Monarchy in ancient India

An article related to




Hinduism Portal
Hindu Mythology Portal
v · d · e

Monarchy in ancient India was sovereignty over a territory by a king who functioned as its protector, a role which involved both secular and religious power. The meaning and significance of kingship changed dramatically between the Vedic and Later Vedic period, and underwent further development under the influence of Buddhism. Although there is evidence that kingship was not always hereditary during the Vedic and into the Later Vedic period, by the time of composition of the Brāhmaṇa literature, traces of elective kingship had already begun to disappear.[1] Over time, the king evolved from the equivalent of a tribal chief to a fully divine god-king on whose sacrifices the kingdom depended for prosperity and on whose legislation society depended for order.


Kingship in the Vedas

Vedic ideas about the establishment of the office of the king ultimately draw upon legends about the coronation of one god as king of all others. Legends abound as to which of the gods won this position;[2] In the Ṛg Veda, Indra, Agni, Soma, Yama, and Varuṇa are all addressed as "King." Indeed, kingship in the Ṛg Veda largely manifests only in the form of gods as kings. Hymns directly addressed to earthly kings, like 10.173-10.175, are the exception rather than the rule. In these hymns, the king is said to have been "established" by Indra and "made victorious" by Soma and Savitṛ. Although this implies a close dependence of the king upon the gods, the rarity of the figure of the human king in the Ṛg Veda agrees with the idea that kings at this time were basically on a level with tribal chiefs and were not viewed as divine.[3] There is a provocative line at 10.124.8 which mentions people electing their king, and 3.4.2 in the Atharvaveda seems to confirm this. Also, several hymns in the Ṛg Veda demonstrate the importance of the samiti (10.166.4, 10.191), the governing assembly, further indicating that the early Vedic king ruled in a tribal setting where decision making by assembly still played a major role.

As was stated above, the king was not considered divine in the early Vedic period.[4] By the time the Brāhmaṇas were composed, however, the king was increasingly associated with the gods through his qualities and the rituals he performed.[5] Also by this time, kingship had transitioned to a hereditary position and the samiti began to wane in importance.[6]

Kingship in Dharma Literature

Divinity of the King

Royal inscription extolling the conquests of Badami Chalukya King Pulakesi II dated to 634 CE

By the time of the composition of the Mānava Dharmaśāstra, the divinity of the king had become well established. In Manu 7.4, the king is said to be made out of divine particles of several gods, including Yama, Indra, Varuṇa, and Kubera. This may be seen as closely related to the earlier belief that at his coronation, the king assumed various aspects of the gods.[7] At Manu 7.8, it is stated that even an infant king must never be treated with disrespect, because he is in reality a god on earth. Nārada 18.49-50 echoes this sentiment, saying that the king's divinity is apparent in the force of his decrees: his words are law as soon as he utters them. This is in contrast to earlier Dharmasūtra texts, which seem to stress the king's subordinate status in comparison to Brahmins and make no mention of his divinity.[8]

King as Protector

The Dharmasūtras and Dharmaśāstras agree that it is the special duty of the king to protect, to punish, and to preserve dharma for those in his kingdom.[9] However, a new myth of the creation of kingship not found in the Dharmasūtras and differing from those found in previous Vedic literature is seen in the Dharmaśāstras. At Manu 7.2, it is stated that the Self-existent Lord created the king to restore order to the chaotic world which had existed without him. Then the Lord created Punishment (spoken of as a deity), because through punishment the world is subdued (Manu 7.22). By performing his duty as protector and punisher, the king flourishes (Manu 7.107). The weak and helpless (i.e. widows, children, the mentally ill, the destitute) were to receive royal protection.[10] Beyond protecting his subjects against each other, the king, as a kṣatriya, also had a duty to protect his subjects against external threats and wage war with rival kingdoms. Manu 7.87, for instance, states that a king, when challenged, must never back down from a battle; indeed, doing battle is his dharma.

Varṇa of the King

As was stated above Manu 7.2 specifically states that a kṣatriya who has received vedic initiation is eligible to become a king. Elsewhere, any twice-born person is forbidden to live in a country ruled over by a Śudra (4.61); likewise, Brahmins are forbidden to accept gifts from any king not of proper royal lineage (4.84). Yet commentators like Medhātithi, Kullūka, and Vijñāneśvara essentially overturned such rules about the king's lineage, stating that any person recognized as having power over a territory is to be understood as king, regardless of his varṇa.[11]

Authority of the King

The basis of the king's authority is a matter of some discrepancy in the Dharma literature. Some authors of dharma texts make it seem as though the king's power lies solely in his adherence to dharma and its preservation. His edicts are powerful only in that they are in accordance with the Law; his legal decisions should be based on what is stated in the śāstras alone, not on his own will and authority. Furthermore, the king really only enforces what his Brahmin advisers declare to be dharma.[12] The Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtra, for example, is explicit that Brahmins will state what is dharma for the three varṇas, and the king will govern accordingly (1.39-41). In other texts however, or even in passages in the same texts, the authority of the king involves the application of his own reason and will. So, in contrast to Manu 7.28-31, 8.44-45 in the same text states that the king should rely on his own powers of deduction in the administration of justice. Reasoning as a means of reaching a judgment even appears as early as the Gautama Dharmasūtra (11.23-24). But by the time of the Nāradasmṛti, royal decree had been placed above all other sources of law as the most powerful, abrogating all the rest.[13] The power behind royal decrees is thus located increasingly in the king himself, even though he is still urged to preserve dharma.


Following in the tradition of the Arthaśāstra, Manu and Yājñavalkya, in defining rājadharma (law of or for the king) go into great detail regarding how the king is to set up his government and manage his kingdom. In Manu, for example, the discussion of how the king should choose his ministers directly follows the description of qualities a king should cultivate. Manu 7.54 advises the king to choose seven or eight counselors who are learned and of noble birth, without specifically defining their vaṛṇa. Out of these, however, one individual should be chosen as a prime minister, and the text specifies that this individual is to be a Brahmin.[14] Yājñavalkya 1.310, on the other hand, advises that all mantrins be Brahmins.

Lower officials (amātyas) should be assigned to duties based on their personal attributes, including honesty, intelligence, and cleverness.[15] Among the tasks to be overseen by the amātyas were collecting taxes, supervising the royal mines, and collecting tolls for use of public transportation.[16]

Manu follows Kauṭilya in saying that envoys (dūta) should be chosen based on cleverness and the ability to decipher hints and gestures, i.e., to read a rival king's appearance for clues as to his intentions and general disposition.[17] The role of the envoy was vital for both diplomacy and reconnaissance. The importance of the role of the envoy can be seen in Yājñavalkya 13.328, where an involved set of preparations in made for both the dispatching and return of the dūta, including the meeting of the king with all his ministers.

As to the organization of his kingdom, a king, according to Manu, should place constables between ever second, third, and fifth village, and at the hundredth village. Superintendents with jurisdiction over one, ten, twenty, a hundred, and a thousand villages should also be appointed (Viṣṇu 3.9-10 has one, ten, a hundred, and a whole district).[18] Any problems arising in villages are to be reported to progressively higher superintendents; Viṣṇu states that when a solution is not reached by a lower superintendent, the problem must be reported to the next highest superintendent and so on.[19]

The King and Legal Procedure

A facsimile of an inscription in Oriya script on a copper plate recording a land grant made by Rāja Purushottam Deb, king of Orissa, in the fifth year of his reign (1483). Land grants made by royal decree were protected by law, with deeds often being recorded on metal plates

According to Nārada, the king is the highest venue of legal procedure.[20] This would indicate that only the most important of cases would be heard directly by the king, i.e. cases for which a decision had not been reachable in local community or guild courts.[21] Manu and Viṣṇu both state that the king may either try cases himself (accompanied, of course, by Brahmin jurists), or he may appoint a Brahmin judge to oversee trials for him.[22] Manu even allows that a non-Brahmin dvija can be appointed as a legal interpreter, but under no circumstances may a Śudra act as one.[23]

Dharma texts uniformly stress that the king be impartial in his judgments. Manu states that a king who is partial and unjust in his inflicting of punishment will himself be punished (7.27), saying at 8.128 that punishing one who does not deserve to be punished condemns the king to hell. Elsewhere, Viṣṇu and Nārada stress that both the king and his judges be unbiased in their hearing of cases.[24] This had religious as well as strictly legal implications; according to Nārada Mātṛkā 1.65, a king who follows proper procedure in hearing lawsuits is ensured fame in this world and heaven in the afterlife.

In the Bṛhaspatismṛti, the king is advised to hear cases in the morning, dressed in his regalia after having performed morning ablutions.[25] This contradicts with Manu 8.2, which states that the king's clothing during his daily hearing of court case should be modest.

Much as an envoy is to decipher the disposition of a rival king through bodily and gestural clues, the king is advised to note a litigant's external clues while hearing cases to discern his disposition.[26] Manu 8.62-72 distinguishes who the king may or may not have questioned as a witness in connection with a trial; a greatly expanded list is given at Nārada 1.159. Upon hearing contradictory testimony from witnesses, the king is advised at Manu 8.73 to rely on what the majority of witnesses say, or else the testimony of witnesses of superior qualities; if discrepancy persists, the testimony of Brahmins is to be relied upon.[27] Nārada 1.142 states that the king should dismiss witnesses whose testimonies continuously contradict each other.

Following this inquiry, the case may be decided upon.[28]

See also


  1. ^ Altekar, A.S. State and Government in Ancient India, p. 312
  2. ^ See, for example, A. Br., 1.14; T. Br.; J. Br. 3.152.
  3. ^ see Sharma, Ram Sharan. Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India. p. 162; 186
  4. ^ Altekar, p. 83.
  5. ^ Ibid., p. 89-90; see also Sharma, p. 165 one example from the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa in which the king is equated with Prajāpati.
  6. ^ See Sharma, p. 64; 165.
  7. ^ See Alterkar, p.78; Lingat, Robert. The Classical Law of India. p. 208
  8. ^ See, for example, Gautama 11.1-5
  9. ^ In the Dharmasūtras, see Vasiṣṭha 19.1; Gautama 8.1-3; in the Dharmaśāstras, see Manu 7.2-4; Nārada 18.31; Yājñavalkya 1.323
  10. ^ See, for example, Manu 8.27-29; Viṣṇu 3.65
  11. ^ For a discussion of this, see Lingat, p. 210
  12. ^ On this, see, for example, Manu 7.28-31 and Nārada Mātṛkā 1.29; see also the discussion in Altekar, p. 156-157
  13. ^ See Nārada Mātṛkā 1.10
  14. ^ See Manu 7.58; Viṣṇu 3.70; Yājñavalkya 1.312
  15. ^ Manu 7.60-62. Arthaśāstra 1.8 gives a description of the differences between mantrins an amātyas. See also Ganguly, D. K. Aspects of Ancient Indian Administration. p. 162.
  16. ^ See Viṣṇu 3.16
  17. ^ See Manu 7.67, Arthaśāstra 1.15.7-9
  18. ^ See Manu 7.114-115
  19. ^ See Manu 7.116-117; Viṣṇu 3.11-15
  20. ^ See Nārada Mātṛkā 1.7
  21. ^ Richard Lariviere, in his translation of the Nāradasmṛti, takes this to be the verse's import. See Lariviere, The Nāradasmṛti: Critically Editted with an Introduction, Annotated Translation, and Appendices. p. 5.
  22. ^ See Viṣṇu 3.72-73; Manu 8.9; see also Vasiṣṭha 16.2
  23. ^ See Manu 8.20
  24. ^ See Viṣṇu 3.74; Nārada Mātṛkā 1.28 and 1.58
  25. ^ See Bṛhaspati 1.21
  26. ^ See Manu 8.25
  27. ^ Nārada 1.209-210 replaces "testimony of Brahmins" with testimony of those witnesses with the best memories. If those with the best memories disagree, the testimony is to be disqualified.
  28. ^ See Nārada Mātṛkā 1.30


  • Translation by Richard W. Lariviere (1989). The Nāradasmr̥ti. University of Philadelphia. 
  • Olivelle, Patrick (2005). Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-195-17146-2. 
  • Olivelle, Patrick (2004). The Law Code of Manu. New York: OUP. ISBN 0192802712. 
  • Lingat, Robert (1973). The Classical law of India. New York: Oxford UP Publ. 
  • Kane, P.V. (1973). History of DharmaŚãstra. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental research Institute. 
  • Nath Dutt, Manmatha (2005). Yajnavalkyasmrti: Sanskrit Text, English Translation, Notes, Introduction and Index of Verses. New Delhi: Parimal Publications. ISBN 8171102735. 
  • The Institutes of Visnu. Trans. Julius Jolly. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1880.
  • Translation by G. Bühler (1886). Sacred Books of the East: The Laws of Manus (Vol. XXV). Oxford.  Available online as The Laws of Manu
  • Sharma, Ram Sharan (2005). Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 8120808983. 
  • Altekar, A. S. (2002). State and Government in Ancient India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 8120810090. 

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Ancient history — Ancient redirects here. For other uses, see Ancient (disambiguation). The times before writing belong either to protohistory or to prehistory. Ancient history is the study of the written past [Crawford, O. G. S. (1927). Antiquity. [Gloucester,… …   Wikipedia

  • India — /in dee euh/, n. 1. Hindi, Bharat. a republic in S Asia: a union comprising 25 states and 7 union territories; formerly a British colony; gained independence Aug. 15, 1947; became a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations Jan. 26, 1950.… …   Universalium

  • Ancient maritime history — Maritime history dates back hundreds of years. In ancient maritime history, the first boats are presumed to have been dugout canoes which were developed independently by various stone age populations. In ancient history, various vessels were used …   Wikipedia

  • ancient Rome — ▪ ancient state, Europe, Africa, and Asia Introduction       the state centred on the city of Rome. This article discusses the period from the founding of the city and the regal period, which began in 753 BC, through the events leading to the… …   Universalium

  • Ancient Israelite cuisine — refers to the food eaten by the ancient Israelites during a period of over a thousand years, from the beginning of the Israelite presence in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the Iron Age until the Roman period. The dietary staples were… …   Wikipedia

  • Ancient Judaism (book) — Ancient Judaism , also known as Ancient Palestine: Society and Religion , is a book written by Maximilian Weber, a German economist and sociologist, in early the 20th century. The original edition was in German the essays on Ancient Judaism… …   Wikipedia

  • Monarchy — For other uses, see Monarchy (disambiguation). Part of the Politics series on Monarchism …   Wikipedia

  • ancient Greek civilization — ▪ historical region, Eurasia Introduction       the period following Mycenaean civilization, which ended in about 1200 BC, to the death of Alexander the Great, in 323 BC. It was a period of political, philosophical, artistic, and scientific… …   Universalium

  • Ancient Rome — For the modern day city, see Rome. For Other uses, see Ancient Rome (disambiguation). The Roman Forum, the political, economic, cultural, and religious center of the city during the Republic and later Empire, now lies in ruins in modern day Rome …   Wikipedia

  • Monarchy of Ireland — A monarchical polity has existed in Ireland during three periods of its history, finally ending in 1801. The designation King of Ireland (Irish: Rí na hÉireann) and Queen (regnant) of Ireland was used during these periods. Since 1949, the only… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.