Emperor of the Sun
Vedic Models of Polity, the Arthashastra & Contemporary Relevance
Extract from an article which appeared in Aristokratia II
This śāstra has been made him who from intolerance quickly rescued the scriptures and the science of weapons and the earth which had passed to the Nanda king.
– Kautilya, Arthaśāstra
The role early political models play in shaping future civilizations has been severely underestimated. In recent times, however, the works of Georges Dumézil have been examined in regards to his tripartite theory of society amongst the Indo-Europeans. This is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg for a much more inclusive and lesser studied system of power which arose in India to become one of the greatest empires in human history. There is a distinct sequential progression of thought from the Mitrá/Varuṇa model espoused by Dumézil through to The Laws of Manu and into the Mauryan Empire. This reaches its apex of sophistication in the famous text known as the Arthaśāstra, which was only rediscovered by the West in the early twentieth century.
The Arthaśāstra is essentially a political instruction manual for the aspiring Cakravartin (World Emperor) to govern effectively, and also additionally functions as a treatise on military strategy. The author, frequently known as Kautilya or Chanakya, is one of the most elusive people in history. Not only was his life mythologized, he was also so skilled at subterfuge and political misdirection that some experts doubt Kautilya even existed. As the advisor to Chandragupta, who successfully conquered and united India by following the instructions in this text, Kautilya is the ultimate ‘man behind the curtain’ ruling vicariously through his pupil Chandragupta Maurya.
Frequently referred to by academics as the ‘Indian Machiavelli’, Kautilya is perhaps also the ruthless political strategist in human history, with experts often declaring that he makes “Machiavelli look harmless.” Despite Kautilyas ruthless tactics, the Arthaśāstra demonstrates a natural development from early Vedic political ideas right through to models of power in contemporary Buddhist and South East Asian political science. The Arthaśāstra, therefore, provides a link from early Vedic thought through to the modern world, where it continues to be read in military theory, politics, and in economics where it is currently studied as a possible solution to the modern crippled economy. Despite this, those outside of the academic world remain oblivious to the existence of this immensely important text, due to its relative obscurity with English speaking audiences. Quite possibly the most dangerous political treatise ever composed, the Arthaśāstra stands unique as the only successful instruction manual for global conquest in print. Moreover, the book also combines spiritual and religious philosophy with politics, to create the being known as the Cakravartin, the World Emperor who is also a spiritual leader. This use of religious motifs was not just strategic, and Kautilya, despite his often underhanded strategies, really did believe in the spiritual elements of the Arthaśāstra and is not just using them as a political ruse. To verify this one can easily see that Chandragupta was a devout Jain, and Ashoka the Great following him was not only the royal patron of Buddhism, he was also a key figure in its the success as a religion.
Kautilya however, was influenced by the Vedic Tradition. It was the Emperors themselves who proceeded to spread other religious thought through their respective reigns. Because of this, there is actually an unbroken lineage of political and traditional power running directly from the Vedic Indo-European past, though The Laws of Manu, to Kautilya, continuing into Buddhism. The earliest references to political power in India harken back directly to ancient times, where they are referenced in texts surrounding the enigmatic God Varuṇa.
Varuṇa is an extremely old deity, with history hiding much of the symbolism surrounding the figure. Etymology suggests that the name Varuṇa stems from the root ‘v’ or ‘var’ meaning ‘to cover’, ‘to screen’, ‘to veil’, ‘to conceal’, ‘to hide’, ‘to surround’ or ‘to obstruct’ in the Rig Veda and also ‘to ward off’, ‘to check’, ‘to keep back’, ‘to prevent’, ‘to hinder’ or ‘to restrain’ in the Atharva Veda. These terms, however, present a level of abstraction, which suggests that Varuṇa occupied a position of prominence in Vedic Tradition.
Surviving textual descriptions of Varuṇa indicate that he was a God with strong solar connections, which are obvious in his iconography. In literary depictions Varuṇa is portrayed as being bald and of a fair complexion, with yellow eyes and a face that resembles Agni, shining like fire. He is portrayed as a mature man clad in golden ornaments. This imagery conjures to mind a solar deity immediately. Certain recounts by Brahmin differ, however, with descriptions in the Avabhtha and of the Asvamedha sacrifice describing Varuṇa as an obscure figure called Jumbaka or Jmbaka with a white (sukla) body, bald head, protruding teeth (viklidha) and possessed of a reddish brown hue. These texts, however, were composed at a time when Vedic influences were on the wane, and new modes of religious thought were entering Hinduism. Therefore these references were most likely composed to discredit earlier Vedic ideas.
The golden eyes of Varuṇa, in particular, are associated with the sun, with Varuṇa conceived of as ‘all seeing’ – with his eyes being the ‘eyes’ of the sun, Varuṇa observes all as he chooses. It is this ability to see everything which transpires that also earned him the epithet of being a ‘thousand-eyed.’ The golden and solar descriptions are far more common than those describing Varuṇa as old or of a reddish brown. It seems likely that these less flattering descriptions were introduced by detractors as the role of the Vedic gods diminished in Hindu society.
Prior to his decline of popularity in Hinduism, Varuṇa occupied a prominent role and is referred to by an extensive range of titles such as Deva-Gandharvas, Divaukas, King of Nagas, an Asura, ‘the King of the Gods and the King of both Gods and Men’ or ‘the King of the Universe’. Varuṇa is repeatedly referred to as the universal monarch (samrāj) and while this term is also applied to Agni and Indra, it is connected with Varuṇa nearly twice as often as it is with Indra.
According to the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa Varuṇa is thought of as the Lord of the Universe, with a throne in the midst of heaven; neither the birds nor the rivers can reach the limit of his dominion. In several instances, Varuṇa is also called dhtavrata (one who maintains the fixed rules of conduct) and even the gods themselves do not violate his unbreakable rules or ordinances called vratani. The attribute of sovereignty (kṣatra) is also used in connection with Varuṇa, and the term ‘ruler’ (kṣatriya) in four of its five occurrences refers to Varuṇa or the Ᾱdityas and only once to the gods in general. These aspects are further illustrated via his titles and their etymological interpretations as related by Rohana Seneviratne:
Varuna is entitled to a large number of attributive names in the Rig Veda such as ‘samrat’ or the universal monarch, ‘svarat’ or the self-dependent ruler, ‘kṣatra, kṣatriya’ or king, ‘mayin’ or the upholder of the occult power alias māyā or the crafty, ‘dhtavrata’ or the ordinances-bearer, ‘nitidhara’ or the rules-bearer etc. On his royalty or sovereignty the honorific epithets samrat, svarat and kṣatra are ascribed while mayin, dhtavrata or nitidhara are those emphasizing his role in maintaining and promoting morality. ‘Putadakṣa’ or the one who has purified thoughts, ‘sukratu’ or the great intellect are due to his admirable characteristics.
Varuṇa also wields the great occult power of māyā, which is a reference to his power to bind others by magic and illusion. It is by Varuṇa’s power and ordinances that the moon moves through the heavens and the sun rises – as the solar deity par excellence, his power is greater than that of his twin Mitra, who only reigns during the light of day; Varuna, by contrast, is the lord of light by night and day. Mitra is the god of the celestial light of day only. Though they are nearly inseparable in early Vedic thought, a clear demarcation between the two deities was later introduced with the Taittirῑya Saṃhitā (vi, 4, 8) stating that:
“This world had neither day or night, it was (in this respect) non-distinguished”; the gods said to the couple Mitra-Varuṇa (dual form mitrāvaruṇau) “Make a separation!” Mitra produced the day, Varuṇa the night. (Mitro’har ajanayad Varuṇo rātrim).
This is more of an explanation of natural phenomenon than it is anything else, with the Rig Veda itself taking on a henotheistic tone. Mitra is the visual aspect of the sun, Varuṇa the non-visual aspect, in a similar way to Savitar who also possess a comparable solar and abstract description. Because of his association with night, and his solar nature, it is reasonable to conclude that Varuṇa is not the atmosphere or the night sky, but rather the sun when it can no longer be seen – the time at night when the sun rises in the opposite hemisphere.
As Varuṇa diminishes, Mitra becomes visible, and therefore it is Varuṇa who takes on the more mysterious qualities, such as the power of magic and of māyā. Mitra, by contrast, is visible – his aspects are visible – those of Varuṇa are not. The separation referred is, therefore, the rising and setting of the sun, with Mitra as the ‘Golden Sun’, and Varuṇa becoming the ‘Black Sun’. Varuṇa is represented as the more powerful of the pair and the three heavens and the three earths are said to be under his control. Prior to the separation referenced above, in both the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda, Mitra is inseparable from Varuṇa; and with one exception, all the Rig Veda hymns dedicated to Mitra are also dedicated to Varuṇa.
When Mitra and Varuṇa were paired together, they ruled in tandem, as lords of ṛta, sometimes being called guardians of order (ṛtasya gopā), or the observers of order (ṛtāvan). In terms of their use in a political sense, Georges Dumézil’s classic text Mitra/Varuṇa describes them as a dual model of sovereignty with Mitra being the sovereign under his reasoning aspects( luminous, ordered, calm, benevolent, priestly) and Varuṇa as the sovereign under his attacking aspect – dark, inspired, violent, terrible warlike. This, however, does not sound correct, for Varuṇa is not depicted as being tyrannical – in the original texts Varuṇa is instead the deity who was sent to punish the wicked but was also regarded as merciful and his wrath was easily averted by the faithful. Dumézil may have altered the description deliberately as he did with Odin, to discourage certain political interpretations of his texts.
Varuṇa punished those who transgressed the ṛta or the dharma. Through māyā, Varuṇa binds the universe to his will as the supreme possessor of occult power, ensuring the cosmic rules and mortal regulations of the social order (dharman) are obeyed. Because of this, Varuṇa is also the God who punishes humanity, binding and fettering them with his noose (pasa). His wrath is aroused by sin, the infringement of his ordinances, and the fetters (pāśāḥ) with which he binds sinners are often mentioned as sevenfold and threefold, ensnaring the man who tells lies, passing by him who speaks the truth.
It is worth noting that the notion of ‘sin’ being associated with the power of māyā persists into contemporary Hindu religious thought. The sin itself arises from transgressing ṛta, the cosmic order, of which dharma or dharman is only the human reflection. In this role, however, Varuṇa has no connections with death or the afterlife, which was presided over by Yama who accords legislation and punishment in the afterlife just as Varuṇa does for the living. Because of his terrible wrath and all seeing eyes, Varuṇa is conceived of as a sovereign deity who is both omniscient and omnipresent, and his primary concern is to ensure that humans maintain a moral code, setting down the foundations of ṛta and dharma/dharman that underlay the functional nature of the cosmos and humanities role within it.
Varuṇa is the protector (tasya gopa), observer (kha tasya) and promoter (tayu, tavat) of order, and although Agni operates as a second protector, Varuṇa’s prominence is much greater. The duty of Varuṇa as the universal sovereign of order is to ensure that the laws of both worlds are upheld, introducing a legislative model of governance into Vedic Tradition via religion that would eventually become the paradigm for all Indo-European political and state models.
The other Vedic deity with a notable connection to sovereignty is Indra, who is more personalized in myth than Varuṇa and much less abstract. The importance attributed to Indra is evident in the fact that fact that around 250 hymns celebrate his greatness, more than those devoted to any other god – almost a quarter of the total hymns in the Rig Veda. Like Varuṇa, he sees all and is referred to as a universal monarch or a self-dependent sovereign that is said to reign (eka) by his might as an ancient seer. Indra too is an upholder of the cosmic order and is accredited with a natural bent towards the annihilation of evil, enemies of gods and enemies mankind.
Of the three deities cited as an early model for the sovereignty function in Vedic thought, the names ascribed to Varuṇa seem to indicate that he was the supreme power, eclipsing that of even Mitra, who remained powerless at night, with Varuṇa on the other hand originally presiding over both night and day. The boundary which separated them seems to have been established at a much later point. Varuṇa clearly represents the sun which is active at night also – the rising and setting sun which moves between night and day, thus establishing a dyad similar to that of Dionysus and Apollo. Though Indra is commonly regarded as the ‘King of the Gods’ this seems more like the role of an earthly king, with Varuṇa as the supreme ruler or celestial monarch. The model of sovereignty in the Vedic era lends itself towards a solar model of power and not the Jupiterian model offered by Indra.