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Mandala Theory and South Asia

Mandala is a Sanskrit term, meaning “Circles”. The Mandala theory was given by Kautilya, an ancient Indian philosopher and strategic thinker. Kautilya, the pen name of Chanakya was the author of ‘Arthashastra’ or the Science of Polity, the classic book on statecraft and diplomacy. Without having an understanding of Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the study of international politics is inadequate.

An Illustration on Mandala Theory and South Asia

Illustration by The Geostrata

In this book, Kautilya thoroughly expressed his ideas on statesman, war, society, ethics, diplomacy, politics and so on. Historians often pointed out that the Kautilya’s strategic calculations made the hold of the Mauryan Empire greater than British India. Kautilya converted the discipline of politics into a scientific discipline. Picking up the evidence from reality and attempting to make the theories based on that made Kautilya the world’s first political realist. 


The theory of the mandala is one of the most excellent ideas in Arthashastra. This inter-state relations theory hypothesises that a state is an ally or hostile, depending on its geographical position vis-a-vis the others. Kautilya extensively discussed the idea with the examples of Manusmriti and Mahabharata.

Kautilya created the mandala system as a theoretical process for state-building in his book.

Kautilya opined if a state or kingdom wants to extend its area under control by conquering other states, it needs to increase the number of its allies in proportion to the number of its enemy states. This will help the king to keep the other nations inside the sphere of its influence. 


The central rule in this theory is called ‘Vijigishu'. Notably, there can be more than one Vijigishu in the same mandala, with similar goals and potential strength. In the context of South Asia, India and China both can be referred to as Vijigishu’.

In the mandala system, Kautilya says that the weaker states always feel insecurity and thus they should establish friendly connections with the equal-status nations to protect themselves against the consolidation of Vijigishu pursing the expansionist policies. “Enemy’s enemy is the friend”- based on this principle the theory has been embedded in 4 key categories in the mandala system. 



Kautilya concludes that the king and his immediate neighbours are the natural enemies or ‘Prikritik Ari’ for the geographical proximities and the expansionist vision of the nations.  India and China fall in this category. Due to the geographical closeness, since independence, China always created trouble for India, sometimes with full-scale wars, or sometimes with the proxies like the Doklam or Galwan clash.

The mistrust and rift between the two countries is so huge, that even though economically both have significant dependence, the hostility remains the same. 

Apart from the natural enemy, there may be the spontaneous enemy or ‘Sahaj Ari’ originating in its lineage and the ‘Kritrim Ari’ or the artificial enemy is the nation which attempts to cause trouble to Vijigishu without any reasonable ground. In the Indian subcontinent, if India assumes the central kingdom in the mandala system, then ‘Sahaj ari’ will be Pakistan, which was created due to partition. 


While describing the theory of mandala, Kautilya indicated that the natural friend or ‘Prakritik mitra’ is that country, which is consistent in behaviour throughout and the friendship is inherited from generations with the central kingdom or Vijigishu. From the strategic perspective ‘Mitra’ is the enemy of the enemy. The friendly states can be natural as well as can also be artificial.

Whenever a country needs protection, if on that condition, it makes friendly relations with Vijigishu, that means the nature of friendship is temporary and often prone to just seek the advantage. 

In the case of the South Asian region, Bangladesh, and Bhutan are the natural or Prakritik Mitra of India. They have together a long-shared history. While Bangladesh used to be an inseparable part of India before the partition, Bhutan always had strong people-to-people exchanges with India. Sri Lanka is a ‘Kritrim Mitra’ in the current context, as it tries to impress both India and China with its needs. 


The concept of the middle state is what is propounded by Kautilya as the special state, located close to the Vijigishu and a bit far from its Ari or enemy state. Interestingly, Kautilya stated that due to the diffusion pattern of power in the Mandala system, centralized power has importance only when it can keep the smaller states under its suzerainty. In that sense, the mediator has more power in convincing both the Vijigishu and Ari according to its requirements. 


A state located between the middle of both the aspiring states. It remains completely neutral during the crisis between the two. The neutral country remains more powerful as it can exert influence over the two based on strategic calculations. In the context of South Asia, considering the centrality of India, Nepal is an example of both the mediator and neutral state, only changed by the demand of time. During conflicts between India and China, Nepal remains silent. 

Kautilya’s mandala theory of foreign policy and statecraft can not be claimed to be universally applicable, but even in the current context India’s regional diplomacy largely reflected on this concept.

His geostrategic insights serve as a fundamental bedrock for India’s foreign policy approach. It is an inevitable reality that few of the neighbours are a threat to India’s national security. Hence, the theory is beneficial to understanding the conceivable threats for India, which keeps Indian policies not on the feet of emotional considerations, but strategic and diplomatic calculations. 




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