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Sasanka – The Ancient King of Bengal

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Sasanka, the Ancient King of Bengal was a significant ruler of the history of Bengal. During his ruler ship Bengal played a significant role in the North Indian politics.

King Sasanka liberated Gauda from the later Guptas sometimes in 606 A.D. and became its king. His capital was in the city of Karnasuvarna.

The history of King Sasanka is based on  three commendable sources:

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  • The accounts of Hiuen-Tsang, Banabhatta’s Harshacharita,
  • The Ganjam and other inscriptions and
  • Coins and the Buddhist work of Arjya Manjushree Mula Kalpa.

These sources help us to form an overall conception about the reign of King Sasanka in Bengal though most of the works spoke against him.

We do not have any positive evidence of the extent of King Sasanka’s empire in Bengal. As the king of Gauda he possibly ruled over Northern and Western Bengal. We cannot definitely say if he ruled over the Southern and Eastern Bengal. Possibly before going out for conquering the territories outside Bengal, he had conquered the whole of the country. From the Doobi Copper plate it is known that Sasanka had defeated and imprisoned the Kamrupraj Bhaskaravarman.

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It is true Sasanka dreamt of a vast empire. He defeated king Sambhhuyasas of the Nana dynasty of Dandabhukti, probably modern Danton of Midnapore, Utkala and Kangada. These places were possibly the modern Midnapore, Northern and Southern Orissa. It is learnt that the Sailadbhava dynasty of Southern Orissa had acknowledged his suzerainty up to 619 A.D. So far we know the southern limit of Sasanka’s reign was up to Chilka Lake in Southern Orissa though Dr. R.C. Mazumdar told us that his kingdom extended in the South up to the Mahendra Mountain in Ganjam district.

But his western expedition was the most remarkable expedition. The Maukharis of Kanauj were his most persistent enemies. Since the period of later Gupta’s they always tried to possess Magadha and Gauda. Sasanka wanted to secure his dominion from the aggressive designs of these Maukharis. Meanwhile the Maukharis gained much power when the Maukharis king, Grahavarma, married Rajyasri, the daughter of Prabhakarvardhana, the king of Thaneswar, as a result of which Kanauj and Thaneswar aligned to suppress Sasanka of Gauda. To strengthen himself Sasanka formed a counter alliance with Devagupta of Malwa. Thus the Northern Indian power politics gave rise to two rival blocs and a fierce conflict between the two was eminent.

Sasanka acted first and annexed Magadha and also conquered Banaras. When the Maukharis king Prabhakarvardhana died, Devagupta of Malaya accompanied by Sasanka attacked the isolated Kanauj. Maukharis king Grahavarman was killed, the widow queen Rajashree was imprisoned and the city of Kanauj captured and plundered. Thus Gauda, Malwa became the master of Kanauj. In order to take vengeance of the murder of his brother-in-law Grahavarman and rescue his sister Rajyasri, the Thaneswar king Rajyavardhana advanced with a strong contingent and defeated Malwa king Deva Gupta, but himself waskilled by Sasanka. Thus Sasanka remained the lone master for the time being. The story regarding how Sasanka killed Rajyavardhana still provokes controversy among the scholars. The contemporary analysis’s Banabhatta and Hiuen-Tsang were the partisans of Harsha, who definitely had personal prejudices against Sasanka. Possibly Sasanka defeated Rajyavardhana in open and fair fight. But at the same time Dr. D.C. Ganguly and Dr. R.G. Basak accepted the theory of Sasanka’s treachery.

However, we do not know much about Emperor Sasanka’s role in Kanauj after Rajyavardhana’s death. Probably he returned to Gauda by putting Grahavarman’s younger brother on the throne of Kanauj as a protégé. Later on the new King of Thaneswar, Harshavardhana occupied Kanauj. However, Sasanka could not march to Thaneswar from Kanauj, nor could he keep Kanauj under his control. Neither we are sure if Harshavardhana at all was able to defeat Sasanka elsewhere. Even if it was so, “Sasanka escaped with little loss.”

The last years of Sasanka’s reign have proved his undiminished powers till his death. Harshavardhana could capture Gauda only after Sasanka’s death. The Ganjam inscription of 619 A.D. amply proves that till 619 A.D. Sasanka was the sovereign ruler of Bengal, South Bihar and Orissa. Moreover, when in 637-38 A.D. the noted Chinese pilgrim Hiuen -Tsang paid a visit to Magadha he found that the famous Bodhi Tree of Gaya was recently cut down by Sasanka.  It proves that till 638 A.D. Sasanka was the master of Bihar. Possibly Sasanka died without leaving behind any heir. He appeared as a meteor in Bengal and left a blazing trail of glory.

So far we have discussed the thundering political achievements of King Sasanka of Bengal. We do not have, unfortunately, much evidences of his worthy administration. It is learnt that Sasanka was a devoted Saiva and patronized Saivism. We have heard much about Sasanka’s anti-Buddhist activities, like cutting down the Bodhi Tree of Bodh Gaya, his attempts to efface the footprints of Buddha from the Stone kept at Pataliputra, his oppression over the Buddhist etc. from the tale told by Hiuen-Tsang. But these stories came from the hostile pen of a biased Buddhist writer who had no respect for Sasanka. But in ancient India religious intolerance was very rare and it is not acceptable that Sasanka had shown any fanaticism. Had he ever oppressed the Buddhist it was due to his political reasons.

Bana and Hiuen-Tsang tried to defame Sasanka. But it was he who had an imperial vision. It was he who made a bold bid for the empire of Northern India. Under him, though for a while, Bengal had gained a prominent place in Indian politics. King Sasanka of Bengal, thus laid the foundation of that policy on which the Palas later built up their vast empire. Sasanka was condemned by the contemporary writers. Even the Buddhist writers ridiculed him in the story of his death. Hence the task of doing real judgment of his achievements lies with the posterity.

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