Kautilya’s Mantra Yuddha: Role of the Military in determining Comprehensive National Power of States


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: Comprehensive National Power (role of military), Kautilya’s Arthashastra, China Grand Strategy

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In his treatise, Arthashastra (4th Century B.C.E.), on war, politics, economics, diplomacy and statecraft, Kautilya, underscored the importance of dynamism in the growth of a state. To him passivity was outlandish[i] and the objective of a State was power not just to control outward behavior but also the thoughts of one’s subjects and one’s adversaries.[ii] He outlined eight precepts that governed the general power of a State[iii]:

Every nation acts to maximize power and self-interest.

  • Moral principles have little or no force in the actions amongst nations.
  • Alliances are a function of mutuality.
  • War and peace are considered solely from the perspective of what advantages they provide to the instigator.
  • The ‘Mandala’ premise of foreign policy provides the basis of strategic planning of alliances and a general theory of international relations.
  • Diplomacy of any nature is a subtle act of war in contrast to the Clausewitzian view of war being a continuation of polity.
  • Three types of warfare are upheld, the first is open hostilities, the second is war through concealment and lastly a war that is waged through silence and subterfuge.
  • Seeking justice is the last desperate resort of the weak. This sentiment would appear to be a common theme amongst the ancients for in Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, when the Melians talk of justice and fair play confronted with the prospect of conquest by Athens, the latter contend that such tactics were the last desperate move of a nation facing defeat[iv].

The story of Horatius Cocles’ last stand on the northern bridge across the river Tiber in defense of Rome against its enemies, encapsulates the spirit of the Roman citizen. It won for them their commonwealth and empire that spanned from West Asia to the British Isles. In a short period of 53 years (219 – 167BC) this entire area was brought under the dominion of the single city of Rome. The story goes that Horatius standing at the head of the bridge, fearing that a large body of Rome’s enemies would force their way into the city, turned around and shouted to those behind him to hasten back to the other side and break down the bridge. They obeyed him and whilst the bridge came down he remained at his post obstructing the progress of the foe. The assault was reigned in. Cocles himself followed the bridge into the river. It was this enthusiasm for noble deeds and a lofty spirit engendered by Roman traditions in addition to their customs, institutional faith in the design of their political systems and their moral incorruptibility that made for Empire.[v]

One hears a similar message in the voice of Kautilya when he summarizes the wellspring of a King’s power. He states in the Arthashastra “A King’s power is in the end tied to the popular energy of the people; for not being entrenched in the spirit of his subjects, a king will soon find himself easily uprooted”.[vi] In this context the spirit of the people refers to their adherence to dharma, faith in the king and his leadership, their wealth generating capabilities and their belief in the general superiority that their way of life represented.

In as much as the decline in power of both the Mauryan and Roman empires are concerned, the words of Gibbon are equally applicable, “The decline was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accidents removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight”[vii]. There is also another school of thought that believes that it was the new religion that weakened the will to look for rewards in another world and not in this, that contributed disproportionately to the decline of empire; Buddhism in the instance of the Mauryan realm and Christianity in the case of Rome.

The Roman Moment [viii]

The diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the British Empire’s throne was celebrated on 22nd June 1897. The jubilee stretched over five days on land and sea. A military procession of over 50,000 soldiers included troops from India, Nepal, Canada, its African possessions, Australia, New Zealand and Naples. At sea, 165 ships manned by 40,000 sailors and 3,000 heavy guns saluting Her Majesty gave teeth and ‘hard power’ to the fact that the realm was always, not just protected, but also had the capacity to vanquish any foreseeable opposition.  Eleven viceroys and premiers of Britain’s self governing colonies stood in prominent attendance alongside kings, princes, maharajahs, ambassadors and emissaries from the rest of the world. The event was celebrated in every corner of the Empire from Hong Kong to Singapore to Hyderabad, Bangalore, Zanzibar to the Table Bay and in Ottawa. In Fareed Zakaria’s words and as one historian covering the events wrote this was a ‘Roman Moment’. In sheer military strength, organizational and administrative excellence, in the virtues of its political systems, the self ordained legitimacy of their imperial systems and the superiority of their cultural and structural strengths there was no peer to this Empire.

In the present day environment it is difficult to even contemplate the extent, grandeur and the dominance of Queen Victoria’s bequest. From the time she wore the mantle of the Empress of India (1876) the Empire had been linked by a web of 170,000 nautical miles of trans oceanic cables and 662,000 miles of terrestrial cables creating a vast network of information highways that enveloped the globe, even a fledgling radio network; invention of which made its appearance in 1896 was included in this complex. Railways and canals were enlarged, deepened and pushed through volumes of commerce inconceivable hither to. The appeal of the Empire, its literature, its norms and sense of fair play, its emphasis on the outdoors and sporting activities, dressing habits, schooling and health programs provided the necessary soft power for dominance of British ideas and the universality of the English way of life; all of which long outlived the impact of their hard power.



At the heart of the matter lay power. Its quest, accretion and relevance have been the only
constant through all of history. It has provided a rationale for stability and, in its own right, been a regulatory agent. We have noted that given the international system that we are a part of and the realism that pervades it; of all the determinants of power, military muscle is explicit in its application and at the same time implicit as an expression of a country’s will to power. An attempt has been made to place this abstraction within the larger framework of the nation’s standing, or in Fukuyama’s words the ‘Stateness’ of the country. While the task of the international system has been to tame the exercise of power, it is a paradox that the same power provides the facility to regulate and control its exercise. Nuclear power takes the debate to its logical extreme of absolute destruction and in arriving at this macabre conclusion it provides the basis of drawing boundaries and limiting conflicts.
We have in the course of our debate examined the views of several scholars on the
subject and noted in some details the Chinese approach to the formulation of CNP and the manner in which they have transformed their centralized approach, which to some schools appear as a weakness, into strength. Decision making that is command and control and integration of our resources including civil military relations, technology adaptation and our propensity to operate in stove pipes are areas of weakness that we must remedy. Failing which our ability to rise beyond the tactical will remain an enduring impediment. The sage voice of Kautilya reminds us that the military power of a state is not just the mere counting of armed physicals, but also of ‘mantra yuddha’ the power of good policies, sound judgement, precision command, analysis and good counsel.

[i] Kautalya: The Arthashastra. LN Rangarajan (Ed., Rearranger and Translator). Penguin Classics, India, 1992.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Thucydides.History of the Peloponnesian War Penguin Books Ltd.1954 Pgs 400-8 ‘The Melian Dialogue’

[v] Polibius on Roman imperialism  Regnery Gateway Inc.1980, pp. 216-7

[vi] Kautilya: The Arthashastra. LN Rangarajan (Eds., Rearranger and Translator). Penguin Classics, India, 1992.

[vii] Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ed. JB Bury. Methuen & Co. London, 1896.

[viii] Zakaria, Fareed.The Post-American World, WW Norton and company, New York 2008, pp. 167-8

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