The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 42


BY: SUN STAFF - 19.9 2018

Balarama and Krsna at the court of King Ugrasena in Mathura

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


Another stream of tradition regarding the origin of monarchy holds that Manu 765), the father of the human race, was also the first king. Although he at first refused to assume royalty owing to the sinful nature of man, he finally consented after people had granted him a fixed share of the produce of their labour. To Manu, who is sometimes styled a father, was attributed the great service of establishing peace among men, but also the invention of sacrifice, the introduction of fire and probably of agriculture 766).

It is difficult to agree with those who would consider this prototype of the elected king—the election of a monarch is indeed often mentioned 767)—to be an argument for the thesis that kingship was a purely human or secular institution 768). First, how a particular king acceded to the throne was one thing, another what were the ideas connected with kingship in general, with its essence and with the place it occupied in the scheme of things and the order of the world.

Then, the very account of Manu's election expressly stated first that in crowning a king it is Indra who is crowned 769); a man who strives after his own prosperity (bhuti-) should adore the king as he adores Indra himself, and secondly, that as soon as Manu has accepted to be king he was endued with great energy (tejas) with which he seemed to shine. Seeing that power (mahattvam) of Manu who was like Indra, the inhabitants of the earth became stricken with fear and began to follow their respective duties. Going round the world like a cloud charged with rain he suppressed everywhere all acts of wickedness. Thus it is the living representation of the royal function among men which inspires awe and veneration, irrespective as to how he had acceded to the throne.

In an Atharvavedic hymn to Rohita, i.e. the sun as the Ruddy One 770), which was considered by Bloomfield 771) to have developed into "an allegorical exaltation of a king and his queen", the person speaking expresses the wish 772) that this Ruddy One with favouring mind will, in concord with the kingdom-supporting (rastrabhrtah) gods who go around the sun, assign kingdom to him. The adjective rastrabhrt- is, as we have already seen 773), also used to qualify the king himself. This being or power called rohita-, which "has generated this all", is further requested 774) to "enter this kingdom" and "to bear" the person addressed "unto kingdom". After having been discovered by the six wide ones, i.e. the spaces, "he brought the kingdom hither" 776): so much is clear that the sun is considered to have been, by intermediary of the regions of the universe, instrumental in creating, introducing, or establishing kingship. In the next stanza this idea is specified: "he has brought your kingship", so that the scorners have scattered and "security has become yours".

There is one point of some slight interest regarding the rivalry between the gods and the asuras which might find a place here: after having overpowered the latter the gods won the kingdom by means of a series of prayers and oblations called the rastrabhrtah "supporters of kingdom"; that is, according to the Taittiriya-samhita 776), why the rastrabhrtah have their name. They should therefore be resorted to by the man who desires to win the kingdom 777).

A curious account of the relation between the ruler and the people may perhaps be read in the story 778) of the self-existent brahman- (neuter) which while performing asceticism came to the conviction that, as there is no perpetuity in asceticism, it should offer up itself in all the creatures (bhuta-), and then, at the "all-sacrifice" (sarva-medha-) offer all the creatures in itself. Thereupon it (he) attained the supremacy over all the creatures. The sacrificer can gain his end by imitating the god 779).

From a consideration of these various accounts of the origin of kingship the remarkable fact emerges that—apart from such individual instances as the divine descent of the epic heroes and so on—no theories were enunciated concerning a divine origin of kings or dynasties. Even the legitimacy of individual rulers and dynasties does not seem to have been a matter of much care or dispute to those who discussed the function and position of the ruler. "Sukra—an authority on niti—wants us to understand that the king is great only from his station, but that as an individual he is just a mortal among mortals. The office of kingship... may be conceded to be sacred, but not the person who happens to hold it" 780).

There is also room for the observation that these traditions and speculations on the origin of kingship contain no traces of such 'primitive' sorcerer-kings or priest-kings as often are a subject of discussion among ethnologists 781).

One might be under the impression that a more or less utilitarian justification of kingship does not fail to make its appearance in our sources. Some authorities in the epics and in works produced in the same period seem to venerate the office of the head of the government mainly on account of the manifold services rendered to mankind. But this does not mean that they regarded kingship completely as a merely human institution and the king as a public servant in the modern sense of the term. A similar utilitarian justification of the worship of the gods is given in the well-known stanza of the Bhagavad-gita 782), expressing a common Indian conviction: by strengthening the divine power men strengthen themselves. Decay of religion, like absence of royal authority, results in fatal losses in welfare and happiness. Worship, and the very existence of divine powers in general are, from this point of view, extremely pragmatic affairs.



765) For Mbh. 12, 67 and the first king in general see E. Kuhn, Zu den arischcn Anschauungen vom Konigtum, Festschrift-V. Thomsen, Leipzig 1912, p. 214 ff.

766) Cf. e.g. Mhb. 12, a. 67; RV. I, 36; 10; 8, to, 21; 30, 2; 10, 63, 7. Macdonell, Vedic Mythology, p. 138 ff.

767) See e.g. Bandyopadhyaya, o.c., I, p. 234.

768) Thus Bandhyopadhyaya, o.c., passim.

769) Mbh. 12, 67, 4; 30 ff.

770) Ath. V. 13. 1.

771) M. Bloomfield, in the American Journal of Philology 12, p. 429 ff.

772) Ath. V. 13, 1, 35 -

773) See Numen 3/1956, 41; 4/1957, 50.

774) Ibid. st. 1.

775) Ibid. st. 4.

776) Taitt. Samh. 3, 4, 6, 2.

777) For these formulas see e.g. Taitt. Samh. 3, 4, 7; Vaj. Samh. 18, 38-44 etc.

778) Sat. Br. 13, 7, 1, 1; Sarikh. Sr. su. 16, 15, 1.

779) For the sarvamedha see A. Hilleerandt, Ritualliteratur, p. 154.

780) B. K. Sarkar, The political institutions, p. 174.

781) See e.g. J. G. Frazer, Lectures on the early history of kingship, London 1905, p. 106 ff.; van der Leeuw, Religion, ch. 26, 3.

782) Bhagavad-gita 3, 11.