Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The purpose of this thesis is to study and discuss the interaction between religion and kingship during the Gupta age of Indian history, fourth and fifth centuries A.D. The Gupta age has been selected as the focal point of the thesis for two basic reasons. The first is its tremendous importance in history and the abundance of good primary source material on the entire period. The second reason is related to the major contributions that the Guptas made in the areas of kingship and religion. It will be argued in the course of the thesis that Gupta kingship constitutes a synthesis of the earlier theories of kingship in India. They put forward a comprehensive ideology of empire and kingship in their inscriptions which reflects the impress of India's national epics, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata.
The thesis is divided into two parts in order to give proper scope to the development of kingship theories in India prior to the time of the Guptas. The study of kingship in India really begins with the Vedic sources, some of which are dated at approximately 1500 B.C. The Rgveda contains numerous references to human and divine kings. The two major gods who were associated with kingship in this period were Indra and Varuna. Also, in the Vedic period kingship was integrally allied with the religious institution of sacrifice (yajña). Major sacrifices such as, the rājāsuya and the aśvamedha became indispensible adjuncts to Vedic kingship.
In the post-Vedic period, the views of kingship expressed in the Vedic corpus were challenged by the Buddhists who argued that a good king must be a servant of dhàmma, or righteousness. The Buddhist understanding of kingship made a strong impression on one of India's greatest kings, the Emperor Aśoka of the Mauryan dynasty (third century B.C.).
The epics of India reflect changing attitudes toward kingship and the rôle of the king. In the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana we find a growing idealization of the king. The god Visnu is given a central rôle in the epic understanding of kingship. He is considered to be the chief patron and divine prototype of the king. Visnu is also a major element in the doctrine of the ideal king, or Rāma-type, which is important in both epics.
In Part Two of the thesis our attention is directed to the historical record of the Gupta Age. It will be shown that the Guptas based their understanding of kingship and their ideology of empire primarily on the epic sources. Consequently, each of the Guptas is pictured as an ideal king of the Rāma type in their coins and inscriptions. After establishing this link between the Guptas and the epics, the thesis will analyse the deeper implications of their doctrine of kingship. It will be shown that, while they were influenced by the Buddhists and the example of Aśoka, they retained many of the Vedic customs of kingship including the famous horse-sacrifice (aśvamedha).
The thesis deals with the important question of the relationship between religion (specifically Vaisnavism) and Monarchism at a crucial point in India's political, cultural, and religious history. The thesis shows that many of the standard assumptions about kingship in the Gupta age, such as the argument that it represents a divine right of kings doctrine, are false and misleading. The divinity of the king in Gupta times is actually a biproduct of a larger more comprehensive vision of the divinity of the dharma-oriented ideal kingdom (rāmarājya).
McKnight, J. Michael, "Kingship and Religion in the Gupta Age" (1976). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 3101.