The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 16


BY: SUN STAFF - 26.7 2018

King Yudhisthira hearing from Narada 
Kalyana Kalpataru, c. 1959

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.

CHAPTER VIII. – Part Three

In the Vayu Purana 301) the fourteen ratnas of the emperor are divided into two categories, animate and inanimate. To the former group belong not only the purohita, the queen, the general, the charioteer or "chariot-maker", and the councillor, but also the horse and the elephant, and to the latter class the amulet (mani-), the sword, the bow, the wheel, the chariot, the banner, and the treasure.

In contradistinction to Altekar 302) who is convinced that the nature of the ratnins was clearly misunderstood at a later period because "their council had ceased to function as a part of the administration", I would venture the opinion that this evidence, if it has conclusive force for the earlier period, may be made an argument in favour of the thesis that the Vedic ratnins were no administrative council at all, but an especially constituted group of persons endowed with sacral qualities.

In this connection attention may be drawn to the interesting name of tirtha- given to certain high officials. They are enumerated in Kautilya's Arthasastra, the Pancatantra, the Tantrakhyayika and in other texts 303). Among these are the minister, the purohita, the marshall, the prince royal, the grand door-keeper, the head of the inner apartments, the treasurer, the inspector of the fortifications, and the other superior functionaries. The usual number of them is eighteen.

As a tirtha- primarily is a sacred bathing-place, or place of pilgrimage on the banks of sacred streams, and then also a person or object conducive to the annihilation of sin and evil; as, on the other hand, a tirtha- is also a worthy recipient of sacrifices or gifts 304), i.e. an intermediary in transmitting sacred substance — the word originally meaning "a passage, ford, way to the opposite side" — and, in a more extended sense a person representing purity (sauca-) 305), gifted with wisdom, truth, and omniscience, who is free from passion and attachments and above the pairs of opposites, and who lives upon alms, renouncing everything — these persons are of pure conduct and possess purifying power; they are purity or "tirthas" embodied, those who first applied the same title to the above high functionaries no doubt believed them to be worthy persons in a more or less distinct religious sense. Probably the title was first given to those officials who were sacrosanct, to wit the purohita, the chief justice or dharma-dhyaksa-, etc. and then extended to others.

From the interesting study by Miss Auboyer 306) we may learn that the royal throne or seat of authority is intimately connected with the altar. Both of them are a support on which the sacred or "holy being" (a god, Buddha or the cakravartin- "emperor") who is the god's substitute takes his seat. The cushion of the throne is identified with sri-, adding to the ruler's prosperity on which his kingship rests 307). Sri is, in an elaborate description of Brahma's throne 308), also the cushion on which Brahma sits. The throne itself represents the seat on which Aditya, the sun, was anointed. There is a constant correlation between the royal throne and the seat of the gods.

It may be interesting to quote a passage from a brahmana 309), the author of which with remarkable insight recognized the character of the throne: The priest consecrates the ruler on a throne, for imperial dignity (samrajyam) is established there; by means of imperial dignity he thus causes him to attain samrajya-. It is made of undumbara wood, for this is strength: he thus is consecrated for the sake of strength. It is knee-high, and it is for the rule of this world that the ksatriya is consecrated... For the throne means kingdom or royal dignity (rastram), and rastra- is of unlimited prosperity... It is the womb and navel of the power called ksatra-, i.e. ruling power 310).

There were indeed special relations between "welfare, well-being, fortune", i.e. sri-, and "dominion" (ksatra-) or kingship 311). Sri, kingship and the power of inflicting punishment rest with the ksatriyas 312). Already in the Satapatha-brahmana (2, 4, 4, 6) the idea arises of a royal man's being wedded to Sri. As a goddess Sri is believed to select, of her own accord, a mighty king as her husband. Sri is also described as residing in the sovereign 313). Hence he is srimant- "possessed of sri-" 314). Hence also the verdict that in his serenity or graciousness dwells Sri, the goddess of prosperity herself 315). This sri- is considered to be the end or highest of food; by spending, for ritual reasons, three days in the house of a ksatriya one establishes oneself in the highest of food, in sri- 316). On account of sri-, which in this connection evidently means material welfare 317), the king is said to obtain the highest honour (satkriya "respectful treatment").

The king's bow is, in the formulas accompanying the consecration, identified with Indra's Vrtra-destroying vajra 318).

An essential element of the royal household was the bards who sang the ruler's panegyrics and those of his ancestors, by which they strengthened his power to perform his royal duties. The contents of the panegyrics which are considered as historical truth have the effect of a magical performance, causing the exploits described to spread their inherent power and to become active again in the person of the listener. Special functionaries were for similar reasons in charge of the royal genealogy (the magadhas); others recited blessings. These bards were already part of the household of a Vedic king 319). The Rgveda 320) is already explicit in stating that the princes in exchange for presents, which are highly extolled, enjoy the fruits of the eulogies composed by the singers. The 'brahman' of the priestly singer saves the people 321). The ruler should, however, also listen to itihasas ("traditional history"), including dharmasastra and arthasastra ("political government") 322).



301) Vayu Pur. 57, 68 ff. (cakrain ratho manih khadgam dhanuratnam ca pancamam / ketur nidhim ca saptaite... / bhdrya purohitas caiva senani rathakro ca yah / mantry asvah kalabhas caiva... See also Brahmaruja Pur. 1, 29, 74 ff. with a variation (carmaratnam instead of the bow). Cf. also Brahmanda Pur. 2, 29, 75.

302) Altekar, State and gov., p. 116.

303) Kaup AS. 8 (12), 8; Pancat. 3, 67 f.; Tantrakhy. ed. Hertel, p. 109.

304) See Manu 3, 130.

305) See Mbh. 13, a. 108.

306) J. Auboyer, Le trone et son symbolisme dans I'Inde ancienne, Paris 1949.

307) See my Aspects of early Visnuism, p. 188 f.; P. E. Dumont, L'Asvamedha, Paris 1927, p. 92.

308) Kausitaki-upanisad 1, 5 = Sankhayana-aranyaka 3, 5.

309) Sat. Br. 12, 8, 3, 4, ff. This passage forms part of a discussion of the sautramani, dedicated to Indra, the "good guardian" (sutranian-).

310) Cf. also Vaj. Samh. 20, 1.

311) See Aspects of early Visnuism, p. 188 f.

312) Mbh. 3, 207, 30.

313) See e.g. Kalidasa, Raghuvarnsa 3, 36; 4, 14.

314) See e.g. Mbh. 1, 171, 19; 21.

315) Manu 7, 11.

316) Jaim. Br. 2, 184.

317) Mbh. 12, 133, 7; sri- is opposed to an empty treasure (st. 6).

318) See e.g. Apastamba-srautasutra 18, 14, 10; cf. 17, 10 f.; see also 18, 18, 14.

319) See e.g. AY. 1, 122, 12 and Geldner's note; Meyer, Trilogie III, p. 141 f.; J. Gonda, Zur Frage nach dem Ursprung und Wesen des indischen Dramas, Acta Orientalia 19, p. 329 ff., passim; H. Luders, Varuna, Gottingen 1951, 16 ff. The high position of the suta-, bard and charioteer, has often been commented upon; sec e.g. Meyer, Sexual life in ancient India, London 1930, p. 81, n. 1.

320) Rgveda 5, 42, 8 f.; cf. i, 125, 4 ff.; 2, 1, 16; 7, 18. 21; AV. 19, 49, 6.

321) Rgveda 3, 53, 12. Geldner translates brahman by "Kraitvvort", see my Notes on Brahman, Utrecht 1950, p. 40 ff.

322) Kautilya, Arthasastra 5.

Ancient Indian Kingship From the Religious Point of View by J. Gonda, Utrecht