Thoughts on economics and liberty

Chanakya’s well regulated system of prostitution in ancient India

I'm amazed at the advanced thinking of Kautilya. In the West, the systematic regulation of prostitution (which was brushed under the carpet in the past) has occurred only very recently (for instance, the state of Victoria in Australia legislated the Sex Work Act only in 1994). 

India, on the other hand, had a well-regulated prostitution system 2300 years ago

My father keeps suggesting that Hinduism should go back to the Vedas. Indeed, I believe there is much that modern India can learn from its past, particularly from its greatest (Mauryan) empire.

I'm not suggesting that we should follow these texts verbatim, but there is undoubtedly much value in their spirit of innovation and freedom.

Unfortunately, Victorian prudishness coupled with socialist policy has led to a rapid spread of AIDS in India. More than anything else today we need realism, not utopia.

The answer is classical liberalism which includes appropriate regulation.

I am providing below a few extracts from Rangarajan's famous translation of Arthashastra on the subject of prostitution. Time permitting, I'll comment on the HUGE difference between Chankya's policies and what socialist India has followed.

I'd like to know what Baba Ramdev or Anna Hazare, the great paragons of Indian "culture", have to say on Chankya's MODERN approach to civilised society.

Extracts from Arthashastra


Providing sexual entertainment to the public using prostitutes (ganika) was an activity not only strictly controlled by the State but also one which was, for the most part, carried on in state-owned establishments [2.27.1]. Women who lived by their beauty (rupajivas) could, however, entertain men as independent practitioners [2.27.27]; these could have been allowed to practice in smaller places which could not support a full-fledged state establishment. A third type of women of pleasure, mentioned in a few places, is pumsachali, perhaps meaning concubines [3.13.37].
As befits a treatise on the economy of a state, the emphasis in the Arthashastra is on collection of revenue. The state enabled the setting up of establishments with lump sum grants of 1000 panas to the head courtesan and 500 panas to her deputy, presumably to enable them to buy jewellery, furnishings, musical instruments and other tools of their trade [2.27.1]. The madam of the establishment had to render full accounts and it was the duty of the Chief Controller of Entertainers to ensure that the net income was not reduced by her extravagance [2.27.10]. Independent prostitutes, who were neither given a grant nor required to produce detailed accounts, had to pay a tax of one-sixth of their income [2.27.27]. In times of financial distress, both groups had to produce extra revenue with the independents having to pay half their earnings as tax [5.2.21,23,28].
The establishments were located in the southern part of the fortified city [2.4.11]. Whenever the army marched on an expedition, courtesans also went with them; they were allotted places in the camp, alongside the roads [10.1.10]. During battle, the women were stationed in the rear with cooked food and drinks, encouraging the men to fight [10.3.47].
It would seem that courtesans not only provided sexual pleasure but also entertained clients with singing and dancing. In specifying their duties, the Arthashastra makes a clear distinction between two types of misdemeanours—showing a dislike towards a client visiting her for normal entertainment and refusing to sleep with him, if he stayed overnight [2.27.20,21]. The description of the training given to a couresan, at state expense, indicates how wide her accomplishments had to be—singing, playing on musical instruments, conversing, reciting, dancing, acting, writing, painting, mind-reading, preparing perfumes and garlands, shampooing and, of course, the art of lovemaking [2.27.28]. A courtesan’s son, who had to work as the king’s minstrel from the age of eight, was also trained as a producer of plays and dances [2.27.29].
It would appear from the above that some families specialized in the entertainment business. However, the Arthashastra specifically states that any beautiful, young and talented girl could be appointed as the head of an establishment, irrespective of whether she came from a family of courtesans or not [2.27.1].
Once appointed, the madam became a very important person. She could aspire to become the personal attendant of the King or Queen [1.20.20, 2.27.4]. Even otherwise, a very high price – 24,000 panas—had to be paid for obtaining her release from her post [2.27.6]. We must note that the amount was the second highest annual salary paid only to the five top officials (like the Chief of the King’s Bodyguards, the Chancellor and the Treasurer). Only such people could afford to buy a madam off as an exclusive concubine.
If a courtesan was promoted to attend on the King, her annual salary was fixed as 1000, 2000 or 3000 panas, depending on her beauty and qualifications [2.27.4]. 1000 panas was the same salary paid to the King’s personal advisers and attendants such as the charioteer, physician, astrologer, court poet, etc.
An interesting point is that the courtesan’s establishment could not be inherited by her son. On the death, retirement or release of the head of an establishment, her daughter (or sister) could take her place or she could promote her deputy and appoint a new deputy. If neither the daughter nor the deputy succeeded her, the establishment reverted to the state [2.27.2,3].
The state not only imposed obligations on prostitutes but also protected them. Having been given a grant by the state and having been allowed to spend a part of her earnings on personal adornment, a prostitute could not sell, mortgage or entrust her jewellery and ornaments to anyone except the madam [2.27.11]. Prostitutes were obliged to attend on any client when ordered to do so, be pleasant to them and not subject them to verbal or physical injury [2.27.12]. In return, stiff punishments were prescribed for anyone cheating or robbing a prostitute, abducting her, confining her against her will or disfiguring her [2.27.14]. Special punishments were also prescribed for depriving a prostitute’s daughter of her virginity whether she herself consented or not; the right of the mother was recognized by making the man pay not only a fine but also a compensation to the mother of sixteen times the fee for a visit [4.12.26].
An imbalance in punishments has to be noted. The penalty for killing the madam of an establishment was three times the release price and that for killing a prostitute in her establishment or her mother or daughter was only the Highest Standard Penalty [2.27.17]. On the other hand, if a prostitute killed a client, she was burnt or drowned alive [2.27.22].
The expression bandhakiposhaka (keeper of prostitutes) occurs thrice in the text, associated always with ‘young and beautiful women’. The keepers were obliged to use the women to collect money in times of emergency [5.2.28], sow dissension among the chiefs of an oligarchy [11.1.34] and subvert the enemy’s army chiefs [12.2.11].
Professions to be supervised:
(i) The regulations regarding courtesans and prostitutes also apply to actors, dancers, singers, musicians, story-tellers, bards, rope dancers [acrobats?], jugglers, wandering minstrels, people who deal in women and women who follow a secret profession.3 [2.27.25]
The wives of actors and similar entertainers shall be taught languages and the science of signs and signals. They shall be employed, using the profession of their relatives [as a cover], to detect, delude or murder the wicked. [2.27.30]
Training of prostitutes and courtesans:
(ii) The state shall bear the expenditure on training courtesans, prostitutes and actresses in the following accomplishments: singing, playing musical instruments (including the vina, the flute and the mridangam), conversing, reciting, dancing, acting, writing, painting, mind-reading, preparing perfumes and garlands, shampooing and making love.
Their sons shall also be trained [at state expense] to be producers of plays and dances. [2.27.2 8,29]
Management of brothels:
(iii) A beautiful, young and talented woman, whether a member of a courtesan’s family or not, shall be appointed as the ‘madam’ of a brothel; she shall be given, on appointment, a grant of 1000 panas [for setting up the establishment].
A deputy shall be appointed, with a grant of 500 panas.
If the madam of a brothel dies or goes away, her daughter or sister shall take over the establishment. Or, the madam can [before her departure] appoint a deputy [promoting her own deputy to be the head].
If no such arrangements are possible, the establishment shall revert to the King [and the Chief Controller shall place it under the charge of someone else]. [2.27.1-3]
Court attendants:
(iv) Courtesans shall be appointed to attend on the King in one of three grades, according to their beauty and the splendour of their make-up and ornaments. The lowest grade, on a salary of 1000 panas per month, shall hold the umbrella over the King, the middle grade, on a salary of 2000 panas per month, shall carry his water jug and the highest, on a salary of 3000 panas per month, shall be his fan bearer. In order to add distinction, courtesans of the lower grade shall attend on the King when he is carried in his palanquin, the middle grade when he is seated on his throne and the highest shall accompany him in his chariot.
Courtesans who are no longer beautiful shall be put in charge of supervising court attendants.
Sons of courtesans shall work as the King’s minstrels from the age of eight. [2.27.4,5,7]
[Reference has been made in III.iv to preventing dangers to the King from Queens by ensuring that only trusted courtesans attended on them.]
Courtesans shall cleanse themselves with baths and change into fresh garments before attending on the Queen. [1.20.20]
Release and retirement:
(v) The payment for obtaining the release of a courtesan [the head of an establishment] shall be 24,000 panas and for her son, 12,000 panas.
When they can no longer work prostitutes under a madam in an establishment shall be given work in the pantry or kitchen. Any one who does not work but is kept by someone shall pay 1 1/4 panas [per month?] as compensation. [2.27.6,8,9]
Obligations of a prostitute:
(vi) A prostitute shall not hand over her jewellery and ornaments to anyone except the madam and shall not sell or mortgage them.
(vii) A prostitute shall not show dislike [and refuse service] to a client after receiving payment from him.
She shall not abuse a client, disfigure him or cause him physical injury. She shall not refuse to sleep with a client staying overnight, unless the client has physical defects or is ill.
(viii) She shall not disobey the King’s command to attend on a particular person.  [from 2.27.11,12,19-22]
Protection of prostitutes:
(ix) The proper procedure shall be used to take a virgin daughter of a prostitute, whether she is willing or not; coercive methods shall not be used.
(x) No one shall abduct a prostitute, keep her confined against her will or spoil her beauty by wounding her.
(xi) A client shall not rob a prostitute of her jewellery, ornaments or belongings nor cheat her of the payment due to her. [2.2 7.13,14,23]
(xii) In establishments:
Every prostitute shall report the persons entertained, the payments received and the net income to the Chief Controller.
The Chief Controller shall keep an account of the payments and gifts received by each prostitute, her total income, expenditure and net income. He shall ensure that prostitutes do not incur excessive expenditure. [2.27.24,10]
(xiii) Independent prostitutes:
Women who live by their beauty (rupajiva) [not in state-controlled establishments] shall pay a tax of one-sixth of their earnings. [2.27.27]
[The special taxes levied in times of financial distress on prostitutes and brothel keepers are described in [5.2.21, 28] in V.iii.]
Foreign entertainers:
(xiv) Foreign entertainers shall pay a licence fee of 5 panas per show [2.27.26]
And so on…
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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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21 thoughts on “Chanakya’s well regulated system of prostitution in ancient India
  1. Harsh Vora

    Many advocates of Indian "culture" draw inspiration from Chanakya, but it seems that they cherry-pick his words in the interest of promoting the message of the Vedas. They are perhaps unaware of Chanakya's support of alcohol and prostitution, or they just fool the people in the name of Chanakya! Anyway, Chanakya's philosophy was certainly not in conformity to the Vedas. I'm sure Mr. Prem Sabhlok will agree with this. Vedas strictly denounce alcoholism and prostitution! Not to say that Vedas oppose freedom!

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Harsh

    Thanks for this. Even the Vedas have a significant discussion on alcohol. I won’t go into that. Only excess of alcohol is denounced, not moderation. (Ayurvedic texts concluded that alcohol was a medicine if consumed in moderation, but a poison if consumed in excess. – see Dasgupta, Amitava (2011). The Science of Drinking: How Alcohol Affects Your Body and Mind . Rowman & Littlefield.)

    The point is really this – that we need REALISM not utopia.

    Regardless of someone’s values, it must be recognised that freedom comes with accountability. That is what Chanakya was doing. He was NOT moralising. He was REGULATING.

    That’s what Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare don’t understand. They are a version of the TALIBAN – who beat those who don’t agree with them. They are not wise governors who REGULATE and ensure that no harm arises from human action.


  3. Harsh Vora

    Yes, I'm in no support of banning alcohol so far as drinking it does not harm a third party. But in the interest of clarifying Vedas' stand, so far as I know, Atharvaveda (and Rig Veda) make it clear that alcohol is for the weak in mind. One whose thinking is strong does not seek to indulge in it. Works of Pt. Chamupati, Prof. Rajendra Jijnasu and Prof. Dharmadeva Vidtamartanda elaborate this discussion!
    My point is it is perhaps not appropriate to claim Chanakya's behavior as emanating from or sanctioned by the Vedas. He advocated many things which were in clear defiance of Vedas' message. Anyway, so far as his political theory is concerned it may have been effective and even modern. And that is perfectly fine as far as it leads to a better society in totality!

  4. Prakash

    In most ancient work, the fatal conceit that hayek mentions is absent, because totalitarian regulation ability was simply not present. One could not control the feelings of people to that extent.
    The unfortunate fact of our era is that people think it is possible to control people to that extent. They are still imagining that all they have to do is flip a switch here and everything will change.
    The unfortunate fact of the world 30 years from now is that total surveillance will be possible and economical. Stupid laws might have full force, then.

  5. ramesh

    @Harsha and Sabhlok,
    You have completely mistaken Vedas. Not only Chanakys and modern classical liberal ideas it includes but also far more yet to be dawn ideas it houses. It is the interpretation with 'realism' and not 'utopia' that is needed to interpret these texts.
    Since we refuse in the name of 'realism' to understand its basic concepts of 'Dvatia' and 'Advaita' that we will find us always something good and bad in those texts. The fault is not with the texts but those who interpret and understand it! They are ultimate texts.

  6. ramesh

    @ Harsh,
    When Chanakya did not say he differed from Vedas how legitimate it is for we people to say that he differed from Vedas? Isn't it a case of wrong interpretation and understanding?

  7. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Harsh, I did not mean to suggest that Chanakya derived his ideas from the Vedas. All I said is that there might be sense in revisiting some of these earlier documents to see if we can learn anything useful about Indian culture and thought which has been perverted by foreign Marxist/ Fabian socialist ideas in the 20th century.


  8. Supratim

    Thanks for posting this, Sanjeev – very interesting. I have not read all parts of Arthashastra, and this was enlightening, especially Chanakya's eye for detail and incentives.
    There was a very robust discussion on "Legalising prostitution in India" on Shantanu's blog a couple of years back – there were so much vehement opposition to this concept, much of it on the basis of "bharatiya sanskriti and parampara", I wish I had access to this note on Chanakya then. Given that these same votaries of bharatiya sanskriti are absolutely wedded to the glory era of the Maurya empire.

  9. Tilopa

    Well this is rather an old post but still  i would like to say something on it. In ancient india drugs and alcohol were prevalent.In mahabharata you will find several refrences to it.

    They is also a very popular intoxicant 'soma' which is mentioned in the vedas.

    Also we get many examples that Krishna in Dwarka installed many unemployed abandoned public woman who appeased the peoples on sea trips.
    As the Harivamsa said: ' O, hero having conquered the abodes of the Daityas (giants) with the help of brave Yadus, the Lord settled thousands of public women in Dwaraka ".
    [Riddles in Hinduism B.R Ambedkar]
    Also everybody knows that in Dwarka during a party a drunken revel broke out between the Yadavas which was the cause of the destruction of the Yadavas.

    In mahabharat also as i said there are several refrences of alcohols,gambling,prostitution.

    Ambedkar goes to the extent by showing from puranic refrences that even progeny was practised!

    My thinking is that back in those days we were more pragmatic and religion was fresh but as time passed by the freshness of the religion disappeared and it became just a dead dogma hanging on our backs.

    We did the same mistake of interpreting thinks literary and out-of-context the same mistake the islamists do.

    Also the ancient stories are to be taken more as metaphors,the ancient devas are more symbolic of the forces of nature then some real characters.And when it is said that Vedas were written by god then it doesn't mean some  god sitting somewhere wrote it but it is a metaphor which resembles that VEDAS were written by peoples  who were in GOD-LIKE state or peoples who have known themselves & touched the peaks of consciousness(enlightened)
    It is a human psychology found everywhere and in every stories that describe how the past was golden and the   future is going to be dark but unfortunately we took the teachings of our scriptures literally and without understanding their significance and context. :(

  10. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Tilopa, thanks for this. India came under the spell of Victorian British “morals” and forgot its ancient pragmatism and link with reality.

  11. Naga

    yes…as Tilopa…says I recall reading in Mahabharat…..Balaram having merry with lot of Somarasa….that may b equalled as wine i guess…if we look back into our past there r innumerable instances of alcohol, concubines, courtesans, legal prostitutions and still people were far more moral in life compared to now where we see crime, injustice, rape, immorality rampant and order of the day, and if I am not wrong I even heard Veshya Gruha or the prostitute place was present legally during the great south Indian ruler Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara empire where gold wealth was abundant on streets, even european travellers, (guess frm Italy who said telugu is like italian of the east due to its richness),visited and exclaimed for the exquisite rule and management of the beautiful city and kingdom… there was law and order to near perfection.

  12. sandeep

    Regulation is one aspect. I think that the big issue omitted to be answered by this article as well as Chanakya is the moral and ethical aspect of prostitution. I have never come across an answer that justified the need for such an inhuman business. And the state only thinking of cashing in on that!

  13. Bill

    Soma is not wine or equal to wine its simply the extract of a certain plant. Balaram did not get influenced by the Somarasa though he may have appeared to be due to the fact that he is a primary expansion of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and therefore fully omnipotent.

  14. Kavi

    Its funny that how you guys want to learn about the ancient india using the texts of invasive jew migrants
    Indian brahmins belonging to 10 Gotras are nothing but the 10 lost tribes of jews – Watch “the Quest for 10 lost tribes” documentaries in youtube
    To understand the culture of India, Read Thamil Sangam literatures. We dont have any of these “state sponsored prostitution” nonsense
    Indian Brahmin’s Ram is nothing but Jew’s AbbaRam -AbRam- Abraham
    Here is your Ram/AbRam –

    India’s caste system in a nutshell, to understand this we have to go back in time
    1500BC (Before Christ) – Jew Brahman invasion destroyed Indus Valley civilization
    3BC -1AD Maurya Invasion – Moores from Africa
    2BC -1BC -Greek Invasion
    30 AD -375 AD – Kushan Invasion -European nomads ,
    632 A.D Zoroastrian migration
    3AD to 543 AD Gupta Invasion – origin unknown,they were traders at the start and formed a kingdom
    10AD Mogul invasion
    18AD Persian migration

    South India:
    3AD – Brahman invasion – at the south – destroyed the last Sangam Era
    5AD, 7AD, 10AD etc -Jew migration came in packs , they keep migrating
    15AD Syrian migration
    14AD Nayakkar invasion
    15AD -British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish -trade and then colonization of whole india(which is invasion only)

    Caste system was implemented by jewbrahmin CHANAKIYA, the psycho in 3BC
    Upper caste – all the migrants to India- Jew Brahmin, Baniya(a jewish trader tribe), Zoroastrian, Syrian, jew, Parsi etc
    Sathriyas, Uppercaste – the Maurya, Kushana, Greek, Gupta kingdom descendants mixed with Jewish Brahman – used all kinds of honey traps, concubine methods to get the upper caste title – here is one for ex:
    OBC – Natives of India, the tribe names are NOT ancient
    SC/ST – Ancient natives of India , who owned the Land and Literature/Spiritual way of life/Science/Medicine etc

    Go read something other than the COOKED up sanskrit fake texts

  15. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Note: I’ve published this (above) not because I agree with anything in it but to allow an alternative view to be expressed.

  16. Kavi

    Thank you for posting my comment
    We Thamils are the ancient race of this WORLD, we know what we are talking about
    We have 5000yrs+ old literature to take us back to our ancestors way of life
    We are not talking anyting based on the mytholigy nonsense

    For ex: Mahabaratham happend in Todays Thamil Nadu, 5000yrs ago.
    We have archelogical and literaure proof for that
    “Kundhi” a fictional character, “Kundhi” in ancient tamil means “belly”
    “Pandiyar Panjavan” – an Association of kings to elect Kings, used as “Panja Pandavar” in Mahabaratha myth
    Check this Vlog’s English titled videos if you really care about india –
    India needs to be fixed, it can be done only when all join hands

    Sitting at the heart of the GeoPoltical spectrum, Mother india is chocked rather than florishing all due to jewishbrahmanBaniya moron’s caste divide
    Surnames are all common, but only in india it was used to divide people, so the landless steppe jewishbrahan nomades can rule others.
    who came for a better life, but RUINED everything.

    I dont care which caste/race you belong, even if your a jewishbrahman
    you made India as your home, then work to Uplift her
    we cant let india in this situation,
    All needs to unite to bring Mother India back to her glorious days
    Its Sathya yugam as stated by Lord Kannan (krishan),
    Lets work together for the better life for all.

  17. kavi

    Thanks again for posting my comment
    As this page discusses about Arthashastra , Please compare Arthasathira with Talmud
    Arthashastra = Manusmrithi = Talmud (jewish rule book)
    All three books available online, i had glanced all three and the CORE points are same in all three books

    An ethnicity can be linked (identified) through birth, death, wedding rituals, practices, folklore and literature
    so Arthashastra = Manusmrithi = Talmud (jewish rule book), proves that Indain brahmans of Panja Gowda and Panja Dravida groups are nothing but the 10 lost tribes of jews

  18. skippy

    reality is that prostitution is not a victimless crime.
    Anyone who knows prostitutes, strippers etc knows that the vast majority of them have been sexuallyabused as children and/or have drug addictions etc. To take advantage of women is atrocious. They are not pieces of meat they are people with feelings.

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