The Arthashastra is a gold mine of information telling us about the society in Kautilya’s times. The book describes an ideal state, reflecting the social mores of the times which are patriarchal, hierarchical and believe in monarchy. Some things by their mere presence say something, for example, an explicit protection to entertainers for making fun of local folks and customs tells us that Indians were as thin skinned two thousand years ago as they are now. The fact that inter-caste marriages are codified but are not punishable or widow remarriage was permitted tells us that we slipped in the opposite direction along the way (and got Khap panchayats).
This post isn’t a complete review though and is being written to highlight a most interesting set of verses (5.2.37-45 from LN Rangarajan’s translation) pertaining to exploiting superstition. Kautilya was a realist who was not against using unfair means to further the state’s interest. In these verses he specifically mentions duping temples of their property and depositing it in the treasury. Then he goes on to list specific techniques to exploit the gullibility of the public such as: 1) build a temple overnight, hold fairs in honour of a miraculous deity 2) exploit unnatural happenings such as a rare flowering 3) use secret agents to spread superstitious fear leading to people making offerings.
This makes one wonder how many ‘renowned’ temples in India with miraculous and ‘swayambhu’ (not built by man) back stories to them were simply revenue accretive techniques of the states of yore.
Today probably the state doesn’t do it but all these techniques are still used at-large in India. Expropriating temple property is a favourite pastime of many politicians and local strongmen. In many cases the state still tries to expropriate the wealth by creating boards managed by government officials.
As Indians are becoming richer, the offerings at the famous temples are growing exponentially. What we need instead is more neighbourhood temples that local communities take ownership of. Religious leadership in India is not interested in this for obvious reasons. It is interesting to imagine what could have happened if Kautilya would have tried to finish this societal weakness rather than take advantage of it. However, as a master of statecraft how could he.
Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra