Vikramaditya: Legends & Political Implications

The influence of Vikramaditya

Stories of Vikramaditya, Shalivahan and Bhoja are legends: folklore with political implications in contemporary times. They need to be contrasted with myths, also folklore, but which establish world-views by explaining the origin of time, space and life.

Today’s politicians have convinced themselves and their vote bank that they exist to defend Hindu civilisation, which is under threat. This is not a new idea.

Around the 18th century, through Bhavishya Purana (chronicle of the future), three kings were projected as defenders of the dharmic way of being. This late, and much altered document, states that at the start of Kali Yuga, Shiva sent Vikramaditya to earth, gave him a throne with 32 wise yoginis to advise him, and a ghost called Vetala to coach him.

Vikramaditya hosted a gathering of sages to reaffirm Vedic values. He marked the four corners of India: the river Sindhu in the West, the mountains of Badri in the North, the city of Kapila (Kapilavastu) in the East, and Sethubandha (Tamil Nadu) in the South. He married local princesses and established 18 great kingdoms. He uprooted Buddhism in defence of Vedic faith. His grandson, Shalivahan, fended off the invading Shakas. The Purana then foretells that Bhoja of Ujjain, who will establish dharma, will face a demon called Mahamada (great intoxication) who will rise in the deserts west of the Indus river, and whose followers wield clubs (musala) to purify lands, instead of kusha grass, as Hindus do.

No rewards for guessing who the text refers to. And clearly this ‘prophecy’ was manufactured post-facto.

But the stories of Vikramaditya, Shalivahan, and Bhoja at one time served a larger purpose: it was a tool to educate young princes on governance. And what better way than storytelling. Although the name Vikramaditya was the title of many Gupta kings (4th century CE), the stories emerged a few centuries later, around the 8th or 9th century.

Stories that travelled

This is how the collection of stories known as Singhasan Battisi (32 tales of the throne) begins.

In the middle of a field stood a mound. The farmer who owned the field would be generous every time he climbed the mound but stingy and quarrelsome every time he came down. This caught the attention of a king called Bhoja who ordered the mound to be dug up. Within, he found a throne. When he tried sitting on it, the throne threatened to kill him unless he displayed the 32 qualities of kingship, revealed through 32 stories. For this was the throne of the legendary Vikramaditya.

In the course of these stories, Bhoja learned how Vikramaditya was a great king, brave, curious, lucky, and generous, who could answer 25 riddles posed by a vetala (ghost), which form the folklore collection known as Vetala Pachisi. He also learnt how Vikramaditya could not escape death and was eventually killed by a potter-boy called Shalivahan.

The stories were so popular that they travelled overseas to Arabia and influenced folklore of the wise Solomon (Sulaiman), his magical throne and his army of djinns.

Vedic memory

India’s traditional calendars Vikram Samvat (57 BCE) and Shalivahan or Saka Samvat (78 CE) give the impression that Vikramaditya and Shalivahan were historical characters. Of the two calendars, Saka Samvat is older, appearing in coins that are 1,700 years old, and was used by Central Asian kings (Saka, Pahlava, Kushana) who favoured Buddhism and ruled much of North India. Vikram Samvat started being used extensively from the 9th century by Hindu kings such as the Paramars of Ujjain who claimed to have overthrown the foreign Sakas.

Stories of Vikramaditya, Shalivahan and Bhoja are legends: folklore with political implications in contemporary times. They need to be contrasted with myths, also folklore, but which establish world-views by explaining the origin of time, space and life. Ramayana and Mahabharata, and Puranas, form the latter category (mythological), and are closely linked to Vedic memory, and philosophy, and were composed to counter Buddhist and Jain myths. Ram is king, Krishna is king-maker, and both are avatars, earthly forms of the divine Vishnu, who institutes dharma in society, championing worldly duty with monastic restraint, which is why Ram is called Tapasvi Raja or the hermit-king and Pandavas are taught empathy and humility in their forest exile, before they can be kings.

In 500-year-old Tamil legends (Chola Purva Patayam), Vikramaditya appears to inspire Chola, Pandya and Chera kings to drive out Buddhists from their land. In older Jain narratives, Shalivahan is champion of Jains and enemy of Vikramaditya; but in later narratives, he is the son, or grandson of Vikramaditya, who defends India from Saka invaders. Such is the fluidity of legends.

A hermit-king

Vikramaditya was a popular title used since the Gupta times by kings of Central and South India such as the Pratiharas, Paramaras, Chalukyas and Cholas. It means the radiant conqueror. Expanding territory was not enough to be a great king; one had to follow dharma and be a hermit-king. In stories, Vikramaditya resists the sexual advances of his sister-in-law.

Ramayana and Mahabharata do not refer to kings as patrons of the art, but Vikramaditya attracts talents around him: like the poet Kalidasa, the astronomer Varahamihira, and the linguist Vararuchi, who become part of the nine jewels (navratna) of his court. Shalivahan who learns Sanskrit from Panini comes to appreciate the knowledge also found in Prakrit and even the languages of birds and ghosts, the Pachisi. Bhoja is a poet, grammarian and astronomer.

It is believed that these ideas began emerging as the Pratihara and Paramara kings faced the rise of Islam. Indeed, folklore, myth or legend played a strategic role in responding to politics and shaping the history of India.




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