Fourfold Division of Knowledge in Ancient India

Ancient India–which was the pinnacle of human civilization–excelled in the field of material advancement as much as it excelled in spiritual and religious glory. The advancement in each of the spheres of life was based on the recognition of the fundamental reality that there can’t be any separation of the religious from material for the development of the human society. The equal importance of religious and material aspects of life is manifested in the division of disciplines of knowledge in Ancient India. Our primary consideration will be the Arthashastra of Aacharya Chanakya while we will also explore different perspectives on fields of knowledge from other ancient texts.

In the first अधिकरण of Arthashastra, Acharya Chanakya names the four disciplines of knowledge as follows:

आन्वीक्षिकी त्रयी वार्त्ता दण्ड.नीतिश् च_इति विद्याः। (01.02.01)
The four disciplines of knowledge are: आन्वीक्षिकी, त्रयी, वार्त्ता and दंडनीति. Before we move further, we need to understand the meaning of the four disciplines of knowledge enumerated by Aacharya Chanakya. आन्वीक्षिकी is a word whose meaning has changed over centuries. During the time when Arthashastra was written, the term आन्वीक्षिकी was roughly equivalent to दर्शनशास्त्र (loosely translated as Philosophy). However, in the later time, the meaning of the term became restricted and it became synonymous with न्याय दर्शन and तर्कशास्त्र. In the same chapter, Aacharya Chanakya considers सांख्य, योग and लोकायत as the constituents of आन्वीक्षिकी. The absence of न्याय or मीमांसा from the list is due to the fact that मीमांसा was still considered to be the part of त्रयी (Three vedas) while the term न्याय came into the use to denote a separate stream of philosophy around first century of the common era. While लोकायत is considered to be equivalent of चार्वाक दर्शन now, it referred to the different streams of materialist philosophy which existed during that time.

Next discipline of knowledge is त्रयी which included the three Vedas viz. Rik, Yajur and Saam. The absence of Atharvaveda in the list shouldn’t surprise us because for a long time, Atharvaveda was considered a separate text from the compendium of the other three Vedas. वार्त्ता is the discipline of knowledge concerned with the fields of commerce, agriculture and cattle rearing. These three activities were typically performed by Vaishya Varna and we can consider that Vaishyas primarily specialized in the knowledge of वार्त्ता. दंडनीति refers to the subject of polity which is the discipline concerned with the theory and practice of governance. The relative importance of the दंडनीति can be understood from the reference in Mahabharata which considers that when polity sinks further, neither the Vedas can be secured nor the Dharma can be preserved as society descends in the state of chaos.

While the existence of four disciplines of knowledge was well recognized, different streams of thoughts had their own ideas about how many of them can be considered as legitimate disciplines of knowledge. Aacharya Chanakya cites the diverging views of followers of three schools: Manu, Shukracharya and Brihaspati. We will explore the views of these three schools on valid disciplines of knowledge. On followers of Manu, Aacharya Chanakya says the following:

त्रयी वार्त्ता दण्ड नीतिश् च_इति मानवाः। (01.02.02)
Followers of Manu consider only three disciplines of knowledge viz. त्रयी, वार्त्ता, and दंडनीति as valid disciplines of knowledge because आन्वीक्षिकी is considered to be a sub-field of त्रयी instead of an independent field of knowledge. Followers of Shukra believe the following:
दण्ड.नीतिर् एका विद्या_इत्य् औशनसाः। (01.02.06)
Followers of Shukracharya considered only polity to be a legitimate field of knowledge which shows that they probably belonged to the stream of materialist philosophy. Shukraniti which is a later text on polity considers the number of disciplines of knowledge to be 32 which demonstrates that the authors changed the count of disciplines of knowledge as it expanded. Followers of Brihaspati consider the following though:
वार्त्ता दण्ड.नीतिश् च_इति बार्हस्पत्याः। (01.02.04)
Followers of Brihaspati considered only वार्त्ता and दंडनीति as valid fields of knowledge which is due to their rejection of Vedas and adoption of an atheistic worldview. Their rejection of आन्वीक्षिकी is probably due to their insistence on reliance on direct perception as the only valid means of knowledge while rejecting others. Aacharya Chanakya considers all four of them to be valid disciplines of knowledge which help in the different spheres of life. Having discussed the field of knowledge mentioned in Arthashastra, we will summarize the fields of knowledge mentioned in other texts concluding our discussion.

In Ramayana, only three disciplines excluding आन्वीक्षिकी have been considered as valid disciplines of knowledge while Mahabharata considers आन्वीक्षिकी to be the fourth discipline of knowledge. Aacharya वात्स्यायन has adopted the same stance as of Mahabharata while कामन्दक in his नीतिसार which is based on Arthashastra of Aacharya Chanakya follows the opinion of Chanakya by accepting all four as valid disciplines of knowledge. The importance of the four fields of knowledge is also reflected in how the deities were identified with them. For example, in Vishnu Purana, Lakshmi has been considered as the goddess in which the four fields of knowledge reside. The classification of fields of knowledge in distinct categories shows that the fields had grown considerably which necessitated the maintenance of categories, but it also reflects the fact that every sphere of human activity be it whether Commerce or Philosophy is necessary for the sustenance of the society.

References:

1. Arthashastra by Aacharya Chanakya (Hindi translation by Pandit Udayveer Shastri)

2. A History of Indian Logic by Satish Chandra Vidyabhusan

3. Banerji, Ambuj Nath. STUDIES IN ECONOMICS OF ANCIENT INDIA. Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol. 10, no. 1/2, 1929, pp. 77–113. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41682409. Accessed 1 July 2020.

Published by Satish Verma

Read. Contemplate. Write.

2 thoughts on “Fourfold Division of Knowledge in Ancient India

  1. Shukraniti is probably a 19th century forgery. It had been pointed out by D. D. Kaushambi in his introduction to the Yogghamacgarya’s commentary on Arthashastra published by Singhi Jain Shastra Shikshapitha.

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