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Ancient India: Who was Chanakya?

Updated on January 18, 2014
Mauryan Empire, founded by Chandragupt Maurya
Mauryan Empire, founded by Chandragupt Maurya | Source

Chanakya is a very popular personality in India. He is said to be Godfather of Emperor Chandragupt Maurya. But there are many controversies regarding him.

Whatever we know about Chanakya today through media, movies, books and mouths of some people, is based on the 8th century Sanskrit drama called Mudra Rakshas written by Vishakhadata. The drama discusses political activities of Chanakya and nothing else. As this drama was written after 1200 years of Chandragupta, we can not rely solely on it to know this personality. The drama itself is based on Mahanamthero, a Buddhist book. This drama says nothing about the parents and forefather of Chanakya, or about his childhood, marriage and death.

Interestingly, there are lot of references to Chanakya in ancient Jain literature, which gives detailed account of the life of Chanakya. According to it, we know that Chanakya was born to Chanak, a Vedic Brahmin who was later converted to Jainism. When Chanakya was born, he had teeth in his mouth. A Jain monk who came for alms to Chanak’s home predicted that the child will become a King in future. It was not acceptable to Chanak, so he removed the teeth from the child’s mouth. After knowing this act by Chanak, the monk said, "Now the child will become a kingmaker in future".

When Chanakya become young, he was unable to get a bride as he was poor and ugly. However, he managed to marry with a poor girl Yashomati. Once, there was a family function in her father's home, where she got insulted by her rich sisters, and she came back to Chanakya with tears in her eyes. After knowing the reasons of her sorrow, Chanakya decided to do something great.

Then all the political things like his insult by Emperor Dhananand, training to Chandragupt and a war with Dhananand happens.

Like Chandragupt Maurya, Chanakya also became a Jain monk after his retirement from his Ministership. Unfortunately, when he was meditating in a jungle with other monks, the jungle was set on fire by a minister of Bindusar, the son of Chandragupt, and it was the end of the life of Chanakya.

Although references to Chanakya in Jain and Buddhist literature are older than that of Mudra Rakshas, and they prove the existence of Chanakya, we should note that there are no references to Chanakya in Greek history and literature. Megasthenes, the ambassador of Greeks was in court of Chandragup Maurya for a decade, and who has written much about Chandragupt and others, do not mentions Chanakya. This suggests that Chanakya was not existing at the time of Chandragupt Maurya and was probably created by some people in later period.

Chandragupt Maurya was clever enough to plan and execute his ambitions, and he didn’t need any Godfather to teach him. But the content of Mudra Rakshas clearly indicates that the drama was written to attach importance to Chanakya and give secondary place to Emperor Chandragupt. Indian history is full of such things.

-Mahavir Sanglikar


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