Kingship in Hinduism

The earliest evidence of the origin of kingship in India is found in the Aitareya Brahmana, a later Vedic text thought to be from the 8th or 7th century B.C.E., which tells of a war between gods and demons (Basham 82).  The gods were losing badly and needed someone to lead them in order to change the tide of the war.  It is through this legend that the concept of kingship arose out of military necessity and the need to have a king or a leader that could lead their subjects into battle (Basham 82).  This suggests that for early Hindus in India the need for a king arose out of the need to protect their people and settle disputes between communities.  Thus it is reasonable to believe that a king needed to be able to understand the art of warfare and have a strong military background to support his people.  Kingship must have been an important issue because not much later the Taittiriya Upanisad, which told the same story with a slightly different twist.  The high god Prajapati sacrificed himself to let his son Indra be king for the people of India.  Although Indra was still tied extremely close to the ideas of military leadership he was seen as the prototype for all earthly kings (Basham 82).  This tie between the gods and the king, gave way to the idea that kings have a divine power and authority.  This concept of the divine king, placed the kings at a position above the rest of their people which also would have provided them with their authority.

The concept of a divine king would have needed to be constantly affirmed and therefore the king would need to maintain his dharmic appearance in order to cement the relationship between himself and the gods.  Whether a king had divine mystical powers or not, the importance was for other kings or communities to believe that the propaganda related to the origin of kingship was the truth (Basham 84).  The story of the kingship origin spread to help maintain that the king was of divine lineage and therefore was placed in an appropriate position worthy of that lineage.  This relationship to the divine did not prevent challenges and uprising against kings, as links to divinity could be found in others in ancient India, such as the priestly class of Brahmins and householders who could be raised to divinity in ceremonies.  Divinity could not be associated with purity as many of the gods in the Hindu tradition were subject to human desires and capable of sin (Basham 88).  However the relationship between divinity and the king was still scared and important for the king’s rule.

The relationship between the king and his Brahmins had to be strong in order to have the support of the people and maintain his divinity.  Kings that kept this relationship well maintained were able to reap the benefits of a stable kingdom that did not make the subjects choose between duty to their king and duty to their beliefs.  Thus this relationship had to be cultivated carefully, the king did not want to appear less than the Brahmins but it was also important for the king not to take his divinity too seriously.  A cautionary tale is the legend of Vena, a king who thought too highly of his divinity.  In doing so, he caused a great deal of confusion for his people by banning any sacrifices except to himself and enforced his people to participate in interclass marriages.  This caused so much discord amongst his people that the rsi had to dispose of him because he was not fit to lead his people, and his relationship with the divine had evidently not been favourable (Basham 88).

This cautionary tale would have been used to deter kings from straying from their position and reinforce the ideas of appropriate behaviour that should be observed.  Ideal kings were well versed in the religious texts and were expected to set the example of a dharmic lifestyle for their people.  Placing kings in this role as a teacher increases the power of their word and the importance of following their example.  Just as a king was in charge of ruling a kingdom, a householder was in charge of ruling his home and thus how the king behaved was the example of how the householder should behave (Black 112-114).  This idea of the king as a teacher got complex with the Brahmins; because the king was supposed to be an example for his people, however the Brahmins were also supposed to be an example of dharmic behaviour for the kings.  The kings were to take their cues for proper dharmic behaviour from the Brahmins but they still needed to have power over the Brahmins.  Thus the tension between the kings and priests caused some issues, especially if a king was slightly more concerned with secular problems instead of religious issues (Black 117-119).  The priests would support the kings they thought were worthy of the title and in turn the kings would cement the importance of the priestly class.  Therefore it was an important relationship not simply for the kings but also the Brahmins as their authority was confirmed by the king.  In regards to sacrifices, the priests were able to determine and guide which kings should undergo certain rituals and also steer kings away from sacrifices and rituals which would weaken their rule or be too costly for the kingdom.  The kings that heeded advice from the Brahmin kept their relationship well maintained, but they were also capable of making their own decisions which gave more weight to their rule.

Kingship and the subject of lineage were important in India, and this is clear due to the two major epics in the Hindu tradition: the Ramayana (200 BCE- 200 CE) and the Mahabharata (400 BCE-400 CE), both of which address the issues of kingship and what it means to be a king.  Kingship was linked closely to lineage and family, which could cause conflicts over who holds the power (Chakravarti 253-254).  These epics hold lessons about what it means to be a proper king, which according to the epics, means having excellent dharma and keeping one’s word and promises.  Lineage seems to have been a problem for certain families, since this concept is at the heart of the two most influential epics in the Hindu tradition.  When a king has more than one wife, a polygamous relationship, the question of inheritance becomes an issue of the utmost importance.  This would have been an issue especially when more than one wife could be pregnant at the same time, bringing in to question what is used to determine the birthright order.  If the high queen could not have a child, it raised the question of which child would become the heir to kingdom.  Lineage and inheritance are extremely important because of this and this issue was also the cause for many family conflicts, pitting brothers against brothers or cousins against cousins.  The Ramayana and the Mahabharata allowed the concept of family and contests over power to be explored in a way that could be applied to households (Chakravarti 259). All for the right to rule and the ability to lead.

The Ramayana epic depicts an ideal king with the protagonist Rama. [An ideal to many of the Hindu tradition but not to all].  Rama showed characteristics of a proper king: he was very dharmic, had a good moral compass, he was the eldest of his siblings giving him the title of heir to the kingdom, he was truthful and kept his promises.  Rama was also the avatar of Vishnu, a popular god in the Hindu tradition, again creating a strong relationship between divinity and kings.  The trials he has to undergo only makes him stronger, and the relationships he makes along the way only strengthen his moral standing.  The controversial point in the story that many modern readers have trouble accounting for is the episode with Sita, his wife, and his decision to banish her (Chakravarti 236-243).

For those familiar with the epic, it is clear that Sita is pure and has remained true to Rama throughout the epic.  However when they return to their kingdom many of Rama’s subjects question her fidelity and call for her banishment.  Rama is faced with a choice, to choose his wife or to choose his people, ultimately Rama chooses his people and Sita is banished.  Rama made the right choice in terms of a ruler because his wife was inadvertently  causing discord amongst his people and in order to maintain the harmony in the kingdom Rama had to place his personal desires aside and choose what was right for the kingdom.   By placing his kingdom above his heart Rama proved that his loyalty was to his people above all other desires including the love for his wife.  Another ideal king is found in the Mahabharata, in the character Yudhisthra who, although  not the most warrior like, displays perfect dharmic behaviour until death.  Yudhisthra, the son of the god Dharma, ruled his kingdom and it prospered.  Again the idea that kings are tied to divinity is shown through Yudhisthra’s lineage (Chakravarti 261-262).  The relationship between divinity and kings is stressed over and over again, illustrating how important this concept was in India.


Avari, Burjor (2007) India, The Ancient Past: A history of the Indian sub-continent from c. 7000 BC to AD 1200. New York: Routledge.

Basham, A.L. (1968) The Wonder That Was India: A Survey of the History and Culture of the Indian Sub-Continent Before the Coming of the Muslims. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co.

Black, Brian (2007) The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priest, Kings, and Women in the Early Upanisads.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Chakrabarti, Dilip K. (2010) The Geopolitical Orbits of Ancient India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Chakravarti, Uma (2006) Everyday Lives, Everyday Histories: Beyond the Kings and Brahmanas of ‘Ancient’ India. New Delhi: Tulika Books.

Kochhar, Rajesh (1997) The Vedic People: Their History and Geography. New Delhi: Orient Longman Limited.

Wagoner, Phillip B. (1993) Tidings of the King: A Translation and Ethnohistorical Analysis of the Rayavacakamu. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.


Related Topics For Further Investigation

Aitareya Brahmana







Taittiriya Upanisad



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Article written by Grace Noble (April 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.