On Succession and Statecraft in Ancient India

Indian royalty were avid collectors of feminine pulchritude. Hence the proliferation of large harems guarded by castrated males or eunuchs — you didn’t want the fence eating the crop. However, that gave rise to another problem, harem politics. Both in the Middle East and in India, where monogamy was not a fashion, the ruler was beset by pulls from old favourites now no longer young and attractive with only the claims of faded affection to sustain them, and newer, younger, more beautiful odalisques who had first claim on the raja or sultan’s attention. Be that as it may, our kings, princes and nawabs had an eye for the ladies and set about collecting them with vigour. In nine months or so, the effects usually showed in the form of a new Rajkumar or Chhote Nawab.

A large number of kids in the nursery should perhaps warm the cockles of your heart, but when a throne has a large number of claimants, there is this issue about political succession. Indian kings, like their political counterparts today, were reluctant to name successors. Witness Nehru’s outrage at the question ”After Nehru who?” Of course the answer is obvious today — who else but Indira Gandhi, since he had no other children, despite internet memes to the contrary. So as the ruler grew older, you had a younger favourite pushing him to name her two year old son as Yuvaraja or Sahabzada and a Rani Maa upset at her twenty five year old son being upstaged by an infant. Not exactly a recipe for political stability.

In their choice of poison, our libidinous rulers had illustrious company. We know that the core of Dasharatha’s problem in the Ramayana was his third wife, Kaikeyi and her insistence that her son, third in line to the throne, be named Yuvaraja. Sri Krishna is supposed to have had 16008 wives. Lest some of us misconstrue this, devotees tell us that this was all part of Bhagavan’s Lila and hence these numbers are not to be taken seriously or as evidence of mere sexual dalliance, God forbid. We know that even in the Middle Ages, Akbar used multiple marriage as a tool of political diplomacy. The idea that serial monogamy was preferable to polygamy seems to have struck no chord among political scientists of the period.

I have been wondering about the number 16008. Factorised, 16008 equals 2 x 2 x 2 x 3 x 23 x 29. Do these numbers have any occult significance? Perhaps or perhaps not. But then Sri Krishna being an avatar, had no problems ensuring who would rule in his stead, though we know that after his passing, the Vrishnis destroyed themselves in internecine wars and that Dwaraka, his capital, was submerged underwater. So that was a succession problem brilliantly solved. Is there a political lesson hidden there somewhere?

Unfortunately ancient India did not have a succession law, unlike in the West where primogeniture ruled. There the eldest male took over, no questions asked. No females please, thank you. The Salic law forbade that. The result was political stability and the resulting progress in industry and commerce, state funding of education, all of which resulted in the setting up of schools of navigation, developments in map making, the discovery of new continents and the enslavement of the East. In contrast, it is doubtful whether the Mughals even knew where England, France, Portugal and Spain were despite embassies from those countries asking for permission to trade, or whether the Zamorin ever asked Vasco da Gama why he had come this far. Lack of curiosity killed the Indian cat.

However in India, when the old raja finally passed over to his heavenly abode and ‘attained the lotus feet of the lord’, after a life single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, the youngsters promptly set spurs to horse, unsheathed their swords and whacked off heads to decide who would rule. This process was sometimes commendably fast, but could take years too. The atmosphere was vitiated by the many wives and concubines the late ruler had accumulated in the service of his people, and his numerous offspring, both legitimate and illegitimate. Meanwhile, administration, what little there was of it at the best of times, floundered, wazirs made fortunes and noblemen, if they saw a chance, sometimes outwitted the claimants to the throne and donned the imperial purple themselves. Of course massacres of the losers’ families and friends usually followed before the new ruler set about the business of governance.

Many Indians feel that this business of massacring brothers, cousins and other close relatives was an exclusively Muslim sport. They point to Aurangzeb’s murders of his siblings, Dara Shikoh, Murad Bakhsh and Shah Shuja and the many other documented cases of fratricide and patricide in Mughal history. I am constrained to point out that patricide and fratricide have a distinguished history in Hindu India too, this despite the fact that writing history has not been one of Hindu India’s core competencies. However recently, distinguished historians like Dinanath Batra have been endeavouring to correct incorrect Western perceptions of our military prowess and recreating a glorious past in which Porus defeats Alexander and sends him scurrying back to Greece and Prithviraj Chauhan posthumously routs Mohammed Ghori at the Third Battle of Tarain. I come across some of these brilliant efforts on Facebook, where they are duly lauded by the faithful. Those slightly disbelieving of these feats are labelled traitors and fifth columnists, unworthy of our glorious past.

It is recorded in Buddhist scriptures of fifth century Bihar, that Ajatashatru, king of Magadha killed his father Bimbisara, a follower of the Buddha, to usurp the throne. There are many more incidents of such nature recorded in more recent history. In any case, the Krishnavatara tells us that Kamsa, maternal uncle of Sri Krishna kills his nephews and nieces as soon as they are born in order to invalidate a prophecy. In the Mahabharata too, we have brother killing brother and fathers killing sons. So obviously Hindus had no particular objection to killing close relatives, especially if a kingdom or wealth could be so gained. We have only to look at the shenanigans in the Samajwadi Party, run by purported descendants of Sri Krishna, or is it Kamsa, in the run up to the recent elections in UP.

The reluctance to name an heir ran to the army too. While there was no doubt about who the commander was, there was less certainty about who would call the shots in case the commander managed to get himself martyred or’shaheed’. From the accounts one reads of ancient Indian battles, it would seem that massed charges against enemy ranks were the order of the day. “Battle plan? What’s that? Just charge them, you idiot.” seems to have been the Indian commander’s usual response. There was apparently no concept of manoeuvre despite centuries of strife fighting invaders from Central Asia, to whom that was natural. The actual encounter itself probably resulted in much fewer casualties, but when the commander got himself killed, the army usually scattered. This resulted in a rout, individual stragglers being pursued and cut down, thus vastly increasing the casualties, recounted with obvious glee in Muslim histories of the period.

In any case, even our histories such as they are, talk only of individual skills, There is no doubt that the ancient Indians were extremely skilled swordsmen and archers, but the ability to marshal large armies to effect in the battlefield seems to have been neglected. Hence the embarrassing litany of Indian defeats to armies from Central Asia, where manoeuvre warfare was predominant, the Mongols being the example ‘par excellence’. There has been no Indian Sun Tzu, despite attempts to promote the almost mythical Chanakya to that position in the pantheon, with many quotations of doubtful provenance being attributed to him, in a patriotic attempt to create a past history of strategic thought.

It is telling that Chanakya’s Arthashastra, now considered a bible of ancient Indian statecraft, was discovered only in 1920, nestling obscurely among similar tomes in the Maharaja of Mysore’s library. So the importance it had in informing state policy can easily be inferred. In my college years, youngsters who wished to be considered intellectual, lounged around the campus in torn jeans and faded kurtas carrying copies of Sartre and Camus, just as in ancient times youngsters with similar intent probably roamed around Nalanda asking each other, “Is that Chanakya’s latest?. Yes it is, and pretty heavy it is too. Impresses the girls no end.”

Ex Indian Air Force fighter pilot and retired civil aviation captain, interested in history science and literature avtion