Bridging a Gap in Puranic History
BY: PRADIP BHATTACHARYA
A gold dinar honoring Lord Shiva, who is pouring water from flask and
holding the vajra (thunderbolt), trident, and tamgha (he-goat).
Aug 29, INDIA (SUN) Indications from 'Yuga Purana' help establish timeline of Puranic events, dyanasties.
Despite the casual tossing away of Puranic accounts by Indologists prejudiced by western historicism, the fact remains that these texts provide a remarkably detailed account of dynasties of rulers along with a picture of social conditions that need to be included in any marshalling of facts relating to ancient India.
A major puzzle that has faced scholars in this area is the absence of references to invasions by Greeks and Scythians, whose historicity is substantiated through other sources. In the first year of the new millennium part of this gap has been covered thanks to the invaluable research of Dr. James Mitchiner, till recently the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata. The Vriddha Gargiya Jyotisha contains just two chapters entitled “Yuga Purana” consisting of 115 shlokas, referring to both Indo-Greeks and Indo-Scythians.
The second edition of Mitchiner’s critical edition (published by The Asiatic Society) collates 16 manuscripts to present the text with an English translation and a lengthy discussion that provides fascinating new data.
In this Purana, related by Shiva in response to Skanda’s queries, there is no mention of the Manvantara tradition, of Kalki, or of Abhiras that occur in Mahabharata when it speaks of the coming of Kali Yuga in terms taken from the Vayu Purana. The Abhira reference flags the epic passage as not earlier than 250 A.D.
The Yuga Purana predates at least this part of the epic and also the Matsya Purana which quotes from the Gargiya Jyotisha. Unlike other Puranas that record only names of dynasties of Kali Yuga, it provides accounts of reigns of specific kings. It is also the only text to speak of 12 regions (mandalas) that are peopled after the end of the yuga. It is unique in not terming these survivors as mlechchas. Indeed, that term is used for only a single individual, the mysterious Amrata, destroyer of castes, red-eyed and red-clothed, whom Mitchiner identifies with Kharavela. He looted the Magadhan capital after the Shaka incursion around 60 B.C., and just before the end of the Kali Yuga around mid 1st century B.C. This Purana completely ignores the Ramayana and, even when mentioning Parashurama and Keshava, knows nothing of avatarahood. On this basis it can be dated as earlier than all the Puranas and both epics.
King Simuka Satavahana, named in inscriptions, is identical with Sishuka or Sindhuka of the Puranas, founder of the Andhra dynasty (that is how the Satavahanas are referred to in the Puranas). He is known to Jain accounts as Gadabhilla, father of Vikrama, who ruled over Pratishthan and Malwa. The Yuga Purana knows him as Satuvara, an oppressive ruler, just before the Shakas invaded around 60 B.C. They were routed by Shri Shatakarni, mentioned in the Puranas and the Sanchi inscription, who is the Yuga Purana’s “Shata”, an abbreviation of the full name “Shri Sata” that occurs on coins from Ujjain. The era of 58 B.C. is linked to this feat, although it was founded by the Shaka king Azes and brought into use from about 150 A.D. by the Malavas of Ujjain, referring to it as their Krita era (cf. the Mandasor inscription). Around 750 A.D. it came to be known as the Vikrama era.
Mitchiner convincingly argues that Shri Shatakarni was the king later renowned as “Vikrama”, the valorous one. Similarly, after defeating the Shakas, Gautamiputra Shatakarni (107-131 A.D.) took the same epithet. After Shri Shatakarni’s reign, however, Malwa was lost to the Satavahanas. This is reflected in the legends of the rivalry between Vikrama in Ujjain and Satavahana/Shalivahana in Pratishthan. Later the title “Vikrama” was assumed by Chandra Gupta II after defeating the Shakas, and subsequently by several Chalukya rulers.
An interesting aspect of Yuga Purana is its condemnation of Bhikshukas (beggars) clad in bark-cloth, having matted hair and those who dress in red (Buddhist ascetics). It favours active life and despises those who relax as householders. There is strong opposition to Sudras having taken over performance of yajnas. An interesting social commentary is provided in its deploring the excessive female population, because of which men see “an extraordinary sight. Women will do the ploughing …(they will be) warriors with bows due to the scarcity of men. Women will trade in the villages and towns, while men will be at ease as householders dressed in red.”
There is indication of the existence of a sect information about which is lost in the dark backward and abysm of time. Shalishuka of Pataliputra- great grandson of Ashoka-“of righteous words but unrighteous conduct,” is said to have helped his elder brother, renowned as Sadhuketa (banner of ascetics), establish a righteous person named Vijaya. This seems to be a reference to a Jain religious leader as “sadhu” was a term particularly used for Jain ascetics and Shalishuka’s father Samprati was a patron of Jainism. Like the other Puranas, the Yuga Purana condemns the patronage of non-Brahmanical sects by the Maurya kings.
It links the end of each Yuga to a great battle: Tarakasura’s at the end of Krita Yuga; Parashurama’s 21 battles at the end of Treta Yuga (there is no mention of Dasharathi Rama); and the Pandavas’ at the close of Dvapara. The name “Bharata” or “Mahabharata” is not applied to this war, although Keshava-Vasudeva with four arms is mentioned as appearing to destroy creatures. For the Yuga Purana, the end of Kali Yuga comes with the invasion of the Shakas, followed by drought, famine and the exodus of survivors to 12 mandalas. The founding of Pushpapura (Pataliputra) is a crucial event for this Purana and it celebrates Udayin (Udayan) for this, calling him the scion of Shishunaga. According to most Buddhist, Jain and Brahmanical texts, he was Ajatshatru’s successor around 460 B.C.
The Yavanas (Greeks) are stated to have demolished the mud walls of Kusumadhvaja (Pataliputra) after approaching Saketa (Ayodhya) with Panchalas and Mathuras, following which there is anarchy. It goes on to say that the Yavanas will not remain here but are drawn away by war in their own realm. After their departure there will be seven great kings of Saketa. Thereafter, a mighty Shaka king raids Pushpanama (Pataliputra) and kills a quarter of the population, including all the youngest men, but is slain by the Kalinga king Shata and a group of Sabalas (Savaras).
In shloka 49 there is a mysterious reference to the battle of wooden weapons that Mitchiner has not glossed. In a personal communication he has stated, "The expression used is "shastra-druma-mahayuddham". "Druma" means literally 'a tree'; it is used, for e.g., by Yaska in the sense of 'wooden' in the expression "druma-maya". "Shastra" is literally a sword, knife or dagger, and is often used to denote any weapon, tool or instrument. So the overall meaning of this phrase could indeed mean a kind of caber-tossing event; or it could perhaps denote the use of wooden weapons such as bows, arrows, wooden javelins/spears and so forth."
Patanjali mentions Saketa and Madhyamika being besieged by the Yavana. A series of Indo-Greek coins have been found at Dewas near Ujjain, supporting the Yavana presence in Malwa. The Besnagar Garuda pillar inscription of Yavana Heliodorus, as an envoy from Taxila of King Antialkidas, is dated to around 140 B.C. Kharavela’s inscription in Hathigumpha mentions his attacking Rajagriha and sending the Yavana king Dimita (Demetrios) packing to Mathura, showing a Greek presence in Magadha around the same time.
Panchala “Mitra” coins have been found at Pataliputra and names ending with “mitra” in inscriptions at Bodh Gaya. All these substantiate the Yuga Purana’s account of a joint expedition of Yavanas, Panchalas and Mathuras. Mitichiner suggests that this occurred around 190 B.C., between the reigns of Shalishuka Maurya (c. 200 B.C.) and Pushyamitra Sunga (c. 187 B.C.), when the Indo-Greek king was either Euthydemos (230-190 B.C.) or Demetrios (205-190 B.C. as co-regent and 190-171 as king).
The Yavanas were called away by some attack on the border, such as Antiochus III’s two-year long siege of Euthydemos in Balkh, or the seccession of Sogdiana from Bactria around 190 B.C. This is also when the Maurya dynasty was extinguished by Pushyamitra.
All that remains is to explain the absence of any reference to Alexander’s invasion, about which all Puranas are silent. K.D. Sethna (Amal Kiran) made a valiant effort to plug this gap in his Ancient India in a New Light. But that is a different story.