In Sanskrit literature, history is often verified myth, and myth a metaphor for history. An interesting blend of both appears in a passage from the Matsya Purana, recording the virtuous actions of a legendary king destined to deliver the world from the Kaliyuga, the Age of Kali, the final epoch of sin and suffering:
“He was called Pramati. For full thirty years, he wandered on the earth … Those who were unrighteous – he killed them all: those in the north, and in the central country, and the mountain people, the inhabitants of the east and the west, those in the area of the highlands of the Vindhyas, and those in the Deccan, and the Dravidians and Simhalas, the Gandharans and Paradas, the Pahlavas and Yavanas and Shakas, Tusharas, Barbaras, Shvetas, Halikas, Daradas, Khasas, Lampakas, Andhras and the races of the Cholas. Turning the wheel of conquest, the powerful one put an end to the Shudras, putting all creatures to flight.”
The first composition of the Matsya Purana, along with the Bhavishya, Vishnu, and Markandeya Puranas, are all estimated to be firmly between the third and sixth centuries, just about coinciding with the Gupta period, and undoubtedly written by educated Brahmins.
It appears from the above passage that the only survivors of the fictitious Pramati’s rampage are the Gupta Brahmins themselves, as virtually all other identities are destroyed. In her book On Hinduism, prominent scholar of Sanskrit texts, Wendy Doniger, identifies a compelling case for Pramati’s symbolic association with Chandragupta II, or Chandragupta Vikramaditya.
The Bhavishya Purana alludes more directly to Vikramaditya, who, “when the full and terrifying Kali Age had arrived”, was “born in order to destroy the Shakas [the Buddhist predecessors of the Guptas] and to promote Aryan dharma”.
In defeating the Shakas (who, along with the Kushanas, constituted a non-Hindu interval between the Hindu Mauryan and Gupta empires), Vikramaditya is identified as Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu, the saviour of mankind who delivers us from the Kaliyuga. Yet, as is clearly visible from the Puranas’ description of him, this has less to do with his virtue and more to do with slaughtered Buddhists.
On the topic of Buddhism, the Bhavishya Purana’s treatment of the Buddha is even more interesting:
“As the generations passed, at the time of the Mauryas and Nandas, Kali reminded Vishnu of his duty, and so Vishnu was born as Gautama, son of Kashyapa, and he preached the Buddhist dharma. All men became Buddhists, and still, the generations passed — Chandragupta, Bindusara and Ashoka. Then … four Kshatriyas were born: Pramara, Chapahani, Shukla and Pariharaka. They put Ashoka in their power and murdered all the Buddhists.”
How the Buddha Fell Out of Favour With Brahmins
It appears that by the time the text was written, the Buddha was already being worshipped by Hindus as one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu. Yet, his position is ambiguous: he is simultaneously a form of one of the pantheon’s supreme gods and a great deluder of men, leading weak-minded sinners away from the path of the Vedas. Somewhere between the Mauryans and the Guptas, then, he fell from favour among Brahmins, and his followers followed suit.
My point in this return to scripture is that the recent events at the Haridwar Dharam Sansad echo another era of Hindu xenophobia, a past turn to militancy in the name of religion. The outspoken and brazen calls for genocide by hatemongers at Haridwar have shocked those of us whose idea of a historically diverse and tolerant India has only recently been shattered. And it must have come as an equal shock to the pluralists of the age when Gupta Brahmins departed from the tradition of religious and cultural exchange under Shaka and Kushana patronage and answered an ideological call to arms in a fierce Hindu revival, the likes of which the land had never seen. In the narrative of the idyllic Hindu golden age, which adorns the pages of NCERT textbooks, this era of violence seems to go unnoticed.
What is important here is not the historical value of the Puranic texts themselves, which are well-known to be fluid in their composition, with parts referencing Queen Victoria and the British Raj that clearly indicate later additions to the original text.
Rather, it is the vocabulary of extermination they express, a Brahminical fantasy of annihilating that which does not conform to a singular Vedic worldview.
Genocide may be an anachronistic description of religious conflict in the Gupta period, but ancient Hindu discourse certainly seems to believe in it as the cure for its anxieties, even to the extent that it associates genocide with salvation – the only means of escaping the wretchedness of the Kaliyuga.
While Hindutva today recognises itself in opposition to Muslims, or Lutyens’ liberals, or urban Naxals, the upper-caste Hindu of the classical period clearly existed in opposition to Buddhists, Jains, lower-castes, and virtually any Hindu sect that departed from the all-encompassing knowledge of the Vedas. The pool of heretics surrounding him (yes, always ‘him’) was infinitely large. In his commentary on the Manusmriti, Narada describes heretics as “Buddhists, and so forth”. Patanjali, in his Mahabhashya, describes the relationship between Brahmins and Shramanas (Buddhists and Jains) as that between “a snake and a mongoose”. The Linga Purana delivers the final verdict, stating that heresy exists “wherever there are atheists and hypocrites, Buddhists or Jains”. While denouncing heretic Hindus makes more economic sense to the Brahmin than killing them, Buddhists and Jains are certainly expendable.
And thus, we see the fantasy of an ethnically cleansed ‘Aryavarta’ playing out in Sanskrit texts – the scars of an ideological battle fought long ago, hidden in plain sight.
None of these visions of annihilation, as some readers may be thinking, are limited to text alone. DN Jha, in his book Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance, and History, specifically tries to combat the myth of a harmonious pre-Islamic past espoused by Hindutva by describing the large-scale persecution of Shramanas by Hindu rulers like Pushyamitra Shunga, who also burnt the Ghositaram monastery at Kaushambi and vandalised the Sanchi Stupa.
Even if one were to doubt the Buddhist and Jain Sanskrit sources of this historical information, there are always the travelogues of Hsüan Tsang, who tells us that the Gauda king Shashanka cut down the Bodhi tree, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, Bihar1, or accounts of Fa-Hsien, who observed Hindus appropriating a Kushana Buddhist site at Shravasti by constructing a temple over it. In addition, Jha finds that many present-day temples, like those of Kedareshvara, Purneshvara, Angeshvara, Kanteshvara, and Someshvara, all in Puri, or of Bhuteshwara and Gokarneshwara in Mathura, were all once Buddhist places of worship, suggesting that the practice of demolition and reappropriation was commonplace.
There's No Kali to Save Us
Of course, all parties in ancient India arguably considered one another heretics, and the Puranas address far more than just the perks of genocide. But the fact remains: ancient India and its scriptures were hardly free from religious conflict – an obliteration of one of Hindutva’s primary ideological arguments.
Many Indians attribute the deep suspicion between the castes and creeds of Hindustan as a problem arising from the Hindu-Muslim encounter, yet the shadow of animosity and communalism stretches back centuries before that.
It also comes as a shock to those who argue in favour of the intrinsic tolerance of Hindus, an idea that was only popularised under the influence of Swami Vivekananda, and later, Mahatma Gandhi. When one looks at ancient India and the same trope of the ‘Hindu in danger’, the same mixing of identity politics and governance, it seems like mind-bending déjà vu. Can this be the Kaliyuga that never ended? Possibly. But hopefully, by looking back at a side of our history often ignored, we may realise that communal violence is a spectre that has haunted Hindus for millennia, and upon coming to terms with this legacy, we may finally learn our lessons.
Then, as now, we are the spinners of our own fate; there is no Kali to lead us out of the dark, especially not one with a flowing white beard.
(The author studies English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He published his first book, Glorious Greeks: Meet the Gods, at the age of 11. His work has appeared in publications like The Skinny, HIMAL Southasian, and LiveWire. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)