People often find it hard to believe that the literature containing stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharat and Puranas came into being only 2,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries, in the period between the Mauryas and the Guptas. Maybe they were popular already in the oral tradition, but that remains a speculation. That these stories may have existed 5,000 years ago or even earlier, remains a matter of faith. So it is quite possible the Mauryan kings, like Chandragupta and Ashoka, never heard these stories. They were familiar with Vedic gods and goddesses, of course, and folk deities that find mention in the most ancient of Buddhist and Jain lore, but not quite the stories of Shiva and Vishnu avatars we are so familiar with today.
In the post-Mauryan period, Hinduism reframed itself from a ritual-based religion to a story-based religion. In this new version, the idea of the personal God emerged. This God challenged world-rejecting monasticism, on one hand, and power-seeking kingship on the other. Two schools of thought became especially popular, Shiva and Vishnu, and they competed with each other to dominate the mind of the common folk. These gods continuously demonstrated they were greater than any temporal authority and that kings were mortal and their kingdoms finite while they were immortal ruling infinite realms. Nowhere is this clearer than in the ‘pillar stories’.
To trivialise the royal authority expressed through the pillar, both Shiva Purana and Vishnu Purana tell stories of God who appears from the pillar and exerts his divine authority and awesome power.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist, author and communicator whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, religion, mythology, and management.