The Goddesses Of The Mauryans
Literary and archaeological evidence converge and point to the strength of the worship of Devi across the history of India
This is the time of the year, the Sharad Navratri, when we awaken the goddess inside us; Durga, Kali, Saraswati and the myriad forms of Devi which reflect her different aspects, a tradition whose beginnings are shrouded in the mists of time.
Seals and figurines found on the banks of the Sindhu and Saraswati rivers are witness to the fact that mother goddesses have been worshiped in this part of the world for thousands of years.
Coming to a part of history for which we have comparatively clearer evidence, what were the modes of worship for the Mauryans of Magadha and which manifestations of Devi did they worship?
There is both literary and archaeological evidence to tell us more of their practices.
Let us begin with that ancient encyclopedia of information, the Arthashastra. A picture emerges through examining the references to temples, goddesses, rituals, festivals and fairs apart from sanctuaries, holy places, groves, waterworks etc.
In Book 2 where Chanakya sets down the basic structure of the city, a temple is mandated to be built in the centre of the city, at each of its four gates, in store houses and in its four different quarters. Countryside temples maintained by villages are also mentioned elsewhere.
Temples owned large properties including ‘cattle, images, persons, fields, houses, money, gold, gems, crops’ etc. ‘Temple bulls’ and other ‘temple animals’ were especially safeguarded with stringent punishments against theft. Disrespect towards images of goddesses was especially punished. Festivals were frequently organised in holy places.
Other than this, there were also icons and images of gods and goddesses made of perishable materials which were carried around by itinerant sadhus and worshipped by the populace. If Patanjali’s Mahabhashya is to be noted, the Mauryans also sometimes established such images within temples and the offerings became revenue of the state.
The Sanskrit plays of the time mention different festivals such as the Basantotsav and the Kaumudi Mahotsav enjoyed and celebrated on a large scale, which were dedicated to different devis and devatas.
Temples in general are described in the Arthashastra but who were the deities worshipped in these temples? There are many Vedic deities mentioned and invoked in the Arthashastra including different forms of devi.
A special shrine to Devi Aparajita, a manifestation of goddess Durga and the undefeated goddess of war was to be built in the centre of the city. Goddess Shri is another devi to be worshipped in the large central temples. She was the deity of prosperity and we shall see more of her and Devi Aprajita as Durga below. There were temples to Uma and Shiva as guardians of the king.
Chanakya has invoked Saraswati in the Arthashastra. Paulomi, the daughter of Puloma, the Asura, and the wife of Indra, mother of Jayant, the Vedic goddess of power is also invoked. Aditi, a Rigvedic goddess, the mother of the devas and Anumati, another Rigvedic moon goddess, the granter of wealth, intelligence, prosperity, children and spiritual enlightenment and Bhumi Devi, mother earth, find mention, too. The wives of the Sun god, Usha and Pratyusha were also worshipped along with their husband.
No large Mauryan city has been found intact probably because of the overarching use of wood and mud to build them and the building of later layers of habitation on top of them. The Mauryan images made of perishable materials have not survived, either.
What archaeological and numismatic evidence has survived and what does it tell us, keeping the context of the literary evidence in mind?
At the domestic level, the worship of goddesses, including in the form of yakshis and naginis was widespread. Remains of votive tanks and shrines to local goddesses dated to the last millennium have been found across the four directions; Takshshila, Chirand, Kolhapur and Mathura, to name but a few sites.
The most widely worshipped and loved devis were Durga and Shri. In the Mauryan and post-Mauryan period there is evidence from remains of temples and coin inscriptions that make this very clear.
The Durga Gayatri in the Taitirriya Aranyaka is the first place where the devis manifested as forms of shakti are adored as Katyayani, Kanyakumari and Durga. The Krishna Yajurveda and the Mundaka Upanishad describe her and her other manifestations. The Mahabharata has the invocation of Devi Durga by both Arjun and Yudhishthira. Durga grants victory and Mahishasuranasini kills the buffalo-demon and has a legion of fierce female followers of her own like the ganas are to Shiva.
The sculptural evidence from early historical sites shows the popularity of Durga Mahishasurmardini. Mathura, a pre-eminent city of north India in post-Mauryan times has yielded a number of her stone images. A stone plaque found at the remains of a temple at Sonkh dated to the last millennium BCE is a significant example of Durga in this form. There is also numismatic evidence of Durga or Ambika seated on a lion. She is still worshipped in this form and iconic representation.
Devi Sri, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, the subject of the Sri Suktam of the Rig Veda and later identified with Devi Laxmi was the other deeply loved and popular Devi. Laxmi exists in the Rig Veda in the sense of prosperity and in the Atharva Veda auspicious and inauspicious Lakshmis have been mentioned and distinguished. She was the special object of worship not only of the common people but also of kings as ‘Rajlakshmi’.
In early coins, sculpture and relief carvings there are representations of goddess Sri either sitting cross legged or standing on a fully bloomed lotus in the midst of a shrub and being anointed with water from jars held over her head by two elephants standing on lotuses on both sides. The Bharhut Stupa has four representations, one seated and three standing.
As other types of similar figures with the lotus motif are found frequently inscribed on coins it seems clear that the worship of Sri was very popular and widespread.
The Gajalakshmi form was especially popular and possibly the earliest sculpture found dates to the 3rd century BCE at the remains of an apsidal temple at Atranjikhera in Uttar Pradesh. Sonkh in Mathura has also yielded the same iconographic remains.
References to Lakshmi’s form carved on doors in the Sangam text Pattuppattu are ample evidence of her popularity across the subcontinent.
She was worshipped by all the religions in the subcontinent at the time, such was the adoration accorded to her that no religion could afford to ignore her. Buddhists identify her with slightly different names as the goddess of the southern quarter or sometimes of the eastern quarter. Interestingly, figures in the Buddhist sites of Bharhut, Sanchi and Bodh Gaya show the gradual appropriation of the Gajalakshmi into the Buddhist pantheon especially in the representations of Buddha’s mother and his birth.
It is quite remarkable to note the resilience of iconography across millennia, the Gajalakshmi iconography was given a new spurt of popularity by Raja Ravi Varma in the twentieth century and his calendar art representations of Lakshmi draw unmistakably from the old Gajalakshmi imagery. The same is true of the Durga puja idols of today, they trace their roots to the Mahishasurmardini of the last millennium.
Literary and archaeological evidence thus converge and point to the strength of the worship of Devi and its prevalence in Jambudvipa whether that of Chandragupta or that of today.
Devi is adored as shakti and mother, granter of boons, in countless forms and representations, many of which have been worshipped across the ages; a relationship between human and divine which has continued unbroken since the Saraswati thundered across the land thousands of years ago.
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