Common Features of a King as Depicted in Sanskrit Inscriptions
Reverend Upali Sramon
University of Peradeniya
Sanskrit inscriptions are regarded as the most reliable sources of information for certifying historical facts. However, unlike ‘poetry’ and other forms of literature it is difficult to formulate an all-encompassing theory for inscriptions because there are very few characteristics that can be generalised. Even the most prominent feature of literary composition ‘invocation’ is not strictly followed by many authors of inscriptions. Unlike the present day declarations and announcements, there is no strict rule as to how the beginning, body or ending of an inscription should be. They can be either metrical language, in prose or even mixed. Most of these inscriptions were sponsored by kings and engraved by professional authors who had a good command of language. Some authors do not mention their names in the inscriptions. The fact that they were loyal to the king is obvious from the high praise of their kings. Despite such divergences, the most common features of inscriptions can at least be noted. Most inscriptions discovered to date were inscribed in rocks, stones, pillars or plates; they were made for various purposes.
The intention behind the construction of an inscription was certainly to make a record of something special. Emperor Aśoka had a slightly different objective. More than making a record, he wanted to publish the precious doctrines of the Buddha for moral improvement of his citizens. In this essay I notice some common features of ancient kings as depicted in Sanskrit inscriptions. This will help to understand how kings were looked at and described by inscribers/authors of inscriptions, the objectives and major concerns of ancient Indian kings, their attitudes to religions and their interactions with the populus.
2. Kings in Inscriptions
In some inscriptions the physical appearance of kings has been described in detail. In Meharauli Posthumous Inscription of King Chandra, it is said, the king was given the name because his appearance and physical beauty resemble the fully illuminated moon [samagracandrasadṛśīṃ vaktraśriyaṃ]. King Samudragupta was a great warrior and fought many battles. The wounds in his body do not detract from his beauty. In fact the king is described as “looked more charming because of the severe wounds received from various weapons like the battle-axes, arrows…” King Yasodharman was a mighty and glorious king “the circumference of whose arms is as firm and charming as that of pillars…”. As to the personal life of a king, his relationship with the family members, daily activities, personal tastes and so on, there is scant information.
The technical religious terms, such as ‘colour discrimination’ [varṇabheda], are not generally used in inscriptions. But, the rulers who maintained peace during their reigns are generally seen as virtuous. Thus, social inequality does not seem to have been encouraged by kings. Yet, there is also no mention of discouraging the discriminatory social stratifications established by religion [Brahmanism]. The reason may be that the kings respected the Brahmins as beacons of sacredness and did not want to interfere with their long-cherished ideals.
From most of the inscriptions beginning with invocation or prayer the religious beliefs of the king are clear. When the author is invoking Viṣṇu, for example, we can infer that it the king and the people of that period were adherents of this god. When we observe inscriptions of different kings of the same lineage invoking different gods, we can chart the changing course of religious belief too. From the Valabhī Copper plate inscription of king Dharasena II we learn of the glorious achievements of his ancestors. But, in contrast to his fore-fathers some of whom worshipped Maheśvara, and others different gods, King Dharasena made a grant to the Buddhist monk Sthiramati.
In some inscriptions three of four aims of life [dharma, artha, kāma, excluding the fourth mokṣa], are said to have been achieved by the kings. King Skandagupta, for example, is described as “endowed with the highest sentiments of piety, affable, pure, (and) charitable in a proper way, he was without any hindrance to attaining dharma and artha (i.e. spiritual good and economic pursuits) applied himself to such pleasures (i.e. attaining kāma) as can be obtained at the proper time.” King Rudradāman is also described as having attained these three aims. It appears clear from this that Indian kings were always attached to the promotion of economic and spiritual aims. They also reserved time and means for enjoyments. But, there is almost no inscription of kings who renounced the world to achieve ‘liberation’ [mokṣa].
Most of the inscriptions show that most kings were in one way or another inclined to religion – some truly out of devotion but some for political achievement [to win the favour of the general public]. King Iśānavarman built a temple of Siva. King Polakeśi used to perform sacrifices such as Agnisthoma, Agnicaya, Vājapeya, Bahusuvarna, and Puṇḍarika. After his victory over the Kadamabas he held sacrifices. King Kīrtivarman’s brother Maṅgaleśa built beautiful temples. King Aparājita’s wife built a temple for Viṣṇu.
Engravers of inscriptions are generally concerned about the forefathers of their sponsor kings. Even though they are not intending to write a chronology they tend to list the names of the great kings of that lineage and their achievements. Such information is a great boon to Indian historians and students of Indology. Some kings claimed to be related to some other prominent kings or legendary figures. Most kings, as inscriptions show, were conquerors of prominent colonies. In some inscriptions the places a king conquered are not mentioned, yet his valour and ability to vanquish enemies is eulogised.
One of a king’s major concerns was to have a good reputation among his citizens. Some inscriptions show how some kings were dedicated to serving the people. Skandagupta’s relationship with the general people is explained thus: “…he made his subjects happy first by conversation accompanied by a smile and presents of honours by (encouraging) unrestricted mutual visits to each others’ houses among his people (and) by holding domestic functions calculated to promote cordiality.” On the basis of the fact that the Gupta period was the most peaceful period in Indian history, these remarks do not seem to be exaggerations. Many other kings are said to have cherished such an amiable relationship with their citizens. They would look after the needs of the people. King Dakṣa built a well for common use of citizens, and Rudradàman repaired the historical lake Sudarśana to meet agricultural requirements.
The inscriptions show the prevalence of the system of conferring titles to a king for his valorous performance in wars or for some special virtues. These titles were given by the common people, the king’s associates or the royal community. King Rudradāman, originally a kṣatrapa, was given the title ‘Mahākṣatrapa’. King Polakeśi was recognized as ‘satyāśraya’ [inclined to the truth] for his virtues. Later the title became synonymous with the king’s name.
The literary figure prominent in inscriptions is ‘exaggeration’ [atiśayokti]. In the Meharauli posthumous pillar inscription of King Chandra the ostensible purpose of the inscription is to announce that the king built a pillar to declare his victory over Vaṅga. This fact is said only in the last line of the poem of six lines. A long eulogy with elegant adjectives precedes the central expression. Yet, the inscription does not identify the king for certain. This has given rise to vicious debate which has still not reached a conclusion. In this instance, however, the engraver was not just aiming to convey the explicit message.
In king Rudradāman’s inscription of Girnar, for example, the ostensible statement is that the lake Sudarśana was once destroyed by an incessant downpour of rain and that it was repaired by Rudradāman. This fact is conveyed using so many descriptive expressions for the king, the rain, the lake that it makes reading it a long drawn-out affair. In this fairly long inscription there are only two clear verbs. Sandhi has been applied in every possible place. Such inscriptions form a distinct kind of literature in the vast and diverse forms of Sanskrit literary exercise.
King Rudradāman’s mastery over various types of arts, literature, music, besides his being a brave warrior, seem exaggerated. Many other kings are also similarly eulogised. However, the fact that Sanskrit kāvya literature flourished in courts fits with the fact that Indian kings generally loved poetry and generously sponsored the development of literary creations.
It is natural that, as we can see in most inscriptions, the victory is celebrated. A king who risks his life fighting to prove his courage and skill and to win colonies certainly wants his heroic act to be expressed in language. The writers are generally successful in meeting this expectation of their kings. Hence, we see that most inscriptions are of victorious kings. There is no inscription of a king who was defeated. Another important feature is that many Sanskrit inscriptions praise the kings highly but make no mention of the date. They might not have thought of the historical importance of the inscriptions.
Most of the kings, as depicted in inscriptions, had different interests and different ways of governing people. Several inscriptions [and names] of Gupta kings are associated with Sudarśana lake in Girnār. This must have been because of the agricultural importance of the lake. The lake, as the name indicates, might have maintained a beautiful view of the place to attract people. The inscription shows some aesthetic sentiments of the author, the king, and the people. Girnār inscription of King Skandhagupta shows that the king had a great care in appointing capable generals to rule his colonies. This characteristic is not obvious in other inscriptions.
From the above discussion the characteristics shared by most kings as depicted in famous Sanskrit inscriptions could be enumerated as follows:
- the sponsors of inscriptions were mostly kings
- the purpose of inscriptions was to publicise or keep a record of some special contributions
- The mastery over various types of arts, literature, music, besides being a brave warrior
- Some omit to cite the date of the work
- Inscriptions are of immense historical importance.
inscriptions tend to include:
- a poetic description of the physical appearance of the king
- invocation or prayers indicating religious belief system
- a king shown cherishing three of the four aims of life
- a king inclined to religion for political or genuine interest
- the forefathers of the sponsor kings or relating to legendary figures
- a king’s desire to have a good reputation among the citizens
- system of conferring title/s to kings
- the desire for conquering colonies and kings’ victory is celebrated
Beside these common features, the inscriptions have other significant particularities considering their literary and linguistic values. There are many other inscriptions, [for example, religious inscriptions], some established by kings, and some not. They differ from these in purpose and content.
- Diskalkar, D. B, , Selections from Sanskrit Inscriptions, (2nd cent. To 8th cent. A.D.), Classical Publisher, Delhi
- Barua, Dr. B. M., Aśoka and His Inscriptions, New Publishers Ltd, Calcutta, 1955
- Keith, A.B., A History of Sanskrit Literature, Motilal Banarsidas Publications Private limited, Delhi. 1993
 All the references to inscriptions are from Selections from Sanskrit Inscriptions (2nd cent. To 8th cent. A.D.), by D. B. Diskalkar, 1977 edition, Delhi-5. The inscriptions referred to here are titled according to the kings in Disklakar’s book. I do not make special reference to page numbers and verses, except where essential.
 Allahabad Stone Pillar Inscription of King Samudragupta, pp. 23-43
 Mandasore Stone Pillar Inscription of Yasodharman, v.7, p. 79,
 Diskalkar, p. 131
 Diskalkar, p. 60