Chanakya (350-275 BCE) was a great Indian teacher, philosopher,
statesman, royal adviser, economist and jurist. Alternatively known as
Kautilya or Vishnugupta, he penned the ancient Indian political
treatise, the Arthashastra. He is said to be the pioneer of economics
and political science in India.
A Brahmin, originally hailing from Northern India, he was also a
professor of political science and economics at the University of
Takshashila, also known as Taxila. A past master of Vedas and ancient
Indian literature, he is believed to have had some knowledge of
Zoroastrianism as well.
Chanakya was as shrewd as he was wise. He helped the first Mauryan
Emperor, Chandragupta, to establish the Mauryan Empire and was an
immense asset to him during his rule. Chanakya also served as Chief
Advisor and Prime Minister to both Chandragupta and his son,
Bindusara. His immense works were lost towards the end of the Gupta
Empire and were rediscovered only in the early 20th Century.
Let us now learn about this Himalayan personality.
There is no official, exact record about Chanakya's life and times.
Precious little historically documented information can be found on
him – most of it comes from semi-legendary sources.
An in-depth exploration reveals various distinct accounts of the
Chanakya-Chandragupta katha. The only thing common in all these
versions is that Chanakya was once insulted by the Nanda King and
vowed to annihilate him. After dethroning the Nandas, he installed his
master, Chandragupta, as the King.
As Kautilya or Vishnugupta
Chanakya is often associated with the Arthashastra, which identifies
its author's name as Kautilya. Only one verse in it refers to him as
Vishnugupta. Some believe that Chanakya was given the name Kautilya as
that was the gotra (clan) that he came from. However, there is yet
another more interesting theory about the emergence of this name.
The word "Kutila" in Sanskrit means "crooked". He could have been
given this name, as he was a shrewd politician, who knew the ins and
outs of administration.
Vishnu Sharma's Panchatantra (3rd Century BCE) explicitly identifies
Chanakya as Vishnugupta. However, there is no historical record about
this – it is possible that these three names belonged to three
Life of Chanakya
Chanakya's birthplace is a subject of controversy. Some believe that
he was born in Takshashila, while others aver that he was born in
South India. He was the son of Chanak (or Canin) and Canesvari. He
hence got his name from his father.
He was educated at the ancient University of Takshashila and later,
went on to become a professor there. Though he was raised as an
orthodox Brahmin, he knew that he had the capability to rule a
kingdom. He was not handsome, but his tremendous knowledge more than
made up for his lack of looks.
Dhana Nanda and Chanakya
When Chanakya was old enough, he began searching for a true king. That
is when he met Dhana Nanda, the king of the Nanda dynasty. According
to the Mahabodhivamsa, Dhana Nanda was the last ruler of the Nanda
dynasty. He is referred to as Agrammes or Xandrames in Greek history.
The name Agrammes may have come the Sanskrit word, "Augrasainya",
which means, "son or descendant of Ugrasena".
Dhana Nanda inherited the throne from his father, Mahapadma Nanda. He
is believed to have been powerful and ruled over the Parsii (Prachya)
and the Gangaridai people. During his tenure, the Nanda Empire spanned
from Bihar to Bengal in the east and from Punjab to Sindh in the west.
His army was very large – it consisted of 200,000 infantry, 20,000
cavalry, 2,000 war chariots and 3,000 war elephants. He, however, was
quite unpopular, both with his own subjects and with the neighboring
states as well. That was probably because his government levied heavy
taxes and fleeced the people of their wealth.
The people of Kalinga especially despised the Nanda clan, as they
belonged to the Shudra varna (the lowest caste). In order to diffuse
the political tension, Prince Shaurya Nanda wedded Damyanti of
Kalinga. However, that only worsened the situation – the marriage
itself was short-lived. That further complicated the equation between
the two dynasties. During his reign, Dhana Nanda carried on the same
ill-feeling for the Kalinga dynasty.
Dhana Nanda had four ministers, namely, Bandu, Subandu, Kubera and
Sakatala. Sakatala spent the entire money in the treasury to purchase
peace from the Mleccha invaders. When the king knew of this, he got
furious and punished him by casting him into a subterranean dungeon,
along with his family. He also provided them with a mere handful of
grains and very little water, which was barely sufficient for one
human being to survive. Eventually, Sakatala lost his entire family,
one by one and he was the only survivor.
Seeing that the land was vulnerable, the foreign invaders again
declared war. Realizing what an asset Sakatala was, Nanda freed him
and requested his assistance. Wanting to avenge the death of his
family at the hands of the king, Sakatala refused to help and left. He
then joined hands with Chanakya.
Dhana Nanda Insults Chanakya
According to Buddhist legend, Chanakya was interested in a position
available at a daankendra or charity center. The king wanted only a
Brahmin to run the center. He was well aware that he was very
unpopular – there was even a rumor that he could be assassinated at
any time. Dhana Nanda opened up this daankendra in a bid to salvage
his flagging image.
Chanakya entered the palace to apply for the royal position. On
entering, he saw nine seats lined up on either side of the throne. Out
of these, eight were for the Nanda Princes. Chanakya promptly rested
on the empty seat, which was reserved for the person who would become
the manager of the daankendra. He then boldly declared that, his
unkempt appearance notwithstanding, he was indisputably the best man
for the job.
Disgusted by Chanakya's unsightly countenance, Dhana Nanda and a few
other princes assembled there, insulted him, calling him an ugly
monkey. The king also thought that he was not refined enough in
behavior and hence, refused to offer him the position. Humiliated and
angry, Chanakya vowed that he would not re-tie his topknot until he
had destroyed king Dhana Nanda and his entire clan.
Chanakya Fulfils His Vow
The exact circumstances of Dhana Nanda's destruction and ultimate
death are not clear. Some narratives suggest that he was killed by
Chandragupta Maurya himself, after the latter captured Pataliputra.
When he lost the battle, he was permitted to leave his capital, along
with his two wives. He also gave away his daughter in marriage to the
Other stories relate that Dhana Nanda went into exile after Chanakya
stealthily captured Pataliputra. He was never seen or heard of after
he fled from there. Some other sources seem to suggest that Chanakya
ordered that he be killed while on his exile, thus clearing the path
for Chandragupta to occupy Pataliputra's throne.
Yet another interesting version suggests that Dhana Nanda adopted
Buddhism just before going on exile. He completely renounced the
material world after his clan got wiped out during the war. When
Chanakya realized that he was no longer a threat, he left him alive
and let him leave from there forever.
Other Legends about Chanakya
As mentioned earlier, there are several versions of Chanakya's life
story. Here are the Buddhist and the Jain versions of the legend:
The earliest Buddhist source which makes a mention of Chanakya is
Vamsatthappakasini, a commentary on the Mahavamsa. This piece relates
that the Nanda kings were robbers, who became rulers of Pataliputra.
Chanakya was a Brahmin from Takkasila (Takshashila), who was an expert
in the Vedas, aspects of ruling and political administration. He had
canine teeth, which were then said to be a mark of royalty. His mother
was always concerned that he would abandon her after he became king
and so, he broke his teeth, in order to pacify her. He was otherwise
not at all good-looking. His broken teeth, crooked feet and awkward
stance made him the butt of others' jokes.
One day, he went to a ceremony which was conducted by King Dhana
Nanda. Disgusted with his ugly appearance, the king ordered him to be
thrown out from there. In rage, Chanakya broke his sacred thread and
cursed the king. He then escaped arrest and fled in the disguise of an
Ajivika. Later, he befriended the king's son Pabbata and instigated
him to seize power from his father.
Chanakya then fled to the Vinjha forest, where he made 800 million
gold coins using a siddhi (power), which enabled him to turn 1 coin
into 8. He hid the money in a safe spot and went in search of someone
worthy enough to replace Dhana Nanda.
He happened to see the 13 year-old Chandragupta playing along with his
friends. He was acting as a king, while the others pretended to be the
ministers, vassals or bandits. Seeing the young boy's powerful
presence, he immediately knew that he had found his man. Chanakya then
approached Chandragupta's foster father and, paying him 1000 gold
coins, took the boy away from his home and under his wing.
For the next 7 years, Chanakya trained the boy and prepared him for
his royal duties. When he came of age, Chanakya dug up his hidden
treasure and bought an entire army with it. This army invaded Dhana
Nanda's kingdom, but eventually faced defeat. Chanakya and
Chandragupta then analyzed the reason for their defeat, assembled a
new army and started conquering the bordering villages first, slowly
moving inward. Finally, they killed Dhana Nanda and lay seize on
In the meantime, the king's wife died a few days before childbirth. In
order to save his child, he opened his wife's belly with his sword,
took the child out and nursed the infant till he was strong enough to
manage on his own. He named the child Bindusara.
Dhammapada's commentary on Theragatha, however, gives a different
version of the legend. It mentions a Brahmin named Subandhu. In this
tale, Subandhu was as sharp and wise as Chanakya. This made the latter
anxious that he may one day surpass him at Chandragupta's court. So
Chanakya planned a clever plot and got the king to imprison Subandhu.
The latter's son, Tekicchakani, later escaped and became a Buddhist
monk. Later, Chanakya met Bindusara and decided to make Bindusara the
master of the entire territory between the eastern and western seas.
It is believed that the Jain version of the legend is far older and
more consistent than the Buddhist version. According to this account,
Chanakya was born to Jains Chanin and Chanesvari. This version implies
that he was a Dramila, or a native of South India.
He was born with a full set of teeth, which implied that he would one
day become king. Not wanting his son to become arrogant, Chanin broke
Chanakya's teeth. Several monks then prophesied that he would be the
power behind the throne. Many mocked the boy's poverty. This motivated
him to visit king Dhana Nanda, who was known for his charity towards
Brahmins. Once inside the palace, he seated himself on the throne and
refused to leave it. He eventually got humiliated and was kicked out
of there. An enraged Chanakya vowed to uproot the Nanda clan and
Later, Chanakya met the young Chandragupta and, impressed by his
personality and show of power, decided to train him to be a ruler.
Assembling wealth by means of his powers of alchemy, Chanakya took the
boy and went to Pataliputra. He and his army got severely defeated by
Nanda's army. After that, he formed an alliance with Parvataka, the
king of Himavatkuta. Together, they lay siege on the towns surrounding
Pataliputra. Once that was done, Chanakya's army issued a surprise
offensive on Pataliputra. This time, they won and captured the town.
They permitted Nanda to go into exile after getting his daughter
married to Chandragupta. In the meantime, Parvataka fell in love with
one of Nanda's vishakanyas (poison girl). Chanakya also approved of
the marriage, knowing well that he would die if he so much as touched
her. Sure enough, Parvataka died during the marriage and Chandragupta
became the undisputed ruler.
In due course of time, the king had a child, who he named Bindusara.
After the boy came of age, Chandragupta decided to give up the throne
and become a Jain monk. He also anointed Bindusara as the new ruler.
Chanakya asked Bindusara to appoint Subandhu as his minister. However,
the latter started working against him, instigating Bindusara against
him. Chanakya, who was quite old by then, retired from his post.
Realizing that this was his golden opportunity, Subandhu slyly plotted
to kill Chanakya and burned him to death.
According to another Jain text, Chanakya accompanied Chandragupta into
the forest, after anointing Bindusara as king. Then, both men led a
peaceful life of retirement. He is believed to have breathed his last
in 283 BC.
Chanakya and Alexander the Great
Chanakya and Alexander the Great were both brilliant contemporaries,
who never met each other. While the former is credited with the rise
of the Mauryan Empire, the latter represents the very first attempt of
the West to conquer the Indian subcontinent. Incidentally, it was only
two years after Alexander's demise that Chandragupta established his
Empire, with Chanakya by his side. Despite belonging to the same time
period and living in proximity to each other, these two greats never
ever came face-to-face during their lifetimes.
There is much controversy regarding Alexander's invasion of India. He
came to India around 327 BC. At that time, the trade between India and
Greece flourished, especially that of spices, silk and gold. Alexander
tried to cross the Jhelum River to start his invasion, but was stopped
by King Purushottam (often referred to as King Porus). The latter
stopped his entry into the country. The two armies fought for long
during the ensuing epic Battle of Hydaspes. Eventually defeating
Porus, Alexander made an alliance with him, also appointing him as
satrap of his own kingdom. After this, Alexander proceeded to conquer
all regions along the Indus River.
East of Porus' kingdom, along the Ganga, was the kingdom of Magadha,
which was then ruled by the Nanda Dynasty. The army here was
formidable - 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8,000 chariots, and
6,000 war elephants strong. This discouraged Alexander's men, who
refrained from progressing further into India.
The Greeks Refrain from Invading Magadha
The Macedonians' battle with Porus had left them with only 20,000
infantry and 2,000 horses. Hence, they refused to invade Magadha. His
army mutinied at the Hyphasis (present-day Beas). After meeting with
his officer Coenus, Alexander decided to return from there. Coenus was
one of the ablest and most dependable generals of Alexander during his
Eastern expedition. He commanded a portion of Alexander's army and was
responsible for a number of the army's victories. He urged his King to
give up battle and go back home.
Respecting his General's opinion and knowing that he would never say
something like this without enough reason to do so, Alexander decided
to turn south. In spite of a decline in health, he continued to fight
and conquered all the regions down the Indus River to the Arabian Sea.
Chanakya's Role in the Rise of Chandragupta
Realizing by then that king Nanda had to be defeated in order to bring
Chandragupta into power, Chanakya approached king Parvataka (often
identified with Porus) and made an alliance with him. Chanakya met the
Greek generals as well, to discuss the possibility of an alliance with
them as well. Knowing how strong and able they were, he knew that
getting them on his side would be immensely beneficial to
Chandragupta. He knew that this joint army could easily defeat Dhana
Nanda. Sure enough, this alliance gave Chandragupta a formidably
powerful army, made up of the Greeks, the Scythians, Nepalese,
Persians and several other sects.
This joint army laid siege on Pataliputra from all directions. Seeing
the sheer size of the army, the Nanda rulers had no other option but
to surrender their beautiful kingdom. Chanakya then founded the
Mauryan Empire and placed Chandragupta at its helm.
Chanakya Unifies Political India
Chanakya further trained his new army to overthrow many corrupt rulers
and lay siege on their kingdoms. He taught his soldiers the art of
guerrilla warfare, asymmetric warfare and so on. He formed a network
of spies to politically unify India for the first ever time, under the
rule of Chandragupta.
In due course of time, the Greeks developed strong diplomatic ties
with India. This prevented them from invading other Indian
territories, while also giving rise to a parallel, rich Indo-Greek
Chanakya Influences Seleucus I Nicator
Seleucus I Nicator, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty, was also one
of Alexander's former, most trusted, generals. Chandragupta had once
seen Seleucus' daughter, Helena, near the Jhelum River. He instantly
fell in love with her and asked Chanakya how he could make her his
own. The latter considered the matter for a while and said that it
would be possible only if her waged a war against Seleucus and won it.
Fresh from the victory over the Nanda dynasty, Chandragupta
confidently attacked Seleucus I Nicator and won it.
Again, on Chanakya's advice, Chandragupta called for a meeting with
Seleucus. There, he expressed his desire to marry Helena, also
mentioning that he would be willing to form an alliance with him,
giving him back certain regions he had lost in the war. Seleucus also
received 500 war elephants, which he later used in the Battle of
This alliance led to strong diplomatic relations between the two
rulers. Seleucus sent an ambassador named Megasthenes to visit
Chandragupta's court from time to time, to write about India in
general and Chandragupta's reign in particular.
Was Chanakya Responsible for Alexander's Death?
Alexander the Great was, as his name suggested, practically
invincible. Chandragupta Maurya had only been able to stop his
progress to a certain extent. Alexander could have defeated his huge
army base, if he had really wanted to do so. However, a deadly disease
gripped him – this forced him to return back home to Macedonia,
leaving Seleucus behind to take care of all affairs.
According to popular belief, he breathed his last on the journey to
his homeland. He passed away while travelling through Babylon in 323
BC. Some experts, though, believe that Chanakya, along with the clever
use of political strategies, also employed the use of black magic to
destroy Alexander. When he saw that he could not defeat the mighty
warrior by honest means, he chose to take the crooked route to break
the latter's resolve and completely annihilate him.
Once the news of Alexander's death reached Chanakya, the latter
immediately got into action, planning how to defeat and eliminate
Seleucus without bloodshed. His entire plan of getting Helena married
to Chandragupta, as mentioned above, served this end.
Arthashastra and Chanakya Neeti
Chanakya is identified as the author of two important books, namely,
the Chanakya Neeti (alternatively referred to as
Chanakya-Niti-Shastra) and the Arthashastra.
Arthashastra speaks in detail about several aspects of administration,
such as monetary and fiscal policies, war strategies, welfare,
international relations and so on. This treatise also relates the
duties of a ruler. Some experts aver that the Arthashastra is actually
a compilation of several earlier texts penned by various authors, and
that Chanakya may have been one of those authors.
Chanakya's political ideas and maxims, as specified in the
Arthashastra are completely practical, unsentimental, controversial
and, sometimes, even downright ruthless. This book takes a rather
impersonal stance on conducting assassinations, killing family
members, managing spies and secret agents, chalking out treaties and
then violating them and so on and so forth. Due to this, he is often
compared to Machiavelli. That said; his attitude is not so merciless
throughout the treatise. He also talks about the moral duties of a
king and how he should always place the happiness of his subjects
above his own.
Chanakya Neeti, which consists of 17 chapters, is a collection of
aphorisms and maxims, which are believed to be selected and gathered
by Chanakya from the various shastras. This book is filled with
interesting quotes, most of which are relevant even in the present
Several Indian nationalists consider Chanakya as one of the greatest
ever thinkers. His Arthashastra is still regarded as one of the best
resources to learn about developing and implementing strategic
national and administrative policies. Several Indian institutes,
involved in training, leadership and politics are named after
In Indian Art, Literature and Culture
Chanakya enjoys pride of place in many modern adaptations and
semi-fictional works. His legend is kept alive even in the present
time, via books, plays, television serials and films.
An English book, titled "Chanakya on Management" features 216 sutras
on raja-neeti, each of which has been translated and commented upon.
Ratan Lal Basu and Rajkumar Sen have jointly authored a book, which
contains the economics concepts mentioned in the Arthashastra, also
explaining their relevance in today's world. A few years ago, several
experts discussed Kautilya's philosophy and thought in an
International Conference held at Mysore. These and other books and
treatises establish the significance of Chanakya's works even in the
10 Interesting Facts about Chanakya
The name Chanakya immediately brings to our mind the image of a
serious, scholastic Brahmin, who was as shrewd as he was sharp-witted.
However, not many know how truly multifaceted and gifted he was,
beneath that somber facade. Here are a few interesting facts about the
1. Chanakya was a patriot in the truest sense of the term. He could
foresee the threat of foreign invasion much before anyone else could
even imagine it.
2. He was braver than most. He openly challenged the corrupt Dhana
Nanda, in his own court; in front of his own men. He proclaimed that
he would destroy the king and anyone else who dared to come in the
path of achieving his dream of a united India.
3. Chanakya was the master of disguise. When the king imprisoned him
for his impudence, he cleverly used his influence, disguised himself
as a woman and fled the city.
4. It is said that a true leader is one who creates more leaders.
Chanakya proved that by example – he raised Chandragupta, trained him
in warfare, administration, economics and politics; ultimately making
him the ruler of Pataliputra. Chandragupta was only 20 years old when
he ascended the throne.
5. Chanakya's great vision was to create a unified India; free of
foreign rule. He employed every tactic in the book to keep the Greeks
at bay. He was not one for war and so, many a time, he chose the
neutral path to achieve his goals. Getting Helena wedded to
Chandragupta was one such masterstroke, which he used to preempt
6. He used to consume a wee bit of poison every day, so that his body
would get used to it. He did the same with Chandragupta as well – he
used to add little doses of poison to his daily meals. Interestingly,
this technique is believed to be successfully carried out by
zookeepers in Australia, to this very day.
7. Chanakya is also believed to have raised Vishakanyas using the
above-mentioned means. He would feed the women small, non-lethal doses
of poison, till they themselves became that poison. Anyone that had
sexual contact with them would immediately meet their end.
8. He is known to have mastered the art of alchemy – he could convert
copper into gold. This is how he amassed the kind of wealth that he
did, during his lifetime. Further, it is said that Chanakya could also
become invisible at will.
9. Some believe that Chanakya often practiced black magic. Though
there is no actual evidence to substantiate this claim, it seemed
rather strange the way Alexander suddenly went downhill health-wise –
he breathed his last before anyone could do anything about it.
10. No matter how negatively one tries to portray Chanakya, the fact
remains that he was utterly devoted to his king, was incorruptible and
worked tirelessly towards strengthening and unifying India. During his
lifetime, he achieved what most others could not even dream of doing.