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Comparative Study of Sun Tzu and Kautilya on Military Affairs; By Shantanu K. Bansal

C3S Paper No. 0071/2016

Sun Tzu (Master Sun) Sun Tzu was a well known military General and strategist who lived in ancient China.Traditional historians believe that he lived between 544-496 B.C. He grew up with an education focusing on military affairs and politics. He participated in numerous campaigns and succeeded in becoming a General under the Wu dynasty. He is one of the East Asia’s most important historical figures.He is famous for writing ‘The Art of War’ a timeless classic which is considered to be one of the most important works of eastern literature. Although at that period of time it was common for Chinese generals to write about their philosophies of war, his work has survived the ages. ‘The Art of War’ is a treatise, not only on military strategies and warfare but also on diplomacy, cultivating relationships with other states and avoiding battles etc. It has been employed by the likes of Napoleon, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Joseph Stalin and General Douglas Macarthur. No other text on military science has ever been so popular and widely read as ‘The Art of Warfare’. Sun Tzu’s ideologies represent contemporary behaviors and strategies of the Chinese government and the PLA.

Chanakya (Kautilya) He comes across as one of the world’s greatest diplomats. Originally Kautilya was a teacher at the ancient university of Takshashila which is considered as one of the first universities of the world. Chanakya assisted Chandragupta Maurya in his rise to power. He is widely credited for having played an important role in establishment of the Mauryan Empire after overthrowing Nanda dynasty. His role in uniting India and defeating Alexander is also well known.Chanakya served as the chief advisor to both Emperor Chandragupta and his son Bindusara. His achievements as a diplomat, as a king maker, as a security strategist, as an economist, as an administrator, as a teacher and altogether as a man of wisdom and unfailing strategies is widely celebrated throughout India and also in west. Particularly Chanakya’s art of diplomacy is contemporarily practiced in the areas of defence, strategy formation and foreign relations. He is well known for his written works on ‘Arthashastra’ ,‘Neetishastra’ and ‘Neeti sutras’. It is believed that he was inspired from Vidur who was known to be the wise man in Mahabharata and had wrote ‘Vidur Sanhita’  from which Chanakya Neeti is said to be derived from.

Comparing Widely Accepted and Relevant Military quotes Of Both Strategic Thinkers:-

(1) Whom to Fight ?

Master Sun-‘If equally matched, we can offer battle, if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him’.

Kautilya-‘If the enemy is strong then following his advices, if he is weak then by striking him, if he is equal then by force or by friendship he should kept under control’. (2)Information is Key to Success!

Master Sun- ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle’.

Kautilya- ‘The attacker should know the comparative strengths and weaknesses of himself and of the enemy, and having ascertained the time of marching, the consequences, the loss of men and money, and profits and danger, he should march with his full force; otherwise one should keep quite.’Chanakya stressed on the point of not having to hate your enemy as hatred kills logical thinking therefore try to love him in order to understand him thoroughly.

(3)Don’t be a Warmonger!

Master Sun– ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’.

Kautilya– ‘A arrow shot by an archer may or may not kill a single person; but skillful intrigue, devised by a wise man, may kill even those who are in the womb.’ He has also quotes that ‘If the end could be achieved by non-military methods, even by methods of intrigue, duplicity and fraud, I would not advocate an armed conflict’.

(4)Options besides War

Master Sun-‘To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting’.

Kautilya- He believes that the ‘welfare of a state depends on an active foreign policy’. He further insists that ‘Peace is to be preferred to war!’ Kautilya is of the view that peace can be made with the enemy, purely as a temporary measure, provided it gives to the conqueror to build up strength before conquering the enemy. He has also suggested that ‘Any activity which harms the progress of the enemy engaged in similar undertakings is also a progress’.

(Pakistan has been playing the same game with us. It is amazing that Kautilya’s tactics have been forgotten in the country of his origin and are so ably followed by our enemies).

(5) The Right Time

Master Sun – ‘if the enemy is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, try to separate them’.

Kautilya-‘An enemy destruction shall be brought about even at the cost of great losses in men, material and wealth’. Kautilya believed that ‘Whenever an enemy king is in trouble, and his subjects are exploited, oppressed, impoverished and disunited, he should be immediately attacked after one proclamation of war’.

(6) The Use of Resources

Master Sun-‘The natural formation of the country is the soldier’s best ally’; he further explained that the power of estimating the adversary, of controlling the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating difficulties, dangers and distances, constitute the test of a great General. He also suggested that ‘we shall be unable to turn a natural advantage to account unless we make use of local guides’.

Kautilya-The teacher of Kautilya says that of strength, place and time, strength is the best; for a man who is possessed by strength can overcome any difficulties. But contrary to this, Kautilya says that ‘of strength, place and time, each is helpful to the other’. (7) The Use of Spies And Assassins

Master Sun-‘Be subtle! Be subtle! And use your spies for every kind of business.’ He believes that ‘We shall succeed in the long run in killing the commander-in-chief.’

Kautilya– Besides getting information, ‘Spies should be well-versed in: inciting enemy forces to revolt, spreading false rumors about the enemy, mixing poison in enemy’s food supply, poisoning their drinking water, setting fire to the enemy’s camp and bringing havoc and destruction, or if necessary, even assassinating the enemy leaders.’ He had also stated that ‘Secret agents can destroy high officers in the enemy army either with poison or with ‘love-winning medicines’.’

(8) Deception!

Master Sun-He suggests ‘all warfare is based on deception’. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable;   when using our forces; we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe that we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe that we are near.’He also stated ‘Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected’. Kautilya-At all times, Kautilya wanted his king to use deception, play roles, and create appearances. Why risk heavy losses or even defeat in battle if deception and assassination can weaken or even defeat the enemy? His favorite tactic in battle was to pretend to be defeated, retreat in apparent disorder, and then attack a disorganized and unsuspecting enemy.Even if a king is forced to surrender in order to survive, Kautilya wanted him to pretend that his surrender was “an excellent thing” until he was clever or strong enough to fight back.

(9) Lengthy War?

Master Sun-‘there is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged war’. Kautilya– ‘Once you decide to go for a military campaign, it must be pursued steadfastly’. He had further stated that the duration of a campaign and the interval between the two consecutive operations should be kept short for maintain a high tempo.

(In my view the above 9 points must be ascertained by the state and the generals whenever they want to wage a war or been in a situation of attack.) Who is more relevant in contemporary terms?

Few writers from ancient times enjoy the same level of recognition as Sun Tzu, the famous philosopher and general from ancient China. Quotes from his timeless treatise the “Art of War” appear in popular culture and the whole book is frequently studied by business and military students around the world.The ‘Art of warfare’ is divided into 13 chapters and written in points and quotes. Its strategic thinking principles can be applied to military problems as well as the challenges of the marketplace or even personal struggles. Although much of the relevant quotes has been stated above but some more needs to get in consideration-

-‘Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.’ He suggests,securing ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands. Therefore a good General is the one who fights only to win!

-‘Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.’ Your tactics should always based on your Strategies. While our nation still has not got its own National Security Strategy (NSS), one would wonder that our security agencies are working on what basis and motive? Isn’t it just a temporary framework?

– ‘Humble words and increased preparations are signs that enemy is about to advance. Violent language and driving forward as if to the attack are signs that he will retreat.’ If the Policy Makers in 1962 war could have been taken note of this quote by Master Sun, the history would be different for sure.

-‘The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.’He suggests remaining one step ahead than your enemies which will cause the enemy to make plans in contrast to yours and there would be no scope where he can outmaneuver you.

– ‘The best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire then to destroy them.’ In 1971 war we have given this quote a practical shape but it is a subject of debate whether it can be employed in ongoing wide scale Sub conventional conflicts or not.

-`The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance that he is not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable. Altogether this quote emphasizes on to be prepared to perceive the enemy at any given time.

One may find Chanakya as appropriate in the role of diplomacy and Sun Tzu in Generalship although after the above analysis one will find that both the leaders’ basic concepts of fighting may resemble to each other. However upon studying both of these extraordinary leaders, one will find that Chanakya was having a greater vision as compared to Master Sun. The glimpses of the same are visible in this compact analysis. While Sun Tzu’s philosophies greatly emphasize on invading other states with foot soldiers, chariots and others ancient tools, it limits its relevance, although it has some key points which ascertain that they can be employed in many dimensions of contemporary fighting, of which most of them have been stated above. This makes him an extraordinary General to remember. Chanakya has defined that ‘a great general is the one who has a great imaginative power’. This particular quote very well defines the key characteristic of Sun Tzu. After the introduction of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and unstoppable increase in Conventional Arms, the world today has arrived in the era of Sub-conventional Warfare which effectively and efficiently includes the use of irregular and indirect tactics to harm the enemy. Kautilya had mastered these tactics therefore they are influencing a number of states today and are becoming more relevant than ever before. But India is experiencing an Asymmetrical warfare environment for more than 3 decades. Therefore one fails to understand why we (as a nation) have forgotten Chanakya in such a crucial time when the nation is facing number of threats from numerous sources, known or unknown. These are a few more relevant points from ‘Arthashastra’ that must be taken into account:

  1. ‘Of war, there is open war, concealed war and silent war.’Open war is obvious, and concealed war is what we call guerrilla warfare or insurgency in more relevant terms, but silent war is a kind of fighting that no other thinker one knows of has discussed. Silent war is a kind of warfare with another kingdom in which the king and his ministers—and unknowingly, the people—all act publicly as if they were at peace with the opposing kingdom, but all the while secret agents and spies are assassinating important leaders in the other kingdom, creating divisions among key ministers and classes, and spreading propaganda and disinformation.So as per him today we are witnessing an environment that combines both ‘concealed’ and ‘silent’ war, although their attributes varies.

  2. Chankya believed that ‘wars are based on 3 pillars and there should be a harmonious balance amongst the three pillars for success in war. These 3 pillars are the military, the government and the people.’ Therefore today we have to understand that the acceptance of people towards any type of war is very important as same as the acceptance of Military. The people will act as the bridge towards victory while if not ascertained the experiences of US war on Vietnam, Iraq and others can proof the fact outright. However it has not been a hidden fact that we still have to do much work in order to win the support and beliefs of people for widespread counter-insurgencies operations in Kashmir valley and some other places.

  3. He greatly emphasized on attacking the root cause of most insurgencies such as social and economic distress rather than attempting to solve the insurgency using armed forces or its threatened use.

  4. He has suggested indiscriminate bombing (fire) should not be used at all as indiscriminate fire would be counterproductive. On the basis that fire is a divine calamity whose effects are unpredictable, it is a destroyer of unaccountable numbers of people and wealth. This would only give rise to further resentment. Many states such as Russia and China in the past had resorted to indiscriminate bombing against homegrown insurgency that only had widen their subject of internal stability of state.

  5. For him the aspect of internal security and stability was most important in the subject of defence of a state and for which he had outlined number of precautions. Such as, Before forces are committed to the main task, all own vital and vulnerable targets should be secured. At the time of major conflict in future, the terrorists and insurgents having moral support from rivals would be used as a strategic asset by the enemy that can cripple important roads and railway lines and other such infrastructures in the sensitive regions of North and North East. Although aside wartime, we are not able to protect our prestigious installations in peacetime such as an air force airbase. There is need to rationalize our security system from the very bottom and states must take the responsibility of the same with greater enthusiasm.

  6. He had suggested that an internal rebellion is more dangerous than an external threat because it is like nurturing a viper in one’s bosom. Therefore the antisocial should be kept under check or otherwise it may provide you a greater harm than the external one.

  7. However to maintain internal and external security, Kautilya proposed a massive network of spies and agents operating within the states and also in surrounding and enemy state. He had introduced a great description and infrastructure of espionage community in 3rd century BC whereas we have failed to reorganize our disparate Intelligence infrastructure on the basis of today’s needs.

  8. He had suggested that the secret service had three principals of which the first is strategic objective, which means keeping the ruler informed of developments within and outside the empire. Secondly it conducts covert operations aimed at undermining both internal and external adversaries. Thirdly, it was mandated with the maintenance of internal discipline and loyalty of the bureaucracy and military. Today we need to strengthen ourselves not only in terms of external intelligence assessment but also in internal intelligence assessment and counter espionage devices.

  9. Arthashastra articulates that victory on the battlefield is not the final remedy but it is the acceptance of the final outcome by the defeated site.

  10. He stressed on physiological warfare to destroy the enemy’s will to fight. This needs having meticulous understanding of the psyche. He had suggested weakening the powerful enemy by opinion of other kings and influential personalities or weakening the enemy by spies and use of propaganda. All its aspects has been significantly been covered in detail by Kautilya.

  11. He does not make much distinction between military strategy and statecraft. He believed that warfare is extension and an integral part of the statecraft.

  12. His teacher says that “If any two kings, who are hostile to each other and are in a stationary condition expect to acquire equal amount of wealth and power in equal time, they shall make peace with each other”. “Of course”, says Kautilya, ‘there is no other alternative’ but he suggest ‘by keeping the agreement of peace, I can undertake productive works of considerable importance or can destroy at the same time those of my enemies.

  13. Similar to Master Sun, he makes an incisive observation that an unhonored Army, an unpaid Army or an exhausted Army will fight if honored, payed and allowed to relax but an dishonored army will be subjected to easement that may widen the subject of internal stability. But are we really doing enough for our forces?

In that era Magadha was also encircled by both internal and external threats as contemporary India but he believed that military strength combined with superior intelligence and comprehension of politics could prevail against any strong adversaries. The basic problem of the country is that the political leadership and bureaucracy  believe that responsibility of security of the state is the responsibility of security forces exclusively but once if they realise that the security of the state is not only the responsibility of such organisations but as same as theirs. There would be no more delays and snags in our security preparedness.

Kautilya had mastered all subjects of warfare. He believed in a long standing army that includes chariots, elephants etc and having given great impotence on its organizational structure. In Arthashastra he has covered an array of strategies over a vast canvas from actual fighting and planning, to training and deceit, though only few points have been able to undertaken. Arthashastra was written in about 300 B.C. It teaches various intricacies of governance and politics. It is divided into 15 books, 150 chapters, 180 sections and 6000 slokas.It was written almost 2300 years ago and was believed to have been lost but was discovered in the year 1920. Any scholar in this field would advice that Arthashastra reveals stark similarities between the problems faced by Chankya and modern scourge of terrorism, insurgencies and more. Arthashastra comprises of many complex Sanskrit Sutras that sometimes leads to errors in its interpretation in other languages. For example  in reference to Arthashastra there is a famous quote that ‘your neighbor is your natural enemy and your neighbor’s neighbor is your friend’. In fact contrary to this common saying, Arthashastra says that every neighboring state is not and cannot be, an enemy and enemy’s enemy is not always a friend  (29thSutra of 18th chapter of the 7th book). Therefore we need to do an intense study on Arthashastra for finding out its real relevance.

Shouldn’t the Defence Service Staff College and other institutes of repute comprehensively study the Arthashastra? The Arthashastra should not be subjected to only comprehensive study but also by noting down the outcomes of it under the National Security Strategy (if it has ever been made) and it should affect the way we conduct international politics and military oriented strategies.

Basic similarity of approach in war fighting:-

  1. The above 9 points in the 3rd heading of the article has broke the myth that both the leaders’ strategies resemble each other only when it comes to the use of espionage but their basic concept of fighting resemble each other as whole.

  2. Both followed ethics of warfare, both were very calculative and had great respect towards enemies. Both had believed that war should be profitable if ever committed.

Basic differences of approach in war fighting:-

  1. Modern warfare encompasses military, economic, political and diplomatic aspects. While Sun Tzu had focused on basically the military strategies, Chanakya had focused on all.

  2. Master Sun’s philosophies are basically influenced by invading and conquering other states while Kautilya has never showed such importance to conquest of other states.

After this analysis one can make a broad distinction of relevance. As of the view, in a situation of war; any country can pursue lessons from the writings of both Sun Tzu and Kautilya and in situations of peace and sub-conventional warfare; one can learn number of lessons from Kautilya. Although the query of which thinker is better is a subject of once own priorities and situation. Logically one should not become a victim of narrow minded prejudices and should try to inculcate all relevant teachings of both the leaders in personal life and more in statesmanship. One hopes that this analysis will help readers in reaching some conclusions. But by getting inspiration from both the leaders of the past why can’t one become his/ her own Sun Tzu and Chankya of tomorrow?

‘A nation that fails to learn from their own history, for sure will step towards another failure’

[Shantanu K. Bansal is an Independent Analyst. His research areas cover: Modernization of Indian Armed Forces and Future National Security Threats. He is specializing in External Security Threats, Modern Weapenology and Intelligence Reforms. He is also the founder of Indian-Aerospace/Defense News (IADN) ( Email id-]

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