By Study and Also by Faith  >  Togetherness Is Sharing an Umbrella: Divine Kingship, the Gnosis, and Religious Syncretism

Togetherness Is Sharing an Umbrella:
Divine Kingship, the Gnosis, and Religious Syncretism

Togetherness Is Sharing an Umbrella: Divine Kingship, the Gnosis, and Religious Syncretism

C. Thomasson1

Marlboro College, Marlboro, Vermont,
and School for International Training, Brattleboro, Vermont

essay originally appeared in a slightly different form in the unpublished
“Tinkling Cymbals: Essays in Honor of Hugh Nibley,” John W. Welch,
ed., 1978.


Secure a teacher for yourself, and
acquire a companion for yourself.

To inhabitants of the ancient world,
perhaps nothing would have seemed more appropriate than the fact that a man
named Chamberlain, prime minister to a king, carried an umbrella — were
it not for the fact that Neville (1869-1940) usually carried it closed and
pointed downward. Living at what many recent observers have considered the end
of an age, or a particular (secular) consciousness, Western society in general
and scholars in particular are, more often than not, insensitive, if not
oblivious, to reality as it was understood in antiquity. And this lack of
understanding is especially troublesome since our social and political
theories, institutions, and laws are all ultimately rooted deeply in the past
— to say nothing of a collective nature of our consciousness (or either a
theoretical unconscious or some supposed deep structures of our languages).

Our difficulties in comprehending the
past are themselves a product of the past. Unquestioned assumptions deriving
from Platonic idealism and Aristotelian either/or logic, for example, have
trapped scholarship in its own categories for countless generations — and
not just regarding ethics and aesthetics. In studies of divine kingship one can
find seemingly endless confusion as to what a king is, what a god is, and how a
king could be divine.2 Puzzlement is often expressed at how a king could be so naive as to claim
world-rulership while being fully aware of another sovereign who ruled (and
threatened) just beyond the border. Many students of Southeast Asia despair of
understanding how a seeming plethora of religions could coexist and thrive.
Some questions seem to be insoluble, for instance, how an avowedly Theravada
ruler such as Kyanzittha of Burma could simultaneously claim to be Avatar of
Visnu and also allow Abèyadana to build a Mahayanist temple at his capital of
Pagán or how the Buddhist Borobudur and the Hindu Prambanan complexes could be
built in such relative space/time proximity in ancient Java. This should not
really be surprising, though, for even contemporary Asian scholars are
handicapped by their Western-style education which conditions them to perceive
data within Greek philosophical constructs that are inadequate to deal with the
world (and especially religion and kingship) as it was understood by those who
did not imbibe that lethe which
characterized the Greek style of rationalism.

Many conflicting ideas exist as to the
nature of the institution of divine kingship. This is not surprising, however,
because our blindness to ancient forms also has its roots deep in the past. I
see misunderstandings dating at least as far back as the early Greek polis — or at least the first
performances of Oedipus. Post-Renaissance scholarship has seen this drama as the working out of almost
every theme except as a political satire (and the radical implications of this
position for psychoanalytic theory, mythology, and comparative literature are
intended!). Yet if one examines the type of royal/ritual marriage common in the
ancient world and the relationship of the hieros
to succession (and this, whether by sister-marriage of a Pharaoh in
Egypt, marriage of a hero to the queen of a deceased king as in the case of
Jocasta, the union of a conqueror or hero to a crown princess, or whatever
variation of the theme one finds), it is apparent that an early Greek audience
would not have seen the play uniquely as a tragedy, Aristotle’s rather late
evaluation notwithstanding. Oedipus was clearly a commentary on the political systems of some of the Greeks’
neighboring states, though it may not have been recognized as being relevant to
their own past. At that period there was already visible movement toward
“modern” consciousness.

An ancient case in point reaches back
to the earliest Hellenistic contact with the Eastern world. In few things did
Alexander offend his fellow Macedonians as much as in his accepting and
encouraging conquered peoples to treat him as divine (or more accurately, as a
divine king). In Egypt he was given the title (among others) of Horus —
as conqueror he was the de facto Pharaoh and was accepted as such — and legitimized with the spread of the
story that he was the natural son of Nectanebo, the last legitimate Pharaoh,
who had in typical Osiris style visited Olympias as a snake and begotten
Alexander. Philip was left out of the picture.3 In Asia there was
contention as Alexander’s countrymen refused to prostrate themselves before him
according to oriental custom. Alexander probably recognized the practical
political value of conforming to local custom, but the irritation it caused
highlights the growing difference between Eastern and Greek-influenced

What Is a Divine King?

In antiquity kings were usually men.
Rarely, however, were they merely men. Ken Angrok, the thirteenth-century
Javanese hero/trickster/criminal/goldsmith/usurper/king, for instance, is
described in the Pararaton (Book of
Kings)4 as a literal
son of the god Brahma and a peasant woman, the adopted son of Siva,
and an incarnation of Visnu. Lesser-born figures such as Burma’s Kyanzittha
were nevertheless likely to be given “the anointing of the head with Indra’s
anointment,”5 and
in spite of Theravada concepts of atheism, to be addressed with the same title
purha — which was used
to refer to the Buddha. Few ancient scribes took the care to distinguish
between the most exalted purha and a
living purha, either.6 The “Theravadin”
Burmese went so far as to describe their king Kyanzittha as

the exalted mighty
universal monarch, who rides upon a white elephant, the omniscient [one], the
Bodhisattva, who shall verily become a Buddha that saves [and] redeems all
beings, who is great in love [and] compassion for all beings at all times, who
upholds the religion of the Lord Buddha, who is exalted above all other kings
that [dwell in?] all the four quarters . . . without exception . . . who was
foretold by the Lord Buddha . . . who is to become a true Buddha.7

Kings were, first of all, exceptional
men. They were supposed to be physically perfect, without blemishes or
impairments.8 The
well-being of the cosmos was to be seen reflected in their physical well-being.
This requirement of physical completeness was one way of diminishing
competition for the throne by near relatives (especially half-brothers). Coedès records from Cambodia,
for instance: “On the day that a new king is proclaimed, all his brothers
are mutilated. From one a finger is removed, from another the nose is cut off.
Then their maintenance is provided for, each in a separate place, and they are
never appointed to office.”9 John Cady emphasized
how it was customary to purge contenders, especially the sons of ranking
queens, when a change of rulers occurred.10

Beyond bearing all of the physical
traits and signs of kingship, the king must be a man of prowess.
Notwith-standing Georges Dumézil’s analysis of the Indo-European tradition
into threefold categories of warrior, king, and priest, the functions of these
three often merge or are indistinguishable. The king usually takes the role of
priest on behalf of his people, and the warrior/hero is a candidate for king
extraordinaire. When Professor Luce discusses the controversial Makuta
inscription in his magnum opus, Old Burma
— Early Pagán
, he betrays a predictable Western puzzlement at the lack
of boundaries between what are, for moderns, disrete categories. He asserts
that Makuta “does not sound quite like a hereditary sovereign. Was he not
just a war-lord, popularly elected to meet a sudden threat of war?”11 His question sounds
strange from a comparative perspective if one goes back — to the
“beginning,” as it were — to when Marduk was elected as a
“war lord” and king of the
gods. Whether one is born to rule and “proved” in the ritual combats
of the year rite, or is recognized by having conquered or defended the kingdom
and by marrying the just-widowed queen or being rewarded by marriage to the
crown-princess and named heir, it is the hero — the man of prowess
— who is destined to become king.12

Anciently, being elevated to kingship
was like ascending to heaven. In early India, ascribing the identity of a king
with the Hindu gods was nearly universal. This idea of incarnation carried over
into Buddhism, in fact it was implicit in Gautama’s being a Ksatriya by birth.
Professor Luce, in his discussion of the Jambupati or crowned Buddha image,
points out that very early the idea of Buddha as a divine king spread
throughout Southeast Asia, but that

Crowned Buddhas, in ancient India as in
Burma, are never wholly royal. The correlation and contrast between Monk and
King are there, and are intended. Seen in the ultimate perspective, the Wheel
of Dharma, turned by the Buddha, merges in the Wheel of Authority, turned by
the Cakravartin [world-ruler]. Pryzyluski has shown that before the first
century A.D., many traditions identified the Buddha with the Universal Monarch.
“For the primitive image of the sramana Gautama, humbly clad in coarse pamsukula (rags from the dust-heap), was substituted that of Buddha-Cakravartin, dressed
in royal robes.”13

The divine king, as representative if
not the person of a people’s god or gods, has many responsibilities. He insures
the welfare of the kingdom — political, economic, social — and this
is a manifestation of his broader legitimacy and potency. His worthiness is
questioned as problems arise, and his illness or weakness bodes ill (if not
requiring the king’s death or replacement).14 Scholars are
handicapped in understanding such systems not only by the concepts of
immutability and perfection/completeness which Greek philosophy ascribed to
God, but by the obviously tenuous political status of divine kings as well.
Many are chary of believing that any people would have been so credulous as to
accept an individual as divine and to
consider him answerable with his life for the well-being of the cosmos as
reflected both in the heavens and in the stability and fecundity of the
kingdom. This contrast becomes stark through comparison to the politically
expedient and particularly “Greek” “divine right of kings”
espoused by the Stuart kings — the model that most reflects the Western
perspective. While in the West it came to be said that a king was only bound to
answer to God, a divine king, while not subject to a plebiscite per se, operated in a completely
different milieu.15

The Ideology of Expansion

Western writers read the claims of
ancient kings to world-rulership with amusement at people’s gullibility or with
disgust at pretentious oriental rhetoric and flattery. One is often asked how a
Burmese or a Javanese ruler, for example, could pretend to the title of
world-ruler, knowing that among other kingdoms, China (to whom they usually
paid tributes) lay to the north and India to the west. While the religious and
ritual significance of these claims will be discussed below, the spatial
perspective must first be outlined.

The roles of the king have their cosmic
analogues. As many peoples viewed their god as having organized matter out of
chaos and as having created the world, so too their king by his personal presence
and power must organize the world both religiously and politically and insure
its order. The canopies of the umbrellas carried over the heads of the kings,
whether in Africa, Southeast Asia, or elsewhere, signified — as did, to a
lesser degree, the umbrellas of ministers with delegated authority and those of
vassal-kings — the expanse of the heavens. This symbol can be found in
earliest times in the umbrella-like roof of the tent of a nomad chief and later
in the tentlike canopy over a king’s throne.16 The staff of the
umbrella was the link or connection between earth and heaven and an indication
that the world was ordered. If the king were not seen as personifying that
link, he was principally responsible for maintaining it — the guardian
and priest of the cosmic tree.17 However his
responsibility was formally pictured, the king maintained contact between earth
and heaven and thereby ordered the earth. From the very person of the king
extended the lands to the cardinal points, and accordingly many kings were
known as lord “of the four points of the compass.”18 No matter that other
kingdoms existed, the mandala of
creation and the center of the cosmos were recognized in the king. Those areas
outside the king’s control, though ruled and inhabited by others, were chaotic
by definition. They became ordered when his reign was extended to them. The
kingdom, capital, palace, temple, and ultimately the king’s tomb all reflected
the organization of space and life around the divine center and point of
connection with the heavens. In his role as organizer and definer of the world,
the king was also able to perform such tasks as recognizing holy sites and
founding cities.19 It
should not be surprising that the religious responsibility to sacralize
territory was held by the same person — the king — who was under an
imperative to maintain and expand the realm through military action. The divine
king’s political roles were a mere reflection of macrocosmic reality.

The forces of evil and disorder never
rest, and the king must therefore periodically renew the order of the cosmos.
This ritual renewal (acted out in year rites in which the king victoriously
combats chaos/death, participates in a sacred marriage with its promise of
fertility, etc.) preserves and extends order in the world. Often in the
earliest records, and as late as the nineteenth century in the kingdoms of
Central Africa which claimed an Egyptian origin for themselves, the king would
be sacrificed when signs were discerned that his strength or potency was diminishing.
It is not surprising, however, that substitute sacrifices were developed, or
that kings encouraged such changes. Games, races, and ritual combats all
symbolized the struggle by the forces of order for victory over chaos.20 When the king’s death
was simulated (a substitute being killed in his stead), he would emerge
victorious from the tomb, and stability would be insured. But the king’s
victory was not immediate and did not go unchallenged.

A usurper, often having “murdered”
the king, asserted control momentarily. This lord of misrule would subsequently
be killed or driven away, and the king would reassume the throne. But before
the king’s triumphant revival, the usurper baldly asserted that he was the god
of this world and took control. Ceremonially, the world was often represented
in the form of the throne itself (frequently a lion throne), which often served
as altar and royal bed as well. Recently, N. Falk recognized the king’s
conquest of the wilderness as a royal ordeal.21 The conquest is a
struggle for possession of the throne. It is acted out frequently, in the
king’s pleasure park/garden/paradise/hunting preserve or symbolic wilderness.

Ms. Falk points out that Buddhist
sculpture which depicts the conflict between the Buddha and Mara under the Bodhi
tree shows the Buddha picked as the perfect spot to attain enlightenment a yaksha-caitya, or tree with the usual
stone throne beneath it — in this case the throne from which Mara claims to
rule. The Buddha’s choice was an explicit challenge to Mara’s claim. Ms. Falk

Mara, lord of death and desire —
that is, of the realm of samsara — becomes aware of what is going on. He therefore attacks the bodhisattva in an attempt to remove him
from the seat. . . . Mara challenges the bodhisattva saying in effect: “The seat is mine, for I have given the most
gifts.” The bodhisattva claims
the seat, on the same basis, and calls the earth to witness his generosity. He
retains the seat and that same night attains to enlightenment.22

Ms. Falk concludes that this clearly
depicts a struggle for kingship — generosity being the basis for claiming
a royal throne in India, as elsewhere.23 For some time I have
been interested in a Burmese variant of this same text in which Mara (rather than
the Buddha) strikes the earth with his hand and makes a terrible noise and,
having failed to drive away the Buddha and the hosts that attended him,
withdraws his armies in a great temper of anger.24 When the Buddha
refuses to worship Mara, the latter’s claim to be the god of this world stands

While in many texts the animal kingdom
accedes to the sovereignty of a divine king, men are not always so submissive,
and political dominion is most often achieved through warfare or the threat
(implied or explicit) of force. The Buddha differs from Mara in that he wins
converts by precept and example rather than by force. Every divine king makes
the pretense of being a Cosmocrator and center of the universe — it is de rigueur, part of his role by
definition. Usually such a world-ruler demonstrates the legitimacy of his
kingship not just by ritual combats, however, but by military protection and
expansion of his territories, rolling forth, as it were, to fill the entire
earth. The purpose of such expansion is not to acquire Lebensraum, but to drive back the forces of chaos. The divine king
must always demonstrate his merit, and is thereby driven to a constant
bellicose attitude, if not an actual state of war. Overlordship (even while in
a vassal or tribute relation with another more powerful suzerain), either by
military conquest or through accepting voluntary submission and granting
protection to a weaker lord, is a sign of heaven’s favor.

Finding Unity in a Man

An unavoidable consequence of the
expansionism incumbent on divine kings was the difficulty of maintaining unity.
Once the frontiers of the king’s own ethnic/religious group’s territory were
crossed and other peoples were conquered or voluntarily rendered fealty, the
problem of winning hearts and minds — gaining their loyalty —
became important. Oaths of loyalty, like chastity belts, are a contradictio in adjecto, and do not
solve the problem.25 “Nationalism” as a means for uniting diverse peoples, if it succeeds
at all, is always based on perceived self-interest — and few foundations
could better be termed a will-of-the-wisp. Conquered or vassal states that
submitted to an overlord were, as often as not, of different language and
culture backgrounds. They might have had little or nothing in common with a
king’s people except the taxes they paid and the person of the king.
Ultimately, the only common denominator which divine kings had to offer to
unite their various subjects was their royal and divine person. It was in the
king that fusion could occur, and through him that syncretism took place.

The divine king, serving as an
interface between cultures, was inevitably a multivalent symbol. One could
recall the multiple political titles of the Queen of England (a political
though not a divine kingdom). Each title reflects a people conquered or
assimilated (though hardly unified, as events in Ulster and calls for Scots
separatism that flowed from the economic promise of North Channel oil
eloquently testify). The titles themselves reflect that the ruler of anything
larger than the smallest kin-based group must stand for very different things
to different people. On the other hand, the titles of divine kings represent
the symbolic ritual functions which the divine king performs as the vicar if
not the incarnation of each subject people’s deity. The multiple crowns and
ritual functions of Egypt’s pharaohs are an obvious case in point.

Every people required connection with
the divine, and that connection was embodied in the king.26 The king’s year was
the sacred ritual year, from New Year to New Year, and he was the primary
religious and political actor. The royal progress, which will be discussed below,
reflected not only political necessity but ritual responsibility as well. While
virtually every religious group had its priesthood and presiding figures, the
high priest was most often merely a facilitator. The king was the nexus of the
cosmic and the mundane, and the priests performed the highest initiation and
conferred the highest keys on the person of the king. It was in his presence or
on his person that the most sacred rituals and the highest mysteries had to be
performed, and the divine king became the gnostic par excellence, holding the knowledge, power, and authority upon
which the welfare and salvation of his subjects depended. With each royal
progress through his domains, and at the beginning of each new age (year) in
his capital, the king was reordained as the head of each cult and therefore of
each people under his suzerainty.

While divine kings initially may have
been partial toward their own concept of divinity, being a “defender of
the faith” as it were, these same rulers almost inevitably brought about
the dilution of their belief as their power spread and they extended their rule
and “religion” over greater areas. By becoming head of the cults of
conquered peoples, the king began the process of assimilation and confusion
whether he wanted to or not. A very necessary Realpolitik was in direct conflict with any “missionary”
zeal the king might have had, and divine kingship patterns, I am suggesting,
were a primary cause of religious syncretism in antiquity. Professor Luce
recognizes one aspect of the problem when he discusses how Kyanzittha tried,
with his priest Shin Arahan, “to lead Burma fast into the Theravada
fold”: “[he] found by experience (like the Indo-Greeks of Gandhara)
that the most effective way to teach them Buddhism was to give them a large
number of images to worship.”27

Their Theravadin commitment, however,
rapidly seems to have given way to larger national priorities:

Under the aegis of Buddhism —
chiefly, but not only the Theravada — [of] Buddhism of a wide syncretistic
kind, embracing not only Mahayanism and the earlier Tantric schools of East Bengal,
but also the old Vedic and Brahmanic cults (excluding sacrifice),
especially Vaisnavism, whose influence was deep in lower Burma, both among the
Mon and Pyu, heedful also of the old Naga-worship of the north, of native
Burmese animism . . . of the clan-spirits (kindok)
and spirit-mediums (don) of the
ancient Mons, perhaps even of aboriginal totemism — he seems to have striven,
with the help of his mahathera Arahan, to lay a broad and strong foundation for
a united Burma.28

This unification through syncretism
cannot be accounted for in terms of the character of any one of these
religions, however. Professor Coedès exhibits a basic
misunderstanding of popular Southeast Asian religion, what I have called the
Theravadin trap,29 when
he writes: “Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, in the special form of royal
and personal cults, were religions that were hardly suited to the masses; this
explains the ease and speed with which the masses adopted Singhalese
Buddhism.”30 In
fact, only by being mixed with indigenous cults through royal patronage did
Theravada Buddhism become widespread in Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism itself,
as it was exported from Sri Lanka, was above all a royal cult, and a
continuation of a very old yaksha cult.31

Just because divine kingship practices
filled very pragmatic political needs, or at least attempted to, it does not
necessarily follow that those who were involved were cynical or opportunistic
in their religious practices. Even in deposing a ruler, many probably felt they
were following heaven’s mandate, rather than self-interest. Regardless of the
sincerity of a pretender or usurper, however, the system entailed several
imperatives. In attempting coups, as well as in disputes of succession, beyond
the strategic considerations and necessities (e.g., military alliances, some
loyal following) and tactical opportunities, certain more specifically
religious actions were necessary. The first involved filling the “power
vacuum” that resulted with the removal of a king, which entailed being
ordained or initiated into as many cults as possible, both to secure the
loyalty of those peoples and to insure the uninterrupted ritual stability of
the cosmos. If there were several claimants (as in the case of several sons
each claiming the right of succession at the death of his father) with
different powerbases and regional alliances within the kingdom, this could
result in very quick tours around the country to various religious
establishments in order to be ordained and have conferred the keys of as many
cults as possible, thus enhancing the image of the claimant’s legitimacy, as
well as resulting in battles with other pretenders and their allies. Royal
progresses by a new king from cult center to cult center insured a kind of
restoration of the keys to preside over the kingdom as a whole. The second
imperative was intimately related to the first and could be summarized by
saying that “marrying Jocasta was the rule.” Acquiring wives from
various local leaders would tend to build alliances, of course, but the ritual
role of the sacred-marriage cannot be ignored. On this point Professor Coedès also seems confused.
Writing of Pushkara (or Pushkaraksha), who became king at Sambhupura on the
Mekong in the eighth century, he remarks: “It has been suggested that he
obtained this royal status ‘by marriage’ but this is a gratuitous hypothesis;
we can just as easily hypothesize that he seized power because the throne was
vacant.”32 Rather than one action precluding the other, of course, both are compatible
means to the same end. With scarcely more evidence than in the former case,
Coedès recognizes
the obvious regarding Suryavarman’s eleventh-century claim to legitimacy in
ruling Cambodia both by descent from Indravarman, and through his wife back to
the son of Yasovarman: “We may have here an example of the legitimization
of power by means of marriage to the wife or daughter of a predecessor.”33

The legitimization of rule, the
potential for practical alliance-making, and the normal structure of year rites
and royal ritual combine to make not only marriage but some sort of polygyny
almost inevitable. Elaborate protocols were usually maintained, however, to
distinguish between “hostage” queens and “tribute” queens
of inferior status on the one hand, and “alliance” marriages between
equals and so forth on the other. Concubines generally occupied another status
altogether. Such multiple marriages seemed to promote political stability in
the short run, but as often as not led to disputes over succession between
potential heirs. It should surprise no one that the great kingdoms of antiquity
so frequently broke up at the end of the reign of particularly successful
kings. The crucial factor at this point, however, is that a queen, given in
marriage by a vassal to his overlord, would be the partner par excellence with whom to participate in the cult of that
particular people.

A divine king, after he was initiated
into the highest gnosis of each of his subjects’ cults, became the patron of
those cults as well. When he periodically renewed, through ritual, the
fertility and well-being of that land, he would often set aside lands for the
support of that priesthood, and so forth. Thus, the cults became beholden to
him. More importantly, in most cases the rituals of such cults were daily or at
least periodic in their rehearsal of the vital aspects of the year rite. For
that purpose the king would bring priests of each group to his capital and
maintain cult centers there. As priests traveled back and forth, they were
exposed to other systems. Religions coexisted and mixed (coincidentally or
not), precisely because it was necessary for the king to participate in and
patronize the cults of the gods of every people under his dominion. The price
of unity, as has been pointed out, was syncretism. Nevertheless, the royal
propensity to keep records and the cost of such activities (which was usually
borne by the king) often means that more can be known about a particular cult
through royal sources than from anywhere else. While many of these sources have
been relatively neglected in the study of Gnosticism, their pro-royal bias is
easier to deal with than when a writer’s bent is unknown, and such documents
would seem to provide not only evidence on the process of religious syncretism,
but also possibly the clearest picture of the nature of gnosis as it was
understood in a particular cult — and how it was communicated to the
highest initiate of that cult, the divine king.34

The Royal Progress

I do not pretend to offer any radically
new insights into the structure of the royal progress in general. Dr. Nibley
and others have far surpassed what I can hope to contribute there. Particular
Indian and Burmese cases will be mentioned as a prelude to treatment in the
next section of one Javanese text in particular, and a general corollary to a
working diffusionist hypothesis will be suggested: “often, the more things
change, the more they stay the same!”35 Nothing paradoxical is
intended in that statement. It simply implies that adaptation of a given
cultural pattern to its larger ecosystem is a prerequisite to its survival.
Thus, if in one culture the center of a cult-complex is a war-horse surrogate
for a king, in another place and time an elephant may be substituted for the
horse because it is the preferred animal for warfare, or somehow fits the new
ecosystem or culture-setting better. It should be easy to see how use of an
elephant might dictate other changes in ritual, as well, and yet the essential
form could be maintained.

There is historical evidence that the
institution of kingship persisted in India for at least three millennia. Over
such a time span it should not be surprising that the kingship rituals of India
as we know them are many and varied. Yet these rituals — the Cakravartin
year cycle or wheel ritual, the Dasapeya which bestowed the power of the New
Year on the king, the Nirajana with its yearly expiation, the Rajasuya in which
the king’s power is renewed, the Abishekaniya with its rebirth, the Vajapeya
where the king takes the ritual place of Prajapati (who was sacrificed to
create the cosmos), which entails among other things chariot races the king is
supposed to win, the Mangala, and for our purposes most important, the
Asvamedha or horse sacrifice — contain little to surprise the
comparativist. Each can and should be studied in isolation as a Ding in sich, as well as in the Indian
context, but to neglect the insights a comparative perspective and diffusionist
approach can provide may lose for us a vital dimension in our understanding of
them. W. F. Albright and P. E. Dumont’s fertile collaboration on “A
Parallel between Indic and Babylonian Sacrificial Ritual” should make this
evident to every student, though little work of this caliber has been produced
by more recent generations of scholars.36

Let us begin with the
Asvamedha, an Indian version of a royal progress. In it, a stallion,
perfect of body, was “allowed” to run “free” for a year
through all the king’s realms. The horse’s activities during the year were
nowhere so random as that might imply, however. The horse was accompanied by a
sizeable contingent of warriors, if not the king and his entire Court. The
horse was allowed to mate, it was to traverse all the lands ruled by the king,
and it was to end the year precisely where it began. Its course had to have
been carefully guided. Any lord who rejected the authority of the suzerain and
wished to assert his independence or superiority had only to resist the passage
of the stallion and its escorts across his lands. In fact, as each lord allowed
the court’s passage, tribute was paid and gifts were requited by the overlord.
As was the case with other progresses, the Asvamedha dramatized and
ritually reenacted

the original seizure and subduing of the land; it is always
the triumphant procession of a victor, pacifying the land, receiving formal
submission, suppressing rebellion, rewarding loyalty, imposing justice and
order on the world. . . . “The journeys and entertainment of the ruler . .
. appear as the result of the superimposing of the authority of nomadic
warriors over sedentary agrarians.”37

While from one perspective the
Asvamedha seems to entail tremendous expense, it is precisely in
making the circuit that revenues are collected, and it is not a
once-and-for-all enterprise. Just as elsewhere, it is to be repeated. As Jan
Gonda points out:

On every anniversary of the first
“coronation” the king should repeat the rites; this leads to welfare,
to increase of the country, to the destruction of enemies and so on. Then the
“inauguration” has become cyclic, annually carrying the ruler and his
realm beyond a difficult stage, and re-creating the beneficial power inherent
in kingship.38

Royal progresses are documented from
millennia before and after Christ. Whether or not one can demonstrate a
continuity from one in particular to another, sufficient similarities can be
noted to demonstrate their relatedness. For example, Professor Luce, in his
study “Old Kyauksè and the Coming of the Burmans,” argues that the
name of one town among those originally conquered by the Burmans: “Mrankhuntuin, ‘Horse-leaping Post’ . . .
recalls the great Asvamedha rite of horse-sacrifice . . . so the practice of horse-[sacrifice], and
doubtless other sacrifice was still widespread among the early Burmans.”39 At least one
contemporary Burmese scholar (a fervent nationalist) contests this
interpretation and goes so far as to state that the “Arvamdha [sic] was a
ritual known to vedic India but not to Southeast Asia.”40 This position is
absurd if by “known” the writer means to imply awareness. The Mahabharata
epic was known throughout the Indianized states of Southeast Asia, and its
description of the Asvamedha is more than sufficient to diffuse
essential details of the ritual. More substantial questions would involve
whether the ritual was actually practiced, whether the Burmese horse-sacrifice
was similar in anything more than that it entailed killing a horse, or whether
some distinct variant of the ritual evolved. To suggest a continuity from
Albright’s Babylonia through India in its epic period to Burma in the second
millennium A.D. might seem overly courageous. The question reduces, however, to
whether the apparent survival of certain elements and the seeming adaptation of
others justifies asserting that a continuity exists, rather than the perpetuation
of an anachronism or a revival of misunderstood and out-of-context fragments
culled from ancient lore.

A record that suggests the persistence
and adaptation of such practices comes from the reign of Kyanzittha, the ruler,
who first unified what constitutes most of modern Burma in the late eleventh
and early twelfth centuries A.D. Among other things, besides building many
national shrines and temples and endowing priestly colleges and cult centers,
he imported much of Singhalese Buddhist practice. In the intercourse that
followed, a replica of the Buddha tooth-relic from the Temple of the Tooth at
Kandy was miraculously produced and sent to Burma. According to the Glass Palace Chronicle, Kyanzittha, at
the behest of his high priest Arahan, placed the tooth-relic on the back of a
sacred white elephant (one of the vital signs of Southeast Asian kingship) and
determined and covenanted to build a zedi to house it wherever the animal might kneel (in the first instance at the
national shrine, the Shwezigon). We should not find it surprising that at that
point the tooth miraculously reduplicated itself and one relic was left at the
shrine, while the elephant proceeded to Mt. Tangyi where the process repeated
itself as it did again and again throughout Burma.41 What is being
suggested, of course, is that the peregrinations of the white elephant are
substituted for those of the horse, while the basic religiopolitical
significance of the act persists. Escorting the royal elephant over the
countryside and building shrines where it knelt was an outright assertion of
sovereignty. There were other ways to do this, of course. But this one was
chosen. More than the symbolic presence of the king/cult was involved. In the
end there was the physical presence of the person of the king traveling the

The Nagara-Kertagama

From Java comes a text with remarkable
comparative potential. The Nagara-Kertagama (The Kingdom Which Is Ordered according to Holy Tradition, as it is called in a
colophon) is the product of a court poet and priest, the rakawi Prapanca, for the benefit of Rajasanagara (or Hayam Wuruk,
as he is also known), king of the fourteenth-century Majapahit empire of Java.
The other title given in the only manuscript known — Deca Warnana (Description of Country) — while preferred by
most scholars, does not, from my perspective, adequately reflect the ritual
content and nature of the text. While the Nagara-Kertagama is unique in its length and richness as a resource for fourteenth-century and
earlier Majapahit historical and cultural studies, from another perspective it
is predictable and stereotyped — almost a cliché. I do not mean to
diminish its value in any way by that statement. The text is invaluable because
it contains a detailed record of one of many royal progresses made by
Rajasanagara, a description of an annual court festival (year rite), and other
details of life and politics in general. It illustrates the survival of ancient
rituals of kingship into the fourteenth century A.D. — not as bits and
pieces but as meaningful wholes — and exposes how they were perhaps
adapted to changing environments, while maintaining an essential integrity.
Moreover, if one were to prepare a composite or ideal-type model of ancient
kingship patterns, this very recent case would seem to be more complete than
many, though not all,42 that are older. That is meant as a commentary on the condition of many ancient
records, however, rather than a denial of the persistence of ritual and the
ancient Weltanschauung.

The Nagara-Kertagama text has gone through several editions, the latest and most complete being that
of Professor Pigeaud, to whose work I shall refer here.43 While the text is in
Javanese, Professor Pigeaud points out that it is “a product of high
poetical schooling conforming as far as possible to Sanskrit prosody and kawya rules.”44 The earliest records
from Java are engraved copper plates and stone slabs that date to the ninth
century. The Nagara-Kertagama text
was preserved on a palm-leaf manuscript of the type familiar throughout South
and Southeast Asia. The text employs chronograms and other mnemonic devices
(many of which may remain undeciphered today because as students of Southeast
Asia have recognized, many ritual texts were mere prompters that accompanied a
much more secret oral tradition, as exemplified in the Naxi script used in the
southwestern Yunnan), which suggest that it may have been intended for
recitation. While Saka dates are
given, the Javanese calendar cannot be correlated exactly to India’s. One might
expect that either the royal progresses or the annual court rite at the capital
would take place in the first month of the year (Kasa), for example. But the
progress for which we have the best record (that of Saka A.D. 1281 or 1359) took place in the month Bhadra
(August-September), which, as Pigeaud points out, is at the end of the
“cold” season and “in the middle of the East Java monsoon, the
dry season. This season of course was the only time suited for travelling.
During the West monsoon the roads were made impassable by the rains, and the
rivers were difficult to cross.”45 Such adaptations, as
will be seen below, are to be expected. While the Saka calendar is a solar/lunar calendar of 365 days, other
complications arise because another calendar year of 210 days (30 weeks of 7
days each) was concurrently followed to observe the sacred wuku year.46 The two new years were rarely, if ever, exactly in phase with each other. Thus, this text presents many unsolved
(and perhaps insoluble) problems for scholars. The value of the information it
provides far outweighs the difficulties, though.

Majapahit was at the point of its
greatest development during the reign of Rajasanagara.47 Many diverse cultures
and peoples were united under his rule. While scholars may debate the degree of
overstatement and objectivity on the part of the court poet in his description
and adulation, the common discussion of whether the king actively ruled over an
equivalent of modern Indonesia and part of Malaysia, or was at the center of a
“sphere of influence” and received tribute or some form of
“token submission” from the more distant domains, and whether those
domains were in large part “internally self-governing,” betrays a
significant lack of understanding of the institution of ancient kingship generally
and is irrelevant to our discussion. The main thing, for our purposes, is that
what those kingdoms are reported to have done fits a pattern and reflects
certain understandings as to the “ideal” nature of relations between
kingdoms and kings that is revealing in itself. One thing is certain. An
attempt was made to describe the order of the kingdom according to holy

Majapahit court religion, as commonly
described, was a syncretism of Siva-Bhairava worship and Tantric Buddhism of
the Kalachakra school. This picture is manifestly oversimplified, and the
Majapahit royal compound itself was described as containing various Buddhist,
Sivite, Visnuite, and chthonic shrines. Residences were provided for numerous
groups of priests nearby. The text also makes reference to numerous Hindu and
Buddhist centers of Tantric and non-Tantric orientation throughout the country:
cult centers, monasteries, shrines, estates, and vestiges of earlier systems as
well. The king is described as participating in some form of worship at virtually
every cultestablishment mentioned in the record. In fact, the whole text could
be viewed as a history of the ritual of
the realm.

The text begins with a dedication to
the Siva-Buddha (1.1.1), but by the end of the first stanza it says “there
is an apparition of Him in the world” (1.1.4).48 The entire first canto
stresses the divine identities of Rajasanagara and how he was a Prabhu at birth
(1.4.1), born to the purple. Throughout the text the king’s superiority is
emphasized, as might be expected. It is said “verily he is a divine
incarnation in the material (world)” (73.1.1-4). Besides his divinity he
is described as a “world-conquering Prabhu
(7.1.1) and “supreme Ruler of the world” (12.4.4). Cantos 13 through
16 list tributaries. Whatever the real extent of his rule, Rajasanagara
maintained trade relations with all of Asia (83.4). The world was ordered
because of his presence and virtue, the protocols of caste were observed and
sinners repented (1.5.3, 4).

Cantos 8 through 12 discuss the capital
and the royal compound. The palace, a long hall where court was held, the
residences of other royal officers, and the large field where the annual
festivals were held seem to have been located in four quadrangles of uncertain
scale, intersected near the palace by “the cross-roads, sacred,
imposing” (8.2.4). Here, at the center of the town and kingdom,
“every month Caitra [March-April] it is the meeting-place of the Royal servants’ assembly”
(8.2.4). This annual coronation/renewal is elsewhere said to occur “every
month Phalguna [February-March]”
when “the Illustrious Prince is offered paripuja (procession worship), celebrated in his own Royal
residence” (83.5.1). The festival actually extended through parts of both
months (85.1).49 Traders and royal emissaries from other seagoing powers were in the port of
Majapahit at this time, waiting for the change of the monsoon winds to return to
their ports or their next stop. It would have been impossible for monsoon-blown
traders, travelers, and tributaries to attend New Year rites at Majapahit (or
Singasari) at another time of year. For many reasons such as this one, year
rites were repeated and rehearsed in several parts of a given kingdom a number
of times in a particular year. First-fruits offerings from a given crop will be
harvested when they will, for example, and a calendar might be modified in
accord with such circumstances. Often, though, the original New Year and other
rites persist, and other observances are added, keeping the king constantly on
the move and coincidentally in continual review of his many stewards and

Thus, the entire year comes to be
occupied with rituals which perpetuate and renew the cosmos and the kingship
— to say nothing of practical political ends. The king’s year and the
ritual year were one. If one restricts the definition of a new year rite to the
period of time commencing with the parties on the evening of December 31 until
the bowl games are over on January 1, or, for that matter, to the eleven days
of the akitu festival, the multiple
purposes of the year rites and the adaptability of diffused culture-patterns to
local environmental constraints will be missed. This is not to say that everything the king did was necessarily
part of a year rite (though in Egypt, for instance, certain acts were repeated
daily). There would be little explanatory value in the concept were that the
case. But records of particular events should not be ignored in regard to their
relationship to the ancient pattern simply because they do not jibe with a
strict calendar definition of the New Year. When a kingdom is known to have
followed several calendars this becomes more obvious, of course.

The royal progress of Saka 1281 is described beginning with
Canto 17. I take definite exception to Pigeaud’s and Zoetmulder’s view that
Cantos 38.3 through 54.3 are “intermezzos” inserted because of
antiquarian or literary considerations by the poet.51 To the contrary I see
the narrative extending continuously from Canto 17 through Canto 60. The royal
progress was clearly an annual affair: “Every time at the end of the cold
season He makes a tour, diverting himself” (17.4.1). The obvious goal of
the progress of Saka 1281 is
Singasari, the old capital as well as the cult center of Rajasanagara’s
ancestors, and it is from Singasari that the king is said to be “making
ready to go home, longing for the charms of his own town” (55.2.1). While
I shall discuss other features of the progress momentarily, the so-called
“intermezzos” must first be explained.

While with other commentators we can
wish Prapanca had said more about the details of ancestor worship and other
cultic observances in Singasari, there is no question that when the king
arrived “in Singasari he entered His sojourning-place finally”
(38.3.2) and that while there he stayed in the royal dharma or religious domain (35.1.4). The supposed literary devices
begin with the king’s arrival. The first poetic “insertion” (38.3
through 49) is dismissed by other scholars as nothing more than the poet’s
inclusion of a recitation by an old Buddhist official of the genealogy of the
dynasty of Singasari, their royal fortunes, their religious domains, and the
cultic work for the dead that was established for each ancestor’s benefit. The
living king, of course, worshipped these ancestors, and to neglect the
possibility of a relationship between the rituals of ancestor worship and the
inclusion of a long genealogical/historical passage is astounding. The purpose
of the visit to Singasari was ritual. Generally in Java, once a capital was
conquered and then retaken, it was abandoned as the capital and another
erected. The oldest seat of the dynasty was the ideal place for rehearsing the
drama of creation itself. The second supposed poetic insertion directly follows
the first. It is assumed to be a “fancied” description of a royal
hunt in the countryside around Singasari. In fact it is clearly a ritual hunt,
and quite appropriately part of a royal progress. It begins with a battue (50.2). Once encircled, the
animals hold a conference, presided over by the lion, the “game-animals’
Monarch” (50.6.3), at whose side “the jackal, entering into the
Presence, [was] not frightened” (50.6.4). The question of the day was the
policy to follow — what conduct was proper. It was crucial to uphold the
law (dharma). Some advocated flight,
others resistance. The lion, having heard the two plans proposed, answered that
if the threat came from “bad people, wahya (worldly) should be the conduct: run or struggle” (41.4.3).

Concerning the case, though, that you
should be found in the activity of the Prince, hunting, simply await death,
offer your life, do not be reluctant [51.5.3, 4]. For a Prince is proper to be
an instrument to take away life of creation. Lord Giripati (Shiwa) is
incarnated in Him, being the paramount Prabhu. It is clear that shall disappear the evil (the sins) of anybody who will die by
His killing [51.6.1-3].

As is typical of royal (ritual) hunts,
what we have here is a classic assertion of the divine king’s “right”
to rule, being the god of this world and holding, Nimrod-like, that great
secret, the power over life and death in his hands.52 There follows an
almost comic scene in which servants, mandarins, and priests alike are
scattered or wounded by the animals. Into the chaos rides the king. “He
made for the centre of that innermost wilderness, following the game,
whichsoever caused fear” (54.1.3). “Exterminated were the animals,
thrusted, lanced, cut, crissed, dying without a gasp” (54.2.4). Rather
than poetic intermezzos, these two passages represent the most explicit kinds
of ritual assertions of Rajasanagara’s status as lord of creation and
Cosmocrator, taking place at the cult center where the kingdom and the world-order
originated. Instead of being accidental insertions, these sections are
essential to the purpose of the narrative as a whole, and to the maintenance of
the order of creation in the kingdom.

The progress itself consisted of a
large caravan of carts — its number increasing at each stop. Queens,
mandarins, headmen, priests of many cults, the poet-scribe — in other
words the entire court — all make the journey. The king rode in a
palanquin — the focus of the entourage. At each religious center on the
route rituals were performed. At each stop local leaders and
commoners alike pressed forward to give gifts. The rulers of Bali and Madura
came as well. “All of them submissively offered hatur (homage) presents, all of them trying to outvie each other:
pigs, sheep, buffaloes, cattle, fowls, dogs . . . were accepted in succession
(28.2.1-3).” At each place the king requited the gifts with cloth, money,
lands, titles, or whatever was needed locally, perhaps. There were sporting
contests, and at several points the king took new wives (27.1.4, 31-34). All
the subjects were pleased, and “the common people then praised (His
bounty)” (28.3.4). The text contains much more regarding this and the
progresses of other years, along with more specifically political records, the
final funeral rites for the dead Queen Mother — work necessary for the
welfare of her soul — and a description of the year rite in the capital
of Majapahit.

Cantos 83.4 through 91.9 give a general
description of the year rite at the sacred crossroads in the center of the
kingdom. The mandarins of the entire land came (83.5.2). There were
first-fruits offerings (83.5.3). An order of worship involving portable
pavilions (83.6.1), sacrifices (83.6.3), and such was followed. The king was
carried about in the “jewel-singhasana (lion throne palanquin)” (84.3.1). All the people, commoners and those of
rank, gathered at the great field (84.6). The poet omits a direct description
of the consecration (84.7.2), though we do not know whether this was because of
the sacred or secret character of the rite, or its commonplaceness. A great
assembly is held with the purpose of preventing the people from falling into
error, and they are told “they have to follow the ‘Teachings of the Raja
Kapa-kapa (Kings of yore),’ [which are] always every Caitra [March-April] read (to them)” (85.2.1, 2). On the empty
plain or great field at Bubat a temporary camp is erected on the same plan as
the royal compound itself (86.3.3). There are games and gambling (87.2-3),
feasting (89.5, 90.1-2), and drinking of spirits (90.3). There is always enough
of everything, even for the drunkard. “If there are people addicted (to
drinking) just as well they are visited, their liquor is all-surpassing. Nor
does it occur that (the Princes) censure them for their faults, completely they
are covered up (90.5.2-3).”53 All praise the king’s
bounty and finally return home. As was said at the outset, this text is, if
anything, a cliché. But while it is quite predictable, its detail, placed in
the context of comparative data, is quite illuminating.

Inconclusive Unscientific Postscript

In summary, as one reviews the cultures
of antiquity, it is apparent that systems of divine kingship were the rule, and
that the Greek polis was an
exception. The divine king came to power through religious ritual, especially
the ritual of marriage. The divine king was the highest initiate into the
secret, saving knowledge (gnosis) of his religion and the religions of the
peoples he conquered. Usually he was regarded as an incarnation of the god of
that people as well. One of the primary roles of the gods was to create —
that is to organize or order the cosmos. That duty to organize matter and
defeat chaos translated itself in the “real” world into an imperative
for political stability and territorial expansionism, usually by military means
— driving back the forces of disorder. Success in maintaining and
extending his reign, however, created another problem for the divine king
— achieving unity. Having achieved a military/political sovereignty, the
divine king was in a position to be a unifying force, since as ruler he
automatically fell heir to the ritual role of god-on-earth to each conquered
people, as well as his own. As the divine king filled the religious
responsibilities incumbent on him, however, he also brought about the confusing
of the various religions in his person, as well as the intermingling of the
priesthoods and cults of each people within the context of the royal
establishment — in the court at his capital, and in the circuit of the
court about his realm in the royal progress (whatever form it took). As the
various priesthoods and religions not only coexisted but had to adapt their
rites so as not to conflict with those of other groups, all of whom had their
part in court ritual, in time beliefs were changed as well. Also, the king’s
involvement with the various groups went beyond ritual participation and fiscal
patronage — often as far as settling disputes over belief and appointing
or legitimizing the leaders of the priesthoods of these religions. While the
process of religious syncretism resulting from a divine king’s effort to
achieve national unity can be seen most clearly in cases such as that of
Kyanzittha of Burma, a close examination of the structure of divine kingship
shows this to be a predictable rather than an exceptional result. In simple
words, then, political unity is achieved through compromising the integrity of
the religions.

For us as students of broader social
and personal religious questions (a task we cannot avoid, but usually do
badly), other lessons follow. As A. M. Hocart perceptively observed about Adolf
Hitler in the early 1930s while writing his important work Kings and Councillors,54 seeking a
savior/king to solve our problems and unify us in this secular age is fraught
with danger — a painfully accurate if secular “prophetic”
warning which is still timely.

Finally, while a call to return to
“old” or “conservative” political values — with a
promise of unity which will lead to stability, security, law, and order —
sounds attractive, we must not forget that the basis of such a condition among
men has been compromise and the dilution of religious principles in order to
promote political unity. Any man who
would present a program or movement to unite us against the forces of chaos
that seek to overcome us, any society that unites many people of very different
religions, must accommodate.55 Today there are no
divine kings that can order the earth; there is only politics. And as to
politics, the First Presidency’s letter of 20 July 1849 still rings true:

Never, no never, no never drag
Priesthood into a political Gentile warfare. Let no religious test be required,
or the holy influence and power of the Priesthood be brought to bear in any
political question. If the intrinsic merits of all such matters will not
furnish argument sufficient — for all necessary purposes, then let them
go, for it is better that the whole political fabric, corrupt as we know it to
be, should totter and go to destruction, than for one Saint to be offended.56


1. I must acknowledge
that Hugh Nibley opened my academic eyes and ears — the mouth, however, I
cannot blame on anyone except myself. Everything from his dissertation to his
latest article has influenced my thought and work. More importantly, while I
was his student and through him began to grasp the concept of total
consecration, I gained a desire to waste and wear myself out in this work.

2. For a general
background on divine kingship, besides the works of Hugh Nibley, see the
writings of S. H. Hooke, A. M. Hocart, and others. The work of such scholars is
sadly neglected compared with others who avoided comparativist analyses. In his
foreword to a reprinting of A. M. Hocart’s Kings
and Councillors
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), ix, the late
E. E. Evans-Pritchard made quite pointed and cogent remarks about the deficiencies
of the work of such men as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown when contrasted to
someone such as Hocart who, along with a brilliant analytical mind, brought
Greek, Sanskrit, and other language skills, together with a depth of
understanding of many cultures, to the task of describing and interpreting
other cultures. See also E. Washburn Hopkins’s article, “The Divinity of
Kings,” Journal of the American
Oriental Society
51 (December 1931): 309-16; A. Basu’s “Hindu Doctrine
of Divine Kingship,” in The Sacral
(Leiden: Brill, 1959), 167-71; and Jan Gonda’s article, “The
Sacred Character of Ancient Indian Kingship,” in the same volume, 172-80.

3. For a brief survey
see R. D. Milns, Alexander the Great (London: Robert Hale, 1968), 101.

4. Pararaton, ed. and tr. K. J. Padmapuspita (Jogjakarta: Penerbit Teman Siswa, 1966),
contains the Kawi text and an Indonesian translation. Pararaton, tr. R.
Pitono Hardjowardojo (Jakarta: Bhratara, 1965), contains only an Indonesian
version. While Dutch translations have been published, the Pararaton is not available in English.

5. Epigraphia Birmanica, vol. 1, part 2,
ed. Chas. Duroiselle (Rangoon: Supt., Govt. Printing and Stationery, Union of
Burma, 1960), 1:141.

6. Than Tun in
“Religion in Burma, A.D. 1000-1300,” Journal of Burma Research Society 42/2 (1959): 50-51.

7. Epigraphia Birmanica, 1:146.

8. Perhaps the best
discussion of the qualifications of a king is in the Mandean text of the 1,012
Questions. While it specifies the requirements for a priest, among the Mandeans
every priest is a malka br malkia (a
king, son of kings), and the means to union with the infinite. See especially
E. S. Drower, The Coronation of the Great
(Leiden: Brill, 1962).

9. George Coedès, The Indianized States of Southeast Asia (Honolulu: East-West Center
Press, 1968), 75.

10. John Cady, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966), 50, cf. also 61, 73.

11. Gordon H. Luce, Old Burma — Early Pagán 3 vols.
(Locust Valley, NY: Augustin, 1969), 1:25.

12. The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of
tr. Pe Maung Tin and Gordon H. Luce (London: Oxford University
Press, 1923), 30-33, contains a story of a hero, Sawhti/Minhti, who is supposed
to have slain a number of monsters which had oppressed the kingdom and against
which the king was powerless. Here we have an almost universal
“mythic” theme — a youth of noble birthright entering the
oppressed country, freeing the about-to-be sacrificed maidens from the monster,
being recognized by the king as of a royal “bone and race,” married
to the king’s daughter (Thirisandadevi), and proclaimed heir. I argue that
historical information can be derived from The
Glass Palace Chronicle
and other such records because they are histories of
the rituals of the realm.

13. Luce, Old Burma — Early Pagán 1:186. While Luce speaks of the
“spread” of Buddhist iconography, we can as easily say
“diffusion.” By “diffusion” this writer has no intention to
imply that a succession of cultures can be traced around the globe from a
single source, appearing to be cut with the same cookie cutter from the same
dough, or copied by some xerox-type process. If that thesis is advanced, it
raises more problems than it can possibly answer, and it has no more real
explanatory power than either the quasimystical or biogenetically based
depth-psychological models advanced by C. G. Jung and others for explaining
similarities between cultures vastly separated in space and time.

We have good reason
to suspect, on the other hand, the existence of multiple points in space/time
(dispensations) that might have functioned as centers of diffusion, but even
so, we must articulate our hypotheses and test them carefully, rather than
simply asserting them. The best metaphor I can offer for explaining a modern
general diffusionist hypothesis is by comparison with the plant world. Seeds,
having a basic genetic pattern, are (in fact designed to be) dispersed —
whether by the wind, by birds, on the fur or sometimes through the intestines
of animals, on floodwaters or with a man’s seed grain, etc. Similarly, certain
ideas, culture patterns, technologies, and so forth (or human genetic traits,
for that matter) can also be carried into or imported by a given group. But to
suggest that a knowledge of origin and the means of importation answers or
moots scholarly questions is not to follow the analogy far enough. The ecology
of a seed’s landing place is as important as the seed (cf. Matthew 13:3-8).
What influences plant growth? Soil characteristics, rainfall, hours of sunshine
per day, annual temperature variation — these are but a few of the
factors that can not only determine germination and growth in a new locale, but
can induce variation, selection, and ultimately, survival. How a seed of known
genetic characteristics grows in a new environment tells us as much about the
nature of the parent plant as it does about the offspring. The analogy goes
further. Will our plant, once flowered, cross-pollinate with indigenous plants?
Can it resist pests and diseases? Will it preserve essential characteristics or
become an effectively new organism? And what if a crossbred or
selection-adapted seed is somehow carried back to its point of origin or into
still another environment? Will the parent plant predominate, or the new plant?
This botanical analogy is offered as a model for a diffusionary hypothesis
because it reflects the dynamics of the particular case, while not allowing us
to neglect the broader historical context. Where diffusion has been used to end
discussion it has been as surely misused as has the dogma of independent

Diffusionism is not a panacea. Indeed,
it will, if employed carefully, greatly complicate our picture of the past and
invalidate many popularly held notions. The evidences available today of
Chinese, Southeast Asian, and South Asian influence in Mesoamerica are a prime
case in point. While some Americanists are now grudgingly examining evidences
of transoceanic contacts, it has rightly been pointed out that the real
question is not “Was there contact?” but rather “What was the
significance of the contact which occurred?” “Were contacts repeated?”
and “Did items diffuse in both directions?” and so forth.

Finally, those who would focus
exclusively on Mesoamerica in their search for materials that might lend
insight to an understanding of the Book of Mormon run the risk of neglecting
any insights that might be gained from the growing body of literature which
shows the interrelatedness of Andean and Mesoamerican civilizations. Those
peoples had commerce, shared aspects of their calendar system, and in many
other ways evidence almost continuous contact and mutual influence. The
cultures of Mesoamerica and the Andes without question had at least as much
contact with and influence on each other as either did with any Old World
peoples and civilizations.

14. For a brief
description of one kingdom in Central Africa which persisted almost into the
twentieth century, see John Beattie, Bunyoro:
An African Kingdom
(New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964), 27-28. A
number of the ex-ruling families of Central Africa claimed that their kingship
had Egyptian roots. With the excellent evidence that exists of these peoples
having migrated southward over the centuries and of conquering local peoples,
Egyptologists would do well, in spite of the time gaps involved, to examine
these peoples’ claims and their
institutions. On Southeast Asia see Robert Heine-Geldern, “Conceptions of
State and Kingship in Southeast Asia,” Data Paper: No. 18 (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University/Southeast Asia Program, 1956).

15. The rigidity of
Western categories is manifest in more than scholarship. In administering the
colonized kingdoms of the third world, Western powers, if they did not wholly
dispossess or exterminate a ruling class, recognized and used the old regime
for administrative purposes. The “rulers,” whose power and legitimacy
were undermined by military defeat and colonization, in turn exploited the
Western view of their class. Thus, disputes of succession and attempted coups
became cases of “sedition” and drew heavy reprisals from a colonial
power. When the colonial powers were finally removed, many third-world peoples
rose up (as in Central Africa) and massacred ruling groups whom they had not
been able to remove in more traditional and often less violent ways because of
their colonial status. The Meiji restoration in Japan replaced the Tokugawa shogunate because it had allowed
Commodore Perry to pollute the sacred land and had demonstrated its loss of
mandate in the process. The imposition of the treaty in 1854 and the resulting
loss of face both justified the Meiji takeover and brought to power a group
committed to avenge the dishonor. That group led Japan into World War II. Such
transfers of power were at least as common under divine kingship as in
nation-states today, though not usually as violent.

16. Hugh Nibley,
“Tenting, Toll, and Taxing,” Western
Political Quarterly
29 (1966): 599-630.

17. E. O. James, The Tree of Life (Leiden: Brill, 1966),
esp. ch. 4.

18. Luce, Old Burma — Early Pagán, 2:14.

19. Ibid., 1:233.
Coedès, Indianized States, 114-15, 175. See also
C. J. Bleeker, “La Fonction Pontificale du Roi-Dieu,” The Sacred Bridge (Leiden: Brill, 1963),

20. See my informal
discussion, “Righteousness as a Counter-culture,” New Era 2 (April 1972): 46-49.

21. Nancy Falk,
“Wilderness and Kingship in South Asia,” History of Religions 13 (August 1973): 1-15.

22. Ibid., 11. Mara’s
threat and challenge is not an empty one. In his bestowal of “gifts”
he buys up religionists and militarists and rules with blood and horror in this
world of samsara.

23. Ibid., 12. See
also Hugh Nibley, “Sparsiones,” Classical
40 (1945): 515-43.

24. Luce, Old Burma — Early Pagán, 1:130-31.
In the more traditional version of this incident, rather than Mara having
“wrent” upon the earth in frustration at the Buddha’s refusing to
worship him, it is the Buddha who seeks the earth’s recognition and testimony
as to his divinity — this by means of touching the earth with a
particular ritual hand-position (mudra).

25. No society has a
monopoly on this problem, of course. See Hugh Nibley, “The Unsolved
Loyalty Problem: Our Western Heritage,” Western Political Quarterly 6 (1953): 631-57.

26. See Hugh Nibley,
“The Hierocentric State,” Western
Political Quarterly
4 (1951): 226-53.

27. Luce, Old Burma — Early Pagán, 1:72, 361.

28. Ibid., 72-73.
After almost a millennium, of course, Burma still is not a united nation. It
threatens to split along ethnic/religious lines in spite of Kyanzittha’s best

29. Basically, the
“Theravadin trap” involves accepting a philosophical definition of
Buddhism that was articulated and perpetuated by a handful of highly literate
monk/theologians, and using that definition to describe religion and societies
of ancient and contemporary Sri Lanka and Buddhist Southeast Asia, even though
the supposedly pure atheism of Theravada has virtually no relationship to popular
religion as practiced either anciently or today. Popular, nominally Theravada
Buddhism is as syncretistic and polytheistic as the phenomenon described by Luce;
cf. n. 27. Philosophers and theologians, when asked what people believe, all
too often describe what they think the people should believe (and what is
intellectually acceptable to themselves) rather than what actually exists.

30. Coedès, Indianized States, 369, n. 1.

31. See A. M. Hocart, Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of
vol. 4, The Temple of the
Tooth in Kandy
(London: Government of Ceylon, 1931). In the twentieth
century, when Hocart visited the rites at Kandy, the Wednesday day service
still included the participation of two old women whose “presence is said
to be in imitation of the king’s practice of retiring with dancing girls”
in connection with the cult, p. 31. From 1828 until 1846, while the British
government held control of the temple and its administration, as well as
appointments to its priesthoods, this was taken by the people of Ceylon as a
sign of the legitimacy of British rule, and the British governor in many ways
took the ritual place of the king, p. 4. Of particular interest as well is
Hocart’s translation of “Temple Regulations, about A.D. 1300,” to
which he devotes an entire chapter. Thailand, which maneuvered through the
period from the sixteenth century until the present without being formally
colonized, still maintains the outward forms of divine kingship. King Birendra
of Nepal’s mud- and dung-smeared coronation a few years ago argues for the
preservation of at least the forms there, in spite of a Harvard degree.

32. Coedès, Indianized States, 85.

33. Ibid., 135.

34. An important
discussion of Gnosticism from a comparative viewpoint is Geo Widengren, The Gnostic Attitude, tr. Birger A. Pearson
(Santa Barbara: University of California Institute of Religious Studies, 1973),
cf. also Le Origini Dello Gnosticismo (Leiden: Brill, 1967).

35. To write about
diffusion from India through Burma to Java (in whatever manner) is a modest
task. The “spread” of Malayo-Polynesian languages from Madagascar to
Hawaii is undisputable, for instance. And by some of the same means that the
languages spread, the Indonesian gamelan (a percussion instrument) arrived in Madagascar, moved to and spread across
Africa where it became known by, among other names, the mdimba, and was finally transplanted by escaped black slaves into
the highlands of Guatemala, finally resulting in the marimba. Paddy rice (O.
) spread by the same means to Africa. This process is well documented.
See A. J. Carpenter, “The History of Rice in Africa,” in I.
Buddenhagen and G. Persley, eds., Rice in
Africa: Proceedings of a Conference: Held at the International Institute of
Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan, Nigeria, 7-11 March 1977
(London: Academic
Press, 1978), 3-10. Ideas themselves can move as freely as languages or
material culture. A significant example of culture transfer (and feedback!) is
found in the nonviolent philosophies that grow out of texts that deal with
Christ and Krishna. In the eighteenth century, British colonial officers
published English versions of the Gita. Western interest in Indian religions
and texts grew quickly. Thoreau became involved with the subject, is known to
have read the Gita, published other texts in the Dial, and translated at least eight chapters of the Harivamsa from
French into English for publication. Thoreau’s writings influenced Tolstoy, as
did the Bible and the Gita. Gandhi was attracted to Tolstoy’s ideas on
pacifism, and his contacts with Tolstoy helped him to develop his philosophy of
nonviolence. Martin Luther King brought Gandhi’s ideas back to America and
these were later adopted by Cesar Chavez. Such cases abound. Unfortunately,
popular literature by Van Daniken and others has again compromised the
“intellectual respectability” of the study of possible relationships
between the high cultures of antiquity, but a great deal is being done. Some of
the more important scholarly works include Robert Heine-Geldern’s important
essay in the Handbook of Middle American
vol. 4, Archaeological
Frontiers and External Connections,
ed. Gordon F. Ekholm and Gordon R.
Willey (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966); the landmark Man across the Sea: Problems in
Pre-Columbian Contacts,
ed. C. L. Riley et al. (Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1971); and the exhaustive forthcoming study (approximately 5,000 entries
and 1,200 pages) by John L. Sorenson and Martin H. Raish, Transoceanic Culture Contacts between the Old and New World in
Pre-Columbian Times: A Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography.
A problem
which may merit further exploration is the relative place given to trees of the
genus Ficus in the Javanese Nagara-Kertagama (8.1.3) in comparison to other cultures, such as in F. J. Neumann’s discussion
of the place of Ficus trees in Aztec
religion, “Paper: A Sacred Material in Aztec Religion,” History of Religions 13 (November 1973):
151-59. Whatever the implications of this topic, enough evidence exists as to
the relationship between Southeast Asia and the Americas to jeopardize both
antidiffusionist views and the beliefs of those who hold that the pre-Columbian
Americas were populated by no more than
three migrations
from the ancient Near East.

36. W. F. Albright
and P. E. Dumont, “A Parallel between Indic and Babylonian Sacrificial
Ritual,” Journal of the American
Oriental Society
54 (June 1934): 107-28.

37. Hugh Nibley,
“Tenting, Toll and Taxing,” 610.

38. Jan Gonda, Ancient Indian Kingship from the Religious
Point of View
(Leiden: Brill, 1966), 114. Contrast to this Charles
Drekmeier, Kingship and Community in
Early India
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962), and, of
course, A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was
(New York: Grove Press, 1959). P. E. Dumont, L’Asvamedha (Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1927), though difficult to
obtain, is still unsurpassed on this topic. While the Asvamedha is
best known through its inclusion in the Mahabharata, other sources are available and should be consulted. It should be noted that
ostensibly the most scholarly translation to date, Mahabharata (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973 and
following), has been done by J. A. B. van Buitenen, an admitted historicist who
sees “religion” being restricted to rituals and claims to be amazed
at how little religion there is in the Mahabharata. Given the expense and
enormity of the task, it is doubtful that many other scholars or presses will
attempt a translation which is more sympathetic to the text. That is felt to be
unfortunate, especially since the historicist systematically neglects certain
perspectives. One topic in particular which I have found of special interest is
an examination of the eighteen major books of the Mahabharata as a whole — comparing their structure to that of
ancient year rites. What emerges from this attempt is best explained by
defining the text as a super year rite which was effected to insure the
transition from one cycle of years (yuga)
to another. In other words, it might be called a yuga rite. The transition to the current (Kali) yuga was, of
course, supposed to have occurred in the year of the Mahabharata war. Seen as a yuga rite in comparison with year
rites, the Mahabharata exhibits a coherency completely contrary to the picture
usually painted of it — a pastiche, the elements of which van Buitenen
calls “disappointing,” “inept,” “silly,”
“inane,” “needlessly presented,” and “foolish,”
and, one suspects, he translates accordingly. See van Buitenen, Mahabharata, Book 1, xx-xxi. I must
admit that few books can boast introductions which so clearly highlight the
author’s biases — or the insights which a comparative stance might have

39. Gordon H. Luce,
“Old Kyauksè and the Coming of the Burmans,” Journal of Burma Research Society 42/1 (1959): 83; cf. also 101,
and Luce, Old Burma — Early Pagîn 1:13.

40. Maung Htin Aung, Burmese History Before 1287: A Defense of
the Chronicles
(Oxford: The Asoka Society, 1970), 14-15. In conversation, a
prominent anthropologist conceded that the case for Old World-New World
diffusion was indisputable, but that it was a taboo subject for anyone to write
about who wanted to be invited to do research in a given country more than
once. His feeling is that many nationalistic scholars in emerging nations feel
a great burden to prove the value of the national culture and justify pride in
indigenous institutions, and thus are either absolutely irrational or
politically hamstrung on the topic of diffusion.

41. Pe Maung Tin, Glass Palace Chronicle, 91-92. Viewed in
isolation, this narrative would probably be, indeed has been, dismissed as
purely mythical. From a comparative perspective it becomes quite clear what is
going on, and the probability of a historical basis for the story is

42. The most complete
example is probably still illustrated in Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, vol. 6, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book and F.A.R.M.S., 1988), 295-310. If anyone still wonders at the
preoccupation with year rites in ancient texts, it might be well to recall that
on or around the day elsewhere described as the birthday of the King, at a
place perhaps coincidentally called the “Crossroads of the West,” we
fill vacancies in the line of succession, are instructed in the law, raise our
hands in token of our acceptance of leadership for another year, and so forth.

43. Th. Pigeaud, Java in the 14th Century: A Study in
Cultural History,
5 vols. (Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960). This is a model
of editing and scholarship. The five volumes, consisting of a transcription,
notes on the text, translation, commentary, glossary and index, are a joy to
work with. Also useful is Th. Pigeaud, Literature
of Java,
3 vols. (Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967). The text has not,
however, been immune to an obstinately ahistorical reading by Clifford Geertz.

44. Pigeaud, Java in the 14th Century, 3:xii.

45. Ibid., 4:42.

46. After the spread
of Islam, Java adopted the Moslem lunar calendar while retaining the Saka and wuku systems for some purposes. With the colonization of Java by
the Dutch, the Christian calendar also came into use and is used in Indonesia
today. On some topics, however, one is likely to encounter A.D., a.h., Saka, and wuku dates, though this is not as great a problem as is faced by
the Chinese minority on Java. Also, the older systems contain a great deal of
uncertainty and potential for error. Compared with Bali, on the other hand,
Java’s calendars are a model of simplicity.

47. For a basic
description see Coedès, Indianized States, 239, and D. G. E. Hall, A History of South-East Asia (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 84. It
will be seen from these sources that many positions taken in this paper go
against the majority consensus regarding a number of issues.

48. Pigeaud, Java in the 14th Century, 3:3. All
translations given are from Pigeaud. All citations given in the text will
follow his system for numbering: canto, stanza number, line.

49. Ibid., 4:267.

50. On the
persistence and spread of a calendar system, see the important article by Paul
Kirchoff, “The Diffusion of a Great Religious [Calendar] System from India
to Mexico,” XXXV Congreso
Internacional de Americanistas,
vol. 1 (Mexico, D. F.: Editorial Libros de
Mexico, 1964).

51. Pigeaud, Java in the 14th Century, 4:117, and P.
J. Zoetmulder in his valuable Kalangwan:
A Survey of Old Javanese Literature
(Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974), 352,
both use the word “intermezzo” in their discussions. To my knowledge
there is not a single scholar of Javanese literature who follows my point of
view. All look at the text strictly from an isolated viewpoint, excluding the
insights of comparative data.

52. Hugh Nibley,
“The Arrow, the Hunter, and the State,” Western Political Quarterly 2 (1949): 328-44; and “Man’s Dominion,” New Era (October 1972): 24.

53. For all the
emphasis that has been placed on the existence of “Tantric” practices
in Java, scholars have been careful to avoid the problem of what might happen
to either “right-” or “left-handed” Tantra when it diffused
into areas such as Java where meat and drink were not prohibited in the first
place. Scholars would do well to overcome their distaste for Tantric studies,
not only because of its probable origin as a popularization of divine kingship
and sacred marriage rituals, but because it is doubtful that any Asian
religions escaped its influence, and our view is severely distorted by
pretending Tantra isn’t there.

54. A. M. Hocart, Kings and Councillors (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1970).

55. The danger of a
minority religion seeking allies in such a compromising context is highlighted
in F. W. Grupp and W. M. Newman, “Political Ideology and Religious
Preference,” Journal for the
Scientific Study of Religion
12 (December 1973): 404, table 1.

56. Brigham Young Manuscript History, 20
July 1849, 105. This letter was from Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and
Willard Richards, with copies going to Orson Hyde and others in Iowa.