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Adhipatya – Sovereignty In Ancient Hinduism

In ancient Hinduism, adhipatya, sovereignty, implies absolute power for the state or the king. Hindu literature on society and polity is not unanimous on the subject of the absolute supremacy of the king, i.e. sovereignty. Epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Smriti literature in general, subscribe to the view that the moarch enjoys power and authority within the limits of established law or dharma. A monarch was not the giver but the protector of dharma. The Mahabharata claims the divine origin of kingship. The first king Prithu was a direct descendant of Vishnu and was crowned by the latter but he was supposed to enforce and to observe dharma, which was already enunciated by Brahma. The Ramayana and the Manusmriti emphasize the same concept – the king was subject to the prescriptions of dharma, and had no absolute and unfettered power. However, Arthashastra of Kautilya recognizes no such limits to royal power and claims supreme power for the king. A king enjoys unfettered power according to this text. This advocacy comes quite close to the modern idea of sovereignty. Shukraniti (V.88-90), however, expects the king to give up pride, vanity, miserliness, anxiety and fear.

A popular analogy of ancient times (subsequently mentioned in Sukraniti, I.121-124) likened sovereignty to the seven limbs of the human body – the monarch to the head, ministers to the eyes, the allied powers to the ears, the treasury to the mouth, the army to the mind, fortifications to the arms, and the land and the people to the legs. To these saptanga (seven limbs), Kautilya added an eighth – the enemy of the rival power. Arthashastra viewed all problems as being within the realm of practical needs and the convenience of the monarch – as matters of realpolitik. Shukraniti (V.38) admonished that the king should grant sovereignty to the son towards the end of his life and not before, ‘princes are quite incompetent to maintain even for a moment the kingdom that has no king, because of their vanity, fickleness and love of power (V.39-40).

Ancient India was guided, at least in theory, by the dharma school and as such, the concept of absolute sovereignty does not find a place in ancient political thought. However, the reality, as historical events testify, was quite different; the kings enjoyed absolute power.