The Hoax Called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – 2: Panchatantra and Kautilya

by Sarvesh K Tiwari

In the previous part, we had gleaned through hitopadesha to understand the message of the ancient AchArya of politics about ‘vasudhaiva kuTumbakam’, encapsulated in a pair of satirical fables. Far from coming as an ideal or a recommendation, the shloka there was made to come from a shrewd subversionist, the lesson being that one has to exercise discretion from unwittingly trusting such brotherhood-preachers, and that the price for befriending and sheltering the wrong kind under the influence of such unconditional brotherhood, is nothing less than self-destruction. In the present part we continue our excursion into other primary saMskR^ita sources, in particular pa~nchatantra and chANakyan literature, to understand the total meaning and context of vasudhaiva kuTumbakam.

vasudhaiva kuTumbakam in pa~nchatantra

While developing the textbook of hitopadesha, nArAyaNa paNDita had the benefit of referring to, besides other sources, the most widespread repository of fables ever composed on planet, the great pa~nchatantra. In the preface of hitopadesha, nArAyaNa paNDita acknowledges that he composed hitopadesh by “extracting” from pa~nchatantra and the other texts:

पञ्चतंत्रात्तथान्यस्मात ग्रन्थाद्कृष्य लिख्यते” (हितोपदेश १.९)

Many scholars have convincingly demonstrated that hitopadesha is a contextualized eastern recension of an earlier southern recension of pa~nchatantra.

Now, this amazing and fairly ancient work of AchArya viShNusharman, pa~nchatantra is probably the single most traveled, widespread and translated work of the ancient world, and dateable with fair certainty back to the late mauryan period, of around third century before CE. The place of its composition is a matter of debates, and varying opinions place it from Kashmir to Nepal to South India. Beyond any doubt however is that soon after its composition, it got transmitted amazingly to almost all the contemporary major civilizations. As a result, fairly ancient derivations of pa~nchatantra are found under various names in a number of languages, notably in Pehlavi and Persian, Syriac and Turkic, Greek and Latin, Hebrew and Arabic, Tibetan and Chinese. Several of the traditional fables of Europe such as those in Pilpay’s, Aesop’s, Grimm’s and of Persian-Arabic literature are indebted to pa~nchatantra for their origins.

hitopadesha not only inherited from pa~nchatantra the marvelous structure of looping tales, and plots of fables, but also various shloka-s in exact verbatim, and this includes the one of vasudhaiva kuTumbakam too. In aparIkshita-kArakam, the fifth tantra of pa~nchatantra, AchArya viShNusharman records it in a fable known as ‘siMha kAraka mUrkha brAhmaNa kathA’, and assigns VK to come from a declared fool. To understand the attitude of this nIti-text towards VK, a condensed version of that fable is presented below:

“Once upon a time there lived a group of four young brAhmaNa friends in some nondescript village. Three of these were fools, although very erudite and deep gone in learning of shAstra-s. On the other hand the fourth one was altogether lacking in shAstra-learning, but fairly intelligent.

The learned members of this group once contemplated upon the merits of moving to a city where they could put their scholarship to better use. After all, what good was all the learning if it did not yield them wealth and fame? The idea was approved unanimously and the group at once took off towards a large city at a fair journey’s distance.

While going forth on their way, the oldest of the scholar-fools expressed his opinion that it was futile for the un-erudite one to join the excursion. Although the intelligence of that fellow was not in doubt, it was useless in absence of any formal learning, he said. The second scholar-fool agreed too and suggested that the uneducated one should rather return back to their home-village.

However the third scholar-fool was more generous who reminded the party that although worthless, the fourth one was their childhood friend and therefore they ought to allow him in sharing their exploits. It is at this juncture in the story, that this third fool recites the shloka of vasudhaiva-kuTumbakam, and convinced the other two scholar-fools, to let the uneducated one remain in the party. And on they went.

Upon going a little further the travelers came upon a decaying carcass of some creature been long dead. Seeing that, the learned members immediately decided to put their learning to test by making the dead creature come alive.

The scholar-fool number-one used his knowledge in gathering and properly reassembling the skeleton according to its accurate anatomy. The number-two successfully applied his formulae in adding organs, flesh, and skin. Our VK-reciting third one then began his experiments of breathing prANa into it to finally resurrect it.

At this point the fourth fellow, the intelligent though uneducated one, interrupted them. ‘Friends, wait a minute,’ warned the intelligent one, ‘listen, this dead-body appears like that of a lion, and you people want to bring it to life. Surely, my learned friends, if you resurrect the lion, it would put our own lives into grave danger. Therefore, for the sake of our lives better let the beast remain as safely dead as it now is, and move on to our destination.’

But the VK-reciting stupid-scholar wouldn’t listen to these words of common-sense and the warning was shrugged aside.

At last seeing the scholars foolishly bent upon performing the suicidal act, the wise one at once climbed the tallest tree he could locate nearby. As anticipated, the VK-reciter successfully resurrected the lion, and no sooner did the lion come alive, it devoured all the three foolish brAhmaNa-s. Only the uneducated one, having wisely climbed the tree, escaped the sorry fate of their shAstra-knowing friends and returned home lamenting for the unnecessary and foolish ends of his mates, especially the kind-hearted but naive VK-reciting one.”

This is the story inside which vasudhaiva kuTumbakaM finds a place in pa~nchatantra.

Surely if nArAyaNa paNDita had made some rather acidic use of VK in satires of hitopadesha, viShNusharman did not display much regard for it either when he first declared this character a mUrkha, an idiot, and then had this idiotic character recite the shloka of vasudhaiva kuTumbakam. In the argument of this foolish brAhmaNa which he delivers to convince his other friends about letting the fourth friend continue in the party, quoting this shloka seems quite unnecessary or even grossly irrelevant. It does appear likely that the shloka was deliberately inserted in the dialog by viShNusharman to be made to come from a foolish character, the lesson being that un-erudite commonsense is far superior to impractical adherence to shAstrIya-learning.

Furthermore, the great viShNusharman leaves no room for any doubt about his attitude towards VK, when he lets its preacher, a declared fool already, perish by his own stupidity, meeting the same end as that of the VK-reciting Jackal of hitopadesha who was slain by subuddhi the Crow, the realist hero.

We now have ample reasons to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that both the textbooks on nIti-education – pa~nchatantra and hitopadesha – are very critical of the tendency of unconditional application of vasudhaiva kuTumbakaM in the realm of worldly matters. Their message about VK is loud and clear. One: the brotherhood-preaching that VK represents, is a popular instrument of subversion; two: gullible are often seen foolishly seized by it; and three: both are destroyed.

vasudhaiva kuTumbakam and kauTilya’s artha-shAstra

Both of these textbooks of nIti, pa~nchatantra and hitopadesha, transmit many popular shloka-s to their students, quoting from several original sources such as itihAsa-purANa-s and earlier nIti-literature. One of the authors whom both predominantly quote is viShNugupta aka chANakya or kauTilya. In fact, in the preface of pa~nchatantra, right in the first two lines, viShNusharman reverently acknowledges kauTilya as a foremost luminary of politics and humbly proposes himself to be in the same line of intellectual succession, besides acknowledging that pa~nchatantra is written by viShNusharman after studying entire artha-shAstra of chANakya:

मनवे वाचस्पतये शुक्राय पाराशराय ससुताय
चाणक्याय च विदुषे नमोस्तु नयशास्त्र-कर्तृभ्यः ||
सकलार्थशास्त्रसारं जगति समालोक्य विष्णुशर्मेदम
तन्त्रैः पञ्चभिर एतच्चकार सुमनोहरं शास्त्रं ||
पञ्चतन्त्र (१, २)

Having fulfilled his mission of establishing the mauryan Empire and stabilizing it as its Prime Minister, kauTilya is said to have retired to southern India where he dedicated long years in collecting and editing various extant sources on the matters of polity and economics, and compiling a unified compendium along with his own contributions as arthashAstra. As we know, in even farther ancient India, all the knowledge used to get appended into the common body of shAstra-s, and the growing size of that knowledge must have, after a point, become exceedingly hard to manage. Therefore at some point in history, we start noticing that Hindus started to divide the common shAstra-s into independent shAstra-s for each realm of life – viz. dharma-shAstra-s, artha-shAstra-s, kAma-shAstra-s etc. We even notice the emergence of shAstra for niche subjects such as nATya-shAstra for dramatics, and pAka-shAstra for cookery and so on.

kauTilya’s work should therefore be seen in this context as a window through which we can understand the political philosophy of ancient Hindus, not only of kauTilya but also of even earlier than him. Indeed, in preparing arthashAstra, he consulted all the important sources from at least five distinct schools of politics then prevailing (mAnava, bArhaspatya, aushanasa, pArAshara, and AmbhIya) and quotes in arthashAstra from the works of not less than thirteen individual authors of past whom he refers by name: bhAradvAja, vishAlAksha, pArAshara, pishuna, kauNapadanta, vAtavyAdhi, bAhudanti-putra, kAtyAyana, kaNi~Nka-bhAradvAja, dIrgha-chArAyaNa, ghoTaka-mukha, ki~njalka, and pishuna-putra. Here it is important to highlight that kauTilya has quoted the opinions of these earlier authors not only where he agreed with them, but also where he radically disagreed. Under various topics, he first quotes them, and then expresses his personal agreement or disagreement along with an explanation.

Even as the preceding paragraphs might have appeared like a digression from our subject of vasudhaiva kuTumbakam, but it was indispensable to establish first the background of kauTilya’s arthashAstra, and to show that although the various works of all of those individual authors are not extant anymore, kauTilya’s artha-shAstra alone, gives us a single source to understand the authentic political thought process of Hindus as propagated by several ancient AchAryas of nIti. Having said this, not only the verse of vasudhaiva kuTumbakam is missing in artha-shAstra, but in fact the sentiment is very incompatible with what they thought of state policy.

If unconditionally applied in the realm of statecraft as a pivotal hinge, VK manifests itself as it has done, in a state with pusillanimity and diffidence as its operating principles, and banal bhai-bhai rhetoric as its anthem. It summarily stands for a Soft State with minimalistic governance leaning towards an organized milder anarchy. And kauTilya has nothing but contempt for such a state.

Contrary to such romanticist-anarchic tendencies, kauTilya is a realist and his worldview of basic human nature and society is grounded in perceivable hard realities. He does not consider ‘brotherhood’ is the core of the state-principle but ‘Power to punish the wicked’. In the first book of artha-shAstra kauTilya states, ‘अप्रणीतो हि मत्स्यन्यायम उद्भावयन्ति बलीयान, अबलम हि ग्रसते दण्डधर अभावे’: that (far from being a family) human society in its very basic nature is like a group of fishes in water, where mightier ones devour the weak, unless a chastising rod is exercised. And therefore the danDa, the chastising rod and power and willingness to wield it, are at the core of the statecraft. Artha is the very purpose of the society he says, by dharma that is achieved, and only daNDa sustains it.

In this worldview he is joined by bhIShma, (whom kauTilya refers as kauNapadanta), expressing the same opinion to the eldest pANdava in the sixty-seventh chapter of shAnti-parvan. Manu too expresses a similar opinion, “यदि न प्रणयेत राजा दण्डम दण्ड्येश्वतन्द्रितः जले मत्स्यानिवाहिंस्यान दुर्बलान बलवत्तराः” (मनुस्मृति ७.२०): If the state would stop un-wearisomely exercising the chastising rod on those deserving to be chastised, the wicked would kill the meek like fish do in water.” So these AchArya-s are abundantly clear that if the upholders of the state absolve themselves of their primordial duty, under VK-belief or otherwise, of exercising the daNDa, then there will be no kuTumbakam but only a matsya-nyAya.

Unlike the world-a-family model, kauTilya’s arthashAstra also holds that wickedness and enemies are always going to be around and therefore a firm discretion is needed in the matters of statecraft. Identifying the enemies of the country and not hesitating to crush them relentlessly, is an essential part of the duties of statesmen to maintain a sustainable order. Just sample a few of kauTilya’s utterances: Like sandalwood does not abound every forest, like each elephant does not carry a mANikya, remember this that not everyone is a gentlemen (CND 2.9); By various means, one should protect one’s own people and hurt those of the enemy (AS 14.3); My Lord, follow the rule that there should be no delay in putting down the enemy, even a very strong confederacy of the wicked people. Never be tiresome or hesitate in applying full force against them (AS 5.4).

So, I believe we can move on by saying that at least in kauTilya’s opinion, the operating guideline of statesmen holding the duty-rod of the state is not to preach the romantic anarchy of ‘vasudhaiva kuTumbakam’, but a very realistic distinction between the friend and foe, and an unhesitating suppression of the inimical forces is needed for a sustainable peace in society.

vasudhaiva kuTumbakam in other works of kauTilya

Besides artha-shAstra, there are some other collections that carry the name of chANakya, and contain hundreds of aphorisms popularly attributed to him. Some popular compendiums that carry the name of chANakya include: laghu-chANakya, vR^iddha-chANakya, chANakya-nIti-darpaNaM, chANakya-nIti-shAstra, chANakya-nIti-shataka, chANakya-rAja-nIti-shAstra, chANakyaM, chANakya-shatakaM, chANakya-nIti-vyavahAra-sAra-saMgraha, chANakya-sUtrANi, and rAja-nIti. A few in this list are published, while the most are in manuscript form in various libraries around the world.

Of the above list, the first four – laghu-chANakya, vR^iddha-chANakya, chANakya-nIti-darpaNaM, chANakya-nIti-shAstra – are certainly very widespread, as their manuscripts have been found from a diversity of places as distant as Tamilnadu and Nepal, Gujarat and Bengal, Rajasthan and Karnataka. These four therefore are fairly ancient collections containing as it seems, ‘the other’ sayings from the pen of chANakya himself. For the rest, it appears more sensible that the later composers might have added the luminary’s name to enhance the credibility and popularity of their own products.

Coming back to vasudhaiva kuTumbakam, of all the secondary collections of chANakya’s sayings, vasudhaiva kuTumbakaM is found in only one single manuscript of vR^iddha chANakya, in the Tanjore recension, in addition to a certain version of chANakya-nIti-shAstra. In all other widespread manuscripts and sources on the rest of the compendiums of chANakya’s aphorisms, VK is simply non-existent just like in artha-shAstra, suggesting a later interpolation by some scribes in these two individual manuscripts, quoting from some other sources.

Ludwig Sternbach had done a signal work in collecting and analyzing all the different sources of chANakya’s sayings to compose a unified single compendium of his authentic original aphorisms. He employed a very sound statistical technique to scrub the interpolations. Using this methodology, vasudhaiva kuTumbakaM appears to be a later interpolation coming from some other non-chANakyan source. Sternbach has also demonstrated various other aphorisms popularly thought to be of chANakya to actually be coming from earlier texts like mahAbhArata, showing how those have crept into chANakya’s compendiums, suggesting interpolation.

Above all, when the authentic line of thought of chANakya, as represented by artha-shAstra, is brought into consideration, it becomes an impossibility that he would ever recommend VK as a guideline for statecraft or a policy cornerstone for society.

Credit for that innovation is safely with the wise politicians of modern India.

Concluding Part: The Hoax Called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – 3: poetics, vikrama-charita and upanishada

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7 Responses to “The Hoax Called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – 2: Panchatantra and Kautilya”

  1. Excellent article. Very well researched. This needs far greater distriibution.

  2. Awesome work. Agreed that this series of articles deserves far greater exposure. May I suggest publishing it on http://www.ivarta.com under “guest articles”? Other possibilities are Sulekha, etc. Dhanyawad!

  3. Good to read this thoroughly researched part 2.

    This should be disseminated among all hindus, & those who would want to force Indic culture into the Carte-Blanche “Non-Violent” / “Pacifist” ( read “won’t lift a finger to protect itself”) straitjacket.

    Ironically, the same hindus who fight fiercely & competitively to get ahead in the real world, don’t seem to want to translate their admirable personal/family success into a strong defence of their own embattled culture…such is the ‘sammohini jaadu’ (hypnotic magic) of the pseudo-secular world view..

    Kudos again, for this thought provoking series.

  4. a beautiful and very well written article. send it to TOI if you can. Its worth publishing

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