POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENTS

POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENTS : The polities that emerged late during the first millennium bce were chiefdoms known  as  janapadas,  and  named  after  the  land  tracts  they  occupied. Their rulers were scions of the dominant clans of such communities, whose author- ity  derived  partly  from  the  support  of  subordinate  rajanyas  (kshatriyas)  and partly from the legitimation conferred by ritual experts. Political authority was complex; groups of kinsmen were deemed collective possessors of local power; territories were consecrated by one of several sacrifices performed by ritualists and sponsored by chieftains; in addition, there were several kinds of assem- blies whose members shared with rajas the rights to tribute from the vaishyas and were accordingly called ‘eaters of the vaishya’ (visamatta).

From the largest of the chiefdoms emerged the first primitive monarchies, whose kings were made and made visible by royal sacrifices and by the attend- ance of courtiers as royal servants. The major royal sacrifices (rajasuya, vajap- eya and ashvamedha) were known from before the time of the Buddha (fifth century bce) and were occasionally revived and performed well into medieval times. The rajasuya was a royal consecration by which a new king was imbued with  divine  power, identified  with  the  vedic  Indra, with  Prajapati, the  Lord of Beings of the Purushashukta hymn, and finally with Vishnu – all the result of a year-long series of ceremonies. Once consecrated, the king’s powers had occasionally  to  be  refreshed  with  other  ceremonies;  one  was  the  vajapeya, where, among other rituals, through drinking a highly charged ambrosia con- cocted  by  priests, a  king’s  failing  energy  and  strength  were  revived  and  his vigour was increased, enabling him to undertake new conquests.

The horse sacrifice (ashvamedha) was the most famous of royal sacrifices, for it was associated with a king’s conquests in every direction, his digvijaya.

In this ritual, the king’s horse was consecrated, and, accompanied by his kinsmen and other armed warriors, allowed to roam where it would for a year. Wherever the horse trod, there the sovereignty of its master was proclaimed and, if contested, defended by his soldiers. At the climax of the ceremonies, after the year had elapsed, the horse was slaughtered and the principal queen, known as the Mahisi (Great Female Buffalo), was required to copulate with the dead animal.

As she lies there, she taunts the horse about his sexual performance, and she and the lesser wives of the king engage in obscene banter with the priests, while hundreds of female attendants of the queens, their hair half unbound, circle the horse and the unfortunate lady, singing, dancing, and slapping their thighs. The verbal part of the ceremony is extremely explicit, and in fact tested the limits of tolerance of our scholarly predecessors

Of course, only the very wealthiest of rulers could sponsor such ceremonies.

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