Articles and Commentaries |
March 2, 2022

Ancient Indian Knowledge Systems and their Relevance Today – With an Emphasis on Arthaśāstra

Written By: Brig AP Singh, SM*, VSM

“We owe a lot to the ancient Indians, teaching us how to count. Without which most modern scientific discoveries would have been impossible” ~ Albert Einstein

Indian civilisation has accorded immense importance to knowledge — its amazingly vast body of intellectual texts, the world’s largest collection of manuscripts, its attested tradition of texts, thinkers, and schools in so many domains of knowledge. In Srimad Bhagavad Gita, 4.33,37-38, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that knowledge is the great purifier and liberator of the self. India’s knowledge tradition is ancient and uninterrupted like the flow of the river Ganga, from the Vedas (Upanishads) to Sri Aurobindo, knowledge has been at the centre of all inquiry.

The entire body of organised knowledge is divided into two sets in the Mundakopanisad — pars vidya and apara vidya (Mundakopanisad, 1.1.4), knowledge of the ultimate principle, paramatma or Brahman i.e., the metaphysical domain, and knowledge that is secondary to how one grasps aksara-Brahman i.e., worldly knowledge. Accordingly, a distinction is made between jnana and vijnana, the knowledge of facts of the perceptible world. Over time, knowledge of different domains has been institutionalised into disciplines, or vidya and crafts, or kala. Indian disciplinary formations include fields as diverse as philosophy, architecture, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, metrics, sociology (dharmasastra), economy and polity (arthaśāstra), ethics (nitishastra), geography, logic, military science, weaponry, agriculture, mining, trade and commerce, metallurgy, mining, shipbuilding, medicine, poetics, biology, and veterinary science. In each of these, a continuous and cumulative series of texts continues to be available despite the widespread loss and historically recorded destruction.

Tradition mentions 18 major vidyas, or theoretical disciplines; and 64 kalas, applied or vocational disciplines, crafts. The 18 vidyas are: the four Vedas, the four subsidiary Vedas (Ayurveda – medicine, Dhanurveda – weaponry, Gandharvaveda – music and Silpa – architecture), Purana, Nyaya, Mimamsa, Dharmasastra and Vedanga, the six auxiliary sciences, phonetics, grammar, metre, astronomy, ritual, and philology — these formed the basis of the 18 sciences in ancient India. As far as the applied sciences are concerned, there are competing enumerations of 64.[i]

The first thing to note is the constructivist dimension of Indian thought. At one time in its intellectual history, from 1000 BCE to almost CE 600, the Indian mind, it appears, was deeply immersed in empire-building, both of the terra firma and the terra cognita. Few cultures can show such wide-ranging, structured systems of ideas in almost all spheres of human life as witnessed in India during this phase. This led to the generation of a vast stock of ideas, which imprinted itself on the Indian mind making it naturally reflective and ideational.

The ancient Indian masters of politics – Kautilya, Bhīṣma, or Vidura – always followed the path of realpolitik over political ideologies. However, there were definite principles and theories upon which the foundation of the Classical Indian polity was based. The specific vidya or branch of Indian knowledge systems dedicated to the discussions of those principles, theories, and experience-based prescriptions was called dandaniti, the other three vidyas being ānvīkṣikī, trayī, and vārtā. This four-fold division is mentioned in Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra 1.2.1 (Kangle 1960). Each of the vidyas has one or more lineage of masters who have created multiple schools of thought, thus preserving, expanding, and proliferating the Indian knowledge systems. For dandaniti, the traditionally celebrated masters or acaryas are Bṛhaspati, Śukra, Uśanas, Bhīṣma, Kauṭilya, Kāmandaka, to name a few.

Among these masters, Bhisma’s teachings throughout the Shanti Parva and the Anushasana Parva of Vyasa’s Mahābhārata stand out as an exhaustive commentary on this unique paradigm of assimilating and practicing power, polity, politics, and administration. In the extent of its treatment of dandaniti, it is paralleled only by the Arthaśāstra.[ii]

It is now accepted that western criteria are not the sole benchmark by which other knowledge systems should be evaluated. While the term ‘traditional’ often implies ‘primitive’ or ‘outdated’, many of the traditional sciences and technologies were quite advanced[iii] even by present-day standards and better adapted to unique local conditions and needs than their ‘modern’ alternatives.

The United Nations defines ‘Traditional Knowledge Systems’ as:

“Traditional knowledge or local knowledge is a record of human achievement in comprehending the complexities of life and survival in often unfriendly environments. Traditional knowledge, which may be technical, social, organisational, or cultural was obtained as part of the great human experiment of survival and development.”[iv]

Laura Nader describes the purpose of studying Traditional Knowledge Systems (TKS): “The point is to open up people’s minds to other ways of looking and questioning, to change knowledge attitudes, to reframe the organisation of science — to formulate a way of thinking globally about traditions.”

Modern science perhaps dates to Newton’s times. But Traditional Knowledge Systems (TKS) date since more than 2 million years, when Homo habilis started making his tools and interacting with nature[v]. Since the dawn of history, different peoples have contributed to different branches of science and technology, often in a manner involving interactive contacts across cultures separated by large distances. This interactive influence is becoming clearer as the vast extent of global trade and cultural migration across vast distances is being recognised by researchers.

Not only in the field of dandaniti and rajadharma, the Indian civilisation also had a strong tradition of science and technology. Ancient India was a land of sages and seers as well as a land of scholars and scientists[vi]. Research has shown that from making the best steel in the world to teaching the world to count, India actively contributed to the field of science and technology centuries before modern laboratories were established. Many theories and techniques discovered by the ancient Indians have created and strengthened the fundamentals of modern science and technology. However, the vast and significant contributions made by the Indian sub-continent have been ignored. The British colonisers could never accept the fact that Indians were highly civilised even in the third millennium BCE when the British were still in a barbarian stage. Such acknowledgement would destroy the civilising mission of Europe that provided the intellectual justification for colonisation.

British Indologists did not study TKS, except to quietly document them as systems competing with their own and to facilitate the transfer of technology into Britain’s industrial revolution[vii]. What was found valuable was quickly appropriated, and its Indian manufacturers were forced out of business, and this was in many instances justified as civilising them. Meanwhile, a new history of India was fabricated to ensure that present and future generations of mentally colonised people would believe in the inferiority of their ancient knowledge and the superiority of the western ‘modern’ knowledge. This has been called ‘Macaulayism’, named after Lord Macaulay, who successfully championed this colonial strategy from the 1830s.3


Kautilya (also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta) was the Chief Minister and the brain behind King Chandra Gupta Maurya (317-293 BCE), which led to consolidation of the Mauryan empire and ushered in the Golden Age of India. It also put an end to the threat by the successors of King Alexander. The strategy helped in uniting the whole Indian sub-continent and sowed the seeds for the concept of the Indian nation. The Mauryan Empire not only spread across the sub-continent but extended in the west till the Persian border and to Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) in the east. The strategy propounded by Kautilya was the treatise Arthaśāstra, a comprehensive compendium of the art of ruling a kingdom and defeating one’s enemies. Verse 1.1.19 states that “this work easy to learn and understand, precise in doctrine, sense and wordiness, has been composed by Kautilya” lays to rest doubts about the authorship of this treatise. Moreover, Kautilya states right at the beginning that Arthaśāstra is a compendium of similar treatises written by earlier teachers. Subsequent works like Kamandaka’s Nitisara, Dandin’s Dashakumaracharita, Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasha, and Banabhatta’s Kadambari give credence to the traditional Arthaśāstra’s dating and authorship.[viii]

The Arthaśāstra was very influential in ancient India up to the 12th century CE, after which it faded away. The text, however, was rediscovered in 1904 by Dr R Shama Shastri and was published in English in 1915.

Dr RP Kangle (Kangle 1960) in his study, “The Kautilya Arthaśāstra”, points out on the relevance of Kautilya in the modern era, “We still have the same distrust of one nation by another, the same pursuit of its interest by every nation tempered only by the considerations of expediency, the same effort to secure alliances with the same disregard of them in self-interest”. It is difficult to see how rivalry and the struggle for supremacy between nations can be avoided or how the teachings of Arthaśāstra based on these basic facts can ever become superfluous. Historically, neither the formation of the League of Nations nor later the United Nations Organization has transformed the world as envisaged. Hence, the Arthaśāstra and its basic tenets would continue to remain relevant in the foreseeable future. [ix]

The Arthaśāstra is a vast compendium comprising 15 books, which are divided into 150 chapters, 180 sections and 6000 shlokas. The Sanskrit meaning of Arth is wealth, but Kautilya’s meaning encompasses a much wider canvas. The wealth of a nation has two major pillars – its territory and its subjects. The treatise is essentially a treatise on the art of governance and covers all aspects required for a society to function internally, and as a nation-state in its relations externally. Thus, at the macro level, the topics covered a span from statecraft, war to diplomacy. At the other end of the spectrum, micromanagement of the state is also covered in detail, e.g., revenue sources and taxation, commodity prices and their taxes, standardisation of weights and measures, the organisation of the army, descriptions of forts and defences. Interestingly, there exists a very prominent mention of the Navy as it has mentioned the ‘superintendent of ships’ in Book II. Kautilya may have foreseen the importance of a seaborne force and a Navy.

Kautilya’s treatise in many ways reflects the complexity of the present world. The problems of his times continue to exist, though in a more magnified manner. Heinrich Zimmer describes it aptly, “One feels inclined to bestow new and deep respect on the genius who at that early period recognised and elucidated the basic forces and situations that were to remain perennial in the human political field. The same style of Indian thought that invented the game of chess grasped with profound insight the rules of this larger game of power. And these are rules that cannot be disregarded by anyone seriously preparing to enter the field of political action, whether for motives of rugged individualism or in order to take the world in his hands.”[x] Kautilya wasn’t just a strategist, he was a guru, a researcher, and an inspiring thought leader. He is among the foremost expert on leadership and good governance the world has known.

On military strategy, the principles enunciated by Kautilya are as relevant today as they were when they were written. He considered statecraft and military strategy to be inseparable and that warfare was an integral part of it. Military strategy has been dealt with extensively, covering various aspects of deceit, training, planning, to the conduct of actual warfare. The king is advised to assess the interests of the state before embarking on a campaign by considering eight crucial factors, which would ensure that the gains outweigh the losses. In addition to quantifiable parameters, these factors cautioned against the likelihood of revolts and rebellion in the rear, and on dangers like treachery during the campaign. Great importance was given to internal security and Kautilya emphasised that threats to national security must be eliminated at any cost. He reasoned that internal stability was essential for the economic well-being of the state.

To ensure internal and external security, Kautilya wanted a network of spies operating within the state, and in enemy states. He was among the initial proponents of intrigue, covert operations, and using diplomatic offensives as instruments of state policy. Detailed descriptions of espionage and counter-espionage activities set this work apart from any other political treatise. All these ideas are relevant and practiced even today.

Arthaśāstra laid down the prime responsibilities of a king – protection of the state from external aggression and expansion of its territory by conquest. To achieve these aims, he specified four types of warfare:

  • Mantrayuddha or war by counsel through the exercise of diplomacy. This option was to be exercised when the king was in a weaker position compared to his opponent.
  • Prakasayuddha or conventional warfare. This was to be used when the king is in an advantageous position.
  • Kutayuddha or concealed warfare, also known as guerrilla warfare. This warfare includes psychological warfare and activating agents in the enemy camp.
  • Gudayuddha or clandestine war. As the name suggests, the aim is achieved through covert means. The state does not publicly display any signs of aggression but spreads propaganda and disinformation behind enemy lines through covert means. Roger Boesche has said in his book on Arthaśāstra that “silent war is a kind of fighting that no other thinker I know of has discussed”.

For ensuring a successful military strategy, Kautilya has covered in detail the organisation and management of the army. Crucial to the success of the army, he emphasises the traits required by its leadership. Interestingly, he called for the army to function under civil supremacy and made the organisation function efficiently through smooth coordination between its components. Kautilya even went into such details as specifying 34 types of adversities that an army could face. These remain largely relevant even today, as does the basic organisation he proposed, with modifications for incorporating modern-day challenges and technology.

Kautilya was a proponent of the Realist school of thought, which advised maximising power through political rather than military means. He believed in realpolitik and that ends justified the means, including the use of ruse, deceit, cunning and subterfuge. He justifies going to war by the natural enemy concept which states that if the enemy is not eliminated, the enemy will eliminate the state/king at some point in time.

Modern warfare is not restricted to the actual conflict alone. Rather, it encompasses the military, political, economic and diplomatic aspects. War or conflict has two distinct characteristics. One represents progress and change, and the other represents constancy and permanency. On one hand, the dynamics of progress and change depend much upon a commander’s imagination, innovativeness, grasp of technology and complexity. While on the other, the Arthaśāstra is testimony to the constant and unchanging nature of war. Studies of military history show that certain features constantly recur; that certain relations between the type of action and success often produce similar results; that certain circumstances have time and again proved decisive. Past is the prologue of the future, underscores the relevance and significance of studies of military history such as propagated by the Arthaśāstra or other ancient texts. [xi]

Military strategy comprises statecraft, diplomacy, and warfare. Warfare comprises of two characteristics – one remains permanent over time, while the other keeps changing and evolving with progress and technology. The changing component also depends on the quality of leadership at any given time. The permanent characteristics of warfare are those which are studied through military history, which provides lessons for future warfare/situations. This brings out the relevance of ancient texts like Arthaśāstra in the current context.

Status of Incorporation of Ancient Texts in the Armed Forces

The Indian Army has been at the forefront in this regard and has been studying the relevance of ancient scriptures to modern warfare. The Army War College, Mhow brought out a paper in 2016 titled, “Interpreting Ancient India’s Strategic Military Culture”, which took examples from different texts to correlate aspects of statecraft and warfare in ancient and present times. The study noted that “Indigenous strategic thoughts and art of war found in the Arthaśāstra, Mahabharata and other literature are not only organic to Indian psyche but are also relevant even in today’s context”. 7 The paper also listed other scriptures for study, like Dhanurveda – which talks about military strategy, tactics, organization, and training of defence personnel, military arrays, divisions of fighting, equipment, weapons etc. The paper also studied the evolution of military strategy in India and emphasized the information warfare strategy by Kautilya, the Indian art of war and foreign policy.

Another text mentioned in the paper was the Manusmriti, where Chapter 7 dealt with statecraft, organisation and function of the army, description of forts, and firearms in the Shukraniti, authored by sage Shukracharya; and the Puranas like Agni Purana, Brahma Purana and Brahmanda Purana which deal with diplomacy and warfare.[xii]

There has been a push towards “Indianisation” of the Indian military and at the Combined Commanders Conference held in Kevadia, Gujarat, in March 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stressed greater indigenisation in the national security apparatus, including in the doctrines and customs of the Armed Forces.[xiii]

Consequently, Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff sponsored a study, “Attributes of Ancient Indian Culture and Warfare Techniques and its incorporation in present-day strategic thinking and training” at the College of Defence Management (CDM), Hyderabad. The study focused on ancient Indian texts Arthaśāstra, Bhagavad Gita and Thirukkural, and it termed Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra a “treasure trove” for the Armed Forces. The study brought out that these texts were relevant in the present-day context concerning leadership, warfare, and strategic thinking. The study, published in 2021, recommended incorporating relevant teachings from ancient Indian texts such as Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra and Bhagavad Gita into the current military training curriculum. The study has also suggested establishing an ‘Indian Culture Study Forum’ on the lines of those existing in Pakistan and China, for carrying out further research.

The study also recommended further study of ancient texts such as Manusmriti, Nitisara and Mahabharata, and to conduct periodic workshops and annual seminars on lessons from ancient Indian culture and texts for the Armed Forces. It proposed making CDM a Centre for Excellence in Indian Cultural Studies and to incorporate this knowledge as part of the formal training curriculum in military institutions.

More recently, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General MM Naravane, on 27 January 2022, while delivering the keynote address at the annual seminar on National Security at the College of Defence Management (CDM), emphasised using the vast repository of ancient knowledge available, which could enhance current strategic thinking. He stressed on the application of this knowledge in conjunction with an understanding of contemporary situations and battle-space architecture. This would aid in formulating more efficient solutions for resolving present-day challenges. He further pointed out that India must look for meeting its security concerns through realpolitik in the current geo-strategic environment. In this context, ancient Indian knowledge on statecraft and military strategy propounded millennia ago remains relevant even today. The General stressed about the need for indigenisation and atmanirbharta and said that this is equally relevant in our thought process, as it is for weapons and equipment. The requirement, therefore, is to develop Indian perspectives to meet our challenges, based on our ancient texts, moderated by current concepts. He further mentioned that the armed forces had taken up an exploratory project to examine the relevance of these texts to meet contemporary security challenges.[xiv]


China’s contributions to the global knowledge pool are widely acknowledged. Arab scholars have ensured that the important role played by Islamic countries in the transmission of ideas and inventions to Europe is common knowledge. However, in the latter case, many discoveries made in ancient India are often depicted as being of Arab origin, though the Arabs only re-transmitted to Europe what they had learnt in India. Even post-Independence, such distortion of facts continues to prevail, negatively impacting appreciation of ancient Indian knowledge. To a large extent, India’s intellectual elite continues to promote pre-colonial India as being feudalistic, superstitious, irrational and lacking scientific temper. This notion has led to an entrenched prejudice against our indigenous knowledge systems in contemporary society. A major reason for this prevalent notion is India’s flawed education system, which has subverted the projection of ancient Indian knowledge and scientific achievements in its curricula. Thus, even when facts are presented, few in the west or amongst the elitist Indians, are willing to believe them, as stereotypes about India are deeply entrenched.3

The study of warfare in ancient Indian texts examines the permanent qualities of human nature, in the dynamic technological dimensions of military conflict. The question thus arises about Kautilya’s relevance in the present. 7 He remains an exception in the ancient, as well as in the modern world, as being the sole strategist who was able to translate his tenets into practice, leading to the creation of a huge empire. The Arthaśāstra covers every topic required for running a country, most of them continuing to be relevant even today. Shiv Shankar Menon, former National Security Advisor, during a seminar by IDSA in 2013, had summed up the relevance of Arthaśāstra by stating, “The concepts and ways of thinking that the Arthaśāstra reveals is useful, because, in many ways, the world which we face today is similar to that in which Kautilya operated in when he built the Mauryan Empire to greatness.”[xv]

Author Brief Bio: Commissioned in the Corps of Engineers, Brig AP Singh, SM*, VSM was part of the Trishna crew which circumnavigated the globe. He was the National Coach for the Optimist Class (a boat for sub-junior category in the 8 to 16-year age group) for over two decades and accompanied the national team for numerous national and international events.


[i] Indian Knowledge Systems Vol 1

[ii] Principles of Dandaniti and Rajadharma in Leadership and Strategy by Sreejit Datta; AGNI (Vol XXIV, No III) Sept-Dec 2021 issue


[iv] Traditional Knowledge Systems of India




[viii] The Arthaśāstra – A Treatise on Statecraft and Military Strategy

[ix] Relevance of Arthashastra in the 21st century

[x] Philosophies of India by Heinrich Zimmer, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1952

[xi] Impact of Arthaśāstra on Modern Warfare

[xii] New marching tunes, no more pre-1947 battle honours – armed forces set to get more ‘Indian’

[xiii] Ancient Indian Warfare like Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra to be part of Indian Military Training

[xiv] Harness Ancient Indian Knowledge System to Deal with Present National Security Challenges: Army Chief

[xv] Relevance of Arthshastra in the 21st Century

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