Notes from the Designer #16 -- Chanakya

The Brahmin Chanakya

The elder king Nanda of Magadha died – by natural causes as far as we can tell – in roughly 329 BCE, and was survived by his eight sons. These sons, the eldest of whom was named Sahalya, would rule Magadha for another twelve years. Though the Greeks would not know his name, they referred to him as “Agrammes,” a corrupted form of Augrasainya, i.e. the son of Ugrasena, the first Nanda. The Puranas indicate that Sahalya shared sovereign power with his brothers.

According to all sources, the Nanda brothers were not only powerful but exceedingly rich. Their inability to rule over the vast dominions they had inherited as well as a reputedly irreligious disposition, made them very unpopular; but their greed apparently garnered hatred among the public. A passage in the chronicle Kathasaraitsagara claims that the brothers possessed some “990 million gold pieces,” a sum certainly pointing towards crushing tax levies, if not rampant extortion. The last of the sons, Dhana, was supposedly addicted to hoarding treasure, so much so that he had the banks of the river Ganges excavated for the express purpose of burying the Nandas’ cache of gold, silver, and other precious items. The Magadhan state, meanwhile, levied heavy taxes on almost every commodity imaginable, including skins, gums, trees, and stone.

While the lowness of Mahapadma Nanda’s birth may not have troubled the broad-minded Magadhans per se, the misrule of his offspring later brought their low origins into public prominence. And there could be no greater cause of public hostility than evidence that Magadha’s proud empire was beginning to disintegrate under the sons’ reign. The kingdom of Kalinga, one of Magadha’s chief rivals, had been partially conquered during Mahapadma’s rule. Sometime after his death, however, the Kalingans had successfully thrown off Magadha’s yoke and regained their independence. This erosion of Magadha’s prestige and power was squarely blamed upon the Nanda brothers’ profligacy.

The public hostility was naturally seized upon as an opportunity by the Kshatriya clans who had been brutally deposed by the usurping and low-born Nandas. Rule by the bastard offspring of a Sudra (labor caste) woman was also a transgression of the traditional social hierarchy, and conservative Brahmin factions conveniently spun this transgression in the public eye as the root of Magadha’s ills.

One such Brahmin was a native of Pataliputra by the name of Vishnugupta Chanakya. Though a shrewd man and with apparently formidable political instincts – he would later become the author of the seminal treatise on Mauryan statecraft, the Arthashastra -- Chanakya’s motivations were not purely the salvation of Magadha’s honor and prestige. Rather, he was motivated by a personal vendetta against the Nanda dynasty.

According to legend, Chanakya was invited by the Nanda’s chief minister, Sakatala, to preside at a celebration in the Nandan court. During the celebration, however, Sahalya Nanda publicly snubbed Chanakya and gave precedence to a rival Brahmin (named Subandhu; Subandhu and Sakatala will make appearances as commanders in Chandragupta). This offended the volatile Chanakya so deeply that he vowed to kill Nanda for his insult. Apparently the king got wind of Chanakya’s oath. But before he could be arrested, Sakatala – who, as it happened, was secretly collaborating with the opposition – helped the Brahmin escape Pataliputra. Chanakya fled to the west, settling in the city of Takshashila in the kingdom of Gandhara.

In Gandhara, Chanakya’s path would converge with that of a young man whose destiny would change the Brahmin’s fate, and India’s. There he would meet Chandragupta Maurya. But another personality, a foreign invader from Macedon, was about to change India’s history as well. And he, too, would meet – if only briefly – the future emperor of the Mauryan empire.

Next week: Chandragupta meets Alexander.