Oešo and Śiva: Interconnected Natures and Iconographies

  • Doris Meth Srinivasan (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


This paper brings together studies published over the last fifteen years which clarify aspects of the so-called Oešo/Śiva problem. Essentially, the problem revolves around the identification of the figure on Kuṣāṇa coins and seals which has some 'Śiva' markers but is inscribed 'Oešo'. The prevailing opinion that the figure is Śiva cannot be maintained in light of the information from the recent findings, discussed below, in the following sequence:

I. 1. A brief comparison of Kuṣāṇa śaiva images in Mathura and Gandhāra indicates basic regional differences, thus laying the ground that Gandhāra incorporated outside, non- Indian iconographic elements to fashion its śaiva forms. 2. The Northern śaiva images have more in common with Kuṣāṇa coins and seals than with Mathura śaiva icons. It is these coins and seals that carry the 'Oešo' inscription. 3. Itemization of the new, recent studies on the subject. 4. Descriptions and analyses of recently published seals, ending with the observation that iconographic ambiguity exists on the Oešo coins and seals inscribed 'Oešo'.

II. The ambiguity prompts an assessment of those iconographic features 'Oešo' seals and coins share with Mathura 'Śiva' images. The conclusion of the comparison is that an image labeled 'Oešo' is 'Oešo' and not the god 'Śiva'.

III. Investigation into the nature of Oešo follows: 1. Who is Oešo? 2. Is there a connection between Oešo’s Avestan forerunner and a Vedic god? There is and it is based on the bi-polar nature of each 3. Terminology and iconography which focuses on Oešo's benevolent side. Discussion on the symbolism of the raised liṅga. 4. The need of the Zoroastrian religion, when formulating divine imagery, to borrow an iconographic language so that the imagery is understood in the regions where the coins and seals circulate. The adopted iconography incorporates, for the most part, multivalent symbolism.

IV. Post-Kuṣāṇa imagery conflates elements from both deities when representing Oešo in Northern areas of Central Asia and China, and when depicting Śiva in the Southern areas in the subcontinent.

V. Overall conclusions.