India’s great epic poem, the Mahabharata, began to be compiled or composed around 400 bce, but may have taken several centuries to reach its final form. Among its aims was the delineation of a type of monarchy: one section of the epic – the Santi Parvan – was devoted to setting out a theory of Aryan king- ship, justifying and describing its elaborate royal sacrifices. In it, the human condition was conceived of as framed by recurring cycles of public morality, each beginning with an act of creation in accordance with the Rigvedic hymn of the primeval sacrifice that initiated an era (yuga) of perfect purity, the kritayuga. During this era, the inherent righteousness of the people made social and political institutions unnecessary. But progressive weakening of popular morality proceeded from age to age until the ‘black’ era, or kaliyuga, ensued. Then political institutions had to be introduced: kings to rule and to
Plate 4 Rama, Sita and Lakshmana (Rama’s brother) menaced by a demon host; from the Ramayana. Kangra-style painting from the Pahari hills. Early nineteenth century (BM OA. 1926. 3-1. 01, Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum).
punish evil, and also to maintain varnashramadharma, proper behaviour – the duty (dharma) to follow caste and life-stage (ashrama) rules. Mankind was to be taught the path to follow, beginning with the appropriate relations of love (kama), progressing to the understanding and proper pursuit of interest and advantage (artha), and culminating in the higher order of general and personal morality implied in the notion of dharma. The eventual outcome of this moral trajectory was deliverance from life and the succession of rebirths by the attainment of salvation (moksha).
Proper rule required kings of talent and inspiration, and they were not always to be found among the highest rajanyas of the Aryan clans. Hence, the Mahabharata allowed that since competence and efficaciousness were critical criteria for kingship, and these were not always acquired with birth as a kshatriya, morality and correct values could be achieved by able non-kshatriyas through the ritual transformation of the rajasuya and ashvamedha sacrifices and through the counsel of learned brahman spiritual advisers. Properly con- secrated kings, of whatever origin, established an order in which the rule of aggression and injustice, of ‘big fish that eat small ones’, was curbed. Such an ordered world was pleasing to the presiding great god of the Aryans, Vishnu (who had himself been promoted from his earlier minor sun-god status), and he would add his support for the maintenance of a good society by occasionally making an appearance in any of a variety of disguised forms, such as that of a great fish (matsya), who saved mankind from an earth-destroying flood, or as Rama, the model king, or, in yet another avatar, as the Buddha.
In addition to the Mahabharata, and composed at about the same time or perhaps a little later, the other great Indian epic, the Ramayana, told the story of Rama, purportedly the king of Koshala. Rama manifested the qualities that became paradigmatic for all subsequent state dynasts. His adversary, Ravanna, the chieftain of Sri Lanka and abductor of Rama’s wife Sita, symbolized the disordered polity where there were no kings and where the demons reigned as tyrants who knew neither royalty, nor caste, nor gods.
Both of the epics celebrated the victory of monarchy over the much older institution of lineage rule through chiefs. If the Ramayana provided the model for the perfect king and the triumph of dharmic kings over demonic chiefs in universal terms, the Mahabharata depicted a great civil war in which monar- chy triumphed over lineage chieftainship in the middle Gangetic heartland of the Aryans. It recounts, in some 100,000 verses, the marshalling of forces and the battle between two related families of Aryan kshatriyas of the mahajana- pada of Kuru. The Kaurava clansmen dominated the upper reaches of the Ganges from their capital of Hastinapura, while the Pandavas held the upper portion of the Yamuna from their capital at Indraprastha, the future Delhi. When the crucial battle was finally fought in Kurukshetra, a field in Kuru, it sealed the fate of the ancient kshatriya chieftainship, a political form that had endured for nearly a millennium.
Although kshatriyas, as individuals or as lineages, could continue to exer- cise some local dominance, from the time of the Mahabharata nearly all kings were in practice drawn from shudra families, beginning with the founder of the Nanda kingdom, one Mahapadma, whom Jaina sources and puranas claim
was born of a shudra woman. The Nandas ruled in the territory of the Magadha kingdom for around a century, before being displaced in turn by the new-rising Mauryan kings.