Accounting and Auditing in Ancient India

Professionals want to know the origin of their profession, the work done in olden times and the level of knowledge. I thought of sharing with you the history of Indian accounting and auditing profession. I discovered in Kautilya’s Arthshastra that it existed in ancient India in 4th century BC. Therefore, my guess is that it would have originated at least a few centuries earlier.  The accounting principles and standards used in the present century are similar to those that existed in the 4th century BC. This nugget of information may have surprised you.

Broadly, Kautilya’s Arthshastra covers accounting principles and standards, role and responsibilities of accountants and auditors, the methodology of accounting, auditing and fraud risk management, and the role of ethics in managing financial activities. Let me share some of the concepts with you in the next couple of posts.

1.     Maintenance of Accounts

The accounting financial year was fixed to July-June period and with a full process for closure of accounts and audit of the same. It covered the method of consolidating the accounts from various departments of the government to assess the net income and loss. The accountants were required to furnish the completed annual accounts to the head office mid-July. Delay and/or failure to do so attracted financial penalties.

 2.  Classification of Receipts

 Kautilya states thatreceipts may be (1) current, (2) last balance, and (3) accidental (anyajátah= received from external source).” In it, he differentiates between cash receipts and debtors, current and accrued income, income from other sources, windfall gains, and recovery of bad debts. He recognized the concept of risk and suggested different rate of interests for loans. Foreign trade loan attracted the highest interest, as the returns were uncertain.

3. Classification of Expenditure

Expenditure classification was similar to receipts classification and included the differentiation between capital expenditure and revenue expenses. Kautilya described it as – “Expenditure is of two kinds—daily expenditure and profitable expenditure.” The difference between income and expenditure was termed as “net balance”. He insisted on making long-term investments in construction and other works as these would generate profits over a period. It also entailed keeping track of work in progress.

4. Role and responsibility of accountants

A hierarchical organization structure of senior to junior accountants existed within the king’s treasury function. The accountants maintained books of accounts on an annual basis according to prescribed standards. The same were furnished for audit at year-end. Kautilya suggested good salaries to accountants and auditors as high income would keep them ethical. Accountants would be more prone to commit fraud if they earned very little.

5.     Segregation of Roles of Treasury and Auditor

The fascinating part of Kautilya’s approach was that he recognized conflict of interest between finance and auditing functions. He categorically stated that the head of finance and head of audit should independently and separately report to the king. He recognized the possibility of collision between the two. In India, in the government the Comptroller General of Audit and Ministry of Finance are two separate functions. However, in the corporate world still in quite a few companies chief audit executive are reporting to chief financial officer rather than the chief executive officer.

6.     Building an Ethical Culture

Kautilya believed character reflected personal values of individual and ethical values learning must commence from childhood. Even as an adult ethical conduct was as important as professional skills. He proposed measures to build ethical climate in the kingdom. However, he was practical and recognized the potential of corruption. In accounting, he talked about misstating financial statements due to abuse of power and fraudulent reporting. He devised a system of reward and punishment to ensure compliance to rules and regulations.

7.     Verification and Auditing of Accounts

The concept of continuous monitoring, periodical auditing, verification and vouching existed in ancient times. Checks were done daily and periodically (five nights, pakshás, months, four-months, and the year). The attributes used in the present day for verifying income and payment vouchers were also used in earlier times. Interestingly, each department had spies to provide information and report wrongdoing to the seniors. There was a full process for discovering fraudulent transactions and punishing accountants for misstating financial statements. I shall cover that in the next post.

Closing Thoughts

Kautilya prescribed the accounting theory that included bookkeeping, preparation of financial statements, auditing and fraud risk management. He considered accounting as an integral part of economics. Various kingdoms in India used his work until the 15th century AD i.e. before the colonial rule. I am not aware whether similar level of knowledge existed in other parts of the world before the Christian era. If you do have information, please share it with me. It will be an enthralling journey into the past.


Kautilya’s Arthshastra 


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