The Science of Kingship in Ancient India

BY: SUN STAFF - 22.6 2018

King Sagara (Lord Rama's Ancestor) 
Company School, Patna, c. 1900


The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.

Today we begin a new series, drawing on the work of J. Gonda, who surveyed a broad collection of sastric and Vedic texts comprising the collected wisdom on ancient Indian kingship from the religious point of view.


CHAPTER I. – Part One

Introduction: Ideas connected with the main terms and epithets of "king"

In India the divinity of kings, however small their domain 1), has always been accepted by the masses 2). The bearer of authority inspires awe, fear or admiration. Wielding power and occupying a lonely post he is easily credited with special qualities. "They say that the king is a human being; but I consider you to be a god, whose behaviour, if it is in accordance with dharma (norms) and artha (political utility) is superhuman" 3).

The actual conduct of public affairs lay largely with the prime minister or chief counsellor 4). Although authorities disagree 5) with regard to the question whether misfortune or calamity falling upon the king is a greater evil than that attacking his prime minister, even those who hold the former opinion tacitly admit that, it is true, the king appoints the minister, but leaves the affairs of state to a large extent to the latter 6). The minister causes the commencement of all undertakings in public life, and the entire administrative work was, at least at a somewhat later period, carried on by him. A king should never act without his advice 7).

Let us first briefly review the ideas connected by the ancient Indians themselves with the main term for king: rajan-. From the exegetical discussions of the Purvamimamsa and the works on dharma it appears that the term was often understood in the sense of any member of the three highest classes who actually rules over or protects a country. Sometimes the application is explicitly limited to a ksatriya-, a member of the second class 8). The idea of protecting the people however was central, and also appears from such well-known synonyms as nrpa- "protector of men", bhupa- and bhupala- "protector or guardian of the earth"; goptr- "herdsman", etc. 9).

The phrase "herdsman of people" (gopa-janasya) occurs as early as the times of the Rgveda 10). "The man who can protect men, who is valorous, restrained and powerful, and who is the punisher of the wicked is called ksatriya-" 11). The king was to be ever wakeful for the benefit of his people 12). He had even been created to be the protector of the classes and orders of society 13). "It is said that the Creator (dhatra) created power (balam) for protecting weakness" 14). "The vaisya, under the rule of the ksatriya, becomes possessed of cattle" 15). Mercy for all creatures, protection of men, saving them from danger, relieving the distressed and the oppressed, all these are included in the ksatriya duties 16).

According to a great authority, Manu's dharma book 17), the second part of the name of a ksatriya should be a word implying protection, of a vaisya a word expressive of thriving, and of a sudra a term denoting service. In the Mahabharata the term for "member of the military class", ksatriya-, is said to derive from two components, which together express the meaning: "he saves from destruction": ksatad yo vai trayatiti sa tasmat ksatriyah smrtah.

A similar explication of the word already occurs in the Brhadaranyaka-upanisad: "nobility" (ksatram) is "life-breath" (pranah); the breath of life protects (trayate) one from being hurt (ksanitah) 18). "Behave like the sun which protects (pati) and destroys all creatures by its rays"; "protecting one's subjects is from of old tapas (asceticism, the word meaning primarily "heat, warmth")" 19) are likewise authoritative opinions on kingship. All creatures live happily in the world if they are protected by kings like children are protected by their parents 20).

Among the godlike characteristics of a good king, the protection which he affords to his subjects is often mentioned in the first place: "Hear an account of that king of the world, of the life of your illustrious father: he was noble and virtuous, and a protector of his subjects. Like Dharma incarnate he protected the four orders, keeping them in their respective duties. Blessed with fortune or welfare (sriman) and with matchless prowess he protected the earth, and so on." 21)

A priest without knowledge and a king without protecting power are but wooden elephants 22). There is no need for such a man on the throne; he is like a eunuch or a barren field, or like a cloud that does not pour rain. But the person who always protects the good and checks the wicked deserves to become a king and to govern the world. For if the king does not observe the duty of protection, ruin would befall everything, no property would be safe, unrighteousness would prevail, everything would be destroyed untimely, the Vedas and morality would disappear, sacrifices would no longer be celebrated, in short society itself would cease to exist 23).

It may indeed be emphasized that this most important of the royal duties comprised any furtherance of the moral and material welfare of the people. The ruler was to help men of all classes in realizing their earthly and spiritual aims. The king in whose dominion a member of one of the three higher classes becomes a thief is on that account considered a sinner himself 24). Not infrequently our sources make mention of a formal promise on the part of a newly elected or inaugurated sovereign to protect his subjects 25). The prajapalana is again and again inculcated as the first duty of rulers 26).



1) In Vedic times, the tribe was the political unit. The dharmasutras usually view the monarch as the ruler of a petty state; see also V. M. Apte, Social and religious life in the grhya-sutras, Bombay 1954. p. 52 f.

2) Cf. Jean Lyon, Just half a world away, N. York 1954, p. 253: "peasants who (in 1951) had come as much to bask in the bright light of the (sometime) maharajah's presence as to hear him talk."

3) Cf. e.g. Mahabharata 13, 152, 16; Manu-smrti 9. 315 f.; Agni-purana 225, 16 ff.

4) Kamandakiya-nitisara 13, 23 f. the duties of a 'minister' (amaiya-) are described as follows: taking care of income and expenditure, administration of justice, warding off enemies, prevention of and fight against calamities, inauguration of the king.

5) See the discussion in Kautilya's Arthasastra, 127.

6) Cf. also Manu-smrti 7, 54 ff.: "let him appoint seven or eight ministers, who are versed in the sciences, let him daily consider with them the affairs of state such as ..."; see also 7, 146 ff. I also refer to Bh. S. Upadhyaya, India in Kalidasa, Allahabad 1947, p. 120 ff.

7) Sukraniti, 2, 1-8.

8) For references see P. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra, III, Poona 1946, p. 37 ff.

9) See Mbh. 3, 63, 79. The monarch was further designated by many titles, part of which were at the same time divine attributes (isvara- "lord"; prabhu- "thriving or mighty one" etc.).

10) Rgveda 3, 43, 5.

11) Sukraniti, 1, 81 f. Ibidem I, 375 "his sovereignty is only for protection."

12) See e.g. Kalidasa, Sakuntala 7, 34.

13) Manu 7, 35; cf. 36; 88; 142 ff.; he should behave like a father: 7, 80.

14) Mbh. 12, 91, 12.

15) Sat. Br. I, 3, 2, 15.

16) Mbh. 12, 64, 27.

17) Manu 2, 32.

18) Mbh. 12, 29, 138; 59, 126; Brhadaranyaka-upanisad 5, 13, 4.

19) Mbh. 3, 33, 71 f. Hence also the conclusion that the king has obtained his subjects by tapas: Narada-smpti 18, 25.

20) Mbh. 12, 64, 29; 65, 2 etc. etc.

21) Mbh. I, 49, 6 ff. In other passages of the Mbh. the king is also styled the incorporate god of norm, right, and law. Cf. Hopkins, Journal Amer. Orient. Soc. 13, p. 153.

22) Mbh. 12, 78, 41 f.

23) Mbh. 12, 68, 10 ff.

24) Mbh. 12, 77. 4.

25) See e.g. Mbh. 12, 59, 106; 13, 70, 23. We would overstep the mark in considering this promise the equivalent of an oath of office or an oath of allegiance of a modern constitutional king.

26) For this prajapalana- "protection of subjects" see e.g. Manu 9, 253; 7, 144.

Source: Ancient Indian Kingship From the Religious Point of View by J. Gonda, Utrecht