India’s Emblems of Renunciation

Double-eagle; Emblem of Karnataka State (Wikipedia)

It is a curious fact that unlike other countries the emblems chosen by Independent India at the Centre are not traditional symbols of royalty and temporal power but rather religious symbols of renunciation.

The flag has three stripes together with Emperor Aśoka’s Dharmacakra (धर्मचक्र), which represents the walk in the path of the Buddhist Dharma. The emblem is the four-lion capital from the Aśoka Pillar at Sarnath. The inscriptions on the pillars are not about royalty, but rather about Aśoka’s conversion to Buddhism, the description of his efforts to spread Buddhism, his moral and religious precepts, and his social and animal welfare program.

Ashoka Chakra of Indian Flag

In this and other similar inscriptions, Aśoka (who ruled from 268 to 232 BCE) refers to himself as “Beloved of the Gods (Devanampiya)” and does not even mention his name for the purpose of the inscriptions is purely religious. The edicts enjoins “No one shall cause division in the order of monks.”

India’s official emblem (Wikipedia)

Every nation has a theory of kingship or state. In nations with a state religion, the state’s purpose is to induce its unbelieving citizens to convert and to vanquish non-believing nations beyond its borders. Modern states are not concerned with religion: their goal is to expand capitalism at the expense of more “primitive modes” of transaction.

Ancient India had its own unique theory of state, but it was different from either the medieval religious state or the modern capitalist one. The ancient king (rāj-an) did not have absolute power and his primary function was to oversee the enforcement of the law. The Mahābhārata says that the king upholds dharma not of any specific classes but of all classes. There was a balance between his authority and that of the mantrī, the minister.

If the power of the king flowed from his physical prowess, weapons and soldiers at his command, the power of the minister flowed from renunciation. The minister lived in a cottage in a stare of penury. The king could not offer him inducements, and so the two exercised checks and balances on each other.

A different way to view the Otherness of Indian polity is to through the dichotomy of the grāma (the settled lands) and the araṇya (the forest) (e.g. RV 10.146), which mirrors dualities like those of puruṣa-prkṛti and mind-body. The aspirant to kingship had to prove himself worthy in the araṇya, in studentship in the ashram, and fight and defeat those who were outside the state.

The sacred [alaukika] power of renunciation was to balance the king’s temporal [laukika] power. This explains how rishis, sants, fakirs, bhikshus, and yogis were respected and feared. This sentiment persists in our times and it explains the power of the renunciatory leadership of Mohandas Gandhi and the adulation he was accorded by the public.

The eagle (श्येन or गरुड) is the mount of Viṣṇu and it symbolizes the temporal power of the king. In Agnicayana, the greatest royal rite of the Vedic period, time was represented as an altar in the form of eagle. The eagle was chosen for its acute vision and its mastery of the skies and it remained the emblem of Maurya and Gupta Empires. The peacock was an insignia for battle since it is the mount of Skanda, the commander of the gods.

The double-headed eagle (गण्डभेरुण्ड) was the emblem of the Chalukyas, the Hoysalas, the Vijayanagara Empire, and the Wodeyar kings, and it has been adopted by the Karnataka State.

The lion is native to India and it has long been a symbol of royalty there. Indeed the throne in Sanskrit is termed सिंहासन, siṁhāsana, or “Lion’s seat”. It also became a symbol of royalty in Iran and other nations.

One of the Mughal flags, called Alam, showed temporal power by the flag with a lion and the sun (Sher-u-khorshid, Persian: شیر و خورشید‎, romanized: Šir-o xoršid). It is not so well known that the etymology of the Persian Sher-u-khorshid is best seen from Skt. vyāghra=>Old Persian šagr => Persian šēr = Sher and Skt. svar kṣaita, with svara स्वर (Sun) , क्षैत(m. radiant) => hvare - xshaêtahe = radiant sun in Avestan => Khwarshēd (in Middle Persian) => Khurshēd/Khorshīd in Modern Persian.

The earliest record of a banner bearing the lion and the sun goes back to 1423. The symbold was inscribed within the Iranian flag during 1907–1979.

Lion and Sun in the Persian Flag (1907–1979)

The sacred power of the minister was represented by the cakra (धर्म चक्र), which symbolizes four or eight directions, or later 12 or, in the Aśoka Cakra, 24 abstract qualities, such as ignorance, conditioning of mind, consciousness, and so on. The Dharmacakra was used by King Aśoka to glorify his Buddhist missionary activity.

The wheel of the Cakravartin चक्रवर्ती King joins the two powers. But it was the exceptional king who, having symbolically conquered time by the extremely arduous and dangerous Aśvamedha Yajña, could claim the use of both the emblems of royal and sacred domains. Aśoka was not such a king and in any event he expressly described the wheel purely in the other-worldly sense.

The Sarnath pillar is a column surmounted by a capital, which at the top has an inverted bell-shaped lotus, with four 24-spoked dharma wheels with four animals (an elephant, a bull, a horse, a lion). These animals are believed to symbolize different stages of the Buddha’s life. The elephant refers to the dream of his mother Maya in which she sees a white elephant entering her womb; the bull represents desire during the life of the Buddha as a prince; the horse represents departure from the palace; and the lion represents the accomplishment of the Buddhahood.

Now that we have seen that the emblems adopted by the modern Indian State do not represent temporal power, let’s look at those of a few other countries:

Garuda: Indonesia & Thailand

Emblem, Indonesia (Wikipedia)
Emblem, Thailand (Wikipedia)

Eagle: USA, Austria, Egypt, Iraq, Mexico, Romania, Yemen

Double Eagle: Russia, Karnataka

Lion (s): Bulgaria, Cambodia, Congo, Finland, Sri Lanka

Unicorn and Lion: UK

The earlier iteration of the Indian flag were also based entirely on “sacred” motifs. One of the first was square in a red field, with 108 jyotis around the border, with Indra’s Vajra (thunderbolt) in the middle, and the words Vande and Mātaram flanking the Vajra. Another design had three stripes: green, yellow, and red, eight half open lotuses on the top green stripe, Vande Mātaram in blue in the middle yellow stripe, and the sun and moon in white in the bottom stripe.

The nationalists who were involved in the design of the Indian emblems had no idea of the difference between the temporal and the sacred in the administering of a state. They were amateurs in the exercise of power and they made a naïve choice.

In contrast, the new nation of Indonesia had a better sense of their own history for they had militarily fought the Dutch and they picked the eagle.




सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.

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Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak

सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.

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