Every so often, we happen across an artefact that seems to demand its own commentary-piece – both because of its sheer visual or historic impressiveness, yet also because it illustrates something … indeed several somethings … quite important for our ongoing work.
This fine coin of Peroz II, the King of the Kushano-Sasanians, is just such a thing.
Depicted upon it we have, of course, the Kushanshah himself on the left-hand facing … and the enigmatic Kushan deity Oesho upon the right. As you can see, there is a clear and deliberately direct effort to synchronize the imagery of the two figures. They stand similarly, They are equipped similarly. And in terms of cosmological role, They are to be similarly regarded – As Above, So Below.
Except there are some important differences, too – and certain of these help to ‘link’ the Below with the Above as the active acts of empowerment which make the resonancy more than merely imitative and iconographic.
But first, let us briefly consider just Who this Oesho (the deity depicted upon the right) actually is.
Many would tell you that Oesho represents a continuation of the broadly pen-Indo-Iranian figure of Vayu [‘Wind’] – specifically, the Zoroastrian recollection of the deity. This is not entirely inaccurate, although it is significantly incomplete. For what is actually intended via the iconography of Oesho is abundantly, instantly clear to any Hindu ancient or modern.
ShulaPani we should call Him – the God Who Wields The Spear. Vrishabhadhvaja – the One Who Has The Bull As His Emblem. And this is further supported via the strongly concordant plausibility of what we would know as ‘Ishvara’ (‘God-Emperor’, as I translate it) and ‘Oesho’ in both linguistic and in mythic terms.
Except if all of this is so abundantly apparent – why is it of interest, why is it even the least controversial?
Well, because there is this persistent belief that the Kushans and their immediate successors were Zoroastrians. And to be fair and sure, in the general semi-syncretic soup of Central Asia about the period … Zoroastrian elements did have a place. Although often, it would seem, as mere ‘window-dressing’ or ‘surface-expression’ for fundamentally deepa Indo-Iranian concepts which might have severely rubbed the actual orthodox Zoroastrians decidedly the wrong way.
A certain well-regarded scholar has proffered the conceptualization as being that of Iranian, Zoroastrian deities in Hindu garb. We think (and I am indebted to my colleague Aldo Rapace for his assistance in this matter) that it is precisely the other way around – that what we tend to see here are Indo-Iranian, Indo-European, Hindu deities with occasional Zoroastrian taste in haberdashery.
Thus it is here. Wherein a deity that was quite literally demonized to the extreme by the Zoroastrians of yesteryear – Lord Shiva – is taking front and center stage as Royal Patron, indeed as Pati (‘Lord’) of the Cosmos all up.
There is some loose skein of support for Vayu in such a role in the Zoroastrian theology – wherein Vayu, Who could not be suppressed as easily as the other facing of the same deity, Rudra, was preserved as a figure of such potency that even Ahura Mazda was depicted praying to Him for empowerment … yet Who also was shown as something of a patron to Zahhak. Yet it is not Vayu that is customarily depicted armed with the Three-Spear [‘Trishula], accompanied by the Bull, or any of the rest of it.
And, as I say, with Vayu as a well-known ‘facing’ of the same deity that is Shiva in the Hindu theological understanding – if we insist upon holding to a Zoroastrian origination for the Vayu that is Oesho , then the only way we can view this is an organic ‘reconstruction’ .. indeed an outright ‘restoration’ occurrent out there upon the edge of the Steppes. Where the Zoroastrian God and Zoroastrian Demonized Figure, are brought back together as One. Something which seems so sufficiently unlikely that it is far simpler and more elegant to just take things as they directly appear – Vayu-Rudra-Shiva , the Hindu and Indo-Iranian orthodoxy, with perhaps some tangential reinforcement from those already-cognate Zoroastrian elements with which He was already fundamentally in agreeance.
But let us move on to the actual coin itself, and the visual signifiers depicted thereupon.
Probably the most interesting element, for our purposes, concerns the major distinction between Peroz II and Oesho – for despite all the deliberate care to depict these two as coterminous, there is just such a dysjunction that more truly establishes the connexion between the God-Emperor and the human ruler.
This is to be found in the right hand of either and each. In the case of Oesho, what is held is a Diadem – in this case, a band of material which would be tied about the head of the monarch, as the sign and sigil of their power, in a not dissimilar manner to the more simple wreath of leaves (laurel or otherwise) that we would perhaps be more familiar with today. It had made its way into the Central Asian heartland of the Kushana upon the heads of the Greek [‘Yavana’] conquerors as they swept through the Achaemenid Empire (where it may have syncretized with the already-extant Persian custom around various forms of head-wrapping turban for the aristocracy and more especially for their emperor) and thence stayed there post-Alexander to set up the Greco-Bactrian and other such ‘successor’ states. It is, of course, interesting that even some centuries – most of a millennium in fact – following the Macedonian arrival in the vicinity, the cultural ‘aftershocks’ of this conquest were still ripplingly apparent.
There are various ‘coronation’ reliefs carved amongst the still-Zoroastrian Sassanids to the west of the Kushan which might seem an obvious point of comparison here, due to the depiction of a supreme god handing over the relic of rulership to a worthy mortal. Although it ought be distinguished as a practice on the basis that i) Ahura Mazda is the deity that does this for the Sassanids, and ii) Ahura Mazda hands over a harder object (the cydaris, often termed the ‘ring of power’) to a man who is often depicted as already having the Diadem bound about his forehead. [Which, to be sure, is also where the Diadem on Peroz II’s side of the coin is in this depiction – the flowing ribbons running out behind his head are carved to intentionally resemble those in Oesho’s hand]
However, what is truly ingenious with this particular numismatic representation is the manner in which this ‘handover’ is taking place. For you see, not only is it ‘indirect’ (as, by necessity, yet also aesthetics, the King and the God are on different sides of the same coin – and that, too, speaks towards the underlying meaning as previously observed), but it is ‘functional’, ‘transactional’ in its own way. It is not merely a case of the God Oesho handing down the Diadem of Rulership to the mortal Ruler. Instead, there is an interlinked and corresponding action occurrent in the right hand of the human king that has ‘unlocked’ such potency to be bequeathed in the first place.
What is that action? Well, if we cast our eyes to the non-trident wielding hand of Peroz II – we see that his arm is held outwards and downwards towards a small box-like device, above which stretches another seemingly arcane glyph, and about which billow circling lines which bear entirely uncoincidental similarity to the sigils of the Kushana script to be found circling the outer edge of the coin nearby.
What is this? What is going on here? Why, it is Sacrifice. The Performance of Piety. The ‘box’ is in fact a Fire Altar – that integral element of most any Indo-Iranian ornate rite , especially of kingship or empowerment and which finds parallel expression elsewards out across the Indo-European sphere for exactly the same reason. It is the ‘conduit’ within which we place our consumable offerings that they may reach the Gods Themselves – and, as is the nature of conduits, that back down and out through therefrom comes the blessing as the directly correlated result. This is why Lord Agni is the God of Priests and the Priest of the Gods – for He represents exactly this linkage between ‘down here’ and ‘up there’, both going and coming in either direction. And it is He that is ‘fed’, ‘nourished’ via the offerings, the libations, the propitiations which are poured into Him within the Altar’s bounds. From whence they rise as smoke – and as I say, the ‘smoke’ is here represented via elegantly traced circular, spiraling patterns that directly recall the text immediately adjacent to it that sets out that this is the Kushanashah – the Κοϸανο ϸαηο. And that is, again, entirely uncoincidental – as the Fire is ‘telling’ us something. Just as we find Brihaspati-Agni as the Lord of the High Speech [Brihaspati & Agni are also facings of Shiva]; so too do we find that the Fire is Declaring something here.
Although whilst Words are the mightiest weapons known to the Indo-European arsenal – these are not the only ‘weapons’ or symbolic conveyances of meaning on show here, produced from out of the wreathing flames. If we cast our gaze only slightly upwards, we behold something else. A curious pattern which one might at first presume to be a Tamga [a ‘house mark’ or ‘dynastic emblem’] – although this is complicated by a number of factors, including the fact that the NandiPada symbol (which we shall discuss in greater depth below) utilized as a Tamga by the Kushanshah up until shortly after this period is plainly in view to Peroz II’s right.
More likely, this particular pattern above the Fire of the Altar is a Trishula – mirroring the one held in Peroz II’s left hand, and also in Shiva’s. It is rising up out of the Flames, as it is an ensign of Rule – ultimate rule. Lord Shiva’s Three-Spear is Three-Pointed precisely because it connotes rulership over all Three Worlds ; whilst (as I detailed extensively in WORLD-SPEAR, inter alia), it also represents the veer-y axial of Cosmic Law, Rta, Righteous Rulership Itself. It is therefore absolutely uncoincidental that the gesture of piety performed by Peroz II’s right hand, resonant via Shiva’s provision of the Diadem of rulership in HIS Right Hand , is emanated back to Peroz II’s side of the coin via the Trishula rising up out of the Flames of Sacrifice. Piety Precedes Power, is the simple message being conveyed here. And it is only through the Righteous Conduct of the Rite that the Dharma, Rta, Righteousness Itself can be congealed back out into the prospective ruler’s hand.
Yet there is something curious about this Trishula shape upon the Altar-Fire. It has a Crescent above the middle point , and two radiating projections either side of the shaft heading back down in counterpoint to the two raised outer points of the Spear. It is probable that these two are intended to represent streamers or ribbons bound about the Spear’s shaft – as certainly that is what is depicted in various much earlier Kushan coinage of this type; although there, we usually see either a more obvious tethering about the shaft of separate streamers at multiple levels, or we see them blown in a single direction as if by a wind.
Whether directly intentional or not, it is symbolically appropriate that the design recall that of the stylized Vajra – not when beheld as a Club or a Mace (‘Gada’) , but rather when more directly representing the arcs of lightning through the atmosphere. It is three points to the sky, three points down to the earth – a central shaft buttressed by curving arcs. Much as we are seeing here.
This might sound odd, as the Vajra is often thought of as the Weapon of Lord Indra, the Indo-European Striker/Thunderer (or, in the Zoroastrian’s version of events, which was Indra-less except as applies a certain demonized figure, Mithra) , whereas the Trishula is the Weapon of Lord Shiva , the Indo-European Sky Father. Except we have direct Vedic attestation for the Weapon of Rudra, too, having the status of a Vajra – as should be expected, both due to the Storm qualities of both Sky Father and Striker/Thunderer in active application of Their Anger , yet also due to what the Vajra actually represents. As I have discussed in my previous work, it is the ‘weaponized’ form of an expression of Brahman – Force, attained through Piety, from Beyond the Edge of the Universe.
The Vajra, too, is held to be emblematic of Rulership – hence its status as the ensign of the Dumezilian 2nd Function (the Warrior Aristocracy) , and perhaps on some unconscious basis the reasoning for its still-extant utilization in various Anglosphere legislatures as the symbol of the power of the master of that House [here in New Zealand, as is the case in various of these other polities, the Parliamentary Serjeant At Arms bears an enormous golden mace to stand for the Power of the Speaker – and also for its active enforcement at the Speaker’s directive]. So, in short, it is just what we should be expecting for a King to be prominently associating themselves with – hence its utilization in the royal iconography and nomenclature of, say, the Buddhist influenced Kingdom of Thailand today.
However, I am not sure if there is such a straightforward explanation for the crescent topping the Trishula above Peroz II’s hand. The best that I can come up with – assuming that it is not part of one of the characters in the script around the rim of the coin (which it shouldn’t be, as such a flourish would be unnecessary for the characters which comprise the text; and in any case, coins of Peroz II’s successor, Varahran, maintain the crescent in more visually distinct fashion) – is that it may represent a Crescent Moon. And certainly, the Great God upon the other side of the Coin, the original Wielder of the Trident – is described as ChandraSekhara : The Moon-Crowned or With The Crescent Moon Adorning His Brow.
The Crescent Moon does turn up as a symbol for rulership and for renown, fame, upon an array of the crowns and the other assorted regal iconography of various eastern Indo-Iranian rulers prior to this period; including mounted atop a staff or banner-poll as a regal ensign. It is therefore not impossible that the addition of the Crescent to the top of the Trident here (and it is important to note that it is only the Trident emergent from the Flames, neither the Trident of Oesho / Shiva nor the one in the left hands of Peroz II or other mortal rulers appears to bear it) is designed to signify something similar. Perhaps to underscore further that this is a Royal, Radiant Trishula; perhaps to recall the role of the Moon in the provision of the Soma (as this is, after all, a Fire Rite that is being depicted; and Soma definitely does figure as a regal element in various Vedic hymnals for coronation and the empowerment of the Monarch); perhaps it is there to signify Time.
Whatever the case, the immediate mental association a Shaivite would make when seeing a Moon would be of the aforementioned Moon-Crowned One. While not discounting, therefore, the possibility of this being a symbolic of additional significance (as it does not occur in several of Peroz II’s predecessors’ similar renditions of the tableau (and by ‘predecessors’ I am also including other regimes who imitated the design contemporaneously) – although IS persisted with by Peroz II’s immediate successor, Varahran) – a simple interpretation would be that the Moon adorning the Trident is to show just exactly Whose Trident this is. Or, at the least, to connote that it is a Regal , Imperial ‘Crowned’ device – and certainly, the Kushano-Sasanians were quite big upon depicting their rulers as ‘Moon-Crowned’ themselves.
To continue with our iconographic analysis, there are two further elements to be addressed. The Swastika and the Nandipada.
As applies the former, this is of course, a symbol of broad occurrence – even in non-Indo-European cultures across the globe. Yet in this specific instance, it is quite clearly meant as something decidedly other than a mere regular geometric pattern. It is a sigil of power. It is a sign of something. It possesses the auspicious and empowering faculties of its use elsewhere in the Dharmic sphere. And that is quite interesting for our purposes, as it is not at all what one should expect to find in a Zoroastrian context at this time. To be fair and sure, it is of course not only a Hindu symbol when utilized in this manner – and some might suggest that its saliency here may reflect an older Buddhist influence upon the region. Yet in constellation with all of the other elements upon the coin, I do think that it adds weight to a Hindu understanding of both ruler and regime that it would be affixed so prominently. Indeed, one could make that its placement at his feet represents a Dharmic foundation for his rule.
Now in terms of the Nandipada symbol – the again three-pointed design to the right of Peroz II’s waist – the situation is similarly complex. It should be a Hindu symbol – the Bull’s Hoof , directly relating to the depiction of Nandi (Shiva’s Bull) found on the other side of the coin. It was also made fairly active use of as a dynastic marking for the Kushano-Sasanian rulers following their ‘borrowing’ of this from the last coins of the Kushan (note: not Kushano-Sasanian) Vasudeva I. There are, again, potential Buddhist utilizations for the symbol (for example, the alleged meaning of the same symbol on the so-called Buddhist Coin of Tillya Tepe) – especially if it ‘blurs together’ with the more authentically Buddhist ‘TriRatna’ symbol. Although I do not believe it particularly likely that that is why it should occur here. Instead preferring the infinitely more straightforward view that the Bull’s Hoof upon the side of Peroz II’s coin correlates to the quite specific Bull depicted upon the Divine side of the coin. A quite direct ‘mark of divine favour’. And therefore, again, a Hindu signifer in multiple senses of the term – both one utilized by Hindus, in a Hindu context … and one which signifies that the coin, its symbols and meaning, were substantively drawn from that same contextual milieu.
Why does this matter? Because, as I have said previously – the supposition of some scholars is that the Kushans, the Kushano-Sasanians , were Zoroastrians. And that all of the Hindu visual or other signifiers were, as aforementioned, cases of Zoroastrian religion in occasional Hindu clothing. And I can see how a surface-level examination from a potentially biased perspective might bear this out. It is, after all, the case that many of the details to this particular coin were direct derivatives from previous and more overtly Hindu coins and rulers elsewhere in the Indosphere. One could be forgiven for presuming that that was all this was – the imitation, the carrying over, of the concepts of direct relevancy to somebody else.
And that may fit for some coins, over a relatively brief period – when the Kidarites took over and continued to use a Kushanashah as a puppet ruler, for instance, they kept up with that ruler’s designs of coinage for fairly obvious reasons. Yet it does not explain how or why the Kushano-Sasanians themselves didn’t just directly appropriate nor cursorily imitate what they were given – but actively built upon it, developed it, refined it, and added to it. And did so for a protracted period spanning the entire reign of their dynasty and the best part of two centuries.
These are not, in short, the actions of men – of kings – who merely accepted what they were given as if it were utterly meaningless except for trinket and/or semi-literal dollar value. These are, rather, the sorts of processes undertaken by men who do genuinely believe they are doing something meaningful – that they are in receipt of a divine mandate from the figure they have taken such painstaking care to ensure is represented in ever-more-elaborately detailed, beautiful fashion.
And who have quite literally adopted the Trishula – the Shaivite Ensign still in active use amidst places like Nepal today as a symbol for Rulership under the Shaivite Mandate – as the symbol for their imperial power.
We often hear it said of this or that group of the pseudo-Central Asian monarchies that they are Zoroastrians, that they are Buddhists, that they are Syncretic, that they are Greek. And many of these labels have some degree of truth to them. Yet you shall almost never hear various of these described as Hindu. At best, as we outlined earlier, you find them approached so timidly – desultorily designated as being one of those aforementioned groups with occasional ‘Hindu characteristics’ where it is not possible to simply outright dismiss the Hindu elements and claim they are something else entirely.
I hesitate to suggest that it is outright ‘Hinduphobia’ which motivates such things – although this concern has occurred elsewhere when it comes to the archaeology of belief upon the SubContinent, without question. But whatever it is which motivates these perspectives , it does seem quite the imbalance for analysis the see what are clearly and unambiguously Hindu symbols … and instead declare via ever escalating acrobatics of mental gymnastics that these MUST instead be rather peculiarly unprecedented ‘Zoroastrian’ forms , or whatever else is sought as a ‘placeholder’ to eclipse the natural Hindu identification of them.
For what it’s worth – I absolutely do not doubt that belief out there proximate to the Steppes was quite a rich, multi-layered and multi-influenced sphere. I do not think that anything was entirely ‘pure’ – any more than any great center of humanity is ever such a thing in truth. Yet just as Hinduism tends to preserve the archaic elements of the Indo-Iranian belief , it is not especially surprising to find that a complex conceptual mish-mash , given some centuries to be shaken about, stirred (up), and thence allowed periodically to re-settle, should manage to reproduce what is, in effect, a Hindu-cognate understanding (as we saw with the previous Yama Iamso coin I have written about earlier) – even before we take into account and consideration the strong active and overt Hindu influence welling up from the SouthEast back thereinto.
So – various academic writing upon Peroz II shall tell you that he is a Zoroastrian, and that the trident-armed deity with the bull that Peroz II is standing in imitation of … is the Zoroastrian Vayu.
Perish the thought. The God-side is Shiva. Ishvara. The God-Emperor of the Worlds Himself. It is only right that a mortal ruler should seek to imitate, and be granted the mandate of rulership via pious supplication of Him.
ॐ नमः शिवाय