The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 34


BY: SUN STAFF - 31.8 2018

King Kulashekhar

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


As narrated in later texts mankind became sorely afflicted when the gods at the end of the Krtayuga or 'Golden Age' withdrew to heaven. It was then that king Prthu (lit. "the Broad One"), the first of men who was installed as a king, attacked the earth with his bow in order to level her (notice this detail; in every Manu-period the earth becomes uneven, but the first king removes the rocks, enlarges the lulls and the mountains and makes the earth even) and to establish order upon her. But she changed her shape into that of a cow, ran away, and took refuge with Brahma.

This highest divinity thereupon mediated between them, making Prthu the protector of the earth, and inducing her to yield to him the crops and the sites for building abodes for men and gods 653). Now the errant state of the earth has come to an end. She exists protected by law and order, for Prthu's prototype is Varna, the Dharmaraja himself; she has become a place of abode for the gods. The belief is held that from this first king the earth received her name prthvi. The Mahabharata says 654): "because it was expected that he would increase (advance, "make wider" prathayisyati) he was accordingly called Prthu.

The relation of the ruler to the earth or the soil is also expressed by the title parthira- which occurring in the sense of "inhabitant of the earth" as early as the Rgveda, appears to denote a king in Manu and the Mahabharata 655). In a simile occurring in a Buddhist work 656) the whole great earth has become the deposits or property of a king who is properly anointed, belongs to a family of noble birth and has the highest power.

Now it is clear that those beings and entities which expand or extend, which are wide and broad themselves, may easily be supposed to be able to place something at the disposal of others, to give part of their abundance. Such passages as the Atharvanic "let the earth increase and make us increase" 657) are significant. According to the belief expressed by a Vedic poet 658) the gods placed the earth (mahim lit. "the great one") as a support which gives space or room (urusd), and is a broad expanse (uru jrayah).

From other passages it can be understood that it was Visnu who gave man spacious room to live in 659). An epithet like uruvyacas- "widely extending" not only applies to heaven and earth, but also to Indra, and other compounds beginning with uru- are used to qualify Varuna, Soma, Pusan, and again, Indra, who is also called urujrayas- "extending over a wide space".

A remarkable passage is also found in the hymn to the earth in the Atharvaveda 660): "when thou, spreading thyself (prathamana), told by the gods, didst expand (vyasarpas) to greatness, then wellbeing (subhutam) entered into thee"; breadth and expansion result in well-being. Thus a verb urusyati deriving from uru- "broad" not only means "to go to what is broad", i.e. "make off", but also "to protect, secure, defend from": RV. r, 58, 8 and 9 Agni is invoked to protect (u.) the poet against "narrowness", i.e. "distress" (amhas); 2, 26, 4 Brahmanaspati is said to protect against distress (the same words) and to ward off injury (raksati risah).

An interesting phrase is also amhos sid ... urucakrih 661), lit. "effecting broadness even from narrowness", that is "granting ample assistance even in getting rid of distress". The adverbial urusya means "granting broadness, protecting, rescuing", it combines with payu- "guard, protector" 662), Verbs, originally meaning "to extend, spread, or penetrate" not infrequently assumed the sense of "filling with, bestowing upon" on the one hand and that of "being light, illustrious, illuminating" on the other 663).

Thus e.g. tanoti and a-tanoti, the former of which is RV. 3, 6, 5 used in the meaning of "to fill whilst penetrating": tava kratva rodasi a tatantha "mit deiner Einsicht hast du beide Welten durchzogen" 664) and elsewhere in that of "to spread or extend light", even, as e.g. 4, 5, 13 without an explicit object. The verb prath- "to become larger or wider, to spread, extend" also served to express the idea of "to extend over", with the implication of "to shine upon, to give light to" (caus. stem): 3, 14, 4 (Agni) the sun is subject—here Geldner 665) rightly observes that in the eyes of Vedic man light is width, darkness, narrowness—, and also "to become celebrated", the substantive pratha meaning, inter alia, "fame, celebrity" 666).

It does not seem to have been noticed that the idea of room, wideness or spatial extensiveness sometimes crops up in those passages which deal with sovereignty. In an Atharvanic text which is to be recited for the benefit of a king who wishes to be restored to his former kingdom 667), the god Agni is invoked to bend apart (vyacasva) widely extending heaven and earth and to lead the royal man who bestows the oblation. The prince himself is requested to come from the furthest distance, the prosperous roads making wide room for him.

Whatever were the thoughts aroused by the epic bards in their listeners when they added to the name of a king such epithets as dirghabahu- or mahabahu- 668), that the original sense of these adjectives—mention of which has already been made— cannot be disconnected from the conceptions under discussion is, to my mind, beyond any doubt. Modern interpretations have wavered between a 'metaphorical': "who rules a large kingdom" and the literal "long- armed". In favour of the latter explanation reference might be made to the 'ideal' character of a great part of the ancient Indian literature; the poets like to picture their subjects as typical instances of "the hero" (who is valiant), "the princess" (who is lovely and beautiful) etc., their "king" being, of course, a sturdy man. But the very predilection for these and similar epithets and the emphasis laid on the king's robust figure show that the long arms like the broad chest were believed to be essential in a king who came up to the ideal standard.

So the "long arms" may be held to point to the ruler's ability to protect a large number of people by his physical strength and to enforce his sway over an extensive territory. It is important to notice that the Persians gave the same epithet, not only to their rulers (cf. Artaxerxes [Greek]), but also to Zarathustra 669), their spiritual leader par excellence. What could be the implications of the long arms extended to protect and bless may also appear from a Vedic verse, addressed to Mitra and Varuna, gods who, as we have seen, are also called "kings" 670): "Stretch out your arms that we may live".

Special attention must in this connection be drawn to a feature in the ritual of the royal consecration: the monarch receives the unction with raised arms, whilst standing on the throne which, as has already been observed, represents the navel or centre of the universe. From the stanzas accompanying this act we may conclude that he at this occasion represents the axis mundi. He is the pivot of the universe, the very road along which the blessings of heaven reach the earth. Here the ancient idea of the sacred king who stretches his arms has been made a part of and given a place in an elaborate and significant complex of rites. It is in this connection worthy of attention that in a text used to restore a king all the quarters of the sky and all the five divine directions are invoked to call him back 671).

In short, any authority working for the common good seems to have been credited with the faculty of making room and performing similar deeds. There is an interesting stanza in the Rgveda (7, 33, 6) relating that the clans of the Trtsus "increased in breadth" (aprathanta) when the famous sage Vasistha became their leader (puraeta).



*) See Numen III/1956, p. 36 ff. and p. 122 ff. and Numcn IV/1957 p 24 ff.

653) Thus the Samarahganasutradhara 1, 6 ff.; 6, 5 ff.; 7, 7 ff.. cf also Visnu Pur. 1, a. 13. See also S. Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, Calcutta 1946.

654) Mbh. 12 29 1 38. In 12, 54, 126 it however reads: prathita dharmatas ceyam prthivi bahubhih smrta.

655) In this connection there may be room for the observation that Indian authors endeavoured to establish subtle differences between these titles. Thus parthiva- expresses relations between the ruler and his own country, sarva-bhauma- applies to a conqueror of the earth etc.

656) Milindapanho, p. 360 T.

657) Atharvaveda 12, I, 13; 18.

658) RV. 5, 44, 6.

659) RV. 7, 100, 4.

660) AV. 12, 1, 55.

661) RV. 2, 26, 4; 5, 67, 4; 8, 18, 5. Cf. also 4, 55, s etc.

662) RV. 6, 44, 7.

663) One might also refer to passages such as Chand. Up. 4, 5, 2 f.: he who knows brahman's quarter which is prakasavan "manifest, expanded" and meditates on it, becomes prakasavan "shining, illustrious" in this world.

664) K. F. Geedner, Der Rig-Veda, I, Harvard 1951, p. 342.

665) Geldner, o.c., p. 351.

666) It may be remembered that the "going apart" of heaven and earth is conducive to welfare and prosperity; see e.g. AV. 3, 31, 4.

667) Atharvaveda 3, 3, 1; cf. Kausika-sutra 16, 30 ff.

668) See Numen, 3/1956, 40.

669) Yast. 17, 22 "you have such handsome calves and such long arms, to your body hvarenah is given." Chr. Bartholomae, Altiranisches Worterbuch, Strassburg 1904, 695 doubtless missed the point in his comment: "es galt das also fur schon".

670) RV. 7, 62, 5 = Vajas. S. 21, 9 etc. Cf. also RV. 2, 38, 2; 1, 113, 1 etc.

671) Atharvaveda 3, 4, I; 2. Cf. also 6, 88, 3.