Mind = Blown

So the traditional story — at least as I always heard it — is that the Buddha was a prince born of the Sakya clan.  “Prince” as in “the son of a king.”  And it makes sense that this should be the story, since all sorts of texts from the period describe Siddhartha’s father Suddhodana as a raja, which is the word for “king” in all the various Sanskrit-descended languages.

This account turns out to be somewhat complicated by the fact that the Sakya territory, in northern India / Nepal, was not actually a monarchy at the time.  It was a republic, of the standard old-timey “wealthy landowners get to vote” variety.

The Buddha’s Wikipedia page, and the scholarly sources that it’s citing, deal with this by describing Suddhodana as “an elected chief of the Sakya clan.”  OK, fine, “king” = president, I suppose that’s good enough for poetic religious history.  But the history I’m reading at the moment goes a bit further.  John Keay says that, in both the monarchical and the republican Indian polities of the era, the word raja had the same technical-connotative meaning: “person whose sovereign authority must be recognized by the state.”  In a monarchy, that’s the king.  In a republic, it’s anyone who can vote.

“King” = citizen.


It’s an obvious rhetorical move for a republican to make.  “Every man a king” is something that gets said often enough, and in some conceptual sense it’s even true in democratic systems — the whole point is that everyone gets a say, that the government grows out of a negotiation between equals rather than simply being imposed from above, much as sovereign powers must negotiate with one another.  (I’m as cynical as anyone about the status of the average citizen in a democracy…but that’s the theory, anyway.)  Hell, why wouldn’t we use the word “king” (or “queen”) to refer to anyone with the franchise?  It’s punchy.  It’s dramatic.  It imbues democratic procedure with flair, enough to make monarchical revanchism a bit less appealing on a sloganeering level.  And it serves as a big ceremonial fuck-you to actual monarchies, which is something about which republicans tend to be enthusiastic.

I am really curious what our governmental rhetoric would look like…and how our basic political instincts about the role of the average person would be different, if at all…if we’d done what the ancient Indians did and called our republican citizens “kings,” back when we were first inventing representative government.

[Also: can anyone tell me what the modern Hindi word for “citizen” is?]

Mind = Blown

2 thoughts on “Mind = Blown

  1. Philippe Petit says:

    If I am ever in charge of the semantic choices of a burgeoning republic, I will do this.

    One would hope it would give lawmakers pause when they seek to infantilize the population.


  2. Dalamur says:

    I had this same mind=blown experience when I was reading something that mentioned that “France” used to mean “the king of France” (as we can see in Shakespeare) and that his title was “King of the French” (Rex Francorum) not “King of France”, that the geographical expression came later, and the metonymy devolved from the king to the people who make up the nation at the time of the French Revolutiion.

    I’ve been thinking for ages about how this devolution could work in a fantasy setting with actual mystic kingship.


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