The Sengol, “Nehru’s Walking Stick” Or An Ancient Indic Symbol Of Just Rule From Kautilya To Thiruvalluvar?

The Sengol, “Nehru’s Walking Stick” Or An Ancient Indic Symbol Of Just Rule From Kautilya To Thiruvalluvar?

by Sumedha Verma Ojha - Sunday, May 28, 2023 01:47 AM IST
The Sengol, “Nehru’s Walking Stick” Or An Ancient Indic Symbol Of Just Rule From Kautilya To Thiruvalluvar?Two different approaches to governance
  • The timeless significance of the Danda (Sengol) across all of the subcontinent from north to south and the unity of Indic thought on this is very clear.

The grand, golden Sengol of 1947 has burst upon our attention, its magnificence, beauty and sheer divinity mesmerizing the nation the way few historical artefacts have done in recent memory. 

With a benevolent Nandi ji atop, the strong lines of the sceptre emphasize power tempered with justice.

So what is the Sengol (Tamil) or what we may call the Danda in Sanskrit ? 

It has its roots in the earliest articulation of the concept of the State in the Indian subcontinent, that of the Saptaanga or seven-armed State. This is found in multiple sources including the Mahabharata. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Thiruvalluvar’s Kural, Manusmriti and Kamandaka’s Nitisara are the names of some of the significant works which talk of the Saptaanga Rajyam.

The origins of the State come from the need to fight “matsya-nyaya” or the Law of the Fish where the big fish eat up the small fish. In other words, the strong exploit the weak. Thus, to protect the weak, the State with its seven elements comes into being. The Swami or King is the first element and Amatya or Administration, Janapada or Land and People, Durg or Fort, Danda or Army, Kosh or Treasury and Mitra or International Relations are the other six.

The Swami rules over the kingdom with the Danda or the symbol of just , righteous, Dharmic rule. (Dharma is not to be confused with “religion” here but signifies ethics, justice, the rule of immutable universal laws).

The Arthashastra is a Mauryan period composition. In Book 1, Prakarana 4, the Danda is exhaustively dealt with . It is power, shakti, to be wielded to protect, enrich and nourish the populace. 

Rakshan, Paalan and Yoga-kshema are after all the functions of the Swami. Shloka 1.4.5 says that the King who seeks the orderly maintenance of worldly life should ever hold the Danda lifted up. 

Used after full consideration, the Danda helps the subjects to attain the goals of Dharma, Artha and Kama ( 1.4.11). 

There are strictures against the misuse of this power ( 1.4.8). Used unjustly, in passion or anger or contempt, it enrages the populace i.e. the Janapada and leads to the downfall of the Kingdom ( 1.4.12). 

The next Prakarna begins with another warning to the King; it is only when the use of the Danda is rooted in self-discipline that it brings security and well-being , Yoga-kshema, to all living beings. So it is the embodiment of righteous power.

What about the Kural? It has the same idea of a Saptaanga Rajyam with the King at the helm. It emphasises the role of the King more than the Arthashastra. For the latter the Swami is first among equals and for the Kural it is the King who in a sense “owns” the six other elements.

In the chapter on Sengonmai the same ideas of the King being responsible for wielding dharmic and righteous power to safeguard the security and prosperity of his people are developed and reiterated. 

Part 2, On Property, has sections on Upright Government, Unjust Government, Against Acting with Cruelty, and A Gracious Demeanour for Kings which talk of the Sengol or Danda (translated into English as sceptre). This is the power to rule and dispense justice across the realm.

Verse 545 says that rain and plentiful crops will ever dwell together in the country of the King who sways his sceptre with justice.

Verse 546 follows; it is not the javelin which gives victory but the King’s sceptre if it do no injustice.

Verse 555 warns the King that the tears of an oppressed people groaning under the power of an unjust King will saw away at his wealth.

Verse 558; Property gives more sorrow than poverty to those who live under the sceptre of a King without justice.

Verse 563 ; The cruel sceptred King who acts so as to put his subjects in fear will certainly and quickly come to ruin.

The elucidation of the concept of Danda and Sengol thus match in every particular.

An incident from the ancient Tamil epic, Silappadikaram, illustrates the significance of the Sengol. When the Pandyan King of Madurai, Neduncheliyan, is confronted by Kannagi and realises he has falsely accused and executed her husband Kovalan for theft, he is devastated. His Sengol is “bent”, his righteousness marred; in utter shame and despair he kills himself and his wife follows. Kannagi tears off her left breast and throws it at the city which bursts into flames and is destroyed. The message? No kingdom can exist without the just exercise of power; lack of justice spells doom.

It is worth noting that the Manusmriti has the same description of the power of the Danda and the strictures on the King to be a just dispenser of power. In Chapter 7, Verse 18, Manu says it the Danda which protects and rules over  the people, is awake when all are asleep, it is nothing but an embodiment of Dharma.

Verse 19 again reminds the King that a considered use of this power makes the people happy and injustice kills the name and fame of the King.

Verse 20 mentions the necessity to guard against matsya-nyaya and Verse 21 explains how this rule of law is necessary for the organisation of society. Verse 24 warns of the devastation of society without the rule of law symbolised by the Danda.

The State, the King, Dharma, justice, righteousness and the Sengol/Danda are inextricably connected. The Mahabharata tells us that the Danda/Sengol is the manifestation of Lord Mahadeva. This Danda was given to Lord Vishnu who passed it on to earthly Kings to protect and dispense justice on Prithvi with all the formidable power of Hara.

Nandi or the Bull sits atop the Sengol, the protector of Indics since the time of the Saraswati Sindhu Civilisation. It has ever been a symbol of terrific, brute power tempered by compassion and justice.

Our iconography has innumerable examples of the Danda associated with deities as well as with historical Kings. The Danda, Chanvar, Chhatra and Throne are the attributes of the King’s power. 

Sculpture and painting manuals, traditions have precise instructions on how to represent the Danda as for example in Sutra 17 of Chapter 6 of the Vastusutra Upanishad.

The timeless significance of the Danda across all of the subcontinent from sorth to south and the unity of Indic thought on this is very clear but a new question now arises. Is it an attribute of royalty thus making it but a relic of the past in these days of democratic and republican forms of government ?

To understand this we have to go back to the seven-armed state. The King is but one of the elements and works in harmony with the other six. Not for Indics the concept of the unbridled , authoritarian, whimsical royal power like that of the Queen of Hearts of Alice in Wonderland who screamed “Off with their Heads” to anyone who angered her for the smallest reason. 

The polity has always been imagined, theorised and practised as a consensus-based one. The King wields his power under the flag of Dharma, advised by the Raj Guru and  in consultation with other arms of the State especially the Amatyas or the Administration. It is a curious amalgam of monarchy, ethical rule and people’s power peculiar to the Indic tradition.

It is but a logical step from this to the visualisation of the Danda as Dharma, righteousness, justice, power of the people personified, a symbol of today’s concept of good governance. The line from the old to the new is a simple and straight one.

The Sengol, placed in the New Parliament, traces its roots to the Chola practice of handing over of the Danda to the new King by the Raj Guru. But in 1947, the Vedic Saivite Adheenam—Thiruvavaduthurai, Raj Gurus of the Cholas, handed over the Danda to a thoroughly undeserving and uncaring first PM of India.

He promptly buried it in his ancestral home in Anand Bhavan where it was labelled as a “golden walking stick” presented to him. This Nehruvian disdain and contempt for the deepest and most elemental traditions of Bharat marks that self-loathing that Indian elites have long carried, taught by their colonial masters. 

This seminal event, the blessing of the new Indian State in 1947 coming from the most divine sources of this civilisation, was brushed aside. The Sengol insultingly labelled as a ‘walking stick’ and forgotten. In fact, all things Indian and traditional were scorned, vilified and demeaned, the Sengol being one of them.

Divine power, however, arises again. The story of the return of the Sengol has been narrated by the public intellectual S. Gurumurthy and the famous danseuse Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam and is on everyone’s lips.

The Sengol lay there quiescent but throbbing with energy till the decision to give it  its rightful place in the people’s parliament was taken; to protect and guide us, a symbol of Dharma. From the Mauryans to the Cholas, Shivaji Maharaj and Lachit Borphukan to Krishnadeva Raya, Dharma reigns supreme as the Sengol/Danda. May it protect and guide the Indian State.

With the puissant Mauryan Lions atop and the symbol of righteousness in the shape of the Sengol, within, the New Parliament is off to a wonderful start today, on the 28th of May 2023.

After two decades in the Indian Revenue Service Sumedha Verma Ojha now follows her passion, Ancient India; writing and speaking across the world on ancient Indian history, society, women, religion and the epics. Her Mauryan series is ‘Urnabhih’; a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on the ‘modern’ women of ancient India will be out soon.

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