Thus Spoke Chanakya [Book Review]


Radhakrishnan Pillai’s  ‘Thus Spoke Chanakya‘ is essentially a collection of popular sayings and philosophical reflections from Arthashastra – an ancient Indian political treatise written by Chanakya around 3rd century BCE. Pillai’s endearment towards Chanakya is not new as this is his 8th book about the great historical figure.

For the uninitiated, Chanakya was an ancient Indian philosopher, economist and a formidable statesman. He served as an advisor to (then) Indian King Chandragupta Maurya.

Chanakya (pic courtesy:

As the legend goes, Chanakya had a keen eye for the right talent and he knew a thing or two about converting raw potential into genius and exuberance into leadership. He took a young Chandragupta under his wings when the latter was orphaned and abandoned.

It was Chanakya’s mentorship that helped Chandragupta become a King and not just that, Chanakya with his subtle knowledge of warcraft and subterfuge guided him to beat the Greek ruler Seleucus I. In short, he was a text-book perfect kingmaker.

Interestingly, Chanakya’s Arthashastra vanished around the 13th century and was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century. And ever since it has become increasingly popular. Amongst Hindu scholars of the day, there is a clear consensus for Arthashastra to be the most influential book ever written on statesmanship and politics.

Though Pillai’s book draws heavily from Arthashastra, unfortunately, it fails to evoke the same emotion as expected out of a book following Arthashastra’s suit. Overall, the book is an average read. If you are crunched for time and if you can’t bring yourself to reading a more demanding source version, then you might like his book.

I cringed every time Radhakrishnan Pillai highlighted that Chandragupta aided by Chanakya had defeated Alexander the Great. I am sure you are shocked, too.

I asked a few intellectuals in my circle and no one is aware of this shocking historical fact. Most replied, “No. Their paths never crossed.” When Chandragupta defeated the Macedonian General Seleucus I in 305 BC, Alexander had long passed away. Yes, Seleucus did use to serve under Alexander at one time, but that’s the only string that ties the two historical greats – Alexander and Chandragupta.

Maybe, there are some sources Pillai had access to which mention otherwise. And, in the larger interest of his readership, he should have cited these sources of information in his book. But there are no such references. In the end, this could turn out to be a major historical blooper attributed to the author.

‘Thus Spoke Chanakya’ gives you some bit of reflective fodder for how to approach daily life. The problem, however, is if you have access to the more profound original version which is easily available in English, why would you want to read an abridged, watered-down version?

Actually, this book is not for purists. Pillai makes it clear in the preface that it’s targeted at today’s generation which likes to skim through content rather than devour the difficult prose. Lucidly written, Radhakrishnan Pillai’s book is indeed a breeze to read and can be finished in a few sittings.

Thus Spoke ChanakyaI gleaned quite a few good thoughts from the book myself, especially, the author’s elaborations on Chanakya’s assessments of leadership are worth reading. Some of the best ones for me were – “A leader lives to serve others’, ‘Plan for the worst case scenario’, ‘Be ready to be confronted’, ‘Chronicle your experience’, ‘When you create something, build it to last’ and so forth.

However, the book gets a little dreary as you hop from page to page making it difficult to find a good stopping point. This is another bummer for many readers. There are no chapters or sections in the book. Most distillations from the original source could easily be slotted into themes such as ‘Leadership’, ‘Warcraft’, ‘Relationships’, etc., but the author, for some odd reason, decided to not have any sections.

Then there is the problem of ample repetition. Chandragupta defeated Alexander the great – a possibly distorted fact – gets a mention almost after every 3 pages. Chanakya aided Chandragupta to climb the ladder of success, this fact gets shoved down your throat on page after page.

Finally, ‘Thus Spoke Chanakya’ does not make for a profound experience. You’d like this book if the quick-to-read content is what you are looking for. You may take away some memorable ideas and words of wisdom, but overall the book lacks brio. It feels like a great song cut off from its final notes. It feels like the literal equivalent of accidentally gorging yourself on bread at a restaurant while you’re thinking about Michelin 3-star food.

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