The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 17


BY: SUN STAFF - 27.7 2018

King Pandu and Queen Madri


The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.

CHAPTER IX. – Part One

The king as the embodiment of divine powers; gods called kings.

Although monarchy was in ancient India, though the most common form of government, not universal 323), times without a king are often described as terrible 324). Then man's sense of justice is destroyed because there is no punishment nor one to inflict it; all wicked passions are given free rein. Then there will be rain, no seed, no sacrifices, no festivals which enhance the prosperity of the people; father and husband will have no authority; lawsuits will be useless; dancing and reciting will cease; parks and pleasure-grounds will no longer be frequented; trade and asceticism come to an end; it is no longer possible to enjoy one's possessions 325).

The weak are enslaved, woman are violated, social ties cease to exist 326). In short, a people without a king is like a river without water or a herd of cattle without a herdsman. The counterparts of these descriptions of anarchy are formed by descriptions of excellent kings: in their dominions there are no thieves, no drinkers of alcohol, no wicked persons; everybody performs the rites and sacrifices, every brahman is learned, all classes of men follow the duties of their order, and so on 327). Thus the king may be styled a creator of all creatures, if he clings to dharma, and also their destroyer, if he is sinful 328).

In illustration of the value attached to leadership a passage from a brahmana may be quoted, where the gods related to have been repeatedly defeated in their struggle against the asuras. At last they recognized that their want of a leader was the cause of their failure. So they elected Soma as their king and with him they conquered all the quarters 329). Similarly, the brahmans were in the days of yore defeated as long as they had not elected a leader 330).

These traditions and expatiations resolve themselves to this: the bodily existence of a personification or 'epitome' of the community is essential for its continuance. From one point of view the king is, or represents, the people: an ancient Indian chief or king was often designated by the name of the tribe or people which had accepted his leadership. From another point of view he was more: the embodiment or personification of divine powers which transcended the present phase of the life of the community. In him the community and the divine powers on which its welfare depended met.

The institution or re-establishment of kingship signifies an important change: since Prthu became king the earth is called prthivi; dharma, previously violated, became restored. When the gods and the asuras contended for dominion over the worlds, the gods realized that it was only "through their lack of a king that their enemies conquered them". They therefore made Soma their king. "He who sacrifices", the brahmana adds, "has Soma as king, and conquers, through him, the quarters".

It is worth while briefly to relate some ancient traditions. According to the Taittiriya-brahmana 331) Indra was made king by the gods because he was the most illustrious, powerful and superior; according to the Jaiminiya-brahmana 332) Varuna who wished to be king of the gods, obtained royalty and the appearance of the creator-god Prajapati and was, on the royal throne, anointed by various gods "unto sovereignty, unto extended sovereignty, uncontrolled sovereignty, complete sovereignty, unimpaired power and supremacy" 333).

Now the conclusion 334) that kingship arose out of a military necessity, that success in war led to the royal dignity is no doubt correct so far that, to cite van der Leeuw, for primitive man it is precisely power and luck that possess the mystical element of admiration which creates the ruler 335). Yet the question may be posed why it was these gods Indra and Varuna were selected for the royal dignity in the heavenly sphere 336). Indra, the god who more than others had the disposal of ojas, the vital and creative energy in nature 337), representing force and energy, was regarded as being intimately connected with atmospheric phenomena and with various forms of fertility and vegetation. He is the protector of the earth 338). As he successfully combated the demon of drought and other evil powers he was at the same time the great deity of the warrior-class 339), who destroys the enemies. The parallelism between the task of this god and that of the king is evident.

As already stated Indra may be regarded as representing the dynamic aspects of kingship. Passing mention may also be made of the rites in honour of this god which form part of the royal 'coronation' as it is described in post-Vedic texts. Thus the Visnudharmottarapurana and other text 340) prescribe a santi- (propitiatory rite) called the aindri santi-, i.e. one dedicated to Indra. Varuna. who is very often called a king 341), was believed to dwell in the waters, presiding over the oath which was taken over water, guarding the rta-, that is to say protecting truth and maintaining the right order, destroying falsehood and employing agents to obtain information about the doings of man 342). He, moreover, looks down at the truth and falsehood of men, saves the honest and righteous, punishes the wicked, forgives sins, and wards off death 343). In his figure the judicial aspects of kingship can easily be discerned.

It might be remembered that according to Manu 344) a king must, by throwing it into water, offer to Varuna the fine recovered from a man guilty of mortal sin, because Varuna is the lord of punishment. It may be noticed that the ancient authorities themselves 345) attempted to explain Varuna's title by referring to the fact that he was a sovereign because he had established a sacrificial fire; that was why people call him "king Varuna".

As to Soma, the main aspects of this god are his being light and life-giving sap, his relations to plants, among which he occupies the first place, and his being identical with the moon. Is it a mere coincidence that many of those passages where Soma is called a king (rajan-) also relate his power to prolong life and to restore man to health by clothing him with amrta-, his grants of offspring and good fortune, his lordship of the medicinal herbs 346)? Soma moreover is considered the king of the brahmans 347).

Among the other gods who are in a comparatively large number of cases called raja, Agni and Yama occupy the first rank. Yama, the gatherer of men, rules the dead. In post-Vedic texts he is to become the Lord of dharma: dharmaraj(a)-. Agni, the god of fire, is a leader and protector of settlers; then he is also called Danda "Staff" or "Punishment", a lord of the house, dwelling in every abode, preserving his worshippers from calamities; he is a divine monarch strong as Indra. He, moreover, has the disposal of the splendour (varcas) with which the king comes into being 348).

With regard to the character of this kingship of the gods mention may be made of a passage 349) where an enumeration is given of some divine rulers and the realms over which they hold sway. Yama is king of the Fathers, Varuna of the gandharvas — elsewhere 350) Varuna is explicitly called the king of the gods —, Soma of the apsaras, Kubera of the raksas, Indra of the gods; likewise Tarksya (the famous bird Garuda) of the birds, Manu Vaivasvata of men, and so on.



323) See e.g. R. Fick, Die sociale Gliederung im nordostl. Indien zu Buddha's Zeit, p. 90.

324) See e.g. A. S. Aitekar, State and government in ancient India, Benares 1949, ch. 5; Patil, Cult. hist, from the Vayu Purana, p. 19; J. Ch. Jain, Life in ancient India as depicted in the Jain Canons, Bombay 1947, p. 49.

325) Ram. 2, 67, 9 ff.

326) Cf. also Mbh. 12, a. 67 and 68.

327) Cf. e.g. Mbh. 12, a. 77, 8 ff. See also Ram. 2, 5, 100.

328) Mbh. 12, 91, 9.

329) Ait. Br. 1, 14, 5 ff.

330) Mbh. 5, a. 156.

331) Cf. Taitt. Br. 1, 5, 9, I; 2, 2, 7, 2; 3, 1, 3.

332) Jaim. Br. 3, 152.

333) Most of these terms (rajya-, vairajya-, svarajya-, samrajya-, sarvavasya-, paramesthya-) are of frequent occurrence to denote degrees and aspects of royal power and dignity.

334) Which is for instance drawn by Altekar, o.c., p. 47.

335) G. van her Leeuw, Religion, p. 115.

336) Kingly authority among the gods could pass into other hands: Satapatha-brahmana 2, 6, 2 ff.

337) See my treatise Ancient Indian ojas..., Utrecht 1952.

338) Cf. e.g. Atharvaveda 12, 1, 18.

339) See Aspects of early Visnuism, Index I, s.v. The former aspect of the god was emphasized by J. J. Meyer, Trilogie, esp. part III, the latter by H. Lommel, Der arische Kriegsgott, Frankfurt a.M. 1939.

340) Visnudharmottarapurana 2, 19. See also Kane, Hist, of Dharmas. III. p. 79.

341) Many references were collected by E. Hardy, Die vedisch-brahmanische Periode der Religion des alten Indiens, Munster 1893, p. 51 ff.

342) So far we can follow H. Luders, Varuna I, Gottingen 1951, esp. p. 28 ff. For the "spies" see H. H. Schaedek, Iranica I, Das Auge des Konigs, Abh. Ges. Wiss. Gottingen 10 (1934).

343) Cf. in addition to this, also AV. 10, 6, 15.

344) Manu 9, 243 ff.

345) See Sat. Br. 2, 2, 3, 1.

346) See e.g. Rgveda 1, 91, 5; 8; 6, 75, 18; 8, 48, 7; 9, 114, 2; to, 97, 18; 19; 22; Atharvaveda 2, 36, 3; 14, i, 49 etc.

347) See Satapatha-brahmana 5, 4, 2, 3; 9, 4, 3, 16.

348) Atharvaveda 3, 22, 6.

349) Sat. Br. 13, 4, 3, 3 ff.; cf. also the notes by Eggeling, The Satapatha-brahmana, V, p. 361 ff.

350) Sat. Br. 12, 8, 3, 10.