Council of Ministers: The Eyes of a Ruler in Hindu Polity

Hindu Polity since its very inception has been a discipline elucidating every aspect of administration and statecraft having its own model of sovereignty and objectives of governance. Acharya Chanakya calls it दंडनीति as दंड is the instrument through which a ruler executes his orders, upholds Dharma and ensures that society doesn’t plunge into lawlessness (मत्स्यन्याय) in which the stronger one starts devouring the weaker ones. For an efficient administration, it’s imperative that a king has right set of counsellors and executives who are known as ministers in modern statecraft. However, Acharya Chanakya has elucidated the concept of मंत्र and मंत्री while differentiating between the body of counsellors and council of ministers. The counsellors of king who provide him मंत्र are known as ‘mantriṇo’ while the council of ministers are known as ‘mantriparishad’. Before we delve deeper into the distinction, we will explore what does मंत्र mean as explained by Acharya Chanakya in Arthashastra.
In first Adhikaran (subject matter) of Arthashastra named Vinayadhikaran, chapter 15, Acharya Chanakya writes,
कर्मणाम् आरम्भ.उपायः पुरुष.द्रव्य.सम्पद् देश.काल.विभागो विनिपात.प्रतीकारः कार्य.सिद्धिर् इति पञ्च.अङ्गो मन्त्रः ॥” (01.15.42)
In above verse, Acharya Chanakya explains that a Mantra has five aspects:
  1. Ways to undertake an activity
  2. Contemplation on manpower and materials required for the activity
  3. Determination of time and place
  4. Provision for unexpected and emergency circumstances arising out in course of the activity
  5. Execution of activity in righteous way to achieve the desired objective (कार्यसिद्धि)
The above quoted text makes it clear that a मंत्र is not merely an advice tendered by his counsellors to the ruler but a thorough consideration of every aspect of the activity. To undertake any work, the first and foremost is the determination of tentative ways to achieve the objective. If a state wants to annex an enemy territory contagious with its border, it has to find the suitable ways in which the objective can be achieved. It may cover what will the nature of force required, covert or overt action, sabotage or direct confrontation etc. When a मंत्री tenders such important advice to the ruler, it becomes necessity to ensure that the plan has a degree of secrecy lest it becomes a public knowledge even before the plan is determined.
Due to the importance of secrecy in मंत्र, scholars of Hindu polity preceding Acharya Chanakya were quite cautious of what will be the right numbers of counsellors providing मंत्र. Aacharya Bhardwaja made secrecy primary concern and advises the king to not appoint any counsellors but deliberate on मंत्र alone while Acharya Vishalaksha disagrees with the contention of Bhardwaja and suggests that if the king doesn’t seek advice of any counsellor, it’s quite probable that the king will make mistakes. Vishalaksha gives the right counsel priority over secrecy but Chanakya disagrees with his proposition as right advice and secrecy can’t be sacrificed for each other. As a method of compromise, a king should appoint 3-4 counsellors who will provide मंत्र to the king. He advises against appointing 2 counsellors as they may conspire against the king detrimental to the interests of the state. In current time, formation of empowered group of ministers to tender advice on all important matters to the prime minister is an example of Chanakya’s polity of appointing small body of counsellors.
Once the मंत्र has been tendered to the king, the next step is discussion of the action with the council of ministers known as मंत्रिपरिषद. The council of ministers will deliberate upon the nitty-gritty of the policy and the means to implement it with the support from concerned minister as well as the council of ministers as whole. Acharya Chanakya is in favour of large council of ministers as having a larger number of ministers helps in better execution of policy and diversity of talents. The decision in council of ministers will be made as per the majority view and if a minister is unable to attend the discussion, his advice should be obtained via sending letter to him. To substantiate his argument, Acharya Chanakya cites the example of council of ministers of Indra:
इन्द्रस्य हि मन्त्रि.परिषद्.ऋषीणां सहस्रम् ॥ स तच् चक्षुः ॥ तस्माद् इमं द्व्य्.अक्षं सहस्र.अक्षम् आहुः ॥ (01.15.55-57)
Since Indra had thousand of ऋषि in his council of ministers, he is said to have thousand of eyes by the virtue of being endowed with perspective and vision of thousand of learned men. Chanakya didn’t put any restrictions on numbers in council of ministers and advised the ruler to appoint based on his capabilities unlike Acharya Manu who fixes the number of ministers at 12. In modern polity, especially in parliamentary form of government, the size of council of ministers including the state ministers is quite large, yet the important decisions are taken by the Prime Minister in discussion with small group of ministers which are sometimes called as Empowered group of ministers and informally super cabinet.
In the above discussion, the central aspect is pragmatism of Acharya Chanakya in statecraft instead of being fixated with a specific number. For a small state, 12 ministers may have been sufficient but for an extremely large state such as Mauryan state, it’s virtually impossible to govern the state with merely 12 ministers. Considering that Chanakya had direct experience in administration, his views on polity were in accordance with the aspects of polity which are not quite visible to political theorists. The genius of Chankya survives in some other form even after two millennia.


1. Arthashastra by Chanakya (Hindi Translation by Pandit Udayaveer Shastri)

2. Chandragupta Maurya and His Times by R K Mukherjee

Published by Satish Verma

Read. Contemplate. Write.

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