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’.
The Mauryan kings, like the Vedic clans before them, built spectacular cities, mostly using mud and wood. Stone usage came much later, under influence of Indo-Greeks. But there was one stone structure that the Mauryan kings loved — the pillar. The most famous of these is the Ashokan pillar with the emblem of the wheel and the four lions that was meant to convey his absolute authority extending up to the horizon. This practice may have come from the powerful and glamorous Persian kings whose techniques of public communication using edicts, steles and pillars was mimicked by most kings around the world during that period, Ashoka included.
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. Vishnu Purana speaks of Narasimha, the man-lion, who appears from inside a pillar and kills the arrogant asura, Hiranakashipu. The Shiva Purana speaks of Shiva appearing in the form of an infinite pillar of fire to humble Vishnu and Brahma who assumed they could find the base and the top of the pillar.
Of course, none of this can be proved. But it is an interesting speculation. It makes us realise that stories are not created in vacuum. They respond to a historical context and emerge to communicate a point of view. Pillar stories of Vishnu and Shiva established that the hundreds of regional kings always saw themselves as servants of God, and that their power came from God. This kept the kings humble. It also made Brahmins very powerful. They also entertained the masses who, like today, loved people in power being shown their place.