The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 8



Dasaratha, the King of Ayodhya, on his deathbed 

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


Royal tabus.

In contradistinction to many rules of the Veda student in the different stages of his career (the brahmacarin- and snataka-) who is subjected to a variety of tabus 151), instances of specifically royal tabus are not numerous. Yet the king may not stand on the earth with bare feet 152), a restraint no doubt intended to prevent his mystic power or special virtue from "flowing away".

The snataka (the student after having concluded his study, when he is filled with holy power) is, in a similar way, not allowed to sit directly on the bare earth 153): as is well known "powerful" persons or objects are often supposed to lose their (holy) power by direct contact with the earth 154). Besides, the king might not shave his head for a year after his inauguration 155), because, the relevant texts state — the hair is filled with manly strength: the rite has put the strength of the water with which he is consecrated into the hair, and he would destroy the virtue thus engendered and impair the sri- conferred upon himself, if he had the hair cut off. So he may shorten it, but not cut it off, and for similar reasons, he may rub but not wash himself 156).

This tabu is commented upon in the Jaiminiya-brahmana 157): if the king should cut his hair, he would remove his sri- "prosperity, welfare, majesty", not his hairs, because this sri- has gone to his head (siras). He should, likewise for a year, not plunge into water for his daily bath but only rub his body with water. These observances are called devavratas l58).

After a year the hair of the king is cut off. Then follow two rites called vyusti-dviratra-, i.e. a ceremony lasting two days in order to obtain "felicity, prosperity, increase" or (what is perhaps more probable) "supremacy" 159). One month after the second of these rites another rite, the ksatradhrti- "stability of worldly power" is performed. The king, like the student, should at the time of official deliberation avoid any contact with sick and deformed persons, women, and barbarians 160). He must not take the property of a man guilty of mortal sin 161), no doubt because it would defile and injure his royal, i.e. divine, dignity.

Among the equipment of a snataka 162) are three objects which also belong to a king: an umbrella, shoes and a turban. While the last-mentioned article is a well-known mark of honour 163) the umbrella to which we shall have to revert—was needed because the sun was not allowed to shine directly on the sacred person of the Veda student 164). It may be assumed that the same motive underlies its use in connection with the king 165).

A special interest attaches to the staff or danda-. A staff is a widespread emblem of religious and social significance. Its use again gives evidence of the alliance between the conception of sacredness in primitive thought and that of authority. It can be a magical instrument as well as an emblem of a certain rank or dignity. Often it is regarded as endowed with special power. The ancient Greeks, for instance, held the sceptre to be the badge of command, allowing it to be borne by kings and chiefs—it was even transmitted from father to son— by heralds, priests, soothsayers, minstrels etc.; above all, it was an outward sign of royalty and kingly power.

So it is in India: the danda- is the attribute of those who are in power, and of those who are vested with judicial authority: it represents power, authority and punishment. On the other hand, the Vedic student was given a staff, which had to conform to the requirements formulated by the authorities: it should be straight, without blemishes, unhurt by fire, not likely to terrify men 166). The student, moreover, was forbidden ever to let anything intervene between his body and the staff. This shows that it was so to say part of himself, or at least a very important attribute: the interception of contact is, in Vedic rites, often regarded as dangerous or undesirable.

Considering the wide-spread belief in the transmissibility of power and in its residence in detachable parts or appurtenances of living beings or objects this fear of interception is quite intelligible. The staff obviously participated in the "holy power" present in the student, for when his studentship was over, it was thrown in the water with the rest of his outfit 167). However, he then obtained a new staff of bamboo 168) which is expressly stated to be of use for the protection against not merely human foes but also against demons (raksasas and pisacas).

This is indeed one of the main functions of the object under discussion, to protect the wearer 169), and to enable him to protect others. This may shed a somewhat softer light on the injunction: let the king always uplift his staff, i.e. be ready to strike, for of him who is always ready to strike, the whole world stands in awe 170). A remarkable detail is handed down in one of the dharmabooks 171): in inculcating that honour is due to the monarch this authority adds that, as in the case of a father, he should not be addressed by name: tabus of this sort are well-known indications of being an object of awe and a container of power.

Just as the power of a potent being can be dissipated if he violates any tabus laid upon him during his tenure of office, so special restrictions can serve to enhance and accumulate his potency. Thus the horse which is the central figure of the asvamedha has, for the whole year of its roaming about, to abstain from sexual intercourse 172), no doubt in order to accumulate his potency and to enhance, in the interest of the realm and the fertility of the soil, the effectiveness of his marriage with the queen. During that same year the king must achieve a very exacting deed of tapas or 'asceticism': though lying, every night… [with] his favourite wife, he is not allowed to indulge in intercourse 173).



151) I refer to A. Hillebrandt, Ritualliteratur, p. 55 ff.; 61.

152) Satapatha-brahmana 5, 5, 3, 7 f. Kathaka-samhita 15, 8, 29 says that for a year after the consecration a king should never walk on the ground unless he wears shoes.

153) Sahkhayana-grhyasutra 4, 12, 21.

154) See J. G. Ffazer, The golden Bough III, p. 3 ff.; X, p. 2 ff.

155) Satapatha-brahmana 5, 5, 3, 1 ff.

156) For other references see Keith, Religion and philosophy, p. 306.

157) Jaim. Br. 2, 204.

158) Cf. Latyayana Sr. S. 9, 2, 17 ff.

159) The translation given by Caland, Ap. sr. su. 18, 22, 12 (III, p. 161) "Aufleuchtung" seems not correct, although "daybreak" is the primary meaning of the word. Cf. however Nilakantha on Mbh. 12, 269, 37 vyustih paramais-varyam. The word can also be synonymous with rddhi-, samrddhi-, phala-.

160) Cf. Manu 7, 149.

161) Manu 9, 243.

162) See Asvalayana-grhyasutra 3, 8, 1.

163) Cf. e.g. Kathasaritsagara 12, 190.

164) Cf. Apastamba-grhyasutra 12, 2; Hiranyakesi-grhyasutra 1, 10, 3.

165) For the religious significance of the umbrella see J. G. Frazer The golden bough 10, p. 18 ff„ and N. M. Penzer, The Ocean of Story, London 1928, vol. X, p. 263 f£., who also suggests considering the umbrella to be a symbol of the firmament.

166) Cf. e.g. Manu 2, 47 and the parallel passage enumerated by G. Buhler, The Laws of Manu, Oxford 1886, p. 38; and in addition to the dharmabooks: Gobhila G.S. 3, 1, 14; 27; etc.

167) A similar rule applies in case the staff etc. have been damaged: Manu, 2, 64 etc.

168) See e.g. Manu 4, 36; see also Gobhila G.S. 4, 9, 17 f. etc.

169) For similar application in ancient Indian ritual see Keith, Rel. and Phil., p. 384.

170) Manu 7, 102 f.

171) Vas. 11, 1-2; Gaut. 116.

172) Cf. Sankh. sr. su. 16, 1, 15: the horse may gratify all its desires, with the exception of sexual intercourse; cf. also Baudh. sr. su. 15, 8.

173) Sat. Br. 13, 4, i, 9 . Sahkh. sr. S Q. , 6 , 1, 8 : He does so thinking "may I by this act of asceticism reach successfully the year".