The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 41


BY: SUN STAFF - 17.9 2018

Draupadi Humiliated in King Virata's Court

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


Now that we have traced out the main beliefs and customs connected with the 'divinity' of kings it is time to turn once more to Prthu, the first king, that is to say the archetype and primordial model of any actual ruler. The way in which he, in the days of yore, was invested with dominion and compelled the earth to yield a sufficient supply of food is not without significance for those who wish to gain an insight into the ancient Indian beliefs with regard to the essence of kingship.

Just as to recount the origins of the human race serves to perpetuate human life, and especially the community or social group, so can we be sure that to relate the story of the institution of kingship and the achievements of the first king was a means of ensuring not only the continuance of kingship in general, but also of those particular features of kingship which are emphasized in the story.

The oldest trait of the tradition concerning the primeval Prthu seems to be that he i.e. Prthi son of Vena, milked Viraj when she, according to a difficult 'hymn' of the Atharvaveda 756), went through a series of migrations and metamorphoses: he milked from her agriculture and grain, on which men subsist; on that occasion the earth was the milking-pail. In the Satapatha-brahmana a Prthi (= Prthu) is referred to as "the first of men who was installed as a king" 757).

Thereupon he wished to secure all food. After "they had offered for him the so-called partha- oblations—this term deriving from his name— he appropriated to himself all food here on earth including the forest beasts." He makes his appearance also in other brahmanas, being recorded as the one who by means of a particular saman obtained the supremacy over wild and domesticated animals 758). These early allusions receive a consistent literary form in the Mahabharata and the puranas.

In the great epic 759) Prthu is described as the first emperor of the world who was installed (samrajye) by the mighty sages (mahar-sayah) on the celebration of his rajasuya sacrifice 760). After having conquered all his enemies, he extended (prathita-, a more modern term might be: consolidated) his empire, for which he came to be called Prthu-. Protecting his subjects from wounds and injuries (ksatat) he proved to be a true ksatriya-.

Because his subjects on seeing him said that they were delighted (raktah) he obtained the title raja. The earth yielded corn without being cultivated and she fulfilled all his desires (she was his cow of plenty: kamadhuk). The cows also yielded milk whenever desired, and every lotus-bud was filled with honey. The fruits were nectareous and full of flavour, and none went without food. In his kingdom men lived free from fear and diseases. Neither decrepititude nor calamity prevailed. When Prthu went to the sea, its waves became solidified. The mountains opened a way for him and his standard never broke (i.e. was never obstructed). Gods, asuras, manes, sages, ascetics, ordinary men, animals, trees and mountains declared him to be their emperor, protector, delighter, saviour, and father, and asked him for the boons which they desired to obtain in order to live in plenty and happiness for endless years. Then taking his bow and arrows, and meditating for a while he asked the earth to give his subjects the milk (i.e. the edibles etc.) which they wished to possess.

After having stipulated that the king should look upon her as his own daughter, the earth consented and Prthu arranged for the milking. Thereupon the whole assemblage of creatures began to milk her successively: the trees obtained buds, the mountains jewels and useful plants, the celestials everything capable of imparting energy (urjaskaram); men cultivation and crops, the serpent poison, the seven sages knowledge of the supreme brahman, the raksasas the power of disappearing, the waves the svadha, i.e. the food of clarified butter etc. usually offered to them. Thus the earth gave every class of beings the objects of their respective desire. The king celebrated various sacrifices.

In another book of the great epic 761) the poet emphasizes that during Prthu's reign the earth produced crops without being tilled, that every leaf of the trees bore honey, that every cow gave plenty of milk. Prthu also removed the rocks which lay all around causing the hills and mountains to increase in size. After his coronation which was performed by Visnu, Indra and the other lokapalas, the earth came incarnate to him with a tribute of gems and jewels; the kings of the rivers and of the mountains gave him inexhaustible wealth. Horses, cars, elephants and men came into existence as soon as he thought of them. He caused all creatures to consider righteousness the most important good. Visnu himself, who confirmed his power, entered his bodv. Therefore the entire universe adored Prthu.

Comment is hardly needed: it is perfectly plain that Prthu is the ideal king. At the end of the detailed account it is emphasized that he was superior to the living king to whom this story was told. The ideal king embodied all virtues which are generally attributed to any king. He is the one who protects the earth and her inhabitants and who causes her to give what is desired by any class of beings. Even the demons and the manes derive great benefit from the government of a good king. Without him animals, trees and mountains are frustrated in their most vital functions and in their very raison d'etre. The ideal king is the true mediator, nay he is the divinity who sets in motion the productiveness of the earth, life and fruitfulness of all classes of beings and objects which exist on her surface.

In the puranical account 762) the story of Prthu's reign is usually preceded by that of his wicked father Vena, who, though inaugurated monarch of the earth, prohibited worship and sacrifice. Angry at the decay of religion the sages beat him to death 761). But then anarchy arose. The rsis rubbed Vena's right arm "and from it sprang the majestic Prthu, resplendent in body, and glowing like the manifested Agni". Prthu then became invested with universal dominion. His subjects besought him for the food which the earth withheld. He seized his bow to compel her to give it. Thereupon she assumed the form of a cow and fled, but being unable to escape she finally complied. In this variant of the story Prthu is placed against the dark background of tyranny and anarchy. Only the good king is able to make the right use of the divine powers inherent in his high office. It is further noteworthy that other institutions, too, were attributed to Prthu. The origin of bards and eulogists for instance was also placed in his time 764).



756) AV. 8, 10, esp. st. 24.

757) Sat. Br. 5. 3, 5. 4.

758) Panc. Br. 13. 5, 19 f. Cf. also T.Br. 2, 7, 5, 1; J-U.Br. 1, 10, 9 etc.

759) Mbh. 7, a. 69.

760) Special attention may be drawn to the diversity in particulars — which sometimes even passes into mutual contradiction — in the "theories" about kingship to be found in the epics. See e.g. Hileebrandt, Altindische Politik, p. 9 ff.

761) Mbh. 12, 29, 139 ff.; 59. H 5 ff. Cf. also 3, a. 185.

762) I refer to F. E. Pargiter, Ancient Indian historical tradition, London 1922, p. 40, n. 3.

763) It may be of interest to notice that in the Harivamsa (I, 5, 15 ff.) mlecchas, i.e. barbarians, and dasyus, i.e. impious men, enemies of the gods who neglect the essential rites, outcasts, including robbers, wild hill-tribes etc. originated from king Vena's sins. They are up to the present day the living evidence of the terrible results of sins perpetrated by so powerful a being as is the king. Cf. e.g. also Mbh. 2, 5, 76; 12, 228, 77; 13, 125, 9; Dighanikaya 1, 85 ff.; Kamand. N.S. 5, 82 = Agni Pur. 239, 46. This double aspect of royal power and behaviour is commented upon also in the literature of other peoples. Often however the terrible and wicked behaviour of the king is said to inspire terror to the internal and external enemies. Thus for instance in a — corrupted — Sanskrit stanza in the beginning of the Javanese version of the Virataparvan; see A. A. Fokker, Wirataparwa I, The Hague 1938, p. 1.

764) I refer to F. E. Pargiter, o.c., p. 16; cf. Brahmanda Pur. 2, 29, 74 ff.