Kushan Empire

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A map of India in the 2nd century AD showing the extent of the Kushan Empire (in green) during the reign of Kanishka.

The Kushan Empire was a syncretic empire, formed by the Yuezhi, in the Bactrian territories in the early 1st century. It spread to encompass much of modern-day territory of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India, at least as far as Saketa and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka the Great.

The Kushans were most probably an Indo-European nomadic people who migrated from northwestern China (Xinjiang and Gansu) and settled in ancient Bactria. The founder of the dynasty, Kujula Kadphises, followed Greek religious ideas and iconography after the Greco-Bactrian tradition, and was also a follower of the Shaivite sect of Hinduism.[1] The Kushans in general were also great patrons of Buddhism, and, starting with Emperor Kanishka, they also employed elements of Zoroastrianism in their pantheon.[2] They played an important role in the spread of Buddhism to Central Asia and China, ushering in a period of relative peace for 200 years, sometimes described as "Pax Kushana".[3]

Kushans and Buddhism

The Ahin Posh stupa was dedicated in the 2nd century AD under the Kushans, and contained coins of Kushan and Roman Emperors.
Early Mahayana Buddhist triad. From left to right, a Kushan devotee, Maitreya, the Buddha, Avalokitesvara, and a Buddhist monk. 2nd–3rd century, Shotorak.[4]

The Kushans inherited the Greco-Buddhist traditions of the Indo-Greek Kingdom they replaced, and their patronage of Buddhist institutions allowed them to grow as a commercial power.[5] Between the mid-1st century and the mid-3rd century, Buddhism, patronized by the Kushans, extended to China and other Asian countries through the Silk Road.

Kanishka is renowned in Buddhist tradition for having convened a great Buddhist council in Kashmir. Along with his predecessors in the region, the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Milinda) and the Indian emperors Ashoka and Harsha Vardhana, Kanishka is considered by Buddhism as one of its greatest benefactors.

During the 1st century AD, Buddhist books were being produced and carried by monks, and their trader patrons. Also, monasteries were being established along these land routes that went from China and other parts of Asia. With the development of Buddhist books, it caused a new written language called Gandhara. Gandhara consists of eastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Scholars are said to have found many Buddhist scrolls that contained the Gandhari language.[6]

The reign of Huvishka corresponds to the first known epigraphic evidence of the Buddha Amitabha, on the bottom part of a 2nd-century statue which has been found in Govindo-Nagar, and now at the Mathura Museum. The statue is dated to "the 28th year of the reign of Huvishka", and dedicated to "Amitabha Buddha" by a family of merchants. There is also some evidence that Huvishka himself was a follower of Mahayana Buddhism. A Sanskrit manuscript fragment in the Schøyen Collection describes Huvishka as one who has "set forth in the Mahāyāna."[7]

The 12th century historical chronicle Rajatarangini mentions in detail the rule of the Kushan kings and their benevolence towards Buddhism:[8][9]

Then there ruled in this very land the founders of cities called after their own appellations the three kings named Huska, Juska and Kaniska (...) These kings albeit belonging to the Turkish race found refuge in acts of piety; they constructed in Suskaletra and other places monasteries, Caityas and similar edificies. During the glorious period of their regime the kingdom of Kashmir was for the most part an appanage of the Buddhists who had acquired lustre by renunciation. At this time since the Nirvana of the blessed Sakya Simha in this terrestrial world one hundred fifty years, it is said, had elapsed. And a Bodhisattva was in this country the sole supreme ruler of the land; he was the illustrious Nagarjuna who dwelt in Sadarhadvana.

— Rajatarangini (I168-I173)[9][10]

Further reading


  1. Dani, Ahmad Hasan; Masson, V. M.; Harmatta, J.; Puri, Baij Nath; Etemadi, G. F.; Litvinskiĭ, B. A. (1992–2005). History of civilizations of Central Asia. Paris: UNESCO. pp. 310. ISBN 92-3-102719-0. OCLC 28186754. Contrary to earlier assumptions, which regarded Kujula Kadphises as Buddhist on the basis of this epithet [dharmasthita- "steadfast in the Law"], it is now clear from the wording of a Mathura inscription, in which Huvishka bears the same epithet satyadharmasthita that the kingdom was conferred upon him by Sarva and Scamdavira (Candavira), that is, he was a devotee of Siva. 
  2. Grenet, Frantz (2015). "Zoroastrianism among the Kushans". In Falk, Harry. Kushan histories. Literary sources and selected papers from a symposium at Berlin, December 5 to 7, 2013. Bremen: Hempen Verlag. 
  3. Aldrovandi, Cibele; Hirata, Elaine (June 2005). "Buddhism, Pax Kushana and Greco-Roman motifs: pattern and purpose in Gandharan iconography". Antiquity. 79 (304): 306–315. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00114103. ISSN 0003-598X. 
  4. Rosenfield 1967, p. 451, Figure 105: "Figure 105: Image pedestal with Sakyamuni flanked by Bodhisattvas and devotees. Shotorak."
  5. Liu 2010, p. 42.
  6. Liu 2010, p. 58.
  7. Neelis, Jason. Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks. 2010. p. 141
  8. Sailendra Nath Sen 1999, pp. 199–200.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Mahajan, V.D (2016). Ancient India. S. Chand Publishing. p. 330. ISBN 978-93-5253-132-5. 
  10. Pandit, Ranjit Sitaram (1935). River Of Kings (rajatarangini). p. I168–I173. 
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