Dionysus at the heart of Mahayana’s cultural cradle – A reaction to: S. Peterson’s ‘An account of the Dionysiac presence in Indian art and culture’

From the History of Art and Archaeology Department of University of London, Sara Peterson proposes an analysis on shapes – in three dimensions – that bear witness of a Hellenic presence in ancient India, especially in Bactria and around the Kingdom of Gandhāra, in the beginning of the times when the Buddhic message was starting to get spread, more particularly in the cultural melting pot where Indo-Greek blend – here through the Bacchic cult – was the source of artistic inspirations in the very area that would give birth later on to religious streams of Mahāyāna.

「Before your birth, altars lacked suitable respect,
Liber, any grass could be found on cold hearths.
In memory of when the Ganges and the whole east were crushed,
You reserved the first fruits for great Jove」 – Ovid, Fasti III, 726-730

The author shares this excerpt from Ovid’s Fasti to remind that from a Greco-Roman point of view, Dionysus is considered as a conqueror of India, in the purest classical tradition. I would add that it’s also important to remember Ovid predated Nonnus of Panopolis for around five centuries and the Latin language author wrote before Christianity started.

Here are, from Sara Peterson’s publication, some excerpts I will react to.

「The universality of such customs meant that the celebrants were interchangeable, either Classical Maenads, sometimes figures clad in Asiatic costumes, or very commonly personages presented in Yaksha-guise. The variety of races and types of people mirrored the heterogeneous character of society and reinforced the image of inclusiveness which Buddhism cultivated.」 [1]

This first excerpt insists on foundations of cultural and ethnic tolerance in the society of Gandhāra and Kushan Empire. It also reminds the Great Vehicle’s origins rooted in a much blended and mixed culture, not only because of the Indian and Hellenic encounter, but also because of the heterogeneous folklores that developed in the area. I’m genuinely guessing that Mahāyāna Buddhism couldn’t have spread to such diverse nations afterwards, if it had not previously undergone a blending maturation stage. Isn’t Dionysus the bastard lord par excellence and god of endless foreigners?

「Wine offerings to Kubera and other Yaksha continued under aegis of Buddhism, part of this process of assimilation of folk cults. There were even suggestions that there was some relationship between these sacred liquids carried in their cups by the Yaksha, and the ‘‘spiritual elixir of immortality’’, the amrita kalasa, which the Buddha Maitreya carries in his kalasa.」 [2]

The kalasa (or ‘‘pot’’) of amrita is not only an attribute for the Maitreya. Amrita is an immortality elixir well known in the Indian, Vedic and Brahmanic world. Its name comes from Vedic Sanskrit अमृत [əmrtə] which means “undead” or “immortal”, on the same structure as Greek αθάνατος. But another Greek word has an etymological relation with the Sanskrit word; it is the word άμβροτος also with the meaning of “immortal” or “what belongs to the gods”. From this word comes the word ambrosia, traditional food of the gods, although we have a classical difference between solid and liquid elements.

「It has even been proposed that the later Buddhist concept of rebirth in a heavenly realm with living Buddhas and Bodhisattvas had its origins in this Bacchic/Dionysiac tradition. A considerable amount of more research is required to fully explore these potential connections, which are beyond the scope of art history.」 [3]

It’s the first time when the expert expresses doubts about adequacy between a pure historical or archaeological research and a theological comparison of the data. I’ll be back on the matter later.

「It has been speculated that theatres may have reached India in the first century of the Common Era, partly on the basis that Ashvagosha (ca. AD 80-150) was one of the first Indian playwrights. He was a Buddhist sage and scholar whose ‘dramatic themes were explicitly Buddhist’ [4]. He worked in Gandhara which ‘became a major centre for the development of Indian drama’ [4]. It is suggested that drama, like art, was used to promote Buddhism to beyond Indian frontiers.」 [5]

Tradition indeed confirms that Ashvaghosha has been the first Sanskrit language playwright. But he was Buddhist and, having been living in the North of the Indian subcontinent, he had surely been influenced by Indo-Greek arts from Gandhāra. The author suggests that the Hellenic influence not only triggered a local preference for drama arts, but also helped promoting Buddhist schools to spread into the remaining parts of Asia.

「Early drama performances may have taken place at shrines, and such activities would have formed an extension of ritual at rural Yaksha or Dionysiac sanctuaries.」 [6]

When knowing the religious background of drama arts in Greece, this looks like completely obvious. Tragedy, precisely inspired by Dionysus, had been deeply rooted in the religious field. Tragedy is played first in the sanctuary. In Athens, the theatre was next to the temple and one was considered as the spiritual extension of the other one.

「There are some notable similarities between the cults and mythologies of Dionysos (sic) and Shiva and these have been investigated in some detail by Bruce Long and Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. In brief, these common aspects comprise: an association with bulls, snakes, the phallus and fertility; and nocturnal rituals, wine, music and frenzied women and mountains. Both gods have composite identities, as they absorbed local divinities and matured into deities embodying universal qualities.」 [7]

It was obviously not in S. Peterson’s priorities to waste more time on connections between Dionysus and Shiva – although references to Soma and Indra come first in her analysis. I may wonder if she had in mind works from authors like Bernard Sergent’s Le dieu fou. However juxtaposition of themes and attributes common for both characters are still correct and classical. It allows an introduction at least to this vast question.

「One of Dionysos’s epithets was Liknites, a reference to his winnowing basket, the liknon, in which a figwood phallus nestled among fruit. The basket was covered by a cloth which would be drawn back during climactic revelation of the ritual. The thyrsus seeping with honey is another extension of this fecundating symbolism. Interestingly, linga and liknon are two words which are closely related etymologically.」 [8]

Connection between Sanskrit word लिङ्गम् [liŋgəm] and Greek word λίκνον is unfortunately not testified, or at least not yet. The Pokorny doesn’t show any entry and no linguist – from what I know – has ever found any link for them. However another cognate is given for λίκνον and its old form was νίκνον whose meaning was strictly linked to the use of “sieve” or crushing seeds in an agricultural context – which has indeed a relevant reason to be used regarding Dionysus. Then we should be able to explain why the Indian lingam with its phallic connotations would be linked to the agricultural basketry. In this latter case, we should find the origin of the word lingam.This task, should it bear any fruit, could be a great adventure.

「This study has explored the ways in which Dionysos permeated India culture largely on the basis of art historical evidence. Some considerations of the spiritual beliefs and cult ritual in regard to Soma have been included because they seem to provide helpful insights into the syncretic rôle of Dionysos in India. However, there are limitations to such an approach, and there is great scope for a further detailed analysis and evaluation of the potential theological, and particularly the metaphysical, correspondences between Dionysos, and the deities Soma, Shiva and Indra.」 [9]

Here is, as a last reaction to the paper, the main issue I see for the lack of interpenetration between archaeological, linguistic and theological methods: experts have less magnitude since the fields they can (or let themselves) analyse are more and more limited. The result is that global phenomenons significance is being erased as science and expertise detail and improve targeted realities. Archaeology is not enough to explain Dionysus artistic and theological influences on Mahāyāna schools. From the modern – and modernist – theologians and philosophers angle, it’s inversely the cultural relish and archaeological curiosity that could be missing in order to slog at the task fairly prescribed by Sara Peterson in the postscript of her truly interesting paper.

Jean-Sébastien Desnanot


Illustration: Bacchanalian scene, Tokyo National Museum

[1] S. Peterson, An account of the Dionysiac presence in Indian art and culture, “Dionysiac Imagery and Yaksha”, p.16

[2] Ibid. “Symbolic liquids and the God Soma”, p.19

[3] Ibid. “Dionysos (sic), Rebirth and the Heavenly Afterlife”, p.27

[4] Quote from Brancaccio and Liu, Drama

[5] S. Peterson, An account of the Dionysiac presence in Indian art and culture, “Dionysus, the Theatre and Buddhist Visual Narrative”, p.32

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. “Dionysos (sic) and Shiva: a digest of the commonalities and differences of the two gods”, p.37

[8] Ibid. p.38

[9] Ibid. “Postcript”, p.42

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