In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kingship

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Surveys
  • Kingship in Colonial and Post-independence India
  • Rajput Kingdoms
  • Little Kingdoms
  • Texts
  • Oral Narratives and Performance Traditions
  • Recurring Themes: Time and Wilderness
  • Anthropological Studies
  • Kingship Beyond India
  • Kingship and Political Agendas

Hinduism Kingship
Lynn Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0060


The ideology and symbolism of kingship have played an important role in Hinduism throughout its history, an influence that continues into the present day. The two great epic texts, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, are narratives of kingship, and the tensions and ambiguities inherent to the role of the king are fundamental to the issues they explore. Much of the śāstric literature is concerned with the nature of kingship, both in abstract terms—What is the king? What are the sources of his power? What role does he play in the order of the cosmos?—as well as in terms of the practical details of polity and governance: how the king should behave or not behave; how the principles of kingship should play out in the details of his subjects’ lives; and how the state should be organized and administered. Many of the rituals of Hinduism draw on the symbolism of kingship, and it is also fundamental to the stories and iconography of several important deities. This is particularly the case with Viṣṇu and his incarnations as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, both of whom are royal, the former paradigmatically. The influence of kingship can also be felt in Hindu metaphysics: ideas of time and cosmos, ontological order, and paths to salvation have all been touched by it, and it is no coincidence that the Bhagavad Gita, one of the texts to explore these ideas most clearly, does so in the context of the duties of a prince. Historical kings have had an impact on the development of the tradition, and narratives of kingship have had an impact on history, as recent events in India have shown all too clearly. The article begins by considering some of the main theoretical analyses of kingship, moving on to studies of historical kings and kingdoms. It then looks at discussions of kingship in Sanskrit and other texts, along with regional oral narratives and performance traditions, before turning to anthropological studies of kingship in India and beyond. It concludes by examining ways in which varying constructs of kingship continue to inform and articulate political ideologies. Although the focus of the article is Hindu kingship, many of the works cited call into question the usefulness of this label in the context of the fluid intellectual, religious, and political milieus that have operated and continue to operate in the Indian subcontinent.

General Overviews

Most of the general overviews of Hindu kingship are rather dated in the early 21st century, largely because there has been a move away from broad, overarching approaches to the subject toward more specific studies within particular historical or textual contexts. With this limitation in mind, however, Basham 1967 provides a good brief overview and Drekmeier 1962 and Spellman 1964 provide more detailed studies. The essays in Richards 1998 give an overview of the topic by bringing together several more contextualized studies on various aspects of kingship, as do those in Karashima 1999 (cited under Medieval Kingdoms). Inden 1990 (cited under Theories of Kingship) provides a broad survey of scholarship on kingship since the 19th century and offers an important postcolonial critique that has set the agenda for most subsequent work.

  • Basham, Arthur L. The Wonder That Was India: A Survey of the History and Culture of the Indian Sub-Continent before the Coming of the Muslims. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1967.

    Chapter 4 provides a useful overview of kingship, drawing mainly on classical texts. Covers most aspects, including textual sources, ideas of kingship, the role of kingship in the organization of the state, and so forth. There have been numerous reprints of the book.

  • Drekmeier, Charles. Kingship and Community in Early India. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.

    Overview of kingship in India from the Vedic to late classical periods. It includes surveys of historical kings, the main texts dealing with kingship (including the Rājadharmaparvan of the Mahābhārata, Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra, and the Dharmaśāstras), plus an examination of various aspects of kingship including myths of origin, the nature of the king’s authority, and statecraft.

  • Richards, John F., ed. Kingship and Authority in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Useful collection of essays examining kingship in India within a number of different social, historical, and regional contexts, focusing in particular on ways in which the king’s authority was established and expressed. Originally printed in 1978.

  • Spellman, John W. Political Theory of Ancient India: A Study of Kingship from the Earliest Times to Circa A.D. 300. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.

    Provides another longer overview of kingship and governance up to the Gupta period, as part of an attempt to chart ancient Indian political theory. It draws on Indian texts from the Vedas to early Purāṇas (including Buddhist texts) and covers topics such as the nature of the king, royal succession, kingship, and the state.

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