Unique Approach to Comprehensive National Power through the Lens of Kautilya’s Arthashastra

Author: Lieutenant Colonel Malay Mishra

Period: January 2017 - March 2017

Unique Approach to Comprehensive National Power through the Lens of Kautilya’s Arthashastra

Lieutenant Colonel Malay [email protected]


Comprehensive National Power (CNP) evokes different meanings across the globe, each one having a different perspective of ‘power of nation’. The purpose of studying ‘power’ has a deep interest particularly amongst those whose full-time job it is to predict the behaviour of nations, especially when nations seem to amass “power” and rise.

            Unsurprisingly, thus, India’s rise in the twenty-first century has drawn attention of the scholars worldwide. Global-watchers remain perplexed as to how India would behave when it amasses sufficient power to decisively influence world-affairs, particularly when few regard India as a rising superpower. Coupled with that arises the global interest in India’s own interpretation of “state-power” and its use. To quench this, comes the unique approach to CNP through the lens of Arthashastra. 

            Long before the western world even became civilised, Kautilya in Arthashastra, the pioneering masterpiece on statecraft, theorised the term called ‘Shakti/power’.1 Interestingly, Kautilya is also credited to have masterminded the largest-ever empire in the Indian subcontinent: the Mauryan Empire. With a population of about 50 million people, this Empire extending from the border of Persia to Bengal was larger than both the Mughal and the British Empires of later times. Hence, the approach to “state-power” in Arthashastra is gradually drawing unprecedented attention in the scholarly world. This article aims to establish the uniqueness of Arthashastra’s approach to CNP. In order to understand the Kautilyan approach it would be mandatory to weigh the contemporary approaches to CNP.

Contemporary Approaches to CNP and their Shortcomings

According to a commonly accepted definition, CNP is described as “comprehensive capability of a country to pursue its strategic objectives by taking necessary actions internationally”. It is also defined as “degree of ability to mobilise strategic resources to realise national objectives.”2 Although, to measure CNP, different factors are considered by different scholars, the commonly recognised factors mainly include economy, military, natural resources, human capital, foreign policy and diplomacy.

            Evolution path of interpreting “state-power” has been dominated primarily by the western thought, and more recently by the Chinese construct. Unsurprisingly, the positions vary.

Western Construct

The ‘power’ in the western thought bears a heavy influence of Western “Realist theory” of International Relations (IR). According to this theory, the power distribution in the international arena is a ‘zero-sum-game’, where a state amasses power at the cost of other states for its survival, and thus attaining power becomes ‘all-in-one’ goal: ends, ways and means. The power in this theory emanates from mainly two dimensions: military and economic dimensions. Nations, thence, can be called as ‘Superpower’, ‘Great-Power’, ‘Middle-Power’ and ‘Regional-Power’.

            Joseph Nye modified the western discourse by introducing ‘Soft’ and ‘Hard power’ concept, and soon emerged the third concept of power called ‘Smart Power’. While the ‘Hard’ power refers to coercive tactics signifying the use of armed forces, economic sanctions and other forms of intimidation, the ‘Soft’ power denotes power to influence using diplomacy, cultural values and ideology to achieve political ends. The ‘Smart’ power, on the other hand, incorporates variable and clever synthesis of powers, ranging from soft to hard power, across the spectrum of statecraft tools. Nonetheless, the western narrative on “power formulation” remained inclined towards hard-power components.

            Various power-assessment formulas developed by western scholars such as Clifford-German, Singer and Cline are enumerated in Table 1.3 Composite Index of National Capability (CINC) developed by Singer is the foremost index to calculate CNP worldwide. It is evident from the Table 1 that all these approaches use mainly “material” powers (hard powers), hence are not truly comprehensive.


Chinese Construct

“CNP” or ‘Zonghe Gouli’ is basically of Chinese origin. While westerners talked of ‘National Power’, Chinese scholars developed their own concept and devised Comprehensive National Power. Unlike westerners, they expanded the scope beyond conventional military and economic domains.4

            Despite having Chinese origin, CNP concept has no

common agreement even amongst Chinese scholars. Please refer

Table 2.5 Fascinatingly, the two prime institutions of China, Academy of Military Science (AMS)6 and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)7 differ immensely, as described below:-



Shortcomings in the Western Approach

In the Western approach, the shortcomings can be enumerated as under:-

(a)        They focus mainly on hard powers, hence do not represent true “comprehensiveness”. The core of all indices is mainly economic and military dimensions.

(b)        They treat “power-assessment-formulas” as ‘resource containers’, giving more emphasis to “material resources”. It is a widely understood fact that there exist many intangible factors which play heavily on the manifestation of state-power, without which the approach to CNP would remain hollow.

(c)        The soft-power, though recognised, is unduly underplayed when it comes to practical formulation vis-à-vis hard-power.

Shortcomings in the Chinese Approach

Chinese approach appears more encompassing but only on superficial scrutiny. A deep study reveals much more than what meets the eye. It endeavoured to define the concept by overcoming certain lacunae, however, displayed the following shortcomings :-

(a)        Though the non-material resources are included in formulation, their importance is not correspondingly expressive. For example, in CASS index the weightage-coefficient of diplomacy, which is 0.07, is significantly lesser than that of economic factor which is 0.35.8

(b)        Economic and military domains form the core of the CNP concept. Many intangibles are not taken into account.

(c)        It misses the sustainability factor as a defining factor for growing CNP. If seen scientifically, assessing CNP from the present capability only paints a partial picture. A genuine assessment should cater for futuristic ‘price-factor’ for present day development. This includes future challenges/negative consequences, either intended or unintended, which may stem from the present day unbalanced growth, uneven development, environmental degradation, and political environment. In case of China, this argument gets more pronounced.

(d)        It is evident that the Chinese indices are more or less designed to fit China’s advantage, not surprisingly elevating China’s position in the CNP merit. This narrative is hugely being supported by the Chinese leadership.

(e)        The question of quality versus quantity has not been factored as a determining factor. Assessing CNP quantitatively alone would remain a half-truth. A true power assessment deserves both quantitative and qualitative analysis.

Common Shortcomings

Certain aspects evidently emerge which are missing in both the major approaches but play a significant role once contrasted against the Kautilyan approach. They include:-

(a)        None explains the question of “so what”, i.e. what to do next with a set of CNP a state possesses.

(b)        The indices are not truly comprehensive in approach.

(c)        Many key non-material dimensions of power matrix are absent, which will emerge from the insightful analysis of the Arthashastra based approach to CNP.

Kautilya’s Saptanga Model of CNP

Kautliya speaks of seven constituent elements of state, called seven Prakritis.9 Their sum total manifests in “power” of a state. The components in descending order of importance are:-10


(a)        ‘Swamin’ – ruler.

(b)        ‘Amatya’ – councilors.

(c)        ‘Janapada’ – territory/


(d)        ‘Durga’ – forts.             

(e)        ‘Kosa’ – treasury.

(f)        ‘Bala’ – army.

(g)        ‘Mitra’ – friend/ally.


            There exists a unique analogy. The word Sapta means seven, and anga means body parts. Hence, Saptanga means seven body parts. As an analogy, a state can be considered as a growing organism, and prakritis its body parts. All seven body parts are essential for holistic growth of state. However, Kautilya assigned priorities to them with leadership at the top: thus, Kosa is more important than Bala, Durg more important than Kosa, Janapada more important than Durg, and Swamin is the most important Prakriti for manifestation of power. Each preceding Prakriti is not only more important but also strengthens the latter; if one rots, it rots the latter doubly. Hierarchical interaction determines sound and cumulative health of prakritis and the “Power”.


Saptanga’s Manifestation into “Power”

The Kautilyan “Power” manifests differently. Saptanga-model transcends the idea of “Realist” power (military-economy predominant) and identifies five more distinct power factors, besides Kosa and danda, all being interrelated in hierarchical priority.12

Three Shakti(s)

Seven prakritis together manifest into Shakti of state. Arthashastra identifies three shaktis: Prabhava-shakti, Mantra-shakti & Utsaha-shakti. While Prabhava-shakti (power to generate “effects” like Hard Power) encompasses economy and military power, Mantra-shakti (power to influence, counsel, and induce co-opting like Soft Power) incorporates diplomacy.13 Uniquely, Arthashastra introduces Utsaha-shakti representing the personal power of the leader which provides drive, energy, and direction to other six prakritis. Kautilya rates Mantra-shakti as the most important of the three. The three powers interact “qualitatively” to produce CNP. For the qualitative analysis, Arthashastra outlines two parameters: “Sampat or Excellences” and “Vyasanas or Vices” of each Prakriti.


            Kautilya’s mastery rests not only in enumerating prakritis but also in devising ways in their qualitative manifestation. In this pursuit, Arthashastra first proposes the desired “excellences” to be possessed by each prakriti for an ideal “organic-state”, and then outlines ethical augmentation of same, aiming to transform ideal prakritis into Shakti.14 Arthashastra best recommends dharma-based moral exhortations to elicit the best out of each element and deprecates use of coercion. 

Vyasanas or Vices

Kautilya was pragmatic, as on one hand, he defined the “excellences”, on the other, he cautioned the king about the Vyasana(s): vices/calamity or nemesis of each Prakriti.15 A leader should be vigilant in foreseeing, averting and overcoming Vyasanas to decay of the “organic-body”. Priority of Vyasanas is same as that of Prakritis: that means to save treasury before army; resources before fortifications; and the ruler before all. Kautilya compares the king as “head” of the body. If the king is weak, the enemy will find it easier to intrigue against the state.16 Cumulatively, “Prakritis”, “Sampat”, “Vyasanas” and “Shakti” manifest into CNP through Kautilyan lens.

Uniqueness of Kautilya’s Saptanga Model of CNP

The uniqueness gets highlighted in the following points and deserves discrete deliberation:-

(a)        Answering “so what”: what to do next with CNP?

(b)        Interconnectedness.

(c)        “Yogakshema” (the ethical goal of state power), which provides the ultimate answer to the “so what” question.

(d)        Unique internal insights of Saptanga model.

Answering “So What”

What to do with the “power” is answered exquisitely in Arthashastra in the form of Shadgunya. Arthashastra legislates that it  is the state of Prakritis which makes extrapolative pre-selection of the Shadgunya (six fold foreign policy) to operate in system of states called Mandala.17 Thus, on calculation of relative CNP, Arthashastra rationally determines which of the six foreign policies a state should adopt for peaceful growth.


            Since Mandala (the international relations) remains in eternal flux, it changes dynamically, producing opportunities for some states, while exposing others. The “power equation” among the states keeps fluctuating: foes become allies, allies become foes; fluidity is ubiquitous. To exploit this fluidity, Kautilya introduces the “Shadgunyas”, and decrees :-

“He who sees the six measures of policy as being interdependent in this manner, plays, as he pleases, with the rival kings tied by the chains of his intellect.”18

            Simplistically, though not fully, they denote Sandhi (“making peace”), Vigraha (“hostilities”), Asana (“remaining stationary”), Yana (“marching/preparing for war”), Samshraya (“seeking protection/coalitions”), and Dvaidibhava (“dual policy” or “collaboration-cum-competition”).19

The Interconnectedness

In light of Shadgunyas, Kautilyan international system can now be understood to be the dynamic application of shakti/powers by a state emanating from its Prakritis on the neighbouring states amidst the eternal flux of Mandala (the international environment), utilising shadgunya to augment its power to be Chakravartin. Thus there is a strong connection between Prakritis, Shakti and Shadgunyas, as “correlation of CNP of states preselects which shadgunya should be gainfully chosen”.20


            Armed with the Shaktis emanating from Prakritis, the “organic-body” of state is positioned by Kautilya amidst other states to make choices for foreign policies, which should be chosen only rationally, and not on the whims of the ruler. If the policy is wisely chosen in accordance with the Kautilyan-sutras giving due weightage to the relative standing of the states, Kautilya claims that the policy would succeed, the state would progress, and internal augmentation of the Prakritis would follow soon. This intertwined cycle, thus, continues and augments the cumulative power of state.

Unique Internal Insights: Saptanga Model

There also emerge three unique internal insights on the following aspects of Kautilyan approach:-

            (a)        Yogakshema.

            (b)        Kosa versus Danda.

            (c)        Place of mitra in the Saptanga.

“Yogakshema” – The Ethical Goal of State-Power

Yogakshema means “peaceful enjoyment of prosperity and welfare of the ‘subject’”. Arthashastra enjoins that Yogakshema is the foremost dharma of the ruler and perpetually remains the central driving force for power manifestation. Arthashastra outlines the aim of “power” as “Balam shakti; sukham sidhi”, which means that the Shaktis are applied to attain “success” called “sukham” (happiness of the subject), signifying Yogakshema.22 Yogakshema alone makes Arthashastra-based approach unique, having no parallel in any western or Chinese discourse discussing “power”. It also ensures a favourable sustainability-factor to the growing CNP in future.

Kosa vs Danda

Kautilya prioritised kosa (treasury) just above danda (military). The subtle meaning of placing them together indicates that, first, they are closely interrelated, and secondly, the treasury is not only more important but also an “enabler” of the military force. If carefully studied, Yogakshema preaches “peaceful” enjoyment of prosperity, and thus legislates inherent precondition of “security”. Clearly, Kautilya believed that national security was essential to prosperity and thus having a good army was very important. However, he also understood that prosperity was essential to national security since an impoverished country could not have the resources to defend its security. Thus, prosperity and national security are closely inter-dependent. India’s humiliating defeat in 1962 against China is an apt example to clarify that point.

            By any standard, Danda does not represent “military” alone. “Danda” in Sanskrit has numerous meanings: punishment, order-keeping, royal sceptre, discipline enforcer, fine, force and army.

In return of the social contract between ruler and the subject, Kautilya authorises the ruler a tool called Danda—a legitimate, measured, and “just” coercive authority – for eliminating “Matsya-Nyaya” (Big-fish-eats-smaller-fish order) and maintain orderliness in the state. Use of Danda in Saptanga has similar meaning.

“Mitr” – A unique Dimension

A unique insight emerges in Kautilya’s incorporating Mitra as an integral contributor element of state for CNP, an insight which is not seen in any modern definition of state. Generally, a Mitr remains an outside actor, more so to adjust “Balance-of-power” dynamics. “Mitr” as an internal constituent is exclusive to Arthashastra. The contemporary world has numerous examples to prove this argument. US too is looking for more Mitr(s) in South East Asia in garb of its ‘Pivot Policy’.

Uniqueness Summarised

Summarily, the uniqueness of Arthashastra-based approach emerges in the following:-

(a)        It is truly comprehensive in approach giving due weightage to non-material and material factors. Interactive inclusion of “Prakritis”, “Sampat”, “Vyasanas” and “Shakti” make it more holistic an approach.

(b)        It does not treat power as a “resource-container” (western thought).

(c)        It establishes relative hierarchy of the seven constituent-elements of state and yet make them interactive with capability to augment/decay other “Prakritis”.

(d)        It caters for “qualitative” analysis of constituents for CNP determination through “Excellences” and “Vices”.

(e)        Unlike Chinese approach, it goes beyond mere inclusion of non-material constituents, but also gives greater weightage to them. It identifies Mantra-Shakti as the strongest power component amongst all forms of power.

(f)        It recognises Mitr as an inherent constituent element of power determination matrix of a state, which is a unique argument in itself.

(g)        It has an exclusive overbearing of ethical/moral exhortations. The eigenvalue of Arthashastra called “Yogakshema” adds unprecedented dimension to Arthashastra. It significantly caters for sustainability factor, which is found missing in western as well as Chinese approach.

(h)        It assigns “leadership” the highest priority in seven Prakritis. Coupled with Kautilya’s unique dimension of Utsahashakti, the swamin (the leader) becomes a formidable constituent in CNP calculation. Prime Minister Modi at the helm of affairs with his personal drive, energy and giving direction to India’s Prakritis aptly exemplifies the same.

(j)         It answers the “so what” question by operationalising CNP from Saptanga to Shadgunya to attain “Yogakshema” which is the ethical goal of state-power. The ethical angle here should not be lost sight of.

(k)        Internal insights of Saptanga-model make it truly a unique approach.

(l)         Remarkable interconnectedness of Saptanga model is not only unique but also fosters genuine comprehensiveness to the approach.


Saptanga-model based approach of Arthashastra emerges to be comprehensive in true sense of determining CNP. It overcomes the shortcomings of western as well as Chinese construct of CNP through its insightful and holistic approach building sequentially from the basis of a state to the power manifestation. It even goes beyond to cater for certain intangibles which play key role in manifestation of state power.

            The emphasis on ethical value of Yogakshema, primacy to non-material capability like swamin’s ethics, dimension of Utsaha-shakti of leadership, inclusion of Mitr as the seventh Prakriti, placing danda/army below kosa/treasury, assigning highest priority to Mantra-shakti, the “qualitative” analysis of “excellences/vices” of Prakritis, all put together make  this approach an honorably “comprehensive” and “unique” approach.


1 Original Kautilya’s Arthashastra (KA) defines “Shakti / Power” in Book No 9, Chapter No 1, Sutras No 135-136;  hereafter denoted as KA 9:1.135-136). Arthashastra is a compendium of fifteen books. Sutras are one line Sanskrit phrases.

2 Rumel Dahiya, “Ask An Expert: What is the Concept of Comprehensive National Power and Where Does India Stand in terms of CNP ranking?”, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), New Delhi,  http://www.idsa.in/askanexpert/conceptofComprehensiveNationalPower. Accessed on 19 Mar 2017.

3 Hua Liao, Weihua Dong, Huiping Liu and Yuejing Ge, “Towards Measuring and Visualizing Sustainable National Power—A Case Study of China and Neighboring Countries”, ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information (ISPRS Int. J. Geo-Inf.) 2015, 4, pp. 1672-1692. doi:10.3390/ijgi4031672

4 Michael Pillsbury, “China Debates the Future Security Environment”, Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2000 edition. pp 203.

5 Pillsbury, op.cit., pp. 204-256. https://fas.org/mike/guide/China/doctrine/pills2/part08.htm

6 Colonel Huang Shuofeng, Zonghe Guoli Lun (On Comprehensive National Power), Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 1992. pp. 155-159.

7 Wang Songfen, ed., Shijie zhuyao guojia zonghe guoli bijiao yanjiu (Comparative studies of the comprehensive national power of the world’s major nations), Changsha: Hunan chubanshe, 1996. pp. 69.

8 Zhimin Chen, “China’s Power from a Chinese Perspective (II): Back to the Center Stage.” In Assessing China’s Power, edited by Jae Ho Chung, 271-289. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers 2015 edition.

9 PK Gautam, “One Hundred Years of Kautilya’s Arthasastra”, IDSA Monograph Series No. 20. New Delhi: IDSA, 2013 edition. ISBN: 978-93-82169-20-8. http://www.idsa.in Accessed on 19 Dec 2016 and  R P Kangle, “The Kautilya Arthasastra, Part III”, New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, Bombay: University of Bombay Publications, 1972 edition. pp. 127.

10 The figure is a diagrammatic representation by the author.

11 Diagram conceptualized by the author.

12 Michael Liebig, “Statecraft and Intelligence Analysis in the Kautilya-Arthashastra”, Journal of Defence Studies, 8(4), October-December 2014 edition. pp. 27-54. http://idsa.in/jds/8_4_2014Statecraftand IntelligenceAnalysis.html

13 LN Rangarajan, “Kautilya Arthasastra”, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1992 edition. pp. 559.

14 KA 6:1.96.

15 RP Kangle, “The Kautilya Arthasastra, Part II”, New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, Bombay: University of Bombay Publications, 1972 edition.pp. 385-405.

16 LN Rangarajan, Op. Cit., pp.124. (KA 8:1.12-18).

17 R P Kangle, op.cit (figure has been conceptualised by the author).

18 KA 7:18.44. Kangle, Op. Cit., pp. 384.

19 LN Rangarajan, Op. Cit.,  pp. 563.

20 Michael Liebig, Op. Cit., pp. 49.

21 Figure conceptualized by the author.

22 KA 6:2.30-32. Kangle, The Kautilya Arthasastra, Part II, pp. 319.


@Lieutenant Colonel Malay Mishra was commissioned into 4th Battalion the Jat Regiment (JAT) in 2002. He has attended the Joint Command Staff College in New Zealand and has attained Masters Degree in International Security from Massey University, New Zealand.

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLVII, No. 607, January-March 2017.


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