In Conversation with Professor R. Mahalakshmi with the participation of Sneha Ganguly: Interplay Between Polity and Religion in Early India—Gleanings From the Epigraphs

In Conversation with Professor R. Mahalakshmi with the participation of Sneha Ganguly: Interplay Between Polity and Religion in Early India—Gleanings From the Epigraphs

in Interview
Published on: 20 February 2020

Dev Kumar Jhanjh

Dev Kumar Jhanjh is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His area of specialisation is Epigraphy and Numismatics. He is presently looking at the Political Processes in the Central Himalayan Region (From pre-State to State) (c. first century BCE-twelfth century CE).

Following is an edited interview transcript of Professor R. Mahalakshmi and Ms. Sneha Ganguly with Dev Kumar Jhanjh on the interplay between polity and religion in early India—gleanings from the epigraphs.

Dev Kumar Jhanjh (DKJ): Polity and Religion are always interrelated in almost each and every society. Could you tell us whether the scenario was same or not in early India?

R. Mahalakshmi (RM): Well, certainly in the Indian context as well as in other contexts too, we can see the interrelation between polity and religion. This is something that is visible to us even in the earliest literature, like the sacred texts of the Vedic literature where you have the paying out of the relationship through ritual participation. We also have Dharmasutras and other treatises from the first millennium BCE, which are reiterating these dispositions. The idea of gift giving, dana, which is emphasised in these texts are talking essentially about this tradition because it talks about whom it could be given to. Initially, it may have been just general redistribution of resources, but gradually it is the priestly class; it is actually those who officially take part in the rituals, in the sacrifices—they are the recipients of the gifts.

When we look at the inscriptions, we find this pattern is very much emphasised. It stresses upon the relationship of polity and religion, and most of the inscriptions that we have, even if we don’t take the bulk of Ashokan edicts, which are essentially religious, we still have some instances—the Rummendei pillar inscription where Ashoka is actually talking of going as pilgrim. It can be actually called a pilgrim record because he is emphasising that he is going there to see the Buddha’s relics. So, this is something that the rulers are trying to strive for—to show themselves as being great benefactors, as great patrons, as gift givers and thereby seeking legitimacy for themselves. This is again seen in the inscriptions which we find largely from the second century BCE, some even earlier. In these cases, given the context in which they appear, whether it is the western Deccan, whether it is the extreme south, this has to be seen as concomitant with state formation in these regions. For instance, if you look at the Naneghat inscription, where you have Naganika talking about the land grants that are being given; we have so many other inscriptions which are talking about gifts that are being given. This is the period when you have, for the first time in these regions, some kind of state that is emerging. Now, if you look at the Tamil Brahmi inscription, it is very interesting because many scholars have argued that we really did not have state system as such for this period (in this region of south). But I think it is something that we need to reconsider, in the sense that now the kind of archaeological evidences that are available from the different places, the kind of extreme urbanism that we can see, what we understood to be very limited kind of trade contacts—we are actually seeing its ramifications far beyond the coast. Whether the state was something that did not exist at that point of time or there was an incipient stage emerging. Otherwise why would Nedunjelli appear from a third century BCE inscription from Madurai district from Mangulam. In the first century AD, from south Arcot district, which is located at the northern part of Tamil Nadu, from there we have the references to Adiyaman who are referred to as Satyaputras in the inscriptions. In the second century AD, we have, from a different region called Kannur which was the Chera domain, the inscriptions which are naming the rulers as the donors, and not just naming, they are even giving a lineage. They are mentioning three generations of rulers. All of these are clearly indicating that religion and polity was very much intertwined. That both, the religious elements gain something from this in the forms of gifts primarily and the political entities gain legitimacy. So, it is to seek legitimacy, that need to show themselves as great gift givers—that is why you find them mentioned in the inscriptions in this form. You have others ways of seeking legitimacy too—legitimacy in terms of claim to kingship itself. This is something that we can see throughout the early medieval period. The rulers have used the Itihasa Purana tradition.

In the prasasti (eulogy) section of the inscriptions, you have very elaborate genealogies, which essentially tell us about the connection of the kings with the gods or with the epic heroes who have a semi-divine status. If you look at an inscription of c. 1028, there are two parts to this copper plate—Tamil which belongs to AD 1080 and the Sanskrit belonging to AD 1020.

DKJ: So, is this a bilingual inscription?

RM: All the Tamil copper plates of the Cholas had this feature: In the Sanskrit portion, the prasastis would longer and the donation would be very limited at the end. On the contrary, in the Tamil section, the donation would be elaborate and the prasasti would be limited. But there would be a prasasti, which was very distinctive. Coming back to the Sanskrit portion, it is in this section where the use of the Itihasa Purana tradition has been argued. Then you have the references to how the rulers descended from certain clans, lineages, like the Cholas came from the Ikshvaku lineages, the solar dynasty. So you have this kind of legitimacy that is being sought to claim kingship, and that is how one can closely read this interrelationship between religion and polity.

DKJ: So legitimacy is the main point for claiming kingship?

RM: Absolutely.

DKJ: Rulers of early India often used many titles showing their attachments to the gods such as Asoka’s devanampiyapiyadasi, Kuṣaṇas’ devaputra, Guptas’ Paramabhagavata. In some cases attempts have been made to equate themselves with the god, like Laḍahachandradeva Rajarajesvara and so on. Was there any relationship between kingship and divinity? Were the rulers using the titles to equate themselves with the gods?

RM: Absolutely. This is related to what I said earlier about legitimacy and so on. There is an argument about the Devaraja cult in Southeast Asia where the king was seen as the representative of God. In the Indian context, there are different ways in which these get manifested—the connection between the divinity and the king. One of the ways in which this happens is by taking on names of gods.

Among the Rashtrakutas, you have Mahendravarman, Narasimhavarman clearly taking on names which identify them as devotees, worshipers of god. Even earlier, when you think of rulers like the western Kshatraps, like Rudradaman, the fact that he is associating himself with Rudra. So, you have this tendency to proclaim your closeness to divinity through nomenclature. Again, this need not be something exclusive to the kings.

There are other ways in which this connection (king with the divinity) were being reinforced. For example, in south India you have the temples that are named after the kings. As you have said about Rajarajesvara . . . the grand temple in Tanjavur, a symbol of imperial power, built with the resources brought from such disparate regions, not merely Tamil Nadu but even as far as Sri Lanka. This temple has the main idol of Rajarajesvara, and this temple itself is known as Rajarajesvara. So the linga, the Siva inside the temple, is now the representation of the king who is outside. So where we were talking about the other kind of legitimacy that is being sought, now the king himself is so grand that he is saying that this linga is named after him. You have many such examples across south India.

What is very interesting about the South Indian case is that even queens or women of the royal family gained such a grand status that they also gave their names to temples. So, in the case of the Kakatiya royal person, she is the sister of the king Ganapati, Mailambika, who, in the temple of Tripurantakam, consecrates the image of Mailambikesvara. So, the fact is that even the women of the royal family are seen as holding a status that enables them to name gods after them. This is something unique that you find to the south Indian situation. There are other ways in which we can talk of the association of kingship and divinity. This is through the kind of legends that are associated with them. For instance, in the case of the Calukyas of Badami, they talk of themselves as being born of Hariti. They talk of the Saptamatrikas as their kuladevata (clan deity). They talk of Varaha as their lanchana, their flag, their symbol. So, you can see how so many different divinities who represent different cults and sectarian traditions, how these are being amalgamated, assimilated and associated with a particular dynasty. This Hariti myth is very interesting as we also find it in the Buddhist tradition. Now if you look at the historical developments from the proto-historic to the historic in the western Deccan, what we find is that Buddhism had a presence in this region. So, is it possible that Hariti is actually derived from the Buddhist tradition? But the Calukyas do not mention it. In their inscription, they say that there was a sage called Hariti and he was pouring water from his kamndaku and holding the water in his culuka (palm), and that is they derived their name—Calukya.

A fourth kind of connection that you can see, and this is very unique to the Tamil region, is building of palispares. These are Siva temples that are built over the mortuary remains of the rulers. Again, then, the connection between divinity and royalty is being emphasised through such connections.

DKJ: On the land grants of different dynasties we often find the mention of Brahmans, monastic organisations and so on, particularly in early medieval period. Why was it so? Any religious connection?

RM: Absolutely, as I already mentioned there is a symbiotic relationship between the royalty and the ecclesiastical class—the priests who are seen as religious intermediaries. They were given economic support by royalty, and it is essentially because of that that they (the Brahmans) aligned themselves with royalty. They created the genealogies for the royalty, and thus provided legitimacy, and so on. So, that relationship has to be seen at the centre.

When we are talking about land grants, something that needs to be understood is that for a state to assert power and extend authority, they require a resource base, and land grants provided them that opportunity to increase their resource base. How is it? We know from many of the land grants from the earliest times, including into the medieval period, that we are talking about fallow land that was being claimed, and agriculture being brought in for the first time. So then these lands were then brought under cultivation. We also have forest lands that were being talked of as being cleared and then agriculture beginning in these areas. Why is agriculture important? Because it is through the surplus that is being produced that you have the resource accumulation of the state. It is in this sense that we need to look at the Brahmans, as a collective, and the temples, Buddhist and Jain monasteries as the institutions. These were religious institutions rather than just religious entities. They were institutions which also helped in the integration of the state. The states attempt to integrate the areas which were outside their control, to collect the resources, to mobilise the resources from these different areas—all of this was facilitated through this integrative mechanism that was provided by the religious institutions. It is for this reason that many scholars would refer to these as institutional tools.

When we look at the inscriptions mentioning brahmadeyas (land donation to the Brahmans), devadanas (land donation to the gods) or land donations to the Buddhist or Jain monasteries, there, in many of them, you’ll find very detailed descriptions of different kinds of rights and duties that are to be performed, and mention of different kinds of taxes that are to be paid. One of the earliest inscriptions that we have from the Tamil region belongs to the fifth century CE—the Pulankuchi record which is from a dry and arid region of Pudukottai. Even today this area is drought prone. Now, you have a set of three inscriptions from here among which one is important for us. It talks about the creation of large number of brahmadeyas in this region. When you look at the positioning of the inscription, it is on a large rock face which is overlooking a tank. So the creation of a tank, declaration of brahmadeyas, and the extension of agriculture in the very arid region where we do not have any evidence of agriculture in an earlier period—this is something that is attested to by this grant. It is grant to the Brahmans to support them, but what it is also doing is entering into a frontier region and thereby increasing the resource base of the state. This particular grant also mentions different kinds of rights for the first time—the superior rights (male kani) and the lesser rights of kani.

So, very clearly an understanding of the cultivator and the landowner need not be one and the same. We have inscriptions which tell us that both of them can be same, but you also have a class differentiation emerging increasingly where the landowners are not cultivating their own lands. There are others who are cultivating and the owners get a share of the produce, but the larger share of the produce is actually going to the landholder who in turn will pay to the state.

DKJ: So, this record belongs to the fifth century CE?

RM: Yes, and this is a process that we find throughout. From the first century AD, starting from the western Deccan, we find this system of giving these land grants throughout the subcontinent. And it is a process that is particularly accelerated in the early medieval period, and we can clearly tie this up to the growth of state structure at this point of time. So regions that were emerging, regional state formation that was occurring, and in that context the land grants that were being given, was allowing the growth of newly emerging state areas, which again was allowing the consolidation of the state’s control over resources. So, it is in that context that we need to understand the land grants. It is in all of these contexts that we need to look at how important these religious institutions were to the political economy of the state. So, the state was emerging out of the economic functions these religious institutions were performing, and some scholars have even referred to the religious institutions as the religious magnets because they became so powerful.

Sneha Ganguly (SG): The sheer number of inscriptions that we have gotten from the temple walls of South India is really fascinating. What do they tell us about the milieu, is there anything specific?

RM: This is very important question, and I’m glad that you raised it. Because, you know, there has been a tendency among certain group of scholars to question the inscriptions as sources themselves, saying that it does not truly reflect the society of that time because they are already biased given they are already in the temple precincts. So, they are giving only one kind of information about the culture or realm outside the temple, which does not find representation within this. These scholars are largely Americans. They would say instead let us look at the literature and try and find the variations, the irreligiosity of people, the cunningness of people, the depravity of the people, degeneration and so on, of the society. I think these are wrong questions and the wrong way to judge the sources. No matter the type of sources, we need to take them seriously because they offer a glimpse of the kind of social milieu that existed at that point. Even if we are talking about a work of fiction, drama, poetry—these are not really realistic all the time; these are flights of imagination. It is the creativity of whoever is writing. So to presume that literature is going to give you more authentic voice and inscriptions are not is actually a false question. Now, as far as what the inscriptions are telling us—the temple inscriptions are telling us about the donations as I have already said. We have another kind of inscriptions—royal orders. The royal orders are essentially telling you about arrangements that were being made by the state, king, bureaucracy, by those at the local level, who were asserting their power. The temple inscriptions are telling us about these different tiers of authorities. They are telling us about the ways in which these different tiers were interlinked. That is very important. It is from here that we understand the nuances of political power. When a ruler is referred to as a raja, maharaja, and references to mandalesvara, mahamandalesvara—clearly show political hierarchies existed at that point of time, and that reflects the kind of structure of the state. The second thing we find is that economic arrangements were being generated through state enterprise using the temple. Not just the temple, there were other institutions also that were used to extend its resource bases. Through this, the state was consolidating power, but we also find out about the different sections of society. So we know about the cultivators, labourers, land holders, traders. Amongst traders, we know about the great traders, those who specialised in one kind of item for trade. So you have the oil merchant, textile, grain merchant—specific kinds of specialisation that are there within professions that we are getting to know through inscriptions. What we also find is that the temple was providing employment. The kind of rituals that were instituted within it required certain ingredients, like lamp. Anybody could donate for a lamp in the temple, even an ordinary person, and we have many instances of this, like a cobbler as a donor. In the western Deccan, we have inscriptions from the early centuries of the common era that show that cobblers and gardeners were also donating. And what were they donating it for? They were mostly making it for a lamp. Across the subcontinent you will find this tendency. Land grants—only those who have substantial resources could make those kinds of grants. Now, for this lamp, what would you need?

SG: Oil.

RM: Yes, what else? Wick. How are you going to get it? You need service providers for this. So the temple was gradually bringing these service providers into its ambit. Today, it is very fashionable to say that people may have provided these things, but they were not brahmanised or not part of the brahmanical system. It may be, but I am not sure because the kind of politicisation that has happened over the past century, it could be that the reverse has also happened. But there is no doubt that these groups who would otherwise be seen outside the pale of the brahmancial social order, outside of the varnasramadharma, these were the very people brought in as service providers. That does not necessarily mean that they were being brahmanised, but certainly they were being brought into proximity of the brahmanical order. So we have different kinds of groups, not merely those who were actually providing physical ingredients but by the persons themselves. So you have a whole range of temple servants that we know of—like for cleaning. Amongst the Brahmans too there were gradations—that we find in the inscriptions. Then we have those who were meant to be providing garlands, say, who may have even been given a place around the temple to stay. Even today if you go near a temple, you will find that the street leading up to temple—there you will find little shops and the people who are running those shops also living there. So you have this kind of ordering of settlements that occurred around the temple. So, the temple became the urban nuclei of the settlement, because gradually the temple was accumulating so much wealth and it also accommodating so many non-agrarian professionals that it was becoming an urban centre—this is something which is visible from the temple inscriptions.

The temple woman is a very interesting category that you have. I have already mentioned about the association between divinity and royalty. In many parts of Indian subcontinent, you had the king who, in his court, had dancers, entertainment of various kinds, musicians coming and playing and so on. You have similar kinds of things for the entertainment of the gods. So who was going to entertain them? You had a special category of people. You had the drummers, reciters of even the devotional hymns. The priest for performing certain agamic rituals. So he was well-versed in certain kinds of slokas, mantras and so on. But you had another category of Brahmans who specialised in reciting the devotional hymns. So, you had special services for recitations of these devotional hymns. On a field trip to Kerala recently at Thiruvanchikulam—a very important Tamil Saiva Bhakti centre, where it is believed that the great saint Sundara as well as the Chera king Cherumal Perumal, who was a Saivite, was supposed to have gained moksha.

You have inscriptions which are telling us about the attempt to wake up the deity every morning. This hymn is written by an eighth-century saint, Manikavachakar, another canonised Bhakti saint. This is something that is practised even today. So early in the morning, at 4.30 am, you have this ritual where a priest will go around the deity with all their ritual instruments and sing to wake up the lord. So these are specialised services that are being performed by some of the Brahmans. We know from an earlier period that some Brahmans were also proficient in reciting the Ramayana and the Mahabaharata. Why are these things important? What are they indicating to us? They are indicating the spread of the Brahmanical tradition and culture. In areas like South India, we know that in the early historic period Brahmanical influence was very minimal, in fact Buddhist and Jain influence was quite strong.

DKJ: Budddhism and Jainism—dominant?

RM: I don’t think it dominated. I have argued, and other scholars as well, that you had local cults and belief systems that were present in this area. So you had various religious traditions that were in existence, co-existing—and gradually this region came under the Brahmanical tradition, by the Brahmanas, temple priests and so on, and they were doing this through these different needs. After all, if a king was giving a land grant or religious support to the religious institutions, why should ordinary people subscribe to it? They would subscribe to it if they were also being hegemonised, if they were being brought under the influence of these religious traditions—and one of the ways was this epic-puranic tradition. So you had the Brahmans specialising in the Ramayana, the Mahabaharata, and in reciting these, which is very well known in the early part of the early medieval period itself. In brahmadeya grants, there are references—that they are Caturvedins (know four Vedas), Trivedins (know three Vedas), the Dharmasutras and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. They should know this. So these were injunctions for the Brahmans also. It’s not just that you got a gift, but you also had to perform certain functions—along with the economic and legitimation functions, this ideological function was also very important. Otherwise how would the ordinary populace understand the importance of Rajaraja being compared to Rama unless they know of Raghava and his exploits? So the cultural influence that the temple was able to exert is found through these inscriptions. In so many ways these inscriptions are really indicating the religious influence.

DKJ: I was wondering, when you are saying that so much information is coming out of these inscriptions, then are these inscriptions longer than the other inscriptions that we find from the other areas of the same time?

RM: Yes, if you look at the inscriptions from Rajarajesvaram temple, you’ll find that so many of them run 30–50 lines, with some going up to 70–100 lines. But we also have a huge number of inscriptions which are much shorter. Certainly, the stone walls of a temple provide a very easy kind of space, not easy in terms of actually inscribing, but it does provide that kind of visual space. It is also a visual reminder that it is a great donation that is being made by the ruler or by any other person who is giving gifts to the temple.

SG: Hero stones, that I personally don’t know much about, that we have lot of information. So, why do we find a large number of hero stones, especially in South India? Is there any particular politico-religious context?

RM: Yes, hero stones are very common in this, but it is in certain parts of the region where we find them. These are in areas which are known as the peripheries of the state, in a sense these are on the edges of the agrarian land, areas where you have pastoralist, forest communities living, and hero stones normally record some act of bravery. These acts are in the context of war, raids, large numbers of cattle raids, plundering of village settlements. Interestingly, hero stones also found a place within the temple. So in that sense somewhere the intermixing of the religious settlements, that is part of a marshal culture, is there in that region. There is an inscription in Tennur where in honour of somebody who has lost his life an endowment has been made, but the image of the deity that you have over there is of Durga, and in front of Durga, you have this person who appears to be cutting of his head as if he is giving up (pranahuti) his life as an offering to the god. It is in that sense that this episode is being brought into the institutionalised religious domain. We have large number of hero stones (death memorials) in the Jain context. These are Nisidhi cults. Nisidhi refers to the Sallekhana, the practice of giving up of one’s life, and across Karnataka you’ll find this is very common phenomenon, even in the northern part of Tamil Nadu, which actually has a lot in common with the culture that existed there (in Karnataka).

There is a very interesting inscription from Sennivaikal, a place in Tamil Nndu, from the ninth century, which is tells us of a Brahman who died valiantly while protecting his guru and the matha. You have a Siva temple over there. Rather than looking at hero stones as reflecting religious culture, we can look at hero stones representing a wider culture where you have some kind of belief in after life. So erecting it to commemorate the heroic act is one aspect, but it might also be a way of invoking that sprit, which is possible because in the Sangam sources we have such references of invoking the spirit of those who have died. So, I think we should look at it in a broader sense of culture rather than religious culture per say.

DKJ: This is my last question. Nowadays the question of religious intolerance is always in news and as you are taking about the interrelation between polity and religion, I would like to ask you about the scenario of early India where so many religious communities coexisted? How was their relationship? Was there any sectarian conflict among them or did they inhabit peacefully?

RM: Very important question. I think it is of some significance that we look at this, these contentious issues, conflicts. Something which was common when one ruler was invading another territory was the ruler tried to take away trophies. In many cases, the image in the temple, a sculpture was taken away as a trophy. We have many such instances throughout India. For instances, if you look at Khajuraho, the image in the Lakshmana temple is supposed to have brought from the Himalyan region to the north Indian plains, and then the Candella ruler gained it because of war. These kinds of movements of the images are indicative of conflicts which are essentially political conflicts and not religious conflicts. So you are seeking leverage by taking away an idol which was seen as a symbol of a particular dynasty and represents the transfer of power. In case of Hampi, we have this example of how Krisnadevaraya actually brought the image of Balagopala from Kalinga region. You have many such instances.

Then we have set of inscriptions from a place called Kottur, the Darwar region of Karnataka, where you find a Calukyan inscription. In this inscription from Kottur, Satyasrya I, whom we know from the Chola inscriptions as being defeated by the Rajaraja Chola, claims that he actually gained victory, but he tells us how Rajaraja Chola’s army came into this region and broke down the marayadas. He talks of brahmana vadha, sishu vadha and so on by Rajarajara Chola and the breaking down of the social order, the Kaliyuga being unleashed by Rajaraja Chola and how he is restoring it. In another inscription of around 1071, you have Somesvara (65 years after the earlier inscription) referring to the same incident, but he is trying to rectify it. He is saying that when Rajaraja Chola came to this site and destroyed the Jain temples, he literally annihilated Jainism from that region, and Somesvara was going to bring back Jainism in that region. Very interestingly, Somesvara refers to Rajaraja as Candala. So these are the types of interesting information that we get from inscriptions. That after all war is for political advertisement, for economic resources, for territorial acquisitions, but along with that religion was also affected, especially given that religious institutions were repositories of wealth. When the discovery of hoards of gold coins and various other items from the Padmanabhaswami Temple in Trivandrum were brought out in public, that’s when we understood the magnitude of wealth that was accumulated by these temples. Therefore it was natural then to attack the religious institutions. So, I think we need to keep in mind that these are the larger contexts within which we should look at it, and not merely as sectarian conflicts.

The video interview can be found here: