Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-5959bf8d4d-9w8k4 Total loading time: 0.366 Render date: 2022-12-08T02:07:44.398Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Notes on Political Thought in Medieval and Early Modern South India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2009

Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53706, USA Email:
Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA Email:


This essays deals with a neglected and significant strand of Indian political thought by describing and analysing the corpus known as nīti in the context of medieval and early modern South India (in particular with reference to the Telugu-speaking region). Works of nīti are presented here within a larger context, as they evolve from the medieval Andhra of the Kakatiyas into the Vijayanagara period, the Nayakas, and beyond. They are also opposed and contrasted to other texts written within the broad category of dharmashāstra, which seem to deal with a far more conservative project for the management of society and politics within a caste-based framework. Authors and compilers dealt with include Baddena and Madiki Singana, but also the celebrated emperor-poet Krishnadevaraya (r. 1509–29). An argument is made for the continued relevance of these texts for the conduct of politics in South Asia, into and beyond the colonial period.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Burton Stein, ‘All the King's Mana: Perspectives on kingship in Medieval South India’ in J.F. Richards (ed.), Kingship and Authority in South Asia (Delhi, 1998), pp. 133–88 (with a brief mention of some Jaina nīti texts on pp. 144–45). For a succinct critique of Stein's formulations on the period under consideration here, see Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, ‘Agreeing to disagree: Burton Stein on Vijayanagara’ in South Asia Research, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1997), pp. 127–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 For anthropological perspectives, see Parry, Jonathan and Bloch, Maurice (eds.), Money and the Morality of Exchange (Cambridge, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gregory, C.A., Savage Money: The Anthropology and Politics of Commodity Exchange (Amsterdam, 1997)Google Scholar; Breton, Stéphane, ‘Social body and icon of the person: A symbolic analysis of shell money among the Wodani, western highlands of Irian Jaya’ in American Ethnologist, Vol. 26, No. 3 (1999), pp. 558–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 On the problem of religion, see Talal Asad, ‘The construction of religion as an anthropological category’ in Asad (ed.), Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, 1993), pp. 27–54; drawing on the earlier work by Wilfred Smith, Cantwell, The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind (New York, 1964).Google Scholar

4 Headland, Thomas N., Pike, Kenneth L., Harris, Marvin (eds.), Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate (Newbury Park, 1990).Google Scholar

5 See the useful discussion in Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology (Cambridge, MA, 2002), pp. 152–58.

6 The category of the ‘pre-political’ appears most famously in Eric Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in archaic forms of social movement in the 19th and 20th centuries (Manchester, 1959).

7 Anderson, Benedict R.O'G., ‘The idea of power in Javanese culture’ in Holt, Claire, Anderson, Benedict R. and Siegel, James T. (eds.), Culture and Politics in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY, 1972), pp. 169Google Scholar; also the earlier essay by Anderson, ‘The languages of Indonesian politics’ in Indonesia, No. 1 (April 1966), pp. 89–116.

8 Nandy, Ashis, ‘The culture of Indian Politics: A stock taking’ in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1970), pp. 5779CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also see Nandy, ‘The political culture of the Indian State’ in Dædalus, Vol. 118, No. 4 (1989), pp. 1–26.

9 For example, see Mehta, V. R. and Pantham, Thomas (eds.), Political ideas in modern India: Thematic explorations (New Delhi, 2006).Google Scholar

10 Crone, Patricia, Medieval Islamic Political Thought, c. 650–1250 (Edinburgh, 2004)Google Scholar. The most important recent exercise on Indo-Islamic polities, and exploring the genre termed akhlāq, is that of Muzaffar Alam, The Languages of Political Islam: India 1200–1800 (Chicago, 2004).

11 Our problem thus parallels in some measure that faced by historians of political thought in China. For some examples, see Roger T. Ames, The Art of Rulership: A Study in Ancient Chinese Political Thought (Honolulu, 1983), and Hsiao Kung-chüan, A History of Chinese Political Thought. Volume 1, From the Beginnings to the Sixth Century A.D., tr. F.W. Mote (Princeton, 1979).

12 By focusing on the vernacular traditions, we seek to distinguish ourselves from a few earlier attempts which remain focused on Sanskrit; see, for example, Upendra Nath Ghoshal, A History of Indian Political Ideas: The Ancient Period and the Period of Transition to the Middle Ages (Bombay, 1959); and more recently the disappointing essay (again deriving from a secondary literature, but referring to Sanskrit materials) by Parekh, Bhikhu, ‘Some reflections on the Hindu tradition of political thought’, in Pantham, Thomas and Deutsch, Kenneth L. (eds.), Political Thought in Modern India (New Delhi, 1986).Google Scholar

13 See, for example, Amatya, Ramacandra Pant, Ajñapatra, ed. Khole, Vilas (Pune, 1988).Google Scholar

14 We should note in passing that the word nīti is etymologically related to netā, the most common North Indian word in use today for ‘politician’.

15 For a recent examination of this period, see Talbot, Cynthia, Precolonial India in Practice: Society, Region, and Identity in Medieval Andhra (Delhi, 2001).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 For Vijayanagara's relationship to (and memory of) earlier polities in the region, see Hermann Kulke, ‘Maharajas, Mahants and Historians: Reflections on the historiography of early Vijayanagara and Sringeri’ in A.L. Dallapiccola and S. Zingel-Avé Lallemant (eds.), Vijayanagara—City and Empire: New Currents of Research, 2 Vols. (Stuttgart, 1985), Vol. I, pp. 120–143.

17 On Mughal involvement in the region, see Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, Penumbral Visions: Making Polities in Early Modern South India (Delhi/Ann Arbor, 2001).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 Sewell, Robert, A Forgotten Empire—Vijayanagar: A Contribution to the History of India (London, 1900; reprint, Delhi, 1962).Google Scholar

19 Olivelle, Patrick, The Law Code of Manu (Oxford, 2004)Google Scholar, p. xxiii: ‘the composition of the MDh may be placed closer to the second century CE’.

20 On this early interaction, also see the essay by Phillip Wagoner, ‘Precolonial intellectuals and the production of colonial knowledge’ in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 45, No. 4 (2003), pp.783–814, which however appears to us far too influenced by the model of ‘dialogic interaction’ put forward in Irschick, Eugene F., Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795–1895 (Berkeley, 1994).Google Scholar

21 The classic study remains Derrett, J.D.M., Religion, Law and the State in India (New York, 1968)Google Scholar. Also see, more recently, Lariviere, Richard W., ‘Dharmaśāstra, Custom, ‘Real Law’ and ‘Apocryphal’ Smrtis’ in Koelver, B., ed., Recht, Staat und Verwaltung in klassischen Indien (Wiesbaden, 1997), pp. 97110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 The standard work is R.P. Kangle, ed. and trans., Kautilya's Arthaśāstra, 3 Vols. (Bombay, 1965–72), but there is a vast secondary literature.

23 Wagoner, Phillip B., Tidings of the King: A Translation and Ethnohistorical Analysis of the ‘Rāyavācakamu’ (Honolulu, 1993), pp. 182, 197Google Scholar. This Telugu text bears a close and interesting resemblance to a Kannada text of the same period, Shrīkrishnadevarāya dinacari, ed. V.S. Sampatkumara Acarya (Bangalore, 1983).

24 We have used Kautilya, Arthashāstram, ed. Pullela Sriramacandrudu (Hyderabad, 2004) with Balanandini commentary, in Telugu script.

25 Charles Malamoud, ‘Croyance, crédulité, calcul politique: Présentation et traduction commentée de l'Arthaçâstra de Kautilya, livre XIII, chapitres I et III’ in Multitudes, 1997 (

26 Thomas Trautmann has in particular attempted to date the text from linguistic evidence. See Trautmann, Thomas R., Kautilya and the Arthaśāstra: A statistical Investigation of the Authorship and Evolution of the Text (Leiden, 1971)Google Scholar. Also see K.J. Shah, ‘Of Artha and the Arthaśāstra’ in Contributions to Indian Sociology, N.S., 15 (1982), pp. 55–73, and Scharfe, H., Investigations in Kautilya's Manual of Political Science (Wiesbaden, 1993).Google Scholar

27 Kamanda, Nīti-sāra, ed. with a Telugu translation by Tadakamalla Venkata Krishna Rao (Madras, 1860).

28 See Talbot, Precolonial India in Practice.

29 Madiki Singana, Sakala-nīti-sammatamu (eds.), Nidudavolu Venkataravu and P.S.R. Apparao (Hyderabad, 1970) (this includes a facsimile of the 1923 edition by M. Ramakrishna Kavi).

30 Baddena, Nīti-shāstra-muktāvaḷi, ed. M. Ramakrishna Kavi (Tanuku, 1962).

31 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. C.V. Ramachandra Rao (Nellore, 1977). Ramachandra Rao in his preface to the work already notes that Singana does not include Ketana's work in his anthology, but assumes that this is be due to the lack of ‘popularity’ of the latter during his time. Also see Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. C. Vasundhara (Nellore, 1989).

32 On Tikkana, see Rao, V. Narayana and Shulman, David, Classical Telugu Poetry: An Anthology (Delhi, 2002).Google Scholar

33 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, p. 25, Verses 1–3.

34 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, Verse 42, p. 27.

35 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, Verse 109, p. 32.

36 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, pp. 33–4, Verses 113–20.

37 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, p. 36, Verse 149.

38 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, pp. 21–22, Verses 107, 108 and 110.

39 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, p. 23, Verse 126.

40 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, p. 23, Verse 129.

41 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, p. 23, Verse 134.

42 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, p. 17, Verse 42.

43 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, p. 17, Verse 56.

44 Ketana, Vijñāneshvaramu, ed. Ramachandra Rao, p. 10, Verse 113.

45 See Someshvara, Mānasollāsa, 3 Vols., ed. Gajanan K. Shrigondekar (Baroda, 1925–61).

46 Linda T. Darling, “Do Justice, Do Justice, for That is Paradise': Middle Eastern Advice for Indian Muslim Rulers' in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Vol. XXIII, Nos. 1–2 (2002), pp. 3–19. Also see Wagoner, Tidings of the King, pp. 182, 197; and especially his ‘Iqta and Nayankara: Military service tenures and political theory from Saljuq Iran to Vijayanagara South India’, unpublished paper presented at the 25th Annual Conference on South Asia, Madison, WI, October 18–20, 1996. In this latter essay, Wagoner presents convincing evidence for the influence of Persian-Islamic political thought on Baddena.

47 On this thorny issue, see Aubin, Jean, Émirs mongols et vizirs persans dans les remous de l'acculturation (Paris, 1995).Google Scholar

48 For a recent, and stimulating, reconsideration of the genre, see Dakhlia, Jocelyne, ‘Les Miroirs des princes islamiques: Une modernité sourde?’ in Annales HSS, Vol. 57, No. 5 (2002), pp. 11911206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

49 For an earlier translation, see Sarasvati, A. Rangasvami, ‘Political Maxims of the Emperor-Poet Krishnadeva Raya’ in Journal of Indian History, Vol. IV, No. 3 (1926), pp. 6188Google Scholar; also the later rendition (with the Telugu text of the rāja-nīti section) in K.A. Nilakantha Sastri and N. Venkataramanayya (eds.), Further Sources of Vijayanagara History, 3 Vols. (Madras, 1946). We have already dealt at length with this text in V. Narayana Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, ‘A new imperial idiom in the sixteenth century: Krishnadeva Raya and his political theory of Vijayanagara,’ in Jean-Luc Chevillard and Eva Wilden (eds.), South Indian Horizons: Felicitation Volume for François Gros on the Occasion of his 70th birthday (Pondicherry, 2004), pp. 597–625.

50 There is, unfortunately, no recent biography of this monarch. See, however, the works of Oruganti Ramachandraiya, Studies on Krsnadevaraya of Vijayanagara (Waltair, 1953), and N. Venkataramanayya, Krishṇadevarāyalu (Hyderabad, 1972).

51 For the succession dates of Krishnadevaraya and his coronation, see P. Sarma, Sree Rama, A History of Vijayanagar Empire (Hyderabad, 1992), p. 133.Google Scholar

52 Talbot, Cynthia, ‘The Nayakas of Vijayanagara Andhra: A preliminary prosopography’, in Hall, Kenneth R. (ed.), Structure and Society in Early South India: Essays in Honour of Noboru Karashima (Delhi, 2001), pp. 251–75.Google Scholar

53 On the emergence of the Nayaka polities, see Rao, Velcheru Narayana, Shulman, David and Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, Symbols of Substance: Court and State in Nayaka-Period Tamilnadu (Delhi, 1992)Google Scholar; and for a study based on the inscriptional record, Karashima, Noboru, A Concordance of Nayakas: The Vijayanagar Inscriptions in South India (Delhi, 2002).Google Scholar

54 Venkatakavi, Jakkaraju, Āndhra Kāmandakamu, ed. Sastri, Veturi Prabhakara (Tanjore, 1950), Verse 2.112.Google Scholar

55 Ibid., Verse 2.82.

56 We return here to a set of themes treated in Rao, Velcheru Narayana, Shulman, David and Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, Textures of Time: Writing History in South India, 1600–1800 (New York, 2003).Google Scholar

57 Rao, Komarraju Venkata Lakshmana, ‘Āndhra brāhmaṇulaloni niyogi-vaidika-bheda-kāla-nirṇayamu’, in Lakshmaṇarāya vyāsāvaḷi, 2nd edition (Vijayawada, 1965), pp. 117.Google Scholar

58 Veturi Prabhakara Sastri, ed., Cāṭu-padya-maṇi-mañjari, Vol. II (Hyderabad, 1988) (including the 1913 edition), section entitled mantrulu, pp. 251–308. Also see the section on Sabhāpati-vacanamu, in Cāṭu-padya-maṇi-mañjari, Vol. I, pp. 283–89.

59 Prabhakara Sastri, ed. Cāṭu-padya-maṇi-mañjari, Vol. II, p. 257. The combinations of vowels and consonants are now described in their graphic terms such as ětvamu, kǒmmu, rather than as phonological terms such as ěkāra, and ukāra.

60 Errayya, Sakala-nīti-kathā-nidhānamu, ed. T. Chandrasekharan (Madras, 1951). The exact date of Errayya (or Errana) is not known and the suggestion by the editor Chandrasekharan that he belongs to late-fifteenth century seems to be too early.

61 The text of the Sumati shatakamu has been printed many times with a number of variations, some of them indicating that the text itself changed with time, including a bowdlerized edition by Vavilla Ramasvami Shastrulu & Sons (Madras), and reprinted it many times. The edition we have used is dated 1962. But also see Macca Haridasu, Tathyamu Sumati (Hyderabad, 1984). In the nineteenth century, C.P. Brown collated a number of verses from manuscripts and translated them, for which see Brown, C.P., Sumati shatakam, ed. Sarma, C.R. (Hyderabad, 1973).Google Scholar

62 Subbarao, Vennelakanti, The Life of Vennelacunty Soobarow (Native of Ongole) As Written by himself (Madras, 1873), pp. 6575.Google Scholar

63 On Cinnaya Suri, see Velcheru Narayana Rao, ‘Print and prose: Pandits, Karanams, and the East India Company in the making of modern Telugu’, in Stuart Blackburn and Vasudha Dalmia (eds.), India's Literary History: Essays on the Nineteenth Century (New Delhi, 2004), pp. 146–66.

64 For instance, the following verse:

A good deed in return for another—
That's nothing special.
Doing good in return for harm—
Think about it: that's really good strategy.
This verse, actually stated as a form of political strategy, is now interpreted as an altruistic moral statement.

65 Hiroyuki Kotani, ‘Doṣa (sin)-Prāyascitta (penance): The predominating ideology in the later medieval Deccan’ in Kotani (ed.), Western India in Historical Transition: Seventeenth to Early Twentieth Centuries (New Delhi, 2002); Wagle, N.K., ‘The government, the jāti, and the individual: Rights, discipline and control in the Pune Kotwal Papers, 1766—94’ in Contributions to Indian Sociology, N.S., Vol. 34 (2000), pp. 321–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cf. the earlier pioneering work of Gune, V.T., The Judicial System of the Marathas (Pune, 1953)Google Scholar. Also of interest to this discussion is Sumit Guha, ‘An Indian Penal Régime: Maharashtra in the eighteenth century’ in Past and Present, No. 147 (1995), pp. 101–126.

66 ‘Begriffsgeschichte und Sozialgeschichte’ in Kölner Zeitschrift für Sociologie, No. 16 (1972), translated in Koselleck, Reinhart, Le Futur Passé: Contribution à la sémantique des temps historiques, tr. Jochen Hoock and Marie-Claire Hoock (Paris, 1990), p. 99.Google Scholar

67 Most notable amongst these are Ashis Nandy, ‘An Anti-Secularist manifesto’ in Seminar, No. 314 (1985), pp. 14–24; Madan, T.N., ‘Secularism in its place’ in Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (1987), pp. 747–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The debate is summed up in Rajeev Bhargava, ed., Secularism and its critics (Delhi, 1998).

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Notes on Political Thought in Medieval and Early Modern South India
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Notes on Political Thought in Medieval and Early Modern South India
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Notes on Political Thought in Medieval and Early Modern South India
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *