Chanakya on Education

“सुखस्य मूलं धर्मः, धर्मस्य मूलं अर्थः  ” ( Sukhasya mulam Dharma; Dharmasya mulam artha) –> This is probably the most quoted and well known sutra of Chanakya. It means – The basis of happiness is righteousness (loosely translated) , the basis of righteousness is wealth. What Chanakya implies is that for dharma to sustain, for righteousness to prevail, material wealth and prosperity is essential. A society devoid of wealth will not be righteous.  The lesser known sutra following the above is “अर्थस्य मूलं राज्यम्” (Arthasya moolam raajyam) – the basis of wealth creation is the state. Effective administration, rational policies and a just government is key to creating a wealthy and dharmic society. This is the premise of Chanakya’s magnificent treatise on wealth creation – Arthashastra. At the very beginning, offering salutations to Shukra and Brahaspati, Chanakya states the purpose of his compendium – “This Arthashsatra has been written by collecting and consolidating all previous Arthashastras written by the Teachers of the yore, for acquisition and maintenance of the earth (or the kingdom)” .

To think of it, the above holds true for successful businesses as well. For longevity and sustainable success of a business (sukh), it products and services have to effectively cater to the needs of the consumers and deliver what is promised (dharma) – that is what creates Trust; fly by night operators and chit funds may succeed every now and then, but that is always short lived.  But to consistently offer good products and services, the business has to keep investing (artha) and needs resources. Now this resource generation depends on how well the Organization runs (Rajya).


An organization is as good as its leaders and management – how well they define the vision, set up functions, develop suppliers and customers , recruit capable people, relations, and define and implement policies, incentives and penalties to keep people motivated to effectively.  Thus,  having a leader who has vision, understands customers, understands his employees, has wisdom to put in place right policies and also hold people responsible to tasks assigned while keeping them engaged and enthusiastic is non-trivial. Extrapolating it to a State, the role of a leader becomes even more complex and critical. How can we then, nurture a leader with all these qualities and qualifications? Chanakya tackles this topic in the very first section of Artha Shastra – Concerning Education (विनयाधिकारिक) qualities of the King and approach to his upbringing to  nurture not just a powerful but a discerning Dharmic leader – who he calls a “RAjarishi”.In that sense, the book is probably the first ever comprehensive treatise on Leadership and Management.  Here, I summarize aspects of the first section. It surely has some food for thought for all the Parents and Educators .

(I take the liberty to paraphrase and reorder the sutras for ease of reading)

Importance of Education

  1. A king/leader needs to master four most important vidyas. These are : Anvikshiki – Art of discrimination and thinking through study of philosophies such as Sankhya, Yog and Lokayat (आन्वीक्षिकी ), Trayi – The three Vedas to understand Dharma and righteousness (त्रयी), Varta – Economics and Business (अर्थ-वार्ता), Danda – Governance and Punishment  (दण्ड). (Explaining Anvikshiki needs a separate write up, read here)
  2.  Of the four, ability to govern and administer justice is pivotal for establishing a prosperous and dharmic society in order to ensure welfare of its subjects.
  3. Punishment (Danda) is essential tool of governance. It encourages citizens to conduct their tasks fairly and follow the law of the land. (Incentives and penalties in management parlance)
  4. But Punishment has to be “Yatharth Danda” – justifiable, reasonable and fair. Excessive control and punishment meted out of vengeance or power hunger will agitate the citizens and may lead to rebellion. On the other hand, too mild a rule will make people take the state for granted and will cause anarchy wherein the powerful will exploit the weak ( “MatsyaNyay” – Big Fish eat small fish.) . Hence, it is the leader’s duty to establish rule of law so that the guilty are punished, criminals are scared but ordinary citizens are not harassed without reason and society functions smoothly.
  5. How does one ensure Yatharth Danda? A subjective matter, which needs a leader to have wisdom, critical thinking, understanding of nuances of Dharma, Danda-niti and requisite domain knowledge.
  6. These qualities can be acquired through proper learning and education (of the aforementioned vidyas). However, Chanakya adds a caveat, he says – education can only mold those who have the right mental faculties and ability to listen and think, it can do nothing to those who do not naturally have these faculties.
  7.  Hence,  a formal learning process is important – both in theory and practical – under accomplished teachers and experts.

Approach to Education

Chanakya  gives a guideline of when and how formal education should happen. He believes, nurturing of character should begin right from birth and formal learning from the age of 3, and education should have aspects of theory, case studies, experiential learning and hand on training under professionals and experts.

  1. Formal learning should start after the child’s mundan (tonsure), ~age 3 onwards, with letters and numbers (lipi, sankyaa).
  2. After upanayan (yagnopavit), typically age 8 onwards – child should be taught Vedas and Anvikshiki (Sciences, Philosophy, Art of thinking (analytics, observation)), Economics and Political science under accomplished teachers and experts. Especially for topics related to governance, the students must learn through both theory and practical from people carrying out those functions.
  3. During the day, topics relevant for warfare and military both in practical and theory must be learnt, such as taming elephants, using  horses, warfare, military strategies  etc.
  4. In the second half of the day, time should be spent studying Science, Economics, Polity and Philosophy, hearing stories from history, learning from case studies (Udhaharan), Puranas and Dharmashastras.
  5. In the remaining time, s/he must revise what was taught and mull over it until the concept is fully understood. Only through repeated listening comes the understanding of application of the concept; and once the application is understood, the learning is imbibed (atmavatta) and vidya-samarthyam (expertise) is achieved).
  6.  The students should observe bramhacharya at least until the age of 16 and that enter grihastashram (start a family), but the education/learning has to be ongoing. S/he should spend time with elders, learned and experts learning from their experiences and examples.

As important as exposing a child to education is the discretion of what NOT to expose a child to – the onus of which is on parents, teachers and elders. He writes –

नवं हि द्रव्यं येन येन अर्थजातेन उपदिह्यते तत् तद् आचूषति ॥
एवम् अयं नव बुद्धि: यद् यद् उच्यते तत् तत्शास्त्र उपदेशम् इव अभिजानाति ॥
तस्माद् धर्म्यम् अर्थ्यं च अस्य उपदिशेन् न अधर्म्यम् अनर्थ्यं च ॥ (अशा-०१.१७.३१-०१.१७.३३)

Like a freshly made earthen pot is stained by whatever liquid is poured into it, a young mind soaks up whatever it is exposed to and considers it as an acceptable act. Hence, when discrimination is not yet developed, a child should be exposed to only that which is good and not that which can corrupt his mind.

Chanakya’s approach to raising kids is practical and sounds pretty contemporary. In Chanakya Neeti, he writes

“लालयेत् पंच वर्षाणि दश वर्षाणि ताडयेत् ।
प्राप्ते तु षोडशे वर्षे पुत्रं मित्रवदाचरेत् ॥ (3.18)

For five years one’s kid should be pampered, the next ten years s/he should be strictly disciplined, but once child turns sixteen s/he should be treated as a friend.

Success of Education 

Through formal learning, a child achieves knowledge and even the ability to think. But these amount to something only when s/he is able to exercise these skills to make right decisions and live it in practice. How does one bring about that translation of thought to practice? Chanakya says, the success of education is achieved through gaining complete command over anything that deludes the brain from taking the right decision and doing the right thing. Per him, there are 6 vrittis (instincts/tendencies) that have the potential to delude the mind – Kam, Krodh, Lobh, Maan, Mad, Harsha (Lust, Anger, Greed, Jealousy,  Haughtiness/Over indulgence/Arrogance, Overjoy). These tendencies arise due to our mind seeking pleasures of the 10 bodily organs and Ego (Karm-indriya – Organs of action, Gyan-indriya – organs of senses). The mind seeks instant gratification of its desires. If unchecked, these desires and sensual pleasures obstruct objective thinking by clouding the brain. Such a person who falls prey to one or more of these vrittis is  bound to perish, says Chanakya.

For an aspiring leader, having command over his desires and senses becomes even more important as his/her decisions impact all those associated – their kingdom, state, organization, families.  History has enough and more examples of downfall of the strongest of kings (like Ravana, Kurus, Bhoj, Yadavas etc.) and largest of civilizations owing to the overpowering of the above mentioned vrittis.  In essence, the leader should be able to take decisions and practice actions driven by pure objectivity doing what s/he MUST do not what s/he WANTS to do.

This taming of the sense organs and pleasure instincts is what Shastras call Indriya Vijaya (इन्द्रियविजय); a pivotal feature of Chanakya’s approach to education, so much so that his sutra following arthasya mulam rajyam, is  rajyasya mulam indriyajayah (the basis of a well governed state is a King who has mastered his senses) – An aspect which seems to be missing in our educational system today; other is the focus on learning the art of thinking (Anvikshiki). Only when a leader is observant, of clear thinking, objective in assessment as well as empathetic, can s/he become an impactful decision maker and and able & effective administrator, a leader whom Krishna in Gita calls Yog Yukta, one established in Yog!

“Indriya Vijay”, easier said than done eh? Yes indeed, Chanakya too doesn’t elaborate, he leaves it at – “कृत्स्नं हि शास्त्रम् इदम् इन्द्रिय.जयः |(अशा-०१.६.०३)” (Do as ordained in the shastras, that itself can be deemed as achieving Indriya Vijaya). But what really do Shashtras say? That which appeals to me most and is relevant today comes from Yog Sutras – Yama and Niyama . This will require a separate post of its own, but to explain briefly, it means, instilling discipline in life – physical and mental, set rules for life and push yourself to live by those rules. Don’t give in to every demand of your child, teach them to deserve and delay gratification, teach them that not every desire needs to be gratified and it is okay if it isn’t. My friend Akshay Iyer beautiful summed it up “अनुशासन बिना शासन नहीं।” (Command over self must precede command over subjects)

Note: Different translations differ in English words for specific sanskrit words. I have used those which seemed to convey the meanings I deemed relevant. Not a scholastic thesis, just lay (wo)man summary of  one small part of Arthashastra

References: Kautilya Arthashastra, Sanskrit -Hindi anuvad by Prof. Udayveer Shastry, Kautilya’s Arthashastra (English translation) by R Shamashastry.

ॐ शान्तिः ||



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