Evolution of Strategic Culture Based on Sun Tzu and Kautilya - A Civilisational Connect
By Col. Harjeet Singh
Published by Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi - 2016
The Art of War by Sun Tzu and Arthasastra by Kautilya rank among the finest war and political discourses ever written. Both have tremendous percipient elements embedded in them. Kautilya is often considered a perspicacious administrator, while Sun Tzu ranks high as a war strategist. Belonging to the oldest Indian and Chinese civilisations respectively, they also spelt out clear principles for espionage and stressed the importance of intelligence in all undertakings.
The Art of War was written to counsel rulers during a time when war was an ongoing and existential concern for the Chinese states. Sun Tzu highlights the empirical nature of warfare saying: “While an angered man may again be happy, and a resentful man again be pleased, a state that has perished cannot be restored, nor can the dead be brought back to life”.
For many Chinese states, being procient in warfare was the only way to ensure survival in the Spring and Autumn periods, during which more than 100 independent states were exterminated. The Art of War’s strategy, based on deception, refected an evolution from earlier periods of warfare and represented a new way to achieve victory. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, written about 2,500 years ago, is arguably the most important work on the subject of strategy. Lionel Giles first translated it into English in 1910.
Kautilya’s opus has stood the test of time as the principles laid out by him are astonishingly sound and relevant even today. The first translations into English from Sanskrit were compiled and published by R. Shamasastry in 1915. In the Arthasastra, the purpose of strategy was to conquer all other states and to overcome such equilibrium as existed on the road to victory. In Kautilya’s view, states had an obligation to pursue self-interest, even more than glory. The wise ruler would seek his allies from among his neighbour’s neighbours. The goal would be an alliance system, with the conqueror at the centre: “The conqueror shall think of the circle of states as a wheel—himself at the hub and his allies, drawn to him by the spokes though separated by intervening territory, as its rim. The enemy, however strong he may be, becomes vulnerable when he is squeezed between the conqueror and his allies.” No alliance is conceived of as permanent, however. Even within his own alliance system, the king should “undertake such works as would increase his own power” and manoeuvre to strengthen his state’s position and prevent neighbouring states from aligning against it.
Kautilya insisted that the purpose of the ruthlessness was to build a harmonious universal empire and uphold dharma, the timeless moral order, whose principles were handed down by the gods. But the appeal to morality and religion was more for practical purposes than a principle in its own right – as elements of a conqueror’s strategy and tactics, not imperatives of a unifying concept of order. The Arthasastra advised that restrained and humanitarian conduct was under most circumstances strategically useful: a king who abused his subjects would forfeit their support and would be vulnerable to rebellion or invasion; a conqueror who needlessly violated a subdued people’s customs or moral sensibilities risked catalysing resistance.