Nov 22, 2007

The Birth And Death of Chanakya!

Kautilya or Chanakya or Vishnugupta, as per popular legend, was the teacher of the first Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta. He was responsible for destroying the Nanda dynasty, which was ruling Magadha, and installing Chandragupta on the throne. He is also known as the author of Arthashastra, an elaborate treatise on economics and government. He was responsible for uniting the Indian states for fighting against the attack by Alexander of Macedonia around 327 BC.

Chanakya is a fascinating historical character because here was a manwho achieved so much in the time period 300 BC. What was happening inthe world during that period? Darius I had expanded his empire fromNorth India in the east to Macedonia in the west. The NativeAmericans in Central America were in the formative period of theMayan Civilization. Aristotle, the student of Plato and teacher of Alexander of Macedonia, had established the Lyceum, a school in Athens. It would be at least two hundred years for the Roman Empire to be established and three hundred years for Christ to be born[1] .

By the time of Chanakya in India, Buddha and Mahavira had discovered their paths of enlightenment two hundred years back. Takshasilâ had established itself as a place of learning and it was there that Panini had written the Sanskrit Grammar. The new states in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh by uttarapatha along the base of the Himalayas maintained contact with Takshasilâ and at the eastern end of the uttarapatha was the kingdom of Magadha with its capital city, Pataliputra. Chanakya's life was connected to these two cities, Pataliputra and Takshasilâ[2] .

Where did this man come from? What was his lineage? Was he born in Takshasilâ or Pataliputra? Or was he from Kerala? How did he die? Didthe kingmaker die of natural causes or was he murdered? Literature is abundant with theories of his origins, while there is almost no information on his life after he crowned Chandragupta as the king of Magadha. But recently I found a piece of information on his life after that event, and how he died.

Before we get to his death, let us find out where he came from. First of all, was there a person called Chanakya? Did he live during the same time as Chandragupta Maurya? There is a reason to doubt that Chanakya lived during the same time as Chandragupta Maurya because Megasthenes, who was the Greek Ambassador in the court of Chandragupta, never mentioned Chanakya in his book Indika[3] . Butthen, Indika of Megasthenes is not available in its entirety but onlyas fragments in the writings of later Greek historians. So theabsence of reference to Chanakya in Indika does not prove or disprovethe existence of Chanakya.

Another theory is that Chanakya was a Kerala Brahmin who someho wreached the court of the Nanda king at Pataliputra[4]. But then, Kerala did not have any Brahmin population during the time of Chanakya. The first people to arrive in Kerala were the Ezhavas who came from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar sometime around 230-200 BC. These first immigrants were Buddhists and were Emperor Ashoka's subjects. The Nambudiri Brahmins arrived in Kerala only around 500-600 AD[5].

The next theory is that Chanakya was a North Indian Brahmin, born and educated in Takshasilâ. He was physically ugly, had a disgusting complexion and his limbs were deformed2. Chanakya came all the way from Takshasilâ to Pâtaliputra in pursuit of learning. Pâtaliputra was a famous center of learning and it is considered a compliment that a teacher from one of the greatest centers of learning in Takshasilâ would come to this city in eastern India[6].

According to another historian, Chandragupta was spotted by Chanakya when he was a boy of eight or nine years. Chanakya is described as a resident of Takshasilâ, and he returned to his native city with theboy, whom he educated for a period of seven to eight years[7] .

As per Jain tradition, Chanakya was born in the village Canaka in theGolla district as the son of a Brahmin named Canin and his wifeCaneúvarî. Canin was a well-known Jain layman and learned Jain monks frequented his house. Caneúvarî had a child who had teeth which was already developed, and when the monks were informed of the birth of this child, they told Canin that he would be a king. Hearing this news, Canin destroyed the teeth of the child.

While there are many theories about the origins of Chanakya, there is less information about him after Chandragupta was crowned the king of Magadha. Even the popular serial Chanakya by Chandraprakash Dwivedi, which was shown on Doordarshan, ends at this point. The only information I could find about Chanakya's life after this period is in the book `The Lives of the Jain Elders' by the Jain monk Hemacandra.

While Chanakya served as the Prime Minister of Chandragupta Maurya, according to Hemacandra, he started adding small amounts of poison in Chandragupta's food so that he would get used to it. The aim of this was to prevent the Emperor from being poisoned by enemies[8].

One day the queen, Durdha, shared the food with the Emperor while she was pregnant. Since she was not used to eating poisoned food, shedied. Chanakya decided that the baby should not die; hence he cutopen the belly of the queen and took out the baby. A drop (bindu) o fpoison had passed to the baby's head, and hence Chanakya named him Bindusara.

When Bindusara became a youth, Chandragupta gave up the throne and followed the Jain saint Bhadrabahu to Karnataka and settled in a place known as Sravana Belagola. He lived as an ascetic for some years and died of starvation according to Jain tradition[9].

Chanakya meanwhile stayed as the Prime Minister of Bindusara.Bindusara also had a minister named Subandhu who did not like Chanakya. One day he told Bindusara that Chanakya was responsible forthe murder of his mother. Bindusara asked the nurses who confirmed this story and he became very angry with Chanakya.

Chanakya, on hearing that the Emperor was angry with him, thought that anyway he was at the end of his life. He donated all his wealth to the poor, widows and orphans and sat on a dung heap, prepared to die by total abstinence from food and drink. Bindusara meanwhile heard the full story of his birth from the nurses and rushed to beg forgiveness of Chanakya. But Chanakya would not relent. Bindusara went back and vent his fury on Subandhu, who asked for time to begfor forgiveness from Chanakya.

Subandhu, who still hated Chanakya, wanted to make sure that Chanakya did not return to the city. So he arranged for a ceremony of respect, but unnoticed by anyone, slipped a smoldering charcoal ember inside the dung heap. Aided by the wind, the dung heap was on fire and the man behind the Mauryan Empire and the author of Arthashastra was burned to death.

R.C.C. Fynes writes in the introduction to the translation of `TheLives of the Jain Elders' that the stories told by Hemacandra are legend and not history. Historical reality may or may not be the basis of these legends. So we do not know if the story of the death of Chanakya is history or legend. But this is the only one I could find.

This is an amateur attempt to understand Indian history. This article is in no way a complete survey of all literature available of the era. I wrote this article based on the books in my possession to express my understanding of that period in Indian history.

[1] Microsoft Encarta, 2003 Edition
[2] Keay, John, India: a history, Harper Collins, 2000, Pg 60-62
[3]Rangarajan L.N., The Arthashatra, Penguin Books, 1992, Pg 19
.[4]Ibid, Pg 16
[5]Balakrishnan V., History of the Syrian Christians of Kerala,Kerala Publications, 1999, Pg 50
[6]Mookerji, Radha Kumud, Chandragupta Maurya and his Times, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, Fourth Edition, Pg, 18
[7]Ibid, Pg 16
[8]Hemacandra, The Lives of the Jain Elders, Oxford University Press,Canto 8
[9]Radha Kumud Mookerji, Chandragupta Maurya and his Times, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, Fourth Edition, Pg 40

1 comment:

Vedant Kidambi said...

Wonderful blog yaaron, I am going to post a link to it from my blog. The only point I disagree with you on is the subject dealt with in the Arthashastra. I have read a pretty good English translation of it and I must say that it dealt with the topics of Finance, Commerce, Governance, Military Strategy and Governance.

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