Political Philosophy

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Prof. Ashok S Chousalkar

The tradition of political thinking starts with the Vedas and Upanishads. Different theories of the nature of the state were formed and different forms of states have been experimented with over time. The historical development of political ideas find that the concept of Swaraj, self government, constantly inspired the mind. From the Vedas and Upanishads, through the writings of Jnaneshwara and Shivaji, to the political ideas of Tilak, Aurobindo, and Gandhi, Swaraj has been constantly discussed.

Arthaśāstra and Rājanīti

The science of politics and govern­ance was known variously as rājaśāstra, rājadharma, rājanīti, dandanīti, nītiśāstra, and arthaśāstra. Of these, dandanīti and arthaśāstra were the two most ancient terms. Arthaśāstra was a compendium of instructions to rulers about the governance of the state. It claimed to deal with the science of acquisi­tion and preservation of territory in order to ensure the life and security of common subjects. The state was necessary for civilized life, and without it there would be anarchy and lawlessness. So to replace the rule of ‘might’ with the rule of ‘right’, the establish­ment of state was felt to be a necessity.

Political science was a part of philosophy. It was thought of as applied philosophy, because politics was thought to be an empirical science or drstārtha smrti, as its basic rules were derived from practical experience. The three mundane goals of life are (the purusārthas)—dharma, artha, and kama—and artha deals with politics. Kautilya’s Arthashastra is one of the best ancient works on the science of politics. Kautilya argued that the ideal of artha or material gain should be pursued along with dharma and kama, and that excessive emphasis on any one ideal was harmful. He also dwelt on the four vidyās (sciences)—trayī (the three Vedas, metaphysics), ānvīksikī (logical philosophy), vārtā (economics), and dandanīti (politics)—and suggested that the study of each of these was equally important. According to Kautilya, philosophy was an important science as it illuminated all other sciences. He asked the king to study the philosophies of Sankhya, Yoga, and Lokayata.

Dharma and Anuśāsana

In the Mahabharata, after the great war was over, Yudhishthira was overtaken by grief when he learned that Karna was his elder brother. He decided to abandon the kingdom he had just conquered and return to the forest. Draupadi, Arjuna, Bhima, Vyasa, and Krishna tried to dissuade him by arguing that as a kshatriya, it was his duty to govern his kingdom. But they could not convince him. It was Bhishma who was finally able to convince Yudhishthira that it was imperative for him to perform his royal duties, for this conferred great benefit to people. Emphasizing the primary importance of kingly duties, Bhishma said that as the footprints of the elephant subsumed all other animal footprints, similarly, the duties of the king, rājadharma, subsumed all other duties. It was only when the king performed his du­ties properly that dharma prospered.

The Mahabharata states that dharma is based on truth and righteousness, and that the world is held together by dharma. Yudhishthira said that one should follow dharma not because it was beneficial but because everyone was duty bound to do so. Bhishma told him that the duties of the state as well as the duties of the citizen were the result of a ‘social contract’ be­tween human beings. It was his contention that sa-maya or mutual contract between human beings was the basis of state. Those people who, when powerful, thought dharma to be the invention of the weak, remembered dharma when they were in difficulty. Hence, observance of dharma was necessary for the orderly course of life. It is argued in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that dharma is the ‘controller [even] of the kshatriyas and with the help of dharma a weak person could rule over the powerful’.

In ancient times, good governance was called anuśāsana; its purpose was not to discipline people but to effect continuous improvement in the moral behavior of the individual. A Jataka story drives home this point.

The king of an ancient Indian kingdom was given to the continual performance of sacrifices. He sacrificed a larger number of animals. Due to the excessive workload, slaves and workers in his service were dissatisfied. His kingdom was infested with bandits and robbers who created problems of law and order. One of the ministers of the king, who was a bodhisattva and who represented the political ideas of Gautama Buddha, told the king that he was unable to eradicate banditry despite the use of force because nobody was happy in his kingdom. He advised the king to stop bloody sacrifices and dispense with the heavy expenditure that this incurred. The king should not kill bandits but should give them cattle, seeds, and finances to till the land with profit. He should have them properly rehabilitated. The Jataka tells us that the king accepted his advice, and as a result, the kingdom prospered, robbery ended, and everyone, including slaves and workers, were happy.

Thus, the policies adopted by the king were responsible for bringing about improvement in the lives of people and for setting them on the path of righteousness. This is the essence of anuśāsana.

The ancients were of the view that an important aspect of anuśāsana was the willingness of the people to accept the rule of their king and not take law in their own hands. This is called Shankha­ Likhita Nyaya or the ‘logic of Shankha and Likhita’.

The Mahabharata tells us that Shankha and Likhita were two brothers who lived in their respective hermitages performing penance. One day when Shankha had gone to the river for bathing, Likhita visited his hermitage. He saw many fruit bearing trees and plucked a few ripe fruits without taking his brother’s permission. When Shankha came to know about it, he admonished Likhita. Likhita apologized and requested that he be suitably punished. Shankha said that he did not have the right to punish anyone; only the king had this right. Likhita went to King Sudyumna, confessed his guilt, and requested punishment. Initially the king was not ready to punish Likhita, but on his insistence, ordered his hands cut off. After suffering the punishment, Likhita went to take a bath in a river, and his hands were miraculously restored. It was Shankha who had affected this miracle through his yogic powers. Thus, the Mahabharata is of the view that punishing the guilty is the king’s duty, that one should not take the law in one’s hands; and second, that by suffering punishment for one’s transgression the moral sin is also expiated. If this expiation is undergone with acceptance of the wrong, it cures one of guilt.

So, Shankha ­Likhita Nyaya is the heart of anuśāsana.


In ancient times, there were many self-governing republics called Gana­sanghas. The Gana­sangha polity existed for nearly a thousand years in ancient times. Great religious teachers like Krishna, Mahavira, and Gautama Buddha were born in these republics and were great supporters of democratic forms of governance. A general spirit of freedom was prevalent at that time. The Kathas, Vrishnis, Vaishalas [Vrijis], and Shakyas proclaimed philosophies of freedom from death, devas, cruelty, and caste[1]! In the Kathopanishad, Yama told Nachiketa the philosophy of the immortality of the soul; Sri Krishna opposed worship of different gods out of selfish interests and advocated the path of disinterested action; Mahavira stood for compassion and universal peace; and Buddha preached equality, self-control, and right action. These great men opened the path of freedom for humankind. Gautama held that as long as republics followed the path of democracy, they could not be conquered by dictators. Hence, he advised them to take all decisions collectively.

The purpose of the state was to ensure yogaksema for all people. Yoga means the acquisition of one’s own sources of livelihood by legitimate means, and ksema stands for peaceful enjoyment of the same. It was the duty of the state to create such conditions that would allow citizens to earn their livelihood honestly and enjoy the fruits of their hard labor in peace.

Functions of the State

According to Kautilya, for the state to be able to carry out its functions, it should have well developed governmental machinery, because ‘a chariot cannot run on a single wheel’. According to him, the state comprised seven organs or constituent elements:

  • the king,
  • ministers,
  • country,
  • capital city,
  • treasury,
  • army, and
  • allies.

All these seven elements were necessary to perform the different specialized duties incumbent upon them. Kautilya contended that it was the king’s duty to eliminate the defects of the constituent elements and keep them in a state of readiness. These elements were interdependent. In normal circumstances, the king was the most important component, but the importance of different constituents varied with the circumstances. For example, in times of war, the army became most important, and in times of enemy attack, the fortified capital city assumed primary importance. Allies were not exactly a part of the government, but as friendly powers always ready to help the king, they were of considerable significance.

As ensuring people’s welfare was the state’s goal, and this required finances, the king had a legitimate right to realize a share of the agricultural produce. This was the revenue he received for extending protection to the subjects. Heavy taxation was denounced, and revenue was to be realized just as a ‘bee gleans nectar from flowers’. The king was also supposed to correct his subjects’ defects in such manner that they suffered no harm. Bhishma compared this to a washerman washing clothes and removing dirt without affecting the texture and color of the fabric. The Mahabharata has another analogy: As the sun draws water from oceans, rivers, and tanks and returns the same as rain, similarly, the king should realize taxes from those who can afford to pay them, and use the revenue for the benefit of all.

There is a progressive decline in human morality through each of the four ages that are the units of cosmic cyclic time. Humans progressively declined in virtue from the age of truth, Satya Yuga, to the Iron Age, Kali. In Satya Yuga there was no need of a state. The Mahabharata suggests that at that time there were no kings and no kingdoms; there was no danda or punishment and none to punish, as all people followed the principles of dharma and protected each other. But in the Treta and Dvapara Yugas, there was a gradual decline in dharma, and it became necessary to form states and apply mild forms of punishment. It was only in Kali that capital punishment had to be invoked to keep evil persons in check. All the same, the ideal society was a stateless society where there was no need for danda. But in this imperfect world, to prevent the ‘logic of fishes’ from prevailing, the king was to use danda judiciously. He was to be neither too lenient nor unduly harsh. Just application of danda was desirable.

Though ancient political thinkers exhorted citizens to respect the authority of the king, this was not an absolute injunction. If the king was unjust, became a slave to passion, lacked self-control, levied heavy taxes, or oppressed the populace, then he had no right to continue as king. The Mahabharata exhorts subjects to come together and kill tyrant kings, much as a mad dog is to be killed. Kautilya gives several examples of kings who perished due to the aforementioned vices.

The state in ancient times allowed great freedom to local bodies. Sri Aurobindo has rightly characterized ancient Indian politics as a very complex system of self-determination and self­government. The essence of rājanīti was to endow people with strength and confidence. Therefore, abhaya or fearlessness was seen as the essence of functional dharma. In times of adversity, people were free to resort to means that at other times would not be considered dharmic, to preserve themselves. The Mahabharata emphasizes the need to be free of fear, especially the fear of kings, thieves, and clever people.

In the Mahabharata, there is discussion on the nature of dharma in times of emergency. It was Bhishma’s contention that in order to save one­self as well as one’s kingdom, the king could resort to amoral methods in times of great trouble. This departure from morality was allowed as an exception. At such times, the king was to exercise his reason and personal judgment, and once his purpose was achieved, he was to continue following the prescribed path of dharma. This concept of āpaddharma shows that Indian political philosophers recognized the complex nature of political actions.

Political thought has evolved over a period spanning several thousand years. But this tradition of political thinking started declining after the twelfth century CE, as most Hindu kingdoms were overrun by Islamic conquerors. Political ideas continued to be codified in the ajadharma sections of the Smritis and in the learned commentaries of scholars, but they were never applied or further developed.

There were signs of revival of this political thought when Shivaji established his svārājya, and his minister Ramachandra wrote a short treatise on politics. But there was no political philosophy in this text, and he did not explain the meaning of svārājya.

RamaMohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda

In modern times, Raja Rammohan Roy who has been called the ‘father of modern India’—injected fresh life into political thinking in the nineteenth century by attempting to bring together the democratic ideas of the modern West and the philosophy of Vedanta as preached in the Upanishads. The Raja had notions of establishing a modern democratic state in India and fought against many superstitious and evil practices that were prevalent in the nineteenth century. His was a very broad vision in sympathy with the known major religions of the world. He is regarded as one of the pioneers who ushered in the age of enlightenment in modern India.

Political philosophy was given a new meaning and content in the thought of Sri Rama­krishna and Swami Vivekananda, who stood firmly rooted in tradition in declaring that service of humans was service to God, that one should see janārdana, God, in janatā, the people. Swami Vivekananda supported the cause of democracy and socialism and declared that it was the working class that would be the ruling class in the future.

The main concerns of political philosophers in the were articulated afresh and also enriched by three great freedom fighters and philosophers of modern India: Sri Aurobindo, Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. Each of them was well-grounded in Vedanta and the concept of karma yoga as preached in the Bhagavad-Gita. Each of them wrote thought provoking commentaries on the Gita. They interpreted the teachings of the Gita in light of the demand for establishing a modern nation-state in India.

Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo opposed the fundamental principles of Western political thought, which were based on cleavage and conflict. He held that the primary aim of a state was to unite different sections of society into a living whole, pulsating with new ideas. He put forward the concept of Mother India who represented all individual souls living in India. He wanted Indians to develop their own philoso­phy of life as well as their own model of political development. He did not want them to be docile pupils of the Occident. It was the bounden duty of all citizens to oppose an unjust government, because injustice only breeds further injustice. In his important work The Spirit and Form of Indian Polity, published in 1947, he discussed in detail the essence of ancient Indian polity. It was his contention that the Indian model of state building was far superior to the Western one because it was a bottom up structure, a complex union of self-governing communal bodies which enjoyed complete autonomy. Secondly, Indians did not impose change from above, as they tried to effect change from within. It is due to this that there was little opposition to change. A proper balance between continuity and change was established, and the Indian body politic retained its capacity to effect self renewal. Other civilizations, except perhaps the Chinese, lacked this capacity.

Lokmanya Tilak

Lokmanya Tilak popularized four concepts: Swaraj, Swadeshi, national education, and boycott. Swaraj for him was self­government. He claimed that with Swaraj everybody would be free and have a right to participate in the government of the country. He demanded national self-determination for all colonized countries and argued that India’s freedom would usher in the freedom of other subject countries. He declared that Swaraj was his birthright and he would secure it.

Tilak’s greatest contribution was perhaps his erudite commentary on the Gita, the Gita Rahasya. In this commentary he argued that the Gita ought to be interpreted in light of the teachings of the Mahabharata. Tough the followers of Shankaracharya laid greater emphasis on the path of renunciation, the Gita, in fact, taught the path of selfless action, and sought to combine the path of knowledge and the path of disinterested action. Only the person who had truly acquired self-knowledge could perform selfless action. Hence, while pursuing the path of knowledge, one ought to perform one’s assigned duties and not shirk responsibility. Duties are not merely in one’s own interest but in the larger interest of society. Duties are meant for loka sangraha. Loka sangraha is a complex concept consisting of three components: (i) organizing people who have strayed from the path of dharma or are dispersed; (ii) bringing them over to the proper path of dharma; and (iii) helping them walk the path of righteousness by having them imbibe the principles of dharma. Tilak was of the view that great personalities like Sri Krishna, Sri Ramachandra, Janaka, and Yudhishthira followed this path which leads to liberation. To Janaka, the performance of his royal duties was of utmost importance. Tilak accorded greater importance to wiping the tears from the eyes of the poor and the weak than to personal salvation. Janaka was his ideal.

Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave

Mahatma Gandhi wanted to empower the Indian nation by empowering its people. In his famous book Hind Swaraj he questioned Western civilization, which he felt was irreligious. He criticized British democracy; in his opinion it was thoroughly commercial; its elected leaders looked after their own self-interest. He called the British parliament a chattering shop. He wanted that Swaraj for India in which everyone would enjoy the glow of freedom. He did not want India to copy the Western model of state and democracy. He did not want ‘white men’ to be replaced by ‘dark men’ while the British instruments of repression remained intact. He cited the example of Italy: after independence, Mazzini was not happy because the independent Italy for which he had fought was not a democratic state; it had been captured by domestic vested interests!

Gandhi wanted the state to be freed of its coercive elements and sought to instill fearlessness in the minds of people. In his concept of Swaraj, there was decentralization of power and India was to be a confederation of thousands of self-reliant and self-governing villages: innumerable circles of village republics. But these village republics were not to be hierarchically organized; instead they would be ‘oceanically’ organized. In the ocean, all waves maintain similar levels and none dominates over others; similarly, to prevent oppression, no system should be hierarchically organized. In the Gandhian concept of Swaraj, Ram­rajya or the kingdom of God ought to be established first in our own souls, only then can it be established in our villages. Swadeshi—use of home produced materials in industry and the boycott of foreign goods—was a means to attain Swaraj.

Acharya Vinoba Bhave further developed the Gandhian insight in politics. In his essay ‘Swarajya­shastra’ or ‘Science of Politics’, he argued that for the establishment of true Swaraj, the elimination of power politics was necessary. He wanted to replace rājanīti with lokanīti. Lokanīti involved a gradual shift of power into the hands of the people, elimination of coercion, and aiming for unanimity in decision-making within communities and assemblies. Following the Gandhian concept of Swaraj, he said that in his ideal state there would be no ruler and no punishment. The people would evolve their own rules to govern their relationships.

Vinoba also wrote a commentary on the Gita and argued that sāmya-yoga—cultivation of the spirit of equanimity—was the essence of the Gita’s teaching. Contesting Tilak’s stand, he said that the Gita did not teach the path of selfless action alone. In India, we have had two paths—the path of Shuka and the path of Janaka. Shuka’s path stood for renunciation and Janaka’s for the performance of action in the spirit of detachment. It was Vinoba’s contention that there was no need to force the issue between the two, as both the paths were equally useful for society. The former was indirectly beneficial cent to society and the latter directly. Each path had the emancipation of the individual from fear, want, and anxiety as its goal.

In this brief survey of political philosophy—both ancient and modern—political thinkers realized the importance of freedom of the human will. They did not undertake to restrict human creativity by developing grand theories of historical development. They desired amrtatva, the principle of immortality and freedom of human will; and the capacity to create one’s own world was its essence. The state was an instrument to realize this goal, and in the ideal society, this instrument would be rendered functionless. Anuśāsana could only be practiced keeping in view the principle of loka sangraha. And equanimity remained the end to be aimed for. If violence, war, and hatred could not be abolished, one could work towards this end by promoting universal friendship and brotherhood.


  1. Dr. Jayaswal
  • Originally published as "Political Philosophy: The Indian Perspective" by Prabhuddha Bharata November 2007 edition. Reprinted with permission.