Rites of the God-King

Santi and Ritual Change in Early HInduism

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Marko Geslani
Oxford Ritual Studies Serie
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Two ritual systems have long been placed in opposition to each other: the dead ritualism of the aniconic Vedic yajña and the living devotion of the modern Hindu pūjā. This fictional opposition is precisely what Marko Geslani’s Rites of the God-King: Śānti & Ritual Change in Early Hinduism seeks to correct. Geslani accomplishes this by demonstrating that Vedic ritual professionals remained creative and adaptive long after the Vedic era and by uncovering Vedic influences on icon installation in medieval South Asia. Rites of the God-King is ambitious, not simply because it traces ritual innovation from forgotten millennia to the present in a single volume, but because it does so through deft attention to the texts themselves.

In chapter 1, Geslani guides us through the development of a ritual innovation in the post-Vedic world: the śānti rite. This new ritual is developed in the ancillary texts of the Atharvaveda, a hieratic lineage excluded from participation in the yajña during the Vedic period itself. Atharvavedic texts anxiously protest that their lore is supreme and that their priests are the most fit for the role of purohita, a coveted office which plans and executes the patron’s ritual agenda. While rituals of appease ment or pacification existed in earlier Vedic praxis, a few features distinguish this new śānti as something different. The śānti rite is a transferring of the power of Atharvavedic mantras to waters that are then used to, among other things, bathe the patron. Geslani illustrates the development of the rite from a notion of expiation, yet the text’s growing concern with omens betrays a broadening of the application of śānti to the neutralization of inauspicious portents.

In chapter 2, Geslani takes us into the period between the fall of the Mauryas and the rise of the Guptas. Recently, a great deal of attention has been paid to the pariśiṣṭas—or “appendices”—of the Atharvaveda as reflections of the ritual practices of this period. These appendices show a proliferation of rituals that use the śānti rite as their prototype. Geslani has filled this chapter with information, demonstrating how śānti becomes not just a special rite in the Atharvavedic repertoire but a “brand”—the variety of rites derived from śānti, produced using its ritual syntax, constitute a family of name-brand “products.” The appendices tell us these rituals belong only to the purohita. Therefore, outside of large public ceremonies dominated by the other Vedas, the Atharvaveda claims the office of purohita for itself by re-defining the office as constantly performing daily śānti rituals for the king.

Through ritual appeasement of heavenly omens, the ritualist pretends to be an astrologer. In chapter 3, the astrologer returns the favor. Geslani’s study of the 6th century astrologer Varāhamihira shows that his ritual program is, in essence, a śānti program, but one no longer dependent on the Vedas. Varāhamihira’s yātrā or “war march” is built syntactically on the śānti system, which includes bathing the king in śānti waters and putting him to bed, yet utilizes non-Vedic mantras replacing older Vedic rites of consecration and conquest.

After the Guptas, the ideology of śānti became ubiquitous; the prosperity of the kingdom rested on daily rites which kept the king free of invisible malignant forces. Thus, the protection of the king was far more important than appeasing the gods. Searching for the origins of pūjā in early forms of devotional theism, in chapter 4 Geslani argues that we have been misguided. In early medieval Purāṇas, it is the king who is at the center of ritual. For this reason, Geslani invites the reader to ponder the frailties of the body of the king, upon which so much depends, and the benefit that might be derived from keeping a copy of the king ritually auspicious and disaster free.

In chapter 5, Geslani applies his method of careful comparison to ritual syntax, demonstrating that the early pūjā is built out of the royal yātrā ritual. In yātrā, the king goes out from the city where he is ritually bathed in śāntiwaters and spends the night so that he can return triumphant. Similarly, image installation begins with a journey to a “śānti house,” in which the image is bathed in waters which imbue it with the divine presence. It is interesting that the ritual syntax of installation is relatively uniform across sectarian lines and that it borrows from the yātrā, which itself borrows from Atharvavedic śānti rites. As Geslani aptly says, this process “cannot be thought of in terms of divinization of kingship but rather the regalization of divinity” (264).

Throughout the volume, Geslani chooses to primarily engage with the work of Frits Staal. Perhaps he would have found a more productive conversation partner in Laurie Patton’s Bringing the Gods to Mind. While Geslani’s study of the adaptive re-use of ritual syntax makes Staal the expected choice, Patton’s study is concerned with the very logic that guides innovation in ritual application. Geslani cites her once (29), but only as a critic of Staal. Unfortunately, not engaging Patton’s study of viniyoga represents an opportunity lost or, at the very least, deferred.

So how does Rites of the God-King change our view of pūjā and the concept of darśan which has been central to the study of contemporaneous Hinduism since Eck 1998? Geslani concludes by opening up darśanto new inquiry, for if pūjā really is the regalization of divinity, then the concept of darśan as reciprocal may need re-examination. Perhaps it is more about witnessing the body of the god and less about being seen as an individual, for surely the medieval king did not see each of his subjects as individuals? Consider for a moment Chambord, an enormous castle built to embody the power of Francois the First. Its double-helix spiral staircases allow the king to ascend alone while his court, climbing the second staircase, could see him but never reach him. In fact, this notion of kingship mirrors the ancient Vedic concept, in which the Sun transcends the hearths of the clans by virtue of being seen by all but reached by none. In the Vedic period, each clan’s fire needed to be pacified. So too did the great fire altar, which was fatal to step on until each of its bricks were pacified. It is likely this prototype of śānti was never a simple matter of dousing fire with water, but of pacifying the agonistic and myriad Vedic clans and subordinating them to the authority and power of their new suzerain. Therefore, while this pre-śānti water was poured a millennium too early for Rites of the God-King, it corroborates Geslani’s insight that the sovereign was the perennial concern of priests throughout Hindu history. Rites of the God-King is a model study of ritual change over time, one which I hope inspires future scholars to be as wide-reaching.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caley Charles Smith is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Young Harris College.

Date of Review: 
February 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marko Geslani is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Carolina.


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