Ram is an avatar of Vishnu, and so god, who established the perfect kingdom, Ram rajya. Ram is also Bodhisattva to Buddhists and Baladeva to Jains. All three religions are also aware of Vishnugupta Chanakya, through folklore, as a shrewd Brahmin who used his cunning to replace the old and corrupt Nanda dynasty with a more worthy ruler, Chandragupta Maurya.

And while most people simply assume Chanakya’s notion of state would be the same as that of Ram’s, those who study politics and philosophy would be quick to point out that Chanakya’s view of kingship is rather different, even incompatible, with the idea embodied in Ram rajya.

Chanakya is more about power while Ram is more about wisdom. Chanakya is more interested in the success (artha) of kingship, and views social order (dharma) merely as a tool to achieve it. He is not interested in the idea of liberation from the material world (moksha). Ram, on the other hand, is the embodiment of dharma, and the vehicle for moksha.

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Myth, legend, fiction, history

Chanakya is identified as Kautilya, author of the 2,000-year-old treatise on economics and politics, Arthashastra, and of Chanakya-neeti, a collection of aphorisms on realpolitik. In popular cultural memory, he was mentor to Chandragupta Maurya, who played a key role in overthrowing the Nanda kings and resisting Alexander the Great’s invasion of India 2,300 years ago. Chanakya was probably a Brahmin, but he is unique in that he was not interested in establishing brahminical privilege, which makes his Arthashastra very different in tone from Manu’s Dharmashastra.

Between the Mauryan and Gupta empires (200 BCE to 200 CE), the Valmiki Ramayana was put down in writing. The purpose was to establish a paradigm, that of god walking on earth in mortal form, making this great Sanskrit epic a myth. It complemented the Mahabharata and its appendix, the Harivamsa, which also performs the same function of establishing a paradigm: of god walking the earth as mortal. But there is a difference. Ram upholds brahminical rules, Krishna defies it. Ram of the Ramayana does not know he is god while Krishna of the Mahabharata knows he is.

Many people find the manipulative Chanakya closer to Krishna in personality. Both are kingmakers and imagined as puppet-masters. But this reveals a poor understanding of Hindu thought. For Ram and Krishna, as mortal forms of Vishnu on earth, are concerned with establishing social order (dharma), not material success (artha), which is Chanakya’s main concern.

Dharma, sincere or cynical

At the heart of the problem is the understanding of the word dharma. In popular translations, it means righteousness, a word with roots in Abrahamic mythology, where it refers to aligning to god’s will. In Hinduism, god is not rule-maker and certainly not judge. We are creatures whose actions create a web of reactions that entrap us, and wisdom helps us navigate this karmic web. This wisdom is revealed by sages known as Buddha in Buddhism, Tirthankara in Jainism, and avatars of god in Hinduism.

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You cannot explain dharma without considering karma. To explain dharma as ethics, morality or righteousness without factoring in karma is like attempting to see a painting in the absence of a canvas.

The word dharma had limited use in the Vedic period 3,000 years ago. It became popular only after Buddha used it to refer to his doctrine 2,500 years ago. And so from around 2,000 years ago, when the Panchatantra, Jatakas, Ramayana and Mahabharata were being put down in writing, we also find the rising tension between the Buddhist Dhammapada and the Hindu Dharmashastra, the former valourising the hermit’s worldview and the latter propagating the householder’s worldview. Jains saw dharma very differently, as movement, and as such one of the six foundational principles (dravya) of the universe, the others being inertia (adharma), time (kala), space (akash), substance (ajiva), and spirit (jiva).

What was dharma remained the question. Was it movement? Was it walking the path of contemplation and meditation that allowed one to outgrow one’s desires, one’s identity as recommended by the Buddha? Was it performing rituals and family obligations, determined by caste, as advocated by Brahmins?

For Chanakya, dharma was the logic used to establish kingship. Without it, there would be anarchy, the law of the jungle. He advised kings to send spies to propagate the story in the market place that gods created the raja to establish order in the world, and he could do that, create a secure ecosystem where economics thrived, provided his subjects paid their taxes and obeyed him and respected his policies. Chanakya used dharma cynically to prop up the rule of his king. Cynical is the key adjective here. For Chanakya, dharma was a tool for artha, or material success. For Chanakya, dharma was established through force and domination (danda-niti).

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But in the Shatapatha Brahmana, composed 2,800 years ago, dharma is associated with overcoming the jungle law (might is right) outside, and outgrowing our animal instincts within. In Valmiki Ramayana, Ram is the embodiment of dharma: he is dharma-raja, august, decent, gracious and upright, rude criticism from modern writers notwithstanding. There is no cynicism where Ram in concerned. Even 1,500 years after the Sanskrit Ramayana when Tulsidas wrote his Ramcharitmanas in Awadhi, the idea of Ram, the sincere king prevails. In the Hanuman Chalisa, he is referred to as tapasvi raja, the hermit king. He is simultaneously hermit and householder, an idea that emerged from the tension between Buddhism and Hinduism, an idea that Chanakya would only scoff at, but not Krishna.

The word dharma gained popularity after Buddha made a reference to it 2,500 years ago. (Credit: Chanrasmey Miech / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0)

Of kingdom, not king

While Buddha, a prince who walked away from royal life, saw dhamma in the giving up of desire, Ram was a prince who fulfilled his royal duties, but never got any pleasure from kingship. For his being king also meant he had to give up his queen, of soiled reputation, and let his children be born in the forest. Ram finds no happiness from his kingship. But his kingdom benefits from him as they experience Ram rajya. By upholding his dharma, as the oldest son of the royal family, Ram ensures his people enjoy artha, material success, and kama, sensory pleasure. It is about them, not him.

But in the Arthashastra, it is all about the king. His power. His success. His security. The expansion of his power. The kingdom is imagined as ringed by enemies. And so Chanakya advises the king to befriend the enemies of his enemies, kings who inhabit the outer ring. Here, the policy is one of eating or being eaten. The king is no different from an animal, one who seeks prey and fears the predator, who is alpha in the pecking order, who needs to dominate and defend his territory to feel safe. And this is where Chanakya diverges from Ram, and Krishna, and the larger Hindu philosophy.

When Chanakya speaks of the meaning of life, which is the Vedic concept of purushartha, he refers to three pillars: dharma, artha and kama, which is order, success and pleasure. He does not refer to the fourth spiritual pillar of liberation, moksha. He does not care for it. It matches his cynicism, almost mirroring the cynicism of a materialist atheist, such as the Charvakas (an ancient movement of materialists) who felt the purpose of life was to live the good life, and all conversations of nobility and transcendence are for fools, the omegas of the pack, who have to be duped or dominated.

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But both the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which reflect the Vaishnava worldview, yearn for the transcendental. If Buddhism saw the ultimate goal of existence as nirvana, achieving oblivion of the self, Vaishnavism saw the ultimate goal of existence as moksha, liberation of the individual self (jiva-atma) by its immersion in the cosmic self (param-atma). And the way to liberate oneself is not by giving up the world but by engaging with it as Ram, enjoying it as Krishna, both of whom participate with detachment and focus on the success and pleasure of the other, not the self.

This is what Krishna is trying to tell Arjuna in his Bhagavad Gita. The point is not about family but about kingdom, not about Kuru-vamsa but Hastinapur. The Kuru clan is but an instrument for Hastinapur’s well-being, just as the Raghu clan was an instrument for Ayodhya. Ram knew that. But Bhisma does not, Duryodhana does not, and even Arjuna does not. They all function for glory of the self.

Krishna helps the Pandavas win the war against the Kauravas, often by bending the rules of war, which for many Hindutva followers makes him the Indian Machiavelli, a forerunner of Chanakya, but in that they miss the point. For Machiavelli, and Chanakya, crave power. Krishna does not. In fact, in exchange for establishing dharma, all he gets is the curse of Gandhari, and he witnesses the destruction of his own clan following a civil war. He is hardly a winner. Nor are the Pandavas, who have to deal with the death of all their children. And who when they reach paradise have to contend with the presence of the Kauravas there.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to Arjun the importance of putting kingdom over family. (Credit: Smithsonian Freer Sackler Gallery / Wikimedia Commons)

The final chapter of the Mahabharata, the Swargarhonika Parva, is often seen as the afterthought to the real epic, just as many see the final chapter of the Ramayana, the Uttar Kanda, as the afterthought of the real epic. For these final chapters shift the goal post and make the epics not about great victories of heroic kings but one that wonders about the point of kingship.

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In the final chapter of the Ramayana, the king of Ayodhya gives up his wife to protect royal reputation from scandal, for people gossip about the propriety of a queen who has lived in another man’s house. In the final chapter of the Mahabharata, the king of Hastinapur, having given up everything, reaches paradise to find there not his brothers but his vile cousins. What is the message here?

These dramatic inconvenient twists are where the spiritual awakening of Hinduism happens. Twists that many rationalists and materialists and atheists would dismiss as mumbo-jumbo, for they have much in common with Chanakya who believed life is about the self and not the other.

But 2,000 years ago, during a period when India was experiencing its earliest kingdoms and empires, and torn between royal ambition on one side and the doctrine of renunciation made popular by the Buddha, sages wondered what makes a good king. Can a hermit be a householder, and can a hermit-householder be a king? Is it possible for a king to exist for the other? Would that not make him a sage, a royal sage, a raja-rishi?

Ram, like his father-in-law Janaka, is a raja-rishi. Krishna tries, but fails, to make Yudhishtira a raja-rishi. In his long discourse to Yudhishtira, the Shanti Parva, Bhisma realises why Krishna orders Arjuna to pin him down to the ground. All his life, Bhisma thought only about his father and his clan, not the people. And Yudhishtira hates the Kauravas not because they did not bother about Hastinapur but because they did not treat his brothers, and his wife, fairly. It is all about him and his family; there is not a moment’s thought for the kingdom. Quite in contrast to Ram, all whose decisions are for the well-being of kingdom. A kingdom is not a king’s property, it is his responsibility. And that is raj-dharma of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Ram, Lakshman and Hanuman watch Sita's agni pariksha or ordeal by fire. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Hermit-king

Ram rajya is a land ruled by a hermit-king. Not one who pretends to be a hermit, but one whose mind is that of a hermit. A hermit is one who wants nothing but is aware of the needs and wants of people around him. He does not judge them. He nurtures them as a parent is supposed to nurture a child. Protect them (dharma). Provide for them (artha). Allow them to enjoy life (kama). And eventually enable them to be free (moksha). This is not freedom to do whatever they desire, which is the popular Western concept of individual liberty. This is freedom from desire, from attachment, from hunger and fear, all that limits us, makes us self-indulgent and stops us from thinking about the other. The hermit-king tries to make his subjects hermit-kings. He does not judge them, or himself, harshly when they remain self-indulgent children. For he knows what cannot be achieved in this lifetime can be achieved in another one of our infinite lives.

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Chanakya would snigger at such ideas.

We have to ask ourselves, in the 21st century, what we want more: the artha of Chanakya or the dharma of Ram rajya? For while Ram would surely welcome Chanakya into his kingdom, Chanakya would dismiss his utopian worldview as naiveté, a fantasy of the gullible, to be used by shrewd politicians to wrest power.