Maximum City sounds like a good name for a non-Big-Two superhero comic, but it’s a book about Bombay by Suketu Mehta. (The city is officially Mumbai, but Mehta prefers the old name.)

It’s amazing. I reviewed a few other books in the Gawking at Modern India genre,and this is by far the best.

Mostly, it’s because Mehta dives down, deep down, into the underbelly of the city. A lot of the book is about the gangwar— one word in Indian English, pronounced like gen-gwar. He finds the hit men and hangs out with them. He’s full of factoids about them. They’re mostly slumdwellers (but then most Bombayites are; we’ll get back to that). It’s a good job for them; most of the time they hang around watching TV or talking, between jobs; they have plenty of money to spend on girls.  They love Bollywood movies, especially the ones about gangsters. They’re often quite religious… when death is on the line, you’d like some supernatural aid. They seem to like talking to Mehta– they like the idea that their story is being told accurately.

Mehta talks to one of the highest bosses, who runs the gang from Karachi. I wish superhero comics writers would read this, to understand how a powerful villain really talks.  The boss is gracious, solicitous.  He wants to appear normal and rational.  He offers a free contract for Mehta: he can have some work done.  That’s the slang for offing someone.  Mehta muses on what it’s like to be able to call up someone to have someone else killed.  He says it’s calming– you feel a little more magnanimous about Bombay’s many irritations.

He spends almost as much time with one of Bombay’s top cops.  Though honest and effective, he’s also about as brutal as the gangsters. He doesn’t much bother with detective work, though he uses plenty of informants; he picks up a gangster and tortures them. If the police have had enough of a gangster, it’s far too unreliable to try to prosecute him– a bribe will quickly free him.  They just shoot him.

The metropolitan area has about 20 million residents.  9 million of them live in the slums. This is largely because of a well-meaning, disastrous bit of legislation: the Rent Act of 1947. This froze rents at their 1940 levels, and prevented evictions of tenants. Naturally, no one who has an apartment ever moves out; when they die, their heirs inherit the place with its frozen rent. The law was intended to be temporary, but the millions of tenants far outnumber the landlords, so all parties support the bill and it’s been extended till the present.  (Mehta notes that India is the opposite of the US, in that poor people vote, and the rich do not.)

Landlords can’t make money at 1940 rents, so they refuse to maintain the buildings. Services and pipes and wires fail; the tenants repair them haphazardly. There’s no way to make new buildings for profit, so none are built. Instead, people build their own houses in the slums.

Another long chapter is on bar girls.  In the West these would be strippers, but in fact the dancers don’t take off their clothes. Men shower them with money anyway.  They press to get the girl’s number; she is expert at slowing them down, only slowly relenting to give a man her phone number.  She will accept calls, and then only accept meetings if he’s generous with gifts.  It’s not respectable, but there’s far more money in it than in the respectable jobs.

Mehta frequently wonders how Bombay works at all.  Everything is slow, corrupt, falling apart.  Gangsters extort money from businesses; nationalist politicians keep the population at the edge of riot. And yet people keep moving into the city, eager to get in on the action.  Bombay produces 25% of India’s industrial production and 40% of its foreign exchange.

While living in Bombay, Mehta managed to write a Bollywood film, Mission Kashmir. This was done in story sessions with the director and other writers. Though there was a script, you don’t get actors to appear in your film by sending them a script.  You go to their house and basically act out the story for them.  Oh, and banks won’t finance movies, which are highly risky ventures; the underworld does.

There’s a chapter, full of ironies, on the Jains. They are big in the diamond industry, and thus many are very well off.  But many of them choose to give away all their wealth and live as poor beggars; Mehta follows one family through this process.  The family not only gives away everything it has and wanders the roads asking for food; it splits up, as men and women monks can’t travel together.  And yet the process of giving away wealth is done as ostentatiously as possible, at a massive town-wide gathering.

More factoids for you: India is not over-dense with people, compared to Europe. The population density is greater in Belgium than in India. On the other hand, parts of central Bombay are denser than anywhere else on Earth: 1 million people per square mile.

On the lighter side: to Indianize your glass of Coca-Cola, you add spices: lemon, rock salt, pepper, and cumin.

The crime and corruption and density Mehta talks about, by the way, are not exotic features of India; American cities were exactly the same a hundred years ago.

A lot of the success of the book comes from its choice of subjects, but also from the depth and empathy that Mehta brings to them.  He obviously spent a lot of time with people, and the result is a set of portraits that feel like far more than interviews.  (And probably only a born Bombayite could have written this book, simply because he has to know English, Hindi, Gujarati, and Marathi to understand what’s going on around him.)


I think I’ve written a book. This is a special verb aspect, the “dubious completive.” As any author can tell you, a book isn’t done till it’s available for purchase, and that just means the author has finally shrugged and decided to put any further changes into the next edition.

Anyway, the India Construction Kit is at the point where it needs readers.  Is that you?


If so, contact me (you probably have my e-mail, but if not it’s here). It’d be nice to have a mix of readers who know and don’t know something about India.  (Though if you have some special expertise, please mention it!)  I will need feedback in the next month or two, so keep that in mind if you’re entering cryostasis or something for that period.

I usually get more readers than I can handle; if you offered before but didn’t get a chance to read last time, tell me and I’ll try to make sure you’re included.

Edit: Got a good crew already. If you’re still interested, watch this space for the second draft.  (If you’re actually South Asian, though, write me!)

If for some reason you’re unclear, this is much like my China book, only not about China. It gives a somewhat brief overview of Indian history (believe me, not even the scholars memorize the dozens of dynasties of medieval times), moves to a fairly extensive discussion of Indian religions. Then there’s chapters on daily life, clothing, and architecture. Finally, there are grammatical overviews of Sanskrit, Hindi, and Tamil.

The primary audience is expected to be conlangers and conworlders, who will find plenty of interest to help stop making Standard European Fantasy Kingdoms. But it’s really for anyone who doesn’t feel up to speed on one of the planet’s biggest and most vibrant civilizations.

I’ve just read two books in what might be a new subgenre: People Gawking at Modern 51-9UeT8hwL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_India. They are India Becoming by Akash Kapur, and India Calling by Anand. Besides having similar titles and themes, they both have quotes by William Dalrymple on the back cover.

Both writers are Indian by descent, spent their formative years in the US, and went to live in India to report on its remarkable boom times. Kapur is Tamil and focuses on Tamil Nadu; Giridharadas has roots in Mumbai and reports from there and other northern cities. They also share methods: the books are a mixture of personal reflections and the stories of people they met and talked to.

Per capita GDP in India has increased sixfold since 1960— most of this since the economic liberalization of 1991. The result is a scramble, generally successful, to make money. This means former Dalits getting rich; poor people upgrading from grass huts to concrete houses; one billion people getting cell phones; cities expanding into their hinterlands; the upper quintile hastening to get cars and air conditioners.

The left these days distrusts money, and it has good reason to do so.  But money is one of the best and fastest ways of dissolving old systems of oppression.  Brahmins can’t keep oppressing Dalits when the latter can quit their ancient professions, make money in a new one, and move into the rich part of town. Women can’t be held under their family’s thumb when they have their own jobs or houses, or even their own businesses. Caste restrictions on professions mean nothing when people can simply study for a new job, or just move to a new city and take one.

Of course, the boom has its downsides. Both authors are originally enthralled by the new opportunities and new attitudes, but some people are left behind, and there are new things to worry about. Indira Gandhi once dismissed pollution as something only First World nations needed to worry about; now it’s a growing threat within India. Kapur meets people living on a growing, unregulated trash dump. Appalled, he promises that he’ll do everything he can to shut it down. The people are aghast and beg him not to: it’s their livelihood— skimming the landfill for things to use— and they don’t have any other. Kapur also mentions the problem of thugs: it’s cheap and easy to hire them, and they’re used for instance to pressure farmers to sell their land.

The opportunities within a boom can verge on the comic. Giridharadas meets a man, once a penniless Dalit, who has become a big man in a small town. His first big venture was English lessons— there’s a mania for learning English even in the middle of nowhere. (These schools are rough-and-ready, concentrating on teaching idiom and practical speaking rather than literature.) He also organized a local beauty pageant, for both men and women. But he only made it big with… roller skating. He established a roller skating team and ended up coaching the national team. Giridharadas also finds a man who write puff pieces for technological journals in English, and Maoist polemics in Telugu.

Giridharadas is the wittier author; for instance, he describes Indians’ passion for knowing his “native place”, which turns out to mean “where my ancestors had most recently milked cows, even if ‘recent’ meant the year 1500.” He recounts a typical conversation where people ask where is he from.  Washington DC, he replies.  No, no, he is Indian, where is he from?  He was born in Ohio. No, no, your native place.  His parents grew up in Mumbai.  Ah, so you are Maharashtrian.  Well, no, his parents were Tamil and Punjabi— they met in Mumbai. So, basically, you are Punjabi— your father is from Punjab?  No, that’s his mother, his father is Tamil.  Ah, so basically you are South Indian.

Both authors marvel at the changes in gender relations. Arranged marriage is still common. On the other hand, dating and premarital sex are becoming common too. Some women still take the role of always-submissive helper/cook; others indignantly reject it. As love marriages rise, so do divorces.

(Both books were written before Modi’s BJP took power in 2014, so they don’t address the rise of right-wing nationalism, and indeed have little to say about politics at all.)

The books are long on stories, short on analysis. And they rely a lot on chance contacts— but then, knowing the local language, they are far better informed than the Western style of talking only to one’s cab driver and a few high officials.

It’s interesting to compare these books to those of earlier observers, such as Octavio Paz’s In Light of India (1995) and V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). Paz is full of solidarity as a fellow Third Worlder, but finds it most easy to relate to India’s great history in literature and religion. Naipaul is terribly worried at the centrifugal tendencies of Indian society.

Latest book: The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry, edited and translated by Ahmed Ali. I think I can reuse the illo of Babur and Humayun here, since Babur was probably reciting some verse.  In Persian, not Urdu, I know.


Ali is a great guide– knowledgeable, enthusiastic, tolerant, a font of details.  What he isn’t (warning: my opinion) is a great translator. He’ll introduce a poem or a poet, rhapsodic over just how wonderful and beautiful they are, and it just kind of washes over me.  At random, here’s (most of) a ghazal by Mir Taki Mir, who is said to be the greatest of the 18C Urdu poets:

For days the thought of parting
Had haunted my afflicted breast
Now it was pain, and now a wound
At times a blow, at times a thrust.

At dawn the happy happy world
Was no less kind than on the night
Of sorrow, for the lamp was turned
To smoke, the moth reduced to dust.

Yet if annihilated was
The heart, it was but just as well,
For sometimes it was with the heat
Of love a burn, sometimes a hurt.

…If ever you chance to pass that way
O breeze, then tell her: Faithless one,
But sad and lonely Mir alone
Was in your garden a prickly thorn.

Part of it is because of the type of poetry I like, which is: very little.  I find classic English poetry excruciatingly dull, and I really kind of hate traditional meter, traditional poetic diction, and what seems like a thick overcoat of sentiment. And for the most part Ali seems to translate from Urdu into just that style of poetry.  Alert readers who like poetry: is this great stuff that I happen to be immune to?

(I like Chinese poetry much more.  It’s quick and visual, and not much given to repetition or sentimentality.  Also, I’m sure the Urdu poems are great in Urdu, which is why I’m blaming poor Mr. Ali.)

Still, it has its moments.  Some I am saving for the book, but I’ll give a few interesting bits that didn’t fit in.  There’s one long poem, by Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda, that’s highly entertaining; it’s the complaint of a man whose horse is an utter disaster.  Here’s the final stanza:

Thanks be at last my earnest prayer was heard,
And I could manage to reach the battlefield
Somehow, and with a warlike cry I made
To fight. But as a Maratha came to meet
Me, the lean beast, abject, dry as a bone,
Put me to utter shame and mean disgrace.
I egged it on with kicks and shouts in vain,
And charged on foot like a child without the mount.
Then in my helpless and apathetic state
I bolted from the scene of action, shoes
In hand, the steed in my arms, in shameful haste.

Another long poem by Mir Ghulam Hasan, retelling an epic, is interesting for having a description of the hero rather than just the heroine:

But when at last they came quite near
They saw a youth so comely, fair,
Of age about sixteen, in truth,
Nights of longing, days of youth.
Over his lip soft down showed new
Which shamed the heavens’ clear blue.
Nimble of body, strong of limb,
Fresh of face, both tall and slim,
His whole appearance like a mirror
Showing the garden of goodness, hair
So elegant, proud its every tress,
Glowing with health and youthfulness.
Wise of look and sharp of eye,
Forehead full of bravery.

Finally, on the emo side, here’s part of a poem by Momin Khan Momin on the death of his beloved.

Autumn has tarnishes the beauty of the rose,
Faded are the cheeks that once has glowed,
Who in the house had never thought it right
To go unveiled, is carried through the streets.
The head that was as cypress held erect
Now low is laid, gone all its wantonness.
The eyes of the beauty who was breath of my breath
Who dreamed with me my dreams, are closed in death.




If you’ve been following this blog, you may be thinking that I haven’t read much about India lately. On the contrary! I’ve been reading plenty, but a lot of it is pretty dry.

The exception is Tales of the Ten Princes (Daśa Kumāra Carita), by Daṇḍin, which I just finished. Your first question will undoubtedly be, why isn’t it Daśa Kumārāḥ, in the plural? Or even Daśānām Kumārāṇām, in the plural genitive? I’m pretty sure it’s because the title is a compound, i.e. Daśakumāracarita (दशकुमारचरित), and only the last root in a compound is declined.

Daṇḍin lived in Kāñcī, in the Tamil region, sometime around 700.  He’s also known for a work on literary stylistics, Kāvyādarśa. In that work he describes two ways of writing Sanskrit, the simpler style of the south, and the ornate style of the east. Ten princes is written mostly in the simpler style; perhaps to show his mastery of the ornate style, Daṇḍin also wrote a work (unfortunately lost) which, making use of the amazing number of synonyms in classical Sanskrit, is a simultaneous recounting of both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.

So, on to the Princes. It’s basically a set of short stories linked by a framing device. In the frame, the king Rājahaṃsa loses his kingdom and escapes to a forest. However, his wife is pregnant, and there is a prophecy that the child will restore the kingdom. The boy grows up to be Rājavāhana, hero of the story. He grows up in the forest, and in a quick sequence, is joined by nine companions— sons of ministers as well as kings’ sons conveniently mislaid in the forest.

They grow up into strapping young lads, and finally go out seeking conquests.  Almost immediately Rājavāhana is invited into a quest in the netherworld. His companions separate and wander all over India seeking him. In each of the stories a prince comes to a city, falls in love, and by various manners becomes a king. Finally they all find each other and each narrates his story.  Then, of course, Rājavāhana regains his kingdom with their help, in effect becoming emperor, with his friends as kings under him.

The stories are short, unlikely, and a lot of fun.  They’re picaresque— indeed, many are cheerfully amoral. Though Rājavāhana himself is heroic, not a few of the princes resort to fraud, murder, or theft. It’s a good corrective if, like me, you’ve been reading rather a lot about Indian religions. There’s a whole lot of kāma (love) and plenty of artha (ambition), only a minimum of dharma (righteousness).

For example, the predicament of the prince Mantragupta is that his beloved, the princess Kanakalekhā, has been taken in a raid by the king of a neighboring land, Jayasiṃha. The princess pretends to be possessed by a yakṣa (a type of demon), but this will only put off the king temporarily.

Mantragupta finds a way, however. He goes to the king’s city and pretends to be a powerful ascetic, one who knows all the Vedas, can cure all illnesses, and has supernatural powers. Jayasiṃha is taken in; he comes to see the sage and asks for help with the yakṣaridden maiden. Mantragupta agrees to help: the king must merely bathe in a certain pool, and he will be transformed into a body which the girl will find irresistible. He must have his army secure the pool first, of course. The king agrees.  (However unlikely the strategies proposed in this book, the other characters invariably go along.)

But Mantragupta has previously made a secret recess in the pool which has an underwater exit. When the king comes and waits in the water, Mantragupta comes out, strangles him, and hides the body in the recess. He comes out, pretending to be the king in his new body.  He rescues his princess and enjoys his new kingdom.

In another chapter, there’s an amusing passage where a king’s friend give him advice that is exactly contrary to Kauṭilya or Manu. E.g., one of the traditional sins of kings was gambling. The friend gives this advice:

Gambling too has merits. The renunciation of quantities of wealth, as if it is no more than straw, gives an incomparable liberality of the temperament. The uncertainty of gain or loss makes the heart impervious to joy or sorrow. The capacity increases for wrath, the prime fount of valor. The observation of exceedingly subtle legerdemain with dice and sleights of hand provides an infinite sharpness to the intellect. Concentration on one subject assures an exceptional single-mindedness.  Delight increases in daring, the companion of enterprise. Competition with the strong-minded makes for self-confidence, indomitability and magnanimity.

Of course the king is being led to his doom, but the extended argument makes for a nice parody of moralistic authors.

Similarly playful: one chapter is told without any labial consonants, as the narrating prince has a sore lip, from too much lovemaking.  Take that, Georges Perec!  (The translator doesn’t even attempt this in English, though Wikipedia suggests that another recent translation does.)

Most of the princes fall in love at first sight with a woman, and this is always reciprocated. One, indeed, gets the woman to fall in love by sending her a portrait of himself. This gives Daṇḍin the chance to grow effusive over the women. As one prince says:

All the limbs of this maiden are pure in complexion and without any blemish. They are neither too gross nor too meagre, not too long or too short. The inner sides of her fingers are pink, and the palms of her hands bear many auspicious signs like the barley grain, the fish, the lotus, and the jar. Her ankles are even. Her feet are plump and unmarked by veins. Her well-rounded calves so merge into ample thighs that the knees are hardly noticeable. The bottom is smooth, perfectly divided, beautifully dimpled and round as a wheel. The navel is small, a little low and deep. A triple line adorns the abdomen. A large bosom with upturned nipples covers the breast. The shoulders slope smoothly into supple arms. The fingernails have the fine gloss of gems. The fingers are tapering, soft, and copper-hued. 

Her neck is slender and graceful like a conchshell. Her face is like a lotus flower, with lips red and rounded, nose like a flower bud, handsome chin and shapely temples. Her forehead shines like the crescent moon and her wavy hair like a line of sapphires. Her dark eyebrows are arched and well-separated, and her eye are bright and wide with a glance both merry and languorous. Her ears are ornamented only with loops of pale lotus sets. Her abundant hair is dark and fragrant and simply dressed.

It’s interesting to compare this description with temple statues, which depict the same kind of very curvy body.

One prince finds that his lover is already married, producing an ethical dilemma:

My purpose is almost accomplished, but sleeping with another’s wife will hurt dharma. However, the compilers of the scriptures permit this if both artha and kāma are attained at the same time. I am committing this transgression to free my parents from jail. That should neutralize any sin, and may also reward me with some fraction of dharma.

Fortunately for him, Ganeśa himself appears in a  dream and tells him to proceed.

About the only negative to these stories is that they’re almost weightless.  The characters are vivid and range from princes to ascetics to thieves to courtesans to Jain monks to Greek sailors to jungle warriors, the plots are amusing, but it’s hard to remember them an hour later.  And the cities, though they’re scattered all over India, the cities all melt together.  But these are tales built to entertain, and they still do, 1300 years later.

If you do pick this up, try to get the modern translation by Aditya N. D. Haksar.



As promised, here’s a review of that hot mess, the Mānava dharmaśāstra, commonly called the Laws of Manu. I don’t have a picture of Manu, who was mythical anyway, so here is a picture of a brahmin teaching.


The tame lion is a nice touch


Two thousand years ago, the Indians wrote manuals (śāstra) for everything: metallurgy, theater, grammar, and so on. Some of the most important were those dedicated to the three drives of human life: dharma (righteousness, merit, law), artha (worldly success, ambition, politics), and kāma (love, desire). Thus the Dharmaśāstra (treatise on virtue), Arthaśāstra (treatise on success / statecraft), and Kāmasūtra (book on love).

There are several Dharmaśāstras, the best known are attributed to the sage Yājñavalkya and to the first man / first king, Manu. For convenience I’ll call the author Manu (especially as we have no other name to give him). The book is also known as the Manusmriti, but that’s a newer term.  Manu was one of the first Sanskrit books known in the West— it was translated in 1794 by William Jones (most famous for his Indo-European quote).

The British rather unfortunately took it as an actual law code and attempted to base Hindu law on it. This is a bit like taking Plato’s Republic as your constitution. As Patrick Olivelle (the translator of the modern version I read) points out, Manu (and Kauṭilya) were writing in a time when northern India was frequently ruled by śūdras (the lower class), by Buddhists, or by out and out mlecchas (barbarians).  Their description of a dominant brahmin class which even the kṣatriya kings deferred to, and where “heretics” could be forced to live outside the town walls, was an archaizing fantasy.

The book itself

Of the three books— the Dharmaśāstra, Arthaśāstra, and Kāmasūtra— the latter is by far the most appealing to modern tastes. There’s an awful lot of sex in it, of course, but its portrait of the idle rich man-about-town (nagaraka) is something we can recognize today, and it’s surprisingly fair to women.

And Manu is by far the least appealing. The book is not a law code at all; it’s a manual of morality for brahmins. It starts with a hefty cosmological introduction, then proceeds to the meat: six chapters of detailed rules for the life of a brahmin, from birth to death. There’s one chapter on kings (assumed to be kṣatriyas), and two on law proper.  Finally there’s a chapter on complications of class, and one on penances.

Oh, by the way, it’s all in verse— which is one of the reasons the book was cited and read for centuries. In Indian culture, poetry was more authoritative and more memorable. I’m happy however that the translation is in prose.


From a distance of thousands of yojanas and two millennia, it’s hard to say how realistic a text is, but just based on the level of detail, it’s evident that Manu knows his brahmin procedures, but little about statecraft. His section on kings is far inferior to Kauṭilya’s; it’s mostly a collection of vague, unworldly encouragements:

When kings fight each other in battle with all their strength, seeking to kill each other and refusing to turn back, they go to heaven. When he is engaged in battle, he must never slay his enemies with weapons that are treacherous, barbed, laced with poison, or whose tips are ablaze with fire.

In contrast Kauṭilya will very frankly tell you when to fight, when to negotiate, when to undermine with spies, and when to surrender; and give you recipes for poisons and how to find spies to apply them.

Strikingly, though there is an awful lot about brahmins and kṣatriyas, but the section addressed to vaiśyas (merchants and farmers) is half a page, and that for śūdras (servants) is one paragraph, and it just tells them to obey happily. (The first three classes are all dvijas or twice-born; the second birth is a ceremony where they receive a sacred thread. Dvija men are entitled to study the Vedas and are generally on top in society.)

In earlier times there was some fluidity in class, but by Manu’s time it was strictly hereditary. You could lose class but never rise.

Now, Kauṭilya accepts the basic system, but never puts great emphasis on it, and almost never gives supernatural sanction to his laws. Manu is a believer and a defender, and everything has a religious reason for it. There is a panicky edge to Manu’s treatment of śūdras; as Olivelle says, for him they’re the Enemy. The Nanda and Maurya dynasties— the first empires in India— were said to be śūdras, which seemed to the Manus of the times as a horrible inversion of how things should be. (It’s not hard to see a parallel in racist horror at having a black president.)

Most societies have class systems, but few have theologized them so completely. All evils can be blamed on past lives. Unattractively, Manu calls the mentally retarded, the blind, the deaf, and the deformed “despised by good people”— they have these handicaps because of their sins in previous lives.

Just as bad is Manu’s horrible misogyny.  For him, women have an unquenchable lust: “Whether he is handsome or ugly, they make love to him with the single thought, ‘He is a man!’”  Women are never supposed to be independent; even if they are married to a villain they should “worship him as a god”.  They are not allowed to hear the Vedas. Their very nature is “lust, hatred, behavior unworthy of an Ārya, malice, and bad conduct.”

On the plus side, Manu is a window into a different worldview. Perhaps the most attractive feature of his ethics is the rejection of power and comfort as the supreme goals. Though in his ideal world the brahmins had special legal protections and should be supported by the state, he does not really give them secular power. They are supposed to study, teach the other twice-born, offer sacrifices, and generally be holy.  Ideally they should not even serve in government. They are supposed to be calm and not arrogant, generous, and deferent to their own teachers. When they retire— when their sons have sons— they are supposed to give up all their possessions and live as an ascetic in the forest. (At the same time, the ideal is not entirely ascetic: a man is supposed to be a “householder” for most of his life, happily married and earning a living.)

Every society has a “default class”, whose interests are assumed to be identical to that of the nation. For medieval Europe it’s the aristocrat; for America it’s the businessman; for imperial China it was the scholar-official. And for ancient India it was the brahmin. (Of course, the default class is never actually typical or ideal. But it says something about the society to look at its norms. You can also try to read between the lines and picture the counter-norms: these defaults are always erected in contrast to a less-trusted Other.)

If all you want is a review, you can stop here. I’m going to go through my marginal notes and point out things I found interesting.


If you are interested in ritual and everyday practice, Manu is the book for you. For instance:

The feet of his brother’s wife of the same class, he should clasp every day; but the feet of the wives of his paternal and maternal relatives, only after returning from a journey.

This is in the epics, too: touching the feet as a gesture of respect. In the Rāmāyaṇa, when Sītā is kidnaped, Rāma and his brother Lakṣmaṇa find her shoes. Lakṣmaṇa makes a point of mentioning that he knows what Sītā’s feet (and footwear) look like, but not her face— a nice point of idealized etiquette.

“It is the very nature of women to corrupt men.” Just what a moralist would say; but the context is how to treat the young wife of one’s guru. Seems like an indirect stab at the guru!

Manu is quite finicky about wives for brahmins:

He must not marry a girl who has red hair or an extra limb; who is sickly; who is without or with too much bodily hair; who is a blabbermouth or jaundiced-looking; who is named after a constellation, a tree, a river, a very low caste…

There is a somewhat strange classification (also found in Kauṭilya) of types of marriage:

  1. Brāhma: a man gives a girl to a “man of learning and virtue”
  2. Divine: a man gives his daughter to a priest as a reward for officiating a sacrifice
  3. Seer: a man gives his daughter in return for the gift of a steer and cow
  4. Prājāpatya: a man gives a girl merely with an exhortation
  5. Asura (antigod): a man acquires a bride by paying her and her family
  6. Gāndharva (celestial being): a man and woman have sex and then get married (out of love)
  7. Rakṣasa (demon): a man abducts a woman
  8. Paisāca (ghoul): a man rapes a sleeping or drugged woman

Manu rules out 5 and 8. Brahmins are supposed to rely on 1-4; 6 and 7 are lawful for  kṣatriyas. For what it’s worth, Kauṭilya describes 7 as more of an abduction which is all right if everything is smoothed out with the woman and her parents; Manu describes it in blood-curdling terms (a man “abducts a girl from her house as she is shrieking and weeping, by causing death, mayhem and destruction”).  Kauṭilya also has no problem with bride-price, which Manu finds immoral. (The cattle in 3 are OK.)  Manu but not Kauṭilya forbids remarriage, and Manu doesn’t even mention the possibility of a women divorcing her husband.

Manu lists “entering a king’s service” as a source of disrepute and ruin, along with neglecting the Vedas, engaging in trade, and having sons only with śūdra wives. However, when he comes to advising kings on picking counselors, he wants him to choose a “sagacious and distinguished Brahmin”!

After an offering, you signal to your guests that it’s time to leave by saying “Please, stay around.”  A nice example of paradoxical politeness!

Many of the rules are hard to fathom. A good brahmin is not supposed to look at your reflection in water, or run in the rain. He should never dance or play an instrument. If he sees a rainbow, he should not point it out to other people. He should not urinate on ashes. He cannot give a śūdra leftovers or teach him the law; more bafflingly, he is not to give him advice. No twice-born should eat onions, leeks, garlic, or mushrooms, or sell meat, lac, or salt, on pain of losing his class.

Brahmins at this time could eat food as part of a sacrifice. If you get the urge to eat meat and no sacrifice is at hand, Manu advises making a fake animal out of butter or flour.

The ideal retirement:

He should roll on the ground or stand on tiptoes all day; spend the day standing and the night seated… surround himself with the five fires int he summer; live in the open air during the rainy season; and wear wet clothes int he sinter— gradually intensifying his ascetic toil.

When you’re done with life, you could walk northeast, subsisting on nothing but water and air, till you dropped dead. To help motivate your detachment, he provides a meditation on the body:

Constructed with beams of bones, fasted with tendons, plastered with flesh and blood, covered with skin, foul-smelling, filled with urine and excrement, infested with old age and sorrow, the abode of sickness, full of pain, covered with dust, and impermanent— he must abandon this dwelling place of ghosts.

A king, however, should “meet his death in battle.”

Where Kauṭilya says that a treasure trove is shared with the king, Manu says this is only true for non-brahmins— because the world belongs to them.

A rare improvement on Kauṭilya: a son is not obliged to pay his father’s debts if they were due to gambling or drinking.

If a śūdra “hurls grossly abusive words” at a dvija, his tongue should be cut off.  And if he hears the Vedas being recited, hot metal is to be poured in his ears.  It’s permitted to simply “seize property” from a śūdra.  Yeesh.

There was a custom of levirate marriage: if a man dies without sons, his wife could sleep with his brother, and any son born would be attributed to her husband. Manu accepts this custom but he doesn’t like it; he says the brother-in-law should have sex with her only once a month, and only till she bears a son. An alternate method for a sonless man was to designate a daughter as a “female-son”, so that her son becomes his heir.

A king should exile all heretics, gamblers, entertainers, and liquor sellers. (The unreality for this rule is shown by the fact that Kauṭilya offers rules for regulating all of these… not to mention employing some of them as spies.)

For some reason, the ancient writers really really dislike goldsmiths. Manu says that a dishonest goldsmith should be cut to pieces with knives. A man who steals precious gems will be reborn as a goldsmith.

Though agriculture was lawful for vaiśyas, and for brahmins if they had no other work, it was ethically dubious: “the plough with an iron tip lacerates the ground as well as creatures living in it.” Of course, you needed these people to have something to eat, but at least you could keep them at arm’s length.

A brahmin or kṣatriya should not lend money at interest. However, it’s permitted to do so if the recipients are “evil men”. Due diligence on this must have been interesting.

At one point Manu describes homosexuality as causing a man to lose class— but at another he prescribes a relatively simple penance for it: subsisting for one day only on cow’s products— ghee, milk, urine, and dung. (It’s not clear if you have to consume them all, or you get a choice, but heck, it’s only one day.)

There is a section which mentions castes per se— jāti. They are described as the result of various inter-class marriages— which is entirely absurd as history, but can be taken as an attempt as classification or hierarchy.  Even so, he only describes a handful of castes, not the several thousand that exist today.

The penance section is weird. He often gives excruciating penances— then adds a much easier alternative.  E.g. if a twice-born man drinks liquor, he can drink boiling-hot liquor. Or drink boiling cow urine until he dies. Harsh. Or he can simply eat broken grain or oil-cake at night for a year.  If he has sex with an elder’s wife, he can kill himself by lying on a hot metal bed or by castrating himself.  Or live on gruel and sacrifice-food for three months. In both cases a further alternative is simply to recite certain Vedic hymns. I guess the technique is similar to the Christian doctrine of presenting the wages of sin as death and torment in hell— then remarking that you avoid all that by Christ’s sacrifice. Ritual is there for taming a frightening world.

There’s a rather amusing list of what animals you’ll be reborn as for various thefts. If you steal linen, you will be a frog. If you steal household utensils, you will be a wasp.  Stealing salt leads to life as a cricket.



Time for our last traipse through the Arthaśāstrawhich started here and continued here.


Congratulations, you’ve become king of a small ancient Indian state. Your first question: how to choose ministers? This is an important enough question that Kauṭilya does a literature review: he summarizes the opinion of various authorities before giving his own. You should not pick your classmates or family retainers (they won’t respect you as a king), nor sycophants (they are devoted by not intelligent), nor “new persons” (who are inexperienced). You should choose men of “high family and possessed of wisdom… ministerial appointments shall purely depend on qualifications.” This sounds hard to disagree with, but it’s worth pointing out that most premodern states were aristocratic and not meritocratic. (And this was long before China’s examination system developed.)

Early governments are often pictured with a small staff. E.g. I was just reading in Mary Beard that Pliny the Younger was appointed governor of a fairly large province and had precisely two  officeholders beneath him. Beyond that, he had to use his own servants, co-opt native (non-Roman) authorities, or use the legions. Chinese magistrates might govern a million citizens with no staff paid by the central government. But the Arthaśāstra describes what sounds like a pretty large and thorough bureaucracy.  Here’s the main offices described:

  • Chamberlain (responsible for treasury and storehouses)
  • Collector general (of taxes)
  • Superintendent of accounts
  • … of the treasury
  • … of (manufacturing) metals
  • … of the mint
  • … of gold
  • … of the storehouse
  • … of commerce
  • … of forest produce
  • … of the armoury
  • … of weights and measures
  • … of tolls
  • … of weaving
  • … of agriculture
  • … of liquor
  • … of the slaughterhouse
  • … of prostitutes
  • … of cows
  • … of horses
  • … of elephants
  • … of chariots
  • … of passports

He also mentions the chief priest, the officer in charge of the harem, the magistrate, the king’s council, and governors of cities, forts, boundaries, and villages.

Kauṭilya writes as if the king could regulate and manage everything. There’s no bright line between public and private. It’s clear there was private activity, but the state also carried on a lot of economic activity on its own. The king also wanted his tax share of everything. There is even a rule that the state should supply dice to gamblers.

A warning on secrecy: counsels have been divulged by parrots, mynah birds, and dogs. (Was this warning literal? But then we say “The walls have ears.”)

The vices of a king are hunting, gambling, women, and drinking. Of these, Kauṭilya concludes that drinking and gambling are the worst. Drinking causes loss of money, corpselike appearance, loss of the Vedas, pain, loss of friends, and addiction to music. For Kauṭilya that’s pretty harsh.

Using confederates, princes should be terrified into avoiding all four. This can be done by drugging his liquor, defrauding him at gambling, accosting his hunting party in the guise of bandits, and showing him “impure women”.

A forest for the king may be set up with wild animals whose claws and teeth have been removed. (This is presumably for relaxation; other forests could be set up for hunting.)

Although there is much advice about how to serve the king, the life of a courtier is described as “living in fire.”

Kings should follow their subjects in dress, customs, language, and religion. (Again, Kauṭilya wrote in a period when kings were often foreign and/or non-Hindu, so this may be a complaint against the times.)

There are suggestions on how a minister can seize power. However, Kauṭilya advises against this; rather, a young prince should be set up as a puppet.


If Kauṭilya has one word for the king, that word is spies. Spies should check on government officials, attempt to corrupt them (so you learn which are corruptible), listen for dissidents, eliminate the seditious. They spread out into neighboring countries to bring information and sow division. Good covers for spies include religious disciple, ascetic, householder, merchant, prostitute, and mendicant woman. Poisoners and assassins are also needed.

If three different spies produce the same story, it can be believed.  If they frequently differ, they are probably making things up and should be dismissed.

Suspicious places to check on: vintners; sellers of cooked rice and meat; gambling houses; houses of heretics. Merchants and physicians are expected to report suspicious clients.

Entrapment is recommended. One neat idea: pretend to have supernatural powers, such as great speed, invisibility, causing sleep, opening locked doors.  See who signs up for lessons. (You can use confederates to pretend to sleep in order to demonstrate your powers.)  Arrest those who then attempt to commit crimes.

A spy can incite the brother of a seditious person to kill him. Then you kill the brother for fratricide.

You can set up traps in a temple, e.g. a wall that falls on your enemy as he enters.

A spy can pretend to be a long-lived ascetic and make friends with an enemy king. The spy claims that he takes a new body every hundred years, and invites the enemy to see the rite. If he shows up, he can be killed.

Spies can pretend to be gods and converse with the king, so the people think the king regularly has divine visitors.


Though kings were expected to rule with wisdom, they were also expected to conquer. “Whoever is superior in power shall wage war.”

It’s presumed that all the king’s neighbors are enemies. But by the same token, the king in back of your enemy might be your friend. The rules for dealing with enemies, friends, and neutrals are pretty complex, and frequently cynical. (If you need to double-cross your enemy, he tells you how to do it.)

Fighting to the end is not wise; better to surrender. Typically a surrendered king was allowed to administer his own territory.

If you have to give children as hostages, it’s best to give princesses, because they “cause troubles” for the court that receives them. Unfortunately he doesn’t explain what troubles!

Is it better to attack a strong but wicked king, or a weak but righteous one?  The wicked king, because his own subjects will refuse to support him.

Is it better to have a small army of bold men, or a large army of effete men?  The latter: there is always work for the weaklings, and numbers terrify the enemy. Besides, you can train the effete men to be more spirited.

You could use an “army of traitors” to look weak and invite attack.

A look-alike for the king should supervise the arrangement of troops.

An untrained army can march one yojana a day (5.5 miles)— the best armies could do twice that. (Other sources on ancient warfare suggests 20 miles a day… but at this period north India still had lots of forest, so Kauṭilya probably knows what he’s talking about.)

Ways to cross a river: a line of elephants; planks spread over pillars; bridges and boats; masses of bamboo; baskets covered with skins.

You shouldn’t harass a defeat army, because it will become reckless and dangerous.

Elephants can be used not only to charge the enemy, but to break into forts, to clear the path, to protect your flank, to ford streams, to quench fires, to carry the treasury.  However, elephants are only good when there’s plenty of water: in dry hot country they become obstinate, or catch leprosy.

The four branches of the army are infantry, elephants, horses, and chariots.  However, it’s clear that the number of chariots is small: a few dozen make up the chariot arm.

Three men can oppose a horse; fifteen are needed to oppose a chariot or an elephant.







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