The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 7



King Soma

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


The king upholds dharma; rajadharma; justice.

These functions of the king are often briefly expressed in the formula that he upholds dharma 132): through dharma the king rules 133), the king indeed is the maintainer and staff (danda-) of the revealed order of life, which exists in accordance with eternal norms. He maintains the established order. A king should therefore compel his subjects to follow their respective dharma and make all of them do everything in accordance with righteousness 134).

"The king and the priest uphold the moral order in the world" (dhrtavra-tau). Very significant is also the first stanza of a well-known work on the elements of polity, the Kamandaklya-nitisara: "By whose might (majesty, dignity, power: prabhdva-) the world is established on the eternal (sasvata- "what has always been") path, that god (devah) is victorious (jayati), prosperous and illustrious (sriman), administering justice (dandadhara-, lit. "rod-bearer"), lord of the earth". In ancient texts the term satya- "reality, truth" is sometimes used to form a syntactic unit with the word for king: kings who keep their word will bring back the abducted wife of a brahman (after the example of king Soma who gave back Brhaspati's consort) 135).

When a king was consecrated "a lord of all beings was created, a defender of the brahman and of the dharma" 136). The king exists for the upholding of dharma 137) and not for acting as he likes; beings have to depend on dharma which in in turn depends on the king. Being an element of the eternal order himself, he cannot act arbitrarily. A true king is dharmatman-, an embodiment of dharma, of order, truth, norm, and justice 138). The king who observes the dharma is qualified for deva-ship 139). By upholding the dharma the ruler becomes a rastrabhrt- "a sustainer of the realm" 140).

The early dharma-works consider this to be the king's most important duty 141). Thus the authorities who compiled the dharma-texts consider the ruler not only the head of the civil administration, but also the final controlling power in preserving religious and spiritual institutions, in maintaining the status quo. He is to see that people follow the dharma. In so doing he acts on the advice of his purohita and the assemblies ( parisad -) of learned men. This function of the ruler is illustrated by the statement that he wields the danda- 142), a task performed by Brahma himself among the gods 143).

Authors, in the Santiparvan of the Mahabharata like to hold that royal authority and functions are the very basis of human existence and prosperity. The rajadharma-, the eternal norms, laws and duties belonging to kings are expressly stated to surpass all other manifestations of dharma 144). All the duties of the other classes of men are covered by those of the king. All sorts of renunciation (tyaga-) are included in them, all sorts of learning are connected with them, because they are protected by them.

Important as reflecting the ideas fostered by the ancient poets when they used the terms for "protecting" is the phrase vratam or vratani raks- "to preserve or protect the observances or rules" (in order to prevent them from being isolated). In the Rgveda the subject of this verbal phrase always is a deity: Varuna, Mitra and Varuna, Surya, Savitar, Agni, Agni and Soma, the Adityas, the gods in general. The maintenance of norms or fixed rules and laws was therefore considered a quality which accompanied a good ruler to the throne: it also belonged to the heavenly rulers.

That the king also was to promote 'religion' and 'morality' in a general sense of the term may appear from such stray references as the following, which is furnished by one of the oldest upanisads: "In my kingdom there is no thief, no miser, no drunkard, no man without a sacrifical fire, no ignorant person, no adulterer, much less an adulteress" 145) These words were said of Asvapati whose court was a centre of learning".

A king is exempt from punishment 146), but other opinions also prevailed on this point. It is taught 147) that Varuna is the lord of punishment because he holds the sceptre even over kings. Since this god maintains intimate relations with the waters, the custom is intelligible that a ruler, when find in consequence of an offence which he may have committed, should throw the money due as the fine into the water. By way of alternative he could give it to brahmans 148). The sense of this instruction seems to be fairly plain if we consider the character of donations presented to brahmans which are known as daksinas. They really are offerings, they are offered to, or into the sacred persons of the brahman. If a king kills a brahman he can according to some later authorities 149), atone for this heinous crime by performing an asvamedha (horse sacrifice).

In is not only in those books which deal withy polity and the dharma the ruler that the relation between the king and the eternal norms of justice is discussed. In a highly interesting passage of one of the ancient upanisads 150) we are told that in the beginning this world was brahman.

As it did not flourish because it was alone it created ksatra power, or rather that emanated from it, and afterwards the third and fourth classes. Yet "he" (i.e. brahman viewed as a creator and as the universe) did not yet flourish. He therefore created dharma, that is to say, this, too, emanated from brahma. That dharma is the ruling power of the ksatriya class (ksatrasya ksatrem). Therefore, the text explicitly says, there is nothing higher than dharma. So a weak man can defeat a strong man by means of justice as one does through a king.



132) Cf. e.g. Mbh. 3, 207, 26. The king, like the learned brahman, is the upholder of the sacred ordinances (dhrtavrata-); he should speak and do only what is right: Sat. Br. 5, 4, 4, 5. See also L. Renou, La civilisation de I'Inde ancienne, Paris 1950, p. 130 f.

133) In any case of conflict between dharmasastra and practices or between dharmasastra and any secular transaction, the monarch should decide by relying on dharma.

134) Mbh. 12, 60, 18.

135) RV 10, 109, 6; Ath V 5, 17 to Cf Visnu Pur. 4, 6, 5. This is not to conclude (with S. Radhakrishnan, The principal Upanisads, London l953, p. 170) that in these passages kings are said "to act out the truth" or "to take hold of the truth"; the participles used in the texts must rather be taken in a conditional sense.

136) Aitareya-brahmana, 8, 17, 6.

137) T he importance of the observance of the dharma by the ruler is often inculcated in our sources. In Jataka 276 it is for instance related that in the kingdom of Kalinga there was a drought and consequent scarcity of food because the monarch did not observe the Kurudhamma, i.e. the pancasila- or five moral precepts. See also Mbh. 12, a. 90 f. etc. - See also H. von Glasenapf, Der Jainismus, Berlin 1925, p. 326 ff.

138) Cf. e.g. Ram. 1, 1, 29.

139) Mbh. 12, 90, 3 ff.

140) Sat. Br. 9, 4, 1, 1 ff. rajano vai rastrabhrtas, te hi rastrani bibhrati.

141) By arrogantly asserting that he was above dharma the wicked king Vena met his ruin.

142) A survey of dandaniti can also be found in Hillebrandt's Altindische Politik, p. 20 ff.

143) Cf. Va. Pur. 49, 140; see also 115 ff.

144) Cf. Mbh. 12, 63, 25 ff.

145) Chandogya Upan. 5, 11, 5.

146) Sat. Br. 5, 4, 4, 7.

147) Manu 9, 245.

148) See Medhatithi, Govindaraja and Kulluka on Manu 8, 336

149) Commentators on Manu, see W. Gampert, Die Suhnezremonien in der altindischen Rechtsschriften, Prague 1939, p. 20, n. 3

150) Brh. ar. up. 1, 4, 11 ff.