The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 43


BY: SUN STAFF - 20.9 2018

Jarasandha, King of Magadha 
Bhima Slays Jarasandha, Bhagavata Purana, c. 1530

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


That the prime minister, or the ministers collectively, and the high officials in general, were an important element of the state is no news to anyone who has read such books as the Manusmrti or the Artha-sastra with any care. It seems therefore worth while to examine their function and their relation to the king more closely.

An interesting statement is found in Kautilya's Arthasastra 783): it is the king who appoints ministers and who replaces them by others if they are liable to what is called vyasana-, which means, generally speaking, "evil, misfortune, ill-luck, evil predicament", and being a source of evil for others (in this connection for the state), originates in attachment to evil passions or sinful activities 784), in short "all that removes welfare from man" 785).

The king is constantly intent upon honouring those who deserve to be honoured and in restraining those who are culpable and corruptible. But whether the elements of the state are like ministers, the purohita, and others, human beings or whether they are not, it is the king from whom originates the counteraction of all mischief happening to the elements of the state as well as the furtherance of their welfare. A perfect (excellent, accomplished) ruler makes, by his own perfection (accomplishments), the elements of the state perfect 786). The other elements of the state (ministers, army, subjects, etc.) are addicted to those practices and characterized by those dispositions which are his 787), because they live in dependence on him who occupies the position at the top. So the monarch is so to say the leaven, which permeates the elements of the state, the great power in the background, the irrational foundation of authority.

That there was an irrational element in the relations between the ruler and his ministers also appears from such plain statements as are found in the dharma-books: the king should, according to Manu 788), consult with his counsellors, unobserved, on the back of a hill or terrace—the reason of this is from a practical point of view obvious— and at the time of consultation he should remove animals, idiots, blind, dumb and other disabled men, women, barbarians and very aged persons—and these measures cannot be explained as merely practical and 'secular' in character because, from the point of view of politics or public security, sane and able-bodied men might do more harm than idiots and animals.

Although the author adds that such despicable persons, likewise animals, and particularly women betray secret council, and although the commentators would make us believe that the word 'animals' only refers to talking birds, it originally was no doubt the magical harm emanating from these categories of beings which furnished the main motive for this direction. The very title of the 'Imperial Chancellor', mantrin-, indicates that at least originally the advices given by him to the king had a magico-religious aspect: a mantrin- was the one who knew those sacred or potent formulas which were called mantras: apart from the rythmic parts of the Vedas, the sacrificial, mystical or magical formulas, the term included also charms and incantations, secret plans and designs; hence mantrin- in the sense of "enchanter" or "conjurer". The accomplishments of a mantrin- 789) consist in the ability to give 'secret counsel' (mantragupti-).

Sometimes the term is given a very wide sense 790), including the purohita, the physician, the astrologer, the ambassador, the inspectors of the strongholds, the army and the treasury, and even the king himself. Whereas kings are incidentally related to "leave the protection of the subjects for a moment to the intelligence of their ministers" 791)—and protection of the kingdom is one of the very reasons of their existence 792)—these officials gain in importance as soon as the throne falls vacant 793).

While it is impossible to collect all references to customs or institutions which are remotely related to kingship, it seems to be worth while to draw attention for a moment to some opinions with regard to the kingdom: rastra-. a term including not only the realm, country or dominion, but also the people or nation. This conception is for instance found in the Aitareya-brahmana 794): "the third class, the 'people', is the rastra-'. In the brahmanas the rastra- is sometimes explicitly identified with sri- "material welfare, and the outward splendour connected with it": "the asvamedha doubtless is that sri, rastra-"; "sri- is the centre of rastra-". Or possessions (dhanani), wealth, is identified with "kingdom" 795).

The rastra- is identified with the asvamedha 796); "it is after rastra- or royal sway that these strive who guard the horse", Elsewhere the rastra- is regarded as identical with the membrum virile 797) and with the fist 798), because they "press hard", royal power pressing hard on the people. It may also be observed that the great deities are not infrequently identified with ksatra- i.e. ruling power, rule, dominion, or nobility. Varuna is ksatra- 799); Indra is ksatra- 800); (Agni) Vaisvanara is ksatra- 801). But the same remark is applicable to a royal personage, a man of the ruling class; he also is rule, dominion, or 'temporal power' 802), (ksatra-). Or he is described as a manifestation (rupam) of it 803). Or he is ojas, ksatra-, and virya- "manly strength" 804). And ksatra- is also the "kingdom" or "nation" (rastra-) 805).

This is not to contend that there ever was in ancient, historical and pre-historic India only one single 'idea' expressed by the terms raj- and rajan-. One may safely assume that kingship was always complex in function. Indian culture, though homogeneous for centuries, has always been characterized by a considerable degree of variety. For the educated and for the lower people the figure and the cult of the same god often were, and are, different. For the Vedic 'knights' and warriors Indra was in the first place a warrior-god, their divine ally, the dispenser of bounty, for the peasants he was the god of rain and fertility who presided over harvest and agriculture.

The same concept of sri- "(material) welfare" showed itself in almost innumerable aspects: for the farmer sri- meant abundance of corn, for the nobleman wealth and outward splendour, for a young woman beauty and loveliness, for others success, power or even intellect. So "the king" could mean something quite different to a soldier, a peasant, a brahman, or a courtier. Besides, religion and social life, even in its economic and political aspects, were inextricably intermingled. Whatever his importance from the religious point of view, the king always was the central figure in the state in the way emphasized by those who like Kautilya focused their readers' attention on the practical side of Indian public life as opposed to the religious and who, while covering ground touched on by the authors of dharma-books, do so with facts and details which are widely divergent from the general rules and injunctions expounded in the latter works.

But, despite their expatiations on all means of securing a firm hold over all within the realm, of defeating the plans of the princes who aim at the ruler's death, of organizing precaution for the royal person and safety from assassination; on a detailed control of administration, on various measures to be taken in connection with trade and traffic, on means of filling the treasury; despite their detailed discussions of inter-state relations, peace, war, alliance, and neutrality, of hunting, gambling, drinking and women and so on—we should never forget that the Arthasastra means by the 'state' an order of society which is not created by the king or the people, but which they exist to secure.

These authors regarded the 'state'—if the word might be used here—as essentially a beneficial institution for protection of human life and welfare and for the better realization of the ideals of humanity. Hence the, at first sight strange, fact that the activity of the state relates to a great variety of the aspects of human life, social, economic, and religious. The policy and duties of the ruler are dictated by the necessity of preserving his power, and this noble end sanctifies the means. For the ruler has to preserve and to promote the welfare of the people, and his duty of protecting them gives to him a morality of his own.

The firm rule which is the aim and object of Kautilya's teachings is a necessity, for it is the very foundation of the public good. The activity of the organs of government which acted in the king's name was to embrace all that could lead to the protection of life, welfare and property in the largest sense of the words. This was the 'theoretical basis' of the practice pictured, defended, and propagated by Kautilya.



783) Kaut. AS. 127, 12 ff.

784) See also Meyer, Buch v. Welt. u.S. p. 49 2, n - 2 -

785) Kaut. AS. 127, 4 vyasyaty enam sreyasah.

786) Kaut. AS. 127, 15 svami ca sampannah svasampadhhih prakrtih sampadayati.

787) Ibid. 16 svayam yacchilas tacchilah prakptayo bhavanti.

788) Manu 7, 147 ff.

780) See Kamand. N. S. 4. 31; for a more detailed account Kaut N.S. 5.

790) The following is borrowed from a stanza quoted in a commentary on the Hitopadesa 3, 53.

791) Thus Kalid. Sak. 6, 32.

792) Cf. Bharadvaja quoted by Kaut AS. 127, 8.

793) See Kaut AS. 94 f-

794) Ait. Br. 8, 26, 8.

795) Ait. Br. 8, 26, 10.

796) Sat. Br. 13, 1, 6, 3.

797) Taitt. Br. 3, 9, 7, 4; Sat. Br. 13, 2, 9, 6.

798) Ibid. 5 and 7 respectively.

799) See. e.g. Sat. Br. 4, 1, 4, r; Kausitaki Br. 7, 10; 12, 8; Gopatha Br. 6, 7.

800) See e.g. Kaut. Br. 12, 8; Taitt. Br. 3, 9, 16, 3; Sat. Br. 2, 5, 2 and 7.

801) See e.g. Sat. Br. 6, 6, x, 7; 9, 3, 1, 13.

802) See Ait. Br. 8, 6; Sat. Br. 5, 1, 5, 3; 13, 1, 5, 3.

803) Sat. Br. 13, 1, s, 3.

804) Ait. Br. 8, 2 etc.

805) Ait. Br. 7, 22.