We have seen that in the Rig-Vedic period the Aryan tribes had spread over the whole country from the Kabul to the upper Ganges, and had built up small kingdoms mostly under hereditary monarchs who held their own against the non-Aryan peoples by whom they were surrounded. But internecine strife in which some of the tribes engaged even in Rig-Vedic times produced far-reaching results. Some of the weaker tribes were absorbed by their more powerful neighbours, and the increase in the wealth and territory of the conquering tribes was reflected in the growth of the power of the kings, who governed large and compact kingdoms. Stately cities made their appearance for the first time in the later Vedic texts.
Simultaneously with the growth of large kingdoms, we have a further extension of the political and cultural- sway of the Aryans towards the east and the south. This was due as much to the adventurous spirit of kings and princes as to the desire of the priests to cause Agni, the Fire-God, to taste new lands through sacrifices. Before the close of the later Vedic period, the Aryans had thoroughly subdued the fertile plains watered by the Jumna, the upper Ganges and the Sadanira (the Rapti or the Gandak). Adventurous bands penetrated into the Vindhyan forest and established powerful kingdoms in the Deccan to the north of the Godavari.
The centre of the Aryan world was the “firm middle country” (dhruva madhyama dis) stretching from the Sarasvati to the Gangetic Doab and occupied by the Kurus, the Panchalas and some adjoining tribes. It was from this region that Brahmanical civilisation spread to the outer provinces, to the land of the Kosalas and the Kasis drained by the Sarayu and the Varanavati, to the swamps east of the Gandak colonised by the Videhas, and to the valley of the Wardha occupied by the Vidarbhas. Beyond them lived the tribes of mixed origin like the Angas of East Bihar and the Magadhas of South Bihar, as well as Dasyus or aboriginal folk like the Pundras of North Bengal, the Pulindas and Savaras of the Vindhyan forest, and the Andhras in the valley of the Godavari.
The most distinguished among the tribes of the period were at first the Kurus and the Panchalas with their capitals at Asandivat and Kampila (Kampilya) respectively. The former occupied Kurukshetra-the tongue of land between the Sarasvati and the Drishadvati (Chitang-Rakshi)-as well as the districts of Delhi and Meerut. The latter occupied the Bareilly, Budaun and Farrukhabad districts of the United Provinces and some adjoining tracts. The Kuru nation was probably formed by the amalgamation of several smaller tribes including a section of the Purus and the Bharatas, while the Panchalas sprang from an obscure Rig-Vedic tribe known as the Krivis, with whom were associated the Srinjavas and the Turvasas.
The later Vedic texts mention powerful Kuru kings like Balhika-Pratipiya, Parikshit and Janamejaya, all of whom figure prominently in epic legends. Parikshit is the hero of a famous song of praise found in the Atharva Veda. It describes him as a universal king (raja visvajanina) and his kingdom as flowing with milk and honey. His son Janamejaya is credited with having gone round the earth, completely conquering on every side. His successors were not so powerful as he was. They sustained disasters and were finally obliged to fly from Kurukshetra. According to later tradition a scion of the Kuru race transferred his residence to Kausambi (Kosam, near Allahabad) and ruled over a powerful kingdom which survived till the rise of Buddhism.
The Panchalas also produced conquering kings who engaged in wars and alliances with the Kurus. But their chief title to fame rests on their land being the home of theologians and philosophers like king Pravahana-Jaivali and the sages Aruni and Svetaketu.
In the time of the Upanishads the fame of the land of the Panchalas as a centre of Brahmnical learning was eclipsed by the country of the Videhas, whose king Janaka, the patron of Yajnavalkya, won the proud title of Samrat. He gathered the celebrities of the Kuru-Panchala countries at his court ” much as the intellects of Athens gathered at the Court of Macedonian princes.” The Videhan monarchy fell shortly before the rise of Buddhism, and its overthrow was followed by the rise of the Vajjian Confederacy.
Growth of Royal Power and Elaboration of the Administrative Machinery
The amalgamation of tribes and the increase in the size of kingdoms in the later Vedic age, coupled with the successful leadership of the kings in war, inevitably led to a growth in the royal power. Kings now claimed to be absolute masters of all their subjects, excepting perhaps the Brahmanas who proclaimed Soma to be their king. But even the Brahmanas were “liable to removal at will.” The common free men had to pay tribute (bali, sulka and bhaga) and could be “oppressed at will”, while the members of the servile classes were liable to be “expelled and slain at will.”
The chief functions of the king were of a military and judicial character. He was the protector of his people and the laws, and the destroyer of their enemies. Himself immune from punishment, he wielded the rod of chastisement (danda).
Successful monarchs set up claims to the rank of universal king (raja visvajanina), lord of all the earth (sarvabhumi) or sole ruler (ekarat) of the land down to the seas, and celebrated sacrifices befitting their status like the Rajasuya (royal consecration), the Vajapeya (drink of strength) and Asvamedha (horse-sacrifice). The Rajasuya included offerings to divinities in the houses of officials, styled ratnins and a formal abhisheka or besprinkling by the priest, besides certain popular rites such as a cow raid, a sham fight and a game of dice in which the king is made to be the victor. The most interesting feature of the Vajapeya rites was a chariot-race in which the sacrificer was allowed to carry off the palm. This was followed by homage to Mother Earth and a formal enthronement. In the Asvamedha ceremonial, a horse was set free to roam abroad under the guardianship of youths of rank who were fully armed. If the period of wandering were successfully passed, the steed was sacrificed. The features of the rite included a circle of tales narrated by a priest, and laudatory verses sung by a lute-player.
While the kings of the middle country were generally content with the title of raja, rulers in the outlying parts of India preferred other designations. The eastern kings were styled Samrat, the southerners Bhoja, those in the west Svarat, while the rulers of the northern realms (janapadas) were called Virat. The association of the Samrat, whose status was now regarded as higher than that of the rajan, with the east is important. It probably points to the growth of imperialism in the east-a tendency that became more marked in the early days of Buddhism.
The king was usually, though not invariably, a Kshatriya. The office of monarch now, as before, was normally hereditary, though cases of election by the people were probably not rare, as is apparent from the coronation songs of the Atharva Veda. But popular choice seems to have been generally limited to members of the royal family.
The royal claim to absolutism did not pass unchallenged. The ceremonial of consecration included certain rites which required the king to descend from the throne and make obeisance to the Brahmanas. He had also to take an oath not to play false to the priest, and was specially charged with the duty of protecting the Brahmanas and the laws of the realm. That the Brahmanas did not tamely acquiesce in all that the king did, appears from several stories about the conflict of kings and Brahmanas recorded in the later Vedic texts. As to the commonalty, they supplied important officials like the Suta and the Gramani, whose title raja kartri or ” king-maker ” indicated their importance in the body politic. The popular assemblies styled the Sabha and the Samiti were still regarded as important, and it is stated in the Atharva Veda that concord between the king and the assembly was essential for the former’s prosperity. Popular wrath vented itself in the expulsion of tyrannical kings together with erring officials.
With the growth of royal power came an elaboration of the machinery of administration. In the Rig-Vedic period we have, barring the Purohita (chaplain), scarcely any reference to a purely civil functionary among the higher officials of the king. But in the later Vedic texts we come across the Samgrahitri (treasurer), the Bhagadugha (collector of taxes), the Suta (royal herald, bard or charioteer), the Kshattri (Chamberlain), the Akshavapa (superintendent of gambling), the Go-vikartana (king’s companion in the chase), the Patagala (courier), in addition to the older ecclesiastical and military officials like the Purohita (chaplain), the Senani (general) and the Gramani (leader of the host or of the village). Mention is also made of the generic title Sachiva applied to ministers in later ages. The references to the Samgrahitri and the Bhagadugha, coupled with the mention of regular contribution from the people in the shape of bali and sulka, point to important developments in the system of taxation and revenue administration.
The beginnings of a regular system of provincial government may be traced in references to the Sthapati and the Satapati. The former was apparently charged with the duty of administering outlying areas often inhabited by aboriginal tribes, while the latter probably looked after a group of a hundred villages and was the precursor of the long chain of rural officials mentioned in the law-books. On the lowest rung of the ladder stood the village officials (adhikrita) appointed by the king himself according to the Prasna Upanishad. Regarding police arrangements, we know very little. Some find a reference to police officials in the Jivagribh of the Rig-Veda and the Ugras of the Upanishads. But the matter is not free from doubt.
The king had a very large part in the administration of justice, but power was sometimes delegated to Adhyakshas or overseers. Certain cases were referred to the tribe for adjudication. The judicial work of the tribal assembly was usually entrusted to a small body of Sabhasads or assessors. Petty cases in the village were decided by the Gramyavadin or village judge and his court (Sabha). The use of Ordeal as a part of judicial procedure was not unknown. Civil cases were sometimes decided by arbitration, and private vengeance in criminal cases was still recognised.