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Who is Chanakya?

Chanakya (IASTCāṇakyapronunciation (help·info)) was an ancient Indian teacher, philosopher, economistjurist and royal advisor. He is traditionally identified as Kauṭilya or Vishnugupta, who authored the ancient Indian political treatise, the Arthashastra, a text dated to roughly between the 4th century BCE and the 3rd century CE. As such, he is considered the pioneer of the field of political science and economics in India, and his work is thought of as an important precursor to classical economics. His works were lost near the end of the Gupta Empire in the 6th century CE and not rediscovered until the early 20th century.

Chanakya assisted the first Mauryan emperor Chandragupta in his rise to power. He is widely credited for having played an important role in the establishment of the Maurya Empire. Chanakya served as the chief advisor to both emperors Chandragupta and his son Bindusara.

There is little documented historical information about Chanakya: most of what is known about him comes from semi-legendary accounts. Thomas Trautmann identifies four distinct accounts of the ancient Chanakya-Chandragupta katha (legend):

Version of the legendExample texts
Buddhist versionMahavamsa and its commentary Vamsatthappakasini (Pali language)
Jain versionParishishtaparvan by Hemachandra
Kashmiri versionKathasaritsagara by Somadeva, Brihat-Katha-Manjari by Ksemendra
Vishakhadatta‘s versionMudrarakshasa, a Sanskrit play by Vishakhadatta

In all the four versions, Chanakya feels insulted by the Nanda king, and vows to destroy him. After dethroning the Nanda, he installs Chandragupta as the new king.

Buddhist version

The legend of Chanakya and Chandragupta is detailed in the Pali-language Buddhist chronicles of Sri Lanka. It is not mentioned in Dipavamsa, the oldest of these chronicles. The earliest Buddhist source to mention the legend is Mahavamsa, which is generally dated between 5th and 6th centuries CE. Vamsatthappakasini (also known as Mahvamsa Tika), a commentary on Mahavamsa, provides some more details about the legend. Its author is unknown, and it is dated variously from 6th century CE to 13th century CE. Some other texts provide additional details about the legend; for example, the Maha-Bodhi-Vamsa and the Atthakatha give the names of the nine Nanda kings said to have preceded Chandragupta.

Jain version

The Chandragupta-Chanakya legend is mentioned in several commentaries of the Shvetambara canon. The most well-known version of the Jain legend is contained in the Sthaviravali-Charita or Parishishta-Parvan, written by the 12th-century writer Hemachandra. Hemachandra’s account is based on the Prakrit kathanaka literature (legends and anecdotes) composed between the late 1st century CE and mid-8th century CE. These legends are contained in the commentaries (churnis and tikas) on canonical texts such as Uttaradhyayana and Avashyaka Niryukti. Thomas Trautmann believes that the Jain version is older and more consistent than the Buddhist version of the legend.

Kashmiri version

Brihatkatha-Manjari by Kshemendra and Kathasaritsagara by Somadeva are two 11th-century Kashmiri Sanskrit collections of legends. Both are based on a now-lost Prakrit-language Brihatkatha-Sarit-Sagara. It was based on the now-lost Paishachi-language Brihatkatha by Gunadhya. The Chanakya-Chandragupta legend in these collections features another character, named Shakatala (IAST: Śakaṭāla).

Mudrarakshasa version

Mudrarakshasa (“The signet ring of Rakshasa”) is a Sanskrit play by Vishakhadatta. Its date is uncertain, but it mentions the Huna, who invaded northern India during the Gupta period. Therefore, it could not have been composed before the Gupta era. It is dated variously from the late 4th century to the 8th century. The Mudrarakshasa legend contains narratives not found in other versions of the Chanakya-Chandragupta legend. Because of this difference, Trautmann suggests that most of it is fictional or legendary, without any historical basis.