Chanakya | Biography, Teachings & 11 Wise Lessons On Life

We can all learn a lot from this ancient philosopher and war hero!

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Chanakya is a figure from 300 BC. He is a Brahmin, teacher, economist, royal advisor, strategist, and author. 

What makes him so interesting is the combination of both his philosophical and political roles. He is known as the Kautilya or Vishnugupta who authored the Indian political treatise, Arthashastra1 Arthashastra. (2022, January 21). Wikipedia. (arthaśāstra), and had a role in the foundation of the Maurya dynasty. 

Compared by Niccolò Machiavelli to Plato and Aristotle, his influence on global and Indian history cannot be understated.

He was highly educated and worked as the chief advisor for the emperor Chandragupta2 Wikipedia Contributors. (2019, November 6). Chandragupta Maurya. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. But what we are most interested in are his philosophical teachings, which are just as significant now as they were in this era. 

a map of india

Chanakya’s Biography

Chanakya’s Easly Life

Chanakya was born in 350 BCE in a poor Brahmin family. As is traditional in this caste, he studied the Vedas and politics since his childhood days. 

He was born in either Chanaka village in the Golla region of South India according to Jain sources, or in Takshashuka according to Buddhist teachings.

Chanakya’s Introduction To Stately Life

After he completed his education, he began to work as a teacher in Takshashila. He married a woman called Yashodhara who was from the same Brahmin lineage as him. 

At an event where they were together, Yashodhra saw that everyone laughed at Chanakya’s poverty. She advised him to meet King Dhanananda in Pataliputra and ask him for some money. 

So, Chanakya attended an event that King Dhanananda organized for Brahmins. He gave the king some suggestions in the hope of receiving a reward, however, the king made fun of Chanakya for his looks and rejected him.

a silhouette of a king on a horse

Chanakya Vows To Destroy The Nanda Empire

That angered Chanakya and at that point, he vowed to destroy the Nanda Empire, which was ruled by Dhanananda. He befriended Pabbata, the king’s son, and got a royal ring from him through a game of wits. 

With this ring, he earned a lot of money and then began searching for someone who could help him destroy the Nanda dynasty.

He was also equipped with a weapon, ready to kill the king, but he first killed his son, Pabbata. 

He found a man called Chandragupta Maurya who gave him military training for 7 years.

When he was ready, Chandragupta formed a small army and attacked Magadha, the capital of the Nanda empire. However, the empire’s army was too large, and Chandragupta lost. 

The two realized they made a grave mistake, attacking the capital with a small army, rather than seizing the border first. 

So, Chandragupta followed Chanakya’s advice, and attacked the borders, starting to put them into his control. Chanakya bought weapons for the army using the coins he earned with the royal ring. 

Then, when the time was right, Chandragupta attacked the capital again. He successfully killed King Dhanananda, and established the Mauryan Empire, overthrowing the Nanda dynasty. 

ancient indian king painting

Chanakya Becomes Prime Minister

Chanakya became his prime minister. 

After Chandragupta’s death, his son Bindusara became the new emperor, and Chanakya remained the prime minister. However, a different minister, Subandhu was jealous of Chanakya, so he talked against him to Bindusara.

Bindusara was angry, and seeing his anger may turn out bad for him, Chanakya escaped to the forest, living a renounce life.

Chanakya died in 275 BC and the details of his death are uncertain. 

Beyond this quite whimsical life story, Chanakya also authored philosophical texts which is our principal topic today. 

Chanakya Niti: 11 Lessons From His Text On The Principles Of A Virtuous Life

Now we will go into possibly the most interesting part of Chanakya’s legacy, the Chanakya Niti aka Chanakya Neeti-shastra. This Sanskrit text is a collection of principles that talk about statecraft and living a successful and virtuous life.

It is still rooted in politics and leadership but the ideas can be useful for all. 

Here are some of the key teachings from the text. 

1. On Education

Chanakya was clear on the importance of education. He believed one should always keep learning, and that everything we receive through education remains with us our entire life. 

Our looks fade, our health gets worse, friends leave our lives, but knowledge remains with us as long as we live. 

Education helps us achieve our goals, but also gives a sense of completeness, even in solitude. A wise mind is calm and receives respect from society. 

an open book and apple

2. Don’t Share Your Secrets

Chanakya wrote we tend to share our deep and dark secrets with close people, but that may often turn out negative for us. 

Note that this is written in an era of wars, and primarily for politicians and leaders, where secrets have the potential to destroy one’s life.

But maybe, some of his thoughts are also useful to you. 

He talked about the changing nature of relationships, and how our closest people can often become our enemies. 

That can also happen in personal relationships. Although in these types of relationships, it is healthy and natural to share and be open, we may want to be careful about who we want to be in our closest circle. Not everyone has good intentions. 

3. Learn From Mistakes

Rather than repeating your own mistakes, learn from them. Analyze them, be observant, and implement what you learn.

Also, observe others, and learn from their mistakes. It is helpful to witness the consequences of actions, whether they are yours from someone else.

Direct experience tends to teach us much more than theory and help us grow.

4. About Debt

Chanakya said debt is like an enemy – you want to destroy it without leaving traces.

People lose respect if you are in debt, so it is best to avoid the necessity to loan money. If the need does arise, one should strive to pay it back as soon as possible. 

Debt creates a sense of worry which can prevent one from celebrating good things in life. 

a figure of a man carrying debt

5. Don’t Change Others

Chanakya said: “An egoist can be won over by being respected, a crazy person can be won over by allowing him to behave insanely and a wise person can be won only by truth.”

Through this sentence, he talked about not trying to change other people in our lives just to have them as company. It also refers to us not changing ourselves to be liked or accepted. 

He said that this can be a short-term solution, but having to change oneself for others eventually ends up with conflict, and may destroy a bond between people.

You cannot expect yourself or anyone else to be happy if expected to act differently than you or they are comfortable with. This type of bond does not last long, according to Chanakya. 

6. You Can’t Win Time

Chanakya said: “Time perfects all living beings as well as kills them. It alone is awake when the entire world is asleep.”

Through this, Chanakya talked about the supreme, unconquerable nature of time.

Time plays an important role in our lives – it is both a healer and a destroyer. It never stops, and can not come back. 

For this reason, we need to be in this moment and remain observant and aware. One needs to respect and befriend time if one wants their life to be meaningful. 

a man praying in front of a clock

7. Act Tough If You Need To

Chanakya said,” A snake should pretend to be venomous even when it is not.”

Through this, he talks about the need to act tough, even if you are not. In this way, you will avoid people taking advantage of you or disrespecting you. 

He teaches self-respect should be a priority regardless of our surroundings and the people who accompany us. These ideas can teach us to protect our rights and integrity. 

8. Humbleness Leads To Self-control

Chanakya taught that being humble can help in many aspects of our life. 

It releases our desire and prevents suffering. It brings greater self-control, which also means we can control our emotions, especially anger, which is the root of many of our problems. 

Not being able to control anger and other emotions can lead us to doing or saying things we later regret. Having self-control brings us to living a more peaceful life and leads us towards achieving our goals. 

9. Chose Your Company Wisely

The good association is highlighted in many Hinduist scriptures, and Chanakya also emphasizes it, saying: “He who befriends a man, whose conduct is vicious, rapidly gets ruined in the company.”

He believed we need to be wise when choosing the people who are closest to us, as we become like those who surround us.

Rather than remaining quiet in situations when we are in the company of someone with impure intentions, Chanakya said we should stand up for truth, or we will become the same. 

friends sitting in front of sunset

11. The Three Question Rule

Chanakya presented three questions we can ask ourselves when doing anything: Why am doing it? What result will the action bring? Will I be successful?

By answering these questions, we can think through our decisions, and they can help us decide whether we should or shouldn’t do something. 

The first question leads us to think about whether the action adds to the meaning of our life and whether our intentions are pure.

The second reminds us of the potential consequences of our actions. If we think it may harm us, it is possible we shouldn’t do it or should take necessary precautions. 

The third question can ground us, leading us to think whether our ideas are achievable.

We can still take risks, but it is good to be ready for potential failure and losses. In a way, we can choose our problems, rather than doing everything that comes to our minds without thinking twice. 

Chanakya Niti is full of many other ideas, and we were unable to showcase them all in a single article. But it is interesting to see how a 2000-year-old text is still relevant to this day.

We think those who are in leadership positions or strive to work on their material wealth may find these ideas especially helpful. If you are interested, you can find the entire text here.

Or read about other interesting personas through one of our articles: 

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Sara lives in Croatia, near the sea, with her dog. She enjoys exploring nature, and making art. She is currently developing a series of children’s/YA stories and comics in her native language, which she feels complements her work and allows her to live her dream life – having yoga, writing, art, and nature in her every day.

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