The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 35


BY: SUN STAFF - 31.8 2018

King Prachinabarhi hears from the story of Puranjana from Narada

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


It seems therefore warranted to suppose that the idea of expansion in connection with royal power is not foreign to the 'symbolism' of the Asvamedha either. This horse sacrifice, which no doubt was one of the most ancient and important religious ceremonies and by which the monarch ratified his claim to suzerainty over his neighbours, was only performed by those rulers whose strength, power and wealth justified such an ambitious undertaking. The benefits of the sacrifice were extension of the empire, general increase of strength, undisputed power, success in new enterprises, etc.

Both the pretensions of the king who undertook the sacrifice and the results throw, it would appear to the present author, light upon one of its main characteristics: the fact that the horse was allowed to roam at its own will for a whole year 672). Without entering into a discussion of the meaning and the original force of this famous sacrifice, which have given rise to a variety of opinions 673), there may be room for the observation that the horse, when set free, is to wander into the north-eastern direction, the quarter of 'invincibility' i.e. victor*, where is the door of heaven and where victory is gained 674), that the king who has the sacrifice performed after his consecration (diksa) is to be celebrated together with the gods, or even with Prajapati, the creator-god, whose relations with kingship have already been commented upon, that the horse is identified with the world, that it is directed to go to Agni Vaisvanara the extending 675) (agnim vaisvanaram saprathasam), that it is explicitly offered to all gods, i.e. to all the powers in the universe 676) and to Prajapati, with whom the sacrifice is identified 677).

It may further be argued that the horse is a representative of royal power or dominion (ksatra-) 678). Both the horse and the king have for a year to abstain from sexual intercourse, no doubt in order to enhance their potency 679). In harmony with these facts is that the animal is identified with Yama, Aditya (the sun), Soma 680), kings among the gods. The objects pursued by the horse sacrifice as described in the Rgveda are cows 681), horses, sons and all-nourishing possessions, and in addition to these ritual and moral purity (anagastvam) and dominion 682).

That means, from the point of view of an ancient Indian prince, in short: unqualified welfare. Oldenberg 683) was, moreover, no doubt right in observing that the whole country was by the roaming horse brought into contact with the divine power inherent in the animal. Since, moreover, the circumambulation of a territory is a means of asserting ownership of it, the roaming of the kingly animal no doubt had a similar significance: it was to assert the king's ownership.

The meaning of the sacrifice was also expressed otherwise 684) it was in the beginning mystically "seen" (and hence instituted) by Prajapati when he was desirous of offspring and cattle and when he wished to pervade (permeate, aver, extend to, over) the world (viman lokan apnuyam), and to gain (exclusive) ownership of the heroic power which belongs especially to Indra (indriyam viryam). Anyone who wished to obtain the same results now should perform this sacrifice, for it is viryam "heroic power". When they formerly performed it all was in possession of heroic power, the brahman became a mantra-making rsi, the military man a "piercing hero",-the vaisya a wealthy and successful breeder and farmer; the women were pretty and faithful, the grain ripened without previous ploughing, there was no want of food, liquid was everywhere, etc. In the ritual texts the wish is pronounced that the king may, through the sacrificial horse, kill his enemy, be irresistible, be sovereign ruling a wealthy and prosperous people, and attain old age 685).

We might also recall to memory the beautiful blessings whispered by the adhvaryu priest to the brahman: "Let there be born in the kingdom a brahman illustrious for religious knowledge, a prince, heroic, skilled archer, piercing with shafts, mighty warrior; let the cow give abundant milk, the ox be good at carrying, the courser swift, the woman industrious. Let Parjanya send rain according to our desire; let our fruit-bearing plants ripen; may acquisition and preservation of property be secured to us." Besides, Indra is, by means of stanzas containing the words vi mrdhah "ward off, dispense" to scatter and subdue the enemies 686). The asvamedha is universal in character; being all, it serves to obtain all and to secure all 687); it is a means of obtaining all desired objects, of attaining all attainments or success (vyastir vyasnuviya) 688). It is therefore not surprising to read that this ksatriya's sacrifice 689) is to be executed by a king who pretends to be the sovereign of the entire earth 690).

It will be relevant to notice also that the horse is stated to be a courser born from the gods and a vajin- i.e. a "Siegesrosz", a container of vaja- "vigour" or, rather, a horse that generates, promotes, wins, secures, especially by racing 691) and similar feats of vigour or heroism, a particular vital power called vaja- which, apart from securing victory, is often associated with vegetative life and growth in nature 692). The sacrificial horse which "went to be slaughtered" is explicitly called a courser possessed of vaja- (vajy arva) 693).

Now the most famous of the Rgvedic horses, Dadhikra or Dadhikravan, is not only extolled as a hero 694), victorious, vaja-winning, and expected to generate as a true courser, running quickly and bird-like, refreshment, invigorating food, and heaven, strength and longevity 695), and to confer a state of holiness or divinity on those who praise it 696), this animal is also described as extending himself over the nations of mankind, and in this he resembles Surya (the Sun), pervading the water with his light 697); overpowering he pervades the inhabited countries. Besides, this horse is "heroic like a king" and the man who possesses and reveres it is sure to win land and fields 698). The same epithet is given to the sun when it is conceived as a steed.

The heroes, wealthy men, potent male beings and persons paying the costs of the sacrifices are, on the other hand, also called vajinah "possessors of vaja-", and the same adjective is often applied to Soma, Agni, Indra, Pusan (a deity interested in growth, wealth, well-being, and especially in the well-being of herds and flocks) and other gods.

Although we are not attempting to trace the origin of this rite and to attribute its various components to different influences the general impression we obtain from the above survey may in conclusion be said to be as follows: the horse as a representative of royal power or dominion—it has also various connections with Varuna 699)—accumulates by running and chastity, power, and in particular that special power which was given the name of vaja-, i.e. generative power conducive to life in nature and vegetation, which as a rule is attended by wealth, victory and similar much desired aims.

By roaming about freely it was on the one hand to spread its divine power over the whole country and on the other to extend the rule and power of its king, or rather to establish it, to ratify his claims on overlordship, and at the same time to re-establish it and to reinvigorate it intrinsically, to place it among divine powers 700) what involves to strengthen the potency of kingship, to enhance welfare and fertility all over the country and the other natural consequences of prosperous sovereignty. The Asvamedha therefore really was the most important manifestation of kingship.



672) For the horse sacrifice: Hillebrandt, Ritualliteratur, p. 149 ff.; Keith, Rel. u. Phil., p. 343 ff.; P. E. Dumont, L'Asvamedha, Baltimore 1927; Meyer, Trilogie III, p. 237 ff.

673) See also W. Koppers, Pferdcopfer und Pferdekult der Indogermanen, in the Wiener Beitrdge zur Kulturgeschichte 4, Salzburg-Leipzig 1936, p. 282 ff.; S. Bhawe, Die Yajus' des Asvamedha, Stuttgart 1939; W. Kirfel, Der Asvamedha und der Purusamedha, in the Festschrift Schubring (1951), p. 39 ff.

674) Cf. e.g. Ait. Br. 1, 14; V. Henry, La magie dans I'Inde antique, Paris 1904, p. 46.

675) Taitiriya-samhita 7 , I, II c; Apastamba-sr. 20, 3. 5.

676) Cf. Ramayana (Beng. rcc.) I, .52. 32 vaisvadevika-, and H. Oldenberg, Die Religion das Veda, Stuttgart-Berlin 1923, p. 473.

677) Sat. Br. 13, 4, 1, 15.

678) Oldenberg., oc., p. 474 - Sat. Br. 13, j, 2. 15. See also Oldenberg, o.c., p. 474, n. 1 and p. 428, 1. That there is a close association between the horse and the king also emerges from the fact that the mane of the horses in the kingdom must not be trimmed during the year after the king's inauguration when he is not allowed to cut his hair himself (cf. Latyayana Srautasutra 9. 2, 18; 21).

679) For the king see Hillebrandt, Ritualliteritur, p. 149, and Meyer, Trilogie III, p. 239.

680) Rgveda 1, 163, 3.

681) See Rgveda 1, 162, 22. The Rgvedic asvamedha was of a more simple character than that described in the later texts.

682) These goods, wealth and dominion, often go together (see also Aspects of early Visnuism, esp. p. 190 ff.). On various occasions different aspects of the general advantage of the horse sacrifice seem to have been emphasized. Thus Dasaratha in the Ramayana (r. R. 8; 13 f.) has it exclusively performed because he is desirous of offspring. (Cf. also Jaiminiya-brahmana 2. 267). The asvamedha in Mbh. 14 on the other hand serves to purify King Yudhisthira and the earth after the murderous war (cf. 14, 3, 5 ff.). By both sacrifices a disastrous state of affairs was to be brought to a conclusion, evil affecting the king and his realm was to be annihilated.

683) Oldenberg, l.c.

684) See Jaimimya-brahmana 2, 267.

685) See Taittiriya-brahmana 3, 8, 5; Apastamba-srautasutra 20, 4, I ff.

686) See Apastamba sr. 20, 20, 7 and Caland's note. It may be added that the king who performs an asvamedha is stated to overcome death: see Caland's note on Ap. sr. s. 20, 22, 9.

687) Sat. Br. 13, 4, 2. 2.

688) Sat. Br. 13, 4, 1, r.

689) Sat. Br. 13, 4, 1, 2.

690) Apast. Sr. 20, 1, 1 and Caland's note.

691) Cf. also Jaiminiya-brahmana 3, 102 "They run a race, in order to reach Prajapati and to win the heavenly world".

692) See my Aspects of early Visnuism, p. 44 ff., 147.

693) Rgveda 1, 163, 12. The phrase is also found 4, 36, 6; 38, 10 etc.

694) Rgveda 4, 38-40; see also Aspects of early Visnuism, p. 147 f.

695) Rgveda 4, 40. 2; cf. 39. 4; 6.

696) Cf. Rgveda 4, 39, 3; 6: remembering and praising the horse leads to purity ("sinlessness"; anagas-) ; to "fragrance" (see D. J. Hoens, Santi, Thesis Utrecht 1951, p. 62); to being in harmony with Mitra and Varuna.

697) Rgveda 4, 38, 10 a... tatana etc.; 9; cf. 10, 178, 3.

698) Cf. Rgveda 4, 38, 1.

699) This has — in a rather one-sided manner, it is true, — been pointed out by Meyer, Trilogie, see III, p. 314.

700) See Rgveda 1, 162, 14.