The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 24


BY: SUN STAFF - 10.8 2018

Karna, the King of Anga (Bagalpur) 
Battle of Kurukshetra 
Jammu/Kashmir, c.


The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


In these ceremonies we find that not only the purohita and the astrologer, but also the king are marked out emphatically from other people by the functions which they have to perform. According to parts of our sources 486) the monarch and his chaplain (the brahman) should bathe, put on new and unwashed clothes, anoint themselves with sweet-smelling unguents of an excellent kind, in a mood becoming to the religious action, observing their vows, and without breaking their fast, celebrate together the festival known as indramaha- or indramahotsava-, i.e. Indra's feast.

The purohita should take hold of the king with his hand—a well-known gesture intended to transfer 'holy power' — and pour the oblation into the fire. The stanzas accompanying this rite run as follows:

"Hither do we call Indra from yonder, who is kine-conquering, riches-conquering, horse-conquering... 487); the saviour (trataram) Indra, the helper Indra, the hero Indra, of easy call—I now call the mighty (sakra-), much-called Indra; let the bounteous (maghavan-) Indra make well-being for us 488); let Indra be well-saving, well-aiding with aids, very gracious, all-possessing; let him remove hatred; let him make for us safety; may we be rich in heroic sons 489); increase, O Indra, this ksatriya for me; make thou this man sole chief of the people; unman all his enemies; make them subject to him in the contests for pre-eminence 490); chief (vrsan-" bull") of Indra, chief of heaven, chief of earth is this man, chief of all existence; do thou be sole chief 491); Indra will (is expected to) conquer, he will not be conquered, overlord among kings he will rule; (and with the second part of the stanza as found in the Taittiriya-samhita): in all conflicts he will be a protector, that he will be reverenced and honoured" 492).

With these stanzas, the purport of which is very easily understood, and with a collection of verses called rastrasamvargah 493), i.e. "those which serve to acquire a kingdom", Indra (i.e. the tree representing him) is raised 494). Whilst they carefully prevent the god from falling, a stanza is recited which in the Atharvaveda forms part of a series of verses used in a rite to establish a man in sovereignty: 'I have taken thee; thou hast become within; stand thou fixed, not unsteady: let all people want thee; let not the kingdom be lost to thee" 495); this is followed by: "firm is the sky, firm is the earth..., firm (shall) this king of the people (be)" 496) and "let all the people want thee."

It is perfectly clear that this rite in honour of Indra is to consolidate and preserve, not only those powers and phenomena for good which are in Indra's province, but especially on behalf of the population the government in power, that is to say the king.

The king and his priest bring themselves to a special state of 'purity' and 'sanctity'; they abstain from eating, i.e. they observe restrictions to conserve and to accumulate their specific power. "Ihr tapasstromt denn auch als zauberische Kraft der Abwehr und des Segens mystisch hinaus in Stadt und Land" 497). The process of erecting the tree should be carefully watched by the astrologer, for any accident or deviation from the prescribed course of action is significant for the future of the ruler and the realm. If for instance a vulture alights on the tree, there is danger of death. It is however part of the purohita's task immediately to intervene, and to ward off the imminent evil by expiatory or propitiatory rites (rites of appeasement: santi-).

He also has to consecrate the king with a series of formulas taken from the Atharvaveda 498) and used, in the Kausika-sutra, in a battle rite 499), in order to gain victory: "superior (victorious) is the sacrifice, victorious are Agni, Soma, Indra; that I may surpass all hostile armies, so would we pay worship with this oblation; O Mitra and Varuna, cause ye here our dominion to overflow with honey, drive off perdition far away; be pleased with this mighty (ugra-) hero (vira-) ; take hold, O companions (plur.) after Indra, the conqueror of towns and cows, who, thunderbolt-armed, slaughters with power (ojas), conquering in the course".

Whilst reciting these stanzas and making the king perform a circumambulation, from left to right (pradaksinam 500)) of the tree, the priest offers a full homa or oblation of clarified butter in bodily contact with the king who joins in the act.

As laid down in the above ritual books, the servants of the king should be consecrated (diksituh), observe chastity (brahmacarinah), and perform, for three or seven days, sacrifices. By celebrating this festival the kingdom becomes, day by day, greater, the king attains to the position of sole ruler of the earth and shall live a full lifetime.

On the day previous to the starting of a military expedition into a foreign country the ruler has to undergo a ceremonious bath for victory. The ceremony of this 'bath of victory' (jayasnana-) resembles the consecration ceremony in many respects 501).



486) Atharvaveda-parisista 19, 3; Kausika-sutra 140.

487) Cf. RV. Khila 10, 128, 1; AV. 5, 3, 11; TS. 4, 7, 14, 4 etc.

488) Cf. RV. 6, 47, 11; AV. 7, 86, 1; TS. 1, 6, 12, 5 etc.

489) Cf. RV. 6, 47, 12; AV. 7, 91, i; TS. r, 7, 13, 4 etc.

490) Cf. AV. 4, 22, 1; TB. 2, 4, 7, 7.

491) Cf. AV. 6, 86, 1.

492) Cf. AV. 6, 98, 1; TS. 2, 4, 14, 2 etc.

493) Which form part of the Atharvaveda-parisistah, to wit: ch. 2 in the edition (Bolling and Negelein). Curiously enough these stanzas deal with the importance to the ruler of the appointment of a purohita who can avert portents, and with a glorification of the Atharvaveda, the corpus for the use of this priest.

494) This verb and the following are in the plural.

495) AV. 6, 87, 1. Cf. also RV. 10, 173, 1.

496) RV. 10, 173, 4; AV. 6, 88, 1 etc.

497) Meyer, Trilogie, III, p. 111.

498) Cf. AV. 6, 97, 1.

499) Kausika Sutra 14, 7.

500) For the pradaksina- see W. Caland, Een Indogermaansch lustratiegebruik, Amsterdam 1898; O. Schrader - A. Nehring, Reallexikon d. indogerm. Altertumsk. I, p. 412 ff.; Tawney-Penzer, Ocean of Story, I, p. 190 ff.