Indian Ethical Theories: Kautilya and Manu

13/02/2020 0 By indiafreenotes


Kautilyas Arthashastra is a unique treatise on the art of statecraft or governance, wherein every single aspect of human life is subject to the jurisdiction of the state. His detailed work clearly laid down an organizational set-up, and there was a clear-cut division of ethics and politics. However, he was of the opinion that politics devoid of ethics is dangerous to the prosperity and security of the entire kingdom.

In all matters of state, dharma should be the guiding factor. In many ways, Kautilya was compared to Machiavelli in certain matters of statecraft.

The following is a brief explanation of various issues that are part of the entire state machinery:

  1. The Saptanga Theory

According to Kautilya, a state has seven elements or constituents, namely, Swamin— the King, Amatya—the Minister, Janapada—the Land, and the People, Durga—the Fortress, Kosha—the Treasury, Danda—the Army and Mitra—the Allies. This entire set-up of the kingdom was described as Saptanga theory in ancient India.

The Swamin refers to the king, regarded as the indispensable, integral and inseparable part of the state in ancient India. King in all cases belonged to the noble and royal family who possessed qualities of both head and heart. Amatya or the minister refers to all the officials involved in the functioning of the government. It is their responsibility to ensure that the government runs smoothly. Janapada implies the land and the people and, according to Kautilya, must be fertile.

The term ‘Durga’ in the ancient India means fort, which is considered an extremely important element. Usually, forts were constructed on the borders of the territory. Kautilya, in fact, divided these forts into water, hill, desert and forest forts. The fifth element is Kosha or the treasury. Kautilya opined that a king must amass wealth to promote the welfare of the people and also maintain his army.

Danda referred to the armed forces to protect the state from aggres­sions and maintain law and order within the state. Kautilya suggested that it is the responsibility of the king to see that his army is content with its role in the state. Finally, Mitra refers to a friend or allies.

A king must have certain dependable friends who help him in all calamities. A king’s immediate neighbour becomes an enemy and an enemy’s enemy becomes a friend of the king. The Saptanga theory was, in fact, famous all through the ancient period.

The state was regarded as a physical organism and its elements as the parts of the body. It was stated that king was considered the head, ministers as the eyes, and treasury as the face, army as the mind, fort as the hands and country as a whole as the legs of the human body.

  1. King and Council of Ministers

Kautilya attached great importance to the council of ministers or the Mantriparishad. He was of the opinion that it is the king who has to decide on the number of departments his kingdom should have. Kautilya also made it clear that in all important decisions, the king must consult his ministers and then decide upon a particular policy. Kautilya further prescribed certain essential qualities to become a minister.

They are a minister must be native of the territory, born in high family, influential, highly trained in arts, must have foresight, wise, bold, eloquent, skilful, intelligent, pure in character, firm in loyalty towards the king, excellent conduct, strength, health and brave, and free from all the six vices.

According to Kautilya, after the king, it is Amatya who is of chief importance. The term refers to the official involved in state machinery and sometimes, the chief minister is in charge of the entire administration. Kautilya suggested that a king must appoint not more than four ministers to function as a consultative body to the king.

Apart from this, there has to be a cabinet or the council of ministers or the Mantriparishad to undertake activities like taking up a new task, continuing the task, improving the work, implementing the orders issued by the king and the like.

On important and urgent issues, the entire Mantriparishad and the mantrins have to be summoned for their suggestions. Kautilya also stated that the king must have a thorough check on the activities of all the ministers.

  1. Village Administration

According to Kautilya, the village administration is a hierarchical set-up with five layers, viz.. Grama, Sthamya, Dronamukha, Kharvatika and Samgrahana. A Gopa was made in charge of nearly 5-10 villages. Above Gopa there was a Stanika. Over four Stanikas, there was a Smaharta.

Both the Gopas and the Stanikas are responsible for the urban administration and they have to work under Nagarikas. Apart from the above officials, the village elders were given a special place. They were made in charge of the properties of the temples and temple lands. There was no element of elections in this position.

  1. Law and Justice

In the ancient Indian political process, it is the Dharma Shastra that served as the guide for justice. According to Kautilya, whenever there is a conflict between the sacred law and the law that is in practice, it is with the reason that a king must give a judgment. Kautilya, further, supported the rule of law. He was of the opinion that when a king abides by the rules, he would one day conquer the entire world. On the other hand, if he misuses the power, he would be bound to go to hell.

As regards the qualities of a judge, Kautilya viewed that he must be a person of high calibre, self-restraint, balanced and must be well-versed in all the basic principles of law. It is binding upon him to familiarize himself with the people and also have thor­ough knowledge about the customs of the people as it would enable him to give the correct judgement.

Further, the judge should not be corrupt, greedy and contemptuous. By being kind at heart and capable of giving judgments, he must give punishment as per the magnitude of the crime committed. Kautilya also emphasized on eyewitness.

A person who becomes an eyewitness for any crime committed must be a person of integrity and character, and be given due protection against injury or insult. Kautilya, however, could not allow the following section of people as eyewitness: wife’s brother, co-partners, prisoners, debtors, enemies, etc.

With reference to crimes and punishments, Kautilya suggested a wide range of punishments for every single crime committed. For instance, if the husband is of bad character, or likely to endanger the life of his wife, or has fallen from his caste or lost his vitality, his wife may abandon him. In his opinion, those who propose, or assess, and act as witnesses must be fined if they have entered into false agreements. Kautilya, further, provided two types of courts to deal with civil and criminal cases.

The civil court is called Dharmasthiya and Sodhana is the criminal court. It was widely believed by the entire ancient Indian society that Dharma and customs cannot be violated and the king’s commands are nothing but application of those sacred laws. To convey the royal decree, a group of secretaries and clerks were maintained and precautions were taken to prevent any error.


We may conclude with a sketch of the ethical overview of Manu which has had an incalculable measure of influence on literature and on the conduct of men through the ages.

The content of dharma (the moral code) is not fixed once for all, but must be learned in each generation from what is observed or allowed by learned men who are good and ever free from hatred and inordinate affection.

Ten virtues are particularly commended to the brāhmaṇa, i.e. contentment, forgiveness, self-control, abstention from appropriating others’ property, purity, restraint of the senses, wis­dom, knowledge, truthfulness and abstention from anger.

A foolish and greedy brāhmaṇa is condemned in no uncertain terms and gifts to him deprecated as likely to hurt even the giver.

Flesh-eating and drinking liquor are recognized as natural, but abstention from them is praised as very meritorious; evidently this marks a transitional stage in the practice particularly of the brāhmaṇas.

Anyone who would instruct others for their welfare must follow the rule of ahiṁsā (not causing pain) and use sweet and gentle speech towards them; the commentators take this to apply particularly to the relation between a teacher and his pupil.

Wealth, kinship, age, achievement and learning are entitled to social respect in an increasing order; wealth, it will be noticed, gets the lowest place and learning the highest.

Personal freedom is highly prized as the source of real happiness, and one is advised to undertake work that he can put through on his own and find satisfaction in doing so.

Elsewhere, service is condemned as a dog’s life. Incredible as it may seem, Manu advocates full employment for the Vaiṣya and Śūdra for the sake of social peace.

Elsewhere, he permits a starving man to take food from wherever he finds it, though not with a view to hoarding it, and roundly affirms that a man who takes wealth from the wicked and distributes it among the good and needy makes himself the means of redemption for both.

There is no virtue higher than truth; truth purifies the mind and speaking the truth is nobler than silence.

At the same time: “let one say what is true, let one say what is pleasing, let one utter nothing disagreeable, and let one utter no agreeable falsehood; that is the eternal law.”

To lie in a court of law in cases where it was a question of life or death was, however, considered excusable.

The rule of good conduct on all occasions was more binding on the higher classes than on the common folk and deviations from the right called for higher pains and penalties in their case, as their responsibility was in proportion to their status and knowledge.

Confession and repentance are held to be of value in restoring one’s peace of mind and keeping one from repetition of the same errors.