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Who Was Siva?

Tensing Rodrigues

Well, that’s a rather strange question; but it could be very relevant to our search for roots. Historically it is found that a people create their god in their own image and likeness. It does help us decipher and understand the ethnic and occupational characteristics of a people by knowing the god they worship.

As we have seen earlier, Marshall identified the figure on the Harappan steatite seal no. 420 as proto-Siva. Srinivasan, though contesting Marshall’s view, accepts the ‘divinity’ of the figure. [Siva In Indus-Sarasvati Valley, February 25, 2018] Who was then the person in the figure? What was the ethnic identity of the people who worshipped him? What could have been their likely occupation – were they hunter gatherers or pastoralists or farmers? It is probably next to impossible to answer these questions with any degree of certainty; but many clues could be found in the ancient texts.

Mahabharata describes the meeting between Arjuna and Siva, when the former went into the Himalaya in search of the Pasupatastra, the most potent weapon in war. “Passing over those difficult and woody regions at the foot of the great mountains, Arjuna soon reached the breast of the Himavat. … And he saw there, rivers with currents of the lapis lazuli, broken by the fierce eddies here and there, and echoing with the notes of swans and ducks and cranes. …Siva assuming the form of a kirata resplendent as a golden tree, and with a huge and stalwart form like a second Meru, and taking up a handsome bow and a number of arrows resembling snakes of virulent poison, and looking like an embodiment of fire, came quickly down on the breast of Himavat. And the handsome god of gods was accompanied by Uma in the guise of a kirata woman, and also by a swarm of merry spirits of various forms and attire, and by thousands of women in the form and attire of kiratas.” [Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Kairata Parva, Sections 38-39] Leaving aside the question of historicity of the meeting, let us look at the description of the region and of Siva as a kirata; for we are interested in basically two things: the identity of Siva (that will help us to know the identity of his people) and the region in which those people lived.

Kirata is a generic term used in Sanskrit texts mostly for “the wild non-Aryan tribes living in the mountains, particularly the Himalayas and in the north-eastern areas of India, who were Mongoloid in origin”. [Chatterji, 1998: Kirata-Jana-Krti, 26] The name kirata is for the first time found in the Yajurveda (Sukla Yajurveda, Vajasaneyi Samhita, XXX, 16 and Krsna Yajurveda , Taittiriya Brahmana, III, 4, 12, 1). From then onwards, the mountain regions of north and north-eastern India, are well attested by ancient texts as the abode of the kirata. A little while ago we have seen the passage from Mahabharata describing the meeting between Arjuna and Siva as a kirata. In his conquering tour Bhima met kirata in the east after leaving the Videha country (Tirhut division of Bihar); Nakula found them in the north-west.

Chandra draws information about kirata from the description of Yudhisthira’s Rajasuya sacrifice in the Sabha Parva of Mahabharata; the Parva describes, among other things, the gifts that the various kings brought in tribute to Yudhisthira, giving a description of the place they came from. Kirata are mentioned as living on the northern slopes of the Himalayas from where the sun rises; they are also reported as living in a mountainous region in Eastern India, as well as in the Varisa region bordering on the sea (could be the modern Barisal in south-eastern Bengal) and on the banks of Lauhitya river (Brahmaputra river, in Bengal and Assam) [Chandra, 1945: Geographical And Economic Studies In The Mahabharata, 84]

The gifts that they had brought also indicate their places of origin. They brought skins, precious stones and gold picked from the mountain (carma ratna – suvarnanam – nicitam parvatebhuasca); sandalwood, aloewood, loads of zeodary and heaps of aromatics (candanaguru kasthanam baran kaliyakasya ca – gandhanamcaiva rasayah) (Mahabharata, II, 48, 9 – 11) Assam was the home of aromatic woods according to Arthasastra; the gold and the precious stones must have come from Lower Burma, the Khryse Khora or ‘Golden Land’ of Ptolemy identified with the hinterland of the Lower Burma. [Chandra, 1945: 85] Could the kirata be the people that Gadgil is talking about as the ‘migration from South East Asia and China across the northeastern frontier near the India-China-Myanmar border in Manipur around 6,000 BCE’? [Gadgil et al, 1998: Peopling Of India, in Balasubramanian & Rao, The Indian Human Heritage, 107]

Of even greater importance for us, searching the identity of Siva, is the description that the epics give of the kirata attending Yudhisthira’s Rajasuya sacrifice : ‘wearing skins’ (carmvasasah), ‘they lived on the fruits and tubers’ (phalamulasana) (Mahabharata, II, 48, 8), ‘wearing thick topknots’ (Ramayana, Kiskindhakanda, XI, 30).

Two of these immediately relate to Siva; he is usually portrayed clad in an animal skin, usually of tiger; and most of the pictures of Siva show him with a topknot. Unlike other gods, Siva is usually offered bel/bilva leaves as neivedyam. All these attributes and more show a strong affinity between Siva and the kirata; he shares with them their martial qualities and love for music and dance, as well as their simple nature and volatile temper. He indeed appears to be a god of the kirata in their own image and likeness. Like Pusan of the Vedic tribes, sharing entirely in their pastoralist attributes. As Srinivasan points out, the ‘pasupati’ on the Harappan seal no. 420 is surrounded by wild animals, not domestic animals. [Srinivasan, 1984: Unhinging Siva From The Indus Civilisation, The Journal Of Royal Asiatic Society Of Great Britain And Ireland, No. 1, 78] Valdiya calls Siva the ‘spiritual supremo’ of the kirata – a hero, a leader, a king, a god? [Valdiya, 2012: Geography, Peoples and Geodynamics of India in Puranas and Epics, 125]

But all this takes us only further from our principal concern: the connection of Siva to Khambat and Harappa, his kshatriya connection. [Siva’s Migrations, February 11, 2018; The Agate Beads Of Khambat, February 18, 2018; Siva In Indus-Sarasvati Valley, February 25, 2018]

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