Hindu Deities: Imposed Imports By Kushana Warlords? (Part 1)
A look into the iconography of Shiva.
Some very crucial iconographic elements of Hindu Gods and Goddesses as we worship them today were actually not original to India but were imported and imposed by Central Asian ‘elites’ for political manipulation of religious sentiments.
Or so claims ‘public historian’ Anirudh Kanishetti in an article (‘Shiva, Skanda: How Hindu gods absorbed Iranian, Greek ideas’) published on 23 February 2023 in a news portal.
According to him the depictions of Hindu Gods and Goddesses we see today, 'were shaped by a place that confounds unitary nationalist imaginations: Greater Gandhara.'
Here, Iranic, Hellenic and Indic gods were combined in weird and wonderful ways by diverse elites, laying the foundations for deities who are still revered today.
So Indians, 'fond of boasting of “Indian” gods being worshipped in medieval Southeast Asia, owe much to the imaginations of Central Asian rulers who once shaped them.'
He substantiates this claim with a 2006 paper by art historian Franz Garnet which is titled, quite revealingly, as ‘Iranian Gods in Hindu Garb: The Zoroastrian Pantheon of the Bactrians and Sogdians, Second–Eighth Centuries’ (Bulletin of the Asia Institute, New Series, Vol. 20 (2006), pp. 87-99).
How much of this budding narrative stands against actual facts and historical processes though?
Should ‘Greater Gandhara’ confound the so-called ‘unitary nationalist imagination’ given such an imagination exists?
Even Abdus Samad, a Pakistani archaeologist who likes to attribute every Hindu symbol to non-Hindu source in his thesis, points out that ‘the earliest reference to Gandhāra in literature’ was from ‘the Ṛg-Veda (1.126.7)’ and hence ‘since old belonged to the coreland of Indian culture.’
Now getting into the specifics, let us examine the case of Shiva.
According to Kanishetty, Kushans had a politico-religious solution for their conquered regions.
On their coins they simply took the Zoroastrian Gods and gave them images derived from Greeks. As they expanded their empire over India, they did the same to Hindu Gods and Goddesses:
A fascinating case of this, described by Professor Grenet, is of the god Oesho-Shiva. In the late 1st–early 2nd century CE, he appeared on the coins of the Kushan king Vima Kadphises with the titles of “Great Lord” and “Lord of all the World”, titles also used by Vima. These depictions were inspired by the Greek demigod Herakles, with a muscular body and occasionally a lion pelt. But by the 2nd century CE, under the Kushan emperor Kanishka and his successor Huvishka, Grenet writes that “the iconographic ties with Heracles are severed and the god exhibits the three-headed and four-handed type of [Shiva] Mahadeva.”
The reader should note here the suggestions made.
The Deity appears with the titles ‘Great Lord’ and ‘Lord of all the World’. These depictions were inspired by ‘Greek demigod Herakles with a muscular body and occasionally a lion pelt.’ Implied suggestion is that these were all imported for Shiva.
Now the facts.
The first Kushan emperor did use the 'Greek religious designs, so that Herakles, Zeus and Nike appear on the coins'; a practice which also continued into the reign of his son Wima Takto, points out numismatist Joe Cribb who specializes in the Kushan coins.
... but his grandson Wima Kadphises replaced the Greek imagery with a representation of the Kushan god Oesho using Indian imagery, water-pot, erection and bull, borrowed from the Hindu deity Shiva, but with some Greek features.Joe Cribb, Greekness after the end of the Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms, in 'The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek World',(Ed.Rachel Mairs),Routledge 2021. p.672
The name used on this coins for the trident-wielding Deity with a bull is Oesho, written in Bactrian; it is pronounced as ‘Wēś’ an Iranian deity of wind.
Incidentally there is still no iconography of this God found independent of one given by Kanishka, which later enters the sculptural representation as well.
On the coins of Vima Kadphises, who was the father of Kanishka, the Deity is clearly declared as 'Sarvalokeswara' - the Lord of all worlds - in Gandhari and Karoshti.
In other words one can say that it was not the iconographic attributes of Shiva getting borrowed from Iran and Greek but rather an Iranian deity was receiving the already well-defined, very Indian attributes of Shiva.
As we will see, even the 'some Greek features' that Cribb points have a strong Indian influence.
To be fair to our ‘public historian’, this is not just his view.
There is always a tendency among a section of scholars to reject indigenous elements of Indian culture.
For example, almost every feature of Shiva in the Wēś imagery is seen by archaeologist Abdus Samad as a non-Indian import:
The trident Wēś is holding was copied from Poseidon images ... Nakedness, diadem, club and animal skin: These characteristics of Wēś were borrowed from the Heracles on Indo-Greek and Scythian coins. ... The thunderbolt was an attribute of the Greek Zeus. ... The bull behind Wēś may have been copied from Scythian coinage. ... These are again attributes of Wēś which have to be considered as Indian features.Abdus Samad, Emergence of Hinduism in Gandhara An analysis of material culture, PhD Thesis, Freie University Berlin, 2010
The problem is that the Vedic Rudra has on him animal-skin. He is associated with Sula in the later Brahmana period. And Trisula is well associated with Him in the older Mahabharata texts.
Trident has also been attested in the seals of Harappa as a weapon.
Ananda Coomaraswamy, in his detailed paper on the evolution of the image of Buddha had cautioned against the late borrowing theory.
Not only Vajra as the three-pointed weapon of Indra had been alluded to in Rig Veda, even ‘more importantly we have also early literary references to the form (Atharva Veda, XI, 10, 3) where the trisamdhi, the three-pointed bolt of Indra, is deified.’ ('The Origin of the Buddha Image', The Art Bulletin , Jun., 1927, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 287-329: pp:305-6)
Tribes in the Himalayan region at least a century prior to Kushanas had issued coins with Trishul, Nandi bull and elephant. Nandi the bull and trident had clearly emerged as the sign of Shiva.
They had also used the very Saivaite salutation verse Bhagavata Mahadevasa Rajarana. In other words, all the features said to be imported features from Greek Herakles in the late 1st to early 2nd century BCE were already there right in further interior India, away from the early expansion space of Kushanas.
Even in the case of thunderbolt, said to have been ‘appropriated’ from Zeus, art historian Pratipaditya Pal points out:
Although not common, the thunderbolt is a prescribed emblem of Siva in some texts. Of particular interest is the shape of the implement. Curiously, the engravers seem to have used the type of thunderbolt held by the bodhisattva Vajrapani in Gandharan art rather than that held by Zeus or Athena in earlier coins.Pratapaditya Pal, Indian Sculpture - Vol-I : A catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection, University of California Press, 1986, p.77
The curious fact is that earlier Prof. Pal had pointed out the way Zeus was depicted on the coins of Saka king Azes, who was around prior to the coming of Kushanas.
Zeus was getting very much Indianised with a dhoti and more importantly, his figure 'approximates much more slightly effeminate image of the male body preferred by Indian sculptors.' (p.75) This is truer for Shiva whose images throughout India (pre-late twentieth century) are shown not muscular but with a feminine charm.
Dr. Shailendra Bhandare, an expert in numismatic study of ancient India in a paper points out how the Trident symbol appears on the coins of the ‘two ‘tribal’ monarchies, namely the Audumbaras (Udumbaras) and the Vemakis, located ‘on the ‘Indian’ side of the so-called ‘Kingdom of Jammu’ region’ and points out that this symbol ‘has distinct Shaivite overtones’ and the figure of Shiva holding a trident first appears on the coins of Gondophares and how the ‘trident-battle axe’ symbol continues to appear on the coins of later Kushana rulers. He writes:
The employment of distinctly Shaivite motifs like these on either side of the chronological spectrum of the ‘last phase of the Indo-Greeks’ points to the circulation of such symbols in the common cultural pool surrounding the last Indo-Greeks and the ‘visuality’ associated with them.Shailendra Bhandare, The last phase of the Indo-Greeks: Methods, interpretations and new insights in reconstructing the past, in in 'The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek World',(Ed.Rachel Mairs),Routledge 2021, p.532
So it is from here the iconographic elements are taken, at least by the Kushanas, and then attributed to an Iranian Deity. Even here it is interesting to see a subtle continuity that is preserved in Vedic texts.
The name Oesho – identified with Zoroastrian Wēś, the wind Deity, has a Shiva connection. Shiva as Rudra is the father of Maruts, the storm gods who also declare Prisni, the celestial cow as their mother (Rig Veda 5.52.16).
Wife of Rudra, Rodasi, the mother of Maruts, accompanies them in their chariots to fight in the battles. Marut in singular is Vayu. In popular Hinduism, Hanuman also called Maruti because He is the son of Vayu is considered as having Rudra-Amsa.
Further the artisans who minted the coins often took the imagery from the Indian sculptural elements present around them. Sometimes when those engravers employed by the kings were foreign to the local traditions mistakes/misinterpretations happened.
But these very mistakes are today valuable for us to prove that the images on the coin were not imposed on the population by an elite but the rulers derived the imagery from the worship traditions around them.
Historian and numismatist Osmund Bopearachchi points out how in the famous Balarama-Vasudeva coin of Agathocles who reigned between 180 to 190 BCE, the coin engravers misrepresented two elements - one the head-dress and another the conch shell, which they showed like a Greek deity holding a vase. We all know how subsequently only the correct holding of the conch—derived not from the coinage but from the surrounding sculptural evolution as well as textual depictions—decided the popular Hindu imagery.
Similarly, he shows how the different coin images, despite some Greek embellishments, were derived from existing sculptural elements which in turn were derived from strong scriptural—Vedic to Puranic—narratives.
Particularly interesting is the coin of Huvishka showing a multi-armed Vishnu.
He points out that modern numismatist-historians like Nasim Khan and J.Cribb had seen the forking element in the coin only as a 'plant sprouting between the legs.' However combined with the sculptural elements, both from Kandhara temple depiction of Vishnu (now in private collection) and later Kashmiri depiction of Vishnu, Bopearachchi shows it to be the floral garland Vishnu wears - the famous vanamali. (Osmund Bopearachchi, Emergence of Vishnu and Siva images in India: Numismatic and Sculptural Evidence, May-14-2016, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco).
Very similar processes can be seen in the way basic Shaivaite elements evolved in their iconography in Kushana territory. And then the spirituo-cultural 'natural' selection further evolved.
Nobody can argue that Hindu religious icons evolved without any input from outside. Like all religious iconographies world over, there has been cross-fertilising here too. But to reduce that complicated process to the 'import of imagery' and 'elite imposition' is to caricature a complex process.
Further, Hindu spiritual traditions with their Vedic and evolving as well as highly diverse and decentralized Puranic local traditions provided a rich substratum from which various experiments could be performed in syncretism. In attempting that, the Kushanas became deeply Indianised and also vastly contributed to India.
Kushanas came from outside, true. But they imbibed the very Indian values of eclectic syncretism. They favoured an environment that introduced varied styles into the elements. Meanwhile there should have been churning of Indian traditions like Pasupata, Bhagavata etc. within and Iranian, Greek from outside.
To discount the process of Samanvaya in the evolution of these images is to leave a big empty space in the entire narrative while it could well be the heart of the whole process.
When Kanishka boldly took the features of Shiva into Oesho, he was making, perhaps even unknown to him, a civilisational leap.
What we have here is Kanishka creating a deliberate ambiguity of syncretism with the iconographic elements of Shiva as Oesho. At the basis of this syncretic 'experiment' is the deeper yet typical Hindu vision of seeing the One in various names and forms. Otherwise he could just be seen as taking the Hindu vision into the Iranian religion.
In the subsequent Kushana coins we further find the combination of the features of Shiva and Vishnu which in turn is attested by continuous sculptural depictions in the society.
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