Kadphises II was succeeded by Kaniska in 78AD as the third king of the Kushana dynasty.
His exact relation with Kadphises II is not known but his immediate succession to the throne after him proves that he was the next in line to rule over the empire.
From the time of Alexander’s invasion the lands outside the North-West frontiers of India became a political playground of the Greek powers.
The Central Asian lands saw extensive movements of different races of people. These races destroyed the Greek supremacy in those regions and turned to be a new source of danger to the North-West of India. These people were nomadic and were in search of new homes. They were fighting among themselves for territorial gains and political powers.
It was in that kind of racial migration and contest for lands that the Kushanas rose to power in Central Asia. In the opening year of the first century about 25AD a powerful chief of the kushanas named Kujala Kadphises I established his supremacy over other yuch-chi tribes and became their overlord. He ruled over a part of Afghanistan and occupied Hindu Kush extending from Parthia to Indus, the Kushana kingdom under this king rose into prominence rapidly.
His kingdom included the territories formerly ruled by the Greeks, the Sakas, and the Parthians. Kujala Kadphises was succeeded by his son Wimo Kadphises or Vima Kadphises and ruled this vast territory till his death in 78AD. He is regarded as the real builder of the Kushana empire in India. Vima Kadphises or Kadphises II was succeeded by Kaniska in 78AD as the third king of the Kushana dynasty. His exact relation with Kadphises II is not known but his immediate succession to the throne after him proves that he was the next in line to rule over the empire.
The exact date of Kaniska’s reign still remains controversial but with the accession to throne there began the Saka Era or the Sakabda in Indian history. The year 78AD has been accepted by most historians as the year of the foundation of the Saka Era. This Era has continued to dominate the Indian reckoning of the years and time. It appears paradoxical that though Kaniska was a Kushana emperor and not a Saka yet the era founded by him became famous as the Saka Era.
This was for the fact that to the Indian people of that time the Sakas and the Kushanas appeared as the same type of external tribes to pass under a common name as Saka. Since the sakas came and settled earlier and also became Indianized before the Kushanas their name became more familiar to the Indians. Kaniska was one of the greatest rulers of ancient India. By his conquest, by religious activities and by patronizing the Indian culture he made the Kushana period very eminent and distinguished.
Kaniska extended the Kushana empire vastly both outside and inside India. At the time of his accession to the throne the Kushana empire included Afghanistan, a large part of Sindh, the Punjab portions of Parthia and Bactria. Kaniska added many territories to his kingdom by his conquests and annexations.
It is obvious that he fought a series of battles during his reign and established his capital at Purushapura (Peshawar). Inside India he conquered Kashmir in the early part of his reign. It is mentioned in the Rajatrangini of Kalhana that Kaniska built many monastries, chaityas, and other monuments in the Kashmir Valley. He founded the city Kaniskapura in Kashmir which place is still known as Kanispore situated near Baramula.
Kaniska conquered many interior parts of the Gangetic valley and occupied Magadha. It is mentioned in the Buddhist literature that after the capture of Pataliputra he brought from there the famous Buddhist philosopher Aswaghosha with him to his capital. He also established his supremacy over other areas of the north like Oudh, Benaras, Sravasti, Gorakhpur, and Mathura. Kaniska fought against some of the Saka satrapas who were still ruling over Western India. He defeated the Saka ruler of Ujjayini and extended his authority to Malwa. He humbled the Parthians on the West. He also led an army across the Pamirs to subdue the petty nomad chiefs of Khotan, Yarkand, and Kashgarh. These tribes in fact were tributaries to China.
Outside India Kaniska fought against and defeated the kings 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, Kaniska had to fight against the Chinese emperor and ultimately came out victorious over the Chinese and established his sovereignty over Khotan, Yarkand and Kashgar. Thus Kaniska ruled a vast empire that included Afganistan, Bactria, Kashgar, Khotan, and Yarkand and Kashmir. Sind, the Punjab United Provinces, and a portion of Malwa were also parts of his territorial possession.
Very little is known about the administration and the style of functioning of Kaniskas government. From the Sarnath inscription we learn that Kaniska divided his vast empire into several provinces and put them under the charge of Kshatraps or governors. These officials were carefully selected and were not allowed to revolt against the central authority. Utmost attention was paid for the maintenance of law and order in the empire. If anybody tried to revolt against the authority of the king he was dealt ruthlessly.
Purushapura, the capital city was one of the beautiful cities of India. It was adorned with many noble edifices, lofty public buildings monuments and Buddhist monasteries. There are evidences to show that Kaniska made it a great city. As a political centre, a military strong hold, 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 Kaniska was situated near the modern capital of the North-West Frontier Province Peshawar.
Kaniska is remembered not only as a great conqueror but also as a Buddhist religionist. Indeed he occupies the front rank with those who put heart and soul to uplift Buddhism. In the beginning he was not a follower of Buddhism. His early coins bear the images of the Persian, Greek and Hindu gods. Subsequently he came in contact with the great Buddhist monk Asvaghosha and embraced Buddhism.
Kaniska has been given a place only next to Asoka as a patron of Buddhism. Like Asoka he became a convert of Buddhism. By the time of Kaniska the Kushanas were already under the influence of Hinduism and were devotees of the Hindu gods. As they had come from outside they also respected their earlier gods. It is no wonder that the earlier coins of Kaniska contain the figures of Iranian, Greek and Indian gods.
It is evident from these sources that Kaniska adopted Buddhism after he had ruled as a king for some years. The Buddhist sources do not attach any reasons for his conversion. But it is mentioned that Kaniska came under the influence of Asvaghosa and turned to be a devotee of Lord Buddha and accepted Buddhism.
The Peshawar Casket Inscription proves his deep association with Buddhism. He summoned the Fourth Buddhist council at Kundalavana near Srinagar. The council got the opportunity to reform Buddhist faith. It went a long way to propagate Buddhism. In the council the proceedings were written and compiled in a book named Mahavibhasha which is the encyclopedia of Buddhism.
Kaniska gave royal patronage to the new form of Buddhism called Mahayanism. His activities to promote Buddhism in India and abroad have made him immortal. He constructed a large number of statues and images of Lord Buddha, Buddha Viharas, monasteries and dwelling places for the Buddhist monks which ultimately helped to spread and popularize Buddhism.
The Buddhist monks were given exhaustive state help. He deputed several Buddhist religious-missions to China, Japan, Tibet and Central Asia carrying messages and teachings of Buddhism. With the result a sizable population of those countries embraced the new religion. His behaviors in the Fourth Buddhist council gave a boost to Buddhism. It was from the time of Kaniska that Buddhism started penetrating deeply into Central Asia, Tibet, China, and Japan in a sweeping way. In the tide of Mahayana doctrines Buddhism surged forward in distant directions to establish its predominance among the Asian community.
Kaniska as a Patron of Culture:
Kaniska became the greatest patron of Indian Culture. He was a true representative of the liberal spirit of the Indian culture. Kaniska undisputedly was a great patron of art and literature. The new school of Art made murcurial progress during the reign of Kaniska. Interestingly in the Gandhara School of Art the style, tradition and object were purely Indian but the technique applied was that of Greek art.
Under this school, a large number of statues of Lord Buddha, several sculptures, fine works on stones were made. Some of those rare materials are still available. In fact highly skilled workmanship, beauty and fineness of the statues really move the people today. As most of the specimen of this style found or discovered in Gandhara, this art is attributed as the Gandhara School of Art.
Kaniska was a great builder. In important cities of his kingdom he constructed many beautiful buildings, lofty towers, splendid monasteries and attractive stupas. The tower he constructed at Peshawar exerted the wonder and appreciation of the travellers much after his death. It was about 400 feet high and chiefly constructed of wood.
Its matchless beauty and impositions surpassed all records. He has constructed another tower at Kashmir. Kaniska enriched Sarnatha and Mathura with many fine buildings, monasteries and stupas. The remnants of those structures and the Gandhara School of Art are still available in both the places. The headless life size statue of Kaniska found at Mathura is an exquisite piece of art. From the excavation of his famous stupa near Peshawar, a relic casket of Bronze has been discovered. Besides the relics of Buddha the casket contained the figures of Buddha, Brahma, Indra and that of Kaniska himself shown between the sun and the moon. This proves the catholicity and liberality of Kaniska towards the Indian belief.
Kaniska was a unique patron of art and learning. It was during his time the Sanskrit language dealing with both religious and non-religious subjects received due patronage. Many famous works of Sanskrit literature were made popular scriptures of ancient India. The court of Kaniska was a proof of his liking for the men of letters.
Asvaghosa was the most illustrious figure of his court. A poet philosopher and a play write Asvaghose wrote Buddhacharita in Sanskrit which has been regarded as the epic of Buddhism. He was also the author of Sutralankar. The court of Kaniska was also adorned by Nagaijuna the author of the Madhyamika Sutra that deals with the theory of relativity. The most renowned medical scientist of ancient India Charaka also belonged to the court of Kaniska. He was the author of the most famous work on medicine known as Charaka Samhita which maintained its hold on the Indian mind over centuries since then and also retains its hold on the Ayurvedic science of the present time.
Vasumitra the eminent Buddhist divine was also a celebrity in the court of Kaniska. He presided over the Fourth Buddhist Council and compiled the Mahavibhasa Sastra as a remarkable commentary on the Buddhist Tripitakas. It was also written in Sanskrit. Kaniska thus patronized Sanskrit language and tried his best for its growth.
Trade and Commerce:
During the reign of Kaniska trade and commerce flourished encouragingly. The boundary of this vast empire was extended in the north-west up to the Roman empire, Chinese empire and Parthian empire. On the south it touched the Andhra State. As the boundary was touching the foreign land gate-ways were opened for brisk trade with the foreign countries. This extensive foreign trade helped India to earn foreign exchange.
Precious stones, pearls, Silk, ivory, perfumes and spices we’re the main articles of export. Gold, Silver, Wine and luxury goods were generally imported from the outside countries. Principal items of export were silk, muslin, finer sorts of cloth, cutlery, armour, brooches, embroideries, rugs, perfumes, drugs, ivory, finished ivory works and jewellery of gold and silver.
The system of barter had not disappeared altogether but the use of coins as the medium of exchange was becoming familiar and general. The standard unit of value for exchange was the copper coin called Karshapana. It was weighing a little more than 146 grains. Silver Karshapana was called Purana or Dharana and was little more than 58 grains. The weight and relative value of coins probably varied in different parts. Moreover coins were not much in use except in very big towns. Money was lent for business and interest was paid on loans.
The economic prosperity of the country was at a high level and many arts, crafts and occupations developed well due to the growth of commercial facilities with foreign countries owing to the development of communication facilities. Thus along with the extension of the empire the extension of the commercial activities were very much attached to the growth of the Kingdom.
Kaniska was a conqueror and a great empire builder. The vastness of his empire confirms his military genius and thus he proved himself to be an invincible conqueror and an ambitious general who earned laurel and made the foundation of the Kushana empire firm and strong. Contemporize evidence establishes that his administrative machinery functioned efficiently.
The people were living happily without any internal revolt. He maintained law and order firmly throughout the empire and ensured stability. Kaniska provided the era of political stability and a well-organised system of government. Continually harassed by the interminable foreign invasions India now felt the heeling effects of a strong alien rule. The greatness of Kaniska lies in his religious activities.
Though in the beginning like Asoka he was not a Buddhist but subsequently embraced Buddhism and devoted heart and soul to uplift Buddhism. His untiring efforts elevated Buddhism to high pinnacle. On that context he deserves glowing tribute. Kaniska was not only a great empire builder he was also a patron of art and literature. The name of Kaniska will remain associated with the Gandhara School of Art and Several magnificent Vihars, Shupas and monasteries.
He was a lover of Sanskrit literature. During his time Sanskrit literature steadily progressed. A large quantity of Sanskrit literature both religious and secular was produced under his patronage. The time of Kaniska was thus a time of intense literary, philosophical, scientific and artistic activities. The royal patronage covered almost every branch of the social, cultural and economic life of India.
Gandhara School of Art:
The Persians, the Greeks, the Sakas, the Kushanas all came to India to rule and settled in Gandhara. The fusion and intermixture of different cultures gave birth to a hybrid culture. The Gandhara School of Art was a manifestation of one such mixed culture. The Greek or the Hellenic artistic techniques influenced the Indian art of image making. In the north western region of India known as Gandhara a new school of art soon came to be developed famous as the Gandhara School of Art. It also came to be known as the Indo-Greek Art. Under this art the Indian images and themes were worked out on stone according to Greek style of figure making. The Gandhara School of Art is also described as Greeco-Buddhist.
It is important to note that the school came to prominence when the Greek domination on this part of India came to decline. The technique of art is no doubt Hellenistic and modified by Iranian and Scythian contacts but the themes depicted are Indians and exclusively Buddhist. The Gandhara School of Art represents a stage of the Indianisation of the outsiders specially the Greeks and the Kushanas and therefore should be jugged from that angle.
The techniques and forms applied were Greek in nature but the ideas inspiration and subjects were all Indians. The Gandhara artists had the hand of a Greek but the heart of an Indian. The procedure of this school was revolutionary. For the first time images of Lord Buddha either in sitting or standing postures was represented. During the reign of Kaniska the Gandhara School of Art developed and flourished remarkably. Under the Gandhara School large number life like statues of Lord Buddha began to be prepared which was earlier made in symbols such as foot prints, the Bo-tree, a vacant seat or an umbrella.
Great care was taken to show the physical features of a figure as natural as possible. Much attention was paid to show dress, its folds, designs, turban etc. to make the statue as lively as possible. A pensive attention was also paid to ensure firmness, precisions and polish etc. in fulfilling the art. Its origin was Greek and its aims and objectives were purely Indian.
In some cases this school of art became careful to depict certain scenes from Buddha’s life. In addition statues of some Kushan rulers were also made. Most of the specimens of this School were executed in stone but in some cases stucco (lime) terrcota (baked clay) and clay were also used to build statues, images and sculptures connecting Buddhist faith. The main centre of this Gandhara School of Art was no doubt Gandhara but its remnants discovered in Afganistan, Taxila, which prove clearly that it flourished over a vast region.
Mathura & Sanchi School of Arts:
Gandhara School also influenced the Mathura School of Art in the interior of India. Mathura was a notable centre of art which functioned like a workshop for the production of countless images of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas. The demand for these images grew as Mahayanism spread farther and farther. Places like Sanchi, Rajagriha, Sarnath and Sravasti received the Mathura images in large number. This wave of the art also influenced Jainism and Brahminism. Mathura which was the main centre of Jainism got a strong incentive for Jaina-image making. Brahminical god and goddesses also received the profound attention of the artists of Mathura School of Art.
The Mathura School and the Sanchi School of Arts are distinctly different from the Gandhara School of Art in the field of the fineness, precision, and polish etc. of the statues. Gandhara artists were very careful to make the statues attractive depicting great details of physical features. Meticulous details of physical features like muscles, hair etc. were made in the Gandhara School where as the artists of both Mathura and Sanchi School lacked in that style of image making.
Of course Mathura and Sanchi Schools received due patronage during Gupta period which added a new dimension in the form of image making. The images made in the Mathura and Sanchi Schools were under the influence of Puranic theme during the Gupta period. They represented both balance and beauty. Built both in stone and brick they maintained external decoration of higher order.
Kaniska’s reign witnessed a systematic attainment of perfection in every walk of human civilization. Being a follower of Buddhism he allowed the flourishing condition of other religions to continue. India was connected with foreign countries due to trade facilities. In the cultural side he inaugurated a new lease of life for the Indians to be proud of their cultural identity in the world civilization.