Religion, Law, and Governance in Premodern Hindu Political Theory

John Nemec

Prambanan Temple Complex in Yogyakarta Indonesia. Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas. (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Political theory in premodern South Asia settled on a single model of governance at a relatively early date: kingship. This was so in large part because those who defined and controlled the intellectual and religious institutions of the day, the Brahmins, wished it to be so. So why, precisely, did these learned elite, who embodied all the prestige and influence of the first and highest of the four major “castes,” the varnas, adopt this and only this model of government? For they did know of other political formations, notably that of confederation, in which a number of leaders worked as a committee to determine governance. More importantly, those who came to hold the political office that Brahmins so univocally supported — members of the second class of varnas, the Kshatriyas — gained monopolistic control over the state’s material resources not long after royal, social, and political institutions solidified. Why would Brahminical culture, which was nothing if not comprehensive in its intellectual endeavor, not have elaborated a more complex model of government, by which Brahmins could have flexibly gained an upper hand in their alliance with Kshatriyas? 

It would have been more in keeping with the comprehensive and thorough patterns of their thought if the Brahmins had developed something similar to what Aristotle charted in his Politics. That text maps a tripartite model of governance by distinguishing three classes of political formation: rule by one person, by the leadership of a few, or by many. Wouldn’t Brahminical theory have preferred rule by the enlightened few? This is a form of government that not only was modeled by the confederations known to them but is one that also reflects the decentralized nature of Brahminical culture, which ferreted out answers to difficult practical and intellectual questions by way of considered debate and the airing of multiple voices and perspectives of members of their community.

I believe the answer to this riddle lies with the manner in which the Brahmins conceived of law and ethics at the intersection of governmental affairs. For the question is all the more intriguing when one recognizes that both the Brahminical theorists in question and Aristotle defined the quality of a government by a common measure of success. Aristotle’s three forms of government were respectively labeled with the terms “Monarchy,” “Aristocracy,” and “Polity.” He stated that these were “true” or good forms of government when those in power served the common interest of the citizens of the state (though citizenship was narrowly defined). Aristotle also recognized corrupted forms of each, respectively labeled “Tyranny,” “Oligarchy,” and “Democracy,” and he understood each to be characterized by the self-dealing of those who ruled: the one tyrannical dictator; the self-dealing cabal; or the majority that served its own interests at the cost of minority groups. Brahminical political theory similarly understood care for the well-being and prosperity of all royal subjects to be the fundamental responsibility of the king, and the Brahmins measured kingship by this very standard. 

Why, we again ask, would the Brahmins have ceded political office to one person when the needs of many, not least themselves, were understood to be at stake? 

Brahmins were willing to cede political control to others because they knew that the law of nature was often brutal, and that it was a social law that those in political office faced mortal consequences for failing to deliver the necessary fruits of governance: social stability, economic prosperity, and protection from enemies of the state.

Probing their conception of dharma offers an answer. The term is sometimes rendered as “Hindu Law” and it refers to Hindu ethics; but dharma in fact has a double meaning. It refers not only to a structured system of customs and enforced social rules, but also to the natural order of the social and phenomenal universe — the laws of nature, as it were. Brahmins sponsored kings first of all because they felt they could most effectively influence a single person in political office, coaxing him to conform to dharma in its ethical dimensions and to follow the codes of conduct they carefully developed. But the second sense of dharma was always in the front of their minds. 

Brahmins were willing to cede political control to others because they knew that the law of nature was often brutal, and that it was a social law that those in political office faced mortal consequences for failing to deliver the necessary fruits of governance: social stability, economic prosperity, and protection from enemies of the state. Maximizing economic prosperity often meant taking aggressive action against others with economic means, and keeping the social order meant punishing offenders, often inviting conflict thereby. Enemy armies and court intrigues, such as the threat of assassination by one wishing to usurp the throne, perpetually imperiled the king. What the Brahminical political theorists therefore cultivated was not only the opportunity to influence and advise political leaders, but in relinquishing de jure control of political power they also left the king alone to face the dangers that come when things go wrong. 

This double meaning of dharma was fully reflected in Brahminical political theory, with the law of nature taking precedence over ethical concerns. For the king was expected to deal with practical concerns above all. To face the “laws of nature,” his government was to develop extensive technocratic capacities in order to mitigate drought, flooding, earthquakes, and other natural calamities. Indeed, the foundational manual on statecraft, the Arthashastra, which was written by a famed court counselor named Kautilya (also known as Chanakya and sometimes by the name Vishnugupta), boasts of an administrative sophistication that, though developed roughly around or slightly after the time of Christ, is mutatis mutandis as complex as that of the modern state. As Patrick Olivelle’s striking new translation of the work illustrates in abundance, the Arthashastra elaborates extensive rules and recommendations for building and maintaining dams, canals, and other vital infrastructure; developing a transport network, standards for commerce, and reliable systems of agriculture; putting in place effective legal and penal systems; managing mining and the minting of coins; imposing import and export controls and developing trade policy; maintaining a standing army and security apparatus; and much, much more.

Rediscovered circa 16th century Arthashastra manuscript from the Oriental Research Institute. (PD-US).

In doing so, Kautilya articulated a political ethics of unrelenting consequentialism. The king of the Arthaśāstra was to be ruthlessly ambitious, to do just about anything to increase suzerainty and multiply the kingdom’s wealth. Deceive, murder, double-cross — the ends justified the means, and the Arthashastra described all the techniques for just this kind of dirty play. Whatever the dharmic moralists might have said, Kautilya’s core message was that might makes right — or more specifically, one’s success in the world validated one as a righteous practitioner of statecraft.

Given that the Arthashastra is one among a very few number of texts written in Sanskrit that worked in this way “against dharma,” as renowned scholar of Hinduism Wendy Doniger puts it, one might have expected the Brahmins, who sought to define the nature of dharma and to uphold its restraining social norms and rules, to have rejected the work out of hand. But they did not. Yes, the Arthashastra underwent redaction at the hands of Brahminical editors, who spliced in various endorsements for the strictures of Brahminical culture — above all, the notion that Brahmins should be honored by kings. And the text clearly indicates that a king does well by ensuring his subjects prosper. But it is striking that every Brahminical political theorist after Kautilya follows him in privileging the results of governance, as opposed to some particular ethical ideal, for example banning the death penalty on principle or committing one’s armies to an exclusively defensive posture. 

For whatever they had to say about proper action in the world, the Brahmins never let go of the notion that politics would always be an inherently dirty game, and those who play in it would always have to produce tangible results. Dharma is not just prescriptive but also descriptive, and the realpolitik of the Arthashastra was taken to be a description of human nature in the political realm, not a prescription for action in any alternate world. When defining new ethical models, Brahminical political theorists therefore spliced the Arthashastra’s realpolitik into systems of deontology or virtue ethics. 

The famed Law Book of Manu or Manavadharmashastra, offers an example of the former. It incorporated a discussion of the dharma, or duties, of kings into its text, a novelty for its textual genre, and it did so by largely adapting Arthashastric materials. But the Manavadharmashastra is nothing if not deontological in ethical orientation. It seems likely the text was written for married religious specialists, whom its author(s) could expect would be intrinsically motivated to act simply for being told what is right. This ethical disposition in fact mirrors the one found in Hindu hermeneutics, where those who interpreted the messages of Hinduism’s earliest scriptural sources, known as the Vedas, knew their audiences would do what was demanded by dharma. The Manavadharmashastra similarly describes kingship in such terms: there is much the king should do, simply because he must. But the text never compromises the notion that a king must cultivate prosperity, for himself and his subjects, and that success is defined by the kingdom’s riches.

[Brahmins] were confident not only that holding political office inevitably would be a tenuous affair, but that their deep culture of learning, along with the prestige of their religious offices and intellectual accomplishments, would put them in positions to advise — to shape the perspectives and decisions — of whomever might be put into political power.

Another fascinating model of ethics is offered sometime later, in the fifth or sixth centuries, and is influenced I think by the massive Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. More about that in a moment. Here, I am speaking of the Nitisara or “Essence of Politics” by a Brahmin named Kamandaki, who echoes a claim prominent in Sanskrit-language story literatures that speak of the lives of Brahmins and kings. It is that in order to do well in the world, one must be good. Virtue ethics, that is, produces the results one wants because by being virtuous, by being dharmic, one is emotionally restrained, clear in one’s thinking, able to “see the angles” in politics — who might double-cross, who might send an assassin — because goodness makes one dispassionate and therefore intellectually agile. Kings on this model should develop their innate capacities for virtue, because it is a vehicle to success. And yet, here too, success is defined as producing wealth, security, and prosperity for everyone under the king’s reign. 

Dharma, in its double dimensions, both descriptive and prescriptive, afforded no starry-eyed view of the competitive world of human relations in state affairs. The dharma of the political realm demanded extensive expertise to manage the vicissitudes of nature and the complexities of human industry. Political rulers simply had no choice but to play the game by these rules, because the rules weren’t elected, but found: the world was and only could be as it was and is. And it seems to me that this is the reason Brahmins theorized kingship and no other model of governance. They were confident not only that holding political office inevitably would be a tenuous affair, but that their deep culture of learning, along with the prestige of their religious offices and intellectual accomplishments, would put them in positions to advise — to shape the perspectives and decisions — of whomever might be put into political power. So much is easier to accomplish and more effectively so (for all involved) if one is dealing with few persons to influence — in fact, ultimately only one, the king — rather than many. To wield such influence, the Brahmins simply needed to shape the ideas and actions of the royal sovereign. No surprise then that, after the king, the Arthashastra counted ministerial advisors, who were almost always Brahmins, as the second in importance of seven key constituents of the state. 

But that influence could only hold sway if those giving it helped to produce measurable results. However much dharma in political affairs could have been meant to induce kings to act honorably and with the good of all their subjects in mind, no understanding of the nature of politics could remove all of its Machiavellianism. This was so much the case that an entire book of the massive epic, the Mahabharata, is devoted to explaining to the victorious king, Yudhisthira, that he has no choice but to enjoy the fruits of his success. Yudhisthira feels he cannot, for he won wealth and fame and power by way of a bloody and ruthless, if righteous, civil war, in which he and his brothers killed their revered teachers, cousins, and friends. Nevertheless, the Shantiparvan section of the epic, the “Book of Peace,” calls Yudhisthira to be at peace with his actions, sanctioned as they are by the nature of the political game. For the order of the world — dharma — is such that kings must produce for their people, and this is so whether they like it or not. Hard as it was to kill loved ones in order to protect the kingdom, dharma demanded nothing less. It’s simply natural law: politics must produce measurable results, and political ethics must recognize the same. 

Ultimately, dharma dictates that political leaders must do what they can for their people, even if it means doing well when they would prefer to be good.♦

John Nemec is Professor of Indian Religions and South Asian Studies in the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Virginia. The author of several books and a former Fulbright Scholar to India, he was a visiting scholar (Directeur d’études invité) at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris in the spring of 2016 and will be the visiting Shivdasani Fellow at Oxford University in the autumn of 2023.

Recommended Citation

Nemec, John. “Religion, Law, and Governance in Premodern Hindu Political Theory.” Canopy Forum, July 25, 2023.