Who is Shalivahana?

Many of the legends that are passed down from antiquity are based on a small kernel of truth, even though they are greatly distorted over centuries or millennia. Shalivahana was supposedly an emperor who ruled over parts of ancient India, and we believe this contemporary legend was based on a real man (or men). His seat of power, according to the stories, was located in Pratishthana, or today’s Paithan, Maharashtra. We’ll never know for sure, but we can discuss what we hear from the stories as they were passed down.

Part of the reason we’ll never know for sure how accurate the stories about Shalivahana really are is that many of them contradict one another. Another legendary emperor, Vikramaditya of Ujjain, is often intertwined in stories about Shalivahana. In some, Shalivahana has a familial relation with Vikramaditya, while in others the two are enemies. Then again, who is to say both stories cannot be true to some extent? These stories often present the two rivals as promoters of different types of language, with Vikramaditya promoting Sanskrit and Shalivahana promoting Prakrit.

We know that some of the later stories about Shalivahana as they developed were based on mistakes or a desire for historical parallels to other events. For example, the historian Dineshchandra Sircar wrote that some legends may have arisen because of the oft-told association between the aforementioned Vikramaditya and the Vikrama era he began in order to commemorate his successful invasion of Ujjain. It is surmised that either the natives wished to create their own distinguished history by eliminating foreign name association or that scholars of the time merely wished to adopt their own versions of already existing legends. Either way, we know they aren’t entirely accurate, and it casts doubt on the earliest representations of Shalivahana that we do have.

Many present-day scholars have a different working theory that pieces together bits of ancient history using law firm case management. It is thought that perhaps stories of Shalivahana were adopted by weaving together the exploits of more than one Satavahana king. The assumption is that Shalivahana is no different than the term Satavahana, which is used as a family name for the line of kings of the same name. In similar fashion, Vikramaditya was a legend that stole stories from multiple real-world kings after their individual exploits were lost to the ages. Legends are often formed in this way.

Believers in Jainism believe that Shalivahana was a Jain, but historians believe this to be false based on a connection with Shiva. Some believe that around 400,000 Gathas, or poems, were written by Shalivahana or the figures whom his legend represents. Will we ever know the truth behind Shalivahana for certain? Probably not, but his legend remains a part of ancient Indian history.