Contemporary Kautilya

To Uphold the World: The Message of Ashoka & Kautilya for the 21st Century
by Bruce Rich. Penguin. Pages 326. Rs 495

To Uphold the World: The Message of Ashoka & Kautilya for the 21st CenturyTHIS book tries to find alternatives to uphold the strife-torn world. Bruce Rich finds his answers in the thoughts and practices of Kautilya and Ashoka, " ...unquestionably two of the most extraordinary and, at least in the West, unappreciated figures in world history." In fact, these two figures are neglected even in the country of their birth. Except for a passing reference in different courses in the universities in India, their thoughts are not studied in depth. We recognise the contribution of Emperor Ashoka and have given him due regard by making the Ashok Chakra part of the National Flag, while Kautilya remains unsung. Rich is, however, convinced that it is the views of these luminaries that can offer solution to various problems faced by India and the world at large.

Rich examines the dynamic ideas of Kautilya that have been received with mixed feelings by academicians and the intelligentsia. Kautilya instructs the ruler to consolidate his position by machinations. His thoughts are given in the Arthasastra, a set of 14 books that list the duties of various government heads, besides instructions on maintaining law and order, consumer protection, labour laws, etc. Surprisingly, his views regarding wealth and politics "include sustainable management of natural resources, protection of other species of life, plants and animals, and social welfare measures".

The beauty of Rich’s work is how he connects the views of Kautilya with the problems we face today. For example, the author cites Kautilya’s recommendation of flattering the rich strata of the society if the State’s coffers are empty. Rich gives the example of former American President Bill Clinton who invited "rich Hollywood moguls to sleep in the White House Lincoln Bedroom for a night in exchange for financial contributions to the Democratic Party". He says, "It was a new variant on a very old theme". Examples like these keep the reader shuttling between the past and the present, between the equally interesting ideas of Kautilya and the similarities of real politics of today.

Ashoka, the great ruler who won wars yet found himself defeated after the bloody conquest of Kalinga, possessed an empire, but realised that sovereignty over the mind is more important to be achieved. Similarly, living on this crowded planet, we need to conquer ourselves first and then the earth that we have ruthlessly exploited. Ashoka let his thoughts known by engraving them on rock—edicts installed all over his kingdom. After the bloodshed in Kalinga, his emphasis was living life according to Dhamma, meaning doing good deeds and having few faults. He professed that "there should be uniformity in judicial procedure and punishment" as part of Dhamma. This principle did not exist in the West until the end of the 18th century and can be counted equivalent of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

In this global household, where increased market integration has led to an explosion of social and political evils, deterioration and degradation of millions of men, women and children, we will have to discipline our lives according to those who could foresee the future. Kautilya and Ashoka were two far-sighted people because the solutions they offered are waiting to be reinforced—control over our wants and unlimited appetite and a world order based on justice and fairness. Establishment of a strong welfare state, protection of environment, a system of an effective administration, where each and every individual is included, and the spiritual enlightenment need to go side by side to achieve true globalisation.

Rich quotes Rabindranath Tagore: "Ashoka’s thought had been standing on the wayside for all these ages longing to find a refuge in the mind of every man." Perhaps Rich’s book would pave a way for it. If the author had used the same language that he has used to describe Kautilya and Ashoka’s views, the book would have certainly found a larger readership. On the whole, this is an informative book.