The Vaishnav Greek (the story not so discussed)

By Neha Singh

It states as,” This Garuda-pillar of Vasudeva, the god of gods, was constructed here by Heliodora [Heliodorus], the Bhagavata, the son of Diya [Dion], of Thakasila [Taxila].

The Greek ambassador who came from the Great King Amtalakita [Antialkidas] to king Kasiputraa [Kashiputra] Bhagabhadra, the Savior, prospering in [his] fourteenth year.”

As said by scholar Richard Solomon.

It’s an inscription in Brahmi script on the pillar of Vidisha (yeah, the land of Guptas, Mauryas, Sungas and numerous such kingdoms). Pillar from 113 B.C. says a lot about our history.

The pillar is:

So, who is Heliodora here? Heliodorus was a Greek ambassador to India in the second century B.C. It is known that Heliodorus was sent to the court of Sunga King Bhagabhadra by Antiakalidas, the Greek king of Taxila (a Greek indo region).

So, let’s see who’s Sunga king Bhagabhadra here?

Bhagabhadra was one of the kings of the Indian Shunga dynasty.

He ruled in north, central, and eastern India around 110 BCE. Although the capital of the Shungas was at Pataliputra, he was also known to have held court at Vidisha.

It is thought that the name Bhagabhadra also appears in the regnal lists of the Shungas in the Puranic records, under the name Bhadraka, fifth ruler of the Shungas.

So why is it important to mention about Bhagbhadra, a Sunga king?

It’s important because he was the fifth king to uphold the throne of Sunga Dynasty [ established by Pushpa Mitra (a Brahmin senapati of last Mauryan king’s army) by killing Brihadrath (the last Mauryan emperor)].

Since, Sungas held their lineage back to Brahmins, they spread Brahminism and prosecuted Buddhists and tried to end Buddhism (which was a state religion of the Mauryan empire).

Since, they had Brahminism as their state religion, it means, they had Vedic way of worshipping which sees MahaVishnu as its deity then.

And hence, Coming back to point! Let’s not forget it’s also mentioned “Bhagwat” as an adjective for Heliodorus, well, here, Bhagwat necessarily doesn’t mean he was a Vasihavaith because there are scripts which even mentions Karthikeya as Bhagwat and Durga as Bhagwati.

But he erecting a pillar in the name of Sri Vishnu does mean he was a Vaishnav. Well, is it necessary? No! It can also be an act of a healthy Greek indo relationship but scholars will never fail to stretch out an angle of a probability.

The pillar looks:

This Pillar is a column that was erected on the outskirts of Vidisha in central India in about 113 B.C. And is considered to be one of the most important archaeological finds on the Indian subcontinent. The sandstone pillar is about 6.5m high with a bell capital and a damaged abacus showing geese and honeysuckle decoration.

It was worshipped by the locals: –

As we can see the broken part of Garuda on the pillar. It’s mentioned that the lost Garuda capital today is kept in Gwalior museum.

The Garuda capital of the Heliodorus pillar has not been found in the surveys, but it has been suggested that it had already been excavated by Cunningham, who was unaware of the Garuda attribution of the pillar, and that the remains of this Garuda capital were transferred to the Gwalior

Museum together with the other artefacts initially discovered at the site   
Why Garuda? The sun bird Garuda is the traditional vehicle of Vasudeva.

In the Mahabharata (probably compiled between the 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century CE), Garuda appears as the vehicle of Vishnu.

However, the understanding of Vasudeva as an emanation of Vishnu probably appeared much later, as there is nothing to suggest it in the early evidence: the cult of Vasudeva between the 4th century BCE and the 2nd century BCE was a warrior-hero cult, after which the progressive amalgamation with Vishnu and Narayana would follow, developing during the Kushan period and culminating during the Gupta period.

Slightly later, the Nagari inscription also shows the association of the Brahmanical deity Narayana with the hero-cult of Bhagavatism.

Vishnu would much later become prominent in this construct, so that by the middle of the 5th century CE, during the Gupta period, the term Vaishnava would replace the term Bhagavata to describe the followers of this cult, and Vishnu would now be more popular then, Vasudeva. Cunningham was the first to notice and record the Heliodorus Pillar in January 1877.

At the time due to the architecture of the column he assumed it to be from the Imperial Gupta period, placing a date for it of 300 – 350 A.D.

Thirty-two years later in 1901 an inscription was discovered on the column, obscured by a layer of vermillion paste that had been applied. Only then did it become clear that the monument was not only several centuries older, but also hugely significant to the archaeology of India.

Why it’s important? One of the factors which marks it significant is that the probabilities that Helodrious was the first person from Western world one to convert to Indian Dharmic traditions. To learn about Helodrious, we need to learn about the pillar he erected, so let’s just have a quick anatomy of it and around:

The 1913 excavation revealed that a significant part of the Heliodorus pillar is below the platform. It sits on top of the remains of a more ancient pillar probably damaged by floods. Over time, silt from various floods have deposited and a raised platform was added at some point.

The pillar shaft has a base support of two placement stones held with a layer of stone-metal. Above this was an untrimmed stone portion of the pillar. Above the untrimmed section is a trimmed octagonal cross-section. The original ground level was about 4.5 centimetres above the junction of the untrimmed and trimmed section.

Above the length with octagonal facet is the section of the pillar with sixteen facets. Above the sixteenths section is the thirty-two faceted section, beyond which is the short round pillar section all the way to the top where sat the crowning emblem (now missing).

The pillar is about 17.7 feet above a square platform (12 feet side), and the platform itself is about 3 feet high above the ground. The currently visible portion of the pillar’s octagonal section is about 4 feet 10 inches high. The sixteenths section is fully visible and is 6 feet 2 inches high.]

The thirty-twos are also fully visible and is about 11.5 inches high, while the round section is 2 feet and 2 inches high. The bell capital is about 1 foot 6 inches deep and 1 foot 8 inches wide. The abacus is a 1 foot 7-inch sided ornate square.

The Vaishnav Greek (the story not so discussed) The ornamental bands on the pillar are at the junctions of the octagon-sixteenths and sixteenths-thirty-seconds sections. The lower ornamental band consists of half-rosettes, while the upper ornamental band is a festoon with birds (swag with flowers, leaves and hanging vines).

Early scholars mistook it as geese (or swan), but a closer examination revealed that they are regular pigeon-like birds, not geese (nor swan). The upper festoon is about 6.5 inches long. According to Donald Stadtner, the capitals found at the Heliodorus pillar site are similar, yet different in ways from the Sunga capitals found at Sanchi.

The Sanchi discoveries lack the clockwise birds, the makara and the band found in Besnagar. They have elephants and lions, which are absent in Besnagar.

According to Julia Shaw, the elephants and lion’s motif is typically found with Buddhist art of this period. The two styles have differences yet informed the other, states Shaw. The Heliodorus pillar is neither tapered nor polished like the ancient Ashokan pillars found in India. It is also about half the diameter of Ashoka pillars. The Brahmi inscriptions are found on the octagonal surface just below the lower ornamental band of half-rosettes.

The 1963–65 excavations suggest that the site had an elliptical shrine – possibly 4th to 3rd-century BCE – with a brick foundation and likely a wooden superstructure.

This was destroyed by a flood around 200 BCE. New soil was then added and the ground level raised to build a new second temple to Vasudeva, with a wooden pillar (Garuda dhvaja) in front of the east-facing elliptical shrine. This too was destroyed by floods sometime in the 2nd-century BCE.

In late 2nd-century BCE, after some ground preparation, yet another Vasudeva temple was rebuilt, this time with eight stone pillars aligned in the north-south cardinal axis. Only one of these eight pillars have survived: the Heliodorus pillar. As we discussed about the first inscription above which says Helodrious as a devotee of Vishnu.

There’s a second inscription too which emphasise to the point that yes! Helodrious was really inspired from Vedic ethos.

It’s like:

 It says: Trini amutapadani-[su] anuthitani nayamti svaga damo chago apramado Three immortal precepts (footsteps)… when practiced lead to heaven: self-restraint, charity, consciousness. We can say this would have been the Vedic philosophy in which Helodrious would have believed.

Treatises here made the scholars believe that Helodrious was really inspired from Vedic Culture and hence, he might the first western convert to Vedic Hinduism.

Some people argue like: It disputes the common belief that India’s orthodox tradition did not accept converts. Well, it’s not necessary to believe that physical conversion would have happened, it can also be a probability that Helodrious find Vedic Culture really fascinating and hence, he adopted this way of living and practiced it that necessarily not needs conversions processes like baptism.

Though we have enough points to claim that Helodrious was the first Greek Vaishnav but some scholars, most notably A.L. Basham and Thomas Hopkins, are of the opinion that Heliodorus was not the only Greek to adopt such principles.

Hopkins, chairman of the department of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College, has said ” Heliodorus was presumably not the only foreigner who converted to Vaishnava devotional practices — although he might have been the only one who erected a column, at least one that is still extant. Certainly, there must have been many others.”

The Temple:

 In 1910, an archaeological team led by H H Lake revisited the Heliodorus pillar site and nearby mounds. They found the Brahmi inscriptions on the pillar, and noticed several mistakes in the early Cunningham report.

They also found many other broken wall pieces, pillar sections and broken statues in different mounds along the river, within a kilometre from the pillar. Lake speculated these to be variously related to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

Near the Heliodorus pillar site, his team discovered Sapta-Matrikas (seven mothers of the Shaktism tradition of Hinduism), dating to the 5th-6th century CE. These discoveries suggest that Besnagar was probably an important ancient temples and pilgrimage site.

The 1963–65 excavations revealed that the Heliodorus pillar was a part of an ancient temple site. The archaeologists found an ancient elliptical foundation, extensive floor and plinth produced from burnt bricks.

Further, the foundations for all the major components of a Hindu temple – garbhagriha (sanctum), pradakshinapatha (circumambulation passage), antarala The Vaishnav Greek (the story not so discussed) (antechamber next to sanctum) and mandapa (gathering hall) – were found.

These sections had a thick support base for their walls. These core temple remains cover an area of 30 x 30 m with 2.40 m.

The sections had post-holes, which likely contained the wooden pillars for the temple superstructure above. In the soil were iron nails that likely held together the wooden pillars. According to Khare, the superstructure of the temple was likely made of wood, mud and other perishable materials.

The sub-surface structure discovered was nearly identical to the ancient temple complex discovered in Nagari (Chittorgarh, Rajasthan) – about 500 kilometres to the west of Vidisha, and the Nagari temple too has been dated to the second half of the 1st-millennium BCE.

The archaeological discoveries about Vasudeva Krishna at the Mathura site – about 500 kilometres to the north, states Khare, confirm that Garuda, Makara found at this site, palm-leaf motifs were related to early Vaishnavism.

The Heliodorus pillar was a part of an ancient Vaishnava temple. According to Susan Mishra and Himanshu Ray, the Heliodorus pillar Besnagar site (2nd century BCE) and the Nagari site (1st century BCE) are perhaps the “earliest Hindu temples” that archaeologists have discovered.

As Wikipedia says. And here comes the important (myth break-ing) part: – Vaishnavism an offshoot of Christianity? Around the turn of the century, a number of Indologists (Weber, Macnicol, and others) had noted ” points of similarity’ between the Vaishnava philosophy of unalloyed devotion and Christian doctrine.

They had argued that Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu and Krishna) must have been an offshoot of Christianity, and cited the similarity between stories about Krishna and about Christ to further support their claim. But the discovery of the inscription on the Heliodorus column laid their speculations to rest.

Here was conclusive archaeological proof that the Vaishnava tradition antedated Christianity by at least two hundred years.

Conclusion: Why Greek traveller adopting Vedic living was important? It was important to highlight this because mostly the Indologists believed that Vaishnavism was never part of pre-Mughal era. And the Culture in India was nothing but a mix of tribal constructs, as we can see Helodrious adopting Vedic way of living, it shows that Dharmic constructs in India before Mughals and missionaries were also authoritative and way of living was really given of importance.

It’s also to highlight the issue that how Sungas were successful in spreading Brahminism. Even when Buddhism was on the peak. The cult of Vasudeva Krishna was being popularized.

It also highlights the evolution and development of Culture constructs in India in the sense of heritage coinciding with way of living. It marks the evolution of Vaishnavism and Indian pillars too, well that’s needs a different post.

I want to say History of India is distorted, but it has a lot to say, let’s allow them to speak and accommodate ourselves to understand their language. Tell then! Take care! Be in peace! Signing off.

Bibliography: –

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heliodorus_pillar https://www.archaeologyonline.net/artifacts/heliodorus-column https://kevinstandagephotography.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/heliodorus-pillar-column-vidisha/a mp/ https://thewire.in/history/how-the-historic-pillar-of-heliodorus-became-khamba-baba https://youtu.be/6BPZOq5y13Q https://amp.google-wiki.info/3800234/1/bhagabhadra.html

This is a guest post written by Neha Singh. Click here to check out here Quora profile where she shares answers related to Indian culture and civilization

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