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Wikipedia page for Arthashastra states that three manuscripts have been recovered in the modern era for Kautilya's Arthashastra. One in 1905 which was identified by R. Shamasastry, and the other two were Malayalam manuscript from Bavarian State Library and another was from 1950s from Gujarat in Devanagari Script.

Have these manuscripts been carbon dated? Which one of these is the oldest?

Regarding the first manuscript, I found a source which says that it is 450 years old. I haven't found any sources which tell the dates of origin of the other two manuscripts.

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Like you, I wasn't able to find that exact information. However, it appears that the recording method used in India at the time was palm-leaf manuscripts, and the oldest of those known to exist are from the 1st Century CE. Considering all those were found in areas ideal for preservation, that's probably a rough upper-bound on the physical age you could expect out of the manuscripts themselves.

That web page reports the oldest surviving palm-leaf manuscript in Sanscrit is from the 9th Century. Since Arthashastra is in Sanscrit, then assuming all of those copies have been dated, they wouldn't be older than that.


However, the age of the copy itself is not generally useful information for a layman. Modern people are spoiled by their cheap, perfect modern copying devices. For ancient people, copying was a necessity, because originals deteriorate (or suffer mishaps), but it was very expensive and every copy was imperfect.

This has a lot of repercussions that we spoiled 21'st Century humans aren't used to having to worry about. Here are some things modern people often don't quite grok about ancient manuscripts.

They are usually incomplete

The best oldest sources are (by virtue of being the oldest) in the worst states of repair when found. That means typically large parts tend to be missing or illegible.

They change over time

Every copy messes something up. Sometimes those will get "fixed" in later copies, but often not. Things that are surprising to the guy making the copy are more likely to get fixed, but that means surprising portions are likely to get slowly not fixed, or even "fixed", to be not so surprising.

They are inconsistent

This follows from the point above. Since every copy is slightly different, over the generations these differences will accumulate, and can actually lead to different copies having noticeable lineages, if you have enough of them to work it out.

Material gets added

"Copyright" didn't exist, so authorship was not a big deal. If you had some material you wanted spread, the absolute best way to do it was to attribute it to someone famous, and slip it into a copy of their work.

We can tell this happened today due to the fact that an author's vocabulary is like a fingerprint, and sections that have different "fingerprints" were clearly from different authors. You can even date vocabularies and themes to a certain extent. This is how we know that somewhere between 4 and 6 of Paul's Epistles were not written by Paul, and Arthashastra had at least 2 different authors (and likely many more).

  • (+1) Thanks for the informative post. The first manuscript was given to Mysore Oriental Library by a Tamil Brahmin. I wonder how did the Malayalam manuscript end up in Bavarian State Library. Hope to find the dates of those other two manuscripts too. – MathGod Jun 14 '17 at 20:24
  • The point you have elucidated about manuscripts reminds me of another preservation method in India used for Vedas. The reason you stated is perhaps the same why the sages advised against writing them. This is a good read. – MathGod Jun 14 '17 at 20:27
  • @IshanSingh - Well, its interesting. I was unaware of those techniques. Its a really cool idea, and probably did slow divergence a fair bit until written transmission started. But the author in the link seems to be ... er ... drastically overstating their effect. – T.E.D. Jun 14 '17 at 22:05
  • Haha. I understand, it might seem alien to an outsider, but the point is echoed by Max Muller and Michael Witzel. Witzel has stated Vedas to be "tape recording" from past. While most of India was marred by constant invasions, Nimboodri Brahmins of Western Ghats were relatively isolated, hence it also contributed to the purity of Vedic culture and Vedas themselves. – MathGod Jun 14 '17 at 23:13

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