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Notes on Political Thought in Medieval and Early Modern South India


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.

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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.

2 For anthropological perspectives, see Parry, Jonathan and Bloch, Maurice (eds.), Money and the Morality of Exchange (Cambridge, 1989); Gregory, C.A., Savage Money: The Anthropology and Politics of Commodity Exchange (Amsterdam, 1997); 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.

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).

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

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. 169; 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. 5779. 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).

10 Crone, Patricia, Medieval Islamic Political Thought, c. 650–1250 (Edinburgh, 2004). 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).

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

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).

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).

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

19 Olivelle, Patrick, The Law Code of Manu (Oxford, 2004), 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).

21 The classic study remains Derrett, J.D.M., Religion, Law and the State in India (New York, 1968). 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.

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, 197. 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). 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).

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).

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).

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.

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. 6188; 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.

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.

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); and for a study based on the inscriptional record, Karashima, Noboru, A Concordance of Nayakas: The Vijayanagar Inscriptions in South India (Delhi, 2002).

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

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).

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

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).

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

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. 321–60. Cf. the earlier pioneering work of Gune, V.T., The Judicial System of the Marathas (Pune, 1953). 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.

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. 747–59. The debate is summed up in Rajeev Bhargava, ed., Secularism and its critics (Delhi, 1998).

This essay is a shorter version of a more extended analysis of nīti and dharma texts in medieval and early modern South India, which may eventually take a monographic form. Early versions of this essay have been presented at St. Antony's College (Oxford), the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), the Centre for the Study of Social Sciences (Kolkata), the University of British Columbia, the EHESS (Paris), the Humanities Institute (Wisconsin-Madison) and the Center for India and South Asia (UCLA). For critical comments and suggestions, we are particularly grateful to Partha Chatterjee, Don Davis, Carlo Ginzburg, Claude Guillot, Roland Lardinois, Patrick Olivelle, Anthony Pagden and S.R. Sarma.

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Modern Asian Studies
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