Chanakya’s Arthshastra Sheds Some Light, Insights On Pandemics

Two folios of an old manuscript of the Arthshastra written on palm leaf

The worldwide outbreak of Covid-19 and its aftermath devastation on public health, economy and trade has led people and the intelligentsia to think of how to tackle such a horrendous pestilence. Scientists, Politicians, Policymakers and the ‘Think Tanks’ of various governments have joined hands to try to intercept the rising graph of the spread of the pandemic.

However, as any student of History and Sanskrit would obviously do, I tried to look back into the past and the rich corpus of ancient literature we have in order to know whether anything like epidemics occurred in the past. It is absolutely possible that pandemics like Covid-19 did occur in ancient times, and there were monarchs to control it as in the same way the present governments are trying to do.

As I was going through ancient Sanskrit texts of India, there came a sudden and precise description of what I was looking for. Inevitably, it came from the great genius Chanakya, otherwise known as Kautilya, whose ‘Chanakya Niti’ is increasingly becoming a subject of great enthusiasm and interest especially on regular social media posts, owing to his wisdom.

After securing Chandragupta’s reign, Chanakya retired from the court and spent the rest of his life on writing his ideas in a book called the ‘Arthashastra’.

The ‘Arthashastra’ teaches a ruler how to administer a kingdom wisely. Besides discussing other problems of the state- famine, warfare, security, rebellions, etc. the book also has references on dealing with pandemics and other ‘providential’ calamities.

Termed as the ‘Mārak’ or ‘Deadly’, pestilences have been classified under the category of ‘National Calamities’, bringing “virtually the whole of all kinds of business to a standstill by causing obstruction to work on account of disease and death among men and owing to the flight of servants”.

On talking about remedies, it says- “In times of pandemics physicians with their medicines, and ascetics and prophets with their auspicious and purificatory ceremonials shall overcome pestilences. Besides the above measures, oblations to gods, milking the cows on cremation or burial grounds, burning the trunk of a corpse, and spending nights in devotion to gods shall also be observed”.

Although many points stated may seem as ‘superstition’ to a modern mind, a lot of aphorisms have credentials which we can see even today- epidemic as a ‘national calamity’, the stand-stillness by obstruction of business and work, the flight of servants and workers (lot happening these days), physicians/doctors and their striving of finding a remedy and burning of corpses (to prevent transmission from infected bodies).

It may be propounded from this instance that we have a lot to look and learn from the past and our ancient literature in order to solve present problems and striving for a better future. As someone has said- “We know nothing about the future nor do we know everything about our present, it is only the completeness of past we have and the various lessons to learn for acting upon”.

–Arsh Ali/Prayagraj

(The Author Is India’s Youngest Archaeologist And First Egyptologist, Sanskritist)

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