Hindu Deities - Imported by Kushan Warlords? (Part 3)

Hindu Deities - Imported by Kushan Warlords? (Part 3)

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Mar 12, 2023 01:44 PM +05:30 IST
Hindu Deities - Imported by Kushan Warlords? (Part 3)The 'Descent of Ganga' relief at Mahabalipuram (Wikimedia Commons)
  • The case for Yajna, Divine Feminine and Samanvaya during Kushana period and a larger case for Indianised history writing.

This is the last of a three-part series that examines the conjecture put forth as a historical fact by historian Aniruddh Kanisetti: that the present-day important features of Hindu Deities were imported by Central Asian warlords for their political interests.

In part-I, the evolution of the iconography of Shiva was examined and in part-II, that of Skanda.

Now in this concluding part the important Indic contribution of Kushanas to the world around them, shall be seen.

Deity or Devotee? Rabatak Inscription Question

Greek invaders starting from Alexander, issued coins that identified the rulers as Gods. Kanisetti and a school of historians extend the same values to Kushana kings.

Kanisetti, on the authority of the famous Rabatak inscription, states:

The Rabatak inscription of the emperor Kanishka makes this quite clear. Sraosha is mentioned as one of the gods leading the worship of deified Kushan kings, and the inscription says that “in [the] Indian [language] he is called Mahasena and he is called Visakha”.

The twenty-three lines Rabatak inscription in Bactrian language and Greek script, made by Kanishka-I, was discovered in 1993.

Rabatak Inscription : Kanishka-I
Rabatak Inscription : Kanishka-I

Going through the translation of this inscription, first by Prof. Nicolas Sims-Williams of Cambridge University and translated again by Prof.B.N.Mukherjee of University of Calcutta in 1995, what we find is quite contrary to what Kanisetti suggests.

Here is the relevant part:

The king Kanishka commanded Shapara (Shaphar), the master of the city to make the Nana Sanctuary, which is called (i.e. known for having the availability of) external water (or water on the exterior or surface of the ground), in the plain of Kaeypa, for these deities of whom are Ziri(Sri), Pharo (Farrah) and Omma.' To lead are the Lady Nana and the Lady Omma, Ahura Mazda, Mazdooana, Srosharda...Narasa, (and) Mihr.
Hamid Naweed, Art Through The Ages in Afghanistan,2013, p.136

From the above it is very clear that Kanishka might have projected himself as at best a demi-god but it was not his or his ancestors' worship that was being referred to here. Rather it is the worship of the Deities.

Worship of ancestral kings is mentioned separately. In a detailed study of Kushana Devakulas or dynastic temples in Mathura and Surkh Kotal (modern Afghanistan) (made before the discovery of Rabatak inscription)

... we now understand what a dynastic shrine is: it is a shrine where the king and his family and high officials worshipped the deity who protects the king and his family, not the temple of the godlike king.
Gerard Fussman, The Mat devakula: a new approach to its understanding,in Mathura : The Cultural Heritage, (Ed.Doris Meth Srinivasan), American Institute of Indian Studies,1989,p.199

The truth of this can also be attested from numismatic evidence.

For example, in the case of Kanishka’s coin, he is shown with elephant goad which was an important feature of Shiva (and definitely not got from any Greek or Iranian divine) but without the trident and on the reverse side Shiva is shown with trident.

The king is no more a god but a devotee of the Lord.

But there is even a more important change.

Yajna and the Kushanas

On Kushan coins one finds an interesting change in the relation between the ruler and the Deity. For the first time the ruler is shown making an offering at the fire altar.

Left: Coin of 
Vima Kadphises father of Kanishka Right: Coin of Kanishka : Both show the rulers offering into fire pit with Trishul
Left: Coin of Vima Kadphises father of Kanishka Right: Coin of Kanishka : Both show the rulers offering into fire pit with Trishul

Was this Vedic or Iranian fire altar? The shape resembles the Iranian. At the same time even a historian like Nayanjot Lahiri points out an important fact about this ‘oldest representation of fire altar in Asiatic coins’:

Fire-Altars have not been found in the coins of the Parthian dynasty of Persia, and their earliest appearance is on the coins of the Kushan Emperors of India.
Nayanjot Lahiri, Finding Forgotten Cities - How the Indus Civilization was Discovered,2015, pp. 362-363. Kindle Edition.

The Indian nature of fire altar is further strengthened by the fact that in the Rabatak inscription, Kanishka calls hjs 'grandfather Saddashkana the Soma sacrificer.'

Archaeologist Satya Shrava in his detailed study ‘The Kushana Numismatics’ (1985) also considered the fire altar, even though the imagery is Parthian, as ‘emerged from Indian customs’ (p.88).

The form is Iranian but the flame is Indian. This change is significant. Yet it is not much discussed.

In India the concept of Yajna has always been nurtured through the typical Hindu process of internalising. It has emerged as an archetype of national consciousness of India.

Conducting Yajna bestowed upon the ruler prestige and ritual power, no doubt, but more importantly it symbolised the ruler’s concern for the welfare of all his subjects.

Aitereya Brahmana proclaims the objective of a sacrifice: Yajna is done for the welfare of the people. So what is this fire pit offering by a king symbolising in the Indian context?

A strong possibility is that statecraft itself got symbolised as the Yajna.

This extension of Yajna as a functional archetype into various domains was strongly done by the Bhagavad Gita, which should have been then a text that influenced the so-called 'elite'.

Bhagwat Gita had already popularized among the philosophical 'elite' the vision of Yajna as a fundamental archetype.
Bhagwat Gita had already popularized among the philosophical 'elite' the vision of Yajna as a fundamental archetype.

Almost two thousand years later none other than Mahatma Gandhi pointed this out in his writings.

Being a votary of Ahimsa he could not condone Vedic sacrifice with animal offerings. But he pointed out how Gita has transformed Yajna into a fundamental archetype that could be extended to all domains of life:

Yajna means an act directed to the welfare of others, done without desiring any return for it, whether of a temporal or spiritual nature. 'Act' here must be taken in its widest sense, and includes thought and word, as well as deed. 'Others" embraces not only humanity, but all life... The world cannot subsist for a single moment without yajna in this sense, and therefore, the Gita, after having dealt with true wisdom in the second chapter, takes up in the third the means of attaining it, and declares in so many words that yajna came with the Creation itself. This body, therefore, has been given us only in order that we may serve all Creation with it. And therefore, says the Gita, he who eats without offering yajna eats stolen food. Every single act of one who would lead a life of purity should be in the nature of yajna.
M.K.Gandhi, From Yeravda Mandir: Ashram Observance: (trans. V. G.Desai),Navajivan Publishing House, 1932:1992, pp.31-2

It is a possibility. The Yajna offering by the kings on Kushans coins shows a value shift in the kings in their relation to their rule. It is an act of Yajna.

Though from the coins of Huvishka the fire altars do not make an appearance on the coins, definitely the concept of Yajna has influenced Kushana polity.

Return of the Divine Feminine

One can see in the Rabatak inscription an important feature—that the chief receivers of worship were 'Lady Nana and Lady Omma'.

Omma is clearly Goddess Uma. Nana was also the Goddess in whose name the temple was named.

Nana (Afghanistan 6th to 7th century CE); Nana Khwarezm 9th century silver bowl
Nana (Afghanistan 6th to 7th century CE); Nana Khwarezm 9th century silver bowl

Goddess Nana has a rich, mysterious and complicated history.

Many historians used to assert that she was Inana, a Mesopotamian Goddess. But recent scholarship suggests that that 'Inanna/Istar must be strictly distinguished from Nana' and that she is more frequently 'the Iranian divinity Anāhitā and/or the Greek goddess Artemis.' (Manya Saadi-nejad, Anahita: A History and Reception of the Iranian Water Goddess, I.B.Tauris, 2021, p.13)

In the Indo-Iranian context then, Nana would be Anahita. Originally, she was a powerful all-encompassing, river Goddess - a counterpart of Saraswati.

Even in Zoroastrian monotheism that took over, which had prolonged conflicts with the older religion of the Devas, Anahita had to be accommodated. Her full name was 'Arəduuī Sūrā Anāhitā'.

In a later Zoroastrian liturgical text, Yašt (1000-600 BCE), the full problem of accommodating an older all powerful Goddess into the monotheistic hierarchy becomes obvious.

In some of the liturgical verses, She is the Goddess to whom Ahura Mazda gives sacrifice and pleads (p.57).

In most other verses, She is created by Ahura Mazda and is secondary to him. Even when Zoroastrian royalty made peace with Anahita, she was mentioned in the inscriptions only after Ahura Mazda.

Left: Anahita Right: Artemis
Left: Anahita Right: Artemis

Was Nana a Goddess imported by Kushanas?

Indologist Asko Parpola presents evidence for a continuity of Goddess worship right from Harappan times.

Leaving aside his obsession with identifying different waves of 'Aryans', he provides material evidence for this Goddess worship in the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) seals from Afghanistan which depict 'a winged goddess escorted by lions very probably depict Nana, nearly two millennia before the Kuṣāṇas' and that it was in Afghanistan that 'the Kuṣāṇas adopted, among other local divinities, the goddess called Nana and Nanaya, who is depicted as riding the lion and wearing the mural crown.' (The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization, Oxford University Press, 2015, p.256).

Further Nana In Rig Veda is used to denote mother (RV 9.112.3).

Kushanas evidently brought back the importance and prominence of Nana, along with Uma and perhaps took it further into Iran.

The Rabatak inscription itself shows the predominance of the Goddesses. It is a 'Nana Sanctuary' with 'water on the surface' for the deities 'Ziri (Sri), Pharo (Farrah) and Omma (Uma).

Incidentally the descent of Ganga with Shiva breaking her fall is clearly stated in Mahabharata (3.108.9–14 and 5.109.6). While it was Ikshvaku of Surya vamsa who toiled for her descent, in Mahabharata she has a very intimate role with Chandra Vamsa kings.

In a striking comparison, Anahita is also prayed for her descent and it was by Ahura Mazda himself.

While many scholars have compared her to Saraswati, she as milky way Goddess descending to earth makes her comparison with Ganga also possible. As Nana she is also the Goddess who anoints the kings.

Ganga-Shiva feeds into symbolic Nana-Anahita of Shiva like Oesho?
Ganga-Shiva feeds into symbolic Nana-Anahita of Shiva like Oesho?

Kanishka in the Rabatak inscription states that he received his kingship from Nana. Then in his portrayal of Oesho with Shiva iconography we find water coming forth from one hand of Shiva through a jar.

Is that symbolic of Nana identified with the already-developed Ganga with a remarkable syncretism of Nana-Anahita?

While Ganga becoming a consort of Shiva is not fully described in Mahabharata, Uma is very much His consort. She is also Himavat's daughter right from the early Upanishadic age.

We find in the legend of one of the coinsof Huvishka, the legend of Nan-Oesho. This is very similar to much commoner Oesho-Omma.

Clearly this reflects the evolution of the imagery of Uma and Ganga as consorts of Shiva being taken and used to create a syncretic parallel with Iranian deities.

Over all one can say that the Kushanas with their Indic influence brought back to eminence a Goddess who lost her primal place during monotheistic Zoroastrianism. But again with the monopolistic take over, it is only in India that the river veneration of Ganga (and other rivers) still happen.


Almost all the scholars who have studied Kushan period art, architecture and numismatics have been struck by what they call its 'eclectic' and/or tolerant nature. Many Gods, Goddesses of diverse cultures and civilisations have been accepted, including the pantheons.

Almost all studies of Kushan rulers point out this aspect.

Satya Shrava in his study (cited earlier) points out how the Kushan coins proclaimed the 'religious syncretism of the rulers' and that 'the heterogenous religious elements in Kushana coinage betray also an eclectic attitude of the Kushanas towards religion.' (p.9)

Even Richard D Mann, who argues for a political motivation in what he alleges to be the elevation of Mahasena worship under Kushanas suggests:

... particularly given the religious eclecticism of the Kuṣāṇas, that both Mahāsena and Sroaša may be intended by the statues It may be a case of deliberate ambiguity, or hybridity, designed to allow a single figure to appeal to a wide range of people within the Kuṣāṇa Empire.

In one study on Kushanas, a historian claims that the religious broadmindedness led to their assimilation into Hinduism.

The Kushana monarches were themselves conscious of the unity of all religions as is evident from their depicting divinities of different pantheons. Toleration and broadmindedness did not stand in the way of their personal religious leanings culminating in their final assimilation in Hinduism.
B.N.Puri, India Under the Kushanas, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1965,p.156

Despite the use of the typical cliché of 'growing reaction against the high pretensions of the Brahmins' and 'the inequity engendered by the Hindu caste system', Dr. Kanchan Chakraberti is closer to truth when he quotes the following words of artist and art-philosopher K.G.Subramanian (1924-2016) to explain the reason why Kushanas were exceptionally and creatively eclectic even for their other pagan counterparts:

This is probably of a succinct pantheistic vision the Indian has of his environment whatever his religious persuation; all things from the most humble to the most sophisticated, have in them the 'animus' and so are different forms of the same. ... One can trace the Indian concepts of metamorphosis, rebirth and trans-substantiation to such a vision. (Subramanyan, K. G., 'Religion and Art in India', Moving Focus, p. 99.)
Society, Religion and Art of the Kushana India: A Historic Symbiosis, Bagchi & Company, 1981, p.23

Here an alternative is suggested. It is that Kushanas became 'conscious of the unity of all religions' because of their Hinduised nature.

In the Rabatak inscription, after the name Srosharda and before the name Narasa (between lines 9 and 10) an interlinear line is inserted which reads :

'who is called ... and Komaro (Kumara) and called Maaseno (Mahasena) and called Bizago (Visakha)'
B.N.Mukherjee Translation

In a 2004 translation, Nicholas Sims-Williams reads the line as 'Sroshard—who in Indian is called Mahäsena and is called Visäkha' (The Bactrian Inscription of Rabatak: A New Reading, Bulletin of the Asia Institute, Vol.18, 2004). But this is a typical Hindu-Vedic technique to speak of one Deity being called by different names. Or different names considered as multiple aspects of the same divine.

There is a well known Rig Vedic dictum. This celebrates and proclaims theo-diversity as a condition for spiritual life of India:

Indram mitram varunam agni mdhuradho divyah Sa suparno garutman Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti. They call it Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, Yama, Matariswan and Garutman of divine plumage. That which exists is One and the seers of wisdom call it by many names.
Rig Veda 1.164.46 

Then in the celebrated Prithvi Sukta of Atharva Veda - three essential diversities are mentioned and they are made the basis of creating prosperity for the individual and the nation.

From diversity nourished by mother earth the seeker wishes to harness prosperity like a cow yielding milk:

Janam bibhrati bahudha vivachasam nanadharmanam Prithivi yathaukasam Sahasram dhara dravinasya me duham dhruveva dhenuranapasphuranti Earth, who bears people of varied groups (yathauhasam hahudhd janam), speaking different languages (vivachasam), with multiplicity of their spiritual/religious traditions(nanadharmanam), developed suited to their dwelling places, be a never failing milch cow, yielding unto me a thousand streams of prosperity.
Atharva Veda 12.I.45

In India there existed already a spiritual basis to understand and accept diversity.

Kushanas had a multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire. They had an option. They could have with modifications imposed their Deities on all the people they conquered. Or they could have just got converted to the religion of the people whom they conquered.

Instead they imbibed unto themselves the civilisational principles of India. They became Hinduised. Because they became Hinduized, they could see in multiple Deities the same Divinity.

It is not because they were tolerant that they got assimilated into Hinduism. It is because they got Hinduised they became eclectic and religiously broadminded.

The Tyranny of Shallow Historiography

Now the question is: why do a section of historians obsess with the notion of foreign imports into Indian religion and culture and use it as a means to deflate a notion of historical purity which Hindus do not have anyway?

The Hindu mind has never worried about the historical roots of their symbols. They know better as to what the symbolism of the iconography of their Gods and Goddesses means. To them it is more about the inner experience than a historical immutability.

More important is the question: why the same school of historians cannot see any intrinsic value in the emergence of the iconography and worship of Hindu Deities and its evolution? Why do they always see Hindu spiritual movements, Bhakti or temple-building or creation of Murtis, as elite imposition or propaganda alone?

Dr. Meenakshi Jain in her masterly scholarly book ‘The Hindus of Hindustan’ points out that the oldest Saraswati sculpture found in India was actually donated not by any royalty but by a metal worker.

Most of the Hindu spiritual movements emerged from within and were not imposed from above. In fact, Hindu spirituality stands out in pointing that the temple within of a simple devotee is superior to the temples built by kings. Yet these aspects of Hindu religious history would not even be discussed in the historical narrative set by the colonised historians.

Both Protestant colonial historians and colonized Marxist historians see no value in Hindu religious symbols except as tools for the subjugation of people.

These two schools feed into each other and they have a stranglehold on historiography. It is time Hindu historians with a holistic view of religion and society, importance of spiritual experience in emancipating the society and liberating the individual, take up the challenge of writing a holistic history of Hindu civilisation.

That is more a reason why this long three-part essay has been written, and not answering a 'public historian'.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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