The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 6


BY: SUN STAFF - 5.7 2018

Muchukunda kills the warrior Kalayavana 
18th c. Nepal


The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


Already at the earliest period of Indian history the royal position involved splendour and display of wealth and power 103). The Maruts for instance are compared to "kings of a brilliant appearance"; the ruler is a rich man, he possesses clothes or ornaments resembling gold. Already the Rgvedic king was marked out from his subjects by his retinue and his glittering apparel 104).

Such descriptions as are given by Kalidasa: "he outshone all in power and transcended all in majesty (tejas) 105) are far from rare. Because he is a bearer of majesty and a great deity in human form 106), his position should illustrious, his prosperity visible, his power evident. Hence such epithets as danapati- "lord of liberality", i.e. a munificent man, which in connection with yajvan- "worshipper" and sarvabhutahite ratah "intent upon the well-being of all, creatures" were given to ancient sovereigns 107). Making gifts, a discourse on the duties of noblemen 108) says, is the greatest of virtues. Of all the kinds of gifts, the author continues, that of the body in battle is the highest.

In primitive societies a wealthy and successful man, a forceful and prosperous personality, soon becomes great and admired 109). Although wealth among many peoples does not give power in the sense of control over persons the possession of wealth often confers prestige, honour security, achievement, and not seldom it gives power too. Wealth confers privileges, among the American Kwakiutl the right to sing songs, perform dances, boast publicly, and insult others. When used against another the point of these privileges is prestige, not factual power.

"The psychological mechanism behind this formulation of the significance of wealth is not primarily aggression against another, but the glorification of the self" 110). It is the existence of surplus that is most significant in these societies. Display of wealth is for the happy possessor often obligatory, demanded by prestige, a means of maintaining the ceremonial observances of the community to which he belongs. The value of possessions partly lies in what might be called their ceremonial aspect, partly in the opportunity they give a person to be liberal. Honour and prestige may play an important role in the benefits bestowed upon gods and men. The rich man who shows his wealth by spending is the man who aims at prestige.

To sacrifice is explicitly called one of the king's duties 111), "worshipper" being one of his well-known epithets. This feature is by no means contradictory to his quality of deva- ("god"), since the gods are likewise represented as offering sacrifices, the sacrifice being an indispensable means of gaining victory, possessions and other ends, and of maintaining the right order in the universe 112). So sacrificing does not detract from the king's divinity, the less so as the gods according to the Satapathabrahmana 113) are held to present the offerings to each other. It was typical of a wicked king 114) to have offered the sacrifices intended for the gods, to himself. In this he imitated the asuras who sacrificed to themselves.

A special interest attaches to the prescriptions of dharma-texts in connection with asauca-, "impurity", i.e. the absence of the power or privilege to perform religious acts. Manu expressly states 115) that kings, like those engaged in performing long sacrifices and religious observances are not liable to asauca-, because the first occupy the position of India, and the last are ever pure like brahman. Purity and impurity, the same authority adds 116), are caused and removed by the great gods, the lokapalas, by whose essence the king is pervaded. A ruler, seated on the throne of those characterized by greatness of personality, is immediately purified, because he performs his royal duties of protecting the people and administering justice.

From other authorities, it appears that in this the king is put on a par with a brahmacarin, a sacrificer after being consecrated and other categories of persons filled with holiness or supranormal power 117). The monarch is always pure lest his business be impeded 118), at least, another authority 119) adds, while he is engaged in the discharge of his duty. "The detrimental effect of impurity does not fall on kings nor on those engaged in the performance of a vow or of a great sacrifice (sattra-), for the first are seated on the throne of Indra, the last two are ever pure like brahman" 120). "As fire is not polluted even though it always bums the creatures of the world (prajas), even so a king is not polluted by inflicting punishment on those who deserve it" 121).

The king takes, on the other hand, on himself the sins committed by his people if he does not protect it well 122). If in the country of such a monarch people die from want of protection, the sin of this affects the king himself. Just as he may take a sixth part of the produce of the soil and of many other yields, including the spiritual merits of his subjects 123), so the ruler who permits crime to go unpunished is burdened with a sixth 124) of it 125). Punishment frees him from responsibility, except for an unjust sentence 126). Where a man worthy of condemnation is punished, the king is free from guilt, and the judges do not incur sin. The king moreover had to make good from his treasury stolen property if it could not be recovered from the thief 127).

These ideas and prescriptions are typical of a functionary who is expected to keep things well-balanced and to re-adjust the balance of the world. The prescription that the king shall personally strike a thief with the cudgel carried by the latter conveys the idea of a petty chief 128). The king was also heir and performer of the ritual for the benefit of a deceased man who had no relatives left, and the ultimate protector of all women who have no relatives.

A very interesting rule is handed down in Vasistha's dharma-book 129). All interest on loans ceases to accrue on the death of a king until the coronation of his successor. According to Apte 130) this usage probably was a recognition of the principle that the monarch represents the state, and all state regulations derive their power and authority from him alone. This scholar is however forced to admit that we do not find the logical application of this principle in any other instance. I for one would suggest seeking the explication in another direction. Interest was, as the very term says "growth, increase" (vrddhi-). Since the king is the mediator, through whom all growth on earth is made possible, his death must mean the cessation of growth 131).



103) The reader might also be referred to H. Zimmer, Altindisches, Lebin, Berlin, 1879, p. 167 ff.

104) For details see the author's Aspects of Early Visnuism, p. 189 ff.

105) Kalidasa, Ragh. I, 14.

106) Manu 7, 8.

107) See e.g. Mbh 3, 293; I; 5, 119, 22.

108) Mbh. 12, 65, 3; cf. 64, 27.

109) See e.g. A. Goldenweiser, Anthropology, New York 1946, p. 152 ff.; R. Benedict, Patterns of Culture, New York 1950, P. 174 ff.

110) F. Boas, General anthropology. New York 1938, p. 337.

111) Ramayana 2, 113, 23; cf. also Mbh. 1, 74. 129; 178, 12; 3. 293, 2 etc. The king is a pujitapujako"a reverer of what is revered" (Milindapanha. p. 226 T., where the force of the royal example is emphasized).

112) The gods also applied themselves to asceticism etc. They are repeatedly said to have obtained their position, including heaven, by these means. See S. Levi, La doctrine du sacrifice dans les brahmanas, Paris 1898, p. 54 ff.

113) Satapatha-brahmana 5, I, I, f.

114) As e.g. the mythical Vena, see e.g. Visnu-purana 1, 13, 14. This tradition may not be regarded (as was done by Altekar, o.c., p. 59 f.) as an argument in favour of the hypothesis that royal divinity in the proper sense of the term did not turn up before the period of Manu and other texts mentioning the story of Vena and other incidents of a similar character.

115) Manu 5, 93 f. Cf. also Vasistha-dharmasastra 19, 48 and Visnu-dharma-sutra 22, 47 ff.

116) Manu 5, 97.

117) Particulars may be found in Kane, o.c., IV, p . 297 f.

118) Gautama-dharmasastra 14, 45.

119) Visnu-smrti 22, 48.

120) Manu, 5, 93.

121) Narada 18, 8. Cf. also st. 46 where all gains are stated to become pure in the hands of kings, just like gold becomes pure in fire.

122) Sec e.g. Mbh. 12, 24, 18 ff.: the king who does not protect his subjects whose passions are not under control, who is full of self-conceit incurs sin Cf. also Manu 8, 316 and parallel texts (see Buhler, Sacred Books of the East, 25 p. 309); esp. Vasistha-dharmasastra 19, 46.

123) Manu 8, 304 etc.

124) Particulars are not always the same. See: Meyer, Das altindisch Buch vom Welt- und Staatsleben, p. 678.

125) That the ruler was expected to protect the people in return for the taxes -- his wages – is of course not a result of the "doctrine of social contract" as has been held by some modern authors (see e.g. Patil, o.c., p 161).

126) For particulars: Hopkins, o.c., p. 132; cf. also Manu, 8, 18 f.

127) For particulars: F. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra ... IV, Poona 1953, p. 74.

128) See Apastamba-dharmasutra I, 9, 25, 4; cf. Gautama 12, 43.

129) Vasistha-dharmasastra 2, 49 f.

130) V. M. Apte, in R. C. Majumdar-A. D. Pusalker, The Vedic age, p. 485.

131) Attention may also be drawn to the ancient Indian custom to pay as interest to the creditor the children of a female slave, or the young of animals, which were pawned; cf. J. J. Meyer, Uber das Wesen der altindischen Rechts-schriften, Leipzig 1927, p. 132; 134 (see Narada 1, 107; Yajnavalkya 2, 39; 57). See also Meyer, o.c., p. 299 ff.