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Hindu Deities: Imposed Imports By Kushana Warlords?

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.


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