The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 22


BY: SUN STAFF - 7.8 2018

King Priyavrata 

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.

CHAPTER XI. – Part Two

The often repeated idea that the true basis of kingly power is the priest's power, that their union is perfection, though readily enunciated by the brahmans in order to consolidate their influence, must therefore be regarded as being founded on a relation of a genuinely religious character between these two powers. That the sovereign who turns against the priest, i.e. against brahman itself, is held to destroy himself 448) is only a corollary of this same view.

When a prince becomes in any way overbearing towards the brahmans they 449) must duly restrain him. There is an important piece of evidence showing that the Indians already at a comparatively early period reflected upon the problem of the mutual relation between the two earthly 'divinities': "In the beginning", the Brhadaranyaka relates 450), "the world was brahman, one only. That, being one, did not expand (was not manifested). It created further a superior form, worldly (ruling) power (ksatra-), even those who are worldly (ruling) powers (ksatra-) among the gods: Indra, Varuna, Soma, Rudra, Parjanya, Yama, Mrtyu, Isana. Therefore there is nothing higher than ksatra-. Therefore at the rajasuya ceremony the brahman sits below the ksatriya. Upon ksatra- alone does he confer this honour. But brahma is (nevertheless) the source of ksatra-. Therefore, even if the king attains supremacy, he resorts finally to the brahma as his source. He fares worse, as he injures one who is superior."

In studying phenomena relative to ancient Indian religion we should never lose sight of the fact that all beings, gods as well as men, are confronted with the eternal and universal, so-to-say self-willed and self-sufficient powers or entities, on which world and life, health and happiness are founded, by which they are determined, of which they are manifestations. Even the devas are subject to karman, and dharma is to be observed by all beings. It is therefore from the Indian point of view quite reasonable that the king's power is checked by the brahmans who are brahman incarnate 451).

It is worth mentioning that Atharvaveda 1, 9, a text which in general serves to further a person's success and advancement, can be used in a ceremony for the restoration of a king as well as the reception of a Vedic student by his teacher. Besides, it may be employed in two ceremonies for fortune 452). Among the wishes pronounced is the following: "set him in supremacy (sraisthya- 453); over his fellows" and "make this man ascend to the highest firmament."

An epithet frequently used in connection with the ruler is dharmatman- translated by "dutiful" or "religious-minded", but properly meaning "whose personality is (absorbed in) dharma-" 454). "Der Koe nig ist der verkorperte dharrna und der verkorperte Staatsgedanke" 455). The king indeed is dharma roaming on earth in a visible form, with a thousand eyes; if they transgress his orders, mortal beings cannot live at all 456). How should a king be inferior to a deity, Narada says 457), as it is through his word that a criminal may become innocent, and an innocent man an offender?

The transfer of guilt in case of royal pardon is indeed a striking feature of the Indian kingship. If an offender is pardoned by the monarch the guilt devolves on the latter, because if he kills the criminal, he destroys sin. If the king grants such a pardon he must fast a day and a night in order to get rid of the impurity inherent in the crime. A criminal who has been punished by the king is purified 458).

Now it is evident that the dominant element in the conception of kingship was neither that of more or less enlightened autocracy 459) nor that of constitutional monarchy. It must always be borne in mind that too often modern ideas have unconsciously been introduced into explanations of pre- and proto-historic institutions. An ancient king did not direct the public affairs of a state or nations in any modern western sense of the term; he did not rule by making, pouring out, and promulgating never-ending streams of laws and rules on all subjects possible, he did not guide and control the affairs of his people down to the smallest details, he did not continually substitute one instruction for another, he did not plan his subjects' welfare in any modern way. Even such ancient metaphors as "pilot" or "steersman" — cf. the Engl, govern from the Lat. gubernare "to steer, pilot a ship; to manage, conduct, govern" from the Gr. xubepvav "to steer; guide, govern", — cannot help us much further: the ancient Indian king was no pilot consciously directing the ship of state, steering his course for specified goals.

He was, as we have seen, a herdsman 460), a protector, a lord, i.e. authority itself. He controlled with power, protected with care 461). His were the beneficent functions of owning, controlling, disciplining, defending, pleasing and helping the weak. One of his first responsibilities was to see that the people were fed, not by making 'social laws', but by bringing fertility to the fields, by producing the life-giving water, by giving to the country the normal seasons. He was to administer justice, not by elaborating voluminous codes of law 462), but by upholding the traditions, by arbitrating disputes, by punishing and counteracting infringements of the established rules and customs, by driving out unrighteousness 465), by shunning vice himself, by keeping the kingdom in order 464).

Although the relevant literature shows us that a great variety of questions were to be decided by the monarch or his officials, although there was, of course, to a certain extent free play of individual initiative 465), it is obvious from the same documents, that there was a traditional pattern for the ideal ruler, that there were hallowed precedents, that he had to act within the general framework of eternal law and order (dharma), in conformance with time-honoured rules and customs 466). And if he is described as "the one who promotes or advances law" (dharmapravartaka-) 467), this primarily means in accordance with the preponderantly static character of the ancient societies, not that he makes and promulgates laws in any modern sense, but that he upholds the dharma 468) and applies it to particular cases, that he takes care that the dharma remains unviolated and that it does not fall into decay 469).

Passing mention may be made of a kingship on the basis of a sort of 'contrat social' mentioned by Buddhist authors 470). When the originally divine inhabitants of the earth had become sinful they implored the most worthy man among themselves to wield sway, punishing those who deserved punishment and honouring those who were worthy of honour; he would be their proxy or deputy and obtain the sixth part of the crops. This king was a sammutideva, "a deva by common consent" 471).



448) Cf. Manu 9, 320 ff.; Mbh. 12, 56, 25; 78, 21 ff.

449) The text, Manu 9, 320 reads: "the brahman must restrain".

450) B. ar. Up. I, 4, II.

451) Modern Indian authors (e.g. H. C. Raychaudhuri, Political History of ancient India, Calcutta 1950, p. 172) like to say that here provision is made for the prevention of royal absolutism.

452) See Kausikasutra 16, 27; 55. 17; 11, 19; 52, 20.

453) For .sraisthya- see my Aspects of early Visnuism, p. 196 ft.; 200 ff.

454) Cf. e.g. Mbh. 1, 63, 1; 68, 7; 175, 4; 3, 293, r; Meyer, Buch v. W. u. S., p. LXII f.

455) Meyer, o.c., p. LXII. Cf. Mbh. 12, 64, 25 t.

456) Narada 18, 20.

457) Narada 18, 52.

458) Manu 8, 318.

459) Expositions of the limited prerogatives of the king are not wanting in our sources. Jataka 90 for instance a ruler states that he has no power over those who dwell in his kingdom; that he is not their lord and master, being vested only with jurisdiction over those who revolt or do iniquity. See also Milindap. 359.

460) Compare J. A. Wilson, in H. Frankfort and others, Before Philosophy, Harmondsworth 1949, p. 88 with regard to the Egyptian king: "This is perhaps the most fitting picture of the good Egyptian ruler, that he was the herdsman for his people".

461) Cf. e.g. Mbh. 12, 56, 40: "The king should be neither always mild, nor always severe; he should be like the vernal sun, illustrious, neither too cold nor too hot''; cf. also st. 21. He should behave towards his subjects as an expectant mother towards her unborn child (st. 44).

462) See e.g. also Manu 8, 3 ff. and similar passages.

463) Cf. Mbh. 12, 56, 7: "As the sun rising removes darkness so the king's dharma destroys all the evil conditions". Cf. also 3, 185, 30.

464) Cf. Mbh. 12, 56, 6. In the opposite case disorder would prevail on earth and everything would be in confusion.

465) Cf. also such prescriptions as Mbh. 12, 56, 14.

466) We can pass over in silence the innumerable eulogies of kings and the glorifications of royalty in the inscriptions. In these documents the king is as a matter of course described as the equal of the great deities, for instance lndra, Varuna, Kubera, Yama (Allahabad Pillar inscr. of Samudragupta), as a god dwelling on earth. Many of the ideas found in the dharma texts and the epics found place also in the extensive literature of a later period. There too the parallelism between the duties of the king and those of the gods is reputedly emphasized (see e.g. Agni Pur. ch. 226). The former is to regard his life as a continuous vow for the welfare of his subjects (ibid. ch. 218).

467) See Sukraniti 1, 146; Mbh. 3, 185, 26, Cf. Narada-smrti 10 I ff.; Yajnavalkya-smrti r, 360 f.

468) The sources of the dharma are the Veda, tradition, the virtuous conduct of those who know the Veda, the customs of holy men, etc., cf. e.g. Manu 2, 6; Yajnavalkya-smrti r, 7 etc.

469) See also Kautilya-arthasastra, 58, 50. Cf. also Mbh. 3, 185, 26 where the king is shortly called dharma-, and the commentator Nilakantha gives the explication: i.e. establisher of dharma- (dharma-sthapaka-).

470) I refer to E. Kuhn, in the Festschrift v. Thomson, Leipzig 1912, p. 215 f.

471) For this term see D. Andersen, Journal of the Pali Text Society 1909, p. 121.