The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 38


BY: SUN STAFF - 10.9 2018

King Sagara Performs the Asvamedha Sacrifice

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


We now have to return for a moment to the nirajana ceremony. On the authority of Varahamihira 729), whose description probably is the oldest of those extant, the king "whose soldiers, horses (vajin-) and elephants are most pleased, whose army is glittering from the beams of stainless weapons, whose army shows no evil symptoms (resultant on bad omina) and strikes terror into the ranks of the enemy, shall soon conquer the earth".

The king who performs the rite must, in full pomp, take his seat on a tiger-skin; a priest touches horses, soldiers, elephants, and the king himself with holy water pronouncing prayers for the expiation of sin and the prosperity of the kingdom (santikapaustikamantraih); the rite is stated to cause a state of appeasement of evil for the wealth of the kingdom (santim rastravivrddhyai).

After the ceremony the king mounts and moves with his army in the northeasterly direction, like Indra amid the victorious gods. The expiatory character of the rite is also evident from the construction of a "seat of appeasement" (santisadman-) on an approved spot, to the north-east of the town, of an arched doorway (torana-) under which the horse is to be led 730), and of various auspicious and evil-averting objects and figures, such as banners, amulets, fishes. As already emerges from the description given in the preceding part of this treatise it is the king himself who has an important share in the performance of the rites. Indian authorities in giving their opinion about the rite are also explicit on this point 731).

May this fact shed some light upon the signification of the rite and on the name with which it is denoted? The interpretation of the term given by Ksirasvamin: nirajana- means ajana- i.e. "throwing (ksepa-) of propitiatory water" does not convince: although water is used, the combination with the verb aj- "to drive (cattle etc.)" is uncommon.

The explication alternatively proposed by the same commentator ("das vollige Erglanzen-lassen von Reittier, Waffe u.s.w. mit Mantra und Feuerbrand" 732)) seems to be right in that it is based on the analysis nis + raj-. In the modern dictionaries two meanings of nirajayati are distinguished: "to cause to shine upon, illuminate and "to perform the nirajana ceremony". On closer inspection it seems however possible to maintain that there is only one meaning: "to lustrate or purify".

Compare Prabodhacandrodaya 2, 8 without touching his feet the princes purify the surface of the ground beside his foot-stool with the rays of their crest jewels (cf. also 4, 30 +): as is well known jewels were highly valued, inter alia because of their power of dispelling enemies, danger and various misfortunes; they can also purify, bestow wealth, children, triumph and good health, in short they may give what one desires 733).

The original or etymological sense of the verb may therefore have been "to remove (nis- "away, forth"), by applying a special lustral power, evil influences", the lustral power being implied in a display of the power or the manifestation of the idea contained in the root raj- 734), i.e. by a display of majesty, royal power and splendour. In the course of time the original sense was, anyhow, forgotten 735).

There may be room here for an etymological digression in order to illustrate the original meaning of the root raj-, which in my opinion originally expressed the idea of "stretching (out), stretching oneself out", the king being the one who "stretched himself out and protected (other men) under his powerful arms" 736). The same gesture can however also serve to enforce obedience (cf. e.g. RV. 2, 38, 2).

Besides, it was of course thought possible for divine powers to stretch out their arms and hands; in the Rgveda the god Savitar, the divine motor and impeller, is stated to stand erect, broad-handed (prthupani-) and to extend his arms, so as to make himself obeyed by all beings.

In a thorough examination of the noun rajas Burrow rightly concluded that this word etymologically belongs to the root raj- "to stretch (out)", that is to say: to the same root which is contained in raj- "king". From a study of the contexts in which the word rajas is used in the Rgveda it emerges that "space, expanse, extent" is its most usual meaning 737). In a particular sense it applies to the intermediate space between sky and earth: Agni is said to have gone through the rajas, i.e. the space between heaven and earth; the sun pervades it with its rays; the three-wheeled chariot of the Asvins which appears in the sky before dawn moves round it; in so doing it resembles the sun. The sacrifice is compared to the rajas which has expanded (vitata-). But in the plural the reference is to the regions of space in general, and in the dual to heaven and earth. We also hear of a diva rajah "the expanse of the sky". Elsewhere a stretch of country or distance is meant: "the swift steeds traversing the rajas with their steps beat on the surface of the earth with their hoofs".

Similarly, with regard to an eminent courser. The extent (rajas) of the earth or universe is not big enough to contain Indra. The word can also apply to a divine being. Heaven and earth are not equal to Indra in size, and the rivers have not reached the limit of his extent (rajas). The rajas is called "broad, wide" (prthu-, uru-). The verb tan- "to spread, extend" is sometimes used in connection with rajas.



729) Varahamihira (6th cent. A.D.), Brhatsamhita, a. 44, 28; 13; 20; 21; 22; 26.

730) For this act of lustration see Meyer, Trilogie III, p. 334, s.v. torana-.

731) See e.g. Amarakosa 2, 8, 94, where the nirajana is identified with the lohabhisara-ceremony or "iron-attack" ("Eisenentsendung") which is to be performed by kings, and Ksirasvamin's commentary (Trivandrum Sanskrit Series 51, ad 2, 8, 94 a), where both ceremonies, though distinguished, are closely associated.

732) Losch, o.c., p. 53.

733) See e.g. Varahamihira, Brhatsamhita, ch. 80 ff.; Si, 22 mahapavitra-; 82, 6 the sovereign who wears a special ruby shall never be ill or poisoned; there will be always rain in his domain and he annihilates his enemies.

734) For the sense of the compound one might compare: nih-sic- "to pour away, remove"; nir-mrj- "to rub or wipe off"; nir-vid- "to do away with"; ni-ruc- "to drive away by shining" etc.

735) Cf. e.g. Bhavabhuti, Uttararamacarita, 6, 18.

736) For a more detailed discussion of the meaning of this root I refer to a paper Semantisches zu idg. reg- "Kdnig" und zur Wurzel reg- "(sich aus)- streckcn'' which is to appear in the Zeitschrifi fur vergl. Sprachforschung (Kilim's Zeitschrift).

737) On rajas see especially T. Burrow in the Bulletin of the School of Or. and Afr. Studies 12, London 1948, p. 645 ff. — Cf. RV. 1, 58, r; 3, 1, 5; r, 50, 75 84, 1; 4, 36, r; 45 . 2; 6; 1, 83, 2; 1, 62, 5; 2, 31, 2; 10, 56, 5; 8, 77, 5; 7, 21, 6; i. 52, 14; 50, 7; 6, 6 r, 11; 5, 48, 2. — As already pointed out by Burrow, p. 648, the Avestan razah- (V. 8, 97) has a similar meaning, duire asahi razarjitam does not mean "fern an einem Ort der Einsamkeit" (Bartholomae), but "in a remote district of the regions of space (of the world)".