Trident stridency

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

A sadhu with a trishul. -

A sadhu with a trishul. -

The history and politics of `trishul' and `diksha'.

* Phagi, near Jaipur, where local Dalits were prevented by the upper-caste Hindus from bathing in the village pond.

* Asind (Bhilwara district), where a 16th century "Masjid Sawai Bhoj" (in use until 1956) was destroyed by a mob in July 2001 and an instant temple of Hanuman was created at the site of the demolished mosque.

* Gangapur in Sawai Madhopur, where three people were killed in police firing when a mob tried to block the Moharram procession in Godhra's aftermath.

ALL these places in Rajasthan in recent months have witnessed the mass distribution of trishuls (tridents) with great fanfare by the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). These performances are christened as `trishul diksha' and the programme has been going on for the last several years in various States. The ideologues of the programme have projected it as a venture of "glorious cultural resurgence" to invigorate "Hindu" ethos. Flaying `trishul diksha', Swami Agnivesh, a prominent social activist and Arya Samaj leader, said recently in Jaipur that in the Hindu tradition there was no such practice. The "trishuls" distributed by the VHP were weapons and they had no religious sanctity. How old is the history of trishul as a "religious symbol" or a weapon? What does trishul symbolise? What has been the real meaning of diksha in the multifarious Indian cultural traditions?

Any claim about the hoary antiquity of the word trishul would remain suspect. Its allusions as Shiva's weapon are rather rare even in the epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana). A diminutive `trident' (trishulikaa) occurs only once in a seventh century work, Kaadamabari. Trishulini as the name of Durga is impossible to locate in texts prior to the ninth century. Some lexicons datable between ninth and 15th centuries acquaint us with trishirshaka (not trishul), a three-headed thing (possibly, but not necessarily, a `trident').

In contrast, the antiquity of `shool' is much older. However, its meanings and connotations are extremely varied and very often they do not have any religious ring around them, far less any specific sectarian linkage. The earliest occurrence of shool is in the Rigveda (c.1500-1000 B.C.) but in the sense of a sharp pin or stake on which meat was roasted. Shoolkrita (roasted on a pit) occurs in a post-sixth century work of Sanskrit fiction. In the later Vedic ritual literature (c.1000-500 B.C.) shoolgava was an `ox fit for spit' presented as an offering to Rudra. Yes, in the Epics shool occurs in the sense of a sharp instrument or pointed dart, may be as a lance or a spear. In the Law Book of Manu it became a stake for impaling criminals. While medical treatises mention shool in the sense of acute pain, in the erotic works (not before A.D. fourth century) it acquires the meaning of a harlot or a prostitute.

Shiva or Durga as wielders of shool are not mentioned in any pre-sixth century literary work. In inscriptions, too, shooladhara, shoolapaani, and shoolin as epithets of Shiva figure only after the mid-sixth century. In the early medieval lexicons, there is even an allusion to shool as a `bow'. Incidentally, these lexicons also speak of shoolika as the illegitimate son of a brahmin and a shudra woman or as the son of a kshatriya and an unmarried shudra woman.

Although not much work has been done on the archaeology of early Indian weapons, the broad contours of advances in metal technologies are fairly clear. Be it the prehistoric rock paintings depicting numerous hunting scenes, or the exquisite glyptic art of thousands of seals and sealing of the Harappan civilisation, or even the actual remains of several metal artefacts, trishul is conspicuous by its complete absence.

Finished metal objects were important symbols of wealth and power in the Indus cities. A large copper/bronze `cooking pot covered with a bronze plate' was found buried in Harappa. It contained several copper weapons and tools. The repertoire included 22 axes of differently shaped edges and blades, 10 daggers, 13 spear heads, one arrowhead, one lance head, one marble mace head, ten chisels, two saws and so on. These included both used and unused artefacts. Scholars who have, following the lead of John Marshall, persistently and obstinately argued for the presence of `proto-Shiva' (the claim was contested by Mackay, Marshall's colleague, and has been repeatedly questioned by many others since then) and `Hinduism' in the Harappan pantheon, have failed to produce any evidence of trishul in any form - not even in more than 400 signs identified in the Harappan script.

Apart from the aforesaid marble mace-head, stone mace-heads with an hour-glass type perforation bored from both ends for shaft insertion and copper mace-head have also been known from Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Stone mace-heads have been noticed in other varying cultural contexts as well, viz., mesolithic Langhnaj (Gujarat), neolithic Burzahom (Jammu and Kashmir) and chalcolithic Ahar (Rajasthan), Navdatoli (Madhya Pradesh) and Chandoli (Maharashtra) spanning between second and first millennia B.C.

The Epics make distinctive allusions to clubs and maces. The famous mace-duel between the two cousins (Bhima and Duryodhana), providing a gruesome finale to a long-drawn family feud over property, brought down the curtain on the Mahabharata war. Indeed, multifarious uses of gadaa by hunters and merchants and traders traversing inhospitable tracks passing through forests, have been worked out. Some have even seen a proto-type of this weapon of crushing power in its use as a primary tool (digging stick) of the early farmers.1 However, as a weapon of offence and defence, its popularity gradually declined when iron weapons became more frequent. If the classical accounts of Diodorus Siculus, Curtius Rufus and Arrian (c. first century B.C. to A.D. first century) are to be believed, the Shibis lost against Alexander (late fourth century B.C.) because they fought with clubs. Its retention in the iconography of Vishnu was perhaps reduced to a stylised attribute.

Even a casual study of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata reveals that there were many levels of warfare. While some tribes and many heroes fought with branches or trunks of trees, with rocks and boulders and sometimes even with their teeth, nails and fists, there are also allusions to some mechanical contrivances. However, if one were to undertake a statistical count of the number and types of weapons in Indian literary tradition, it would become obvious that the supreme weapon in the Epics as well as in the Vedic literature is the bow and arrow. More than 30 different types of arrows, each with a unique identity and a name, are mentioned in the Epics.

Spears/lances and javelins vie in popularity with bows and arrows. The Epics also explicitly mention swords and daggers of different shapes and sizes. Spears and harpoons figure in prehistoric rock paintings, Harappan seals and in the vast repertory of `Copper Hoards' found in various parts of north India. Spear- and arrowheads made of bones, copper and iron are attested from all over India. The efflorescence of iron arrow and spearheads is particularly seen during the period between circa 500 B.C. and A.D. 300. From Kaushambi (near Allahabad) alone, nearly 400 arrowheads of as many as 11 types were unearthed in the 1950s. Archaeologists have been able to document antennae-hilted copper swords from about the second millennium B.C. and from such geographically scattered regions as Bactria (Bactria Margiana Archaeological Culture in northern Afghanistan, which is fast emerging as one of the most probable matrix representing archaeological counterpart of Rigvedic culture), Ganga-Yamuna doab and chalcolithic Karnataka (at Kallur, for instance).

In the early historic context, especially in the post-Mauryan centuries (c. 200 B.C. to c. A.D. 300), varied weaponry is seen in sculptural depictions of mostly non-religious significance in north India and the Deccan. These include graphic presentation of war scenes in the stupas at Sanchi and Bharhut, as well as sculptures in Mathura, Bhaja (near Pune) and Gandhar. Six types of lances and swords, five types of daggers, four types of shields, varieties of bow and arrow along with occasional depiction of mace, spear, thunderbolt, battle-axe, and chakra have been identified in these art remains. Representation of trishul in these remains, as in the Epic allusions, is very rare. That bows and arrows retained their importance amidst this growing diversification of weapons is evident in the phenomenal specialisation achieved in this genre. Thus a Buddhist text (Milindapanha) of these centuries makes separate mention of bow manufacturers, bow-string makers and arrow fletchers. This compares favourably with the two Epics (composition between c. 400 B.C. and c. A.D. 400) - in the Ramayana, for instance, three types of bow-strings are mentioned.

The earliest iconographic delineation of trishul in the specific context of Shiva does not go beyond the first century B.C. and is usually seen in the coins of Shaka-Parthian and Kushan rulers (up to circa A.D. third century), the so-called `foreigners'. In the case of Kushan depictions, trishul is sometimes combined with battle-axe (parashu).

It may be recalled that all these dynasties began their careers in the Indian sub-continent from the regions in the northwest that had witnessed considerable penetration of Greek influence from at least the fourth century B.C. Barring sculptural representations of popular gods, goddesses, demi-gods, vegetative and fertility divinities such as yakshas and yakshis, the genesis of anthropomorphic representations of major Indian deities - both brahmanical and non-brahmanical - is invariably traceable to Greek and Roman influences located in that region. To illustrate, phenomenal numismatic treasures were found at Ai Khanoum in Afghanistan during excavations between 1965 and 1978 (thanks to the barbaric rampage of the Taliban, the site has been completely destroyed and the treasures have most probably reached the predatory antique markets of Europe and the United States). Amongst these treasures were six unique coins of an Indo-Greek king Agathocles (180-170 B.C.) depicting, for the first time, two popular deities of Vishnuite pantheon, viz., Vasudeva Krishna and his elder brother Samkarshan Balram with their characteristic identifiers, that is, chakra and hala (plough) respectively. Similarly, delineation of Indra has been identified in the coins of some other Indo-Greek kings of comparable vintage. That Gandhar was the matrix of the earliest Buddha images (Buddha also figures on coins of the Indo-Greeks from about the second century B.C.) is fairly well-known.

The antiquity of specific `religious symbols' and their association with specific religious cults and creeds is a complex phenomenon. Sketching the history of `Sacred Prostitution', Penzer noted: "The principal deities of the dancing-girls are those to whom the temples, in which they are employed, are dedicated... Minor deities, such as Bhadrakali, Yakshi and Gandharva are worshipped by the figure of a trident or sword being drawn on the wall of the house, to which food and sweetmeats are offered on Fridays."2 The Greek God Poseidon and `Trident' are inseparable. There are several other Graeco-Roman divinities who are intimately identified as wielders of the trident. It is also well-known that many of the cultural traits/symbols of the `civilised' Mediterranean world came from much older civilisations located in the valleys of the Nile, and Tigris-Euphrates. In early Mesopotamian religion, Ishtar was the goddess of war, and love, and of prostitutes and mothers. Iconographically, she is symbolised by her great tripartite sceptre (trident).

INDIAN religio-philosophic traditions have phenomenal connotations of diksha, which is loosely translated as consecration or initiation. There is hardly any religious strand that has not provided space for diksha of one kind or the other. Dikshas are described in brahmanical and non-brahmanical, Vedic and non-Vedic, Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic traditions. At one level, we get to read in Vedic texts about the diksha of sacrificers performing various public sacrifices such as the ashvamedha. Diksha, in these contexts, involved purification of sacrificers by the officiating priests. In the expansive Vedic literature on domestic rituals, diksha became an integral mechanism of entering into the privileged social strata - the upanayana (the sacred thread ceremony, in which a Brahman `teacher' receives a boy as a pupil) providing the occasion for it.

Widespread ideas and customs in connection with initiation were gradually embedded in Vishnuite and Shivaite traditions. Although release from the bondages of worldly mire, happiness, prosperity, a long life and so on was among the ideals to be realised through diksha, the Vishnuite pattern was clearly aiming at a more sectarian and theistic orientation of this institution. It underlined its character as an initiation to a life of devotion and as an entry point through which closer and intimate rapport with the God was feasible.

Shivaism emphasises the absolute necessity of Shaivi diksha, that is, initiation into a Shaiva `order'. All Shaiva schools are agreed that the one who has the authority to initiate others is the qualified guru (the preceptor) - indeed there was almost a deification of the guru. One major definition of diksha obtainable in a Shaiva Aagama text lays down that it paves the way for eradicating impurities of mind and body, and destroys `animality' (pashutva).

In the hands of Tantricists, who are recognised as an important constituent of non-Vedic traditions, diksha acquired new heights. As many as 25 kinds of dikshas are outlined in the Jayadratha-Yaamamala. As in the Shaiva Agamas, Tantras, too, underline the supreme importance of the preceptor (acharya or guru), who has the mastery over the scriptures, who understands the real significance of rites, and who is disciplined physically and mentally. Guru is the pivot of the Tantrik saadhanaa, who purifies the saadhak (aspirant, practitioner) and dispels his darkness (ignorance). Tantrik diksha is particularly marked by its relative egalitarianism, cutting across not only class divides but also the gender divide. It was accessible to the shudras and women. Many of the preceptors of Tantrik Buddhism were renowned women who hailed from the downtrodden sections of society.

WHERE does `trishul diksha' of the Bajrang Dal and VHP stand? Evidently, nowhere. Epic-Puranic mythology is replete with examples of Shiva giving his favourite weapons to divinities, devotees and more often to raakshasas. Thus, Ravana, Madhu, Arjuna, Parashuram, and even Vishnu were recipients of Shiva's various weapons. Significantly, none of these allusions mentions trishul among Shiva's weapons. In the classic myth of the creation of Durga to kill the demon Mahisha (narrated in the Devi Maahaatmya of the Maarkandeya Purana), for which more than a dozen divinities gave their treasured weapons, Shiva gave his shool (not trishul), which is invariably translated as spear/lance rather than trident.3

Gods bestowing weapons as boons or favours to their devotees do not fall within the purview of scores of connotations of diksha. The long and varied traditions of diksha, forming part of our rich heritage are, therefore, being distorted beyond recognition. How prophetic was the assertion of the author of the Dharmasindhu, viz., in the Kali age (to which we are supposed to be belonging) there is no diksha but only upadesha (sermon/discourse).

The VHP has often claimed that its programme of `trishul diksha' aims at consolidation of the `Hindu' society. This attempt of the VHP to equate `Hindu' identity with `trishul' raises several questions. Out of the phenomenal variety of symbols that it could choose from, it was the trishul that the VHP found the most suitable. Why trishul alone? That the appropriation of this symbol is directly related to the VHP's hate campaign against the three Ms (minorities in general and Muslims in particular, Marxists/Communists and Macaulayites, that is, the English-educated liberal democrats) is as clear as daylight. Is trishul only a symbol of violence and intimidation? What kind of `Hindu' society is being sought to be consolidated through this newly created ritual?

Notwithstanding the resurgence of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits in the last 15 years, the new leadership of the VHP vested in the hands of OBC leaders such as Uma Bharati, Vinay Katiyar and, of course, Praveen Togadia, is refraining from making any frontal attacks on `brahmanical' moorings of the so-called `Hindu' society. We read in later Vedic texts about entrenched ruling elite (read brahmins and kshatriyas) devising new sacrifices that were performed publicly to incorporate such tribal communities that stood on the periphery of the `Aryan' society. Effectively, however, these marginal communities remained outside the charmed circles of politically, socially and ritually privileged higher varnas. Invariably, the absorption of the marginals was within the ranks of the shudras. Entitlement to being a `dwij' (`twice-born') by undergoing upanayan and donning the `sacred thread' was clearly denied to them. Why does not Togadia distribute `janeu' (yagyopavita)? Would not that be a cheaper proposition and a greater signal of peaceful transition to upward social mobility within `Hindu' society?

The Hindu Mahasabha had stood for `Hinduising India and militarising Hinduism'. The VHP is clearly its lineal descendant. Even in this context, the rationale of invoking the symbol of trishul is somewhat sinister. Singhals and Uma Bharatis swear by the name of Lord Rama. Should not bow and arrow have been their natural choice then? Again, why has not the VHP chosen the `sudrashan chakra', that great weapon of Lord Krishna/Vishnu? It would not only have been faster than `trishul' but also more effective from greater distances - perhaps it could also have been used more clandestinely. The long history of Vishnuism is a narrative of `brahmanical' entrenchment. Is this the reason for Togadia's reluctance to appropriate `brahmanical' symbols?

In Indian mythology, especially that of Sanskrit texts, Vishnu is rarely shown as bestower of weapons - not even to his devotees, from whom he expects complete surrender. A painting in a 19th century manuscript of the Devi Maahaatmya depicts aforesaid narrative of gods bestowing their weapons and attributes on the Devi. Shiva, the ascetic is most prominently shown handing over his trident. The chakradhara and gadaadhara (Vishnu, the wielder of chakra and club) is conspicuous by his absence in this depiction.

In contrast, Shiva and his family members and constituents of his entourage are great givers of boons and weapons to their devotees. Often they are also made to perform dirty tricks. So, Rigvedic Rudra is the punisher of his incestuous father Prajaapati; in the famous narrative of the Churning of the Ocean for Amrit (nectar), Shiva drank poison to help suras (gods led by Vishnu) against asuras (demons); and in the sacrifice conducted by Daksha (a devotee of Vishnu), partly to mark his opposition to his daughter's resolve to marry Mahadeva [read gender insensitivity of Vishnuites], Shiva's ganas did their master's bidding and destroyed the sacrifice completely. The narrative of Daksha's sacrifice is also symbolic of the reluctance of the brahmanical order to make space for non-brahmanical (RudraShiva's `non-Aryan' and even `pre-Aryan' origins have been in the field of historical writing for a very long time) forces.

From the Rigvedic period, Rudra is a dreaded god whose darts are sought to be warded off. He was a cruel hunter and raider, who with the bow, his characteristic weapon, shoots arrows at cattle and people. Later, in the Yajurveda (Shatarudriya hymn) he is evil, positively malevolent and abhorrent, and his associations are obnoxious. Taste the sample of this `dismal litany' (the Shatarudriya): "Homage to the cheater, the swindler, to the lord of the burglars... , the lord of cut-purses... the lord of the pluckers... " Is it a mere coincidence that many of these appellations are associated with Shiva and his son Skanda as well?

That dubious stratagems are used to preserve the brahamanical social order and help is requisitioned from non-brahmanical quarters can be seen in the Kashikhanda (of the Skanda Purana) narrative of the manner in which Kashi (ancient Varanasi) became the city of many gods. It tells us about a king named Ripunjaya (Divodaasa) who agreed to the divine creator Brahma's request to restore social order only on the condition that "all the gods would retire from the earth and return to their proper places in heaven" (read the message: gods were the trouble makers). Even Shiva had to retire to Mount Mandara. Having banished all gods from the earth, Divodaasa was able to establish a righteous kingdom like a true dharmaraaj. Kashi became a city of flawless social harmony. Seeing this as a threat to their own power, gods plotted to bring about his downfall. After the failure of numerous divinities, Vishnu was sent. He transformed himself into a Buddhist monk and Shri (Vishnu's consort) took the form of a Buddhist nun. Garuda, Vishnu's mount (vaahana), became the monk's student. The three of them preached throughout the city and its suburbs, spreading the Buddhist message, which was contrary to brahmanical dharma of castes. The citizens began to go astray, Divodasa's power began to fade and ultimately he had to yield to the wishes of gods and retire in order to make space for numerous divinities.

THE VHP's programme of `trishul diksha' conceals its real character - collaboration in the maintenance of brahmanical, patriarchal social order. No wonder, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which has always stood for such an order, blesses this programme. Bhanwar Lal Sharma, president of the Rajasthan Brahmin Mahasabha, is seeking to unify the 182 Brahmin sub-castes in the State in the name of Lord Parashuram (one of the incarnations of Vishnu) and with his farsa symbol.

Recently (on April 30) the VHP conducted an "idol installation ceremony" at the "Ayyappa temple" within the area of the Idukki dam in Kerala. The claims of tribal priests to perform "poojas" were set aside and the rituals of "idol installation" were performed by Kerala Namboodiri Brahmins. This new turn of events came closely on the heels of VHP supremo Ashok Singhal's visit to the State to launch the `trishul diksha' ceremony at Alwaye on April 26. Singhal threatened to `eliminate' all minorities, communists and secularists.4

Would the new trishuldharis (Dalits and OBCs) fight Bhanwar Lal Sharma's brigade of the wielders of parashu or even those who are consolidating themselves by brandishing their swords? Notwithstanding mythological allusions to brahmin Parashuram's wrath against kshatriyas, there are numerous realistic assertions of their collaborative efforts to lord over the real productive forces of the society. The use of the new trishuldharis in Gujarat is an indicator of their machinations to exploit them once again and make them do their dirty tricks. Forces of economic liberalisation and globalisation working for fast track upward mobility of the haves find in the `trishul diksha' programme a convenient subterfuge. Trishul is a symbol of intimidation only against the three Ms, but in the larger context of the so-called `Hindu' society, it would remain blunted, without sharp cutting edges and piercing points. It does not show the will of the new acharyas (Togadias and Singhals) to make any progressive thrust towards creation of a more broad-based egalitarian social order that would really challenge the iniquitous status quoist forces.

K.M. Shrimali is Professor of History at the University of Delhi.

1. It is not improbable that artefacts that are commonly understood as `war weapons' may have served multiple purposes or may have evolved from `tools' meant for productive purposes. D.D. Kosambi (An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, 1975 edition, page 68) had suggested: "The Indus people did not have the plough... but only a toothed harrow which may be recognised as one of the Indus script ideograms." Could `trident' evolve from such a `toothed harrow' and serve similar purpose? Incidentally, the axe called parashu or kulisha in the Rigveda served as both a wood-cutting implement and a weapon of war.

2. The Ocean of Story, being C.H. Tawney's translation of Somadeva's Katha Sarit Sagara, Vol. I, 1923, page 262.

3. Is the VHP rethinking about the nomenclature of its programme? A banner on the dias at the `trishul diksha' in New Delhi on May 4, read `shakti diksha'.

4. For similarities between the VHP's `trishul diksha' and hate campaigns against the Blacks, other minorities and Communists conducted by the notoriously racist Ku Klux Klan of the U.S. through the symbolism of `cross burning', see Amar Farooqui, "Trishul Diksha, Cross-burning and the Politics of Hate", Mainstream, May 3, pp.19-21.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment