The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 23


BY: SUN STAFF - 10.8 2018

Uttama on the lap of King Uttanapada


The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


Coming now to the religious rites in the performance of which the king took part, it must first be emphasized that the Indian ruler was no priest-king. A strict distinction is, generally speaking, drawn between the royal and priestly functions. Yet the monarch is advised to celebrate several rites and festivals, meant to avert national calamities and to promote the public welfare 472).

In a sense a 'priestly' or 'spiritual' function of the monarch may be attributed to the activity ascribed to the king in the Atharvaveda 473), where he is said to defend or protect the kingdom by brahmacarya-, i.e. study of the Veda, continence and chastity, and tapas, i.e. 'asceticism'. By the same means, the text continues, the gods warded off death. By brahmacarya alone lndra gained heaven for the gods. He who practises brahmacarya is Prajapati, that is the god who "rules widely" (viraj-), and the viraj- became the controlling lndra. The conclusion might be that the king, when practising brahmacarya, identifies himself with the lord of creation, Prajapati, bearing rule widely and becoming lndra.

Of the many festivals and celebrations in honour of various gods mentioned in this connection 474), I only recall to memory the nirajana 475), the lustration of horses and arms, performed by kings before taking the field. This ceremony which is only known to us from post-Vedic sources, and which was executed for the benefit of gods and their images, of brahmans, kine and other valuable animals, was, according to the legend, instituted by king Ajapala when his subjects implored him to give them a means of warding off all pains and diseases.

The ceremony is, on the authority of some texts, executed by the king himself, who at night lustrates Visnu with lights, the cows and so on, offers fruits, flowers and various auspicious objects to Visnu, his spouse Laksmi and other deities, and together with his priests and ministers, adores his horses, elephants and the insignia of royalty. After that a woman of auspicious marks, a harlot, or a woman of a good family—all of them radiating, in a magical way, happiness should swing a specified light over or around the king's head, to the accompaniment of the formula: "Annihilation of evil influences (sunti-) and prosperity to you, the brahmans and your people."

Thereupon the king proceeds to lustrate the army. Illumined by the rays of many jewels, which no doubt assist him in expelling the demons, wearing a white garland, shining like the sun and showing the lustre of the rainbow, the ruler marches amid his men like Indra amid the victorious soldiers. If this ceremony takes place every year all diseases in the kingdom are destroyed, the enemies will be defeated and there will be plenty of food. Now that the capital is free from evil influences the king must, at midnight, take a walk through that town in order to watch the festivities. It may parenthetically be observed that there are also different forms of nirajana 476).

It is not possible, for reasons of space, to dwell upon other lustrations as, for instance, that connected with the erection of the Marga-pall "the Road-protectress", and the king's role in their performance. Suffice it to say that they form part of a series of ceremonies related to the cult of the demon Bali who, dwelling in the subterranean regions, was believed to exert influence upon vegetation. The king himself, accompanied by his purohita and praised by bards and eulogists, must adore this demon 477) and offer four different kinds of lotus flowers which, as is well-known, represent moisture, vegetation and fertility.

The formula addressed to the Margapall shows us the character of the feast: "Margapall, adoration to Thou that givest happiness to the whole world; under Thee my horses, elephants and cows may be happy" 478). It is also the task of the king to pronounce a formula containing the wish that he would live among cows and imploring Laksmi in the appearance of a cow to yield milk for sacrifices and to annihilate 'sin'.

The yastikakarsana- or "drawing on a string or rope" 479) is another of the following ceremonies in which the king has to take a part personally: this religious game served to ward off evil and, what seems to be a more original feature, to generate useful power for the sake of vegetation. The parties concerned in tugging the rope are men of low caste, i.e. peasants and, in general, 'those who labour in the field, and the rajputs or nobility. If the former win, the king is considered to have won. This feature significantly shows, once again, the intimate relation between the king and the cultivation of the soil.

As is well known religious feasts were often accompanied by theatrical performances. Now it is a significant fact that the wealthy patron who according to our sources usually caused a play to be produced often was the king himself. Although marriages, victories, accession to the throne etc. were among the occasions for performing a play, the spring festivities, celebrated for the sake of a fruitful year, are very often mentioned in this connection.

In the Ratnavali the king even appears on the stage, in attire suited to the spring festival for which the drama was intended, pronouncing, inter alia, the words: "The enemies of the kingdom have been subdued, the subjects are fondled by vigilant protection and freed from all diseases; let the god of love (i.e. of procreation) enjoy satisfaction; this great festival is mine own" 480). Before the play is performed an Indra banner, also called jarjara-, is to be erected, in order to destroy the enemies * of the performance—i.e. those evil beings who wish to interfere with its salutary effect—, and to bring victory and prosperity to the king 481).

In another passage the same banner, being identified with Indra's demon-slaying vajra, is implored to bring victory to the ruler and defeat to his enemies, welfare to the cows and brahmans, and progress to dramatic undertakings 482). A stage which is properly consecrated brings good luck to the king 483). Among the benedictions to be recited when a play is acted are such as bless the brahmans, the state and the king, or wish King Soma victory, health and enjoyment 484).

Another festivity which is largely the king's concern is that of Indra's tree or banner, a fertility ceremony par excellence 485). When the standard, that "source of vigour" which drives away all evil powers, and which in the days of yore was presented to the gods by Visnu the lord of Sri, the life essence of all living beings himself, is to be erected, when hymns to Indra and Visnu are sung, and many auspicious rites have been performed, the king should without breaking his fast, recite some auspicious stanzas. Thereby his subjects will be contented, free from danger and illness, and have abundance of food.



*) See Numen III/1956, p. 36 ff. and p. 122 ff.

472) The festivals were of course also to afford enjoyment to the people and to keep them in good humour.

473) AV. ii, 5, 17.

474) For a brief survey and some references see Kane, o.c., III, p. 234.

475) For a discussion of the, not always identical, ceremonies known as nirajana or nirujana see H. Losch, in Beitrage zur indischen Phil. u. Altertumskunde (Festschrift-W. Schubring), Hamburg 1951, p. 51 ff.

476) Losch, o.c., p. 53 "...zwei verschiedene Zeremonien.., von denen die eine durch das Wassersprengen charakterisiert ist, wahrend die andere in Lichter-schwingcn ihren Mittelpunkt hat. In den Bereich der ersten Zeremonie fielen wotil zunachst die Vorbereitungen von Kriegszugen mit der daran beteiligten Tieren und Personen und Waffen urn sic gegen den Feind zu feien, wahrend die zweite Zeremonie der Bezauberung der Kriegswerkzeuge durch Anwendung von Feuer diente. Neben dieser Nirajana gibt es noch die einfache Verehrung eines Gotterbildes durch Lichterschwenken. (p. 58). Dies ist das Nirajana, das der Abwehr des Schrecklichen dient und das Gedeihen fordert".

477) Cf. Meyer, Trilogie II, p. 186 ff.

478) Cf. Meyer, Trilogie II, p. 160 ff.

479) May we infer from the name that the ceremony originally consisted in drawing a pole? For particulars, Meyer, o.c., II, p. 181 ff.

480) Harsa, Ratn. 1, 10. See also my Unsprung und Wesen des indischen Dramas, Acta Or. 19, esp. p. 362 ff.

481) Bharatiya Natyasastra 3, 81 (73) jayam cabhyudayam caiva parthivasya satnavaha. The jarjara- is "a divine weapon with which all destroyers of a play are made jarjara-, i.e. beaten and broken" (ibid, r, 71 ff.).

482) Ibid. 3, II ff.

483) Ibid. 3. 93 (85).

484) Ibid. 5, 107 ff. (99 ff-).

485) For a discussion, see Meyer, Trilogie III, and also my "Aspects of early Visnuism", p. 256.