Environment & Ecology in Kautilyas Arthasastra and their Modern Relevance - Dr Ratan Lal Basu


Recent awareness and in many cases fuss about environment and ecology arose only since the middle of the twentieth century. In fact, the current wave of environment awareness got a fillip only after the United Nations Conference on Human Environment held in 1972 at Stockholm (Sweden), and the matter gained further importance after the Earth Summit held in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). However during the early 20th century Rabindranath Tagore dealt in detail with various aspects of environment (and in a more coherent way than the present day piece meal analysis) in various writings.1 In this regard he derived inspiration from ancient Indian texts. Vedic Samhitas, Upanishadas, Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Dharmasastras, Arthasastras etc. embodied rules and regulations relevant to preservation of environment and ecology. Unlike the present day piecemeal and ad hoc approach towards the issue ancient Indian environment consciousness was holistic in its approach and it sprang from the Upanishadic gospel Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, i.e., all the beings of the entire universe belong to the same family. Among the ancient Indian texts, Kautilyas Arthasastra is most secular and pragmatic in its approach as it was designed to specify rules which could be enforced by law by the king. In this article we are going to take up some important prescriptions embodied in the Arthasastra for preservation of environment and ecology.  

Prevention of Man-made Hazards

Kautilya entrusted the task of protecting forests and other natural resources with the king [through different state officials]. He prescribed that appropriate plants should be grown to protect dry lands and pasturelands should be properly protected. The king should protect different types of forests, water reservoirs and mines. To quote:

II/1/39: Thus the king should protect the product-forests, elephant-forests, irrigation works and mines that were made in ancient times and should start new ones.

II/2/4: And he should established on its border or in conformity with the (suitability of the) land, another animal park where all animals are (welcomed) as guests (and given full protection).  

II/2/5: And he should establish forests, one each for the products indicated as forest produce .

II/2/6: On the border (of the kingdom), he should establish a forest for elephants guarded by foresters.

II/2/7: The superintendent of the elephant-forest should, with the help of guards of the elephant-forest, protect the elephant-forest (whether) on the mountain, along a river, along lakes or in marshy tracts, with its boundaries, entrances and exits (fully) known.

II/2/8: They should kill anyone slaying an elephant.

    Houses and other dwelling places, roads, cremation grounds etc. should be properly constructed preserving environment. Every house should have proper arrangements for controlling fire. Any violation of the rules pertaining to these matters would make one liable to punishment. To quote:

II/4/1: Three royal highways running west to east and three running south to north, that should be the division of the residential area.

      Every house should be constructed strictly on the basis of the rules [preserving environment] prescribed by the authorities. There should be proper arrangements in each house for sewage and proper disposal of wastes. The violators would be fined according to the gravity of the offence.

III/8/6: (He should make) the dung-hill, the water-course or the well, not in a place other than that suited to the house, except the water-ditch for a woman in confinement till the end of ten days (from delivery).

III/8/7: In case of transgression of that, the lowest fine for violence (shall be imposed).

III/8/9: He should cause to be made a deep-flowing water-course or one falling in a cascade, three padas away (from a neighbours wall) or one aratni and a half (away).

III/8/10: In case of transgression of that, the fine is fifty-four panas.

III/8/11:  He should cause to be made a place for carts and quadrupeds, a fire-place, a place for the large water-jar, the grinding mill or the pounding machine, one pada away or one aratni (from a neighbours wall).

III/8/12: In case of transgression of that, the fine is twenty-four panas.

III/8/13: Between all two structures or two projecting rooms, (there is to be) an open lane one kishku (wide) or three padas.

III/8/14: Between them, the distance between the eaves of roofs (is to be) four angulas, or one may over-lay the other.

III/8/15: He should cause to be made a side-door in the intervening lane, measuring one kisku, for making repairs to what is damaged, not (allowing) crowding.

III/8/16: For light, he should cause a small window to be made high up.

III/8/19: And he should cause that part above the verandah which requires protection, to be covered by matting, or a wall touching (the roof), for fear of damage by rain.

      In the above specifications Kautilya takes into consideration all aspects necessary for perfect harmony in dwelling places of the citizens.

     Kautilya prescribes various fines and? other punitive measures for polluting the environment by throwing dirt on the roads and highways or voiding urine and faeces at public places.

II/36/26: For throwing dirt on the road the fine shall be one eight (of a pana), for blocking it with muddy water, one quarter.

II/36/27: On the royal highway, (the fines shall be) double.

II/36/28: Fines for voiding faeces in a holy place, in a place for water, in a temple and in royal property are one pana rising successively by one pana, half these for passing urine.

      But Kautilya was wise enough to realize that sometimes people are compelled to commit the above mischief due to illness or similar reason. In that case the miscreant is exempted from fines. To quote:

II/36/29: If (these are) due to medicine, illness or fear, (the persons are) not to be fined.

       Throwing carcasses or dead bodies at public places in the city are punishable by fines. To quote:

II/36/30: For throwing the dead body of a cat, a dog, a ichneumon or a serpent inside the city, the fine shall be three panas; for throwing the dead body a donkey, a camel, a mule, a horse or cattle, six panas; for a human corpse, fifty panas.

        The dead bodies are to be cremated at cremation grounds only. Otherwise the offender will have to pay fines. To quote:

II/36/33: For depositing burning (a corpse) elsewhere than in a cremation ground, the fine (shall be) twelve panas.

       Kautilya also prescribes that every one should be careful about preserving common property and bio-diversity. Otherwise he would be fined. To quote:
IV/10/4: In case of theft of deer or objects from deer-parks or produce-forests, (there shall be) a fine of one hundred.
IV/10/5: In case of theft of deer or birds (intended) for show or pleasure or in case of killing these, the fine shall be double.

     No one should do anything to have harmful external effects on cultivation, irrigation system and other properties of other persons. Violators of this rule would be punished with fines. In case of setting fire to properties of others or common property, or bursting a dam containing water the punishment is death-sentence. To quote:

III/9/27: In the case of damage to the ploughing or seeds in anothers field by the use of a reservoir, channels or a field under water, they shall pay compensation in accordance with the damage.

III/9/28: In case of mutual damage to fields under water, parks and embankments, the fine (shall be) double the damage.

III/9/29: A tank on a lower level, constructed afterwards, shall not flood with water a field watered by a tank on a higher level.

III/9/30: A (tank) constructed on a higher level shall not prevent the flooding with water of a lower tank, except when its use has ceased for three years.

III/9/31: For transgression of that, (the punishment shall be) the lowest fine for violence and the emptying of the tank.

III/10/5: For encroaching on a path for small animals or men the fine is twelve panas; on a path for large animals twenty-four panas, on a road for elephants or fields fifty-four panas, on a road to a dike or a forest one hundred and six, on a road to a cremation ground or a village two hundred, on a road in a dronamukha five hundred, on a road in a sthaniya, the countryside or pasture land, one thousand. 

III/10/6: In case of reducing the size of these (roads), the fines are one-quarter of the fines (mentioned).

III/10/7: In case of ploughing on (them, the fines are) as prescribed.

IV/11/17: For one breaking a dam holding water, drowning in water at the same spot (shall be the punishment), the highest fine for violence if it was without water, the middle if it was in ruins and abandoned.

IV/11/20: He shall cause to be burnt in fire one who sets on fire a pasture, a field, a threshing ground, a house, a produce-forest or an elephant forest.

Prevention of Natural Hazards

Damage to environment may be caused also by natural hazards. All of them cannot be prevented by human material endeavors. But we may prevent some of them by our knowledge of science and coherent ?efforts. Kautilyas prescription for disaster management is worth noting, particularly the anticipation of disasters and prior preparation for preventing them as far as possible. First he classifies the disasters caused by nature. To quote:

IV/3/1: There are eight great calamities of a divine origin: fire, floods, disease, famine, rats, wild animals, serpents and evil spirits.
IV/3/2: From them he should protect the country.

     Some of the important measures as prescribed by Kautilya to prevent natural hazards are discussed below.

Fire Hazards

The responsibility, of controlling hazards from fire and devising rules for the citizens so as to minimize hazards from fire, lies with the City Superintendent. To quote:

IV/3/4: Prevention of fire is explained in Rules for the City Superintendent and in connection with royal possessions in Rules for the Royal Residence.

     Remedies against fire in residential areas and punitive measures against violators of fire-prevention rules are prescribed in the following slokas.

II/36/15: And (citizens shall take) steps against (an outbreak of) fire in summer.

II/36/16: In the two middle quarters of the day, one-eighth (of a pana) is the fine for (kindling) fire.

II/36/17: Or they should do their cooking outside (the house).

II/36/18: One quarter (of a pana is the fine) for not providing five jars, also a big jar, a trough, a ladder, an axe, a winnowing-basket, a hook, a hair-seizer and a skin-bag.

II/36/23: For the owner, not running to save the house on fire, the fine (shall be) twelve panas, six panas for a tenant.

II/36/24: In case of (houses) catching fire through negligence, the fine (shall be) fifty-four panas.

     The role of the City Superintendent as regards fire prevention is described in the following slokas.

II/36/19: The (City-superintendent) should remove things covered with grass or matting.

II/36/20: He shall make those who live by (the use of) fire reside in one locality.

II/36/22: Collections of water-jars should be placed in thousands on roads and at cross-roads, gates and in royal precincts.
Flood Hazards

In the following slokas, Kautilya prescribes measures for prevention of hazards from flood-situations.

IV/3/6: In the rainy season, villages situated near water should live away from the level of the floods.

IV/3/7: And they should keep a collection of wooden planks, bamboos and boats.

    Kautilya also emphasizes on mass-participation in rescue works. This is done both by moral suasion and legal measures. To quote:

IV/3/8: They should rescue a (person) being carried away (by the flood) by means of gourds, skin-bags, canoes, tree-stems and rope-braids.

IV/3/9: For those who do not go to the rescue, the fine is twelve panas, except in the case of those without canoes.

Famine Hazards

The role of the state in famine management, as prescribed by Kautilya, is noteworthy. The ruler should have prior preparation for anticipated famines so that he is not caught napping. When the disaster actually occurs, he should take quick measures so as to minimize the harmful effects on the masses. The most interesting aspect in these prescriptions is that the ruler should relinquish if he fails to handle the famine situation.
To quote:

IV/3/17: During a famine, the king should make a store of seeds and food-stuffs and show favour (to the subjects), or (institute) the building of forts or water-works with the grant of food, or share (his) provisions (with them), or entrust the country (to another king).

       Help of friendly foreign governments may also be sought if it is not possible to manage disaster by the efforts of the government of the affected country alone. To quote:

IV/3/18: Or, he should seek shelter with allies, or cause a reduction or shifting (of the population).

     In fact ecological and environmental awareness of Kautilya can be found in almost all the chapters. It is clear from the above discussion that Kautilya was much concerned about matters pertaining to the preservation of environment and ecology. To this end he prescribed various rules and also the punitive measures for violation of such rules. In this regard Kautilyas approach was holistic as he considered preservation of environment and ecology as integral parts of human living.

Relevance for Modern Times

As a follow up of the Stockholm International Conference on Environment in 1972 (mentioned at the beginning of this chapter), several international agencies were formed for the protection of environment and ecology of Earth. Mention-worthy among them are:

1. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)
2. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
3. United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)
4. South Asia Co-operative Environment Program (SACEP)

      This wave of environment awareness also encouraged the Government of India to pass various Acts to protect environment and ecology. Noted among these Acts are:

1. Water (Prevention and control of pollution) Act, 1974
2. Air (Prevention and control of pollution) Act, 1981
3. Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
4. Motor Vehicles Act, 1998

      For implementation of the provisions of these Acts, The Central Pollution Control Board at the central level and State Pollution Control Boards at the state levels were formed in 1988. The Department of Environment, Forest and Wild Life was established
in 1985. Mention worthy among the various Government Agencies, and NGOs [Non-Government Organizations] concerning environment protection in India are:

1. Botanical Survey of India
2. Zoological Survey of India
3. National Wasteland Development Board
4. Central Ganga Authority
5. Bombay Natural History Society
6. Central Forestry Commission
7. Department of Non-conventional Energy Sources
8. Tata Energy Research Institute (Santra (ed.) 2001)

     One major shortcoming of all these measures [both at the national and at the international level] is that they are mainly ad hoc in nature and lack holistic approach. In fact, these measures are designed to solve specific problems and do not spring from any basic cosmological and holistic view. So, it has become difficult to coordinate and harmonize various types of activities and agencies designed to protect environment and ecology. These approaches may solve some specific problems pertaining to environment and ecology but would fail to remove the basic cause [which lies in our world outlook and view regarding nature and our relationship with it], which lead to the generation of damage to environment and ecology. In this regard we may learn from the ancient Indian texts like Kautilyas Arthasastra. We are to consider ourselves as a part of the harmonious universe and therefore regulate our material activities in accordance of the rules of nature. This approach towards environment and ecology is likely to generate deeper awareness about these matters among the common people so that they will be more willing to spontaneously co-operate in eco-preserving drives of the government or the NGOs. Kautilyas detailed specifications points out how every measure towards preservation of ecology and environment are coherently integrated.

       It is true that environmental and ecological problems are now more severe and complicated than those at the time of Kautilya. Many aspects of environmental problems were totally absent in those days. But if we look deeply into the matter we will realize that all man-made environmental and ecological problems arise because of our greed or ignorance that make us commit things contrary to the balance of nature. The root cause ecological problems is this and therefore same for all ages. 

       In Kautilyas age, moral preaching were not enough to prevent people from committing eco-damaging activities. So, he specifies punitive measures by the state for violating rules intended to maintain environment and ecology. All these approaches differ from the present ad hoc approach in the sense that we today do not go into the essence of the matter, and we treat every problem in isolation but not as the integral part of our living. Another important aspect of Kautilyas prescriptions is that he considers rescue of people from disasters a moral obligation of the ruler and he has no moral right to continue ruling if he fails to manage the disasters in ?the best possible manner. For example, in connection with famine control, Kautilya opines that in case it is not possible for the king to manage the disaster in an appropriate manner he must relinquish and entrust the country with another more competent king [see sloka IV/3/17 above]. The modern rulers are to learn from this prescription of Kautilya.

      Thus we see that the ancient texts may not help us in solving specific ecological and environmental problems, but they are going to give us deeper insight into the matter, which will help us solve our problems in a more harmonious way.

     This is the relevance of the ancient texts like the Arthasastra of Kautilya for modern India and, for that matter, the modern world.  


1. See Rabindranath Tagore: Rabindra Rachanavali, 125th Anniversary Edition:

i) Vol-2: Bharatvarsha, p.695;

ii) Vol-6: Swadeshi, p.497; Samaj, p.517; Bilaser Fans, p.526; Shiksha, p.563.

iii) Vol-7: Dharma, p.447; Shantiniketan, p.521; Tapavan, p.690.
iv) Vol-14: Palli Prakriti, p.351; Aranya Devata, p.372.

[English translations of the above text from original Bengali by the author of this article are yet to be published]


Santra, Prof. S.C. (ed.) (2001): Current Perspective of Environmental Science, Department of Environmental Science, University of Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal.

Kangle, R. P. (1986): Kautilyan Arthasastra, Part-II (English translation), Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi.  [All quotations from Arthasastra in our study are from this text. In quotations, I/5/1 means Book-I, Chapter-5, Sloka-1 etc.]

Dr.Ratan Lal BasuRatan Lal Basu, Ph.D. (Economics) is an ex-Reader in Economics and Teacher-in-Charge, Bhairab Ganguly College, Kolkata, India. Dr. Basu has written & edited several books on Economics.

Check out WBRi Online Bookstore Recommendatiuons on books by Dr. Ratan Lal Basu: CLICK HERE >

Apart from his passion for the field of Economics, Dr. Basu's other interests are Boxing & Small Game Hunting (gave up the nasty games during college life); Swimming in Turbulent Rivers (physically impossible now); Himalayan Treks, Adventure in Dense Forests, Singing Tagore Songs and also writing travelogues and fiction in Bengali and English.

Dr. Ratan Lal Basu can be reached at rlbasu [at] rediffmail.com.

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