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The Hindu Philosophy of Matsya Nyaya and its Contemporary Relevance

The Arthashastra is a Sanskrit rule book pertaining to Indian kingdoms and their welfare, political statehood, war strategy, and economic planning. Ancient Indian philosopher Kautilya originally used the term Matsya Nyaya in the Arthashastra that roughly translates to ‘rule of the fish’ in English. It is commonly used to describe a state of chaos or normlessness before the formation of a legitimate state. Just like matsyas or big fish in the sea eat the smaller fish in the absence of a more powerful entity, it was believed that the strong will overpower the weak in an anarchic state.

Chanakya, also known as Kautilya is the author of 'Arthashastra'.
Chanakya, also known as Kautilya is the author of 'Arthashastra'.

Using the metaphor of fish in a no-rule sea, Kautilya explained how the same situation would be replicated in a state without a ruler. In an anarchic state, it would be inevitable that the majority rules by mere strength of numbers, and hence, the minority communities would be left to fend for themselves, at the mercy of the strong. This line of thinking was based on the assumption that in an anarchic society, one man would turn against the other and compete for necessities and resources. Every man must strive to do anything to sustain themselves.

The principle of Matsya Nyaya was important to understand the significance and necessity of an impartial and able ruler. In the presence of a ruler, the weak would be able to demand justice, equality, and access to equal resources. Moreover, the ruler will ensure that everyone in his kingdom lives happily and is treated fairly regardless of whether they belong to powerful communities or not.

Finally, Kautilya also used the theory of Matsya Nyaya to delineate the qualities of a good ruler. If a king was dishonest, unjust, unfair, not people-serving, and egotistical, his state would eventually fall into the practice of Matsya Nyaya. No justice would be served to those who demand it, no money would be distributed amongst the poor, and no equality for those discriminated against. A negligent king would allow for his kingdom to become a Matsya Nyaya world.

Similar Philosophies

1. Law of the Jungle

Matsya Nyaya is quite similar to the “law of the jungle,” which dictates that stronger and bigger animals feed on the smaller and weaker ones in a jungle. For instance, the mighty lion hunts the thin, soft-eyed deer. Similarly, the wealthier, and more resourceful people in a society will rule over those who are poorer and ill-equipped. In the absence of any legal/political authority, as is seen in the case of a jungle, the strong will outdo and overpower the weak.

Thomas Hobbes is a western philosopher who presented the theory of 'State of Nature'.
Thomas Hobbes is a western philosopher who presented the theory of 'State of Nature'.

2. Hobbes’ State of Nature

Another philosophy that Matsyanyaya is quite similar to is the “State of Nature” philosophy put forth by Western political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes propounded that before society could develop a stable political arrangement, people lived in a state of anarchy. This anarchical state was also referred to as the state of nature. However, it was Hobbes’ adamant belief that people living in the state of nature were selfish and competitive. Due to a dearth of resources, each individual strived to gain as many resources as possible to sustain themselves. In this manner, individuals often fought with each other. Now, the individual who was physically stronger or smarter would obviously win the fight. Therefore, the rule of the strong prevailed and the weak-minded or the physically weak were kicked out of the competition. Moreover, all individuals living in a normless society would function on the principle of self-preservation rather than good action.

Examples from history

The First World War could be a direct result of an anarchic society. Due to the absence of an international government or authority, several countries in Europe began fighting with each other. The direct outcome of the First World War was that powerful countries such as the Soviet Union, Britain, and France emerged victorious. This is because at least two out of these three countries had colonies to depend on for natural resources and wealth to fight the war. The countries on the losing side, such as Hungary and Austria were reeling from the fall of the Ottoman Empire and were, therefore, quickly defeated. Since no legal authority or global government could oversee foreign relations of each country, the stronger and more resourceful side won the war. Even though both sides lost men and resources, the damage to the weaker side was far greater. The principle of Matsya Nyaya could be applied here since the stronger coalition of countries was able to destroy and damage the weaker group.

 The direct outcome of the First World War was that powerful countries such as the Soviet Union, Britain, and France emerged victorious.

Once the First World War ended, several countries came together to form an international organization known as the League of Nations to ensure peace and stable governance for its country members.

The British Raj could also be an example of Matsya Nyaya. The British East India Company was financially well-off, conniving, and resourceful. They were able to conquer India’s markets and then defeat its political rulers. This is because the British were equipped with greater weaponry and technology, which helped defeat Indians. Consequently, the Indians were forced to agree to their laws and rules and accept their societal norms. However, when many Indians refused to consider the British as a legitimate government, a state of normlessness fell upon society. Violent protests, non-cooperation with the British, flouting rules, and disobedience became characteristic features of Indian society.

Contemporary Relevance of Matsya Nyaya

Even though Kautilya outlined the principle of Matsya Nyaya several thousand years ago, this philosophy can be considered relevant in contemporary times. It is often observed that due to ill governance, the rich become richer, and the poor become poorer. Because the government is negligent towards its duty to people, the society falls into the hands of a few powerful people. These people ensure that they sway the government to make rules and laws in their favour and disadvantage the already poor.

For instance, we often see headlines in newspapers reporting the ill-treatment of small labourers and workers in big capitalist factories. While the owners of these factories or industries become richer by the day, their menial employees work in poor conditions, get paid less, and suffer endlessly. Wealthy industrialists who have resources and money at their disposal, align themselves with the government and push it to make policies that favour them. On the other hand, the common man, with no money, resources, or contacts to appease the government, is left at the mercy of the rich and powerful. Therefore, the principle of Matsya Nyaya remains relevant in contemporary society where poorly run governments function on the principle of might is right.

Prerana Thakur is a content writer at Pratha


Prerana Thakur

Pratha Content Writer


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