Episode Transcript – Episode 42 - Gold Coin of Kumaragupta I

Gold coins of Kumaragupta I (made fifth century AD) from India

This week I am looking at how, almost two thousand years ago, many of the great religions of the world began reimagining the divine - creating new, human forms for the gods, in order to focus the devotion of their followers.

Today, I'm in north-west London, in Neasden, walking into what must be one of the most startling buildings in the capital. It's the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, the Neasden Hindu temple, and it's a vast white building, elaborately carved in India by over 1,500 craftsmen, and then shipped to England.

I've taken my shoes off and come inside - into a large hall, sumptuously decorated with sculptures of the Hindu gods, carved in white Carrara marble. Images like these, of Shiva, Vishnu and the other Hindu gods, strike us as timeless, but there was one particular moment when this way of seeing the gods began. The visual language of Hinduism, just like Buddhism and Christianity, crystallises somewhere around the year 400, and this exuberant crowd of deities in Neasden can be traced back, pretty well directly, to India's great Gupta Empire of around 1,600 years ago...

"Every culture, every civilisation, had to have a 'golden age', so the Gupta period was latched on to as the 'golden age'. (Romila Thapar)

"God is a person in your life, and you're manifesting that in your life. If the Queen was to come to your home, how would you treat her? It's the best china, it's the best tea, etc etc. Same thing with God, except this is a daily occurrence." (Shaunaka Rishi Das)

I'm here in the temple at four in the afternoon - I couldn't be here before, because the gods were asleep, and what I'm hearing now is the music played every day to waken them up. They are woken up now, and so I'm allowed to go and engage with them. It's rather obvious I suppose, but to interact with a god in this intimate way, we need to be able to recognise them - but how are they to be identified? Well, I've already found the great gods Shiva and Vishnu, because I'm familiar with them from the British Museum. Here's Shiva, with his wife Parvati and his trident, and here is Vishnu, sitting with his four arms, holding discus and lotus flower. And on a pillar nearby is a god who was particularly important for the Gupta kings - Shiva's son Kumara. All these Hindu gods began to assume the shapes we recognise today in the brand-new temples built by the Gupta kings.

The Gupta Dynasty began a little after the year 300, and it rapidly expanded from its base in northern India, until it covered a good deal of the subcontinent. So that by 450, the Gupta Empire - along with Iran and the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium - was one of the world's three superpowers.

Not long after Constantine in Rome had established Christianity, the Gupta kings in North India set many of the enduring forms of Hinduism - creating the complex apparatus of faith, with temples and priests, and commissioning the images of the gods that we know now.

Why does this happen at this point in history? As with Christianity and Buddhism, which around the same time portray both Christ and Buddha in human form, it seems to be to do with empire, wealth and the power of art. Only stable, rich and powerful states can commission great art and architecture, which unlike text or language, can be instantly understood by anyone - very valuable in multi-lingual empires. But, whereas in Rome Christianity was soon imposed as the exclusive religion of the Empire, for the Gupta kings worship of the Hindu gods was always only one of the ways in which the divine could be apprehended and embraced. This is a world that seems to be at ease with complexity, happy to live with many truths, and indeed to proclaim them all as an official part of the state, and we can glimpse something of the richness of this Gupta religious landscape through two gold coins.

I'm in the study room of our Coins and Medals Department, and in front of me I've got two coins of the Indian king Kumaragupta I, who ruled from AD 414 to 455. And they're two coins that show very different aspects of this king's religious life. They're each almost exactly the size of a one penny coin, but they're made of solid gold and, like all small gold objects, they sit quite heavily in the hand. On the first coin, where you'd normally expect to see the king, there's a horse - a magnificent standing stallion. He's decorated with ribbons, and a great pennant flutters over his head, and around the coin, in Sanskrit, is the inscription that translates: "King Kumaragupta, the supreme lord, who has conquered his enemies".

Why put a horse on the coin, instead of the king? This looks back to an ancient sacrificial ritual - established long before Hinduism - that had been observed by the Indian kings of the past, and was preserved and continued by the Guptas. It was an awesome and elaborate year-long process that a king might opt to do once in his reign. It cost a fortune, and culminated in a massive theatrical event: the sacrifice itself. Kumaragupta decided that he would perform this rite.

A stallion was selected and ritually purified, then released to roam for a year, followed and observed by a vast escort of princes, heralds and attendants. A key part of their job was to prevent it from mating: the stallion had to remain pure. At the end of its year of sexually-frustrated freedom, the horse was retrieved in a complex set of ceremonies before being killed by the king himself, using a gold knife, in front of a vast audience. Our gold coin commemorates Kumaragupta's performance of this ancient pre-Hindu ritual, that had reaffirmed his legitimacy and his supremacy. But at the same time, Kumaragupta was vigorously promoting other, newer, religious practices, invoking other gods in support of his earthly power. He was spending large amounts of money on building temples and filling them with statues and paintings of the Hindu gods, making them manifest to the worshippers in a new and striking form. He was, in fact, creating the gods anew.

What sort of relationship, between devotee and deity, was being encouraged during this flourishing of Hinduism under the Guptas? Shaunaka Rishi Das, Hindu cleric and Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies explains:

"Hindus will see a deity on the whole as God present. God can manifest anywhere, so the physical manifestation of the image is considered to be a great aid in gaining the presence of God. By going to the temple, you see this image that is the presence, or you can have the image in your own home. So they'll invite God to come into this deity form, they will wake God up in the morning with an offering of sweets. The deity will have been put to bed, in a bed, the night before, raised up, will be bathed in warm water, ghee, honey, yoghurt, and then dressed in hand-made dresses - usually made of silk - and garlanded with beautiful flowers, and then set up for worship for the day. So it's a very interesting process of practicing the presence of God."

The god whose presence Kumaragupta chose to practise most intensely is obvious from his name. He chose as his special god, the god of war, Kumara, and it's Kumara that we see on our second gold coin. Naked to the waist, he holds a spear and is mounted on a sacred peacock. Not the vainglorious peacock of western tradition, but an aggressive and terrifying bird that he's riding into war. This image, created 1,600 years ago, is still immediately recognisable today, you can see it in many shrines. But there's one final detail that's worth mentioning - Kumara and his peacock are shown standing on a plinth. What we're looking at is a statue of the god as you would see it in a temple, just the sort of statue that Kumaragupta himself might have commissioned. It's a tradition of temple imagery that emerges here, and continues to the present day.

And on the other side of the coin is King Kumaragupta, also with a peacock but, unlike Kumara, he doesn't ride this peacock. Instead, he elegantly offers grapes to his god's sacred bird. Crowned and haloed, the king wears heavy earrings and an elaborate necklace and the inscription tells us that this is: "Kumaragupta, deservedly victorious with an abundance of virtues".

The gold coin does what coins have always done uniquely well: they tell everyone who handles them that their ruler enjoys the special favour of heaven and, in this case, the special favour of heaven's commander-in-chief, because he is linked in a particular way to the god Kumara. It's a form of mass communications, invented around the death of Alexander, that rulers have exploited ever since. The "Grace of God" claimed for the Queen on every British penny stands in the same tradition as Kumaragupta's coin. But Kumaragupta's image of his god is about much more than the theology of power - it also speaks of a universal human desire. Like all the objects this week, it's evidence of the longing for a direct personal connection with the divine, which everyone - not just the king - could access. Mediated by statues and images, it's a relationship that's been central to Hinduism every since.

Under the Guptas, the central deities of Hinduism and their worship assumed a form that has dominated the religious landscape of India from that day to this, and in recent years, this Hindu aspect of the Gupta's religious activities has loomed large in historians' accounts of their reign. As the Delhi-based historian Romila Thapar explains, the Guptas continue to make their presence felt in India today, not only in the monuments left behind, but also in the way that the period is used politically:

"When colonial history began to be written, and then there was nationalist historical writing, the Gupta period was latched on to as the 'golden age'. There has grown in India in the last few decades, a way of thinking which has been called Hindutva, which is an attempt to suggest that the only person that has legitimacy as a citizen of India, is the Hindu, because the Hindu is supposed to be the indigenous inhabitant. Everybody else - the Muslims, the Christians, the Parsees - all came later and came from outside, they were foreign. Never mind the fact that they are all, 99 per cent of them, of Indian blood. And the Gupta period then came in for a great deal of attention as a result of this kind of thinking."

This seems surprising, because as the two coins we've looked at show, the Guptas not only established temple Hinduism in something like its modern form, but they also honoured older religious traditions, and were generous protectors of both Buddhism and Jainism. In short, Kumaragupta takes his place in the great Indian tradition inspired by Ashoka, the Buddhist king of six hundred years earlier. A tradition that sees the state as tolerant of many faiths, a tradition later embraced by the Islamic Mughal emperors, by the British, and by the founders of modern India.

In the next programme, we'll be looking at a completely different way of thinking and visualising the relationship between God and the world. We'll be with India's powerful western neighbour and fellow super-power, Iran... and with an image that takes us to the heart of the enduring Zoroastrian struggle between good and evil.