Rajadharma (राजधर्मः)

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The origin of the State (Rajya) as well as the office of the king and the evolving of Raja Dharma -the law conferring power on the king to maintain the rule of law and the directives for the exercise of power -has been explained in Shantiparva of the Mahabharata. After the devastating war of Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and the Kauravas in which the former came out victorious, Yudhistira the eldest of the Pandava brothers requested Bhishma, who was the master of Rajadharma to expound the same to him and he did so. The Shanthiparva of Mahabharata incorporates Bhishma's authoritative exposition of the origin and purpose of the state, the rule of law, the institution of kingship and the duties and the powers of the king. Great stress is laid on the personal character and qualities which a king in whom vast political power is vested must possess for the proper and effective discharge of his functions. Rajadharma, so clearly laid out is vast like an ocean, consists of invaluable and eternal principles worthy of emulation under any system of polity and by all persons exercising political power. The Mahabharata discourse on the topic of Rajadharma discloses that in the very early periods of civilization in this country great importance was attached to Dharma and it was self-imposed by individuals. Consequently, everyone was acting according to Dharma and there was no necessity of any authority to compel obedience to the laws. The existence of such an ideal ' Stateless society' is graphically described in the following verses:

"uSo jkT;a u jktk··lhTMk n.Mks u p nkf.Md%A /kesZ.kSo iztk% lokZ j{kfUr Le ijLijeÃA"

There was neither kingdom nor the king, neither punishment nor the guilty to be punished. People were acting according to Dharma and thereby protecting one another.

The above verse gives a clear picture of an ideal stateless society, which appears to have been in existence in the hoary past. Such a society was the most ideal one for the reason that every individual scrupulously acted according to the rules of right conduct by the force of his 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. The society was free from the evils arising from selfishness and exploitation by individuals. The sanction which enforced such implicit obedience to Dharma was the faith of the people in it as also the fear of incurring divine displeasure if Dharma was disobeyed. However, the ideal society so beautifully described did not last long. While, the faith in: the efficacy and utility of Dharma, belief in God and the God fearing attitude of people continued to dominate society, the actual state of affairs gradually deteriorated. A situation arose when some persons, out of selfish worldly desires, began to flout Dharma, and became 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, was brought about by such individuals. It was as though the rule of 'Matsyanyaya' (big fish devouring small fish) governed society. This situation forced the law abiding people to search for a remedy. This resulted in the creation of the institution of kingship and the establishment of his authority (kingship or the state) and formulation of Raja Dharma which corresponds to modern constitutional law which specifies and limits the exercise of power of the different limbs and departments of the state. Kautilya, who was the Prime Minister to the powerful Maghada Emperor, Chandragupta Maurya, in his celebrated work on Polity ([Arthasastra]) also explains the origin of the institution of Kingship:

ekRL;U;k;kfHkHkwrk% iztk% euqa oSoLora jktkua pfØjsA /kkU;"kMHkkxa i.;n'kHkkxa fgj.;a pkL; Hkkx/ks;a izdYi;keklq%A rsu Hk`rk jktku% iztkuka ;ksx{kseogk%AA

KAUT. P-22: (P 24 S):

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 king, and allotted one-sixth of grains grown and one-tenth of merchandise as sovereign dues. Being fed by this payment, the kings took upon themselves the responsibility of assuring and maintaining the safety and security of their subjects ([Yogakshemavahah]) and of being answerable for the sins of their subjects when the principle of levying just punishment and taxes had been violated.

Ideal and the Purpose of State

There was no difference between the ideals kept before the state by Rajadharma and those enshrined in the hearts of individuals. The ideals placed before the individual, for purposes of the welfare and happiness of himself and all others in this world, were Dharma, Artha and Kama (Trivarga or the three Purusharthas. See Ch-ill). Every individual was asked to reject Artha and Kama (material wealth and desires) if they were in conflict with Dharma. The ideal of Rajadharma placed before the state was to assist and support the achievement by individuals of the threefold ideals (Trivarga) and to ensure that they secure wealth (Artha) and fulfil their desires (Kama) in conformity with Dharma and do not transgress Dharma.

"uhrs% Qya /kekZFkZdkekokfIr%AA"

Brahaspatya Sutra 11-43

The goal of polity (Rajaniti) is the fulfillment of Dharma, Artha and Kama. Barhaspatya Sutra 11-44 adds that Artha (the wealth) and Kama (desire ) must stand the test of Dharma. Kautilya declares that a king must strive for the achievement of Trivarga. Kamandakiya, after an elaborate discussion of the seven constituents of the state, concludes thus:

x`ghresrfTMkiq.ksu efU=.kk f=oxZfu"ifÙkeqiSfr 'kkÜorheÃA


The state administered with the assistance of sagacious ministers secures the three goals (Trivarga) in an enduring manner. Somadeva begins his Nitivakyamrita in a characteristic way when he performs obeisance to Rajya (the state) which yields the three fruits of Dharma, Artha and Kama. The Dharmasastra authors held that Dharma was the supreme power in the state and was above the king who was only the instrument to realize the goal of Dharma. The theory about the origin of kingship and its purpose and of Raja Dharma as set out above is reiterated by all the works on Rajadharma which declare with one voice that the highest duty of a king is to afford 'protection to his subjects (praja) and to dedicate himself to their welfare and happiness'.

Rajadharma is the Paramount Dharma

Simultaneously with the bringing into existence of Rajya and the institution of kingship its founders felt the necessity to define its structure, the powers and duties of the king 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 king for purposes of the defence 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. The necessity was met by making provisions regulating the constitution and organisation of the state, specifying the power and duties of the king and all other incidental provisions and treating these provisions also as part of Dharma under the title "Rajadharma" (law governing kings). In the Dharmasastras and Smritis, Rajadharma 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 Rajadharma, several eminent writers wrote independent treatises on it under various titles such as Rajanitisara, Dandaniti, Nitisara and it is also dealt with as part of Arthasastra. The monumental work Arthasastra is by Kautilya, who was the Prime Minister of Magadha Empire which had its capital at Patalipura (modern Patna, in the State of Bihar). P. v: Kane refers to the other extensive literature available on the subject. The important ones are the Mahabharata -Shanti parva, Manu Ch. VII and IX, Kamandaka Nitisara, Manasollasa of Someswsara, Yuktikalpataru of Bhoja, Rajaniti Ratnakara of Chandeswara, Rajaniti Prakasha of Mitramisra and Dandaniti of Keshava Pandita. The system of government envisaged by all the works on Rajadharma was the Rajya (the State) headed by a king. The provisions in the Dharmasastras, Smritis and other works on the topic mentioned above, covered varieties of subjects such as the constitution and organisation of the Rajya, Kingship, the manner of assuming office by the king (coronation), the code of conduct for the king, the succession of kingship, the education of young princes, the appointment of council of ministers, the chief justice and other judges of the highest court, the administrative divisions, and the powers and duties of the king.

The propounders of Dharmasastra declared that the king (State) was absolutely necessary to maintain the society in a state of Dharma which was essential for the fulfillment of Artha and Kama. Rajadharma, which laid down the Dharma of the king, was paramount.

"losZ /kekZ% lksi/kekZL=;k.kka jkKks /kekZfnfr osnkPNw.kksfeA ,oa /kekZu jkt/kesZ"kq lokZu lokZoLFka laizyhuku fucks/kAA"

"Mahabharatha Shantiparva Ch.63, 24-25"

All Dharmas are merged in Rajadharma, and it is therefore the Supreme Dharma.

The significance of Kingship in well-being of societies

The paramount importance of kingship and the profound influence a king has on the state of society has been pithily expressed in the Mahabharata.

"dkyks ok dkj.ka jkKks jktk ok dkydkj.keà bfr rs la'k;ks ekHkwnzktk dkyL; dkj.keÃA"

"Mahabharatha Shantiparva Ch.69- 79"

Whether, it is the king who is the maker of the age or the age that makes the king is a question about which there is no room for doubt. The king is undoubtedly the maker of the age.

The above affirmation is an eternal truth. The ruler, under whatever system of polity, is largely responsible for the state of the nation or society and whether people in general are virtuous or not largely depends upon the character and conduct of the ruler and his capacity to enforce Dharma, i.e., the rule of law. It is for this reason that Rajadharma was considered supreme as the protector of the people since Dharma was entirely dependent upon the effective implementation of Rajadharma.

The opening verse in Manu Smriti of the chapter of Raj a Dharma reads thus:-

"jkt/kekZu izo{;kfe ;Fkko`Ùkks HkosTMk`i%A laHko'p ;Fkk rL; flf)'p ijek ;FkkAA"

"Manu VII-I"

I will now declare Rajadharma, the law to be observed by kings, how kingship was created, how a king should conduct himself and how he can obtain the highest success.

The Rajadharma laid down in Manu VII and IX and in other Smritis and various works on Rajadharma referred to earlier was the constitutional law in ancient India.

One Law, One People- Different Cultures

At this stage, before going into the details of the provisions of Rajadharma, it is necessary to highlight one other aspect. Politically the whole of India never came under the rule of anyone emperor or king. The territorial extent of a kingdom depended on the prowess and capability of each king. Therefore, innumerable kings ruled over different parts of the sub-continent, each of whom was independent of the others, except in cases where one became a vassal of an emperor. At the same time, as a society, the entire Indian population constituted itself into one homogeneous unit. Political divisions of the country coming under the control of different kings did not result in the division of society into separate nations. On the other hand, the civil, criminal and procedural laws evolved by the society and recorded in the various Dharmasastras and the Smritis were followed in the whole country notwithstanding different political entities under many kings.

For instance, the boundaries of the country and the people were described in the Vishnupurana, as follows:-

"mÙkja ;RleqnzL; fgeknzs'pSo nf{k.keà o"k± r kjra uke Hkkjrh ;= lUrfr%AA"

The country which lies to the south of the Himalayas and the north of the oceans is called Bharata and the Bharateeyas are the people of this Country.

While it is a historical fact that the territory of India so described was divided into several sovereign states, which also underwent changes from time to time, it is indisputable that over the whole of the sub-continent, the same four Vedas, Vedangas, Dharmasastras and Srnritis, the two great epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), including some of the commentaries on these, held sway throughout the centuries. A commentary on Yajnavalkya Srnriti written in the 12th Century AD. by Vijnaneswara, an eminent jurist of South India (Karnataka) was accepted as an authoritative work on law, practically in the whole of India. By virtue of governance of the same laws on all matters including Rajadharma, the entire population of this country constituted themselves into one nation notwithstanding the innumerable political divisions constituting separate and independent states or territories under different kings or rulers. Despite, the rise and fall of several kingdoms over the centuries, and the many wars inter se, the achievement of maintaining the entire population under one system of law and as one people for generations was the most remarkable achievement of our ancestors, which ultimately has inspired and helped us to come under one constitution and one central government in the present day. This inherent strength and vitality of the people will also enable us to protect and preserve the integrity and unity of Bharat in the future too. Such importance given to the principle of Dharma, indicates another fundamental aspect accepted by the people as well as the rulers of the various kingdoms of India. According to this principle of dharma, the king had no legislative powers. To this extent the doctrine of separation of the law making and law enforcing powers had been brought about. Political power of any state in the whole of India was subordinated to the power of the entire people as a whole. The sanction behind all the laws including Rajadharma (collectively called Dharma) lay in its acceptance by the people. Dharma held sway for thousands of years and no king questioned its authority over and above him. Thus, the entire political system in this country was based on Dharmic Supremacy. As a result, though the States were very many and under different kings, the Rajadharma ( constitutional law) uniformly applied to all of them and regulated the constitution and organisation of all the kingdoms 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 India consisted of several independent sovereign states but one people governed by one legal, judicial and constitutional system -the Vyavahara Dharma and Raja Dharma, meant for the implementation of doctrine of TRIV ARGA.

True Faith and Allegiance to 'Raja Dharma'

The implicit faith of the kings in Raja Dharma (Constitutional Law of ancient Bharath) has been the basis of the smooth functioning of the State as also peaceful transfer of power from a king/emperor to his successor since ancient times. In this regard, we have the glowing example of Bharata. By his exemplary conduct, he exhibited his true faith and allegiance to Raja Dharma. The rule of succession prescribed as part of 'Raja Dharma' was Primogeniture. According to this, eldest son of a king alone was entitled to royal succession. This rule which has been in existence from the most ancient times has been incorporated in Sukraniti-I 684-688:-

"jktdqys rq cgo% iq#"kk ;fn lfUr fgA rs"kq T;s"Bks Hkosnzktk 'ks"kkLrRdk;Zlk/kdk%AA"

"If a king has many sons male children (to a king), the eldest among them is to be the king (in succession); the others are to assist him."

"T;s"Bks·fi cf/kj% dq"Bh ewdks·U/k% "k.M ,o ;%A l jkT;kgksZ HkosTMkSo Hkzkrk rRiq= ,o fgAA"

"If the eldest prince is deaf, dumb, blind, leprous or a eunuch, he is unfit to rule and, in such a case, the king's brother or grandson ( the son of the eldest son) should succeed to the throne. "

Arthasastra of Kautilya which codified Raja Dharma around 300 BC, declared that except in exceptional cases of calamity, sovereignty falls on the eldest son, Whereas according to the law governing interstate succession to the property of an individual, the sons of the deceased persons were entitled to equal share in the property of the father, Sukraniti indicated the reason for the difference between the succession to the property of the father and kingship and said that in the case of the former as it was the property of the father, the sons became entitled to it in equal shares but the kingdom was not the property of the king. 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. This was the basis on which Bharata refused to be crowned even though he was requested by all to do so.

According to the story of the Ramayana, Sri Raffia being the eldest son of Dasharatha was to be crowned as the king 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 the king Dasharata and the latter being firmly committed to keep up his words, had no other alternative but to cancel the coronation ceremony of Sri Raffia and to ask him to go away to the forest for fourteen years and also to crown Bharata as the king of Ayodhya. Bharata had the golden opportunity of securing political power and becoming the king of Ayodhya by superseding the claim of Rama, once and for all, if allurement of power prevailed in his mind over Raja Dharma -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 king of Ayodhya. After the return of Bharatha from Mithila, the Council of Ministers appraised Bharatha 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 King of Ayodhya. Bharata unaffected by the lure of office of kingship stated thus:

T;s"BL; jktrk fuR;eqfprk fg dqyL; u%A uSoa HkoUrks eka oDrqegZfUr dq'kyk tuk%AA jke% iwosZ fg uks Hkzkrk Hkfo";fr eghifr%A vga Roj.;s oRL;kfe o"kkZf.k uo ikŒp pAA

CANTO 79:7-8 The convention that the eldest son of the king 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 king, 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 Chitrakoot where Sri. Raffia was staying. Here again Sri Raffia, the eldest son and the rightful heir exhorted Bharata agree to be crowned and become the king respecting the words of 'mother Kaikeyi and father Dasharatha. Bharatha's faith in and allegiance to the constitution were in very firm and he was of the view that it could not be changed or amended ~ the king or the queen. Bharata replied thus:-

jkeL; opua JqRok Hkjr% izR;qokp gA fda es /kekZn foghuL; jkt/keZ% dfj";frAA 'kk'orks·;a lnk /keZ% fLFkrks·Leklq uj"kZHkA T;s"Bs iq=s fLFkrs jktk u duh;ku HkosTMk`i%A l le`)ka e;k lk/kZe;ks/;ka xPN jk?koA vfHk"ksp; pkRekua dqyL;kL; Hkok; u%AA

CANTO 102 How can the rule prescribed for succession he violated? I am out side the range of that code. I have no right to occupy the throne being the younger son of the king 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 king. Therefore return with me to Ayodhya. Despite the advice of the council of ministers, the desire of mother Kaikeyi granted by king Dasharatha and, more than all the exhortation by Sri. Raffia himself, who was the constitutional successor to the throne, Bharata would not budge, as none of these could alter Raja Dharma. Under the present Constitutional System every candidate at election and every legislator and minister has to take oath that he or she will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution. But there are many instances in which, the oath is disregarded and unconstitutional methods are resorted to just to grab or retain political power. The ideal of Bharata is therefore all the more relevant even now. Firm commitment to constitution and the refusal to secure or accept power by Bharata, should serve as an example even to present day politicians, to remain true to their oath that they will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution.


  1. M. RAMA JOIS, DHARMA - The Global Ethic, Published by "Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan