Who is a Hindu?: Making of a Hindu king

Art by Devdutt Pattanaik

Published on 3rd February, 2019, in Mumbai Mirror

In traditional Hindu belief, a king exists to overturn the law of the jungle or Matsya Naya. In the absence of a king (raja), there is chaos and anarchy (arajakta). The king brings order. But how does one establish himself as a ruler? When we go through various scriptures such as the Vedas, the Puranas, and other historical documents, studying the rise of kings across India, we notice a pattern. We find four ways in which a king is made.

The earliest method was through Vedic rituals such as Rajsuya and Ashwamedha. In Rajsuya, Brahmins poured water on the king-elect in the presence of established kings, who acknowledged his sovereignty. We hear of this ritual in the Mahabharata. This was accompanied by Ashvamedha Yagya, in which the royal horse travelled across lands claimed by the newly appointed leader. We hear of this in the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The last mention of the Ashvamedha Yagya comes roughly around the Gupta period. But by this time, around 1,500 years ago, we see a change in the pattern as the Puranik scriptures emerged. This is period when India saw the influx of people from Central Asia, such as the Yavanas (Greeks), the Shakas (Scythians), the Pallavas (Parthians), and the Kushans (China). These were foreign rulers and they had to legitimatise themselves in the country. They were not very comfortable with Brahmanical orthodoxy, yet they wanted to establish their rule and establish their links to the ancient gods of the lands. Therefore, we find in Puranas, long lists of kings who claim descent from Manu, the first human being, and more importantly, from the sun and moon gods, Surya-vamsa and Chandra-vamsa. Initially, kingdoms focused on the capital and highways leading to markets and pots. Later, they expanded to forest areas full of hostile tribes. In tribal communities, great value was given to the warrior goddess in the form of Chamunda or Durga. Kings would offer her the heads of the enemies of the kingdom. There are also stories of soldiers, in ecstasy, sacrificing themselves to her. The goddess was always bedecked with the body parts of slain warriors; she was associated with the battlefield. The earliest mention of her comes from Tamil sources where she is called Kotravai.

In the third and fourth centuries, from the Kushan period onwards, Goddess Durga’s importance grew in art and worship. The eight-armed Durga killing Mahishasura, the buffalo demon, became the patron of rulers. There are stories of how she anointed them in their dreams and gave them the sword of kingship. These stories are found in the lore of Maratha and Rajput kings. Attaching oneself to a local folk goddess connected to Durga was the third way to establish legitimacy as a king.

The fourth method, which became popular 1,000 years ago, involved inviting Brahmins to a region and asking them to set up vast temple complexes, where the local deity would become connected with great gods of the Puranas such as Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti. Cities were founded once temples came up, and kings ruled on behalf of the presiding deities. We find this in places like Puri, Thiruvananthapuram, Madurai and Chidambaram.

A king’s authority came from the presiding deity. The temple served as the administrative centre and Brahmins created royal bureaucracy and collected taxes. This was the time when Agraharas, or exclusive Brahmin villages, came into being. Therefore, in India, we see a close association between kingship and religion, and kingship and Brahmanism.

These systems waned with the arrival of Muslim warlords and the East India Company. Royal legitimacy was obtained by submitting to these new authorities or by fiercely opposing them. However, we know that Muslims kings valued Brahmin courtiers and the British valued Brahmin clerks. What we see is that right from the Vedic times, Brahmin elites were consistently involved in providing a foundation to royal power.

As we embraced democracy, the system of monarchy was abolished and the Brahmin hegemony was challenged. The power was transferred to the people. But in trying to mimic Western egalitarianism, however, India perhaps lost ancient Brahmanical skill set, which could have been refined and reframed for modern times, something we had successfully done in the past.