The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 33


BY: SUN STAFF - 29.8 2018

King Khatvanga

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


It belongs to the nature of kingship to outshine all enemies in wealth and splendour 638) to be the sole chief, uppermost of noble men, beating the enemies and taking their enjoyments 639). It is therefore no happy idea sharply to distinguish between the religious and the secular aspect of kingship 640), the former requiring from the monarch certain acts for propitiating gods and unseen powers and removing dangers coming from them with the help of the purohita and sacrificial priests, the latter including all acts that lead to prosperity of realm and subjects.

Nor can the view 641) be substantiated that the doctrine of the king's divinity had mainly developed under foreign influences in the Kushana period, the previous centuries having created only a favourable atmosphere by inculcating the idea that the king was the symbol of a deity. Special mention may be made here of a stanza in the Rgveda 642) where Varuna and Indra are described as defining their respective competences and authorities. In so doing the former lays special stress on the fact that it was he, the lawful king, who in accordance with the eternal truth and norm (rta-) extended the earth threefold, i.e. completely and finally.

Elsewhere 643) this activity is ascribed to Indra who is said to have extended (aprathayah) the surface of the earth. What interests us most is that it is Indra who in this ancient corpus is more frequently related to have performed this deed than other gods; once he was in the company of Visnu. Now, Indra and Varuna who is also mentioned incidentally, are the two deities who maintain special and intimate connections with kingship. Moreover, Indra is also described as becoming broad himself; having drunk Soma he increases in size and felt a bull 644).

There is, in addition to the above, room for the observation that texts used in ceremonies which serve to establish a sovereign contain references to the quarters of the sky, the sky, the earth, the world in general. Thus a couple of Vedic stanzas 645), reference to which has already been made, contains the words: fixed are sky, earth, world; fixed is this king of the people etc.: although this text is, of course, intended to fix the king in his realm, and although the sky etc., like the mountains which are also mentioned, are referred to as models of fixity, passages like AV. 4, 8, 4 (accompanying the consecration) "do thou stride out unto the great quarters"; 3, 4, 1 "let all the directions call thee, O king"; ibid. 2; 7 (see above) are significant enough.

Indra, though as a lokapala lord of the eastern quarter, is considered king of all the regions of the sky, e.g. in an atharvanic 'hymn' 646) which is intended to secure victory on behalf of an earthly ruler. The four great guardians of the regions of the sky, i.e. of space, who are called "overseers of existence", are invoked to release those praying from every narrowness and distress (amhas) and from perdition, and to give well-being to cattle, to men, to the world 647).

Hence also such terms and events as a digjaya-, "the conquest of various countries in all directions by a paramount king"; or digvijaya the latter being also the title of a section of the Mahabharata in which the victories of Yudhisthira are described 648).

Words for "broad, wide" 649) very often came to express such meanings as "important, mighty, powerful, illustrious, etc."; cf. visala- "spacious, extensive, broad, wide" and "great, powerful, mighty, important, eminent, illustrious" (e.g. of a royal family, also as a proper noun of princes and rulers); vipula- "large, extensive", and "important, noble (race)" prthu- "broad, wide" and "great, important, abundant, clever, dexterous"; cf. also vistara- "extensive" and as a subst. "extension": (plur.) "great wealth or riches"; dyati- "stretching, extension, length" could, according to Indian lexicographers, also mean "majesty, dignity" 650).

The nouns vibhuti- and vibhava-, deriving from vi-bhavati "to expand, be developed or manifest" acquired the sense of "mighty, powerful; expansion, abundance, royal dignity" and "rich, powerful, power, might, greatness, exalted position, dominion, majesty" respectively; vibhu- a word for "king" also means "far-extending, all-pervading, omnipresent, plentiful, able, effective".

It is most important that the applications and limitations of the terms for "majesty, might, power, glory, greatness, etc." should be clearly apprehended, for otherwise we are in danger of taking them thoughtlessly to be used honoris causa everywhere. Thus mahiman- "greatness, glory, majesty" is in the Rgveda an oft-used attribute of Indra, Savitar, Agni, the Waters, Dawn, and other deities, signifying that they are "great".

At a later period 651) the word is used in connection with kings, and although terms of this semantic group are generally speaking liable to depreciate, the content makes it in cases like the following clear that the king who is characterized by mahiman- is considered a being of exalted rank: "having heard the mahiman- of the exalted rajarsis of old and having known their acquisition of the world by the performance of sacrifices ..." In a brahmana 652) the king is explicitly called "greatness" (mahiman-).



638) See e.g. Atharvaveda 4, 22, 3 ff.

639) The text Atharvaveda 4, 22, in which these and similar achievements are wished ("increase, O Indra, this ksatriya of mine; destitute of splendour (avarcasam) make his foe") is to be recited every morning for the benefit of the consecrated monarch (Kausika-sutra 17, 28).

640) Thus P. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra III, p. 101. See e.g. also Yajnavalkya-smrti I, 308.

641) Which was recently pronounced by Altekar, o.c., p. 59 f.

642) RV. 4, 42, 4.

643) RV. 1, 62, 5; cf. 1, 56, 5. See also RV, 1, 103, 2; 2, 15, 2; 6, 17, 7; 8, 3. 6; 89, 5; cf. 3, 50, 1; for Indra and Visnu see 6, 69, 5; Indra and Soma 6, 72, 2. For Varuna see also 7, 86, 1; Agni 3, 14, 4; Maruts 8, 94, 9; Visnu cf. also 5, 87, 7.

644) RV. 10, 94, 9; cf. also 1, 55, 1; the gods: 10, 88, 1.

645) RV. 10, 173, 4 f. and AV. 6, 88, 1 f.

646) AV. 6, 98, 3.

647) AV. 1, 31.

648) Mbh. 2 a. 25-32.

649) For an ample discussion of the importance of this idea in ancient Indian thought see my Aspects of early Visnuism, p. 61 ff. ; 68 ff.

650) In Bara's Harsacarita it is used in the sense of "heroism".

651) E.g. Mbh. 2, 13, 2.

652) Sat. Br. 13, 2, 11, 2.