The Science of Kingship in Ancient India, Part 25


BY: SUN STAFF - 14.8 2018

Shalya, King of Madra 
Commander in Chief of the Kaurava Army, Killed by Yudhistir at Kurukshetra

The religious dictates that influenced kingship in Vedic culture.


The ancient Indian king was expected to show himself in full state to his subjects every morning. As it was supposed auspicious to glance at his divine person people flocked to his palace for this purpose 502). As is well known Indian people attach much value to darsana- i.e. the sight of an image of a god, the visit to a sacred shrine, the sight or visit of a saint, a successful leader, a king 503).

An instance may be quoted here: in the Dutajataka 504) the Bodhisattva when king of Benares is described as making it his habit to eat in full view of his people: the sight of a righteous king causing 'religious merit' (puiinam) he wished to confer that merit upon those present.

The statement that a king who is difficult to be seen or met with can easily be influenced by his surroundings—he is expected to hear the complaints of his subjects personally—can, whatever its practical and secular aspects, also be understood in the light of this belief 500). "The king who has no time for thought of royal cares shall, with his realm and people, be involved in fatal ruin. The subjects flee from a monarch whose face they seldom or never see (at the times fixed for darsana)" 506). He should allow people to give him auspicious objects which were intended to enhance his power and to ward off evil 507); poising the king is also a good and auspicious activity 508).

In the detailed description of the day's work of the ideal king given by Kautilya 509) the last eighth part of the night is destined to "benedictions, auspicious progress, blessings, congratulations"—or whatever translation may be preferred for svastyayana— which the ruler has to accept in the presence of the sacrificial priest, the spiritual teacher and the purohita (rtvigacaryapurohitasakhah svastyayanani prati-grhniyat). Before entering the audience-hall (or assembly) he performs from left to right a circumambulation of a cow, a calf, and a bull, no doubt in order to participate in the holiness of these animals.

These ceremonies remind us of the daily or periodical homage due to chiefs in other countries. The Javanese princes, for instance, regularly appeared before the noblemen and the high officials who then furthered the realization of their desires and intentions by a sort of religious acclamation, through which they were believed to activate the mystic power of royalty 510). Generally speaking all good acts performed by his subjects lead to the well-being of the Indian monarch 511).

The religious character of kingship may also appear from the following facts. Among the events occasioning 'impurity' and, hence, cessation from Vedic study are not only the fall of a thunderbolt, an eclipse of the sun or the moon, the death of the teacher or of a near relative, etc., but also the death of the ruler. A snataka shall not speak evil of the king or of the gods 513) ; yea no body should lie before a god or a king 514), if a ruling prince or anyone belonging to the other categories deserving of honour—a priest officiating at sacrifices, a snataka, a teacher and the relatives considered gurus — comes as a guest to one's house he should be honoured by offering him honey 515), which being considered the quintessence of plants and water is often used as a means of stimulating beneficial powers.

We have already noticed that it was customary to greet the sovereign when he passed through his capital, that is to say to pronounce blessings, with fried grain—which was considered a mangala- or producer of bliss and welfare—showered by girls: as is well known girls were regarded as pure and auspicious 516). Flowers are showered on his head 517), or offered to him; so are fruits 518).

Some additions to this pericope may find a place here: We know from various authorities that it was the adhvaryu priest who had to act as a deputy for the king when the latter was engaged in prolonged performances of religious ceremonies such as the Asvamedha 519). We hear of kings who are worshipped (arcayanti) like the sun 520). A curious sidelight on the degree of sacredness enjoyed by the ruler is furnished by a passage in a brahmana 521), enjoining upon those who have established sacrificial fires not to go to any person, even to a king who happens to be in their houses, before rendering homage to the fires.

It is almost superfluous to add that the sacredness of his function does not safeguard the bearer of majesty against the attempt of rivals and others who have the disposal of very potent ritual—or, if this term be preferred, magical devices. Thus the knowledge of the "dying round the holy power" enabled king Sutvan to cause the death of five rivals 522).



501) This ceremony is described at great length in the Rajanitiprakasa (Chaukhamba Sanskrit Series), p. 351 ff.

502) Cf. e.g. Kalidasa, Ragh. 19, 7 1 Mbh. 2, 5, 86; Ram. 2, 100, St. For the signification of samalamkrta- (Mbh.) "in full state" see my paper in the New Indian Antiquary, Festschrift Thomas, Bombay 1939, p. 97 ff., for vibhusita-: The meaning of Vedic bhusati, Wageningen 1939.

503) Thus the ideal king Rama was always accessible: Ram. i, 1, 17.

504) Jataka 260. Here W. H. D. Rouse (The Jataka., ed. E. B. Cowell, II, Cambridge 1895, p. 221, n. 3) recalled to memory that according to the Talmud one should always run to meet the kings of Israel and even gentile kings.

505) Kaut. AS. 16, 30 f.

506) Ram. 3, 33, 5 – 7

507) See e.g. Mbh. 2, 5, 101.

508) I refer to Meyer, Trilogie II, p. 8.

509) Kaut AS. ch. 16 (19), 26.

510) The ceremony was called mijos sinewaka i.e. "to go out of the inner apartments of the palace and to accept homage"; the main task of those present was djumurung which is usually translated by "to pronounce benedictions". Annual tours of inspection served a similar purpose. See e.g. the Ojav poem Nagarakrtagama 83, 5 ff.

511) Mbh. 12, 59, 130.

512) [none in text]

513 ) Apastamba-dharmasutra 1, 11, 31, 5. For deformation or insulting language see e.g. Manu 8, 266 ff.

514) See e.g. Pancatantra 1, 119.

515) For particulars and references: Kane, o.c., II, 1, p. 542 ff.

516) See Kalidasa, Raghuvamsa 2, 10.

517) See e.g. Mbh. i, 69, 12.

518) See also Kulluka, on Manu 8, 307.

519) See e.g. Apastamba-Srautasutra 20, 3, ff.; Baudhayana-Srautasiitra 15, 4. The adhvaryu is formally anointed.

520) E.g. Mbh. I, 1/1, 18.

521) Sat, Br. 2, 4, 1, 6.

522) Ait. Br. 8, 28.