Deities on Kushan Coins - Part I

Deities are worshipped in various forms from time immemorial.  Beliefs and reverence for supernatural powers have driven humans to worship various forms. They may be natural elements personified, saints and divine personalities considered next to god or the God Himself.  These deities are found depicted on Indus Valley Seals, on walls of ancient ruins and at places of worship.  After the advent of coins, deities were depicted on coins of Greece, Rome and on Janapada coins of India. Before we explore the numerous deities on Kushan coins let us first try to understand the nature of religion, the origin of the gods, and their respective roles and significance in human life.

What is Religion?

The English word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin word ‘religo’ which means ‘good faith’ or ‘ritual’. Hence, all that is preached, accepted and implemented in ‘good faith’ can be called as religion. A cultural system of practices, ethics, views and the beliefs or the worship of superhuman powers, often personified in human forms and behaviours is a religion. In short it can be said that it is an answer to all the unanswerable and mysterious phenomena of life, the God, in his human form, being the creator of the universe!


Possible origin:

To find the origin of religion is to find the origin of creation and ultimately the origin of the creator Himself/ Herself. Certainly not an easy task!

However, it is believed that the early humans started worshiping the forces of nature, out of natural reverence or something that provoked fear and caused mass destruction in their feisty forms.  So some cult practices or religions started evolving around the appealing and appeasing of these forces of nature which were beyond the control of mankind or because of the innate reverence in daily lives of families and larger societies.

But then where did these forces originate from?

There are numerous versions of the creation of the universe in all the religions of the world. The Genesis 1:1 to 2:2 of Christianity, Nasadiya Sukta – 129th Sukta of 10th Mandala of Rigveda (Hinduism), Agganna Sutta of Buddhism, The Quran also in many of its verses like: 7:54, 21:33, 51:47 and etc, try to explain the creation of the universe.

All of these texts say that the God created the universe. But then who created the idea of God, the all-controlling superhuman power?

Interestingly, the Nasadiya sukta (10:129, Rigveda) a highly paradoxical sukta, in one of its last verses hints that the ‘God’ himself is a creation of the mankind.[1]

Maybe man went out of his way and created for himself ideas about God, who He is, what He is like, and how He should be worshipped and ‘idolised’ him in human forms. This core desire in man to ‘construct’ his idea of God has led to what we today know as the different ‘religions’.


Deities on Coins:

Different groups of people believe different things about God and thus have formed their own ideas. And each religion specified a fixed role for the various gods that adorned their pantheon. Today, of course, most of the religions are monotheist, that believes in only one God but in ancient times nearly all the popular religions of the then world had many gods fulfilling a variety of roles and functions. So obviously, the royalties of those times had an array of gods mentioned in their inscriptions, depicted in their art like the paintings, sculptures and more importantly on their coinage!

These gods and goddesses which feature on the coins are a very important link and evidence of the religious beliefs of those particular kings and the change in the patterns of the deities appearing on the coins also give an insight into the acceptance and merger of different religions and an attempt of the kings to blend in with the locals of the newly acquired foreign lands.


Deities on Kushan Coins:

The name Kushan derives from the Chinese term Guishang, used in historical writings to describe one branch of the Yuezhi tribe. Kujula Kadphises (30-80 AD) established the Kushan dynasty in 78 AD by taking advantage of disunion in existing dynasty of Pahalava (Parthian) and Scytho-Parthians and gradually carving out a kingdom in the southern prosperous region, which was the north-western part of ancient India, traditionally known as Gandhara (now in Afghanistan).

The Kushan slowly rose to become one of the prosperous Empires of India and ruled over a vast province in the northwest of India from 30 AD to 375 AD. The dynasty reached its paramount under its great king Kanishka I. Under Kanishka’s rule, Kushan controlled a large territory ranging from the Aral Sea through areas that include present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into northern India as far east as Benares and as far south as Sanchi.

The foundation of the Kushan Empire in Bactria and India was the result of a long series of ethnic migrations. And that is clearly visible in their coinage. It was also a period of great wealth marked by extensive mercantile activities and a flourishing of urban life, Buddhist thought, and the visual arts. The Kushans are also credited to have struck the first ever Indian Gold coins.

A total of 34 deities appear on the coins of the entire Kushan Empire.[2] This diversity in the divinities appearing on the Kushan coins is a very important link that hints to the wide cultural connections of this dynasty.  You find coins depicting the gods and goddesses with the Mesopotamian, Zoroastrian, Greek, Roman and Indian connections. [3]

Out of the many gods and goddesses, few have very mysterious origins and their cult seems to have been long forgotten.

For the better understanding of deities on Kushan coins, they are classified depending on their cultural significance.


Greek and Roman Mythology:




Many of the deities appearing on the earlier coins are adopted from the Greek or the Hellenistic mythology and culture.



The Greek god ‘Heracles’ is found extensively on the coins of the early Da Yuezhi coins and on the coins of Kujula Kadphises and Huvishka.

  • Heracles is the Greek demi-god known for the paragon of masculinity and considered as the champion of the Olympian order. He generally represents the transition from mortality to immortality. He is shown with a club and lion skin.
  • In Rome and the modern West, he is known as ‘Hercules’, and he is also identified with the Iranian god of victory and protector of royalty, ‘Verethragna’, the giver of victory.



Zeus is found on the coins of the early Da Yuezhi coins and on the coins of Kujula Kadphises and Vima Takto (Soter Megas).

  • ‘Zeus’, the chief of the gods was the sky and thunder god in ancient Greek religion. He is attributed with a thunderbolt and a sceptre (adoption of an Ancient Near East iconographic attribute). As the king of gods and humanity, he is generally depicted as seated on a throne in the coins of Kujula Kadphises.
  • Zeus is often linked with his roman equivalent ‘Jupiter’, the Roman god of sky and thunder and ‘Ahura Mazda’ of Iran.



‘Nike’ is the winged goddess of speed, strength and victory which appears on the coins of kujula Kadphises.

  • Nike was the divine charioteer and is often linked in the Greek mythology with ‘Athena’ and Zeus.
  • The goddess of victory ‘Victoria’ is her Roman equivalent.

In the Kushan coins, Nike is mostly shown flying behind the king’s head with a diadem held in her right hand.



‘Helios’ is the Sun god in the Greek mythology and he appears on the coins of Kanishka I.

  • Helios is closely associated with, and identified with, Apollo, a god of music, the sun and light, and etc.
  • Helios was also linked with Parthian ‘Mithra’.



Selene in Greek mythology is the goddess of the moon. She is depicted on the coins of Kanishka I and Huvishka.

  • She is linked with ‘Mah’ (Mao) the Zoroastrian good of moon.
  • Selene is also identified with ‘Artemis’ and ‘Hecate’ all three were regarded as lunar goddesses, Selene being the personification of the moon itself.
  • ‘Luna’ is her Roman equivalent.



The Dioscuri, the twins of Zeus, Castor and Pollux, are worshipped by the Greeks and Romans (5th century BC onwards) alike. They can be recognized by the skull-cap they wear and they can be seen in the early Da Yuezhi coinage of the Kushan dynasty. Both Dioscuri were excellent horsemen and hunters. Castor and Pollux are the twins of the Gemini constellation and are regarded as the patrons of the sailors.


Mesopotamian Connections:





‘Nanaia’ is a moon goddess which appears on the early coins of Kushans and is depicted wearing a crescent and holding the wand in left-hand seating on a lion. Nanaia is linked with a variety of deities like:

  • Nanaia may refer to a pagan mother goddess ‘Nane’ worshipped in Armenia. Nane was a goddess of war and wisdom.
  • The Mesopotamian goddess ‘Ishtar’ (Sumerian) or ‘Inanna’ (Akkadian) the Goddess of love, war, fertility and sexuality. She was particularly worshipped in northern Mesopotamia, at the Assyrian cities of Nineveh, Ashur and Arbela (Erbil). Inanna is associated with the city of Uruk early as the Uruk period (ca. 4000–3100 BCE).
  • ‘Astarte’ (Hellenized form of Ishtar) chief female divinity or regarded as the masculine form of Ishtar in Akkadian cult. Often worshipped in Syria through the Bronze Age. Her cult was mostly found in the Mesopotamian cultures of Assyria and Babylonia.
  • The cult of Nanaia is also linked with Old Persian goddess ‘Anahita’ who herself is often linked with goddess ‘Anahit’ of Armenia.

All the above-mentioned goddesses have the lion and a star as their symbol.



Nana also appears on many Kanishka I coins. She too is often depicted with a crescent and holding a lion finial wand.

  • ‘Nana’ (Sumerian) or ‘Nanaya’ (Akkadian) is a goddess of voluptuousness and sensuality. Her cult was large and spread as far as Syria and Iran.
  • Some historians are of the view that the Armenian goddess Nane was adopted from the Akkadian Nanaya.
  • Nana was also absorbed into Babylonian pantheon as the consort of Nabu,‘ Tashmetum’, the lady who listens and grants favours.
  • She is sometimes also identified with Greek goddess ‘Artemis’.



‘Nanashao’ appears in Huvishka’s coins. She too is linked with the Sumerian mother goddess ‘Nana’.

  • The cult of Nanashao (Nana, Nanaia) can be said to be prevalent in Baluchistan (Pakistan) worshiping ‘Bibi Nani’ and in the Kullu valley worshiping a similar goddess ‘Naina Devi’.

Scholars regard all the three Nana, Nanaia and Nanashao as one mother goddess of Sumerian origins. The cult following seems wide spread with votive images appearing in Palmyra, Susa and Assur.


Egyptian deity:


Serapis, Sarapis and Sarapo is a Graeco-Egyptian god whose cult can be traced back to 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt. The cult of Serapis was introduced by Ptolemy I in hope to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. Serapis derived from the worship of the Egyptian Osiris and Apis (Osiris + Apis = Oserapis/Sarapis). The cult continued to spread even during the Roman times and with some cultural migrations sipped into the Kushan pantheon also.


Kushan coins also depict Indian and Iranian deities on them, stay tuned for part II.


[1] को अद्धा वेद क इह प्र वोचत्कुत आजाता कुत इयं विसृष्टिः ।

अर्वाग्देवा अस्य विसर्जनेनाथा को वेद यत आबभूव ॥६॥

But, after all, who knows, and who can say

Whence it all came, and how creation happened?

the Gods themselves are later than creation,

so who knows truly whence it (universe) has arisen?


इयं विसृष्टिर्यत आबभूव यदि वा दधे यदि वा न ।

यो अस्याध्यक्षः परमे व्योमन्त्सो अङ्ग वेद यदि वा न वेद ॥७॥

Whence all creation had its origin,

he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,

he who surveys it all from highest heaven,

he knows – or maybe even he does not know.


[2]  Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian, and Kidarite Coins, a Catalogue of Coins from the ANS, by DAVID JONGEWARD and JOE CRIBB with PETER DONOVAN, pg. 300


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