I’ve had this coin in my head for awhile now – and it seemed rather appropriate to post for a Wednesday. It’s another of the artefacts from the justifiably famed Tilya Tepe burial-site in northern Afghanistan; a roughly two millennia old set of seven graves that are likely of Scythian origin, rediscovered in 1978. But that isn’t what’s got it stuck in my mind.
Rather, it’s what’s depicted *on* the coin that’s of interest to me.
On the main facing [the image to the left], is a powerfully built man clad in a chlamys style cloak, and petasos wide-hat.
Iconographically Greek elements, as you can tell from the words; and which match-up with various other Greek-influenced art from the area over the centuries. But the text, and the wheel, these are not Greek – not directly, anyway. The script is Kharosthi, the text is communicating in a later Sanskrit derivation that reads Dharmacakrapravata[ko] – He Who Brings The Wheel Of Law In Motion.
And, fittingly [there is a Sanskrit theological double-meaning here – सुख (Sukha); a term which refers to happiness or ease, and which is derived according to some etymologies from the notion of the axle of a chariot-wheel that neatly and evenly fits the hole it is to run through – thus producing a smooth ride], there is just such a wheel presented as present immediately afore the figure in question.
Now, what is going on here?
Well, the generally advanced theory is that this coin depicts Buddha. And certainly, there are a few reasons why this may potentially be correct.
But I personally suspect that there may be something else going on here. Or, possibly, many things going on simultaneously. But we’ll get onto that in a moment.
See, the thing is – during the period in question, Buddhist art didn’t tend to directly depict the Buddha in anthropomorphic terms such as these. So while it’s certainly possible that this is, as some have claimed, potentially *the* oldest such representation of the Buddha that’s yet been found, with the form seen here perhaps the result of a Hellenized enthusiasm for less abstract depictions … particularly in concert with several of the other features of the figure, there’s more than a bit of room for alternative interpretations.
These include the possibility of a mortal ruler, in the manner that many other coins of the Ancient World have tended to exhibit – but I find that, too, to be a little unsatisfying as a potential identification. There’s no direct name, or other clearly identifying features for *which* human ruler it may have been. It’s *possible* that “Dharmacakrapravata” is a reign-name, but I think that it’s much more plausibly understood as a title, an honorific, even a (cosmological) role. Perhaps appropriately, not so much a “reign name”, as a name for a reign, but we’ll get on to that in a moment.
What’s more likely – to my mind, at least – is that this is in fact a Deific figure. And here, we are on potentially somewhat firmer ground in endeavouring to make an identification. Or, at least, some rather more well-founded associations than the nebulous ones we might otherwise attempt to construe. Or, rather, with the “neb” Proto-Indo-European root in mind [‘Cloud’, Astral], the associations we are about to make are veer-y “neb-ulous”, indeed.
You see, as soon as I saw the “wide hat” and the “cloak”, my mind *instantly* made a connection. Except, due to how it works, taking a *wandering* route via territory both familiar and scenic [skein-ic], it went to a Germanic deity Who is *also* depicted as cloaked [Löndungr] and wearing a rather wide hat [Síðhöttr].
Now I’m not [directly] seeking to imply that this is Odin. Just commenting that these iconographic features my mind instantly recalled are also those of Hermes. To whom Odin forms the Interpretatio Graeca rough equivalent [it’s not a *complete* encapsulation – as Odin is also the Sky Father … but you see, as we have covered in some of our previous works, the Greeks did not remember when the Wind Lord and the Sky Father were one, in the manner that the Hindus and the Norse did].
And we could certainly expect to see Hermes upon a coin – potentially even doing ‘double duty’ with/as Buddha as well, dependent upon the paths taken by post-Indo-Greek religious syncreticism in the region [there has been some reasonable suggestion in this area, previously].
A ‘Hermes’ style identification would also make sense – as this is a coin, after all; and Hermes included within His portfolios, trade and commerce. Which is partially why I have trouble accepting this as a Buddha representation – I mean, if one were to attempt to symbolize mundane-materialist attainment, there could be few more easily understood representations than a coin. Which would make it a rather unfortunate irony were this to be Buddha stamped upon its facing.
Although to be sure, there is a potential explanation of sorts for this, too – that Wheel of Law standing for Sovereignty; and having some degree of Buddha association, amidst the earlier Hindu ones. And certainly, the mark of Sovereignty is exactly what one tends to expect upon a coin of Antiquity.
But let’s expand upon that for a moment. I won’t go into the concept in huge depth, because I’ve already done so in several of my previous works; but suffice to say, there are three overlapping interpretations for the correlation of the Wheel with Sovereignty in Dharmic, and most especially Hindu iconography.
The first, and simplest, is in reference to the direct meaning of Chakravartin – “One Whose Wheels Are In Motion”. It refers to a ruler who can go pretty much anywhere without being attacked – his sovereignty is unquestioned, wherever he might go in his chariot. Hence, his wheels are ever potentially in motion. He is Paramount.
The *second*, connects this wheel concept to the Axis Mundi of the world itself; and there are various Vedic hymnals detailing precisely this (meta-)visual metaphor. The spokes of the wheel radiating out from the central point in a manner like the World Tree, and potentially about as numerous as the days of the year, if memory serves. So, the one who has dominion over *this* wheel, not only has dominion over the *world* or *worlds* , but may potentially have “set the wheel in motion”, as well.
And that *third* sense is built directly from there. The concept being one of a Ruler who ‘sets the tone’ for the period, the era, the ethos, the “Zeitgeist” [and funnily enough, Hegel himself was *directly* influenced by Dharmic thought in this precise regard – you can see this also in his famed letter describing Napoleon as the “world-soul”; hence, in part, our regard for Napoleon [PIE ‘Neb’ root again] as Napoleon I Chakravartin]; who is spinning that Wheel to his direction in speed and course and thence our progression through it and on into the *next* phase, beyond this life, in whatever guise or form or plane/loka that might happen to potentially take].
So, who is the World-Sovereign? Who is He? Whom Every Mortal-Ruler Should Wish To Be?
Well, a hint is to be found in my preferred translation of the Sanskrit term Ishvara – which in one sense means a God, especially a Supreme One [and it *is* “One”, generally speaking]; and in another sense, means a Sovereign, a paramount ruler. An Emperor. Hence – “God-Emperor”.
It not at all coincidentally, customarily refers to Lord Shiva.
Why do I say “not at all coincidentally”? Well, apart from the Sanskrit and Hindu theological materials that support such a conclusion; in the scoping span of this piece, we have already encountered two forms of Shiva known elsewhere in the Indo-European world Whose customary iconography matches up directly with that which is shown upon this coin. Hermes, and Odin. [Vayu-Vata, Vata-Rajah, Vatain – and interestingly, while I am not in a position to make a professional assaying, I *do* note that DharmaChakraPravata, could possibly be alternatively translated, with “Pravata” [प्रवात] meaning “Strong Wind”, “Storm Wind” – certainly one way to set a Wheel of the World into Motion … with Breath and Howling and Speech]
We have *also* encountered a third (sort-of – as I have said, it gets complicated due to the Greek … confusion in this area) – Zeus. Zeus Pater. Sky Father. Dyaus Pitar.
Now why am I mentioning *that* august name once more? Because, in part, it is so closely correlated with Sovereignty; but also because other academic sources have sought to suggest the figure upon the coin is Zeus or Hercules – Vajrapani [Lightning In His Hand], after a sort. And you know, even this may actually *strengthen* a Shaivite identification – the Trishula is correlate with the Vajra, also; and Brihaspati, another form of Rudra-Shiva-Vata, also wields it directly. While *also* being so closely associated with the concept of Dharma that He wears it as the sacred thread of His Bow-String.
This potential identification is further strengthened, by the symbol appearing in front of the Lion on the other side of the coin – the Nandipada [‘Bull’s Hoof’] Trident marking, which also appears to our modern eyes like the standard Devanagari for AUM, albeit facing *upwards*. Now, to be sure, this symbol *also* has specific usage in a Buddhist context, but I think that we can entertain for a moment the older source-material feeding into that, and still then in contemprary usage, as well.
The Kharosthi text on this side of the coin, reads “Sih[o] vigatabhay[o]” – The Lion Who Dispelled Fear.
A not entirely uncommon function of Deifics nor Sovereigns to Their people, those under Their protection and guidance – to whom the Lion’s Roaring [Rudra – The Roarer] is a clarion rallying cry, an ensign of might and victory and unstoppable force rather than dread. अघोर [Aghora], we might say – “Non-Terrifying” – another Rudran epithet; Abhayankar, अभयङ्कर, in a somewhat more ‘active’ bestowment sense.
So, who is this mighty figure, who is capable of turning the Wheel of the World with His Own Hands?
Well, we are never likely to know, I don’t think, with any great certitude just who it is whom the ancients of Afghanistan sought to *directly* portray upon this fine piece of Numisma [one should, perhaps, be careful to distinguish the Latin “Nemo” – ‘Nobody’ .. i.e. Odysseus .. and how *He* fits into all of this is … another article for another time; from the Greek “Nemo” – having power over a thing, to hold or dispense or assign].
But for my money [“Your Life is Mahadeva’s Currency – Spend It Well”, as we wrote some weeks nor months ago] – I believe it to be quite an eloquent series of iconographic ciphers which point winkingly back to the One Who Goes By Many Names Amidst His People [“eino nafni hetomk aldregi /six ek medfolkomfor”].
Perhaps, whether its (human) artificers *intended* it that way, or not.