Durga Near Ghazni – A “Buddhist” Representation Afghanistan’s Hindu Past – Arte-Facts #10

Further art and artefact representation for Vijayadashami – a fragmentary Durga MahishasuraMardini depiction from Tapa Sardar in modern-day Afghanistan near Ghazni; then part of Zabul.

Even though most of the statue is now missing (all that is blue or green in the reconstruction), it’s still impressive! Especially considering that head, alone, is about 64 cm tall. And excellently, elegantly carved – beauty that remains despite some 1,200 years or more of neglect.

Curiously, this is identified by academics as a “Buddhist” version of Durga as Mahishasura Mardini. Now, I am no scholar of Buddhism – but I should be rather surprised to find that there was an authentically Buddhist form of either the myth or the mythic figures involved. Or what the need would actually be within a Buddhist context for such borrowing.

More likely, the actual religion practiced in Zabulistan – would be something else. Not ‘Buddhist’, exactly – although certainly drawing from this, as well as a number of other Indo-European religious influences such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, the Scythian and other Steppe IE beliefs, and even the Greeks.

With the end result being something akin to what we’ve previously seen with various of the other regimes ruling in this area such as the Kushans and Kushano-Sasanians – where there are deific figures, religious beliefs that might look superficially like some specific creed such as Zoroastrianism (or, in this case, Buddhism) … yet which, upon closer inspection, is actually rather closer to what we might recognize as Hinduism. In this particular case, quite directly so. 

Most of the time, this resemblance to Hinduism is due to a combination of things – both the direct Hindu influence upon the culture(s) in question being pervasive and longstanding, thus naturally leading to a strong saliency for Hinduism within the resulting ‘mix’. But also because it is quite natural for a number of Indo-European origin religions ‘coming back together’ to filter out some of the idiosyncrasies in each of the strands being woven together – and therefore produce something closer to the ‘archaic’ belief as a result. Which, given Hinduism is, itself, a lot closer to this archaic Indo-European belief (due in no small part to the antiquity and detailed comprehensivity of the Vedas) – means we should be unsurprised when ‘putting things back together’ produces patterns that look a lot like the Hindu perception of things. 

To bring it back to this particular sculpture of Devi Durga as Mahishasura Mardini – it would be tempting to presume that it’s a case of the former. A prominent later Hindu influence leading to some Buddhists simply having a Buddhist-style representation of the myth produced – a direct ‘incorporation’ or ‘borrowing’ of the myth from an external source. It’s a bit strange, but it still allows the adherents in question to be described as Buddhists, and have that make reasonable sense. Even despite a somewhat curious decision to have an obviously Hindu Goddess and mythic occurrence given such lavish attention within one’s temple. Or, as it happens, temples – plural. For this is not the only allegedly ‘Buddhist’ rendering of Durga slaying Mahishasur that has turned up in an Afghan ruin of Buddhist provenance. 

Except I’m not entirely sure that’s what’s happened here. The mythic conceptry underpinning Durga contra Mahishasur is not just something which turned up out of nowhere in the (later) Puranic Hindu scriptural canon. It has direct Vedic precedency as well as broad Indo-European underpinnings and coterminous expression (for example, I would link the Taurobolium bull-sacrifice carried out for Cybele to this same mythic trope).

Importantly, there even appears to have been a rather specific Kushan version of the tale in which Durga slays the demon with Her Own bare hands rather than making use of the Divine Weaponry. These predate the later Hindu scriptural materials which have come down to us in which the Goddess is described as utilizing the aforementioned Divine Weaponry to kill the bovine adversary; and would appear to suggest that the Kushan had their own somewhat independent tradition around the subject that was a parallel development to the better-known Hindu one (curiously, the sculptural representations we have of this Kushan iteration of the myth date from the period at which the Kushan were notionally significantly Buddhist). As I have noted above, the Kushan previously ruled the area that would one day become Zabul some several centuries later.

So it is not implausible that instead of a later Hindu encounter leading to the later Hindu refinement of the myth being directly ‘borrowed’ and then carved with local Buddhist aesthetics … what we are instead seeing is a myth that did not need to come from outside, to the South and East, because it had never really left. And had been passed down by the peoples of the area in its core form, until eventually being captured in stone some mere decades prior to the Muslim overrunning of the place brought it all to a sadly shattered ending. 

Where am I going with all of this? 

To put it bluntly – we often hear academics insistently label this or that Central Asian dynasty or ruler as ‘Buddhist’ or ‘Zoroastrian’. And it has frequently seemed that they almost go out of their way to avoid terming Hindu elements of belief, Hindu believers, to actually be .. well .. Hindu. So we have Oesho occasionally declared to be a Zoroastrian deity – despite holding a rather prominent Trishula and being accompanied by a Bull with a Nandipada insignia attached, for example. Because it doesn’t fit the narrative of attempting to explain away all seeming Hinduism of the era and area that is not absolutely incontrovertible as being “Zoroastrian Gods in Hindu Garb” as one scholar put it. And because as soon as one manages to show just how non-doctrinaire these labels, these rulers actually were when it came to whatever non-Hindu creed they’re supposed to have been espousing … well, it casts serious doubt upon the accuracy of the labelling of them as “Buddhist” or “Zoroastrian” etc. all up. 

Which doesn’t mean that I’m attempting to suggest that there were no ‘real’ Buddhists or Zoroastrians out in Central Asia much of two millennia ago. Only that there’s a lot more going on than either reductionist label would seemingly imply. And that quite often, the actual nature and substance of both practices and belief of these figures out there proximate to the Steppe would have actively horrified the more orthodox adherents of either faith back in the heartlands thereof. That Oesho figure, for instance, is in fact a God that the Zoroastrians had pointedly demonized and defamed during their own religious breakaway from the previously prevailing Indo-Iranian religious orthodoxy. And also shows up in various Tibetan Buddhist iconographic representations being purportedly humiliated and trampled underfoot by this or that Buddhist spiritual teacher or other such figure of their belief as a dire obstacle to enlightenment and perpetuator of suffering. So in both cases – regarded by the proper Zoroastrians and many ‘proper’ Buddhists as a malefic figure to be cast down , or at best as an obstacle to be overcome at best in the case of the latter (the Mahayana Buddhists are more ‘forgiving’ – instead merely re-situation Shiva as a wrong-headed peddler of falsehoods Who must beg their messiah for true enlightenment, inter alia).

Not, as the notionally Buddhist or Zoroastrian rulers of the Kushan and their successors wound up doing – placing the Great God as the God-Emperor of the Universe and the Imperial exemplar Who supported and legitimated their rule to the point that they adopted His Trishula as their own insignia of sovereignty. 

So when I see this beautiful work of divine sculpture described as “Buddhist” – or as a “Buddhist version” of a Hindu myth, with the implicit implication that this some sort of foreign incorporation (or, for that matter, a ‘foreignizing’) of the Goddess and the myth involved … you can understand my perplexity. There is little to suggest that this is a Buddhist reinterpretation (which would be the ‘foreignizing’) ; and I am not convinced that , for reasons aforementioned , Durga as Mahishasura Mardini was a foreign, latter-day incorporation for the peoples of this area of Central Asia, either. But rather, a figure that had existed amidst their mythoreligious belief already for quite some time. 

Which, of course, invites the rather obvious line of inference – that beneath the ‘Buddhist’ exterior given so much emphasis in modern-day presentations of these peoples and their religious adherency … 

Hindu Heritage Dies Hard. 

An appropriate sentiment, now that I think upon it – for the fact that despite this temple and this murti having been smashed asunder via a particular wave of non-Indo-European religious invasion, which would eventually go on also to overrun much of India and wreak incalculable damage upon the culture, civilization, and cultic spheres of the more well-known devotees of this Devi (and other Gods like Her) located therein … 

… we have just finished a nine night religious observance dedicated to this very same Goddess, and the tenth day thereof which is specifically that of the Divine Combat between Devi Durga and Mahishasur. Exactly that which was depicted in this impressive shattered sculpture. 

Or, phrased another way – some iconoclast has, indeed, managed to break this statue of the Goddess … (although intriguingly, he has been unable to destroy the representation’s beauty). 

Yet some one thousand two hundred years on – not only is the Goddess Herself unbroken (as if this could ever be in any doubt) : but our devotion to Her still, likewise, lives on and lives abundant. 

And it is the would-be conqueror’s hand which lies as dust upon the wind, forgotten – not the Name of the Goddess nor the Belief in Her that he sought to cast down and to destroy. 

It is rather like Mahishasur himself in that regard – remarkable and noteworthy only for his failure and consequent annihilation. 

And who knows – perhaps one day in the not entirely distant future, we might find that the ancestral folk-belief of the descendants of this temple’s previous custodians returned to them. Even if, in keeping with the apparent typology, it may happen to ‘look’ superficially Islamic to some external observers removed in terms of both place and time. 

As somebody once observed – She moves in mysterious ways. 

जय जय हे महिषासुरमर्दिनि रम्यकपर्दिनि शैलसुते ॥

Jai Mata Di ! 

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