Raja Dharma (राजधर्मः)

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Raja Dharma (Samskrit: राजधर्मः) refers to the law that confers power on the Raja to maintain the rule of law and the directives for the exercise of power.[1]

परिचयः ॥ Introduction[1]

Since the ancient times, multiple Rajas ruled over different parts of the Bharatiya sub-continent. And the territorial extent of a Rajya depended on the prowess and capability of each Raja. Also, each of them was independent of the others, except in cases where one became a vassal of an emperor. However, as a society, the entire population of Bharata constituted itself into one homogeneous unit by virtue of governance of the same laws on all matters including Raja Dharma. The civil, criminal and procedural laws evolved by the society and recorded in the various Dharma Shastras and Smrtis were followed uniformly in the entire region irrespective of different political entities under different Rajas.

As a result, though the Rajyas were very many and under different Rajas, the Raja Dharma (constitutional law) uniformly applied to all of them and regulated the constitution and organisation of all the Rajyas as also the civil and criminal laws, including procedural law, subject to local variations on the basis of approved usage and custom, which were recognised as one of the sources of law. The position therefore, was that Bharata consisted of several independent sovereign states but the people were governed by one legal, judicial and constitutional system which is codified in the form of Vyavahara Dharma and Raja Dharma that was meant for the implementation of doctrine of Trivarga.

राजधर्मोत्पत्तिः ॥ Origin of Raja Dharma

The origin of the concepts of Rajya, Raja Sabha as well as the evolving Raja Dharma has been explained in Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. It discloses that in the very early periods of civilization, great importance was attached to Dharma in Bharata which was self-imposed by individuals. Everyone was acting according to Dharma. Consequently, there was no need of any authority to compel obedience to the laws. The existence of such an ideal 'Stateless society' is graphically described in the following verse.[1] It says,

नैव राज्यं न राजाऽऽसीन्न दण्डो न च दाण्डिकः । धर्मेणैव प्रजाः सर्वा रक्षन्ति स्म परस्परम् ॥14॥[2]

naiva rājyaṁ na rājā''sīnna daṇḍo na ca dāṇḍikaḥ । dharmeṇaiva prajāḥ sarvā rakṣanti sma parasparam ॥14॥

Meaning : There was neither Rajya nor Raja, neither punishment nor the guilty to be punished. People were acting according to Dharma and thereby protecting one another.

This verse gives a clear picture of an ideal stateless society, which appears to have been in existence in the distant past. And such a society was most ideal because every individual meticulously acted according to the rules of right conduct by the force of one's own culture and habit and not out of any fear of being punished by a powerful superior authority like the state. Consequently, there was mutual cooperation and protection. And the society was free from the evils arising from selfishness and exploitation by individuals. The sanction which enforced such implicit obedience to Dharma was people's faith in it as also the fear of incurring divine displeasure if Dharma was disobeyed.

However, this ideal society as described above did not last long. While, the faith in the efficacy and utility of Dharma, belief in the Supreme Being and the fear of the Supreme Being continued to dominate society, the actual state of affairs gradually deteriorated. Then a situation arose where some people, out of selfish worldly desires, began to flout Dharma, becoming immune to the fear of divine displeasure. They were infatuated with pleasure. And prompted by their own muscle power, began to exploit and torment the weaker sections of society for their selfish ends. The tyranny of the strong over the weak reigned unabated. The danger to peaceful co-existence and consequent uncertainty and anxiety about the safety of life and property of individuals came forth. It was as though the rule of 'Matsya Nyaya' (ie. big fish devouring small fish) governed the society. This situation forced the law abiding people to search for a remedy. And resulted in the creation of the institution of kingship, establishment of Raja's authority and formulation of Raja Dharma which corresponds to the modern constitutional law that specifies and limits the exercise of power of the different limbs and departments of the state.

Kautilya, who was the Prime Minister of the powerful Magadha Emperor, Chandragupta Maurya, in his celebrated work on Polity named Arthashastra, also explains the origin of the institution of Kingship.[1] He says,

मात्स्यन्यायाभिभूताः प्रजाः मनुं वैवस्वतं राजानं चक्रिरे ॥ धान्यषड्भागं हिरण्यं चास्य भागधेयं प्रकल्पयामासुः ॥ तेन भृता राजानः प्रजानां योग-क्षेम-आवहाः ॥ तेषां किल्बिषं अदण्ड-करा हरन्त्ययोग-क्षेम-आवहाश्च प्रजानां ॥ ०१.१३.०५-०८ ॥[3]

mātsyanyāyābhibhūtāḥ prajāḥ manuṁ vaivasvataṁ rājānaṁ cakrire ॥ dhānyaṣaḍbhāgaṁ hiraṇyaṁ cāsya bhāgadheyaṁ prakalpayāmāsuḥ ॥ tena bhr̥tā rājānaḥ prajānāṁ yoga-kṣema-āvahāḥ ॥ teṣāṁ kilbiṣaṁ adaṇḍa-karā harantyayoga-kṣema-āvahāśca prajānāṁ ॥ 01.13.05-08 ॥

Meaning : People suffering from anarchy, as illustrated by the proverbial tendency of the bigger fish to devour the small ones, first elected Manu, the Vaivasvata, to be their Raja, and allotted one-sixth of grains grown and one-tenth of merchandise as sovereign dues. Being fed by this payment, the Rajas took upon themselves the responsibility of assuring and maintaining the safety and security of their subjects (yoga-kṣema-āvahāḥ) and of being answerable for the wrongdoings of their subjects when the principle of levying just punishment and taxes had been violated.[1][4]

राजधर्मस्य विषयाः मूलग्रन्थाश्च ॥ Scope and Sources

With the establishment of the concept of Rajya and the institution of kingship, the need to define it's structure, the powers and duties of the Raja and the liability of the people to contribute a part of their income by way of taxes, which should be placed in the hands of the Raja for purposes of the defense of the realm and to maintain peace, safety and order in society and also to undertake various welfare measures for the benefit of the people was felt. This necessity was met by making provisions regulating the constitution and organisation of the state, specifying the power and duties of the Ruler and all other incidental provisions and treating these provisions as part of Dharma under the title "Raja Dharma" (law governing Rulers).

In the Mahabharata, after the devastating war of Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and the Kauravas in which the former came out victorious, Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers requested Bhishma, who was adept in Raja Dharma to expound the same to him. The Shanti Parva incorporates that authoritative exposition of Bhishma on

  • the origin and purpose of the state
  • the rule of law
  • the institution of kingship
  • the duties and powers of the Raja

Great stress is also laid on the personal character and qualities which a Raja, in whom vast political power is vested, must possess for the proper and effective discharge of his functions.

While, in the Dharma Shastras and Smrtis, Raja Dharma is dwelt upon as a topic separate and independent from civil, criminal and procedural law. In view of the great importance of the topic of Raja Dharma, several eminent writers also wrote independent treatises on it under various titles such as Rajanitisara, Dandaniti, Nitisara, etc. It is also dealt with as part of Arthashastra. And the monumental work on Arthasastra is by Kautilya, who was the Prime Minister of the Magadha Empire Patalipura (modern Patna, in the State of Bihar) as its capital.[4]

P. V. Kane enumerates the names of a few important texts amongst the extensive literature available on the subject of Raja Dharma as follows:

  • Mahabharata - Shanti Parva
  • Manusmrti (Adhyaya 7 and 9)
  • Kamandaka Nitisara
  • Manasollasa of Someshvara
  • Yuktikalpataru of Bhoja
  • Rajaniti Ratnakara of Chandeshvara
  • Rajaniti Prakasha of Mitramishra
  • Dandaniti of Keshava Pandita.

The Raja Dharma laid down in these Smrti texts and various other works on Raja Dharma referred to here, was the constitutional law in ancient Bharata. And the system of government envisaged by all the works on Raja Dharma was the Rajya (the State) headed by a Raja.

The provisions in these Dharma Shastras, Smrtis and other works on Raja Dharma, covered a variety of subjects such as,

  • The constitution and organisation of the Rajya
  • Kingship
  • The manner of assuming office by the Raja (coronation)
  • The code of conduct for the Raja
  • The succession of kingship
  • The education of young princes
  • The appointment of council of ministers
  • The administrative divisions
  • The powers and duties of the Raja.[4]

The opening verse in the Raja Dharma Chapter of Manusmrti subtly enumerates this scope.[1] It says,

राजधर्मान्प्रवक्ष्यामि यथावृत्तो भवेन्नृपः । संभवश्च यथा तस्य सिद्धिश्च परमा यथा ॥ ७.१ ॥[5]

rājadharmānpravakṣyāmi yathāvr̥tto bhavennr̥paḥ । saṁbhavaśca yathā tasya siddhiśca paramā yathā । । 7.1 । ।

Meaning: I will now declare Raja Dharma, the law to be observed by Rulers, how Rajya was created, how a Raja should conduct himself and how he can obtain the highest success.

Raja Dharma, so clearly laid out, is vast like an ocean. It consists of invaluable and eternal principles worthy of emulation under any system of polity and by all persons exercising political power.[1]

राजधर्मः ॥ Raja Dharma

Raja Dharma regulated the power and duties of the Raja. The Atri Samhita declared that there were five fundamental duties of a Raja.

दुष्टस्य दण्डः सुजनस्य पूजा न्यायेन कोषस्य च संप्रवृद्धिः । अपक्षपातोऽर्थिषु राष्ट्ररक्षा पञ्चैतेव यज्ञाः कथिता नृपाणाम् ॥[citation needed]

duṣṭasya daṇḍaḥ sujanasya pūjā nyāyena koṣasya ca saṁpravr̥ddhiḥ । apakṣapāto'rthiṣu rāṣṭrarakṣā pañcaiteva yajñāḥ kathitā nr̥pāṇām ॥

Meaning : To punish the wicked, to honour (protect) the good, to enrich the treasury by just methods, to be impartial towards the litigants and to protect the Rajya - these are the five yajnas (selfless duties) to be performed by a Raja.

It is important to note here that the five fundamental duties were described as “Five Yajnas” to be performed by a Raja, which means they were required to be discharged with absolute selflessness. The assumption of office of a Raja was not to be regarded as assumption of power but was to be regarded as undertaking the performance of a “Vrata” (sacred duty) in accordance with Raja Dharma. It is this basic attitude towards “Political power” that constitutes an internal check and stands as a guarantee against abuse of power.

Also, it was mandatory for the Raja to give equal protection to all his subjects without discrimination. On this subject, Manusmrti on Raja Dharma[1] says,

यथा सर्वाणि भूतानि धरा धारयते समम् । तथा सर्वाणि भूतानि बिभ्रतः पार्थिवं व्रतम् । । ९.३११ । ।[6]

yathā sarvāṇi bhūtāni dharā dhārayatē samam । tathā sarvāṇi bhūtāni bibhrataḥ pārthivaṁ vratam । । 9.311 । ।

Meaning : Just as the mother earth gives equal support to all the living beings, a Raja should give support to all without any discrimination. In fact, the Narada Smrti states[1] that,

पाषण्डनैगमश्रेणी पूगव्रातगणादिषु । संरक्षेत्समयं राजा दुर्गे जनपदे तथा ॥१०.२॥[7]

pāṣāṇḍanaigamaśrēṇīpūgavrātagaṇādiṣu | saṁrakṣētsamayaṁ rājā durgē janapadē tathā ||

Meaning : The Raja should afford protection to compacts of associations of believers of Veda (Naigamas) as also of disbelievers in Veda (Pashandis) and of others.

This shows that in a land where the Vedas were regarded as Supreme, the non-believers in the Vedas were also to be respected and protected.[4]

Further more, Kamandaka specifically called upon the Rulers to protect people against his officers and favourites.[1] He says,

आयुक्तकेभ्यश्चौरेभ्यः परेभ्यो राजवल्लभात् | पृथिवीपतिलोभाच्च प्रजानां पञ्चधा भयम् ||5.8.81|| पञ्चप्रकारमप्येतदपोह्य नृपतिर्भयम् |[8]

āyuktakebhyaścaurebhyaḥ parebhyo rājavallabhāt | pr̥thivīpatilobhācca prajānāṁ pañcadhā bhayam ||5.8.81|| pañcaprakāramapyetadapohya nr̥patirbhayam |

Meaning: The subjects require protection against wicked officers of the Raja, thieves, enemies of the Raja, royal favourites (such as the queen, princes etc.), and more than all, against the greed of the Raja himself. The Raja should ensure that the people are free from these fears.[4]

In this context, an illuminating case is recorded in the Rajatarangini.

चन्द्रापीडस्य राजधर्मानुरोधः ॥ Chandrapida's Conformity to Raja Dharma

The following story from the Rajatarangini describes how Chandrapida, the Raja of Kashmir, gave protection to a poor 'charmakara' (cobbler) from the intended action of his own officers.

According to the story, the officers of the Raja undertook construction of a temple of Lord Tribhuvanaswami on a certain site. On a portion of that site there was a hut belonging to a charmakara (cobbler). He refused to remove his hut in spite of being asked to do so by the Raja's officers. Thereupon, the officers complained to the Raja about the stubbornness of the charmakara. However, to their surprise, the officers got a rebuff from the Raja, who censured them for lack of foresight in encroaching upon the site belonging to the charmakara and starting construction without taking his consent. The Raja ordered[1] thus,

नियम्यतां विनिर्माणं यद्वान्यत्र विधीयताम् | परभूम्यपहारेण सुकृतं कः कलङ्कयेत् ||4.59||

ये द्रष्टारः सदसतां ते धर्मविगुणाः क्रियाः | वयमेव विदध्मश्चेत् यातु न्यायेन कोऽध्वना ||4.60||[9]

niyamyatāṁ vinirmāṇaṁ yadvānyatra vidhīyatām | parabhūmyapahāreṇa sukr̥taṁ kaḥ kalaṅkayet ||

ye draṣṭāraḥ sadasatāṁ te dharmaviguṇāḥ kriyāḥ | vayameva vidadhmaścet yātu nyāyena ko'dhvanā ||

Meaning: Stop construction or build (the temple) somewhere else. Who would tarnish such a pious act by illegally depriving a man of his land ? If we who are the judges of what is right and what is not right, act unlawfully, who then will abide by the law ?

This exemplifies that with the aid of the law, a 'weak' charmakara prevailed over the 'strong' officers of the Raja; that the supremacy of the law (Dharma) prevailed.

The story further continues with the charmakara getting an audience with the Raja at his own request where he says, "What the palace is to Your Majesty, the hut is to me. I could not bear to see its demolition. You can very well appreciate the plight of a man who is deprived of his dwelling. However, if your majesty were to come to my hut and ask for it, I shall give it up having due regard to the code of good manners."

The Raja also, with all humility, then goes to the charmakara's hut and with his consent purchases the hut by paying a price which was far more than the expectation of the charmakara. The charmakara being entirely satisfied, said to the Raja with folded hands[1] that,

राजधर्मानुरोधेन परवत्ता तवोचिता ||4.75||... स्वस्ति तुभ्यं चिरं स्थेया धर्म्या वृत्तान्तपद्धतीः | दर्शयन्नीदृशीः शुद्धाः श्रद्धेया धर्मचारिणाम् ||4.77||[9]

rājadharmānurodhena paravattā tavocitā ||4.75||... svasti tubhyaṁ ciraṁ stheyā dharmyā vr̥ttāntapaddhatīḥ | darśayannīdr̥śīḥ śuddhāḥ śraddheyā dharmacāriṇām ||4.77||

Meaning: Yielding to another (however low), adhering to the principles of Raja Dharrna, is the appropriate course for a Raja. I wish you well. May you live long, establishing the supremacy of the law (Dharma). Seeing in you, such faith in Dharma, others will also act accordingly.[4]

This account in the Rajatarangini is an inspiring example of the Raja upholding the rule of law at his own initiative thereby, granting relief to a poor man against the arbitrary action of his own officers. It establishes that the commendation of a poor subject is more valuable to a Raja than the flattery of selfish individuals.

In conformity with this spirit of Raja Dharma, Kautilya, in his famous "Arthashastra" summed up the duties of the Raja[1] thus,

प्रजासुखे सुखं राज्ञः प्रजानां च हिते हितम् । नात्मप्रियं हितं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु प्रियं हितम् ॥[10]

prajāsukhē sukhaṁ rājñaḥ prajānāṁ ca hitē hitam | nātmapriyaṁ hitaṁ rājñaḥ prajānāṁ tu priyaṁ hitaṁ ||

Meaning : In the happiness of the subjects lies the ruler's happiness, in their welfare his welfare; what pleases himself the ruler shall not consider good but whatever pleases his subjects the ruler shall consider good.[4]

The Raja was required to conform to this rule of Raja Dharma and act only in the interests of the people and not according to his likes or dislikes or whims and fancies. He was directed not to act erratically or arbitrarily. It was pointed out that his interests and the interests of his subjects were inseparable. What was good for the people was to be regarded good for him irrespective of any disadvantage or inconvenience caused to him.[1]

विधिताचरणम् ॥ Code of Conduct

The smrtis laid down a code of conduct to be diligently observed by the Rajas which applies to every kind of rulers and officers exercising governmental powers even today. They are are as follows:

The Manusmrti mentions that a Raja must subdue his senses.[1] It says,

इन्द्रियाणां जये योगं समातिष्ठेद्दिवानिशम् | जितेन्द्रियो हि शक्नोति वशे स्थापयितुं प्रजाः ||७.४४||[5]

indriyāṇāṁ jaye yogaṁ samātiṣṭheddivāniśam | jitendriyo hi śaknoti vaśe sthāpayituṁ prajāḥ ||7.44||

Meaning: Day and night the Raja must strenuously exert himself to conquer his senses for, he alone who has conquered his own senses can keep his subjects in obedience.[4] Elaborating on the need to uphold good qualities, the Katyayani Smrti mentions that a Raja must guard himself against going astray.[1] It says,

वश्येन्द्रियं जितात्मानं धृतदण्डं विकारिषु । परीक्ष्यकारिणं धीरं अत्यन्तं श्रीर्निषेवते ।। ००३ ।।[11]

शौर्यविद्यार्थबाहुल्यात्प्रभुत्वाच्च विशेषतः । सदा चित्तं नरेन्द्राणां मोहं आयाति कारणात् ।। ००४ ।।

तस्माच्चित्तं प्रबोद्धव्यं राजधर्मे सदा द्विजैः । पवित्रं परमं पुण्यं स्मृतिवाक्यं न लङ्घयेत् ।। ००५ ।।

आत्मीये संस्थिता धर्मे नृपाः शक्रत्वं आप्नुयुः । अवीचिवासिनो ये तु व्यपेताचारिणः सदा ।। ००९ ।।[12]

vaśyendriyaṁ jitātmānaṁ dhr̥tadaṇḍaṁ vikāriṣu । parīkṣyakāriṇaṁ dhīraṁ atyantaṁ śrīrniṣevate ।। 003 ।।

śauryavidyārthabāhulyātprabhutvācca viśeṣataḥ । sadā cittaṁ narendrāṇāṁ mohaṁ āyāti kāraṇāt ।। 004 ।।

tasmāccittaṁ praboddhavyaṁ rājadharme sadā dvijaiḥ । pavitraṁ paramaṁ puṇyaṁ smr̥tivākyaṁ na laṅghayet ।। 005 ।।

ātmīye saṁsthitā dharme nr̥pāḥ śakratvaṁ āpnuyuḥ । avīcivāsino ye tu vyapetācāriṇaḥ sadā ।। 009 ।।


  • Glory very much resorts (to a Raja) whose senses are under control, who can curb his passions, who wields (the rod of) punishment against those who fall victims to temptations, and who does (every act) after due deliberation, and who is extremely calm and steady.
  • By reason of their being endowed with an abundance of valour, learning and wealth, and particularly on account of the supreme power (they wield), the minds of Rajas always tend to go astray (even) for the slightest reason (or impulse).
  • Rajas who abide by the duties especially prescribed for them attain the position of Indra, but those who go astray deviating from the path of Dharma go to the nether world (after death).

The Manusmrti enjoins rulers to shun vices as they lead them to excesses in the enjoyment of power and wealth resulting in the neglect of the affairs of state. And declares that death is preferable to leading a vicious life.[1] It says,

अदेश्यं यश्च दिशति निर्दिश्यापह्नुते च यः । यश्चाधरोत्तरानर्थान्विगीतान्नावबुध्यते ||८.५३||[13]

adeśyaṁ yaśca diśati nirdiśyāpahnute ca yaḥ । yaścādharottarānarthānvigītānnāvabudhyate ||8.53||

Meaning: In a comparison between vice and death, vice is declared to be more harmful because a vicious man sinks to the nethermost region while he who dies free from vice goes to svarga. It also enlists the vices that must be avoided, especially by a Raja.[1] It says,

दश कामसमुत्थानि तथाऽष्टौ क्रोधजानि च | व्यसनानि दुरन्तानि प्रयत्नेन विवर्जयेत् ||७.४५||

कामजेषु प्रसक्तो हि व्यसनेषु महीपतिः | वियुज्यतेऽर्थ धर्माभ्यां क्रोधजेष्वात्मनैव तु ||७.४६||

मृगयाक्षो दिवास्वप्नः परिवादः स्त्रियो मदः । तौर्यत्रिकं वृथाट्या च कामजो दशको गणः ||७.४७||

पैशुन्यं साहसं द्रोहः ईर्ष्यासूयार्थदूषणम् | वाग्दण्डजं च पारुष्यं क्रोधजोऽपि गुणोऽष्टकः ||७.४८||[5]

daśa kāmasamutthāni tathā'ṣṭau krodhajāni ca | vyasanāni durantāni prayatnena vivarjayet ||7.45||

kāmajeṣu prasakto hi vyasaneṣu mahīpatiḥ | viyujyate'rtha dharmābhyāṁ krodhajeṣvātmanaiva tu ||7.46||

mr̥gayākṣo divāsvapnaḥ parivādaḥ striyo madaḥ । tauryatrikaṁ vr̥thāṭyā ca kāmajo daśako gaṇaḥ ||7.47||

paiśunyaṁ sāhasaṁ drohaḥ īrṣyāsūyārthadūṣaṇam | vāgdaṇḍajaṁ ca pāruṣyaṁ krodhajo'pi guṇo'ṣṭakaḥ ||7.48||


  1. Let him shun the ten vices springing from love of pleasure and the eight proceeding from wrath, which end in misery.
  2. The Raja who is attached to vices springing from love of pleasure loses his virtue and wealth, and he who is given to vices arising from anger loses even his life.
  3. Hunting, gambling, sleeping during the day, hyper-criticism, lust, drunkenness, an inordinate love for dancing, singing and music, and useless travel are the ten vices flowing from love of pleasure.
  4. The four vices - drinking liquor, gambling, lust and hunting arising out of love of pleasure are the most detrimental in the same order.
  5. Gossip, violence, treachery, envy, defamation, unjust seizure of property, reviling and assault are the set of eightfold vices flowing from wrath; out of these, doing bodily injury, reviling and seizure of property are the most destructive.[4]

This great stress laid on the character and discipline of Rulers is applicable to all persons who exercise political and administrative power under any system of government as it facilitates the welfare of the people. They act as internal checks which automatically control the evil propensities of people in power and position and prevent them from swerving from the path of righteousness. And these in-built traits are more effective than all the external constitutional and legal checks, though their importance cannot in any way be minimised.[1]

राज्यस्य उत्तराधिकारत्वम् ॥ Rule Of Succession

The implicit faith of the Rajas in Raja Dharma (Constitutional Law of ancient Bharata) has been the basis of the smooth functioning of the State as also the peaceful transfer of power from a Raja/emperor to his successor since ancient times.

The rule of succession prescribed as part of 'Raja Dharma' was that of Primogeniture. According to this, the eldest son of a Raja alone was entitled to royal succession. This rule which has been in existence from the most ancient times has been incorporated in Shukraniti.[1] It says,

राजकुले तु बहवः पुरुषा यदि सन्ति हि ||341|| तेषु ज्येष्ठो भवेद्राजा शेषास्तत्कार्यसाधकाः |[14]

rājakule tu bahavaḥ puruṣā yadi santi hi | teṣu jyeṣṭho bhavedrājā śeṣāstatkāryasādhakāḥ ||

Meaning: If a Raja has many male children, the eldest among them is to be the Raja (in succession); the others are to assist him. But, if the eldest prince is deaf, dumb, blind, leprous or an eunuch, he is unfit to rule and, in such a case, the Raja's brother or grandson (the son of the eldest son) should succeed to the throne.[1]

ज्येष्ठोऽपि बधिरः कुष्ठी मूकोऽन्धः षण्ड एव यः | स राज्यार्हो भवेन्नेव भ्राता तत्पुत्र एव हि ||343||[14]

jyeṣṭho'pi badhiraḥ kuṣṭhī mūko'ndhaḥ ṣaṇḍa eva yaḥ | sa rājyārho bhavenneva bhrātā tatputra eva hi ||

Arthashastra of Kautilya which codified Raja Dharma also declared that except in exceptional cases of calamity, sovereignty falls on the eldest son while the sons of the deceased persons were entitled to equal share in the property of the father. Shukraniti indicated the reason for the difference between the succession to the property of the father and the Rajya. It said that in case of the former, as it was the property of the father, the sons became entitled to it in equal shares but the Rajya was not the property of the Raja. He was only a person entrusted with the power of ruling the State and there should be only one ruler and therefore, the Rule of Primogeniture was evolved.

It is true that there was no constitutional court wherein usurpation of the power by anyone not entitled to succeed to kingship could be challenged. But in view of the implicit faith in and allegiance to Raja Dharma, the rule of primogeniture was being obeyed by all concerned and as a result there used to be smooth transfer of power. This Dharma abiding instinct in the rulers and the people was more powerful and effective than the power of the courts. And it was on this basis that Bharata refused to be crowned even though he was requested by all to do so.

भरतस्य राजधर्मनिष्ठा ॥ Bharata's Allegiance to Raja Dharma

According to the story of the Ramayana, Sri Rama being the eldest son of Dasharatha was to be crowned as the Raja of Ayodhya in accordance with the Rule of Primogeniture incorporated in Raja Dharma. However, it so happened that on account of the demand made by Kaikeyi, the mother of Bharata, in terms of the promise to grant her whatever she asked for by Raja Dasharatha and the latter being firmly committed to keep up his words, had no other alternative but to cancel the coronation ceremony of Sri Rama and to ask him to go away to the forest for fourteen years and also to crown Bharata as the Raja of Ayodhya. Bharata had the golden opportunity of securing political power and becoming the Raja of Ayodhya by superseding the claim of Rama, once and for all, if allurement of power prevailed in his mind over Raja Dharma or constitutional convention. The general impression is that it was the intense love of Bharata towards his elder brother Sri Rama, which prevented Bharata from ascending the throne. It may be partly true, but the real reason for Bharata to refuse to ascend the throne was the Rule of Primogeniture laid down as part of Raja Dharma and his firm commitment not to transgress Raja Dharma. This is discernible from the firm stand taken by him when he was requested to become the Raja of Ayodhya.

After the return of Bharata from Mithila, the Council of Ministers appraised him of the unfortunate events which had already taken place during his absence, which had led to the cancellation of the coronation of Rama and his exile to the forest and the death of Dasharatha and the proposal to crown Bharata as the Raja of Ayodhya. Bharata unaffected by the lure of office of kingship stated[1],

ज्येष्ठस्य राजता नित्यम् उचिता हि कुलस्य नः । न एवम् भवन्तः माम् वक्तुम् अर्हन्ति कुशला जनाः ॥२-७९-७॥

रामः पूर्वो हि नो भ्राता भविष्यति मही पतिः । अहम् तु अरण्ये वत्स्यामि वर्षाणि नव पन्च च ॥२-७९-८॥[15]

jyeṣṭhasya rājatā nityam ucitā hi kulasya naḥ । na evam bhavantaḥ mām vaktum arhanti kuśalā janāḥ ॥2-79-7॥

rāmaḥ pūrvo hi no bhrātā bhaviṣyati mahī patiḥ । aham tu araṇye vatsyāmi varṣāṇi nava panca ca ॥2-79-8॥

Meaning: The convention that the eldest son of the Raja alone should succeed to the throne has been firmly established and has been regarded as a commendable rule of succession. Therefore, you, being well versed in the convention ought not to request me to ascend the throne. Sri Rama being the eldest son of the Raja, he alone shall be the ruler. I would rather reside in the forest for fourteen years (instead of Sri Rama). Having firmly stated as above to the council of ministers, Bharata proceeded to Chitrakoota where Sri Rama was staying. Here again, Sri Rama, the eldest son and the rightful heir exhorted Bharata to agree to be crowned and become the Raja respecting the words of 'mother Kaikeyi and father Dasharatha. However, Bharata's faith in and allegiance to the Raja Dharma very firm and he was of the view that it could not be changed or amended. He thus replied[1],

रामस्य वचनं श्रुत्वा भरत: प्रत्युवाच ह । किं मे धर्माद्विहीनस्य राजधर्म: करिष्यति ।। २.१०१.१ ।।

शाश्वतोऽयं सदा धर्मः स्थितोऽस्मासु नरर्षभ । ज्येष्ठपुत्रे स्थिते राजन्न कनीयान् नृपो भवेत् ।। २.१०१.२ ।।

स समृद्धां मया सार्द्धमयोध्यां गच्छ राघव । अभिषेचय चात्मानं कुलस्यास्य भवाय न: ।। २.१०१.३ ।।[16]

rāmasya vacanaṁ śrutvā bharata: pratyuvāca ha । kiṁ me dharmādvihīnasya rājadharma: kariṣyati ।। 2.101.1 ।।

śāśvato'yaṁ sadā dharmaḥ sthito'smāsu nararṣabha । jyeṣṭhaputre sthite rājanna kanīyān nr̥po bhavet ।। 2.101.2 ।।

sa samr̥ddhāṁ mayā sārddhamayodhyāṁ gaccha rāghava । abhiṣecaya cātmānaṁ kulasyāsya bhavāya na: ।। 2.101.3 ।।

Meaning: How can the rule prescribed for succession be violated ? I am outside the range of that code. I have no right to occupy the throne being the younger son of the Emperor. The rule is that the eldest son alone can succeed to the throne. Oh jewel among men ! so long as the eldest son is alive, I can never be the Raja. Therefore, return with me to Ayodhya.

Despite the advice of the council of ministers, the desire of mother Kaikeyi granted by Raja Dasharatha and, more than all that, the exhortation by Sri Rama himself, who was the constitutional successor to the throne, Bharata would not budge, as none of these could alter Raja Dharma.

This firm commitment to Raja Dharma and the refusal to secure or accept power by Bharata is all the more relevant now and serves as an example even to present day rulers to remain true to their Dharma.[1]

उत्तराधिकारिणः प्रशिक्षणम् ॥ Training of Princes

Since the ancient times, the duties and responsibilities of the Raja were regulated by Raja Dharma. Therefore, inculcating the desire to implicitly obey Raja Dharma was part of the education of the princes, who were to succeed to the throne. Although the form of government was Rajatva (Kingship), the substance was Praja Prabhutva (democracy). While people were told to look upon the Raja as deity in human form ie. राजा प्रत्यक्षदेवता । rājā pratyakṣadevatā । the Rajas were told to look upon the people as incarnation of Lord Vishnu and serve them selflessly ie. प्रजा विष्णुः । prajā viṣṇuḥ ।[17]

The princes, who were in the line of succession to Rajatva, underwent strenuous courses under their teachers (in Gurukula-ashramas). In addition to education, a Rajakumara (as well as a Raja) was required to lead a disciplined life and keep the company of respectable persons who could shape his character, thought and outlook to ensure public welfare. Thus, the Dharma Shastras and Smrti texts laid great stress on the character and qualities a Raja should possess. And their directives were invariably followed both in letter and spirit by the royal families. To this extent, imparting an all round education and training to princes, and instilling in them the traits of good character and discipline was emphasised.

In fact, the outstanding rulers in the history of Bharata are known to have exhibited remarkable ability in administration, skill in warfare as well as mastery of the arts. And this was possible due to the training imparted to them in and about Raja Dharma.

राज्याभिषेकः ॥ Coronation

Every prince before assuming office as Raja was required to take an oath that he would rule the Rajya strictly in accordance with Dharma. The more important aspect relating to assumption of office as Raja at the coronation ceremony was, it was regarded as 'Samskara' for the commencement of selfless discharge of duty as a Raja during his entire tenure of office and not assumption of power. On this aspect K.M.Panikkar observes,

"Great importance was, therefore, attached to the coronation ceremony. Not only was it a dedication to the service of the people but also an affirmation of the covenant between the people and the ruler.

The coronation was a Diksha, a dedication, and a king bearing the crown became a Vrati, i.e., a person devoting his life to a cause (in this case, the service of the people)."

The Mahabharata has expressed this ideal with great clarity and precision. The Shanti Parva says[1],

धर्माय राजा भवति न कामकरणाय तु ।...3[18] dharmāya rājā bhavati na kāmakaraṇāya tu।

Meaning : The proper function of the Raja is to rule according to Dharma (the law) and not to enjoy the luxuries of life.[4]

This directive principle laid down five thousand years ago is of eternal value and is very much relevant even now. It is worthy of emulation by all those who take oath of office in different capacities according to the relevant Constitution under the present day Democratic system of Government; and they would do well to remember always that they are not merely wielders of power but they stand charged with the duty of rendering selfless service to the people in conformity with the constitution and the laws of the land.[1]

राजधर्मस्य प्रयोजनम् ॥ Purpose of Raja Dharma[1]

The ideals placed before an individual for the welfare and happiness of oneself and all others in this world were Dharma, Artha and Kama which were known as Trivarga. And every individual was asked to reject Artha and Kama (material wealth and desires) if they were in conflict with Dharma. These were the same ideals kept before the state by Raja Dharma. The ideal of Raja Dharma placed before the state was to assist and support the achievement of the threefold ideals (Trivarga) by individuals and to ensure that they secure wealth (Artha) and fulfil their desires (Kama) in conformity with Dharma; and that they do not transgress Dharma. In this regard, the Barhaspatya Sutra says,

नीतेः फलं धर्मार्थकामावाप्तिः ॥ 2.43 ॥[citation needed] nīteḥ phalaṁ dharmārthakāmāvāptiḥ ॥ 2.43

Meaning: The goal of polity (Rajaniti) is the fulfillment of Dharma, Artha and Kama. It further adds that Artha (the wealth) and Kama (desire) must stand the test of Dharma.

धर्मेण कामार्थौ परीक्ष्यौ ॥ 2.44 ॥[citation needed] dharmeṇa kāmārthau parīkṣyau ॥ 2.44 ॥

Kautilya also declares that a Raja must strive for the achievement of Trivarga. While Kamandakiya Nitisara, after an elaborate discussion of the seven constituents of the state, concludes that,

गृहीतमेतत्रिपुणेन मन्त्रिणा त्रिवर्गनिष्पत्तिमुपैति शाश्वतीम् || 4.7 ||[citation needed]

gr̥hītametatripuṇena mantriṇā trivarganiṣpattimupaiti śāśvatīm || 4.7 ||

Meaning: The state administered with the assistance of wise ministers secures the three goals (Trivarga) in an enduring manner.

Infact, Somadeva begins his Nitivakyamrta in a characteristic way by performing obeisance to Rajya (the state) which yields the three fruits of Dharma, Artha and Kama.[4]

The Dharma Shastra authors held that Dharma was the supreme power in the state and was above the Raja who was only the instrument to realize the goal of Dharma. This purpose of Raja Dharma is reiterated by all the works on Raja Dharma. All of them declare with one voice that the highest duty of a Raja is to afford 'protection to his subjects (praja) and to dedicate himself to their welfare and happiness'.

Such an importance given to the principle of Dharma also indicates another fundamental aspect accepted by the people as well as the rulers of the various Rajyas of Bharata; that, the Raja had no legislative powers. The sanction behind all the laws including Raja Dharma (collectively called Dharma) lay in its acceptance by the people. It was to this extent that the doctrine of separation of the law making and law enforcing powers had been brought about. And no Raja questioned the authority of Dharma over and above him. Thus, the entire political system in Bharata was based on Dharmic Supremacy.

राज्ञः राजधर्मस्य च महत्त्वम् ॥ Importance of Raja and Raja Dharma

The paramount importance of kingship and the profound influence a Raja has on the state of society has also been crisply expressed in the Mahabharata as follows[1],

कालो वा कारणं राज्ञो राजा वा कालकारणम् । इति ते संशयो माभूद्राजा कालस्य कारणम् ॥6॥[19]

kālo vā kāraṇaṁ rājño rājā vā kālakāraṇam। iti te saṁśayo mābhūdrājā kālasya kāraṇam।।

Meaning: Whether, it is the Raja who is the maker of the age or the age that makes the Raja is a question about which there is no room for doubt. The Raja is undoubtedly the maker of the age. Because, whatever system of polity, it is the ruler who is largely responsible for the state of the nation or society. Whether the people in general are virtuous or not also largely depends upon the character and conduct of the ruler and his capacity to enforce Dharma, i.e., the rule of law.

यथा राजा तथा प्रजा |[citation needed] yathā rājā tathā prajā |

Since enforcement of Dharma was entirely dependent upon the effective implementation of Raja Dharma, it was considered supreme. And the propounders of Dharma Shastra declared the Raja (State) as an absolute necessity to maintain the society in a state of Dharma which was essential for the fulfillment of Artha and Kama. Thus, Raja Dharma, which laid down the Dharma of the Raja, was paramount. This is reinforced in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. It says that 'all Dharmas are merged in Raja Dharma, and it is therefore the Supreme Dharma.'[1][4]

सर्वे धर्माः सोपधर्मास्त्रयाणां राज्ञो धर्मादिति वेदाच्छृणोमि ॥24॥... एवं धर्मान् राजधर्मेषु सर्वान् सर्वावस्थान् सम्प्रलीनान् निबोध ।[20] (Maha. Shan Parv. 63.24-25)

sarve dharmāḥ sopadharmāstrayāṇāṁ rājño dharmāditi vedācchr̥ṇomi ॥24॥... evaṁ dharmān rājadharmeṣu sarvān sarvāvasthān sampralīnān nibodha । (Maha. Shan Parv. 63.24-25)

राज्ञः धर्मस्य च अन्योन्याश्रयत्वम् ॥ Interdependence of Raja and Dharma

Having evolved the concept of enforceability of the law through the institution of kingship, ancient Indian jurists proceeded to define law. Law was recognised as a mighty instrument necessary for the protection of individual rights and liberties. Whenever the right or liberty of an individual was encroached upon by another, the injured individual could seek protection from the law with the assistance of the Raja, however, powerful the opponent (wrong doer) might be. The power of the Raja (state) to enforce the law or to punish the wrong doer was recognised as the force (sanction) behind the law which could compel implicit obedience to law.

After declaring how and why the Kshatra power i.e. the Raja was created, the Brhadaranyakopanishad states,

'finding that the mere creation of kingship was not enough; Dharma (law), a power superior to that of the Raja, was created to enable him protect the people'

And defines Dharma as follows[1],

तदेतत्-क्षत्रस्य क्षत्रं यद्धर्मः | तस्माधर्मात्परं नास्ति | अथो अबलीयान् बलीयांसमाशंसते धर्मेण | यथा राज्ञा एवं ||१,४.१४||[21]

tadetat-kṣatrasya kṣatraṁ yaddharmaḥ | tasmādharmātparaṁ nāsti | atho abalīyān balīyāṁsamāśaṁsate dharmeṇa | yathā rājñā evaṁ ||

Meaning: The law (Dharma) is the king of kings. No one is superior to the law (Dharma); The law (Dharma) aided by the power of the Raja enables the weak to prevail over the strong.

Commenting on this provision, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan observes that even Rajas are subordinate to Dharma, to the Rule of law.[4]

While the utility and the necessity of the power of Raja to enforce the law is explained thus[1],

सर्वो दण्डजितो लोको दुर्लभो हि शुचिर्नरः । दण्डस्य हि भयात्सर्वं जगद्भोगाय कल्पते । । ७.२२ । ।[5]

sarvo daṇḍajito loko durlabho hi śucirnaraḥ । daṇḍasya hi bhayātsarvaṁ jagadbhogāya kalpate । । 7.22 । ।

Meaning: There is hardly an individual in this world, who on his own, is pure in his conduct. The Raja's power to punish keeps the people in righteous path. Fear of punishment (by the Raja) yields worldly happiness and enjoyment.

Thus, one aspect discernible from the definition of 'law' given in the Brhadarayaka Upanishad and accepted in the Dharma Shastras is that, the law and the Raja derive their strength and vitality from each other. It was impressed that

  • the Raja remained powerful if he observed the law
  • the efficacy of the law also depended on the manner in which the Raja functioned, because it was he who was responsible for its enforcement.

There was also a specific provision which made it clear to the Raja that if he was to be respected by the people, he was bound to act in accordance with the law. Thus, the first and foremost duty of the Raja as laid down under Raja Dharma was to rule his Rajya in accordance with the law, so that the law reigned supreme and could control all human actions so as to keep them within the bounds of the law.

However, though Dharma was made enforceable by the political sovereign - the Raja, it was considered and recognised as superior to and binding on the sovereign himself. Thus, under the ancient constitutional law of Bharata (Raja Dharma), Rulers were given the position of the penultimate authority functioning within the four corners of Dharma which was the ultimate authority.[4]

Therefore, the rules of Dharma were not alterable according to the wish and will of the Raja. The exercise of political power in conformity with "Dharma" was considered most essential. And Justice Rama Jois observes that this principle holds good for every system of government and is capable of standing guard against not only abuse of political power with selfish motives and out of greed but also against arbitrary exercise of political power.[1]

धर्मप्राधान्यम् ॥ Supremacy of Dharma[1]

Dharma is universal. It is a code of conduct for all human beings for all time to come. It is eternal and unalterable just as you cannot alter the property of fire of burning and of water of flowing. And the belief in the supremacy of Dharma among people was the best guarantee for the proper functioning of Rajas. In other words, 'Dharmic Supremacy' generally prevailed. Historical records prove that Raja Dharma formed the fundamental law which regulated the Constitution and the organisation of every Rajya throughout the centuries. And every Raja was required to take oath at the time of coronation that he would rule according to 'Dharma'. Thus, Dharmarajya means the Rule of Law.

In this regard, the famous historian R.C. Majumdar in his book "Ancient India" observes that,

The duty of the king was clearly defined in the Shastras. It would have created as much a sensation in those days, if the king had failed in his duties as would follow the violation of people's rights in modern days.

Therefore, though the observance of Dharma by every individual is essential for harmonious living, it is also a condition in conformity with which the political power was required to be exercised and that holds good for all Nations and for all times to come. Thus, following the principles of Dharma was considered essential both for the ruled and the ruler. In fact, the importance of the observance of Dharma, considered essential for the purpose of exercising political power, is also contained in the advice given by Rama to Bharata at Chitrakuta while sending him back, to rule Ayodhya. And that advice by Rama is of eternal value for it suggests that just as those who handle electric power wear a rubber hand glove for safety, those who exercise political power must wear the hand glove of Dharma.[4] C. Subramaniam in Bhavans Journal dated 15th April 1995 says,

Gandhiji's ideal of an ideal polity was Ramarajya. It stood for a society wherein a high, ethical standard of life is characterised by the pursuit of purusharthas -Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. It is the prevalence of Dharma, which characterises an ideal society. Such a society is possible only if the governance of the country is based on clear, efficient and transparent administration. In the past, the king was not only a symbol, but was the ruler and administrator and the king had to observe the Dharma of the ruler, functioning in a selfless manner for the prosperity, harmony and happiness of his people. This is Gandhijis concept of Ramarajya. Today, we have responsible governments run by elected representatives.

If the rulers do not observe Dharma, it will become a Ravanarajya. We have to make a choice, between Ramarajya and Ravanarajya.[4]

The various references discussed prior also exemplify that unless a Dharma-abiding nature is ingrained in the individuals who exercise power of the state, either as ministers or elected representatives or as bureaucrats, the whole social fabric will be torn into pieces. It is only the internal check in the form of Dharma, which can destroy immoral thoughts in the mind of the individuals who exercise state power and inspire them to serve the people, for which purpose they are elected or appointed.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 1.28 1.29 1.30 1.31 1.32 Justice Mandagadde Rama Jois (1997), Dharma: The Global Ethic, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
  2. Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, Adhyaya 58.
  3. Arthashastra, Adhikarana 1, Adhyaya 13.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 M.Rama Jois (2004), Trivarga, Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Manusmrti, Adhyaya 7.
  6. Manusmrti, Adhyaya 9.
  7. Narada Smrti, Vyavahara Padani, Samasyanapakarma.
  8. T. Ganapati Sastri (1912), Nitisara of Kamandaka, Trivandrum Sanskrit Series no.14, Trivandrum.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Durgaprasada (1892), The Rajatarangini of Kalhana, Vol. I (Tarangas I to VII), Bombay: Government Central Book Depot.
  10. Arthashastra, Adhikarana 1, Adhyaya 19.
  11. Katyayana Smrti, Raja Gunas.
  12. Katyayana Smrti, Raja Dharma.
  13. Manusmrti, Adhyaya 8.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Jivananda Vidyasagar Bhatt (1860), Shukranitisara, Kolkata.
  15. Ramayana, Ayodhya Kanda, Sarga 79.
  16. Ramayana, Ayodhya Kanda, Sarga 101.
  17. M.M.Pandurang Vaman Kane (1946), History of Dharmasastra (Vol.III), Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.
  18. Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, Adhyaya 90.
  19. Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, Adhyaya 69.
  20. Pandit Ramnarayanadatta Shastri Pandey, Mahabharata (Khanda 5-Shantiparva), Gorakhpur: Gita Press.
  21. Brhadaranyakopanishad, Adhyaya 1.