HARKING BACK: Lessons for this age from a time we have forgotten

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Jan 29, 2017

Any politician worth his, or her, salt must have surely read Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’. This 80-page book is considered among the finest treatise on “how to rule a State”, or more importantly, on the essential qualities of ‘a ruler’ ... or the prince as he was then.

This piece makes imminent sense in the current situation. But our emphasis is not to compare our current set of rulers to what Machiavelli said, but to try to remind our readers that a past master, belonging to our land, our city, our culture, had produced a masterpiece far greater in depth and detail than what Machiavelli had produced. Almost 2,300 years ago was written a masterpiece on ‘how to rule a State and how a ruler should behave’. The name of this genius was Chanakya. Buddhist sources claim his ‘gotra’ (clan) was Kautilya and hence his full name was Chanakya Kautilya (350-275BC). This genius produced a book titled ‘Arthashastra’, or the ‘science of politics and economics’ which he wrote for his ruler Chandragupta Maurya (321-297BC).

This Sanskrit masterpiece, which has since then been translated in many languages, provides an amazing insight into ancient Punjab, and more specifically ancient Lahore and its suburbs. That we do not own this is understandable. Our blindness to even our pre-Islamic history sees us lost in a communal cul-de-sac, devoid of an amazing past and unsure of our future direction.

But the ‘Arthashastra’, unlike Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, which was Z.A. Bhutto’s favourite book, has very detailed descriptions of all the subjects he touches. He says that he became interested in this subject because in those days the Nanda dynasty comprised “robbers who had become rulers”. Sounds so contemporary.


Before I dwell on the life and work of Chanakya, let me present just two among hundreds of very interesting quotations from his masterpiece. Firstly: “When a ruler is corrupt, the people become corrupt. Ultimately, the enemies of the State prevail”. The second quote is: “A wicked ruler has only wicked friends”. The saying of Chanakya are not foreign to our land because he belonged to it. That is why studying him today is relevant if we are to understand the corrupted politics, and economics, of our land and, especially, of our city.

Buddhist sources claim he was born in Taxila, while Jain sources claim he was from Patialaputra. There is ample evidence that he spent considerable time as a hermit in “the forests along the River Purushni”. This is the Vedic name of the River Ravi. The book by Roger Boesche on the ‘Arthashastra’ describes him as belonging to a small village next to the river Purushni to which Prince Loh belonged. This, it seems, is modern Lahore. We know he went to the university at Taxila to learn the Vedas and also eastwards while fleeing persecution.

While Machiavelli certainly is more instructive about how a ‘Prince’ (the ruler) should behave, especially when he writes that a “trader should never be allowed to become a Prince, because all he knows is to sell the State”, it was the ‘Arthashastra’ that suggests that “an arrogant ruler” invites poverty and economic distress among the people and only the wicked join his company, for they end up being his real enemy. ‘The greater the ruler the more humble he should be’. Another one says: “The more wicked a ruler the poorer the people”.

This huge masterpiece of our land is full of such quotes, but they are systematically divided into topics, and hence is a collection of several books. Much later masterpieces that emerged from our land was the legal guide titled ‘Manusmriti’, or the linguistic masterpiece ‘Ashtadhyayi’, which even today is the guide to all scholars and students of linguistics 2,500 years after it was written by Rishi Panini in our land. Or then there is the mathematical works of the genius brother Pingala, whose book ‘Chandahsastra’ introduced the concept of binary mathematics which ultimately led to breakthroughs in mathematics and even the development of set-theory and computer languages that we take for granted today.

All these great scholars who lived and worked in the land between Lahore, where specialist schools existed, and Taxila, where a university, probably the world’s oldest, catered for scholars from all over the world. This golden period of our city and land, almost 2,100 to 2,700 years ago, has been forgotten by the very people who live in it today. This is the period we need to understand better.

Sadly, on the floors of the Punjab Public Library, as on the wet corners of a horse stable in Lahore’s Punjab Civil Secretariat, lie some of the world’s finest manuscripts. It is a situation that merely hits denial and inaction. Also in glorious denial of these treasures our rulers live today, with mannequin bureaucrats claiming untruths brazenly. Even assistance offered by foreign universities are spurned. Arrogance rules supreme.

Just why do we not reach out to reclaim our true heritage? Why do our schools and colleges not teach the finest of our past history and literature? These are questions that will invariably be posed by our younger generation wishing to represent the finest of their land when they compete with foreigners. Who in Lahore knows who Rishi Panini was, or who his brother Pingala was, or even who Chanakya was? These are just a few names among hundreds of scholars whose works were studied in the universities in Greek and Roman times, as they were in Cordova and now are studied in Western universities. But in Lahore, or even in Taxila, mention of them raises eyebrows.

This is why in these trying times of corrupt politicians and other bureaucrats and business persons, there is a need to study what Machiavelli, and much before him Chanakya of our land. It might interest our reader to know that the latest linguistic findings on the origins of Sanskrit, which is the base on which all Indo-European languages are constructed, has been suggested as being ancient Punjabi as spoken in the early Harappa period.

Once the Indus script is deciphered we will be able to know the glory that was ancient Punjabi. But then we live in an age when we have forsaken our own mother-tongue, let alone the amazing treasures of scholarship past, as we continue to let the world’s finest manuscripts rot and decay in the ignorance of our rulers. If ever it is now that we respect, and follow, what Chanakya said 2,500 years ago.

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