The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 31


BY: SUN STAFF - 24.8 2018

King Shalya becomes Commander-in-Chief

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


The authorities disagree as to the procedure to be followed on the death of the reigning king. The Visnudharmottara-purana 597) states that there is no waiting for an auspicious time. His successor should be bathed with water in which the highly auspicious mustard and sesame are mixed; a proclamation should be issued that the new king has succeeded the deceased predecessor; the purohita should show him to the people, peace and security should be proclaimed.

According to the Rajanitiprakasa 598) the successor should be crowned one year after the death of his predecessor; when a king abdicates his successor might be crowned on any auspicious day without waiting for a year. We may infer from these rules that a period of mourning was to be observed.—From what we learn from the brahmanas 599) it is clear that he alone becomes king whom the other kings allow to assume the royal dignity. Hence the statement that those deities to whom the special oblations, called rastrabhrtah are due, are to give him permission to be consecrated. "Inasmuch as the kings sustain realms (rastrani bibhrati) and these gods are kings, therefore these "realm-sustaining" oblations are performed."

There were, in ancient India, also occasions for a general pardon granted by a sovereign other than the above ceremony. Curiously enough, they largely coincide with the cases in which an amnesty is extended to prisoners in modern times. Kautilya 600) states that the king liberates all prisoners when a new country has been subdued, when the heir to the throne is consecrated, or when a royal prince is born. The same custom is mentioned by many other authorities who sometimes add that also female slaves are liberated, taxes are remitted etc. 601), the victims in the slaughter-places are freed 602). Kalidasa even goes so far as to say that the oxen and horses were unharnassed and given rest from drawing carts and chariots, that birds were set free from cages, and cows were left unmilked for the benefit of their calves 603).

What is the deeper sense of this custom? Should everyone share in the festive joy? Was it the king's intention to reduce the number of the discontented and secret enemies. Or had the general pardon rather something to do with a wholesale remittance of guilt desired on account of, and possibly because of, the very felicitous occasion of a royal birth or coronation? Was it an expression of the belief that all that the inhabitants of the country possessed was the gift of the sacred mediator? Was the general release and freedom considered conducive to the success and prosperity of the undertaking, the welfare of the king or the newly-born prince? 604)

It is interesting to notice that, in contradistinction for instance to ancient Egypt where the power of the sovereign over his subjects did not cease with death, the ancient Indian documents do not give us much information on the deceased king 605). Some texts state that after death 606) the ruler becomes the associate of Indra 607). Yudhisthira is, after the great war, received by Indra himself in his celestial realm, having acquired a status equal to that of the god 608); there he sees his former enemy, the deceased king Duryodhana seated on a throne, gifted with sri-, effulgent like the sun and wearing the signs of heroic glory: "he now is the foremost of the kings who are dwellers of heaven" 609).

Other epic heroes are stated to have gone to the abodes of Kubera or Varuna 610) and of them returning to their own divine nature of which they had been, in their earthly career, incarnations. They enjoy the heavenly pleasures and prosperity 611). But no mention whatever is made of their being interested in any human being still alive on this earth 612). Those who have heard the Mahabharata should perform a sraddha- (ceremony in honour and for the benefit of dead relatives) to the deceased heroes, who play a role in it, but nothing is asked of them. Innumerable presentations are offered to the brahmans, nothing to the deities which were, in their earthly existence, these great kings.

While expounding the purpose of a specified rite, an author in a brahmana 613) seems to drive us to the conclusion that royal power, though "heavenly", does not ensure its bearer a permanent position in the celestial regions: in that the prince is consecrated by the rajasuya, he ascends to the world of heaven; if he did not, by means of that special rite, descend to the earth, he would either depart to a region which lies beyond all human beings, or he would become mad. Outside its specific sphere all power is apt to be dangerous; kingly power, though divine, belongs to the earth.

Yet, it is perhaps worth while to quote a passage from the Satapatha-brahmana 614) in which in connection with the ruler reference is made to the other world; two of the feet of the throne on which a prince is consecrated stand on the northern altar-ground, which is this terrestrial world, and two on the southern, which is the world of the fathers; thus the prince is consecrated for both worlds. Concerning this an ancient authority observed: "we shall doubtless be like rulers, in yonder world."

This scantiness of information is no doubt closely related to another fact, bearing upon the deceased in general; in the ancient texts little is said about the power of the departed to perform good or bad deeds; they are, it is true, invoked to confer various boons, similar to those given by the gods, to overthrow the enemy of the living, or to dispel the disease of their descendants etc., but their main concern is the continuation of their race; hence they are implored to give sons. So the sraddha helps to get offspring 615). They have a personal interest in this continuation, since the offerings on which they subsist can only be presented by their descendants.

The king, on the other hand, though being, as a rule, regarded as the source and origin of all that happens in his kingdom is, as far as I am able to see, nowhere especially interested in the continuation of the families of his subjects nor a special help towards getting children. The presence of the dead on earth to aid their offspring is—at least in our sources—practically unknown before Buddhist documents. Besides, in the overwhelming majority of cases it is the whole body of the fathers as such which is addressed. On those rare instances in which individual ancestors are invoked, these significantly are, like Kanva or Kaksivant in the Rgveda, persons of 'spiritual' rather than royal occupations and wicked kings, like all sinners, go to hell 616).

From later texts 617) we may conclude that the great sacrifices which are connected with kingship, the rajasuya and the asvamedha, were considered samskaras, consecrations or rather sacraments, purifying a person from sin and evil contracted in the preceding period of his life and fortifying him at an important moment of his existence in order to be fit to enter upon the next stage.



597) Vidh. Pur. 2, 18, 2 ff. For sesame see Meyer, Triolgie III, p. 319 f.

598) Rajanitiprakasa, p. 62, quoted by Kane, H. of dh. Ill, p. 80.

599) Sat. Br. 9, 4, 1, 1 arid 13.

600) Kautilya, Arthasastra 56.

601) I refer to Meyer, W. u. S., p. 741.

602) Varah. BS. 48, 81.

603) Kalidasa, Raghuvamsa 17, 19 f.

604) It is difficult not to remember the customs connected with childbirth: all knots in the house should be loosened: see Kausika-sutra 33, 5 and W. Caland, Altindischcs Zauberritual, Amsterdam 1900. p. 108. n. 3. The consecration causes a king to be born.

605) The Javanese kings continued to exercise influence after death. The Babad Tanah Djawi (p. 13 M., 28 O.) relates that those who tried to exhume the dead body of a king fell down; their companion who succeeded in reaching the coffin were put to flight by innumerable bees. Cf. e.g. also H. Frankfort, Kingship and the gods, Chicago 1948, p. 53 ff.; 198 ff.

606) There is no occasion to dwell on the descriptions of royal burials in the epics (see E. W. Hopkins, in the Journal of the American Oriental Society 13. p. 170).

607) Visnu-smrti 5, 196; Brhaspati-smrti 2, 38.

608) Mahabharata 17, 3, 1; 8. The words used in the text are of interest: amariyatvam matsamatvam ca (Indra is speaking) ... sriyani krtsnam mahatim. caiva siddhitn/samprapto 'dya svargasukhani ca tvam, "you have now completely acquired "life eternal" ("immortality"), a state equal to mine, complete prosperity, supreme accomplishment (bliss), the felicities of heaven".

609) Mbh. 18, i, 1 ff.

610) Mbh. 18, s, 29.

611) Cf. also Mbh. 12, 24, 23 ff.; 25, 32 ff.; 70, 13; 77, 34, etc.

612) Cf. also Mbh. 18, 6, 4 "The deities came to this world for sport (kridartham); having achieved their tasks, they ascended once more to the celestial region". Cf. also Keith, Religion and Philosophy, p. 425 ff.; W. Caland, Altindische Ahnenkult, Leiden 1893, p. 190 ff.; Meyer, Trilogie III, p. 323 f.

613) Pane. Br. 18, 10, 10.

614) Sat. Br. 12, 8, 3, 6 f.

615) For references see e.g. J. J. Meyer, Sexual life in ancient India, London 1930, p. 223, n. 1.

616) Cf. also Hopkins, Epic Mythology, p. 107 ff.

617) Cf. Mbh. 12, 65, 2 rajasamskarayogam and Nilakantha's rajasuyasvamedhava- bhrthasnanam.