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Agricultural Science in Kautilya’s Arthasastra

Agricultural Science in Kautilya’s Arthasastra
By Manikant Shah

In a recent paper, Y L Nene has discussed the concepts of agriculture of the times of Kautilya, the famous Chanakya who wrote the Arthasastra in the 3rd – 4th century BC. The name of Chanakya is much revered in Indian history as he is credited to have put Chandragupta, a common man at that time, on the throne of Magadh through his sheer intelligence and practicality. The treatise, Arthasastra written by this wise teacher Kautilya deals with his own views on managing and increasing resources of an empire for its own benefit and consolidation.

It is a work on statecraft rather than economics as the title Arthasastra suggests. Nene tells us that it has 15 books and was not available until 1904 when a full text on palm leaves in the grantha script, along with a part of an old commentary by Bhattasvarnin, came into the hands of Dr R Shamasastry of Mysore. Though Arthasastra deals in subjects and topics primarily meant for the King and his ministers yet in Book 2 of the treatise, Chapter 14 is titled Sitadhyaksha or The Superintendent of Agriculture (for crown lands). The Chapter contains information related also to farmers in general as it is meant to inform and advise the Superintendent with regard to increasing the production on the lands owned by the Crown. We are told that during Kautilya’s time agriculture, cattle breeding, and trade were grouped into a science called Varta.

Since the objective of Nene is to draw a likeness between the agricultural practices in the past and those in the modern times he points out that agriculture of today receives policy and administrative support from government officials. For production of crops, supply of good seed and other purchases inputs are arranged. Assistance is provided in making available other resources such as labor, machinery, implements, and bullocks or tractor power. The India Meteorology Department makes a general prediction of rainfall for every monsoon. Efforts to predict yields using crop models are made. Contingency plans are made for alternative crops in case the monsoon fails or floods occur. Irrigation is provided wherever the water source exists. Arrangements are made to protect crops and to harvest market, and safely store the produce. All these actions have been indicated in the chapter on Sitadhyaksha also.

In order to prove the validity of his argument, Y L Nene has taken up 20 paragraphs from the chapter on Sitadhyaksha, which is the 14th chapter from the Book 2 in the Arthasastra of Kautilya. In the paper first the translation of a paragraph is given, followed by the comment by Nene.

The main points that are brought forth in these paragraphs relate to agriculture and the paragraphs from 4 to 20 (with the exception of 9, 13 & 14) have direct relevance to the general farmers. Main points so covered can conveniently be put as managing agriculture, measurement of rainfall, astrology and astronomy related to agriculture, meteorological aspects of agriculture, kinds of crops, advantage in cultivating certain classes of crops, the growth of crops, treatment of seeds, manuring and harvesting. We can say that the chapter includes all the vital aspects of agriculture, as we practice it today. Chapters 1,2,3, 9, 13 & 14 appear as instructions to the Superintendent of Agriculture of the state and are relevant to the modern day agriculture departments. For instance, paragraph 1 says,

“Possessed with knowledge of the science of agriculture, water management, and managing crops and trees, or assisted by those who are trained in such sciences, the superintendent of agriculture shall in time collect the seeds of all kinds of grains, flowers, fruits, vegetables, bulbous roots, roots, fruits of creepers, fiber-producing plants such as hibiscus and cotton.”

In this connection, paragraph 3 is very relevant to the state agriculture departments. It sounds like a clear order to the superintendent to make sure that the farmers and the laborers are not hampered in their activities and that their work does not suffer. It reads,

“The work of the above men shall not suffer on account of any want in ploughs and other necessary implements or of bullocks. Nor shall there be any delay in procuring to them the assistance of blacksmiths, carpenters, basket sellers, rope- makers, as well as those who catch snakes, and similar persons. Any loss in production because of the above persons should invite fine equal to the loss.”

It is clear that the passage has direct relevance to the agriculture departments as still the farmers depend on them to a large extent for the agriculture activities and which the departments’ negligence may affect.

Paragraphs 4, 5 & 8 specifically refer to the meteorological aspects of agriculture and the measurement of rainfall. They show the high level of meteorological knowledge the people possessed in those times. Quite interesting is the 8th one, which tells us about the different clouds bearing the rains, as do the meteorologists of our own day. It says,

“Three are the clouds that continuously rain for seven days; eighty are they that pour minute drops; and sixty are they that appear with the sunshine – this is considered good, well distributed rainfall. Where rains interspersed with wind and sunshine is such that cow dung cakes can be dried three times (during the rainy season), reaping of a good harvest is certain.”

Paragraphs 6 & 7 relate to the astrological/astronomical aspects. These aspects are also dealt with in another ancient text, the Krishi Parashar, the original version of which is supposed to be of an earlier date than the Arthasastra. Nene has elsewhere pointed out that the astrological aspects of agriculture in the time of sage Parashar had some shortcomings and the search for a better system culminated in the Arthasastra of Kautilya.

The paragraph 15 as taken by Nene is interesting in that it tries to show the advantage in cultivating different classes of crops, which is true even today. It reads,

“Rice crops and the like are the best. Vegetables are intermediate; and sugarcane is the worst (very difficult to grow) for it is subject to various evils and requires much attention and expenditure to reap.”

This paragraph is quite relevant to the general community of the farmers as well as the state agricultural departments as they can advantageously use the advice to their benefit.

So we find that in the text of Arthasastra, as shown by Nene, there are many interesting points that are worth taking note of and the validity of quite a few can be tested in order to benefit the farmers and the world at large today. While talking of sustainable farming the following paragraph might be relevant,

“The seeds of grains are to be exposed to mist and heat for seven nights; the seeds of kosi (mung bean, black gram, etc.) are treated similarly for three to five nights; the seeds of sugarcane and the like are plastered at the cut end with the mixture of honey, lard, ghee and cow dung; seeds of bulbous roots with honey and ghee; cotton and hard seeds with cow dung; and pits for trees are to be burnt, and manured with bones and dung of cows on proper occasions.”

Thus Kautilya’s Arthasastra seems to be a treasure-house of scientific information on a variety of subjects which are relevant even to the present times.

Nene, Y.L. 2002. Modern Agronomic Concepts And Practices Evident In Kautilya’s
Arthasastra (c. 300 BC). Asian Agri-History 6(3): 231-242.

Manikant Shah
Lok Vigyan Kendra, Almora 263601
Weblink: (email: ynene@satyam.net.in)