The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 2


BY: SUN STAFF - 27.6 2018

Rantideva, King of the Lunar Race 

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


CHAPTER I. – Part Two

A typical indication of the character of the monarch is also the term natha-, a brief digression on which may find a place here. The neuter natham is in Vedic texts used to denote the ideas of "refuge" or "protection": "let all the gods be my refuge"; "they run for help to Prajapati, seeking refuge" 27). In post-Vedic texts the masculine natha- is often used to signify the patron, protector of the helpless: the husband is the natha- of his wife in distress; the Lord Krsna is the natha- of those who suffer grief and adversity; in battle heroes are nathas of their companions; an army is protected by an heroic natha-; Rama is the natha- of the world 28).

When cattle are said to have the god of rain, Parjanya, as their natha-, this means that they are completely dependent on him. The only word in a related language with which natha- can be connected is the Greek δνινήμι: it means: "to profit, benefit, help", the substantive δνειαρ"that which brings profit, advantage; means of strengthening; food, rich presents" 29).

In the days of yore, when there was no kingship, the great epic [Mahabharata] relates 30), all men used to protect one another in accordance with dharma; but in the course of time they got tired of doing so. According to the received belief in the epic man then lived in anarchy. At first there was neither king nor kingdom, nor punishment, nor one to inflict it; but when man's sense of justice was destroyed, various crimes were perpetrated. The gods becoming frightened, created law and order.

The better the king, the greater—we might infer from the texts—his power to protect 31). On the other hand the extreme view is pronounced by an authority on dharma 32), that on account of his majesty and because the protection of the world is entrusted to him the king is right in whatever he does.

It is only in harmony with this important function of the ruler that he is, in the idealizing style of primitive thought, depicted as physically strong 33): he is able to protect by his own strength. He is like Indra courageous and energetic; the length and strength of his arms are reknowned. The whole world is subject to the power of his arms 34). Emphasis is also laid on his prowess, strength and valour, which set up a greater claim to honour than high birth 35). Famous kings are described as exceeding all beings in strength, outshining all in lustre (tejas), transcending all in majesty.

Kings are indeed said to protect the earth with the force of their two arms 36). Various rulers are in fact called dirghabahu- "of long arms" 37), mahabahu- "of mighty arms, long-armed" 38) or vipulamso mahabahur mahoraskah "broad-shouldered, long-armed, broad-chested" 39). Remarkably enough the epithet mahabahu- is also given to Visnu, the protector God par excellence, who is said to owe this title to the fact that he bears heaven and earth on his mighty arms 40).

And to one of the epic heroes the words are attributed: "we have the disposal of the might of arms (bahubalinah)" 41). In this connection mention may be made of the epithet ksitibhrt- "who supports the earth" given to a king by the poet Bhartrhari 42). An epithet of similar purport is rastrabhrt- an adjective which, though often translated by "bearing sway", literally means "bearing, supporting, maintaining the kingdom"; monarchs are called rastrabhrt-, a brahmana states, "because they support the kingdom". The ruler is therefore the parthiva- par excellence: "he who relates to or possesses the earth."

The great poets like Kalidasa also describe the king as an extraordinary man and distinct from his subjects 43), attributing to him divine qualities and epithets. Just like the poison of a snake, even if it is young, is deadly, thus a king, though a boy, is by his very nature able to protect the earth 44). A ksatriya must always be strong, and on strength depends chastisement 45). Being so important the ruler must always preserve himself 46). The very happiness of a king consists in his protective function 47).



27) See e.g. AV. 9, 2, 7; Taitt. Br. 1, 6, 4, 1.

28) Mbh. 3, 62, 3; 5, 34, 38; 2, 68, 42; 6, 43, 22; Ram. 1, 77, 3; 2, 48, 14.

29) Curiously enough this noun can also denote gods, heroes and other persons who are a source of help, advantage or strength for others.

30) Mbh. 12, 59, 13 ff.

31) He was incidentally supposed to check even the activities of divine beings, see e.g. Kalidasa, Raghuvamsa 6, 75.

32) Narada 18, 21.

33) One might compare the literary portrait of Rama: Ram. 1, 1, 8 ff. "broad-shouldered, long-armed, having large jaws and folds in the neck."

34) Cf. Mbh. 12, 63, 24 bahvayattam ksatriyair manavanam lokasrestham dharmam asevamanaih .

35) See Sukraniti 1, 363 f.

36) Cf. Vayu Pur. 88, 172 f.

37) e.g. Nala: Mbh. 3, 64, 54,

38) e.g. Mbh. 3, 53, XI; 66, 11; Mark. Pur. 74, 51.

39) e.g. Rama: Ram. 1, I, 9 f.

40) See Mbh. 5, 70, 9 bahubhyam rodasi bibhran mahabahur iti smrtah . Two sons of the epic king Dhrtarastra are called Mahabahu. The name is also given to Visnu.

41) Cf. Mbh. 3, 52, ii; 209, 17; Taitt. Br. 3, 8, 23, 3 rajanyo bahubali bhavukah.

42) Bhartrhari, 3, 59.

43) Cf. also Mbh. 2, 55, 6.

44) Kalidasa, Vikramorvasiya 5, 18.

45) Mbh. 12, 23, 12.

46) Manu 7, 21, 3.

47) See Markandeya-purana 26, 35; 27, 30 f.; 129, 351 cf. also 132, 11.

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