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The Reign of Kanishka the Kushan (78-1002 AD)

By Dr. Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: February 02, 2008
Page Last Updated: May 09, 2017

How marauders became promoters of peace and culture

India has been invaded from time to time by wild tribes of central Asia. The Shakas, Hunas, Gurjars, Abhirs and Kushans were some of them. Within a short while, they became naturalised and adopted religions, customs, language and rituals. India in turn has imbibed their traits, good and bad and has been verily the "melting pot" of various cultures.

Kushans (I century to 3rd century CE) have left lasting traits. Emperor Kanishka of Krishanas is considered great and next only to Ashoka Mourya. Like Ashoka, Kaniska has left a long legacy in different fields.

Kanishka's empire was vast. Right from Afghanistan it included, Kashmir, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh in addition to Central Asia, bordering on China. From Khorosan to Bihar and Khotan to Konkan, his reign extended. He posted Governors at keystations and had his capital at Peshwar or Prushapur in present Pakistan. He was a great builder and availed services of  Greek engineers and architects. He built a 600 ft tall building in Peshawar to accommodate details of the Buddhist conference in a stupa. Fa-hien who was in India three centuries later had seen this tallest stupa Kanishka had built and noted that it was the only of its kind in the country.

Himself a Buddhist, he organised a Buddhist conference in Kashmir, presided over by Vasumitra and attended by several Buddhist Scholars. All existing Mahayana Buddhist literature was complied in Sanskrit. This work got lost. But now found preserved in Chines translation.

He was tolerant of all religions of the subjects of his vast empire, Greek, Sumerian, Zoroastrian, Elemite and Hindu. He built mathas and monasteries across the country. Buddha as God appeared in different art forms. Later known as Gandhara school of Art, Buddha statues in beautifully folded Indian garments is believed to be Kushana or Kanishkan contribution. Bracket-figures of Yakshis and gracefully pleasing female figures started appearing, which were to be copied by different schools of Indian architecture down the ages.

The rock cut huge Buddha statues of Bamian and Hedda in Afghanistan belong to this period.

Kuchi, Khotan and Kashmir became centres of Buddhist learning. Kumarajiva who was born in Kuchi and studied in Kashmir is responsible for spread of Buddhism in China. Aswaghosha the great Buddhist Sanskrit poet was patronised by Kanishka. Charaka the physician par excellence was at his court.

Titles like Shah, Shah-en Shah Kaiser and Devaputra were held by Kanishka. He wanted to be worshipped as a god only during his life time.

He established a Chinese colony in Punjab known as Chinabhukti and is credited with introducing of peach and lichi both Chinese fruits. Sewn clothes appeared on Indian scene with Kushans. This is confirmed from the figures, including the headless statue, of Kanishka. Prakrit and Sanskrit languages with Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts spread in central Asia.

Kanishka is a splendid example of a born hero with a vision, who could make most of the unique, tolerant and peace-loving traits of the land called India, trying at the same time to become a living God! But that he failed in the last also speaks of the Indian ethos.

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