The Heliodorus Column

Most Vaisnavas refer to Krishna as having appeared 5,000 years ago and generally credit Vedic civilization and Vaisnavism with great antiquity. But what hard, empirical proof do we have for this assertion? Certainly some archeological or other evidence must exist to confirm or deny these claims. Herein, we shall survey the most prominent archeological discoveries that clearly demonstrate the antiquity of Krishna worship and Vaisnavism.

First of all, detailed historical evidence of Vedic civilization is not that easy to come by, since the Vedic culture itself seems to have not valued the keeping of histories. In his book Traditional India, O. L. Chavarria-Aguilar writes of Indians: "A more unhistorical people would be difficult to find." Vedic civilization believed in recording the eternal and infinite. The ephemeral details of daily life (so much the concern of contemporary people) need not be recorded, since they had so little bearing on the larger, more significant goals of human life. Leisure time was to be used for self-realization, cultural pursuits, and worship of God–not rehashing current events or the past. Therefore, practically no histories, according to the Western concept of history, exist today about ancient India, because none were written.

Into this vacuum of historical data on India’s past stepped the European scholars during the last several hundred years, and it is interesting to note how they first dealt with what they found. Religious scholars were especially shocked to observe the remarkable similarities between the lives and philosophies of Krishna and Jesus Christ. As a defensive reflex they automatically assumed that Indians must have come across Christianity in the early centuries after Christ’s ministry and had assimilated much of it into their own religious tradition. This slant on Vaisnavism was called "the borrowing theory" and gained many adherents in the West. Concerning this viewpoint, Hemchandra Raycaudhuri in his book Materials for the Study of the Early History of the Vaisnava Sect writes, "The appearance in India of a religion of Bhakti [devotion] was, in the opinion of several eminent Western scholars, an event of purely Christian origin. Christianity, according to these scholars, exercised an influence of greater or less account on the worship and story of Krishna."

In 1762 in Rome, P. Georgi was the first Western scholar to propound this theory. In his Alphabetum Tibetanum he wrote that "Krishnu" is only a "corruption of the name of the Saviour; the deeds correspond wonderfully with the name, though they have been impiously and cunningly polluted by most wicked imposters." The extreme fanaticism of Georgi’s position was soon repudiated by other Western scholars. Even pro-Christian researchers admitted that the name Krishna existed before the birth of Jesus, but they still maintained that the life of Krishna and the philosophy of Vaisnavism had undergone major transformations because of Christian influence.

In his monograph Uber die Krishnajanmasthami, Albrecht Weber pointed out the many and striking similarities between the birth stories of Krishna and Jesus. The following quote from his work notes many of these similarities:

Take, for example the statement of the Vishnu Purana that Nanda, the foster-father of Krishna, at the time of the latter’s birth, went with his pregnant wife Yasoda to Mathura to pay taxes (cf. Luke II, 4, 5) or the pictorial representation of the birth of Krishna in the cowstall or shepherd’s hut, that corresponds to the manger, and of the shepherds, shepherdesses, the ox and the ass that stand round the woman as she sleeps peacefully on her couch without fear of danger. Then the stories of the persecutions of Kamsa, of the massacre of the innocents, of the passage across the river (Christophorus), of the wonderful deeds of the child, of the healing-virtue of the water in which he was washed, etc., etc. Whether the accounts given in the Jaimini Bharata of the raising to life by Krishna of the dead son of Duhsala, of the cure of Kubja, of her pouring a vessel of ointment over him, of the power of his look to take away sin, and other subjects of the kind came to India in the same connection with the birth-day festival may remain an open question.

Weber even contended that the whole Vedic system of avatars, or incarnations of God, was "borrowed" from the "Incarnation of Jesus Christ."

Dr. F. Lorinser translated the Bhagavad-gita and compared it scrupulously to the New Testament. He concluded, writes Raychaudhari, "that the author of the Hindu poem knew and used the Gospels and Christian Fathers." According to Lorinser, continues Raychaudhari, the similarities were "not single and obscure, but numerous and clear …" There was no doubt in Lorinser’s mind that the Bhagavat-gita had been largely "borrowed" from the New Testament.

Other Western scholars disputed the borrowing theory. Sir William Jones’ studies found Krishna to be one of the more ancient gods of India, who Vaisnavas asserted was "distinct from all the Avatars, who had only [a]…portion of his divinity …" In his fascinating and provocative work, On the Gods Of Greece, Italy, And India, Sir William Jones writes that "in the principal Sanskrit dictionary, compiled about two thousand years ago, Krishna, Vasudeva, Govinda, and other names of the Shepherd God, are intermixed with epithets of Narayana, or the Divine Spirit." Following in the direction of Sir Jones’ research, Edward Moore even went so far as to say that the popular Greek myths had some basis in real life and could be traced ultimately to India. However, solid proof for either side escaped their grasp, and the scholars theorized and debated the issue back and forth. Literary evidence did exist in India to prove that Vaisnavism predated Christianity, but this evidence was brushed under the rug and given little credence until a Western literary source decided the issue once and for all.

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The most important and earliest non-Indian literary record of ancient India is found in the book, Indica, written by Megasthenes. Sometime in the third century BC, Meghastenes journeyed to India. The King of Taxila had appointed him ambassador to the royal court at Pataliputra of the great Vaisnava monarch, Chandragupta. Evidently while there, Megasthenes wrote extensively on what he heard and saw. Unfortunately, none of Megasthenes’ original book survived the ravages of time. However, through Megasthenes’ early Greek and Roman commentators, like Arrian, Diodorus, and Strabo, fragments of his original work are available to us today, as well as Megasthenes’ general message. Dr. Hein reports that Megasthenes "described Mathura as a place of great regional importance and suggested that it was then, as now, a center of Krishna worship."

Christian Lassen was the first Western scholar to bring Megasthenes into the debate on the "borrowing theory." He noted that Megasthenes wrote of Krishna under the pseudonym of Heracles and that "Heracles", or Krishna, was worshipped as God in the area through which the Yamuna River flows.

A respected Indologist, Richard Garbe, agreed with Lassen’s analysis and called the testimony of Megasthenes indisputable. Soon, scholars like Alan Dahlquist, who had formerly supported the "borrowing theory," changed their minds and admitted, in Dahlquist’s words, that Garbe had "exploded Weber’s theory once and for all." The life of Krishna and the religion of Vaisnavism had not been influenced by Christianity, but had appeared autonomously on Indian soil and was already well-established by at least the third century BC.

With Megasthenes’ proof in hand, the credibility of Indian literary sources became enhanced. The great grammarian and author of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, who lived in the second century BC, wrote that Krishna had slain the tyrant Kamsa in the far distant past. Raychaudhari tells us the exact words were "chirahate Kamse’ which means that Kamsa’s death occurred at a very remote time." In the fifth century BC, the greatest Sanskrit grammarian, Panini, mentions that Vaisnavism "was even in the fifth century BC a religion of Bhakti," writes Raychaudhari. The Artha-shastra of Kautila, from the fourth century BC, also refers several times to Krishna, while the Baudhayana Dharma Sutra of the same century gives twelve different names for Krishna, including popular ones like Keshava, Govinda, and Damodara.

Since Krishna is mentioned in the pre-Buddhistic Chandogya Upanishad we must conclude that Krishna lived before Gautama Buddha (563?-?483 BC). The scriptures of the Jains push Krishna’s life back farther still. Raychaudhari writes, "Jaina tradition makes Krishna a contemporary of Arishtanemi… who is the immediate predecessor of Parsvanatha…. As Parsvanatha flourished about 817 B.C., Krishna must have lived long before the closing years of the ninth Century B.C." Of course, the Srimad Bhagavatam and Mahabharata themselves place Krishna’s life at about 3000 BC. Still, whatever the exact dates of Krishna’s earthly appearance and disappearance, because of the abundance of evidence of Krishna’s antiquity, The Cambridge History of India definitely states that Krishna worship predates Christianity by many centuries.

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The Heliodorus column

Let us now turn our attention to the earliest archeological discoveries regarding Krishna’s antiquity. By far the most important discovery was made by the indefatigable General Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1877. During an archeological survey of Beshnagar in central India, he noted an ornamental column. The shape of the column caused Cunningham to attribute it erroneously to the period of the Gupta Dynasty (AD 300-550). Thirty-two years later, however, a Mr. Lake felt he saw some lettering on the lower part of the column in an area where pilgrims customarily smeared it with a lead, vermilion paint. When the thick, red paint was removed, Lake’s hunch was proven correct.

Dr. J. H. Marshall, who accompanied Mr. Lake on this investigation, was thrilled at the find’s significance. In the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1909, he described his conclusions. Cunningham had dated the column far too late and could little have dreamt of the value of the record which he just missed discovering…. A glance at the few letters exposed was all that was needed to show that the Column was many centuries earlier than the Gupta era. This was, indeed, a surprise to me, but a far greater one was in store when the opening lines of the inscription came to be read.

The following transliteration and translation of this ancient Brahmi inscription was published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (London: JRAS, Pub., 1909, pp. 1053-54.

1) Devadevasa Va [sude]vasa Garudadhvajo ayam 2) karito i[a] Heliodorena bhaga- 3) vatena Diyasa putrena Takhasilakena 4) Yonadatena agatena maharajasa 5) Amtalikitasa upa[m]ta samkasam-rano 6) Kasiput[r]asa [Bh]agabhadrasa tratarasa 7) vasena [chatu]dasena rajena vadhamanasa

"This Garuda-column of Vasudeva (Visnu), the god of gods, was erected here by Heliodorus, a worshipper of Visnu, the son of Dion, and an inhabitant of Taxila, who came as Greek ambassador from the Great King Antialkidas to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Savior, then reigning prosperously in the fourteenth year of his kingship."

The column had been erected in BC 113 by Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador to India. He, like Megasthenes, hailed from Taxila in the Bactrian region of northwest India, which had been conquered by Alexander the Great in BC 325. By Heliodorus’ time Taxila covered much of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Punjab. Taxila’s king, Antialkidas, had sent Heliodorus to the court of King Bhagabhadra, but while Megasthenes had only written about Krishna and Vaisnavism, Heliodorus had found them so attractive that he had adopted the practice of Vaisnavism for his own spiritual advancement!

Heliodorus’ Column recognized Vasudeva, or Krishna, as the "God of gods."

1) Trini amutapadani‹[su] anuthitani 2) nayamti svaga damo chago apramado

"Three immortal precepts (footsteps)… when practiced lead to heaven‹self-restraint, charity, consciousness."

From this inscription it is clear Heliodorus was a Vaisnava, a devotee of Visnu.

Raychaudhuri maintains that Heliodorus most probably was already acquainted with Vaisnavism in Taxila, even before he went to India proper, since, "It was at that city that Janamejaya heard from Vaishampayana the famous story of the Kurus and the Pandus [the Mahabharata]." Furthermore, Raychaudhuri then suggests, "Heliodorus of Taxila actually heard and utilized the teaching of the great Epic, " since we know from Panini that the Epic was "well known to the people of Gandhara [Taxila]" long before the time of the Greek ambassador.

In any case, by BC 113 Heliodorus publicly acknowledged in the most conspicuous way that he held Vasudeva, or Krishna to be the "Gods of all gods." He also had written on his column’s inscription that "Three immortal precepts when practiced lead to heaven–self-restraint, charity, and conscientiousness." These three virtues appear in the exact same order in the Mahabharata, which makes Professor Kunja Govinda Swami of Calcutta University conclude that Heliodorus "was well acquainted with the texts dealing with the Bhagavat [Vaisnava] religion." Raychaudhuri concurs that "there was some close connection between the teaching of the Mahabharata and that of the Besnagar Inscription," proving that Heliodorus was a knowledgeable devotee of Vaisnavism.

The Heliodorus Column also struck down the myth that the Vedic religion never condoned the conversion of non-Indians to its fold. While this exclusionary tendency has been manifest here and there in India (although much less so in Vaisnavism), the Islamic historian, Abu Raihan Alberuni, maintains that it was not practiced until sometime after the Muslim incursions into India, which started around AD 674. Alberuni went to India to study in AD 1017 and published his findings in his book Indica (not to be confused with Megasthenes’ work of the same title). He concluded that the violent conflicts and forced conversions of Indians into Muslims made Indians adopt an exclusionary policy, more out of self-defense than religious principle. He discovered that, for many centuries prior to the Muslim invasions, there was no bar to conversions, and the Heliodorus Column certainly attests to this fact. 

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