Book Review: Kautilya and Non Western IR Theory by Deepshikha Shahi

Cover art
Hardcover: 167 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Pivot; 1st ed. 2019 edition (11 October 2018)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 3030017273
ISBN-13: 978-3030017279
Product Dimensions: 14.8 x 1.1 x 21 cm

by Punsara Amarasinghe 29 January 2020

The international relations and political theory academia in modern world is mainly constructed by the narratives of Western civilization. Starting from Greeks to bio politics of Foucault the theories we reverently study is confined to the discourse coming from a different civilizational root which curtails our gaze to appreciate the founding principles in statecraft and diplomacy practiced in our part of the civilization. It is in this context Prof.Deepshika Shashi’s work of “Kautilya and the Non Western IR theory” is a such a welcoming contribution to understand the founding principles in statecraft and diplomacy practiced in the oriental part of the civilization. This visible gap induced by the selective academic amnesia gets rather poignant that while the History of the Peloponnesian war and its chronicler Thucydides is considered as the first in the league of the IR literature with a realist branding, Kautilya’s Arthasastra somewhere is bracketed along with the medieval genius Machiavelli though they are apart from each other by a millennium and a half.   The book authored by Prof.Deepshikha Shashi titled “Kautilya and Non-Western IR theory is an undaunted task that unfolds with great élan a deep legacy of political legal philosophy existed in Mauryan India more than two thousand years ago.

The prelude of the book is rather a fascinating appeal that increases the knack of the reader to explore why it becomes that much relevant to re-read Kautliya as a political realist. In fact, there has been an interest among Western scholars to read Kautliya’s Arthashastra and sometimes he has been regarded as India’s own Machiavelli. But ironically those who have persuaded to call Kautilya as Indian Machiavelli are ignorant by the fact Kautilya wrote his Arthashastra as the chief minister Mauryan emperor thousands of years prior to Italian renaissance appeared. This academic hypocrisy of Western scholars has been aptly discussed by Deepshikha in the prelude of her compelling work as she emphasizes upon the importance of seeing Kautilya as a theorist whose work philosophy was consisted of all the European political theoretical dimensions, even before they began to loom. She says “  Against this backdrop, the initiatives to include the non-Western knowledge-forms of Political Realism/realpolitik in Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra tended to instigate a sort of ‘chronological battle’—since Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra predates Hobbes ‘state of nature’, Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’, Morgenthau’s ‘unchanging human nature (animus dominandi), and Kenneth Waltz’s ‘anarchy’, the IR scholars engaged with this chronological battle voiced their discontent with the labeling of Kautilya as ‘Indian Machiavelli’, and not labeling of Machiavelli as ‘Italian or Mediterranean Kautilya. (p.3).

Between the prelude and postlude, the book has devoted for three main chapters and in the first chapter author provides an insightful account on the how Kauuilya’s arthashastra has been merely illustrated as a mere guidebook on political realism that justifies the unjust methods of statecraft. In answering this accusation on Kautilya as an evil genius, author has vividly unveiled how Kautilya adhered to religious and philosophical as cardinal tools in constructing his realism rooted in a philosophical bend. In particular, author has underpinned how Indian philosophical approaches like Yoga, Samkhya and Lokayata become essential in understating Kautliyan narrative. The civilizational bend taken by Mauryan emperor Asoka after he embraced Buddhism was one of the most decisive moments in Indian history and his dedication to Buddhism has been viewed from different perspectives and Deepashika discusses it in chapter three of the book has the peculiar way how realpolitik of Kautilyan envisaged the Buddhist moralpolitik during Asokan period which resulted a fusion between two discourses. Author has aptly described the incompatibility of realpolitik and moralpolitik as parallel forces in Eurocentric IR as by definition realpolitik which covers IR theories such as Realism and Neo Realism legitimizes the exercise of power even if it adheres to violence and injustice. More interestingly Deepashika brings Augustine’s notion of self Vs others and good vs. evil as a supporting argument rooted in European conception of realpolitik which legitimizes contemporary just wars whereas moralpolitik which covers modern IR theories like post modernism and feminism harshly condemns the usage of force in unjust manner. This palpable incompatibility of Eurocentric notions of realpolitik and moralpolitik has been critiqued by Deepshika as an anomaly in European IR scholarship. Author then provides a clear picture of how realpolitik of Kautilya and moralpolitik under the guise of Buddha grew in harmony in ancient Indian political space.

In comparing Kautilyan realism in Arthashastra with the political philosophy of Buddha, author acknowledges the salient differences between Kautilyan realpolitik and moralpolitik in Buddhist political thought. Yet, she has brought Asoka’s Mauryan empire as an ideal example to illustrate how both Kautilyan realpolitik and Buddhist pacifism were used successfully. The transformation of Asoka after victory of Kalinga has been taken up in traditional Buddhist literature as a moment driven by deep remorse in search of higher goal called “dhamma”. However, author has critically evaluated the Asoka adoption of morally based pacifism and his renunciation of war as a not entirely a denial of conquest itself, because after embracing Buddhist pacifism, Asoka still used the word conquest and only the mode of conquest was changed from war to conquest by dhamma.  Deepshikha states “It is this new found principle of dhamma or morality as a means of conquest the most efficiently captures the eclectic style of Asoka’s exercise of power in international politics-indeed, it hints the possibility of a fusion of realpolitik and moralpolitik.”

In the last chapter of her compelling work, author has established her contention of applying Kautilyan Arthasastra as an alternative to the Eurocentric dominance of international relations. In doing so, Deepshikha makes some similarities between Alexander Wendt’s social constructivism and Kautilyan model. But, author has been quite adamant in her position of placing Kautilya as a unique IR theoretician than Eurocentric IR theorists, because Kautilya’s Arthasastra appeals to “eclecticism” with a greater emphasis on the explanation of international politics.  In her concluding remarks, author has been more optimistic as she expects Kautilyan Arthasastra as an unconventional mode to enhance Indian IR and Global IR. In fact, the attempt of Prof. Deepshikha by analyzing Kautilya’s Arthasastra does a great service by arranging the thought shelf of the international scholarship on IR with great academic objectivity and distinction.