The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 21


BY: SUN STAFF - 3.8 2018

Sarpa Satra (Snake Sacrifice) of King Janamejaya 
National Museum, Delhi

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.

CHAPTER XI. – Part One

Kings and brahmans; the purohita; the king as a protector.

Indian kingship is peculiar in that the monarch as a rule belongs to the second class, the brahman constituting the first. When the might of the ruling class is under the control of brahmans the kingdom was believed to become prosperous 413). The superiority of a brahman also appears from the fact that he may not accept and still less solicit from the king, he would lose his superiority, his tejas (fiery power and energy) if he did other than simply take from a ruler.

On the other hand the king is advised to adore the brahmans with gifts and services, if indeed he wishes to enjoy the sovereignty, and also, in a significant way, to be on his guard against those brahmans who do not desire to accept favours 414). "It is not permitted to either advise or rebuke a king or a brahman, on account of their dignity (diptima- tvat) and sanctity sucitvat), unless they should swerve from the path (of dutv)" 415). To disobey a king, the Narada-smrti holds, would bring (instantaneous) death 416).

That matters were complicated by the doubtless increasing claim to earthly divinity set up by the brahmans 417) may be regarded as beyond dispute. It is the latter, who, for fear of sinning themselves, entrusted the ksatriyas with the duty of ruling and protecting the earth and its inhabitants.

The rivalry of both orders, and their close alliance on various occasions, are too well known to need comment. No king who lays violent hands upon the cow of a brahman is successful in guarding his realm 418). The road belongs to the king, a dharma text 419) says, except if he meets a brahman. We also come across the prescription that a king was to make way for a srotriya, a snataka, and a brahmana. And Gautama, a great authority on dharma, even goes so far as to contend that the royal authority, though holding sway over all, does not touch the brahmans 420).

Rites were devised to ensure the subordination of the ksatriyas and the vaisyas to the brahmans 421). According to the Jaiminiya-brahmana the ksatra- "kingship or dominion" is a "falling down" or rather corrupted form of brahman. The king is a naradeva- "man-god", a brahman a bhumideva- "earth-god"; and the latter, no matter how evil he may be, pretends to remain a bhumideva- 422).

The king should adore the celestials and the brahmans 423). There is an interesting statement in the Satapatha-brahmana 424) showing how ready these authorities often were to inculcate the superiority of the brahmanical order: "That king who is weaker than the brahman is stronger than his enemies". In this light must be viewed verdicts such as the following in which a god, a brahman and a king are put on a par: "whatever property belongs to one of those three is regarded as an article of superior value" 425). Witnesses are to be sworn in the presence of the gods, the king, and the brahmans 426).

That the relation between both dignities was not always beyond discussion 427) also emerges from the Buddhist Milindapanha in which they, though considered mutually exclusive, are, both of them, attributed to the Buddha 428). The Buddha may be described as a king, because he, like an earthly ruler, rules and governs the world; because he, exalted (abhibhavitva, "being lord, conquering") above all ordinary men, makes those related to him rejoice (nandayanto, the sense of this verb involving the idea of refreshing or invigorating 429)), and those opposed to him mourn, raising aloft the pure and white sunshade of sovereignty, which bears fame or high position (yasa, Skt. yasas) and prosperity or majesty (siri, Skt. sri-); because he is held worthy of homage by the multitudes who come into his presence; because he gladdens the heart of his servants by bestowing gifts; because he judges the transgressors; and because he proclaims laws according to ancient traditions.

From stray occurrences of mention of the royal functionary in the ancient texts some conclusions may also be drawn as to his relations to other bearers of power. As is well known the sutras, in dealing with the arghya- i.e. the paying of honour to special guests 430), mention the teacher, the priest, a snataka, a connection by marriage, the king, or a friend as those who are entitled to receive this honour. According to Gautama the madhuparka- (a mixture of curds and honey) should on this occasion be offered to the ruler as often as he comes — if he is a srotriya-. i.e. learned brahman, to the others only once a year 431).

Anyhow the king and a learned brahmana 432) are the upholders of dharma 433). Their co-operation 434) results in glory and success 435). Accordingly the authority of the sovereign over brahmans was limited; Gautama even says that the king rules over all, except over brahmans.

The king must have a court-chaplain or family priest, a purohita 436), whose task it is to secure to the ruler victory and heaven, to gain what is as yet ungained and to guard what has been already gained 437). He was the most important among the king's counsellors. He was to protect the king and his people by counteracting the magical charms of the enemy and ensuring their prosperity by performing special rites 438). He also consecrated the war elephants etc. in order to enhance their military efficiency 439) and even accompanied the monarch to the battlefield in order to ensure victory by his prayers, charms, sacrifices and incantations 440).

The Jaiminiya-brahmana 441) furnishes us with the interesting information that formerly the purohitas used to be the rulers' charioteers in order to keep a watchful eye on them, in order to prevent them from doing something evil. That is to say the king must have the brahma before him (brahma karyam purahsaram 442)). In the Rgveda there is a clear passage 443) to show that a ruler who adores Brhaspati, the heavenly, i.e. ideal court chaplain, properly could gain an easy mastery over all inimical peoples.

As I have attempted to show elsewhere 444) the original and essential function of this priest consisted in what was expressed by his very title: in protecting the person of the king—and in doing so— his office and the state—by his powerful presence, by his knowledge and by the rites which he performed. He was brahman itself placed like a shield before the king, averting the dangerous powers. The purohita therefore also accompanied the king to battle and helped him by spells and prayers 445).

When, in Mahabharata I, 3, King Janamejaya was much alarmed and dejected because he had incurred a curse, "he took great pains to find a purohita who could neutralize the effect of the curse". Hence the view that king and purohita are, for the sake of the well-being of the kingdom, an inseparable pair; they are each other's complement. For the good and evil done in the kingdom, both of them are responsible. Part of the rites should be performed by both functionaries in co-operation 446).

There is a passage in the Aitareya-brahmana 447) which, while dealing with the purohitaship states that what the king does for his chaplain, and to his wife and son, are oblations offered into the sacrificial fires. These persons, being appeased and propitiated, carry him to the world of heaven, to the lordly power (ksatra-), to strength (bala-), to the kingdom, and to the people. In the opposite case, they repel him from these.



413) Aitareya-brahmana 8, 9, 7.

414) See e.g. Mbh. 13, 35, 21 ff. Compare e.g. Manu's verdicts on the same subjects: 4, 186 ff. (see also G. Buhler, The laws of Manu, Oxford 1886, p. 592.)

415) Narada-smrti 18, 12.

416) Narada 18, 32.

417) Cl. , e.g. Manu 1, 93 he (the b..) is by right (dharmatah) lord (prabhuh) of this whole creation: They are the most excellent of men (1, 96); the very birth of a brahmana is an eternal incarnation of the dharma (1, 98); he is the highest on earth, the lord of all creatures, born for the protection of the dharma (1, 99). Like the king he sustains the world; like him a teacher (brahman) guards men (therefore he must not be reviled); like him, he is exempt from corporeal punishment (cf. Narada-smrti 15 (16), 20). See also Mbh. 12, 56, 26 etc. Brahmans too are regarded as able to cause rain, as very powerful and dangerous; they too are entitled to demand presents.

418) Atharvaveda 5, 19, 10.

419) Apastamba-dharmasutra 2, II, 5; "cf. Gaut. dh. s. 6, 25; Vas. dh. s. 13, 59.

420) Gautama dh. s. 1, II raja vai sarvasyeste brahmanavarjam.

421) Cf. Pane. Br. 11, n, 8 "in that he ... he places the order of the brahmans before the nobility and makes the nobility and peasantry follow after (and being dependent on) the brahmans"; and Ait. Br. 8, 9, 6 "when nobility falls under the influence of the brahman order, that kingdom is prosperous and rich in heroes".

422) For particulars see E. Washburn Hopkins, o.c., p. 64.

423) Mbh. 12, 56, 12 f.

424) Sat, Br. 5, 4, 4, 15.

425) Narada-smrti 14, 16.

426) For references: see Sacred Books of the East, vol. 50 (Index), p. 322.

427) According to the Narada-smrti 18, 4 2, which is inclined highly to praise the royal dignity, there is no difference of any sort between a ruler and a brahman who, being devoted to their duty, protect mankind in accordance with the dharma. Cf. e.g. Mahabharata 13, 152, 16; Manu 9, 315 f.; Agni-purana 225, 16 ff.

428) Milindapanho, edited V. Trenckner, London 1880, p. 255 ff.; translated by T. W. Rhys Davids, The Questions of King Milinda, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 36, Oxford 1894, p. 25 ff.

429) See my relative article in the Acta Orientalia 21, p. 81 ff.

430) I refer to A. Hillebrandt, Ritiuilliteratur, p. 79; Keith, Rel. and Phil. p. 363.

431) Gautama 5, 30 f.

432) The king should honour and revere the brahmans; that is beneficial to himself; Mbh. 2, 5, 96; 100.

433) Cf. e.g. Satapatha-brahmana 5, 4, 4, 5; Gautama-smrti 8, 1, Manu 9, 3 22 etc. See also P. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra II, i, p. 39.

434) From Gautama 5, 301, it appears that a king could be a srotriya- himself. To a king who is a srotriya-, i.e. who is proficient in the Vedas, a madhuparka- (a mixture of curds and honey) should be offered as often as he comes. But if the king is not a srotriya-, only a seat and water should be offered to him.

435) Cf. also Mbh. 3, 185, 25: The combined energy of a brahman and a ksatriya destroys the enemies like fire and wind burn down forests.

436) Cf. e.g. Aitareya-brahmana 8, 24, 1 ff.

437) See e.g. Mbh. I, 174, 14 f.; 3, 26, 16 ff.; 12, 72, I. See also K. W. Hopkins, Position of the Ruling Caste in ancient India Journal American Or. Sac. 13/1889, p. 156.

438) Kaut. S. 5, 15.

439) In the Susima Jataka (no. 163) the court-chaplain was "master of ceremonies" in the king's elephant-festival.

440) Cf. e.g. RV. 3, 33.

441) Jaim. Br. 3, 94.

442) Mbh. I, 174, 15.

443) Rgveda 4, 50, 7; cf. 9.

444) J. Gonda, Purohita, Festschrift-Kirfel, Bonn 1955.

445) This is e.g. seen from the Vasistha hymns of the seventh mandala of the Rgveda. Vasistha was the typical purohita. As Indra and Varuna helped king Sudas to conquer his enemy, the purohita office of the Vasistha family appeared to he true and successful; their prayers or formulas were effective (RV. 7. 83, 4). The king was, if the ritual literature give a true picture of the general belief of those days, supposed to be dependent on the purohita even in military matters. It may be assumed that the prayers of the priest were offered on the battlefield. When battle is beginning, a grhyasutra(Asvalayana 3, 12) says, the priest while making the ruler put on his armour and handing over to him bow and quiver mutters appropriate mantras. He also mounts the royal chariot and the king repeats the formulas.

446) In the hinduized regions of ancient Indonesia, especially in Java, the court priests and official poets likewise enhanced, by their official services rendered to the king, the royal power. Significantly enough, O.Jav. patirthayan — deriving from the Skt. tirtha —sacred "bathing-place" where sin and evil is annihilated; "object of veneration; sacred person, spiritual adviser" is among the titles of the royal priests. See C. C. Berg, in F. W. Stapel, Geschiedenis van Nederlandsch-lndie, Amsterdam 1938, II, p. 30.

447) Ait. Br. 8, 24, 4.