Biography of King Kanishka (Kushan Empire)
Kanishka was the greatest ruler and king of Kushan Empire in Ancient India. He was a foreigner by birth. But he had deep love for India. He adopted Buddhism as his religion. By his conquests, by religious activities and by patronizing the Indian culture, he made the Kushan period eminently distinguished.
Emperor Kanishka had succeeded Kadphises II as the third king of the Kushan dynasty. No direct relationship has been established between Kanishka and his predecessor Kadphises II. But his immediate succession to the throne after him suggests that he was the next in line to rule over the empire.
Accession: Many historians are of opinion that the date of accession of Kanishka must have been 78 A.D. from which the Saka era commences. They believe that this era was started by Kanishka from the year of his accession to the throne, which is variously interpreted by various thinkers.
Saka Era: With the accession of King Kanishka to throne, there began the Saka Era or the Sakabda in Indian history. The Saka era, is named after Saka. The Sakas were quite a different ruling dynasty having no political or family relations with Kanishka.
Historians have not been able to find out a satisfactory answer as to why the era that was started by Kanishka has been called the Saka era.
Conquests of Kanishka: Like all emperors, he had his imperial designs of conquests. King Kanishka extended the Kushana Empire vastly both outside and inside India. At the time of his accession to the throne, the Kushana Empire included within its boundaries such territories as Afghanistan, a large part of Sindh, the Punjab, portions of Parthia, and Bactria. Kanishka added to this other extensive areas by his conquests and annexations. It is obvious that he fought a series of wars during his reign. The capital of Kanishka was at Purushapura (modern Peshawar).
Inside India, Kanishka conquered Kashmir early in his reign. It is understood from Kalhana’s Rajatarangini that Kanishka build many monasteries, chaityas, and other monuments in the Kashmir valley. He founded a city named Kanishkapura in Kashmir.
Kanishka conquered deep into the interior of the Gangetic valley and occupied Magadha. It is known from the Buddhist sources that after his capture of Pataliputra, he brought from there the famous Buddhist philosopher Ashvaghosha with him to his capital. Kaniska’s rule was established over other areas of the north like Oudh, Banaras, Sravasti, Gorakhpur and Mathura.
It is also known that Kanishka fought against some of the Saka satraps who were still ruling over western India. He defeated the Saka ruler of Ujjayini, and extended his authority to Malwa.
Outside India, King Kanishka fought against and defeated the king of the Parthians, and annexed his territories to his empire. Thereafter, he crossed the Pamirs with his army and invaded Khotan, Yarkand and Kashgar. The rulers of these territories having been subordinate chiefs under the Chinese Emperor, Kanishka’s conflict with the Chinese power become inevitable. According to the descriptions of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang who visited India five centuries later Kanishka kept a Chinese prince as a hostage in his court during his conflict with the Chinese Emperor. Ultimately, Kanishka came out victorious over the Chinese, and established his sovereignty over Khotan, Yarkand, and Kashgar.
Extent of Kanishka Empire: The empire of Kanishka thus extended from Persia to Pataliputra and included Kapisa, Gandhara, Kashmir, Punjab, Sindh and Malwa, besides of course the valley of the Ganges up to Patna. The Chinese territories like Khotan and Yarkand also formed a part of the Kushana Empire. It was a unique empire in the sense that the most of Central Asia, a large area of China beyond the Pamir Passes and a great portion of northern and western India formed its component parts. The southern extent of the empire touched the Vindhya Mountains.
The capital of the empire, Purushapura, was more or less centrally situated. There are evidences to show that Kanishka made it a great city. As a political centre, a military stronghold, and a sacred place of Buddhism, Purushapura attained the status of other notable ancient capitals like Pataliputra. Recent archaeological discoveries show that this famous city of Kanishka was situated near the modern capital of the North-West Frontier Province, Peshawar.
Religion of Kanishka (religious achievement): In the history of Buddhism, King Kanishka has been given a place only next to Samrat Ashoka as a patron of that religion. Like Ashoka, Kanishka also became a convert to Buddhism.
It is evident that Emperor Kanishka adopted Buddhism after he had ruled a king for some years. The Buddhist sources do not give the reasons for his conversion. But it is suggested by some historians that Kanishka came under the influence of the greatest Buddhist philosopher of that time, Asvaghosha and became a devotee of Buddha and accepted Buddhism.
When he went back to his capital, Purushpur, modern Peshawar, he took Asvaghosha along with him who became his adviser and a spiritual guide. After adopting Buddhism as his creed, he, like his predecessor, Ashoka, decided to save the religion from disintegration by minimizing the difference among various sects.
Also read: Kanishka and Buddhism
Once he embraced Buddhism, Kanishka took up the cause of that religion in great sincerity. As the ruler of an empire which covered vast areas of Central Asia and western China, he found a golden opportunity to spread Buddhism a fresh vigor by his numerous works as a patron of Buddhism.
It may be noted that in-spite of the fact that Kanishka was a devoted Buddhist by faith, he remained tolerant towards people belonging to other faiths.
Coins: The coins of Kanishka give a proof that he slowly and gradually drifted from the influence of Greek and Persian religions and adopted Hindu and Buddhist ways of life. The early coins indicate his association with Greeks and their Philosophy. These coins are Greek in character, script and even language. But the later coins replace the Greek ones with the Persian script and the figures of Persian gods. But, later on, he adopted the Hindu gods and soon we find the image of Buddha on some of his coins.
Death: Kanishka died in around 151 A.D.