All the animals in the village will fall asleep.

Now, I don’t actually blame Kautilya for repeating this nonsense. It’s evident that he is basing his book on earlier books.  He doesn’t say he tried any of this; he’s obviously copying down similar lists from the library. This is the last chapter of the book, so he’s already given you the standard and much more plausible methods of statecraft. His attitude is obviously “This stuff might come in handy if all else fails, so here it is.”

What’s more intriguing is the mindset of whoever created these recipes. The thing that makes them implausible is the very thing that makes them hard to check: the plethora of arcane ingredients.  If someone claims to have alchemical knowledge, and someone pesters them hard enough for a recipe, this is exactly the sort of thing they’d come up with. Extra points if the ingredients are disgusting (thus the urine and ground-up lizards) or impious (Brahmins’ ashes). The questioner, without modern chemical knowledge, can hardly say “That can’t possibly work”; all he can do is write down the recipe and slink away.

Of course, it’s also possible some of these recipes ‘worked’, in the sense that some of the plants and animal products involved had some effect.  E.g. Casia fistula is used in Ayurvedic medicine as a “purgative”.  Maybe if you used enough of it, you could make someone sick, who knows.  Few of the recipes have convincing details, though, like precise dosages.

Anyway, if this whets your appetite, you can read the whole thing here.  The recipes are found in Chapter XIV.

Part Two, Three, Four