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.







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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Continuing to blog the Arthasastra. Or now that I’m on the computer with good font support, Arthaśāstra.  Or अर्थशास्त्र.


(Unless something is in quotes, it’s a paraphrase.)

Today we’ll go over rules for cities, economics, and society. Often Kauṭilya will be describing things as he thinks they ought to be rather than they are; but it’s still a valuable indication of his values and knowledge.

Cities and economics

A city should have three north-south and three east-west boulevards, each four dandas wide (24 ft), with a gate at each entrance. (This is the same as a classical Chinese capital.)

The city should be laid out as in the above diagram. Burial and cremation grounds are located to the east or north, and heretics and caṇḍālas (untouchables) lived beyond them.

There are rules for houses— they should be well built, not too close to another house, and each must have its own dunghill, watercourse, and well. A mat should be placed on the roof to protect from rain, heavy enough not to blow off.

Inns are to be provided with perfumes or garlands of flowers. Also with spies, who will report on signs of wealth.  Innkeepers are responsible to their guests for the value of things stolen.

Fording a river is forbidden without a special pass, lest traitors get away.

Musicians should not provide entertainments that make use of weapons, fire, or poison. (There must be some interesting stories behind that rule.)

Vessels filled with water are to be placed at crossroads, and in front of royal houses. Beyond this, Kauṭilya suggests that fire be prevented by praying to Agni (the god of fire). In general Kauṭilya believes in piety, but he never gives a theological justification or sanction for his rules.

Debts are inheritable, which sounds like a recipe for trouble.

A useful table of wages for government employees, all in paṇas per year: top officials (including the prince and the king’s mother), 48000. Commanders, superintendent of the harem, collector-general, 24000. Ministers, 12000. Chariot driver, army physician, horse trainer, carpenter, 2000. Astrologer, bard, superintendents, 1000. Trained soldiers, writers, accountants, 500. Musicians, 250.  Carpenters, 120. Horse keepers, bodyguards, miscellaneous servants, 60. Spies, 1000 (but the spymaster only gets 250).

Low opinions

As in most ancient societies, trading was very low-prestige— except for long-distance trading, as unusual merchandise was highly valued. Traders, artisans, beggars, clowns, and other “idlers” are closely regulated as otherwise they “oppress the country”. Goldsmiths are considered to be generally fraudulent.

A list of “undesirable persons” includes thieves, gamblers, hunters, singers, and musicians. Very often entertainers (including musicians and dramatists) are discussed along with prostitutes— again, pretty typical for premodern societies.

There’s a warning about trusting in astrology to gain wealth. Kauṭilya points out that wealth begets wealth; the stars do not.

Various laws

Treasure troves go to the king, but the discoverer gets 1/6.  Or 1/12 if he’s a peon.

If a hermit is fined, he can do penance instead, one day for each paṇa of the fine.

Eunuchs, idiots, lepers, lunatics, the blind, and those thrown out of their class do not inherit.

The eldest son receives a smaller inheritance if he is impotent. (One wonders how this was checked.)

There are fines for wandering cattle.  (Presumably this was a lot easier to regulate in ancient times!)

If a priest dies after performing a sacrifice, his heir only gets 1/5 of his share of the fee.

There are fines for selling a leprous animal– or person. This must be claimed within six weeks for animals, or within a year for humans.

You can be fined for verbal abuse, including irony— such as saying that a blind man has “beautiful eyes”.

Defendants in a legal case have 3 to 7 nights to prepare a defense. (However, there’s nothing about lawyers.)

In cases of sudden death, the corpse should be “smeared with oil” and examined. Perhaps this made bruises or changes in shape more visible, because there follows a list of clues for identifying victims of strangling, hanging, drowning, beating, poisoning, etc. (Pro tip: someone with lots of bloodstains and broken limbs may have been beaten.)

As in China, judges could torture defendants for information. On the other hand, they could be punished for unjust fines or punishments, or for sloppy procedure (e.g. “tiring parties with delay”). A Brahmin was not to be tortured, but if convicted, he could be branded on the face. (For theft, the symbol was a dog; for murder, a headless corpse; for rape, “the female part”; for drinking liquor, a vintner’s flag.)

Some suspicious signs that someone may be a thief: excessive stammering; “watching the movements of others”; rubs or scratches or “signs of scaling heights”; freshly broken nails; body smeared with oil and freshly washed. Footprints could be checked against those made near the crime scene, as well as fragments of garlands, sandals, or clothing.

If you are hurt by an elephant that you provoked, you are liable.

A fine can be levied on anyone who becomes an ascetic without providing for his wife and sons.

Next part

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

I decided it was time to read the Rig Veda, and now I have, sort of. I’ve read Wendy Doniger’s compilation of 108 hymns from the book– 1/10 of the total. If she had done the whole thing it would amount to over 3000 pages, so I’m not feeling too guilty.



Indra, chief of the Vedic gods


You may well be saying, the Rig what? The Rig Veda is the oldest text of Hinduism– also perhaps the oldest text still in religious use.  It dates back 3500 to 4000 years ago.  (The Old Testament is mostly under 3000 years old.)  In form, it’s a set of over a thousand hymns, which were chanted or sung at animal sacrifices. (A rig is a hymn or poem. Veda is ‘knowledge’, cognate to English wit and Latin vedere ‘see’.)

Curiously, it’s not the oldest written text; it was transmitted orally, Brahmin to Brahmin, for most of those millennia. The transmission was highly accurate– the Rig Veda was remembered the same way from Kashmir to Kerala.

Whether it was understood is another question.  It’s written in an archaic Sanskrit that can be baffling even if you understand classical Sanskrit.  Plus it describes practices that are no longer practiced and gods that are no longer worshiped.  The chief Vedic god was Indra, followed closely by Agni (fire), the Maruts (storm gods), the Ashvins (a pair of horse gods), Yama (death), and Soma (a drug, more on that below).  Over the centuries worship switched to Vishnu and Shiva, each conceived by its worshipers as the supreme and only god (the others being forms they assume).  Vishnu does get a few Vedic hymns; Shiva does not, though he’s associated with Rudra, who does. Shiva very likely originates as a Dravidian god, later adopted by the Indic peoples.

Curiously, there is evidence that Indra and crew replaced an even earlier set of gods. One of the minor Vedic gods is the sky god Dyaus. This is cognate to Zeus and Jupiter (= Dyaus father), as well as the Germanic god Tiw, the god of Tuesday. In the Vedas Dyaus is usually paired with Prithvi ‘Earth’, often addressed with her in the dual as Dyavaprithvi. And he changes sex!  Sky-and-earth are usually addressed as females.

So, what are these poems like?  Many are straightforward praise and asking of benefits, such as this hymn to Agni (1.1, the very first hymn in the Rig Veda):

I pray to Agni, the household priest who is the god of the sacrifice, the one who chants and invokes and brings most treasure.

Agni earned the prayers of the ancient sages, and of those of the present, too; he will bring the gods here.

Through Agni one may win wealth, and growth from day to day, glorious and most abounding in heroic sons.

…To you, Agni, who shine upon darkness, we come day after day, bringing our thoughts and homage to you, the king over sacrifices, the shining guardian of Order, growing in your own house.

Agni is the fire god, and thus is the fire of the animal sacrifice, which brings the sacrifice to the gods and brings blessings back. You obviously want to be on good terms with the messenger if you want your message to get through.

(The hymns tend to exaggerate the power of the god they’re dedicated to. So certain events and powers may be attributed to different gods at different times. The way you talked to gods was undoubtedly influenced by the way you talked to kings; treating them as more powerful than they were was good tactics.)

Sometimes the prayers are strange, almost opaque in their extended metaphors, as in this hymn about the sacrifice itself (1.164):

This beloved gray priest has a middle brother who is hungry and a third brother with butter on his back. In him I saw the Lord of All Tribes with his seven sons.

Seven yoke the one-wheeled chariot drawn by one horse with seven names. All these creatures rest on the ageless and unstoppable wheel with three naves.

Seven horses draw the seven who ride on this seven-wheeled chariot. Seven sisters call out to the place where the seven names of the cows are hidden.

Who saw the newborn one, the one with bones who was brought forth by the boneless one? Where was the breath and blood and soul of the earth? 

(This actually reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman, when he wants to represent spells and such. I suspect he’s done a lot of reading on folklore and borrowed the style.)

Now, a lot of this can be interpreted. E.g. Doniger tells us that the “priests” are the sacrificial fires. The middle brother is “hungry” because it’s the southern fire, seldom fed. The Lord of All Tribes is Agni; his sons are the priests.  As with any jargon, one suspects that making the material difficult was part of the point.

A hymn to creation (10.129) starts out with some confident cosmology, but ends up buried in accumulated questions and doubts.

There was neither non-existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond… There was neither death nor immortality then…

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.

…Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers….

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced?  Whence is this creation?  The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen– perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not– the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows– or perhaps he does not know.

Some of the most accessible material is not hymns to deities at all. There are conversations about sex between gods; a lament by a gambler whose life have been ruined by the dice; a benediction on arms and armor; a poem that is simultaneously about frogs and Brahmins.

Also intriguing is the nature of soma– from the text, a drink pressed from plants grown in the mountains. The effects seem to be exhilarating and hallucinatory (8.48):

I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey.

When you penetrate inside, you will know no limits, and you will avert the wrath of the gods. Enjoying Indra’s friendship, O drop of Soma, bring riches as a docile cow brings the yoke.

We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now, O immortal one?

Soma is itself addressed as a god; indeed, by bulk, he gets more hymns than anyone but Indra and Agni.

The descriptions and the effects don’t really correspond to any known plant. Soma went out of use, perhaps because it was hard to get in northern India– this rules out marijuana, which has long been known.  The Persians used a planet called haoma, a cognate, but its effects are mild. It can’t be wine or any fermented drink, because it was pressed and drunk immediately.  An attractive hypothesis is that it’s Amanita muscaria, the mushroom used by Siberian shamans, and which happens to grow all across Eurasia but not in India.

Should you run out and read it?  Well, not as your first venture into India, or Hinduism.  I would still recommend the Ramayana for that.  For ancient religious thought that’s still relevant today, try the Bhagavad-Gita. But if you’re interested in what people were doing and how they worshiped four thousand years ago, go for it.

(Doniger’s translation provides plenty of help on the obscure bits, which are many. Her book The Hindus: An alternative history would be a good book to read first.)







I was looking at the Hitopadeśa for the Sanskrit (see here and here), but now I’ve read it, in G.L. Chadiramani’s translation. The book is medieval (it’s impossible to date exactly) and it turns out to recycle a lot of material from the earlier Pañcatantra. Both works used to be very familiar to Western audiences; versions were known in Europe as early as 1252 (via Arabic), and La Fontaine borrowed some of the stories.  The Indian originals were discovered in the 1700s, and for decades the Hitopadeśa was one of the first books you learned as a Sanskritist.

The framing device is simple. A king has a problem: his sons are, in a word, nityamunmārgagāmināmanadhigataśāstrāṇām. That is, they are constantly going astray and never read books. A sage offers to take them in hand, and his infallible method is to tell them animal fables.

Sadly, this framework is never really expanded upon. We never see the sons straying or even talking back to the old sage; we don’t even learn their names. They’re trotted out at the beginning of each chapter, apparently rapt at his stories. Well, they didn’t have video games back then.

There are four chapters: acquiring friends; separating friends; war; peace. Each has its own framing story, which is far more interesting. Plus the author frequently springboards off into other stories, and everyone is constantly reciting long sets of moralistic verses.

I’ll illustrate by retelling one of the stories.

The prince Tungabala was appointed governor of a city named Virapura. He fell in love with Lavanyavati, the wife of a merchant’s son. As is explained by a verse:

Arrows in the form of glances,
By beautiful ladies having black eyelashes,
Shot after being drawn
From the bow of their eyebrows,
Extending to the region of the ears,
Pierce through the guts of a man and reach his heart.

Which is to say, she had fabulous eyebrows. Fortunately for Tungabala, she was smitten by him as well. But she was unwilling to cheat on her husband. 

Tungabala had sent a female messenger to negotiate with her.  (He probably read the Kāmasūtra, which advises just this method.) The messenger came up with a plan for him. He appointed the woman’s husband Carudatta to high office and made him his confidant.

Then he bathed, anointed himself with sandalwood perfume, and announced that he was making a special vow. He told Carudatta to bring him a different woman every night. Each night, he greeted the woman, worshipped her without touching her, and sent her away loaded with rich presents.

Carudatta became greedy, thinking that he could easily acquire these presents by bringing his own wife.  Of course his wife obeyed his request.  The moment the prince saw her, he embraced her and they made love all night.  Carudatta was extremely depressed.

This story is actually told as a teaching tale, told by a mouse to his friends in the first chapter. The connection to their predicament is quite loose: the mouse is basically saying “If you persist in your plans, you will end up sad, like the merchant’s son in this story.”


Now, I’ve just told the bare story, but this is not enough for the author. First, everything is sprinkled with illustrative verse proverbs, and not just one but several. By bulk, the book is mostly these verses. Presumably the sage’s trick is really to impart all these moralistic verses, the stories only being used to motivate the princes’ curiosity.

But also, each set of verses tends to end with an allusion to another story, and of course whoever’s listening immediately has to hear it. In the case of the above story, the female messenger, proving that Tungabala needs a trick to get what he wants, tells the story of a jackal who brings down an elephant by a trick.

(Oh, you want to hear that story, do you?  You little scamps, all right. An elephant comes into a region inhabited by jackals, and one of them realizes that he would feed them for months. But of course he is too strong to attack directly. So he goes to the elephant and offers him the kingship of the forest, based on his obvious majesty. He throws in a set of verses on the necessity of kingship. The elephant, greedy for the kingdom, follows him into deep mud, where he gets stuck.  So the jackals eat him.)

The recursion  goes pretty deep… it wouldn’t be unusual for the book if the jackal made his point by telling yet another story.

Curiously, in the war and peace sections, the author seems to have gotten more interested in the framing story— the tale of a war between the sea birds (whose king is a swan) and the land birds (whose king is a peacock). It covers both chapters and is far more involved. You get to know the chief ministers of both kings, their spies, and the ruses they use in war.

Would you enjoy the book? I think the fables themselves are great fun, not only good stories in their own right, but a window onto premodern Indian attitudes and values. Where the verses are moralistic, the stories are often earthy— as in the above example, which doesn’t really bother to condemn the prince’s adultery, but laughs at the greedy merchant’s son.

The verses are a harder sell. There are an awful lot of them, and most are not to modern tastes.

A wicked wife, a deceitful friend,
An impertinent servant,
And staying in a house infested with serpents;
Will without doubt lead to death.

Unless you have Samuel Jackson on board, at least.

Anyway, you could skip all the verses, though that would hardly be reading the Hitopadeśa. If nothing else, they tell us something about the society. Like our own proverbs, they are often contradictory— e.g. there are verses about the treachery of strangers, and verses about the sacredness of hospitality; kings are advised to be kind, and also advised to be harsh.  But the verses in the war and peace section give a glimpse into Indian statecraft (e.g. advising against hasty moves to war, and warning about various kinds of poor advisors), and there are other interesting bits— e.g. the verses really hate misers: they praise giving away money the highest, but find enjoying it also praiseworthy.

Another advantage of the book: it doesn’t require any great knowledge of Indian history or culture, though there are allusions here and there for those who do know it. And it’s pretty short, so it’s not a major time investment, like the Mahābhārata .

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