Revenge and Statecraft: India’s Spymaster

Depiction of Kautilya from a revised edition of the Arthashastra | Artist unknown | 1915 | Courtesy of Ancient History Encyclopedia

Nearly 300 years before the birth of Christ, Alexander the Great and his war machine had savaged everything east of Greece. After defeating the Persian Empire, the young warlord finally swept into India in 326 BCE. Unlike the previous lands conquered by Alexander, India was unable to mount a serious defense of its borders. Before Alexander’s army even arrived, the country was fractured into several different territories.1 The strongest of these territories still paled in comparison to the Greek hordes. Known as the Nanda, the rulers of Northern India squabbled with each other constantly and were perceived by their subjects as both cruel and incompetent.2 While Alexander the Great quickly abandoned India, intending to take his armies home, he left Greek governors in charge of the country’s northwest border region, an easy task since the Indian rulers were too busy fighting each other to fight the Greeks.3

Map of land ruled by the Nanda dynasty prior to their defeat by the Mauryan empire | Taken from A Historical Atlas of South Asia | 2014 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Around the same time as Alexander the Great’s invasion, an administrator in the Nanda government named Kautilya became agitated by his King’s inability to confront the Greeks. While Alexander had not yet attacked the Nanda King’s territory, Kautilya was from Taxila, a city that Alexander had seized, and Kautilya took the Nanda King’s incompetence personally.4 Versed in both political science and economics, Kautilya was well-educated.5 However, in addition to being brilliant, Kautilya was also outspoken, and, at one meeting with the Nanda King, his blunt speech insulted the Ruler.6 The King then mocked Kautilya’s appearance and threw him from the city.7 Outcast, Kautilya swore revenge against his former leader.8

A depiction of India’s Caste System | Creator unknown | 2017 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Despite conflict plaguing India, the Indian caste system dictated that only those who belonged to the warrior caste, known as Kshatriya, could lead others into battle.9 Kautilya was born into the Brahmin, or priestly, caste, and he would, therefore, be unable to assemble an Army, let alone lead it against the Nanda King. Fortunately, the Nanda’s internal squabbling had left some relatives of the royal family in exile. Believed by many to be one of these exiled royals was a boy named Chandragupta.10 Kautilya stumbled across the boy by accident while traveling away from the Nanda Kingdom. He saw a group of children playing, and noticed that the boy easily took charge of the others; Kautilya believed he was a natural leader and took the boy with him to Taxila. While Kautilya could not lead an army or rule a nation, Chandragupta, a member of the Kshatriya caste and relative of the Nanda King, certainly could. In the hometown of his new mentor, Chandragupta studied science and military strategy; simultaneously, Kautilya plotted revenge.11

Depiction of Kautilya | Artist unknown | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Although he now had an apprentice capable of seizing power, Kautilya did not have an army, and raising one capable of taking on the Nanda King and ousting the Greeks would be nearly impossible for someone with limited resources. Kautilya and Chandragupta would have to begin the fighting on their own. Kautilya would later write in his political treatise, the Arthashastra, about how to defeat a more powerful enemy. The weaker aggressor, Kautilya believed, should not attack his enemy head-on, but should use spies and rapid small-scale attacks to provoke the stronger enemy into blundering away his advantage.12 As soon as Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, Kautilya knew the Greek Governors would be struggling against each other for power, the same way the Indian rulers had been when the Greeks attacked years before.13 Kautilya and Chandragupta seized the moment, assassinating two Greek governors.14 This act showed Indians, regardless of what territory they lived in or which ruler they fell under, that it was possible to push back the Greeks; furthermore, Kautilya and Chandragupta proved they were to be taken seriously. The two men were now able to attract followers and begin building an army.

With the killing of two Greek leaders under their belts, Kautilya and his apprentice doubled down. Over the next two years, they seized the Punjab and Sindh regions—now the southeastern part of Pakistan—from the Greek occupiers.15 Kautilya’s birthplace of Taxila was no longer under Greek threat, and the men turned their attention to the Nanda King. Perhaps their successes had caused Chandragupta and his mentor to grow arrogant. They abandoned the methods that had worked so well against the Greeks, and struck into the Eastern part of India facing the Nanda king directly, only to be defeated.16

Ashamed, Kautilya and Chandragupta spent the following months traveling and searching for a strategy that would allow them to defeat the Nanda King, who remained safely tucked away in his capital, Pataliputra.17 One legend says that during their travels, Kautilya saw a young boy burn himself while eating food. He had started eating from the center of his portion rather than the edges where the food was cooler.18 Kautilya saw this moment as a sign. He too had been burned by attacking the center of the Nanda King’s territory, rather than stamping out the less-defended edges. Kautilya presented Chandragupta with a new plan of attack.

Map of land conquered by Chandragupta Maurya with the guidance of Kautilya | Artist unknown | 2007 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Renewing their campaign, Kautilya and Chandragupta spent over a year engaging in what would now be called guerrilla warfare. They attacked poorly defended garrisons and then withdrew before the Nanda could counter-attack. Kautilya set fire to crops, destroying the Nanda King’s ability to feed his subjects or trade with other rulers.19 Since the Nanda King was already disliked by his subjects long before fighting Kautilya and Chandragupta, his inability to provide for them only made matters worse. Furthermore, Kautilya used a network of spies to spread rumors about the Nanda King, destroying his credibility.20 Today, such methods would be called psychological warfare. Eventually, Kautilya’s tactics led to uprisings against the Nanda King.

With Kautilya’s enemy facing both unrest and a dwindling supply of resources, he was weak enough to be defeated. Kautilya and Chandragupta struck the Nanda capital, Pataliputra, with a vengeance. The Nanda King was killed in the fighting, and Chandragupta’s men seized the palace with ease; they thought the war was over. But just as Kautilya had developed new tactics, his enemies had grown and adapted as well. In the basement of the palace, some surviving Nanda soldiers assembled silently in the dark, preparing to spring out and kill Chandragupta when the opportunity arose. On the level above them, Kautilya was walking through the palace when he noticed an ant carrying a grain of rice. He followed the ant until it slipped through a crack, and when Kautilya stooped to look through the crack, he caught a glimpse of the soldiers below. Quietly, he ordered everyone else out of the palace, barred the doors, and set the building on fire, finally erasing the last remnants of the Nanda government.21

Chandragupta retained Pataliputra as his capital and Kautilya as his chief advisor. Over the next decade, they unified the different Indian factions into a cohesive empire. From there, they extended their empire’s borders, defeating one of Alexander the Great’s former generals, Seleucus, in the region now known as Afghanistan.22 Acknowledging that the Nanda Kingdom had fallen partly due to its own incompetence, Kautilya set about establishing a system of government that would be ruthless, but also fair and effective. In his book the Arthashastra, Kautilya codified taxes, explained how to address disasters, and even how to deal with corrupt officials that might harm the people.23 Ultimately, the government Kautilya created and Chandragupta ruled was so successful, it endured for over a century, continuing under Chandragupta’s son and grandson.24

  1. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 8.
  2. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 8-9.
  3. Encyclopedia of Empire, 2016, s.v. “Mauryan Empire,” by Ranabir Chakravarti.
  4. T. N. Ramaswamy, Essentials of Indian Statecraft: Kautilya’s Arthasastra for Contemporary Readers (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1962), 3.
  5. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Chanakya,” by Christian Violatti.
  6. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 9.
  7. T. N. Ramaswamy, Essentials of Indian Statecraft: Kautilya’s Arthasastra for Contemporary Readers (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1962), 3.
  8. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 9.
  9. World History Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “Relations between Kingdoms in India,” by Jeffrey Long.
  10. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Chanakya,” by Christian Violatti.
  11. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 9.
  12. World History Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Manual on Administration and Politics),” by Jane Mcintosh.
  13. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 10.
  14. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 9.
  15. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 10.
  16. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 9.
  17. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Chanakya,” by Christian Violatti.
  18. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 9.
  19. World History Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Manual on Administration and Politics),” by Jane Mcintosh.
  20. World History Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Manual on Administration and Politics),” by Jane Mcintosh.
  21. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Chanakya,” by Christian Violatti.
  22. Roger Boesche, The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra (New York: Lexington Books, 2002), 10.
  23. World History Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Manual on Administration and Politics),” by Jane Mcintosh.
  24. Encyclopedia of Empire, 2016, s.v. “Mauryan Empire,” by Ranabir Chakravarti.
Tags from the story
, ,
Written By
More from Steven Hale

Outsiders in Frankenstein

Two hundred years after Frankenstein’s release, scholars and casual readers alike continue to...
Read More

7 Comments

  • You can never forget people who are scorned and want revenge. Kautilya did not let his caste system dictate what he was going to do in life. With his good insight he was able to find Chandragupta and know that he is a natural born leader. Both of them were able to strategize war plans to take over Nanda kingdom. They used guerrilla warfare/ psychological warfare to meticulously take over and eventually conquer the kingdom.

  • This was a very interesting article. It’s really nice to see something different than the normal Wolrd War and genocide articles. Seeing something on spying, especially in a time period and a location we don’t normally associate with spying. It’s good to see that not everything has to be MI6, 007, or CIS when talking about the history of this subject.

  • This is an interesting article regarding a less-known event. But this author was an able to establish a great historical background that I found very astounding. I appreciate this article illustrating Kautilya’s journey. This article’s presentation kept me entertained till the end, I also illustrated my lack of understanding of the caste system. But overall a great article that I would recommend.

  • This was a really interesting article. The author did a really great job of telling the story of Kautilya and Chandragupta and their eventual success. The picture included regarding the caste system was really helpful in understanding how the different castes work in relation to the others and helped me to understand the relationship of Kautilya and Chandragupta much better.

  • I appreciate the picture you incorporated for this article. It is helpful for the readers who are not aware of the caste system and what each class may entail for one in it. The same goes for your third photo in the body of the text. The map really helped me visualize the geographical space you were describing in this article.

  • Nice article. It is a very difficult task to unify almost the entire Indian subcontinent. It is such a large and diverse place that one can only wonder how these ancient empires were able to accomplish it, and maintain the empire for over a century. It is a testament to Chandragupta and his adviser that they basically started from nothing, and really became the most powerful force in the region. I also like the story about the intentional burning of the palace, that was a nice story

  • The author did an excellent job in addressing Kautilya’s motivations and eventual upbringing to power. I also find the story of how Kautilya randomly stumbled upon Chandragupta very funny…talk about a stroke of fate. Regarding the soldiers on the lower level of the castle waiting to kill Chandragupta, I wonder how it was they managed to assemble themselves completely unnoticed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.