Origin Of Trishul
27 April, 2003
The next time
Praveen Togadia hands out his trishuls, he should stop to read a little
history. Shiva's mythological weapon that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad
leader claims as part of his legitimate Hindu heritage was better known
in Greek and Roman myths than in India.
had never heard of it. The closest they came to the now familiar Hindutva
symbol was the shula (sharp-edged spear) which they used as a barbecue
rod to roast
meat. It was
not until 2,000 years after the trident flourished as a popular symbol
in Greek and Roman mythologyfrom Homer's Trojan warriors to Zeus'
trident thunderbolt to his sharp-tongued sister (and wife) Hera's iron
staff to the Greco-Roman sea gods Poseidon and Neptunethat it
makes its first appearance in the Mahabharata. And it was not until
around 800 years ago that the trishul became a part and parcel of Hindu
imagery. "It is wrong to equate the trishul with Hinduism,"
points out historian D.N. Jha. "The first trishuls to appear in
Indian art are in the hands of Buddhist gods like Hariti or in Buddhist
and Jain temples in Sanchi and Udaigiri. In the earliest known Shiva
sculptures such as the one in Gudimallam in Andhra Pradesh, Shiva appears
with an axe, not a trishul."
Jha says, is being appropriated by political Hinduism the same way it
claimed the cow as a holy symbol in the 19th century to counter British
aggression. Togadia, though, is hardly the first Hindu leader to discover
the weapon's religious evocativeness. In the medieval era, when temples
began to create warrior-ascetics to protect themselves from Muslim invaders,
they were armed with trishuls. Some historians, like David Lorenzen
from El Colegio De Mexico, believe the Dasnami Naga sadhus with their
trishuls are remnants of this temple militia.
in a late 10th century sculpture, the trishul can be seen held by a
figure combining Shiva and Agni, the fire god. But in South India it
only begins to surface in Shiva's hands in the temple art of the 16th
and 17th centuries in the Virabhadra temple in Lepakshi, for instance,
or the Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu. It was in fact calendar art
printed in Germany in the late 19th century that turned Shiva's mythical
weapon into the best-known Hindu symbol. For these hack painters of
lurid religious pictures, a trishul was as indispensable to Shiva's
depiction as the cobra coiled around his blue-black neck, the tiger
skin around his waist and the Ganga flowing in a neat arc from his topknot.
inspired the VHP is by calendar art is evident in their office in Delhi.
Nearly every inch of wallspace in the three-storeyed buildingeven
along the stairwellsis plastered with the popular religious prints.
Sitting under a 4ft-long print of the multi-headed, multi-armed display
of Krishna's divine splendour, joint general secretary Balkrishna Naik
and Swami Vigyananand (coordinator for Asia-Pacific zone) strenuously
deny that the inspiration for the VHP's trishul comes from calendar
art. "The real trishul is not curved on both sides but three-pointed
as the word trishula (three-pointed) implies."
Nor are they
fazed by the fact that it first flourished in ancient Greece and Rome.
"That's the glory of our tradition," says Naik. "Hinduism
has survived because of its dynamism, its ability to adopt from everywhere
and then make it its own."
The VHP's trishul
shows some of this adaptability. Apart from sharpening the three prongsmade
of stainless steel instead of the traditional ironthe blades are
made to measure less than nine inches to evade the Arms Act.
The long spear handle has been replaced by a black plastic one, like
a modern kitchen knife. "This is a handier model," explains
Swami Vigyananand, an ex-iit engineer."It slips conveniently into
a pocket we have tailored in the plastic sash that Bajrang Dal workers
wear." The designer trishul works in two ways, according to the
VHP leaders: "It attracts more of the youth to enrol in the Bajrang
Dal, and it's a great morale-booster."
As a weapon,
they claim it's useless. "We sometimes laugh that you can't even
cut vegetables with it," says the thirtysomething swami. But as
a symbol, it's unbeatable. "Apart from being Shiva's weapon, you
can explain it as the three gunas in human nature, or in the words of
Ramakrishna, 'the sharp thorn to dig out a thorn in the flesh'; a symbol
of standing up to the onslaught of evil forces from within and without."
But why the trishul? "Because that's the only Hindu symbol that
is practical for modern times," explains the swami. "You can't
expect today's youth to go around with bows and arrows or a sudarshan
chakra. They wouldn't know what to do with it or how to carry it."
The VHP's creativity
is not limited to reinventing the trishul. It extends to coining a brand
new Hindu ritual, the "trishul diksha". Historians say there
is no such thing in Hindu scriptures. The weapons that Shiva gave Parasuram,
for instance, is not a gift but a sacred initiation. "The astra
(weapon) diksha is like an investiture ceremony," explains Jha,
similar to the thread ceremony. "The trishul is not a toy to gift."
Agrees Hindu social activist Swami Agnivesh: "The trishul diksha
doesn't exist. It's all metaphoricaldiksha, trishul, even Shiva.
These aren't real, they are only metaphors. But now we see people trying
to breathe life into these metaphors. Shiva's trishul was only a symbol
but these trishuls are sharp-edged knives that can carve out a man's
What is extraordinary
about the way the VHP has appropriated the trishul, according to Jha,
is the blurring of lines between ascetics and householders. "Till
ten years ago, even five years ago, the trishul was associated with
militant sadhus. It's a symbol of renunciation, not to be worshipped
But Swami Vigyananand
feels the times demand a crossing of the lines. "Those days when
the trishul was seen only in the hands of sanyasis were different. The
masses didn't have to be involved in their own defence. But today you
have terrorists armed with AK-47s, with bombs and rocket-launchers.
Who will protect the masses? Not the police or the army, they are unfit
for it. The trishul sends a message that we should stand and fight.
You can't kill with the trishul but symbols and ideas are interconnected
by the law of association. When the mind gets ready, everything is possible."
Vigyananand could do with a lesson or two from history too. He'll find
that religious militants prosper most in uncertain times like these,
and that they peter out under strong efficient governments.