Essay on the Ruling Powers of the King Over State in Ancient India

Upon what did this obedience to the king rest? We have seen that in most ancient times his powers were circumscribed. Though a human fertility ‘deity’, he was, in his political aspects, more of an expedient than a necessity, so long as the tribe had not acquired for itself dominion over strangers.

But that people by that time puzzled over the king’s powers is evident from the variety of explanations offered for their existence. According to Kautilya, when the king is making an ever-of-battle speech he should point out that he shares the fruits of the earth with his troops, and that he is, like them, a 1 employee. But did anyone really believe that the king was appointed by his subjects or that he owed any of his powers to an agreement with or between them?

The Mahabharata, rich in material on this subject, tells of a primeval king who took an oath to gods and sages that he would rule justly. But this was not a case of subjects electing their leader, nor of his making promises exclusively to them. What would be the outcome of a breach of such a promise is not hinted at. It is true that at the consecration of each king a suggestion appears that he should be acclaimed, but elements of free choice are missing.

The Vedic ratnins, who seem in very ancient times to have been kingmakers, may have had no more than symbolic or ritual functions, and in any case indicate the humble suites of kings of a period too remote to serve any purpose in the discussion.


Undoubtedly the ancient preference for prestige and natural leadership, when coupled with the later hereditary principle, must have en­abled the most worthy member of the royal stock to obtain the approval necessary for consecration, but an uneasy balance between the supreme power of the king and the goodwill of his most powerful supporters is visible in the torrents of advice poured on him by the sastras.

That a king secure on his throne bears divinely sanctioned powers is evident. Constant reiteration of the theory that the king is the subject’s servant, taking revenue as his wages, is coupled with the identifications with Indra of which we have made mention, and with the legendary origin of kingship from the in­tervention of the gods in a crisis.

Prithu is said to have been created king by the gods, upon complaints by the sages, and he took an oath only to the gods. The people, in another legend, making compacts with each other, ask the god

The Word of a King « Victory Assembly of God

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Brahma to supply them with a king both these theories are found in the Mahabharata. True, in Buddhist writings we have reference to the mythical king Mahasammata, whose very name suggests compact, who, in keeping with the then fashion to place kshatriyas above Brahmans, was appointed by consent of a public whose growing lawlessness required the Kshatriya Varna for their protection.

But there is no suggestion, even in the Buddhist tradition, that the king’s duties are fixed, by the public, that it can interfere with his day- to-day business, or that any part of the public, such as the nobles, has a right to preferential treatment from him. The amalgamation of the ideas that a king ‘must ‘please’ (ranjayati), and that his function exists by divine provision, ideas hardly reconcilable, shows that the themes were available for use as occasion demanded.

Yet no king could have functioned without the agreement of the people, ill organized as they were for expression of disagreement with him. Similarly, the religious aspect of kingship, admitted by all shades of opinion, was so pervasive that any state must have had someone able to contain it, and unlike some ancient societies India kept the religious and the political headship in the same person. In protecting dharma, and relieving or forestalling distress, the raja lived out a role which gave rise to both these explanations.

This leaves open the questions where power resided, and what was its justification. Self-conscious in regard to aberrant customs, fruitful in ex­pression of individual opinions and outlooks, tolerant of curiosities of faith or ethic, Indian literature provides no evidence that these problems were ever probed, and exemplifies at present (there may always be a dramatic dis­covery!) no specimen of a profound penetration into political philosophy. Perhaps the failure is to be explained by the lack of conflicts to which we re­ferred at the head of this chapter.


The kingly power was a trust, as it were, from the people; his religious status depended from his kingship. The trust was unconditional, and would have been meaningless without unbounded discretion. The divergent images suggesting that the king had rights against his subjects and they against him are misleading, and the concept that dharma reigned over all is merely uninformative.

Power in fact stemmed from a state of affairs produced in a caste society; the state was a symptom or function of such a state of affairs. To maintain equilibrium, which caste cannot dispense with, detailed interventions-in the nature of adjustment were required. An in­herent characteristic was assumed to have an eternal meaning and purpose, and on this basis restraints were rationalized.

No school of thought could doubt the transcendental expediency of kingship or the utter necessity of a state, the leader of which had the widest possible discretion subject only to revolution if the ultimate goals were prejudiced.

The goals themselves were a product of the rationalizing of that caste society. We have seen them in connection with the ideals, conventionally phrased as dharma, artha, Kama, and, ultimately, moksha, ‘release from re­birth’, ‘salvation’. The possibility of pursuing one’s sva-dharma was the test of the state; the vast authority of the raja was justified by this narrow require­ment alone. In modern terms this seems a high price to pay for a rather flimsy and speculative security.

But we must remember that throughout Indian his­tory until relatively recently the stoical patience of a people expecting nothing beyond subsistence and regarding prosperity as a temporary and delusory windfall molded their goals and their requirements. By contrast, foreign ideals, still looked down upon in many quarters, make room for comfort, liberty, planning a career, and personality in this-worldly terms as an indivi­dual.

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