The essay reflects in an elegiac mode on a now largely forgotten (or effaced) body of literature from precolonial India regarding the art and business of politics. This body, known as nīti, has classical roots in Sanskrit but came in particular to be popular in peninsular India between the thirteenth and the eighteenth centuries in vernacular languages such as Telugu, Kannada, and Marathi. Secular and this-worldly in orientation, it can be broadly contrasted to the far better known body of texts on dharma, which are concerned to preserve a normative, ritually and religiously sanctioned, order based on strict adherence to caste and gender roles. We first trace the classical roots of the tension between dharma and nīti and then set out how these two bodies of texts came to play distinct and evolving roles in medieval and early modern south India. We argue further that under the early phase of colonial rule, East India Company officials misunderstood the nature of nīti texts and that this has led to a persistently erroneous view of their role and content. We conclude by noting, however, that some astute modern observers of and participants in Indian politics, such as B. R. Ambedkar, have understood the part that nīti might play for the development of a secular language of politics in modern India.

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.