Canberra, 14 October 2013
Section II
Kanishka is a name cherished by Indian tradition, famous beyond the geographical limits of the sub-continent, and one that continues to live in the legends of China, Tibet and Mongolia. Strangely, the details of the reign of this powerful ruler is largely unauthenticated and the chronology of his rule is open to doubt and debate. The source books, and the stories that are told from them, are only Buddhist works that concentrate on the Buddhist angle and not on the political or other implications of the events being discussed. Although there are inscriptions in both Tibet and Mongolia that mention Emperor Kanishka many times, the dates that are given in them are open to various interpretations. This situation makes it extremely difficult to provide a clear and corroborative narrative of the rise, rule and death of a king who ruled a large empire for a lengthy period of time.
It is believed that Kanishka’s father’s name was Vajheshka (or Vajhespa), and could have been related to the Kadphises family. In any case he definitely belonged to the same sub-clan. Since complete proof has not yet been established there is lingering doubt regarding a direct connection to the Kadphises family. It is certain that Kanishka followed Wema Kadphises to the Kushan throne, confirmed by the similarity in appearance and weightage as well as chronology of the coins issued by Kadphises II and Kanishka. Kanishka can be assumed to have come to the throne between 78 and 144 A.D., with scholars disagreeing on the actual date. The Shaka Era, which is one of the calendars that the modern Indian Government accepts, starts in 78 A.D., which has been claimed by some scholars as being the year of Kanishka’s accession. Recently discovered inscriptions in Afghanistan confirms Kanishka’s rule over a vast area with the frontiers at the River Oxus on one end and Varanasi at the other. These inscriptions, made in the Greek-Aryan Prakrit also mention his conquest of ‘Hindo’ (India), which presumably relates to the conquest of the North West. Tradition testifies to Kanishka’s conquest of Magadha in the east, Kashmir in the Western Himalayas, and Khotan in Sinkiang. Separate sources have credited him with annexing and controlling Kashmir and intermediate Punjab, confirming the extent of his empire. Kanishka seems to have been very fond of the Kashmir area since a large number of monuments that date back to his reign have been found in the region. [This fondness could be attributed to the Kushans not being acclimatised to the weather of the hot and dusty Indian plains and finding the climate in Kashmir more suitable.]
Kanishka’s Central Asian identity is confirmed in statue that was discovered near Mathura and, although the statues is headless, it has been identified as that of the Emperor himself. The statue depicts the king wearing a long coat and boots, with a huge sword in one hand and a cross-bow like contraption in the other. The pose and the clothes are completely un-Indian and more commemorative of the harsh area from which the Kushans originated. At its height, Kanishka’s kingdom reached to the centre of the Gangetic plain, where inscriptions testifying to Kushan control has been found. The important cities within the kingdom were Purushapura, modern day Peshawar, which was the capital and Mathura that acted as a secondary capital to control the eastern regions. In Peshawar, the remnants of the foundation of a colossal stupa—100 meters in diameter with the probable height being calculated as 200 meters—dating to Kanishka’s reign is still in evidence. The stupa in its full glory must have been one of the wonders of the world and most probably was constructed after Kanishka’s conversion to Buddhism during the latter part of his rule.
Throughout his life Kanishka was a conquering king, constantly attempting to expand the boundaries of his kingdom. There is evidence that he penetrated all the way to Pataliputra and Buddhist sources confirm that he took the Buddhist saint Asvaghosha back with him. There is also another version that states that the elderly saint declined to go with Kanishka on account of his age and infirmity and instead send his favourite disciple with the Kushan. Irrespective of who was actually taken away, this episode confirms the broad time of Kanishka’s rule, since the Buddhist chronicles provide accurate dates for the life and times of the saint Asvaghosha. In Central Asia his kingdom ranged to Kashgar, and this is also where he had his most striking conquest, although the first attempt to move into Central Asia, from where his ancestors had originated, did not succeed. Kanishka suffered perhaps the only defeat of his illustrious career at the hands of the Chienese General Pan-chao at Khotan around 90 A.D. However, in his second attempt, Kanishka conquered Yarkhand and Khotan, both provinces of Chinese Turkestan located in the north of Tibet and east of the Pamir ranges. From these conquests he brought back royal hostages and kept them in a monastery in the hills of Kapisa. Kapisa is now one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, but in earlier times the jurisdiction of Kapisa also intruded into the territory of Kashmir. It is possible that the monastery in question may have been within the Kashmir part of the earlier, larger Kapisa province. The hostages are said to have introduced the peach and pear to the region. Hiuen Tsang, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who travelled to India to visit religious sites, confirms this hostage-story in his writings dated 603 A.D.
“When Kanishka was reigning the fear of his name spread to the many regions so far even as to the outlying vassals of China to the west of the Yellow River. One of these vassal states being in fear sent a hostage to the court of the King Kanishka, the hostage being apparently a son of the ruler of the state. The king treated the hostage with great kindness and consideration, allowing him a separate residence for each of the three seasons [hot season, cool season and monsoon] and providing with a guard of four kinds of soldiers.”
Thomas Watters,
Chapter 9 Part 4,
On Hsuan Tsang’s Travels in India AD 629-645, (1904 ed) 
Kanishka was the first monarch to connect India and China. Of greater importance is the Indian Embassy that was sent by Kanishka to congratulate the Roman Emperor Trajan, estimated to be sometime after 99 A.D. Trajan conquered Mesopotamia in 116 A.D., bringing the borders of the Roman Empire to about 600 miles from the borders of the Kushan Empire. It is possible that this Embassy was sent after this event in order to indicate to the Romans, the extent of Kanishka’s kingdom and to provide a warning to the Romans not to attempt further conquests to the east. 
The conquests indicate the extensive area that came under Kanishka’s rule—a veritable empire. Historically, kings who extend their control over such large areas are automatically termed as ‘great’. In addition, Kanishka not only conquered vast areas, he was also tolerant of the different religions that he came into contact with during his extensive travels, a trait that was not common to kings who ruled during the early A.D. centuries. However, the epithet of ‘the Great’ has not been added to Kanishka for unfathomable reasons, most probably because of the lack of corroborative evidence to irrefutably confirm his conquests and rule. Irrespective of whether or not the title of ‘Great’ was bestowed on him or not, the Kushans (and Kanishka) were prone to assuming exalted titles: they called themselves ‘daiva putra’ meaning son of god, probably influenced by the Roman practice of emperors claiming divine status and the title of ‘diva filius’ because a connection to divinity was good propaganda for the royal house. Other titles were borrowed or influenced by the Persians, ‘Mahrajadhiraja’ meaning king of kings, and ‘Kaisara’ the Indianised version of the Roman ‘Caesar’. In reality, the assumption of such titles nourished the notions of empire, both in the king and the people. While the Kushan kingdom had grown impressively during the reign of Kanishka, it is surprising and even a bit ironic that the extensive empire was not ruled as a centralised imperial whole. Imperial control varied from region to region—some were directly administered by the Emperor; some were ruled by satraps appointed by the king; and in some outlying areas, existing rulers were allowed to continue their rule while accepting Kushan suzerainty.
True to his hunger for conquest, Kanishka died while on a campaign in Sinkiang. Since there is no mention of the actual battle or of wounds received in the fighting, it can be assumed that he died of natural causes, far from home. There is also a story that he was killed by his own troops who were discontented with the constant state of war that Kanishka imposed in his quest for ever more conquests. This story is probably a later embellishment to the legend of Kanishka, similar to the rebellion of the soldiers of Alexander at the Indus River, in an attempt to enhance his stature as a conquering king. Kanishka’s reign lasted 45 years.
End of Empire
Kanishka’s death has been attributed to a date sometime between 123 and 150 A.D., dependent on the fixation of the date of his accession. There is only scanty information of his successors who ruled for another century or more an empire that was constantly being whittled down. The available inscriptions provide dates that are confusing and cannot be taken as fool-proof evidence. It is however certain that Kanishka’s two sons—Vasishka and Huvishka—acted as the viceroys while he was fighting in the north. Vasishka seems to pre-deceased his father and Huvishka succeeded to the throne on his father’s demise. Huvishka, while being a liberal patron of Buddhism also supported his own eclectic mix of a strange medley of Greek, Persian, and Indian deities. He established the township of Huskapura inside the Baramula Pass, which is today the small village of Ushkur where the remnants of a stupa is still visible. Huvishka apparently had a long reign with no significant political event being mentioned as having occurred during the period. It has also been noted that Kushan power did not diminish during his reign, making the absence of any detailed information of his reign a complete mystery.
Huvishka was succeeded by Vasudeva I. The name, decidedly Indian and a synonym of Vishnu a leading god, suggests an advanced stage of the process of Indianisation of the erstwhile Yueh-Chi tribe and their predominant branch, the Kuei-Shang. Indeed, this process had only taken a span of about four generations. This fundamental progression of the foreign invader and conqueror succumbing to the Indian environment and ethos is a repeated story of Indian history. Vasudeva I also minted coins that bore the signs of Hindu iconography—Shiva, Nandi Bull and the trident. He is thought to have ruled for 25 years, up to around 178 A.D. The dates are completely confused at this stage and the number 178 is more likely to be the Shaka Era, which means that the year actually would be 256 A.D. Thereafter the great empire of Kanishka the Conqueror submitted to the standard law of Oriental monarchies—following a brief period of splendid glory based on enforced unity, a gradual decline sets in, which is exacerbated by the interference of external elements; and finally breaking up into fragments that are swallowed up other predatory rulers. In the case of the Kushans, the decline was accelerated by the rising power of the Iranian Sassanids and the gana-sanghas of the Punjab and Rajasthan that had been snipping at the periphery of empire for some time. There is also a theory that the fall was hastened by the plague of 167 A.D. that originated in Babylon and devastated the Roman and Parthian empires for a number of years. However, the connection between the plague and the fall of the Kushans seems a bit farfetched and has not been clearly made, at least till now. Over a period of time, the actual territory that the Kushans controlled shrank to almost insignificance. The chronology that is available regarding the Kushan rule as a whole is imprecise to say the least with even the dates that are calculated from the accession of Kanishka also being riddled with uncertainty. This on-going difficulty in dating the events makes attribution of achievements to a particular king or emperor extremely complex. If this complexity can be resolved through some new excavations or through deciphering new sources, then it is possible that at some later time, the chronology of these uncertain and confusing centuries could be revised and understood. Till that time, one is left within the fog of Indian history’s confusing dates and incomplete explanations.  
The Shaka Era
The Republic of India recognises two names for itself—India and Bharat. Similarly it also recognises two systems of dating—the Gregorian Calender of ‘Before and After Christ’; and the Shaka Era (at times also called Salivahana Era) that starts in 78 A.D. While this dating (starting 78 years later) is being followed at the moment, it is also shrouded in theoretical controversy. If the date is supposed to coincide with the coronation of Kanishka, as some scholars believe, then the era should rightfully be called Kushan Era or Kanishka Era, which is not the case. Another school of thought considers 58 A.D. as the right time and has proposed a ‘Vikrama’ Era (also referred to as Malava Era in some texts) to be associated with Kanishka. The latest theory, based purely on numismatic correlations is that the Shaka/Kushan/Kanishka Era should start at 128 A.D.
At least for the time being, the name is Shaka Era and it is considered to have started in 78 A.D.   
After Vasudeva I there was no paramount power ruling North India for a number of centuries. A particular influence in the fall of the Kushans, much like that of the Mauryas, has also been thought to be the pacifism advocated by the Buddhist religion that is considered by some to make the kings unfit to rule over a few generation. Where violence and conquest was considered the norm, the exalted concept of non-violence would not have been able to hold out against the vastly greater energies of competitors eager to conquer. The muddled statements in the Puranas regarding the successor dynasties like the Abhiras, Shakas and the Yavanas are extremely difficult to put in chronological order, leading one to believe that this was the beginning of an anarchical period in Indian history. There is some scattered evidence that the remnants of the Kushan dynasty ruled the Punjab and Kabul until about the 5th century A.D. Excavated coins indicate that a number of chiefs of nomadic Asian tribes were able to hold sway for small periods of time in various parts of North West India. Once again, there is no way to even assume a credible chronology. In 226 A.D. Ardashir overthrew the Parthians in Persia and established the ascendancy of the Sassanian dynasty. It is reported that the Kushans were subordinated by the Sassanids by mid-3rd century A.D. Since there is no record of a Sassanian invasion of India, it is difficult to establish the manner in which the Persian influence in India was renewed. There is a hypothesis that it could have been the result of an unrecorded Persian invasion that subdued the Kushans and left them as the satraps to rule what would have been an outlying province of the Sassanid Empire. This proposition remains a hypothesis in the absence of even the slightest of evidence regarding such an invasion and its possible consequences. But the fact remains that two great dynasties of India—the Kushans in the north and the Andhras (Satavahanas) in the south—disappeared when the Arsakidan dynasty in Persia was replaced by the Sassanian dynasty.
The Buddhist Revival
Kanishka’s reign saw the intermingling of a variety of disparate religions within his kingdom—Buddhism and Jainism coexisted with Bhagavata and Shaiva sects, Zoroastrinism, and obscure Hellenic cults. He provided patronage to all of them and is said to have converted to Buddhism towards the later part of his rule. The story of Kanishka’s conversion to Buddhism is very similar to that of Ashoka’s—the king feeling extreme remorse for the bloodshed in battle and converting to a religion whose doctrinal foundation was essentially built on non-violence. However, the veracity of the story cannot be ascertained, in fact it is impossible to confirm, and it remains in the domain of confusion between tradition and fact. It is more than likely that the story is a later-day embellishment to the legend of Kanishka. However, the fact of the actual conversion is confirmed by the coins that have been found and successfully dated. Ancient coinage reflected not only the greatness of the issuing authority but also the religious belief of both the monarch and the people of the land. Kanishka’s coins with Buddha Sakyamuni images have been found and identified, confirming his conversion to Buddhism. 
Stages of Kanishka’s Coins
The coins issued by Kanishka can be grouped into three stages of development through his reign. The earliest ones have Greek inscriptions using the Greek script and also the figures of the sun and the moon with the Greek words Helios and Selene (sun and moon) in them. The intermediate stage coins use the Greek script to write Old Persian language and depict deities that are a mixture of Greek, Persian and Indian cultures. The third and later ones, which are the rarest of the three, depict the image of Buddha Sakyamuni with the writing continuing to be in the Greek script.
Gandhara was a centre of active Buddhism with a vibrant and practising resident community. Over a period they generated doctrinal innovations in the practice of the religion leading to the creation of what is now recognised as Gandharan Buddhism. Since there was a lack of written evidence regarding this development, this branch of Buddhism remained unknown and unacknowledged for a long time. A discovery in 1994, of Buddhist writings in 13 birch bark scrolls rolled and stored in three clay pots changed this perception. These scrolls are currently in the British Library and are known as the BL Scrolls. The language used in the scrolls is ‘Gandhari’, a vernacular Prakrit, written in the Kharoshti script, which is adapted Aramaic, and not the Brahmi script in which Prakrit is normally written. This combination of Kharoshti and Prakrit spread as far as China and confirms the existence of the Gandharan version of Buddhism as an independent development. Gandharan Buddhism depicts Buddha as a person, not in terms of the traditional wheel or tree that indicates his achieving enlightenment. This doctrinal separation happened before the advent of the Kushans, under the patronage of the Scythian and Parthian rulers. The Gandharan School of art used Buddha as an icon and the Greek influence on the painting style is pronounced and easy to notice. 
The unification of different fiefdoms under the Kushans assisted the propagation and passage of ideas, which was critical to the spread of Buddhism. For example, a single monk could travel from Pataliputra to Gandhara and then to Kashgar without having to cross sovereign borders. During this time the Khyber Pass became the portal for the export of Buddhism. The growth of trade was another factor in the spread of Buddhism. Kushan coins have been found in Ethiopia and as far away as Scandinavia, testifying to the far-flung trade that Kanishka developed. It is more than likely that the fundamentals of Buddhism also travelled with the traders. There was also definitive contact with Rome—an ivory statue from India, conclusively dated to the time of Kanishka’s reign has been found in the ruins of Pompeii. The most important trade route for the spread of Buddhism was the Silk Road through which the teachings of the Buddha was transported to China. The lucrative nature of the Silk Road was such that it is certain to have been coveted by Kanishka, although he never succeeded in establishing full control over it. A Chinese legend gives a spiritual twist to the straight forward case of Buddhist efforts at spreading their religion. It seems that in 65 A.D. Emperor Ming-ti dreamt of learning Buddhist teachings and requested the Kushan king to send him few Buddhist teachers. These monks were able to spread the religion, which was accelerated because of the commonality between the concept of Buddhism and the practice of Taoism that was then prevalent in China. Inscriptions in Loyang and Xian, both great Silk Road cities, in the Gandhari language and Kharoshti script further confirm the existence of Gandharan Buddhism.
Kanishka and his successors established several hundred monasteries in their land, especially in the north western parts. The approach to the Swat Valley has a number of examples of Gandharan art and the ruins of the monastery at Takht-i-Bhai is indicative of the well-developed institutions and great wealth possessed by the Buddhist religion at a time when Christianity was still struggling to establish itself as a prominent religion. Buddhist sources confirm that Kanishka was a great patron of the religion, even before his conversion and also presided over the Fourth Buddhist Council that is considered to have been held in his capital Purushapura (Peshawar). In fact these sources compare him to Ashoka and Menander, considered by the Buddhists to have been two of their greatest beneficiaries. The Council threw up a newer style of Buddhism that came to be called Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism—the end-result of complex interactions of Indian, Hellenic, Zoroastrian, Christina and Gnostic elements and beliefs. The development was also influenced by the great Mauryan Empire and exchanges with the Roman Empire that held sway over large land areas. In the Mahayana concept, Gautama the Buddha was considered in practice to be a god, although in theory he was still only given the status of a sage like in other sects of Buddhism. Mahayana doctrine held that the Buddha was served by a number of Bodhisatwas who acted as the mediators between Buddha the God and the ordinary sinful people of the earth. Kanishka probably worshipped both the old and the new concept, in keeping with the established practice of not playing religious favourites, and also recognised the various sects that were part of the broader Buddhist practice.
Kanishka and Buddhism
It is believed that Kanishka tried to study Buddhist scriptures and was hopelessly confused with the various sects and interlinked but conflicting doctrine that each of the sects propagated. His adviser Parsva recommended that the king convene a council or general assembly of theologians to explain the nuances of the religion. This Council was duly assembled. There is debate regarding the location of the Council, with one opinion being that it was held in Purushapura (as mentioned earlier) and the other stating that it was held in Kundalavana, the capital of Kashmir because of the milder climate of the place. There were 500 attendees, most of whom belonged to the Sarvastivadins of the Hinayana (Little Vehicle) sect. The Council, after extensive debate and discussion prepared the work Mahavibhasha, which still exists in the Chinese translation. The original work is lost in antiquity and therefore the language and the script in which it was recorded cannot be ascertained. The work is considered a definitive encyclopaedia of Buddhist philosophy. There are also reports of detailed commentaries having been buried inside the stupa that was erected near the capital, Srinagar, which have not been found yet. The Council is considered to have been held around 100 A.D. before Kanishka’s conversion and had no political significance in the long term.
This Council is unknown in Ceylon, which had by then become the seat of a prominent sect of Buddhism that survives to this day. The reports and the details of the Council are preserved only by the records of Tibetan writers and it is more than likely that some of the details are more legendary than factual. 
The Legacy of the Kushans
It is somewhat ironic that the Kushans, ruthless nomadic warriors, was one of the primary vehicles for the spread and expansion of Buddhism, a religion of peace, outside India. The combination of the Kushans and Buddhists also left behind the graceful painting and sculpture art form of the Gandhara School. The sculptures are excellent examples of the modified Buddhist beliefs of Buddha as a god and the best ones were thought to have been produced around the 2nd century A.D., which coincides with the Council of Purushapura. The legacy of the Kushans should in actuality be considered the legacy of Kanishka and perhaps his two immediate successors. A number of historians have tended to compare the reign and achievements of Ashoka the Maurya and Kanishka the Kushan. This is perhaps based on the perception of both being warrior kings who converted to Buddhism. In fact the similarity ends there: Kanishka continued his conquering ways till his death in a faraway border of his kingdom; whereas Ashoka embraced non-violence and retreated to become the peace-loving and peace-advocating benign Emperor of the sub-continent. There is also another, less flattering similarity: both these larger-than-life Emperors could not establish the foundations on which a lasting dynasty could be built. Their respective dynasties did not last longer than the reign of the immediate one or two successors, both the empires succumbing to the inevitable law of Oriental monarchies—breaking up in short order. Perhaps the concept that large and self-sustaining trees do not grow under the shade of a large Banyan tree could be evoked here in human form.
There is not even scanty records of the North Indian dynasties that ruled between the 3rd and 5th century A.D. By the 5th century, Pataliputra had increased in importance and the Lichchavi alliance was considered by the smaller kingdoms to be of great consequence. The period between the extinction of the Kushans and the Andhras, sometime between 220 and 230 A.D., and the rise of the Guptas about a century later is considered by a number of scholars and researchers to be the darkest period in the entire Indian history wherein no substantive evidence is available to interpret or understand the happenings within the sub-continent.
Approximate Chronology of the Kushan Dynasty
(Adapted from The Early History of India by Vincent A. Smith, pp 277-278)






B.C. 165


Expulsion of the main body of Yueh-Chi tribe from Kan-suh by Hiung-nu




Chief of Wu-Sun (Nan-tiu-mi) killed by Yueh-Chi and the Wu-Sun tribe scattered




Yueh-Chi occupation of Shaka territory




Shaka invasion of India




Yueh-Chi expelled from Shaka lands by Wu-Sun, led by Koen-muo (son of slain chief Nan-tiu-mi)




Yueh-Chi conquest of Ta-Hia tribe and lands north of River Oxus




Expansion of Yueh-Chi lands to the south of River Oxus




Formation of the five Yueh-Chi principalities including the Kuei-Shang (Kushan) and Bamian




Epoch of the Vikram era (also called Malava era)




Kujala Kadphises I accession as chief of Kuei-Shang


15 B.C to 30 A.D


Kadphises I consolidates the five principalities into one Kushan kingdom; Kadphises I conquest of Kabul, Kashmir or Kapsia, and Arachosia


A.D. 45


Death of Kadphises I at 80; Wema Kadphises accession to throne




Kadphises II (Wema) conquers Northern India; destruction of Indo-Parthian power




Buddhist teachers asked by Chinese emperor Ming-ti




Death of Kadphises II; accession of Kanishka to throne; epoch of the Shaka era (also called Salivahana era)




Defeat of Kanishka by General Pan-chao




Indian Embassy to Roman Emperor Trojan; Convening of Fourth Buddhist Council




Kanishka conquers Chinese Turkestan




Death of Kanishka; accession of Huvishka to the throne




Accession of Vasudeva I to the throne




Death of Vasudeva I




Later Kushan kings of limited merit; Foundation of the Sassanian Persian empire by Ardashir in 226 A.D.; collapse of Kushan power


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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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