When Asoka Maurya breathed his last, there was no able successor of that great emperor to keep the vast Maurya Empire united and strong. It was a tragedy with the ancient system of monarchy that the entire structure of administration centered on the personality of the monarch.
As long as the king was a capable ruler, the government worked successfully. But, when the person of the king showed signs of weakness, the system of governance also decayed into weakness. This is exactly what happened to the Maurya monarchical establishment when Asoka died, leaving behind him no worthy successor to govern the first all-India great empire.
Sunga Dynasty spanned from 185 BC to 73 BC and Kanva Dynasty spanned from 73 BC to 28 BC. The capital of Sunga Dynasty was Vidisha (MP) and the capital of Kanva Dynasty was Patliputra.
Pushyamitra Sunga was Brahmin army chief of Brihadratha, the last king of the Mauryas. During a military parade, he killed Brihadratha and established himself on the throne in 185 or 186 BC.
According to some historians, this was an internal revolt against the last Mauryan king. Some say it was a Brahminical reaction to the Mauryan overwhelming patronage of Buddhism. Pushyamitra Sunga’s capital was at Pataliputra. He successfully countered attacks from two Greek kings namely, Menander and Demetrius. He also thwarted an attack from the Kalinga king Kharavela. He conquered Vidarbha. He followed Brahminism. Some accounts portray him as a persecutor of Buddhists and a destroyer of stupas but there has been no authoritative evidence to this claim.
During his reign, the Stupas at Sanchi and Barhut were renovated. He built the sculptured stone gateway at Sanchi. He performed Vedic sacrifices such as Ashvamedha, Rajasuya and Vajapeya. Pushyamitra Sunga patronised the Sanskrit grammarian Patanjali. According to the Puranas, his reign lasted for 36 years. He died in 151 BC.
He was the Pushyamitra’s son who succeeded him to the throne. His reign lasted from about 149 BC to 141 BC. By this time, Vidarbha broke away from the empire. Agnimitra is the hero of Kalidasa’s poem, Malavikagnimitram. His son Vasumitra succeeded him as king.
Last of the Sunga kings
Vasumitra’s successors are not clearly known. Different names crop up in several accounts such as Andhraka, Pulindaka, Vajramitra and Ghosha. The last Sunga king was Devabhuti. He was preceded by Bhagabhadra.
Devabhuti was killed by his own minister, Vasudeva Kanva in around 73 BC. This established the Kanva dynasty at Magadha from 73 to 28 BC.
Effects of Sunga rule: Hinduism was revived under the Sungas. The caste system was also revived with the rise of the Brahmanas. Another important development during the Sunga reign was the emergence of various mixed castes and the integration of foreigners into Indian society.
The language of Sanskrit gained more prominence during this time. Even some Buddhist works of this time were composed in Sanskrit. The Sungas patronised art and architecture. There was an increase in the usage of human figures and symbols in art during this period.
Kanva Dynasty (73 BCE to 28 BCE)
The last ruler of the Sunga Dynasty, Devabhuti was murdered in 73 BCE and a new dynasty called Kanva Dynasty was founded by Vasudeva. Vasudeva was Devabhuti’s minister. The Kanva Dynasty lasted till 28 BCE. The other kings of Kanva Dynasty were Bhumimitra, Narayana, and Susharman. The Kanva Dynasty was put to an end by the ruler of Satavahana Dynasty.
After the decline of the Mauryas, northern India was split into several kingdoms. In the Magadha region, the Sungas came to power in about 185 BC. After that, the Kanvas came to power who were defeated by the Satavahanas originally from the Deccan. Northwest India was constantly under attack from powers in Central Asia and northwest. The Indo-Greek or the Graeco-Indian Kingdom was established in around 180 BC when the Graeco-Bactrian king Demetrius invaded the Indian subcontinent.
Initial presence of Greeks in India
After Alexander invaded northwest part of the subcontinent, one of his generals, Seleucus Nicator, founded the Seleucid Empire. In Seleucus’s conflict with the mighty Chandragupta Maurya, he ceded large parts to the west of the Indus, including the Hindu Kush, present-day Afghanistan and Balochistan to the Mauryan king.
After this, Megasthenes was sent to reside at Chandragupta Maurya’s court. Other Greek residents at Mauryan courts were Deimachus and Dionysius. Greek populations lived in the north-western part of the Mauryan Empire as evident from Ashoka’s edicts.
Mauryas also had departments to take care of foreigners like Yavanas (Greeks) and Persians. In ancient Indian sources, Greeks were called Yavanas (Sanskrit) and Yonas (Pali).
The Indo-Greek kingdom was ruled by over 30 Hellenistic (Greek) kings in the northwest and north India from the 2nd century BC to the beginning of the first century AD. The kingdom started when Graeco-Bactrian king Demetrius (son of Euthydemus I) invaded India around 180 BC. He conquered southern Afghanistan and parts of Punjab.
The Indo-Greek kings imbibed Indian culture and became political entities with a mix of Greek and Indian culture. For about 25 years, the Indo-Greek kingdoms were under the Euthydemid rule. Many coins have been unearthed of these kings and most of the information we get about them is from these coins. Coins have been found with Indian and Greek inscriptions. Many coins have been found with images of Indian deities also. The Indo-Greek kings did this to perhaps placate the population most of whom were not Greeks.
The civil wars among the many Bactrian kings after the death of Demetrius facilitated the independent kingdom of Apollodotus I who, in this way, can be regarded as the first proper Indo-Greek king (whose rule was not from Bactria). His kingdom included Gandhara and western Punjab. Most of the Indo-Greek kings were Buddhists and Buddhism flourished under their rule. Greek influence is mostly seen in art and sculpture, particularly the Gandhara School of art.
Menander I (Reign: 155 or 150 BC – 130 BC)
Menander I Soter was also known as Minedra, Minadra or Milinda (in Pali). He was initially a king of Bactria. His empire extended from Kabul river valley in the west to the Ravi River in the east; and from Swat valley in the north to Arachosia (Helmand in Afghanistan).
According to some Indian sources, he went as far as Rajasthan and Pataliputra. He converted to Buddhism and patronised the faith. He died in 130 BC and was succeeded by his son Strato I.
The Milinda Panho (composed around 100 BC) records a dialogue between Milinda and the Buddhist sage Nagasena. Originally written in Sanskrit, only the Pali version is available now. In the work, Milinda is described as a wise, learned and able king. At the end of it, Milinda accepts Buddhism and converts.
Decline of the Indo-Greek kingdom
The last Indo-Greek king was Strato II. He ruled the Punjab region until 55 BC, some say until 10 AD. Their rule ended with the invasions of the Indo-Scythians (Sakas). It is believed that Greek people lived for several centuries more in India under the Indo-Parthians and the Kushans.
Kushanas are considered to be one of the five branches of the Yuezhi tribe who lived in the Chinese frontier or central Asia. They are known as Guishuang in Chinese sources. They eventually acquired dominance over the other Yuezhi tribes. They moved eastward towards India defeating the Parthians and the Sakas in the 1st century AD.
Kujula Kadphises (Reign: AD 30-AD 80) or Kadphises I
Kujula Kadphises was the first Yuezhi chief to lay the foundation of the Kushana Empire in India. He established his supremacy over Kabul, Kandahar and Afghanistan. He was succeeded by his son Vima Taktu or Sadashkana (AD 80 -AD 95) who expanded the empire into northwest India.
Vima Kadphises (Reign: AD 95-AD 127)
An inscription found at Rabatak in Afghanistan mentions that he was the son of Vima Taktu and the father of Kanishka. He has issued a large number of gold coins. He was a Shiva devotee as is clear from coins issued by him. A large number of Roman gold coins found from this era indicates the prosperity of India at that time and also the growing trade with the Romans.
Kanishka (Reign: 127 AD – 151 AD)
He was considered the greatest Kushana king and also a great king of ancient India. He was the son of Vima Kadphises. His kingdom included Afghanistan, parts of Sindhu, parts of Parthia, Punjab, Kashmir, parts of Magadha (including Pataliputra), Malwa, Benaras, perhaps parts of Bengal, Khotan, Kashgar, Yarkhand (last three in modern China). His empire covered Gandhara, Peshawar, Oudh, Pataliputra, Kashmir and Mathura. His kingdom also included parts of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. His main capital was Peshawar, then known as Purushpura.
After the capture of Pataliputra, he is said to have taken away the Buddhist monk Ashvaghosha with him to Peshawar. The scholars in his court included Parsva, Ashvaghosha, Vasumitra, Nagarjuna, Charaka and Mathara. He also patronised the Greek engineer Agesilaus.
Kanishka convened the fourth Buddhist Council at Kundalvana in Kashmir. He patronised Buddhism although he was very tolerant in his religious views. His coins contain a mix of Indian, Greek and Zoroastrian deities. He was also a patron of art and architecture. The Gandhara School of art flourished under him. He also propagated the Mahayana form of Buddhism and he was largely responsible for propagating it in China.
Significance of the Kushana Empire
Sanskrit literature began to be developed during this time. The fourth Buddhist council was held in Sanskrit. Ashvoghosha is considered to be the first Sanskrit dramatist. During this time, three distinct schools of art flourished: Gandhara School in northwest India, Amaravati School in Andhra and the Mathura School in the Ganges valley.
Trade prospered between India and China, and India and the Roman Empire. The Kushanas controlled large parts of the Silk Route which led to the propagation of Buddhism into China. It was during this time that Buddhism began to spread to Korea and Japan also.
Many towers, Chaityas, towns and beautiful sculptures were built under the patronage of the Kushana kings. Kushanas were foreign invaders to begin with, but they were completely indianised in ways and culture. It is said that the Kushana period in Indian history was a perfect forerunner to the golden age of the Guptas.
Decline of the Kushana Empire
Kanishka was succeeded by his son Vasishka. Vasishka was followed by Huvishka and Kanishka II (son of Vasishka). Kanishka II was followed by Vasudeva I. Vasudeva I was the last great king of the Kushanas. After his death, the empire disintegrated away. He probably died in 232 AD.
Kushanas coins & their historical significance
The age of Kushanas witnessed very high level of monetization. The Kushana king issued coins made up of gold, silver, coppers. In entire Ancient Indian History purest gold coin issued during Kushanas period. Maximum number of copper coins was also issued during Kushana period.
A large number of coins have been discovered belonging to Kushana age. These coins were used by Kujala Kadphises, Wima Kadphises, Kanishaka, and Huvishka & Vasudev. Information provided by these coins through light on history of Kushana period.
Coins issued by Kujala Kadphises contained epithet of Dharmathidasa. This title indicates that he had adopted / embedded Buddhism. Coins issued by Wima Kadphises depict God Shiva with Nandi & Trident. His title Maheshwar is found on the coins. This evidence confirmed that Wima Kadphises was follower of Shaivasim.
Coins issues by Kanishka depict large number of deities of Indian as well as Iranian origin. These deities have been identified as Shiva, Buddha, Sun, and Moon & Shakti. The names of some of deities were written in Iranian language. These multiple deities & language indicate that parts of Iran were within Kushana Empire.
Coins of Huviska depict Buddha, Shiva, Vishu, Kartikeya, and Godess Shakti. Coins issued by Vasudev depict Shiva & goddess Parvati. On some of coin Shiva is depicted while killing Gajasur. These Kushana coins through light on political & economic as well as socio-religious history. The names of Kings found on coin & dates helps in fixing the chronology of Kushana rulers. The titles adopted by Kushana Kings helped in understanding their political status.
The language used in coin informed that Iranian & Persian group residing in Kushana Empire. Coins also indicate that Kushana rulers adopted Indian religion. Depiction of multiple deities on coins reveals the liberal tolerant & broadly based on outlook of Kushana Kings.