Corruption and Bribery in Ancient India of Kautilya’s Arthasastra

Corruption in India, bribery and embezzlement are not only recent phenomena. It is interesting to look back into the history of India to find corruption among Indian officers and ministers in those days.

Corruption and Bribery in Ancient India

Corruption in India is has been a problem ever since the country had been having a multilayered administration by officers, ministers and other administrative chiefs. The corruption problem in ancient India, coupled with bribery, kept infesting the society more and more in an increasing rate. This is quite clear from the way the contemporary writers like Ksemendra and Kalhana have condemned the government officials, as well as other employees of different levels, in their celebrated works. Ksemendra in his Dasavataracaritam has advised the king to remove all the officials, ministers, generals and priests from office with immediate effect, who were either taking bribes themselves or have been indulging in corruption in some other way. Yet another work by Ksemendra, called Narmamala, depicts corruption bribery spreading fast like rampant maladies. He also found an answer to the much discussed question how to stop corruption in India of his time; he has explicitly addressed the contemporary intelligentsia to step forward and shoulder the responsibility of purging their folks.

Kalhana too was merciless in his condemnation of the corrupt government officers in India of his own time. He damned the officials outright and asked the king to stay alert from their evil entente. Kalhana has also cited some examples of top incidents of corruption in India of his days. He said that Bijja became even richer than the kind as he sought to unfair means of getting money, while Ananda managed to achieve a high post in the office by bribing his higher officials.

Embezzlements and Black Money in Ancient India

Embezzlements in India was just the same problem in the yesteryears as they are now, mostly among the police and administrative officers.1 In fact, Kautilya has given a detailed list, referring to not less than forty ways of embezzlement that the treasury officers in his time were used to practice. The most common of them were pratibandha or obstruction, prayoga or loan, vyavahara or trading, avastara or fabrication of accounts, pariahapana or causing less revenue and thereby affecting the treasury, upabhoga or embezzling funds for self enjoyment, and apahara or defalcation. And he uses a nice metaphor too – just like one cannot resist tasting the drop of honey or poison on the tip of the tongue, a government servant can never resist devouring even a bit of the government revenue. Again, we cannot confirm if a fish under water is drinking water or not; similarly, ascertaining the bribery, corruption and embezzlement on the part of government officials and policemen were equally impossible.

And no wonder, this huge amount of embezzlement in different spheres of the administration and in varied degrees led to the piling up of a huge amount of black money in Indian market in the age of the Arthasastra; nevertheless, we would not enquire into that in detail and make this article unnecessarily long. In brief, that caused all the similar problems we find today, including sudden and unpredictable hikes in the prices of essential goods. It would have been quite interesting to address the issue under the present economic circumstances of the present day India, but the scope of this article would ask to better leave that out.

Legal Punishments for Corruptions in Ancient India

There were a wide range of legal punishments for corruptions in ancient India for the depletion of treasury – monetary, corporal, and even sentences to death.2 Sometimes corrupt police officers would let the prisoners break away after taking a healthy amount of bribe. However, if they were caught, both the escaping prisoner and the corrupt police official were sentenced to death at the same time. Considering the present day situation of law and order in a number of agitated places in India, as well as the general corruption on the part of some police officers, we may quite confidently conclude that the system of the age of the Arthasastra was quite good enough as it succeeded to reduce the number of such cases by a significant degree.

The accountants of all sections, departments and tiers needed to submit their accounts and audit reports to their respective higher officials on a regular basis. The work officers or the Karmikas needed to report the details to the Officer in Charge of Accounts, or the Karanika, every year. In Police Administration in Ancient India, K. K. Mishra has explicitly shown how they were punished for lack in their parts in audits and related jobs – "If they did not turn up for this purpose and came without the account books or balance sheets properly arranged, they were to be fined ten times of the amount involved. Again, if the work-officer presented himself with the records for being audited but the accounts-officer was not ready for audit, he (accounts-officer) was to be imposed the fine of the first amercement."3 Passing counterfeit coins as genuine ones was also widely practiced, and less often met with punishment, just as we find the circumstances today. There were several other severe punishments for the plethora of corruptions in ancient India which we simply cannot exhaust within the scope of this article.

Well, it looks like the mentality of the country has not changed much even in millenniums, and anti corruption measures by Govt of India 2011 do not seem do anything real good, very much like the state policies of the Maurya empire that were also only partially successful.


1 Mishra, Kamal Kishore Police Administration in Ancient India, (New Delhi, 1987), p. 115.
2 The Kautiliya Arthasastra, 2.8.22, 2.8.31-32
3 Mishra, Kamal Kishore Op. Cit., p. 120.

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