There was a misconception in the western world till about the 20th century that in ancient India everything was moved by other-worldly considerations and that the society was ignorant of statecraft, social affairs and administration. If there was one turning point which removed this misconception, it was the discovery of Kautilya’s book ‘Arthashastra’ in Sanskrit which, though written 2,400 years earlier, was discovered as late as the 20th century. The singular credit for discovering this rare and monumental manuscript goes to Dr. Rudrapatnam Shamashastry of Mysore who not only discovered the manuscript but heralded a new era in Indian administration and statecraft.
Turning the pages of the history of ancient India pertaining to the 4th century B. C., we observe that it was Kautilya, also known as Vishnugupta or as Chanakya, who overthrew the ruling Nanda Dynasty and placed the great Chandragupta Maurya of the Maurya Dynasty on the throne of India. Kautilya was a student of the Taxila University (then called Takshashila and now in Pakistan) which was the very first university to be founded in the world as early as 700 B.C. He later taught in the same university for about four years. It was this Kautilya who wrote the ‘Arthashastra’ which is a comprehensive treatise on administration and civic affairs. This work, according to research scholars, must have been written sometime between 321-296 B.C. It is a practical guide not only on running governmental organisations but also a work that deals with subjects like duties of kings, ministers, local officials, methods of diplomacy etc., including ways and means of defeating an enemy. Coverage of its subjects is encyclopedic and many scholars have wondered how it was possible for ‘One small head to carry all he knew’ (to borrow and use Oliver Goldsmith’s expression in his poem ‘The Village School Master’). Normally such a treatise involves the united efforts of a syndicate of writers.
Among the several libraries and research institutions in the country which preserve rare palm leaf manuscripts, the Mysore Oriental Library (now called the Oriental Research Institute) is one of the most famous libraries in India. In 1891 the then Maharaja of Mysore State wanted to celebrate the golden jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen Victoria’s accession to the British throne in a grand style, and for this purpose got a beautiful building built with a lovely blend of classical architectural styles and named it Victoria Jubilee Institute. This is the same building in which the Oriental Library has been functioning for more than a century. It was here that the manuscript of Kautilya’s Arthashastra was first discovered. This library had a librarian by name Rudrapatnam Shamashastry during 1905. Shastry hailed from a place known as Rudrapatnam on the banks of river Kaveri and was born in a Sankethi Brahmin family and in a community known for Vedic learning. This is the same place from where many classical Carnatic music vidwans of Karnataka come from. Even at a young age, Shastry showed a remarkable skill in learning the Vedas, the Upanishads and other sacred lore. Before he was 40, he had mastered most of the Vedas, the Vedangas, classical Sanskrit, German, French and a few more foreign languages. In addition, he had learnt how to decipher several oriental scripts.
Rudrapatnam Shastry was a devoted and sincere librarian in the Oriental Library who put his heart and soul to the job. Even though the job of dealing with ancient manuscripts, most of which were in torn conditions and quite dusty, was difficult, risky and monotonous, he was dedicated to his job and took pleasure in doing it. One day, sometime in 1905, he picked up some palm leaf manuscripts and on detailed observation and examination, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was the work ‘Arthashastra’ written by Kautilya. Shastry examined the manuscript very closely, examining it from several angles and was finally convinced that it was the genuine work of Kautilya. In an introduction to the book written by him in 1909, Shastry says that he was convinced beyond doubt that it was a genuine work of Kautilya, a literary wonder of the ancient world. It did not take much for the new discovery to get publicised. Shamashastry became a celebrity. Scholars and academicians all over the world started congratulating him for having ushered in a new era in Indian administration and statecraft by discovering Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Eminent educationists and historians of those days literally vied with each other in inviting Shamashastry to their universities, honouring him and getting the benefit of the new discovery. Shastry also met Mahatma Gandhi in 1927 when he was camping at the Nandi Hills and presented him with a copy of ‘Arthashastra’. Gandhiji was immensely pleased with his rare contribution to Indian Polity and congratulated him.
Rabindranath Tagore was all praise for the new discovery. The Washington University awarded a Doctorate to Shastry and the Royal Asiatic Society awarded its Fellowship to Shastry. The Government of India gave him the title ‘Mahamahopadhyaya’, a rare and coveted honour in those days for Oriental scholars.
Dr. Asutosh Mukherji, the greatest educationist of India in the 20th century and five times Vice Chancellor of the Calcutta University, invited Shamashastry to Calcutta in 1919 under the auspices of the Calcutta University to deliver a series of 10 lectures. Shastry delivered these lectures on subjects connected with Arthashastra under the title ‘Evolution of Indian Polity’. These lectures were subsequently published in Mysore under the title ‘Kautilya’s Arthashastra’, with an introduction by the eminent British Historian J.F.Fleet. In his concluding remarks, Fleet says “We are, and shall always remain, under a great obligation to Shamashastry for the most important addition to our means of studying the general history of ancient India”.
His Highness the Maharaja of Mysore once visited Germany for delivering a talk at the invitation of a German institution. At the meeting he was introduced as His Highness the Maharaja of Mysore State. After the lecture was over, a German gentleman approached His Highness and asked him “Your Majesty, are you the Maharaja of Mysore where lives Dr. Shamashastry, the discoverer of Arthashastra?” The Maharaja was pleasantly pleased that one of his own subjects was well-known in far off Germany. On his return, he sent for Dr. Shamashastry and said, “In Mysore State we are the Maharaja and you are the subject. But in Germany, you are the Master and people recognise us by your name and fame”. The Maharaja awarded him with the title “Arthashastra Visharada” during the Dasara Celebrations of 1926.
Shastry who passed away in 1944 was an extremely simple man with deep religious habits. Humility was his hallmark and he was always ready to help youngsters to come up in life. Western scholars had always argued that ancient India had learnt the art of administration from the Greeks, ever since they came into contact with Greeks with the invasion of Alexander. But Shamashastry proved them wrong with his discovery of Arthashastra and showed how even the British had adopted some of the features contained in the Arthashastra for their administration.