More on the Arthaśāstra. Today we’ll look at how oppressive Kauṭilya was or wasn’t.


Kauṭilya brandishes his hair at you

Prudential government

Not infrequently, Kauṭilya advises against going too far. “Whoever imposes severe punishment becomes repulsive to the people; while he who awards mild punishment becomes contemptible.”

When it comes to intrigue and diplomacy, he can be quite cynical and immoral— but we’ll get to that later. In general he advises the king to be benevolent, and warns that a wicked and greedy king makes so many enemies that his own people will not support him if foreign kings move against him.

“Whoever doubles the [king’s] revenue eats into the vitality of the country.” This almost sounds like a typo, but it’s not. You have to picture an over-zealous tax collector who brings in twice the goods that were expected. This could only be done by an increase in oppression, so it is liable to punishment. Elsewhere he explains that over-collecting injures the sources of revenue, “causing immense trouble.”

There are a number of rules designed to encourage development and foreign trade:

  • Merchants who import foreign goods may do so tax-free.
  • “Seeds not easily available” are tax-free.
  • Taxes are remitted on land if there are recent improvements, or new buildings.

In an emergency, such as a famine, the king may levy confiscatory taxes— “causing the rich to vomit their accumulated wealth”— to relieve the poor.

In a mere fiscal emergency, he can also demand a substantial additional tax— but, Kauṭilya warns, this can only be done once.

Prisoners should be freed when a country is conquered, when an heir is named, when a prince is born. Weaker prisoners may be let go on the king’s birthday. Quite frequently, prisoners can be freed if they have done useful work, or if they’re ransomed, or sufficiently whipped.

The use of assassination and other nasty methods is only to be used “against the seditious”.

When a moralist or a judge gives rules, that’s perhaps better evidence that his rules were flouted as that they were obeyed. So the Arthaśāstra shouldn’t be taken as meaning that ancient Indian society was progressive in these ways. On the other hand it does mean that these were living contemporary ideals, and reflected how the educated classes thought kings should behave.


The four classes (varṇa) of society— brahmins (priests and scholars), kṣatriyas (warriors), vaiśyas (mostly merchants), and śūdras (servants)— are mentioned, as are the caṇḍālas (untouchables) and mlecchas (barbarians) outside the system. There are also references to “heretics”— presumably Buddhists, Jains, and Ājīvikas. There is little hint of the thousands of castes (jāti) of later India.

On the other hand, it’s hard to get the impression that Kauṭilya is really doctrinaire about this. He mentions at one point that the army should be composed of kṣatriyas— but in another chapter he says that a mixed army is fine, and anyway making use of  vaiśyas and śūdras allowed you to have a bigger army, which was better. Curiously, for colonizing new lands, he suggests sending śūdras alone— it is “plentiful and permanent”. Discussing the qualifications for ministers, he asks only that they be of “high family”.


The king in his harem was guarded by female archers.

Women were the weavers; as a corollary, mail armor was made by women.

There are many rules applying to court prostitutes: She was not to leave her jewelry with anyone but her mother. She paid a high fine for cutting off someone’s ear.  She paid a large fine for taking a customer’s fee and not sleeping with him. There was a very heavy fine (500 to 1000 paṇas; compare to the wages listed in the previous post) for raping a prostitute; however, she paid an even larger fee for declining to sleep with someone the king ordered her to.

The chapter on prostitutes casually extends the same rule to entertainers— obviously seen as the same class. The sons of prostitutes are to be raised as actors.

Women are “made for sons”; as a corollary, if they are doing it to get a son, they may sleep with lepers or lunatics.

The age of majority: 12 for women, 16 for men.

On the whole the Indian kingdoms were hard for women— Kauṭilya has a whole section giving various fines for women leaving their houses. On the other hand, he allows easy divorce for both parties— the women only has to return her dowry and any jewels she received. If a woman is abandoned (when her husband leaves the city), she must wait for a year but can then herself go. He also encourages remarriage, which is significant because later Hindu society was pretty persnickety about widows remarrying.

There were punishments specially for adultery with another class— much higher if the man’s class was lower than the woman’s.

Witchcraft deserved death if it was done for reasons of incest. If you attempted to injure another by witchcraft, you could be punished with whatever you tried to do to them. But witchcraft merely to create feelings of love was no offense.

A man having sex with another man could pay 48 to 96 paṇas. (Spellcheck wants me to say pandas.  Did you know that the word panda is Nepalese? But the original reference was to the red panda.)

Bestiality cost you 12 paṇas. And 24 covered intercourse with idols of female goddesses. Assuming that means statues, that doesn’t even sound possible, but I guess the authorities would want to discourage experimentation.

Kauṭilya is very strong against rape, and defines it very clearly and broadly— “sexual intercourse with any woman against her will”. (So much for Orientalists who were hoping for a version of Gor.)

However, a woman could promise sex in order to be rescued from enemies or floods.  (She could also promise a ransom.)

I look forward to comparing these rules to the Laws of Manu.  According to Wendy Doniger, Manu was a moralist and had a very low opinion of women: women were a constant temptation to lust; they should always be dependent on men; a woman who abandons an evil husband will be reborn as a jackal. There’s none of this element in Kauṭilya. Indeed, he never gives any spiritual justification or sanction for his laws.


Kauṭilya seems embarrassed by slavery. Āryas are not supposed to be sold as slaves. There are fines for selling someone into slavery— but they start at 12 paṇas for a śūdra, which is misdemeanor level. (He explicitly calls śūdras Ārya, despite some historians’ suggestions that the servant class derived from earlier non-Ārya.)  Barbarians, of course, can be freely sold.

And yet he allows people to sell themselves, especially to “tide over family troubles”.

Slaves are not to be raped, abused, or kept naked.

People could also promise to enslave themselves and their family in order to be rescued from fires, floods, and wild animals. But the text goes on to say that the person only owes what the “experts” agree on.  (These arrangements don’t say much for the humaneness of  rescuers. But to be fair, nobody needed rules for a rescue without conditions.)


The  Arthaśāstra is aimed at kings, and aims to give them enough information to supervise the work of their ministers. In places, it gives encyclopedic information about agriculture, mining, and so on: what crops are best (rice) and worst (sugarcane— difficult and expensive to grow), where the best elephants are found (Bengal and the east), how to recognize various ores; how to test for fake gold. He even offers up some basic rules on writing— though this mostly comes down to offering definitions. (“The word is of four kinds: nouns, verbs, verb prefixes, and particles.”)

Seeds are manured with “minute fishes” as well as the milk of the spurge plant.

Rainfall could be predicted by observing Jupiter and Venus. (Unfortunately he doesn’t give details. But this gives you something to talk about with your Superintendent of Agriculture.)

The daily rations for an elephant: 1 drona of rice, 1/2 adhaka of oil, 3 prasthas of ghee, 10 palas of salt, 50 palas of meat, 1 adhaka of broth or curd, 10 palas of sugar, 1 adhaka of liquor, 2 bharas  of meadow grass, 2 1/4 bharas of ordinary grass, 2 1/2 of dry grass, and any amount of pulses.

I suppose you want to know what those measures are. Look, don’t buy an elephant if your Sanskrit is that shaky. It looks like a pala is the weight of 64 mung bean seeds. A prastha is 1/4 of an adhaka, which one dictionary translates (probably very loosely) as a gallon. If it helps, 25 palas of firewood will cook 1 prastha of rice.

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