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Reflections on Rajadharma – Political Thought in the Puranas


The more things change, the more they stay the same. While there may be many topics that are anachronistic, there are still many arts and sciences, values, and attitudes that are time-tested and embedded in Puranic knowledge systems. Furthermore, since they are embedded in Indian ethos, there is a continuity in learning. In this paper, we examine the concept of Rajadharma presented in Matsya Purana, the benefits of studying and disseminating it to suit contemporary needs.

Puranas can frequently be treated as sociological treatises and offer valuable information about the attitudes and social mores of the times. A discussion of political and administrative institutions is offered both from a sociological and contemporary perspective.

Puranas are indeed encyclopedic knowledge systems. But what is even more interesting is that Puranas are interlinked and present an organic and integrated corpus of thought. For example, various Puranas, including Matsya, Agni, Garuda, and Markandeya Puranas, discuss political theory. Often, they offer overlapping ideas, but new and specific insights are presented exclusively in one source and not the others. For example, only Matsya Purana discusses poisons and methods of protecting a king from poisoning among the sources mentioned above.

1      Applicability

When we analyze traditional Indian literature, we must apply ‘Desa-Kala-Vastu-parichheda,[1]’ to understand its relevance to the present times. Truth is that which lives beyond its applicability to a specific time, place, or object. Matsya Purana offers many such nuggets of wisdom that are relevant even today.

2      Background

Matsya Purana is related as a discourse between Lord Vishnu in the form of a fish and Vaivaswata Manu, the first king of the solar dynasty who survived the deluge (pralaya,) which resulted in the partial dissolution of the world. The notion of the deluge is inextricably woven with the incarnation of Vishnu as the fish (Matsya). The Indian flood legend is mentioned elsewhere in ancient Indian literature, including Vedas, Brahmanas, and Mahabharata.

As Manu was offering prayers (tarpana) one morning, the legend has it that a little fish was found in the water he held in his cupped hands. He was about to throw it away when it said, “Don’t throw me away. Rear me, and I will protect you from the coming flood that will destroy all creatures.”

The royal sage put it in a pot of water. The fish soon outgrew it. Manu placed it in a pond and found that the fish outgrew that as well. The king then put it in River Ganga, and the fish grew huge. Manu took it into the sea. When the fish became bigger, filling even the ocean, the king was frightened and said, “You must be an Asura king, or Vasudeva himself!” The king proceeded to praise the fish. [10, Verse 1.23-25]

The fish said, “Oh, king, soon there will be a flood which will submerge the entire earth. You must build a boat. Collect a sample of all kinds of life and place it in the boat. When the flood comes, tie the boat to my horn, and save the life on this earth. You will be the Prajapati (progenitor) to the entire world, at the end of the deluge.” [10, Verse 1.26-32]

When the flood came, Manu got into the boat. As promised, the fish came up to him, and the king secured the boat to his horn. While the boat was floating on the dark waters, Vasudeva—in the form of the fish—addressed the Matsya Purana to Manu.

The boat was perched after the deluge on top of the Malaya Mountains [4]. Among the eighteen Maha-Puranas, four—viz. Matsya, Bhagavata, Padma, and Bhavishya—mention the flood legend.

Interestingly, in addition to the Puranas mentioned above, in the Aranya Parva of the Mahabharata, Sage Markandeya narrates the legend to Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas.

The flood legend is also narrated in Babylonian accounts [5]. Sumerians and Hebrews have their own strikingly similar accounts of the same legend.

The chapters of Rajadharma in Matsya Purana [Chapters 215-240] can stand-alone, distinct, and separate from the other discussions in Matsya Purana. We will survey and analyze some topics of Rajadharma discussed in Matsya Purana.

3      The King

The king occupied a place of eminence in Indian polity. He was the central figure protecting his citizens, their prosperity, and their way of life. Indeed, he was seen as the dharma-incarnate who facilitated their life and afterlife. The king is invested with divinity, but only conditionally. His officials and citizens are advised to follow a monarch, ‘who like the supreme being beyond the three Gunas [6], is unfathomable, and will not abandon his friends and dependents,’ because by doing so, ‘they will attain Indra’s abode and be served by the Devas.’ In other words, a king will attain divinity by being unfailingly wise and in control of his emotions and staunchly true to his loyalists. Interestingly, divinity is something that is attained either by virtue, actions or by performing ceremonies.

मित्रं न चापत्सु तथा च भृत्यं त्यजन्ति ये निर्गुणमप्रमेयं

विभुं विशेषेण च ते व्रजंति सुरेंद्रधामामरवृंदजुष्टं  [10, Verse 216.38]

Though the statesman of Matsya Purana raises the dignity of the monarch by the imputing divinity to him, it is important to note that the king is only compared to various Gods; he is never identified with a God. Furthermore, the king’s authority comes out of his position and actions, and is never ascribed to his divinity.

3.1    The Seven Branches of Polity

Tradition has built up the edifice of ancient Indian political science on the bedrock of saptanga, or the seven branches, as mentioned in Puranas and Itihasa. These seven branches of polity are discussed in Mahabharata (Shantiparva), Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Manusmruti, Matsya Purana, Sukraniti, and other texts.

The Swami or king is the first among the saptangas, the seven constituents of the state polity. The other six are the Amatya (the minister,) Rashtra (the nation, a term that encompasses the geographical area and the people,) Durga (the forts,) Danda (the army,) Kosa (the treasury,) and Mitra (the allies.) A prince must be ever vigilant about protecting the other six branches at all times. If anyone harms these, the offender must be executed.

A leader who is perceived to be soft and malleable is disregarded [10, Verse 220.19-22]. But he must not be cruel; people dislike a harsh king. A prince must know when to project softness and when to be firm [10, Verse 220.23].

The king’s role is not easy. He must navigate the tightrope between being suspicious and friendly, tough and affectionate, just and liberal, fun-loving and disciplined.

Matsya Purana emphasizes the king’s safety to the level of punctiliousness. The king is advised to be suspicious, get inputs from various sources and verify them before making a decision, employ spies widely, and carefully assess his officers. The king must be paranoid about attempts on his life.

A whole chapter is dedicated to dealing with poisons. There are verses about the kind of materials to use to mitigate fire hazards. All kinds of indications to check for poisoned food are listed. If a fly sits on poisoned food, it is said to die instantly. Poisoned food and grain are said to change color in an abnormal but discernible way. Matsya Purana recommends using animals to detect poison. Different animals and birds show the effect of poison in typical ways. Additionally, people guilty of poisoning give away their guilt in noticeable ways. The poisoner turns pale, uneasy, and confused when a poison check is conducted [10].

The king was enjoined not to trust strangers without thoroughly checking them out, to keep his place of stay confidential, and never consume personal items like food, clothing, flowers, and ornament without checking them. He must never go into a strange crowd or a water body without getting it tested. He was advised against riding a drunk elephant or an out-of-control horse. There were injunctions against a king being with an unknown woman and living in a crowded area [10, Verse 215.72-74] In other words, he must always be wary and suspicious.

A king is advised to seek confidential advice singly and separately from his ministers and make an informed decision on his own but based on the advice and knowledge he has obtained from various sources.

Finally, the power of the king rests squarely on the love of his people. He must strive to obtain and retain the approbation of his citizens.

जनानुरागप्रभवा ही लक्ष्मी राज्ञां य तो भास्कर वंशचंद्र

तस्मान प्रयत्नेन नरेंद्रमुख्यैः कार्योनुरागो भुवि मानवेषु || [10, Verse 215.99]

(In this world, the prosperity of a king depends on the love of the people. Therefore, the kings must strive in every way to gain their approbation.)

The king must be defensive, discreet (even secretive,) and aware of the image that he projects. He must keep his weaknesses carefully concealed and behave like a tortoise regarding the state’s secrets. [10, Verse 215.67]

Yet, a king must always maintain the stability of mind and demeanor. He must always make good decisions for himself and his citizens. Matsya Purana cautions that if a king is autocratic, his fall is certain [10, Verse 225.7]. This shows that a king could not go against the prescriptions of law (dharmashastra) and polity (arthashastra.) If he did, the people disowned him, and a state of arajaka (lawlessness) set in with all the evils of the state where Matsya-Nyaya (where big fish ate small fish) prevailed.

Generally, the cases where a king transgresses the bounds of these strictures were rare. Danda was applied with due deliberation, and citizens looked upon the kings as their fathers and brothers [7].

To achieve this difficult goal, firstly, a king was required to get trained [Section 3.2]; and secondly, to choose and employ a close circle of employees who would be wise and loyal [Section 6].

3.2    The Prince’s Training and continuity of leadership

Much importance was given to succession planning and continuity of leadership. A prince must be educated in all arts and sciences. He must be carefully nurtured to instill noble qualities and eschew addictions like drinking, hunting, and gambling. While it is necessary to indulge in games and gambling [10, Verse 220.25] to cultivate contacts and gain popularity, a prince must be cautious about not getting invested in them.

Extensive instruction in physical culture was given to a prince to make him an able warrior. He was thoroughly trained in archery, chariot riding, elephants and horses, and combat.

He must understand dharma (the first purushartha or goal of human-life, which sustains, and protects the creation accordance to laws of nature. The notion is that the human laws must align with the laws of nature.)  artha (the second purushartha or goal of human life; the notion that acquisition of material objectives, wealth, economic development, must be aligned with the laws of dharma); and kama (the third purushartha or goal of human life; the notion that desire, wish, passion, longing, pleasure of the senses, the aesthetic enjoyment of life, affection, or love, with or without sexual connotations, must align with dharma and artha.) [10, Verse 220.2]

A prince must understand politics. He must respect truth but lie if needed [10].

Matsya Purana emphasized the value of a good environment for raising a prince. If the prince turned out to be refractory, rebellious, and prone to waywardness despite the care taken to raise him as a virtuous person, he was advised to be confined to a secret and well-guarded place because no prince lacking in statesmanship and humility would thrive [10, Verse 220.5-6].

A prince must be trained in diplomacy and discretion while conducting the discussions of the state. He must understand that gaining the love of his people is of the essence. He must control his senses.

There were strictures against a prince (or, for that matter, a king) sleeping during the daytime or traveling without a purpose [10, Verse 220.9].

A king must not indulge in gossip, treachery, slander, misappropriation of property, harsh speech, and assault.

3.3    The Conduct of the King toward the Prince

A king must provide appropriate training to the prince. He must be loving and kind, but never lie to the prince. A young prince might be impressionable, and his mind may be corrupted by interested groups by seductive inducements and temptations. Therefore, the prince must be provided with good bodyguards, who would not only protect him physically but also from these baneful influences [10, Verse 220.3]. The prince must be surrounded by people of unshakable conviction and probity, who will inspire him to be good and virtuous. The prince must be guarded against pernicious influences to ensure he retains his positive attitude and good qualities.  The king must take good care to guard the prince against the angry, miserly, and disgruntled [10, Verse 220.4]. A prince must be provided with a trusty tutor to train him.

A prince must be employed in positions of responsibility and gradually trained to accept higher authority and accountability [10, Verse 220.7].

3.4    The Prince’s Conduct

There are strictures for the prince’s conduct as well. A prince is expected to be temperate, diligent, and respectful to his teachers and elders. He is a king in training. All the prescriptions meant for the king apply to the prince as well.

3.5    The King’s Responsibilities

As a Kshatriya, a king is prescribed to follow a code of conduct (brahmavidhi) which alone makes his position secure (akshayavidhi) [10, Verse 215.58-59].

He is responsible for—

  • Protecting his people,
  • Honoring teachers, ascetics, and intellectuals, the distressed, the weak, and the widows,
  • Conducting in such a way that his people regard him as their father,
  • Fighting without retreating from a battlefield,
  • Performing sacrifices and offering gifts in pursuit of spiritual attainment,
  • Patronize education and the study of the Vedas,
  • Upholding the Varnashramadharma—the structure of society made up of teachers and thinkers (Brahmins,) warriors and princes (Kshatriyas,) traders and farmers (Vaishyas,) workers, artisanal and service professions (Shudras,)—and encouraging people to pursue their own prescribed professions [10, Verse 215.60-63].

3.6    Friends and Enemies

Who could be called king’s friends? Guru or a teacher must always be respected. Friends are those that have been close to the family for generations, those that consider his enemies as their enemies, and those that are recipients of some favor or largess (false friends). [10, Verse 220.17-18]

Enemies are classified as internal and external. A king’s internal enemies are desires, avarice, anger, arrogance, envy, and intemperance. Among external enemies, there are insiders (those who are privy to confidential matters,) equals (competitors) and false enemies (who act like friends.)

4      Destiny and Free Will

The philosopher-statesman of Matsya Purana does not advocate for determinism. Without human endeavor assisting destiny, a man cannot succeed. He also tells us that his effort will bear fruit only at the appropriate time.

The discussion about destiny vs. free will is critical for training a prince for kingship because it elevated the concept of utthana (human endeavor, ascent), much emphasized in all Indian ancient neeti literature [10, Verse 220.8-9][9].

The Purana examines the contrasts of fate and free will and concludes that exertion and effort are superior to fate because, by perseverance, even fate could be conquered.

The accumulated Karma (the effects of good and bad deeds) of many lives is called destiny. Destiny will give results through personal effort. Therefore, free will and effort are important. In addition to these, every action takes its own time to fructify. It is not enough that a farmer puts in the work to sow and fertilize; he must be aided by rain from time to time. Furthermore, he must wait until the appropriate time to harvest. Thus, fate, perseverance, and time to fruition are all important. No one should put their faith in fate exclusively, says Matsya Purana, a person who does not make an effort will not succeed. [10, Chapter 221]

5      The Council

Matsya Purana envisages a system of polity, essentially similar to a constitutional monarchy [7]. The continuity of kingship was assured because decisions were based on a consensus emerging out of discussions with the council. The council of ministers was considered an essential institution.

A king who wants to rule his domain effectively was advised to select a council of close advisers even before the sanctified water that anointed his head during his coronation ceremony has dried. Only they can ensure the stability of a kingdom. Furthermore, Matsya Purana says that even small successes in life can only be achieved with help. The need for able support for conducting the business of a state can hardly be emphasized. [10, Verse 215.2-3]

As the executive head of the state, the king enjoyed all the ceremonial standing and the powers that accompanied his position. But he was required to respect convention and norms. He was expected to respect the seven arms of his state [10, Verse 220.21-22] (Section 3.1) and keep all the discussions, which are the very basis for running the business of the state, secret and confidential [10, Verse 220.31-34]. He was expected to be always pleasant; in fact, he must never frown even at people worthy of execution!, but conduct himself with dignity [10, Verse 220.27, 24]. Since people are always watching a king, it is easy to read his expression. So, a king must strive to keep his expression pleasant but inscrutable [10, Verse 220.35].

The discussions must be conducted with an optimal number of people—not too many, but not too few—who have the qualifications to offer an insight. [10, Verse 220.36-37]. The king was advised to consult his advisers singly first, and then, together in a meeting. The king must react quickly to execute his plans and must not tarry in carrying out his work. Procrastination is extremely harmful [10, Verse 220.29].

The council was not unlike the modern cabinet, except that it was responsible both to the people and the king. The council members were competent, educated appropriately, and had a good standing in the society. Evidently, Matsya Purana believed that good and qualified people could enact good policy and described the qualities needed for each position.

The council acted as a check on a king’s arbitrary powers. Unlike the oligarchies (for example, ancient Athens) and aristocracies (for example, the Spartiate in Sparta and medieval nobility in Europe,) Indian polity did not fall prey to a rule of special interest groups because of the checks and balances provided by the council on the king, where all parts of the polity were represented in appropriate proportions [7].

6      The Administrators

Matsya Purana describes the recommended qualities needed for the important functionaries and heads of various departments for fulfilling their roles. Various departments such as finance, justice, and diplomatic service, the desirable traits of public officials in critical positions, and, interestingly, the prescribed way of conducting discussions of the state, are discussed [10, Chapter 215].

A king must carefully select capable and committed people with appropriate qualities for each role. The king’s functionaries include ministers, commander-in-chief, security personnel (door-keepers and bodyguards,) betel bearers,  governors, officers in charge of armories, spies, writers and accountants, judges, emissaries, and ambassadors, treasurers, and stable keepers for horses and elephants. The text lists the qualifications for each role. The ministers help in managing the manifold activities of the state through its functionaries.

The commander-in-chief must be a Brahmin or a Kshatriya from a good family. He must be a good archer and understand elephants and horses. He must have an intuitive understanding of the context of problems of the state. He must be wise and able to interpret omens. He must be soft-spoken, understand the basics of medicines, capable of getting things done, withstanding hardships, straightforward, and understand conspiracies. [10, Verse 215.8-10]

An emissary or a messenger must have a good grasp of many relevant languages, effective, articulate, and understand the geo-political context [10, Verse 215.12-13].

A foreign-affairs minister must understand the six-fold policy of Sandhi (Treaty of Alliance or mutual agreement of peace,) Vigraha (war or hostility,) Yaana (Marching against an enemy or stationing forces along the border,) Asana (neutrality,) Ashrasya (alliance or friendship,) Dvaidha (waging war with an enemy while making peace with another,) proficient in many languages, and expert in politics [10, Verse 215.16].

The chief of security must be someone that understands the pulse of the citizens. He must be a pragmatist who knows what his subordinate officers are doing and have a good grasp of finances [10, Verse 215.17].

The chef must be incorruptible, understand medicines, clean, able, and understand the art of cooking. He must not have long hair and nails. [10, Verse 215.22-23]

The judge must be a Brahmin from a good family who will not discriminate between friends and foes and regard them impartially. He must understand Dharma shastra (jurisprudence) thoroughly [10, Verse 215.24].

The recordkeepers and scribes were considered extremely valuable. They needed to have mastery of languages, good and legible handwriting, clearly convey intent and meaning while being concise, effective, incorruptible, and understand the context [10, Verse 215.25-28].

A treasurer must understand the qualities of various commodities and gems; he must be honest, careful, aware and have superb presence of mind [10, Verse 215.31-32].

A king’s personal physician was required to be a master of the eight branches of medicine [8], namely,

  • Shalya (surgery, treatment of diseases using blunt and sharp instruments (yantras and shastras,) sutures (sevana,) methods like excision and incision, use of alkalis (kshara,) fire (Agni,) and bloodletting (raktamokshana)
  • Shakalya (treatment of diseases afflicting ear, nose, tongue, throat, head, and eyes)
  • Kaya-chikitsa (general medicine, treatment of metabolic errors and disorders, and systemic disorders)
  • Bhoota-vidya (demonology, treatment of idiopathic disorders and infections, diseases caused by unidentified causes and spirits, and psychosomatic disorders)
  • Kaumara-bhrutya (pediatrics)
  • Agada-tantra (toxicology, treatment of diseases or conditions occurring due to bites and stings of animals, insects, and effect of various types of poisons and toxins)
  • Rasayana-tantra (geriatrics, anti-aging medicine, immune modulators, rejuvenation treatment)
  • Vajikarana-tantra (aphrodisiacs, medicines, and methods used to increase sexual prowess, potency, and virility.)

He must come from a tradition of physicians. He must be incorruptible and principled. Matsya Purana advises the king to treat his physician as his acharya and always follow his advice [10, Verse 215.34-35]

The commissioner of a royal household (or the seraglio) must be a courteous and simple man of advanced years, upright, who has been in the service of the royal family for generations [10, Verse 215.42].

The king must put the right person in every position of authority and responsibility. The salary must also be fixed according to the office, ability, loyalty, and experience. [10, Verse 215.46]

6.1    The Conduct of Government Servants  

Matsya Purana devotes an entire chapter [10, Chapter 216] to how the king’s employees and servants should behave towards him. While many behavioral norms are a product of the times, a reader can glean some points that serve us well even today.

The prescriptions in Matsya Purana regarding the conduct of government servants are reminiscent of the section on upayukta of the Arthashastra [9]. These remain relevant to this day. An officer in government service must be truthful, committed, and upright. He must never be disrespectful of the king, especially in public. When there is a difference of opinion, and especially if he thinks the king is harming his own self-interest, he must seek a private audience with the king and present his perspective.

The officer must not imitate a king’s speech, mannerisms, or dress. He must respect the honors conferred upon him. He must not frequent the royal ladies’ quarters or associate with enemy spies. He must always conduct himself to ensure his overall well-being and not in a career-ending fashion. Matsya Purana suggests that the government employees must be started at a low pay scale and gradually promoted higher authority, visibility, and leadership.

6.2    The institution of Spies

All departments of the state benefited greatly from the institution of spies, both internal and external. They were used to gain awareness of trends internally and movements of enemies externally. It was an accepted part of the Hindu administrations to establish an elaborate system of spies. Spies were sent out to different parts of the kingdom and various foreign destinations to thoroughly understand the lives and thoughts of their own citizens, and the movements of the enemy kings. Nevertheless, the king was advised never to trust a single version of any espionage report and always seek corroboration from other sources [10, Verse 215.93]. Matsya Purana recommends sending four spies with a single mandate in the guise of merchants, astrologers, mendicants, and physicians [10, Verse 215.92]. According to Kautilya, the spies are the eyes of the king [9]. Like Arthashastra [9], Matsya Purana also recommends setting up spies in different departments to watch the conduct of government servants.

6.3    Law and Order

As stated earlier, the judges were experts in Dharma shastra and Nyaya shastra. Matsya Purana lists crimes and offenses, their nature, and prescribed punishment for those found guilty, detailing these sentencing codes in 217 verses [10, Chapter 227]. These offenses include misappropriation of property placed under custody, illegal sale of property, breach of promise, rape, adultery, cheating, destruction of forests, gardens, and fields, murder, killing of a cow, straying from a prescribed code of conduct, theft, withholding wages, failing to complete work that has been promised, lying, misbehaving with prostitutes, misappropriation of funds by government servants, the practice of vasikarana (the art of mind control by charms and incantations,) and eating forbidden food.

No one, whether a brahmachari (an ascetic student,) sanyasi (a mendicant,) an excellent Guru (a teacher), was outside the ambit of rajadanda, or the rule of law under a just king. A king who did not punish the guilty or punished the innocent was deemed guilty of a great sin, and Matsya Purana declares that he will lose his kingdom. Therefore a king must rule according to Dharma shastra, the rule of law [10, Verse 225.5-7]

Many punishments seem excessive and less than even-handed. Matsya Purana largely follows Manava Dharma shastra and Artha shastra [7]. Many of the codes do not stand the test of Desha-Kala-Vastu pariccheda and are patently unsuitable for present times. However, the philosophy underlying the severe punishments seems to have been that of deterrence. People were seriously wary of committing a crime.

The punishments include death, amputation, fines, and even excommunication. The section below gives a sample of the crimes and recommended punishment.

6.4    Sentencing Codes

Matsya Purana recommends punishments when someone is found guilty of a criminal charge. These offenses may be theft, fraud, libel, rape (and unlawful seduction,) and eating prohibited or contaminated food. The punishments are several and may take the form of financial or corporeal penalties. The punishment may be decided based on the criminal’s varna, age, status, and qualifications. The highest offenses, including treachery, incur the death penalty. A king must neither punish the innocent nor let the guilty go unpunished. [10, Verse 227.213]

The codes are defined in great detail.

A thief was liable to offer restitution by returning the property or its value to its rightful owner and paying an equal value in fines to the royal treasury. [10, Verse 227.92] A thief damaging public property, for example, the pot or a rope left at public drinking well, must not only provide an appropriate replacement but must pay a hefty fine of gold equal in weight to five gunja seeds (Abrus precatorius). Theft of grain was punishable based on the quantity stolen; death if he stole more than ten pot-measures, a fine equal to eleven times the value stolen if a lesser quantity was stolen. [10, Verse 227.99] On the other hand, if food was stolen, the punishment prescribed was light, almost non-existent. But the theft of precious stones, women, animals, and medicines could potentially be punished by death.

Matsya Purana classifies fines into nominal, medium, and severe levels.

Those that hoard inventory without selling it with the expectation that it will go up in price, those that adulterate inventory to gain profit, and those who secretly sell goods for an inflated price, must be fined at the medium level. Those that instigate and conspire to encourage such pernicious acts must be fined severely. [10, Verse 227.185-186] A merchant selling similar goods of the same quality at different prices must be fined at a nominal level. Conversely, if he sells goods of differing quality at the same price, he should be fined at a medium level [10, Verse 227.180].

There is a pattern found in the codes prescribed. Typically, crimes against society, in general, are severely punished. Severe punishments are similarly meted out to crimes against Brahmins, women, children, old people, and people in highly visible and responsible positions in society. For example, a man engaged in denigrating scriptures, yajnas, women, and institutions is fined severely. [10, Verse 227.187] If an officer is guilty of capricious punishment, he must be punished twice as harshly as the harshest punishment he metes out to a guilty person. A person who destroys a fort, moat, or the main gate must be expelled from the city [10, Verse 227.182]. Anyone guilty of destroying seedlings, boundary walls, and border sign-posts must be killed. [10, Verse 227.183] Those that destroy lakes, canals, tanks, and any other water bodies meant for the consumption of animals and people must be killed. Anyone who destroys granaries, armories, and temples must be killed [10, Verse 227-172-174].

According to Manubhāṣya, verse 8.350, “An incendiary, a poisoner, one raising a weapon to strike, a robber, one who forcibly takes away land, the abductor of another man’s wife,—these six are called Ātatāyin, Assassins [3]. Matsya Purana says [10, Verse 227.115-116] that anyone who slays an assassin will not incur a dosha and must not be punished. Other commensurate punishments were prescribed for other kinds, even amputation. [10, Verse 227.109]

A man who kills an animal in self-defense is not guilty of a crime. [10, Verse 227.114]

Below is a prescribed punishment for rape:

प्रेश्यासु चैवा सर्वासु गृहप्रव्रजितासु च

यो कामां दोषयेत्कन्यां स सद्यो वधमार्हसि  || [10, Verse 227.124]

सकामां दूषयाणस्तु प्राप्नुयात्द्विशतं दमं

यश्च संचारकस्तत्र पुरुषः स तथा भवेत्  || [10, Verse 227.125]

Forcible rape is punishable by death. Adultery is punished by fining the person committing adultery two hundred coins. Matsya Purana says that anyone facilitating adultery must also be awarded the same penalty as the person who actually commits adultery. The woman who suffers the indignity of rape must not be punished.

A controversial prescription that seems excessive and unsuitable for the present times says,

If a young woman chooses an excellent person on her own and falls in love with him, she must marry him. If she chooses someone unsuitable, she must be confined to her home. A man, who has married a woman who belongs to a better Varna, deserves the death penalty. A woman who flouts her husband’s just injunctions or has been accused by a man of higher Varna, or one who has had an affair with a man, deserves to be punished.

6.5    Excommunication

Some egregious crimes are classified as mahapatakas, and anyone committing some of those crimes is called a Pataki. Some crimes are considered so terrible that people committing those crimes are called patitas or fallen people. These include rape, especially, rape of a teacher’s wife, gurupatni, eating proscribed food, sexual intercourse with a chandala (untouchable) woman or a cow, and having social intercourse with a fallen man. Such a fallen person is excommunicated. Seven generations of his brothers, cousins, and other relatives must offer him sesame seeds and water as though he is dead [10, Verse 227.61]. His last rites must be symbolically performed by procuring a pot full of water from a dasi (servant maid,) which is broken after a ritual circumambulation in the anti-clockwise direction. This ceremony is called ghatasphota, or breaking of the pot. After this, the fallen man is excommunicated. Even sitting or conversing with him, transacting business, and allowing him to inherit property was banned [10, Verse 227.60-64].

Disturbing as this description of ex-communication is, it is important to explore the socio-political and cultural imperatives that led to formulating and listing it as a punishment. It is equally important to understand the actual offenses that merited this punishment, or if this was meant as a deterrent, which would be the case unless there were a significant number of actual instances of such a punishment being carried out. It is imperative if the excommunicated swelled the ranks of the enemies at any period of time.

7      Forts

The importance of forts in a battle can be discerned by the fact that a single archer standing on a rampart could fight a hundred enemies. Matsya Purana describes forts, their construction, the different kinds of forts, locating granaries, barns of elephants and horses, the types of inventories that need to be stocked, and their importance in defense of the state.

Matsya Purana mentioned six varieties of forts. Forts surrounded by a desert (Dhanva-Durga,) water (Jala-Durga,) earth, where an entrance to the fort is not visible, but through an underground tunnel (Mahi-Durga,) forest, making the fort impregnable (Vana-Durga,) mountain (Giri-Durga,) and those formed by placing an army in specific strategic positions (Vyuha-Durga or Nara-Durga.) A mountain fort was considered the safest [10, Verse 217.6-7].

The king’s residence must be in a central place, well-fortified. The fort must be surrounded by a moat and ramparts, well provided with superior weapons, and impregnable by the enemies. Matsya Purana provides ideas about how to size the royal capital, roads, official residences, treasury, stables (including what kind of animals must be housed together!), arsenal, stores, residences and artisans, fruit and flower gardens, and medicinal plants. The forts were provided with several underground escape routes.

No one could live inside a fort without a real function. Everyone living in the fort had a role. Several astrologers, doctors, veterinarians, Brahmins, and musicians lived inside a fort. Soldiers stationed in the fort were required to be always ready for a battle [10, Verse 217.25-27].

The chapter on forts also lists medicines to dispel the effects of poisoning to be stocked [10, Chapter 217]. The king is the target of jealous conspiracies, feudatories, internal and external enemies. The king’s office is no bed of roses. The lists of medicines and herbs will perhaps offer interesting insights to a student of Ayurveda. They also offer insights into the kinds of malaise that the people were worried about. There are detailed instructions on rearing snakes in pots: they were called ghata-sarpa for a reason [10, Verse 217.40]! Matsya Purana offers instructions on collecting and stocking insects, germs, and poisons capable of injuring, maiming, killing, and sickening the enemy that could be spread through the air and smoke vents and water ducts [10, Verse 217.82-83].

The forts were stocked with all kinds of medicines and poisons to get rid of spirits and demons and mitigate the effect of poisons. All kinds of emergency commodities were stocked to plan for emergencies and force majeure events such as a siege or natural calamities. A practice called kshudhyoga was practiced to keep people on the fort fed during these situations.

8      The Art of Diplomacy

Diplomacy or Dandaniti describes the ways and means of conducting negotiations, which is formalized to a scientific level in ancient Indian literature. Danda is elevated to the rank of the expedients or devices the king must use according to the circumstances. In addition to the standard four negotiation methods, viz. Saama (conciliation and discussion,) Daana (gifts and grafts,) Bheda (sowing dissension,) and Danda (punishment or war.) Matsya Purana also lists three more ways, viz. UpekshaMaya, and Indrajala.

According to Arthashastra and the epics, the first four are the recognized traditional expedients, which have always been the chief diplomatic methods in ancient India.

8.1    Saama, or Conciliation

The Purana classifies Saama, or conciliation, into Satya (righteous) and Asatya (unrighteous) conciliation based upon the target. Satya-saama is directed towards the righteous, and Asatya-saama towards the perfidious. Sandhi or the state policy of peace is related to saama.

8.2    Bheda, or Creating Dissention

Depending upon the degree of difficulty, a king would progress towards the policy of bheda or sowing dissension. In other words, he would employ a policy of divide and rule. Mahabharata says that an empire in danger of being attacked by internal and external enemies. [आपदो द्विविधा कृष्ण बाह्याभ्याश्चान्ताराश्च Shantiparva Ch.81] An internal danger is deadlier than an external danger. An internal danger comes from the anger and disgruntlement of a queen, prince, minister, or commander. An external danger comes from a vassal or a neighboring king. Therefore the king must make an effort to keep his inner circle happy.

A policy of divide-and-rule is related to bheda. By the policy of bheda, a king is advised to get rid of internal dissensions. Without peace at home, neither development nor expansion is possible. An enemy can be conquered by attacking him after creating divisions among his kinsmen. Those that understand diplomacy recommend bheda because even Indra cannot win against them when the enemy is united [10, Verse 223.4]. A king must not only understand how to apply bheda to his enemies, but he should also be keenly aware his own vulnerabilities, and understand how his enemies might use bhedaniti against him. [10, Verse 223.5]

8.3    Daana, the policy of gifts 

The policy of daana or gifts is recommended as the best expedient to win over the recalcitrant or the rebellious. Matsya Purana declares that daana is the best recourse and says that a charitable king will benefit in this world and the next!

There are sixteen mahadanas that every man in a prominent position, especially monarch, must perform on specific occasions. There are stories of mahadanas being performed by personages of great eminence both in ancient and medieval Indian history. There is epigraphical evidence to show that the kings of Vijayanagar performed mahadanas at different pilgrimage centers. As late as the early 20th century, the Maharaja of Travancore and Mysore offered gifts on several auspicious occasions. It is clear from the Udayambakam grant of Krishnadevaraya (Saka 1450) that Vira Narasimha, the elder brother of Krishnadevaraya, performed many mahadanas at various pilgrimage centers [7].

8.4    Danda, the policy of Chastisement

तस्माद्राज्ञा विनीतेना धर्मशात्रानुसारतः

दण्डप्रणयनं कार्यं लोकानुग्रह काम्यया  || [10, Verse 225.7]

Matsya Purana advises the king to resort to punishment after applying the rules of Dharma shastra, keeping in mind the overall wellbeing of his citizens.

Those that are not overcome by expedients of saama, daana, and bheda must be mastered by the danda or punishment. The king must consult scholars who understand Dharma shastra, or jurisprudence, and punish the guilty appropriately according to the injunctions of the established law codes [10, Verse 225.2]. If the criminals do not fear punishment, there would be no peace in the land, and there would be all kinds of disasters. People do not transgress the limits of the law only because they fear punishment. Even gods anointed young Kumara as the commander-in-chief because they feared chastisement by the demon, Taraka! [10, Verse 225.18]

The term is also used in diplomatic relations. When an enemy cannot be won over by other diplomatic expedients, a policy of war is recommended.

8.5    Expedition

Matsya Purana discusses the best time and ways for marching against an enemy. A king’s own kingdom is considered to be the base of operations. When a king finds his own kingdom to be peaceful and prosperous and his enemy in adverse circumstances, the time is propitious to march against him. Different seasons are best for different branches of the army, but the vernal season is the best for all the fourfold forces. A king must not march if he sees bad omens. An analysis of when and how a king should wage war, how an expedition must be led, and even the right season to suit various branches of the army is presented. An incredible amount of attention is paid to omens, and Matsya Purana goes to great lengths to enumerate the good and bad omens and their indications.

Matsya Purana employs two of the technical terms referenced in ancient Hindu polity discussed in Arthashastra [9]—Akranda and Parsnigraha. The terms reflect the flavor of the relationship between the two states. A brief sketch of mutual relationships between states is given below.

A Vijigishu is a king that is interested in conquest. The relationships below are identified and discussed with reference to Vijigishu.

  • Ari is the enemy,
  • Mitraprakrti is a friend,
  • Arimitra is the friend of the enemy,
  • Mitramitra is a friend of a friend,
  • Arimitramitra is the friend of an enemy’s friend.

The kings behind a Vijigisu are:

  • Parsnigraha: a rearward enemy,
  • Akranda: a neighbor/friend, who checks the attack made on the Vijigishu by another king,
  • Parsnigrahasara: a friend of the rearward enemy,
  • Akrandasara: a friend of Akranda,
  • Madhyama: an intermediary, who can potentially be overcome either by a Vijigishu or by an Ari in a situation of open hostilities,
  • Udasina: a neutral king, capable of defeating a Vijigishu, his enemy, and the intermediary, when the three are not belligerents.

An expedition is recommended only as a last resort. A monarch is advised to undertake an expedition only if he is firmly convinced that he has the complete resources to wage war. He must pay extra attention to omens and start an expedition only when the planets are favorable, the gods are benevolent, after gathering all the resources at his command [10, Verse 240.16-17]. When on land, a crocodile is overcome by an elephant, but a crocodile will defeat an elephant when in water. Similarly, an owl will overpower a crow during the night but is overpowered by the owl during the daytime. If a king understands the balance of powers between nations at different times, he will know how to deploy his own resources in different situations and at different times [10, Verse 240.18]. He must set out on the expedition at an auspicious time.

8.6    Upeksha, Maya, Indrajala

A less powerful king must not attack a more powerful enemy directly. Matsya Purana recommends the expedients of Upeksha, Maya, and Indrajala for a weaker king fighting a stronger enemy. Upeksha is a policy of neutrality. Even when the stronger enemy is harassing him, the weaker king is advised to endure it, applying the Upeksha principle, until he strengthens himself sufficiently enough to try the other means of diplomacy.

If a king cannot endure the harassment meted out to him, he must employ the policy of Maya or Indrajala. Maya is baser diplomacy that advocates cunning. Indrajala is a similar concept, meaning Indra’s net, magic, deception, fraud, illusion, conjuring, jugglery, and sorcery. The king is thus advised to hoodwink the enemy by using Maya. Indrajala is the use of stratagem in war. Matsya Purana discusses ways of strategic self-assessment and using stratagem in war. However, these methods are not recommended for Dharma Vijaya and are counter to the ethics of warfare in ancient India.

9      Calamities and their Palliatives

How to be warned of a calamity, take precautions against them, and mitigate their effects?

The Purana speaks of the ‘indications’ that a king may get about forthcoming calamities. It offers several palliative ‘Shanti‘s,’ named after several Gods for them. The palliatives are prescribed based on astrological time and positions of the heavenly bodies. Just as a man wearing armor is protected from arrows, the Shanti-ceremonies will protect a king committed to dharma [10, Verse 228.29].

The calamities affect the king and the people within a certain timeframe after sighting some harmful celestial event.

For example, Matsya Purana suggests propitiating Rudra when there an indication of an enemy onslaught or when the nation is in danger of breaking up, or before a coronation [10, Verse 228.10]. Varuna must be propitiated when no rains are indicated, or when rainfall seems unnatural or excessive, or when water bodies like tanks and lakes are disturbed in any way [10, Verse 228.12]. Similarly, when stars indicate calamities or when comets are seen, other ceremonies are suggested.

Matsya Purana even suggests that calamities are foreseen by watching animal behavior. For example, if a cock crows in the evening, it is considered a bad omen. Several such omens are listed.


Over time, the terminology used to describe the above concepts has changed considerably. Furthermore, the form has a way of overpowering substance after so many centuries.

However, despite the passage of time, Matsya Purana still offers a strategic way of thinking about polity, governance, and diplomatic relationships that endure to this day. Some of the insights offered are unique. Several other insights offered are reinforced and restated in Kautilya’s Arthashastra.

The way polity and foreign relationships are modeled are attitude defining and need deep study and immersion. Similarly, the extensive sentencing codes listed in the Purana offer an insight into the socio-political fabric of the society of the time. While on the face of it, it seems anachronistic, a deeper study of the context is needed to understand the thought behind the codes.

Similarly, while the section on forts may be considered irrelevant for the present times, it must still be studied in the context of the times to glean material that might be relevant today. A lot of material about inventories kept in the forts is significant and may offer insights to the students and practitioners of Ayurveda. Similarly, Matsya Purana offers information about the variety of skills that a medical professional needed to have and the fields of Ayurveda practiced at that time. The medical knowledge available at that time was incredible.

A large section of the Purana remains relevant today, especially the saptanga-modeling of a state and a strategic analysis of war and inter-state relationships. The Purana surpasses itself when offering a framework of strategic thinking. The section of Matsya Purana dealing with Rajadharma is a veritable treasure trove of knowledge. At the risk of being repetitive, it must be emphasized that we must reacquaint ourselves with Rajadharma for a strategic understanding and modeling of governance and diplomatic relationships.

We must reexamine the knowledgebase that we have inherited to understand their applicability and relevance in contemporary times. Otherwise, we risk losing a mine of thought capital about Rajadharma that we have inherited.


  2. Jagdish Lal Shastri, Political Thought in the Puranas, University of Punjab, 1944, pp.2, Matsya Purana
  5. Wallis Budge, The Babylonian Story of the Deluge, 1920
  6. A Complete Guide to The Three Gunas of Nature | Arhanta Yoga Blog
  7. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, The Matsya Purana, A Study, University of Madras, 1935
  8. Ashtanga Ayurveda – The Eight Branches of Ayurveda (
  9. Shamasastry, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, English Translation, 1915
  10. Vajapeyam Srirangachar, Srimad Dvaipayana Muni Praneetam Sri Matsya Puranam (Kannada Translation) Vol. 6, Sri Jayachamarajendra Grantharatna Mala No.33
  11. Rajeev, Inter-State Relations in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Journal of Advances and Scholarly Researches in Allied Education, Vol.II, Issue II, October 2011

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