FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY: Part 20

 Singapore, 28 November 2013
THE CONCEPT OF STATE AND POLITICAL THOUGHT IN ANCIENT INDIA
Section I
Statecraft and the Concept of Kingship
Early political thought developed in India almost independent of any external influence. There is a distinct difference between the political thought that developed in the Indian sub-continent over the years and the one that developed in parallel almost simultaneously in later years in Europe. Unlike in Europe, the Indian ethos did not produce a formal political philosophy but concentrated on examining the practice of statecraft in detail, producing a number of books on the subject. The subject of ‘Rajniti’, the conduct of kings, was studied avidly and considered a practical science. The organisation and administration of the state was accepted as being vital to its prosperity and therefore detailed advice—both formal and informal—was available to the ruler regarding the optimum manner in which the kingdom could be ruled. However, even in the more elaborate studies the philosophical aspects of political thought were only examined in a cursory manner and there is very limited discourse or discussion available on the subject. Political thought and debate revolved around the practical aspects of controlling a state and was considered more in the realm of scientific studies. In contrast, the Western approach was oriented more towards examining the philosophical aspects of governance, making politics a branch of philosophical studies. The Western focus was more on studying the basis for crafting laws and creating an ideal government as opposed to examining the practical and pragmatic aspects of ruling a kingdom. The Western approach was conducive to developing robust debate and discussion, whereas the Indian way was oriented more towards a prescriptive style of study.
Indian Political Discourse – Sources  
Understanding of the political discourse in the Indian historical context is primarily based on a study of available literary sources. The earliest existing information is obtained from the later Vedic literature of the pre-Buddhist period. Subsequently with the establishment of Buddhism as a vibrant religious practice, their chronicles provide insights into political developments. These writings were further broadened by the Pali inscriptions. In combination they provide a detailed account of the development of the political system and the concept of state within the Indian sub-continent. Undoubtedly, the first Indian book that deals purely with the subject of statecraft is the Arthasastrawritten by Kautilya, the minister and mentor of Chandragupta Maurya.
The Arthasastra. The book is generally considered to have been authored by Kautilya (also called Chanakya) during the Mauryan period. However, there has always been debates and differences of opinion regarding the authenticity of the authorship of the book as well as its contents. The current version mentions a number of Chinese people and places. Since the Chinese were not known in the Indian sub-continent until 4th century A.D., this part of the book is an obvious addition to the original. Further, the current version of the treatise uses terms and vocabulary that became common usage only at a later post-Mauryan period. However, there is certainty that the core of the book was written during the Mauryan reign and the later additions are mere elaborations and interpretations of the fundamental ideas that the original laid out. The Arthasastra provided detailed advice on the how and why of controlling the state and state control of its subjects; the administration and organisation of the national economy; and perhaps most importantly, the efficient conduct of diplomacy and war to ensure the prosperity of the nation. There is a school of thought that believes that ancient Indian kingdoms were administered strictly according to the concepts explained in the Arthasastra. This is manifestly incorrect. In fact, the book did not have any pervasive influence on state activities, even during the Mauryan rule. Self-reliant and confident rulers discounted or enforced the textual advice at their discretion and weak rulers obviously did not have the capability to enforce the strict conduct mentioned in the book. Essentially, the Arthasastra should be viewed as a source-text that provides detailed information regarding ancient Indian life, while also providing broad advice on what was considered optimum methods of governance at that period.
The Mahabharata also provides some information on the political system of ancient India. Although the epic predates the Arthasastra, the chapter that provides political information—Shanti Parva, the 12th Book of the epic—is thought to have been inserted around 2nd century A.D. and therefore is an obviously later version compared to the Arthasastra. The Shanti Parva is a collection of disjointed passages regarding statecraft and can at best be considered a very broad information segment on the state and its perceived functioning. It also provides a discourse on the ideal human conduct. Similarly the information on statecraft provided in the Ramayanais also considered a later-day embellishment, added after the original Arthasastra was written.
From the time of the Rig Veda onwards, ancient literature provides much information regarding the life and beliefs of the people. From the Gupta period onwards there are a number of political texts that impart detailed information. Prominent amongst them are: Nitisara, ‘Essence of Politics’, written by Kamandaka during the Gupta period; and Nitivakyamvta, ‘Nectar of Aphorisms on Politics’, written by Somadeva Suri, a Jain writer of 10 century A.D. Both these books are considered to be based on older texts—some of which have been lost to posterity—arranged, explained, and presented in a far more organised manner to facilitate easier understanding. There are very few original ideas or information in any of these books. The Indian political commentary and texts while being practical advice is almost pedantic. They were not always accepted as sacrosanct, even by kings and should be considered texts that are visionary in a ‘what ought to be’ manner rather than as ‘what actuality is’. Therefore, it has to be reiterated here that the proclivity for some analysts to consider these texts as complete truth and factual information regarding the political system of the time is incorrect. The sources are only indicative of the developments and some of them are even utopian in their recording of the concepts of statecraft.
Of Kings and Monarchs
The earliest legend of the origin of the concept of kingship is found in the Aitareya Brahmna written between 8th and 7th century B.C. and subsequently explained in later Vedic texts. The story goes that the Gods and demons were at war and the Gods were being constantly defeated; at one stage being on the verge of losing the war itself. The Gods met in a council and decided that they needed a ‘raja’ to lead them in battle in order to defeat the Demons. They elected Soma (a derivation of the name Indra) as their leader and went on to win the war under his guidance and leadership. This legend indicates the democratic antecedents in the establishment of the earliest version of kingship. The Taittiriya Upanishad—a work considered to have been written later than the Aitareya Brahmana—also affirm the same story, although with a slight difference. In this telling, the leadership (kingship) is not given through an election. Here the Gods pray and offer sacrifices to Prajapati who then establishes his son Indra as King of Gods, who then goes on to defeat the Demons. The same story is again adapted differently in the Mahabharata. In this version the first king, Virajas, is supposed to have been the son of Vishnu imposed on mankind by the Gods. The noticeable difference here is that, unlike in the other two versions, the king did not have any contractual obligations to fulfil in order to retain the kingship.
Irrespective of the nuances in the different versions of the story, the fundamental fact that surfaces is that the concept of kingship emerged as a military leadership necessity and the king’s first and foremost duty was to lead the nation in war. In order to be a successful leader in war, it was felt that the leader—King—needed divine approval from the most high of the Gods, which in turn translated to the godly status given to earthly kings. Kings were considered to be exalted beings and elaborate royal sacrifices offered by them to propitiate the Gods emphasised their divine connections. In later days, the consecration of kings to the throne, the Rajasuya, imbued the kings with divine power with the proceedings equating him to Indra, the king of Gods. The chief priest made invocations to the Gods to ensure the king became one of the gods. Section 2 of Volume 2 of the Satapatha Brahmana provides a detailed description of the consecration process. One of the lines in the invocation states:
‘Of mighty power is he who has been consecrated; now he has become one of yours; you must protect him.’
The king became a fellow of the Gods!  Gradually, Brahminical rituals of varying pomp and ceremony and other sacrificial rites that concentrated on displaying power and status—and at times the arrogance—the ruler entrenched the divine connection between god and king in public opinion.
With the increasing popularity of Buddhism, the Buddhist belief regarding the status of the king also took root. The Buddhist perception regarding the king was that the king was enacting a social contract and that there was no divine intervention or connection between the gods and the king. The Buddhist version of the beginning of kingship goes like this: In the early days of the Cosmic Cycle humans walked on air and lived in a fairy land without feeling the need for food or clothing. With Cosmic Decay mankind became earthbound and lost their earlier glory. This led to the distinctions of class in terms of varna and to the creation of private property and family groups, which in turn needed both formal and informal agreements to be enacted between individuals and groups. The institution of individual ownership—of property, cattle, and other resources—led to the start of theft, murder, and adultery. In order to maintain law and order, a person was appointed by consensus to enforce the norms of society. In return this person was paid a share of the produce of the fields, necessitated because the chosen individual was not able to cultivate his fields since he spend his time maintaining order in an otherwise disorderly land. This person was called the ‘Mahasammata’ meaning the ‘Great Chosen One’ and gradually given the title of ‘Raja’ if he pleased the people in discharging his responsibilities. This system implies that the purpose of Government is to maintain order and that the king, although the head, is merely a social servant who ruled with the consent of the people. This Buddhist concept is one of the earliest versions of the ‘contractual theory of state’ in the world.
Ancient Indian thought on kingship is a combination of the mystical and contractual that was intertwined inexorably. Over generations, the mystical philosophy gained popularity and became entrenched. Even Arthasastra, which was essentially pragmatic about the ‘humanness’ of the king, recognised the propaganda value of the king being endowed with a mystical, divine status; especially during times of hardship in the kingdom. The treatise was also clear that the king must be powerful enough to punish those who opposed him but relied on his mystical status to ensure that the power he wielded was accepted. This was achieved by equalling the king to Yama the God of Death. The Maurya Emperors sealed the connection with the gods and were considered superior semi-divine beings, attested by the title that Asoka assumed—‘Devanampiya’, the Beloved of the Gods. They also introduced the concept of ‘Chakravartin’ or Universal Emperor. This concept was a blend of ideas from the epics where both Ram and Yudhistira were celebrated as ‘Digvijayins’ – Conquerors of the Four Quarters; and later Vedic imperialistic notions. This idea of an all-conquering king was taken over by orthodox Hinduism as it grew into a strong religious practice and was also adapted by Buddhist traditions. In the Buddhist philosophy, the Universal Emperor appeared periodically to conquer the entire world, ‘Jambudvipa’, and to restore it to a proper, righteous and prosperous rule. In addition to the concept of becoming a ‘Universal Emperor’ some kings were worshipped as gods in dedicated temples.
The tradition of assuming aspirational titles gradually became a norm for ambitious monarchs even if the reality was somewhat different to the vision. The invasion of the Greeks, Kushans, and Sakas brought about another aspect of divinity in the emperors who were seen as ‘saviours’. With the adoption of titles such as ‘Maharaja’ (Great King) and ‘Rajadhiraja’ (King of Kings) rulers laid claim to greatness. This trend went on to assume ridiculous proportions with the pretentious and self-proclaimed adoption of grandiose titles such as ‘Maharajadhirajah-Paramabhattaraka’ meaning ‘Great King of Kings-Supreme Lord’ by kings of some stature and by even minor vassal kings being titled Maharaja by the Gupta period. The Chinese influence on the Kushan dynasty is visible in their adoption of the title of ‘Devaputra’ (Son of God). Over time the doctrine of royal divinity was explicitly established with the concept becoming reminiscent of the story of the war between the gods and the demons in the Law Book of Manu as below:
When the world was without a king
and dispersed in fear in all directions,
 the Lord created a king 
 for the protection of all.
He made him of eternal particles
Of Indra and the Wind, 
Yama, the Sun and Fire,
Varuna, the Moon and the Lord of Wealth [Kubera].
And because he has been formed  
of fragments of all those gods,   
the king surpasses  
all other beings in splendour.
Even an infant king must not be despised,
as though a mere mortal,   
 for he is a great god  
in human form.
The Aswamedha sacrifice (Horse sacrifice) was a requirement to claim exalted status in earlier times, but its significance reduced over a period of time. The last mention of a king completing an Aswamedha sacrifice is in 11th century A.D. in the Chola kingdom. All medieval Indian kings traced their genealogy all the way back to Manu, the first man who combined the characteristics, attributes and roles of Adam and Noah in the Hebrew tradition. The kings of India belonged to two lines of successors to Manu—the ‘Suryavanshis’ or the Solar Line that originated with his son Iksavaku; and the ‘Chandravanshis’ or the Lunar Line who were the successors of Manu’s daughter Ila.
The Actual Situation. In spite of the aspiration of kings and dynasties to be accepted as descendants of Gods, in the Indian philosophical and religious context kings were considered as fallible human beings who often committed sins. Therefore, the common man in India did not behave in the abject servile manner towards their kings unlike the Roman or Chinese Emperors who commanded and received a degree of servility from their subjects unknown in India. Since the king was only one of many gods on earth at best, the subjects did not necessarily give him an unquestioned exalted status. Further, since the Brahmins and other ascetics were also given divine status, it was not an extraordinary event for the claims of the king to divinity to be challenged in debate or even directly.
“Divinity was cheap in ancient India.”
A. L. Basham, The Wonder that was India, p.88
The Ancient King as an Autocrat
The king in ancient India could be considered, at least by the letter of the law, an autocrat with no constitutional control over him. However, this was far from the truth. The ability of the king to initiate unilateral actions was constantly kept in check by the institution of a number of practical constraints. As mentioned earlier, the primary role of the king was to protect the nation from external invasion and internally maintain the order of society and the way of life of the people. The domestic responsibility required him to quickly snuff out any internal strife, ensure safety of life and property, and safeguard the traditional customs. He was to maintain purity of class and caste through excommunicating violators; guarantee the cohesion of the family through punishing adultery and ensuring fairness in inheritance; protect the rich against robbery and the poor against extortion and oppression; and conserve the religion through patronage and grants. In essence the protective duties amounted to maintaining the status quo in existence. Any infringement of sacred customs by the king was frowned upon and in some instances the king was warned. Therefore, although constitutionally he could be considered an autocrat, Indian kings were seldom autocratic in their rule.
The King and Divinity
A long while ago, King Vena took his own divinity very seriously, believing that he indeed was one amongst the Gods. So convinced was he of his divine status that he banned and prohibited all sacrifices and offerings to any god but himself. In keeping with his own perception of his divinity he also wanted to change the society by enforcing inter-class marriages. [This could be considered an early experiment in changing the existing socio-religious structure.] However this initiative only created confusion in the society. The sages and other wise men of the kingdom remonstrated with him to no avail. Being unable to convince the king to maintain social and religious status quo, the sages went to him in a body and killed him with the blades of the kusha (sacred grass) that had turned into spears in their hands. Thereafter, the kingdom was restored to its original state with the selection of a sufficiently pragmatic king.
The story of King Vena is retold in several sources, obviously as repeated warnings to kings not to overstep their authority or overemphasise their divine connections and ‘godlike’ stature. In fact the Mahabharata explicitly exhorts the subjects to kill a king who is incapable of providing the necessary protection to their normal way of life; and goes on to state that it is the moral right of the people to revolt against an unjust or impious king. Throughout medieval history it is seen that a number of dynasties, for example the Nandas and the Sungas, fell because of Brahminic intrigue that commenced because of the king being less than tolerant of the religious and ritualistic requirements laid out by the priests.
There were a number of checks and balances that were instituted, both to assist the king in discharging his duties effectively and also to ensure that the corruption of power could be checked in the individual person of the king. The checks could be clubbed in two layers. The first layer of checks was administered by the ministers and councillors who were meant to provide fair and fearless advice, at least in theory, on policy matters that were of importance to the kingdom. They were the equivalent of the senior public servants in current day democracies, who are appointed and not elected. There have been instances of the king being dethroned because of ministerial intrigue initiated to safeguard the norms of the state from a ruler who was too revolutionary or tangential in his thinking. The second layer was the litmus test of public opinion. In Vedic times the popular assembly wielded considerable influence and had the authority to restrain the king if necessary from initiating precipitous action that could be detrimental to the nation. Over a period of time the power of the assemblies waned and they subsequently vanished. However, public opinion still mattered and kings have been known to be deposed through mass revolt of dissatisfied subjects. The Indian mob was notoriously volatile even in ancient times! Text books across history advises the rulers to keep the general public content to avoid strife.
Sita’s Exile or the Power of Public Opinion
The Ramayana provides a graphic example of the power of public opinion:
After defeating and killing Ravana, the King of Lanka, Ram asks Sita to undergo the ordeal by fire to prove her ‘innocence’, which she successfully completes. Thereafter, the prince and his wife return in triumph to Ayodhya and are installed on the throne as king and queen. Ram’s reign is even today considered the ultimate utopia in terms of the functioning of the state, its prosperity and the high standard of living of the people. The term ‘Ram rajya’ (the nation of Ram) is used even today to depict flawless administration of a prosperous nation where not even a single person wanted for anything. However, during this reign, Ram hears a rumour through his washerman that Sita’s innocence is still in question with some of the people in the nation. In order to clear the suspicion, Ram exiles Sita, who is pregnant at that time, from the nation. Sita retreats to the ashram of a sage and does not ever come back to the kingdom.
This is illustrative of the fact that public opinion, however biased and untrue, was a potent factor in the king being considered ethical, pious and judicious in his behaviour.         
If the king ruled at the pleasure of the people, there was a potent factor—the dread of anarchy—that made the people support the king, even ones that were not fully competent and more importantly, even those that were ruthless towards their subjects and tended to be autocratic.
The Mahabharata explains the need to have a king to ward off the possibility of anarchy. It states, “A man should first choose his king, then his wife, and then only amass wealth; for without a king in the world where would wife and property be?”
As quoted in A.L. Basham
The Wonder that was India, p. 89.  
The Arthasastra prescribes an ideal daily routine that a king should follow in order to be a just and incorrupt ruler whom the people would love and worship. Fundamentally it exhorts the king to be a paragon of virtue and benevolence and emphasises the need for incorruptibility in administration and promptness in the delivery of justice. In this context, the Indian concept of the highest ruler giving audiences to the lowest of his subjects within a laid down public audience system—the durbar—was an important instrument of governance.
A King’s Life
Kingship was traditionally reserved for the Kshatriyas or the warrior-class, because the primary role of the king was as a war-leader; although in practice this was not always the case—the Sungas were Brahmins and there is a high probability that the Nandas were from the Sudra class. However, the aphorism, ‘whoever rules is a Kshatriya’ is a reminder of the importance of the king as the protector of the state. Assimilation of the non-Kshatriya class who became kings into the Kshatriya community was normally unobtrusive and without any fanfare, attesting to the flexibility that existed within the caste and class system in earlier times. Further, in ancient India kingship was a male preserve, with very few reports of instances of women ruling a kingdom. Even in these rare cases, the women ruled either as regents for minor male kings or by the subterfuge of drafting and issuing orders in the masculine.
The kings lived in pomp and luxury, which increased over the years and created a great impression on later year foreign visitors who have documented details regarding the pageantry of Indian courts. The palace was administered and run by the chamberlain who employed and controlled a large staff of both sexes, who carried out menial as well as high responsibility jobs. The religious and spiritual life of the palace revolved around a high-class Brahmin chief purohit (chaplain) who was assisted by a number of lesser Brahmins, astrologers and at times even soothsayers. An important person in the earlier days of the development of the monarchical system was the ‘Suta’ or charioteer who also encompassed the twin roles of companion and advisor in one person. However, over a period of time, as the monarchical system started to become entrenched and the king’s control span expanded, the importance of the suta decreased. The more powerful kings also had a ‘vidusha’ or court jester in attendance. This institution and its importance is known mainly from the earlier Sanskrit plays that provide vivid descriptions of the role that the vidusha played. He was perhaps the only person who could be openly critical of the king without fear of reprisal and could even be harsh regarding some of the king’s decisions. This tradition continued to later days. A classic example is the famous court jester in Akbar’s court, Birbal, who through his stories and actions is reported to have been able to make the king rescind certain decisions and orders that were inimical to the larger interests of the state.
The ancient and medieval kings travelled the country constantly to personally check on the state of the society and economy and to provide direct redress of grievances. Such travel also ensured that lower level officials performed their duties with diligence. This custom was so prevalent that some kings were always on the move, hardly ever staying in the capital or their palaces for more than few weeks at a stretch. A number of kings have recorded these travels in inscriptions on stone and in copper plates, providing a rich source of information regarding the functioning of the kingdom. The king was also expected to be the chief patron of art and learning. In some cases kings themselves were poets, writers and musicians of repute. For example, Samudragupta was an acclaimed musician who played the harp as attested by coins depicting the king playing the harp.
Although the king was required to be a paragon of virtue, he was also permitted to indulge in bouts of drinking and gambling—as recorded for posterity in a number of sources—within the bounds of the court and with trusted and high ranking courtiers. Hunting was the accepted sport of kings and they were expected to take part in order to display their bravery and expertise in wielding arms. It was also the norm for kings to maintain a harem with queens and concubines co-existing in the same palace. Normally the senior or chief queen ruled the harem with an iron hand and could also be a feared person within the harem. It has been reported that some of the chief queens were unduly harsh on lesser queens and also that they always attempted to remove the king’s current beloved from his favour. It is therefore not surprising that the harem was a hotbed of intrigue and that some of the succession struggles witnessed through history were initially incubated within its walls.
Succession was normally through primogeniture, although sacred law did not permit diseased, maimed or infirm princes to ascend the throne. The story of Mahabharatarevolves around the following of this rule, dividing the Kaurava and the Pandava cousins into two warring factions that finally led to the disastrous Kurukshetra War. Instances of kings nominating their successors to avoid an incompetent prince coming to the throne through following the rule of primogeniture has also been reported. However, such cases have also led to dynastic succession disputes that have weakened and even led to the downfall of established empires. When no heir was available to assume the kingship, it has been reported that the nobles and other dignitaries elected a person to assume the role, who subsequently could go on to create another dynasty. The princes were trained rigorously on all aspects of ruling and protecting a kingdom. The ‘Yuvaraja’ or heir apparent normally assisted the king in administering the kingdom and even led expeditions independently to put down rebellions. In some dynasties, princes were send as governors of outlying provinces and were given sufficient autonomy by the king to be considered almost independent rulers on their own merit. They were even permitted to issue charters and coins independently. This practice accounts for the large number of ‘kings’ that have been listed in some studies of early Indian history that have used numismatology as a primary source of information. In some dynasties the throne passed to the younger brother till the entire generation died, after which the eldest son of the eldest brother assumed the throne. The Saka Satraps of Ujjainy followed this tradition of succession. However, the following of this procedure was more prone to internecine succession conflicts that could weaken the dynasty and open it to external interference.
While the traditional process of succession would seem to be placid outwardly, it was not always the case. There have been reported instances of patricide, although this was not common. However, the number of patricides that have been reported also confirm that they were sufficient to be considered a fact of life and that they were accepted by the people. Such acceptance of patricide could be because of two reasons. One, it could be based on a reported ancient custom that required the king to be put to death in a ritual manner once his faculties were confirmed to have deteriorated below an acceptable level. The same custom later developed into ritual suicide by the king in some dynasties. Two, the approval of the practice of voluntary abdication of the king through sacred custom, gave the tradition a perception of necessity. Therefore, when voluntary abdication did not take place even when the incumbent was growing old, patricide may have been considered a necessity.
Conclusion
Indian political thought evolved on its own and was more oriented towards the practical and the pragmatic side of governance, rather than the philosophical. The ancient texts on the subject are more advisory and prescriptive in nature, almost devoid of discussions on the pros and cons of governance or law making. Whether this approach has been an impediment, in the long-term, in the formulation of clear ideas of statecraft is open to debate. However, it is certain that the development of a monarchical system of government and the institution of hereditary kingships was also arrived at without the benefit of external influences. On the other hand, the influence of religion and the fundamental ethos of the society on the conduct of the king is openly visible in the manner in which he was supposed to rule his kingdom and in the manner in which his subjects reacted to his rule. That the kingship was a contract between the incumbent and the people, even after it became a hereditary position, is clear and unambiguous.
The most important fact that comes out in any study of the ancient Indian system of governance is the complete reliance of the king on public opinion—sustained through his constant effort at being virtuous, just and brave—to be considered the lawful ruler.
 
© [Sanu Kainikara] [2013]
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to http://www.sanukay.com/. For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (sanukay@hotmail.com)
        
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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