Read this article to learn about the Sungas and the Kanvas of Post-Mauryan dynasties.
I. The Sungas (1871—75 B.C.):
With the fall of the Mauryas we enter into a broken, desultory period of Indian history the unity of which is lost for the time being, through the north-western gates of India hordes of outlanders poured in and established aggressive monarchies in Gandhara, Western Malwa, and the Punjab.
The Andhras and the Kalingans had tore off from the empire. The connection of Madhyadesa, i.e., Central India with the valleys of the Indus and the Godavari had been snapped.
The continuity of the history of India would have been broken but for our sources of information such as the Puranas, Gargi, Samhita, the fllahabhasya of Patanjali, the Vedic Literature, the Divyavadana, the Mahavikagnimitra of Kalidasa and the Harshacharit of Bana etc.
The story given by the Puranas of the assassination of the last of the imperial Mauryas, Brihadratha by Pushyamitra, while the former was inspecting the muster of the imperial army is corroborated by Bana in his Harshacharit, a work about eight centuries later. Lack of direct evidences, such inscriptions, etc., has made the lineage of Pushyamitra a subject of controversy among scholars. The origin of the regicide family is wrapped up in mystery.
Panini traces the origin of Pushyamitra Sunga to the Brahmana class of Bharadwaja. The association of the Sungas with the ancient priestly families is proved by the Vedic literature. In the Brihaaranyaka Upanishad the Saungayani., i.e., the descendant of the Sungas, is mentioned as a teacher in the Vamsa Brahmana. This view is also held by Keith and Macdonell. Kalidasa in his Malavikagnimitra refers, to Pushyamitra as belonging to the Baimbaka family of Kashyapa clan. This also supports the view that the Sungas were Brahmanas.
Divyavadana, however, calls Pushyamitra a scion of the Maurya family. One writer even goes to the extent of calling the Sungas as Iranians because their names ended with ‘Mitra’ i.e., worshippers of Mithra (the Sun) like the Iranians. The Puranas mention Pushyamitra as belonging to the Sunga family. The balance of opinions is definitely in favour of the Brahmanical origin of the Sungas.
The assassination of Brihadratha in the very presence of the army and there being no reaction on the latter proves that Pushyamitra was preparing for the event from some time back and had the tacit support of the army behind. Pushyamitra’s accession does not seem to have led to any mentionable opposition and the people seem to have acquiesced in the change of Dynasty as the later Mauryas had proved unworthy of rule and incapable of stemming the tide of the Greek invasion and keeping the parts of the empire together.
Yet the astute statesman took adequate measures to ensure against all eventualities. It was as a part of the scheme that a minister of late King Brihadratha was imprisoned. The Crown-prince Agnimitra was appointed Viceroy at Vidisa. Another Viceroy at Kosala was probably a relation of Pushyamitra. Agnimitra’s brother-in-law Virasena (wife’s brother) was placed in charge of a fortress on the frontier of the Kingdom on the bank of the Narmada.
From Malavikagnimitra it is learnt that Yajnasena, brother-in-law (Sister’s husband), a minister of Brihadratha established an independent kingdom in Vidarbha when there was the overthrow of the Maurya rule by Pushyamitra. This made him a natural enemy of Pushyamitra. Yajnasena arrested and imprisoned his cousin Madhavasena who was the governor of the frontier and a personal friend of Aghimitra.
The latter asked Yajnasena to release Madhavasena but Yajnasena agreed on condition that his relation, a former minister of Brihadratha, who had been imprisoned by Pushyamitra must also be released. This enraged Agnimitra who marched against Yajnasena who surrendered. Vidarbha was divided between Yajnasena and Madhavasena and both acknowledged the suzerainty of Pushyamitra. This extended the sphere of influence of the Sugna King upto the Narmada region.
Pushyamitra’s dominions comprised only the central portions of the Murya Empire. The north-western boundary was ill-defined but tradition credits the house of Pushymitra with having exercised con-Madhavasena and both acknowledged the suzerainty of Pushyamitra, was still the capital of the Sungas. Vidisa formed one of the vice-royalities under the Crown-Prince Agnimitra.
Pushymitra was now the undisputed master of Northern India and in order to proclaim his sovereignty he undertook the performance of the asvamedha, i.e., horse sacrifice. In Ayodhya inscription of Dhanadeva, Pushyamitra is said to have performed two horse-sacrifices. No ruler can let loose the sacrificial horse unless he was sure of its safe return and any ruler or monarch who would feel himself stronger might catch hold of the horse which would lead to war with the King who has let loose the sacrificial horse and naturally no-king aspires after a horse-sacrifice ceremony if he were not sure of his strength and supremacy.
The second horse sacrifice seems to have taken place at an advanced age of Pushyamitra, for his grandson, Prince Vasumitra, son of Agnimitra, was an already grown up Prince to lead the escorting force along with a hundred princes who guarded the sacrificial horse. While the horse was wandering on the right banks of the Indus it was seized by a squadron of Greek horsemen of Menander, a relative of the Bactrian monarch Eukratides and King of Kabul and the Punjab who having formed a design to emulate Alexander, advanced with a formidable force into the interior of India.
The horsemen who seized the, sacrificial horse of Pushyamitra must have been an advance column of Menander. In a hotly contested battle between the Greeks and Vasumitra, the former were completely routed and the Greek King was obliged to retire to his own country. The sacrificial horse was brought back to Pataliputra and the horse-sacrifice was held. This means, that the territories of Pushyamitra extended upto the Sindhu, i.e., the Indus.
There is a sharp difference of opinion with regard to the identity of this river Sindu referred to in MaIavikagnimitra. Prof. Rapson identifies it with Kali Sindhu, a tributary of the river Chambal near Chitor. But Dr. H. C. Raichaudhuri adducing strong arguments, has conclusively proved that the river referred to is the Indus.
Pushyamitra is, however, supposed to have met with two reverses. According to Prof. Rapson, he lost Ujjaini to Andhra King Satakarni. He has come to this conclusion by identifying Sata with Satakarni. But recent discoveries have proved Prof. Rapson’s identification Sata with Satakarni as incorrect, since Sata is an abbreviation of Satava-hana and not Satakarni.
On the basis of a statement in the Hatigumpha inscription of Kharvela of Kalinga, it has been suggested that Kharvela attacked Magadha and defeated Bahasatimita who is identified with Pushyamitra. But R. P. Chanda and Allan have demonstrated the incorrectness of the suggestion on the basis of epigraphical and Philological grounds. According to Allan the name cannot be read as Bahasatimita.
Again Prof. Rapson’s suggestion that Sakala, i.e., Punjab was wrested by Menander during Pushyamitra’s life-time is untenable on the ground that reference to Greek invasion in the mahabhasya and Yugapurana must have been the invasion of Demetrius.
Pushyamitra ruled for 36 years (187—151 B.C.). According to Dr. Smith, his horse-sacrifices with all formalities of Brahmanical worship marked the early stage of Brahmanical reaction. The exaggerated regard for the sanctity of animal life and prohibition of bloody sacrifice during Asoka’s reign led to this Brahmanical reaction under Pushyamitra, which developed fully after a few centuries under Samudragupta.
On the basis of semi-mythological stories of the Buddhist writers, Pushyamitra was not content with the peaceful revival of Hindu rites, but indulged in a savage persecution of Buddhism. He is said to have burnt Buddhist monasteries and put to death monks from Magadha to Jalandhar. Many Buddhist monks who escaped his sword took shelter in the Kingdoms of other rulers.
Dr. Smith observes that “It would be rash to reject this tale as wholely baseless, although it may be exaggerated”. N. N. Ghosh as, also K. P. Jayaswal are of the opinion that Pushyamitra cannot be exonerated from the blame attributed to him about persecution of the Buddhists. Jayaswal mentions the pitiless policy pursued by Pushyamitra against the Buddhists in the north. At Sakala Pushyamitra set a price of 100 gold pieces on the head of every Buddhist.
N. K. Sastri is, however, of the opinion that religious persecution in ancient India was an exception and when it is kept in mind that Buddhist writers have a general tendency to distort facts, for example, in characterising Asoka, we cannot give same credence to their stories as some writers have done while it may be conceded that some Buddhists, particularly the monks, may have suffered from certain disabilities the story of a general persecution of all and sundry is evidently the invention of frustrated minds which found that the State patronage was rapidly being shifted to the Brahmins, and were aghast at the revival of ancient Vedic ritual of the asvameda.
It is also suggested by N. K. Sastri that the overthrow of the Maurya Dynasty which was a bulwark of Buddhism made the Buddhist irreconciled to the rule of Brahman Pushamitra and this may have been political cause of their discomfiture.
From K. P. Jayaswal’s reference to pitiless persecution of the Buddhists at Sakala which was a base of Menander, raises the presumption that the Buddhists there may have allied themselves with the Greeks and thereby earned the punishment all traitors deserve.
Had it been a policy of senseless persecution, how one can account for the survival of Sanchi Stupas, Bharut from Pushyamitra’s fury? On the contrary some of the beautiful railings of these monuments were made during the Sunga rule, and a donation was made to Stupa at Bharut.
Dr. H. C. Raichaudhuri points out that Pushyamitra Sunga did not dispense with the services of his Pro-Buddhist minsters and the Court of his son was graced by Pandit Kausiki. Mahavamsa testifies to the existence of numerous monasteries in Bihar, Oudh, Malwa and adjacent provinces between 101—77. B.C. Dr. Raichaudhuri observes that Though staunch adherents of orthodox Hinduism, the: Kings of the line of Pushyamitra do not appear to have been as intolerant as some writers represent to be.
Successors of Pusyamitra Sunga:
There is divergence of opinion about the date of the death of Pushyamitra. But according to generally accepted chronology his rule ended in 148 B.C. (according some 151 B.C.) and his son Agnimitra succeeded him in the same year.
Agnimitra was Viceory of Vidisa during the reign of Pushyamitra and reduced Vidarbha to submission to Pushyamitra’s suzerainty. He is the hero of the playwright Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitra. For eight years he ruled over the Sunga dominions, but no events of this period are known. Unless the copper coins bearing the inscription Agnimitrasa in Brahmi scripts, discovered at Panchala can be ascribed to him no evidence of his time has been found.
Agnimitra was succeeded by Sujyeshtha who ruled for seven years. No information about his period is available. He was in his turn, succeeded by Sumitra in 133 B.C. Sumitra has been identified with Vasumitra, Pushyamitra’s grandson who led the escort with one hundred princes, guarding the sacrificial horse let loose by Pushyamitra and when an advance column of Mierander’s cavalry seized the horse, he defeated them.
After his accession to the throne he, already a middle aged man, lost his vigour and martial spirit of his youthful days and gave himself up to ease and pleasure. This offered an opportunity to the forces of disintegration and disruption of the empire which began to raise their ugly heads. According to Bana Sumitra, i.e., Vasumitra met with the tragic end of life being assassinated by one Mitradeva or Muladeva, while he was enjoying a concert. Muladeva or Mitradeva was the lord of Kosala’ who after killing his suzerain made himself fully independent.
According to N. K. Sastri this was the first secession from the empire and with this loss the Sunga hold on the west of Magadha was lost. Kosala was not the only part of the empire to secede. We come across coins, of rulers of Panchala, Kausambi and Mathura of about this period which presupposes that these areas also tore off from the Sugna Empire about this period. The Sugna Empire was thus reduced to only Central Indian Territories and Magadha.
According to the Puranic list the next three kings were Andhraka, Pulindaka and Ghosha. But scholars are of opinion that these names were inserted in the list due to some confusion of the editor of these texts. In fact, these three were not Sunga kings. Vasumitra was succeeded by Vajramitra in 123 B.C. and not by Andhraka. Nothing is known of the reign of Vajramitra.
He was succeeded by Bhagavata in 114 B.C. From an inscription of a fragment of a stone pillar of Bhagavata discovered at Bhilsa one Gautamiputra is credited with the setting up of a flag-staff in the honour of God Vishnu in the most important temple at Bhilsa. At Besnagar, a place two miles away from Bhilsa, on a Garuda Pillar there is an inscription which refers to the setting up of this pillar in honour of Lord Vishnu by Heliodorus, a Greek, who was sent by the Greek king Antialcidas of Taxila, in the fourteenth year of king Bhagavata.
The Garuda Pillar set up by a Greek shows the friendly relations between the Indo-Greek kings in the Punjab and the Sungas, but also the vitality of the Indian culture that influenced the highly civilised Greeks who became devotees of Indian gods. Bhagavata ruled for 32 years and was succeeded by Devabhuti in 82 B.C.
According to Bana Devabhuti was of dissolute nature, fond of women’s company. He was murdered at the instance of his minister Vasudeva, by the daughter of a female attendant disguised as a queen. Devabhuti ruled for ten years before he was assassinated in 73 or 72 B.C. The curse that had descended on the Sungas with the murder of Brihadratha by Pushyamitra pursued the dynasty and it also met with the same fate of a tragic end at the instance of another traitor regicide.
Vasudeva after contriving the murder of his master ascended the throne and founded the Kanva or Kanvayana dynasty. The Sunga dynasty was not, however, totally swept out. Vasudeva permitted the Sunga kings to rule in obscurity in the corner of their former dominions.
Importance of the Sunga Period of Indian History:
Dr. H. C. Raychaudhuri observes that “The rule of the emperors of the house of Pushyamitra marks an important epoch in the history of India in general and Central India in particular.
(i) The Greek dynasties on the borderland of north-western India sought to emulate Alexander in invading India after the fall of the -imperial Mauryas and by renewed incursions they threatened to submerge whole of Central India. But they received a check at the hands of the Sungas and had to revert to the friendly and peaceful policy during the whole of the Sunga period, of their Seleukidan precursors.
(ii) Pushyamitra’s rule is important not only for stemming the tide of foreign (Yavana) invasion but also for arresting the disintegration of the Magadhan empire which throughout the century of Sunga rule extended upto Bhilsa in central India and perhaps upto the banks of the Indus.
(iii) The Sunga period saw the beginning of the Brahmanical Hinduism as is exemplified by two horse-sacrifices at the time of Pushyamitra, which after a few centuries reached full development under the Guptas. The exaggerated stories of the cruel persecution of the Buddhists by Pushyamitra have been refuted by historians by pointing out that pro-Buddhist officers were allowed to serve under the Government and the Buddhist monuments at Bharut, Sanchi, etc. remained undemolished; on the contrary the railings of Sanchi Stupa had been added to under the Sungas. Punishment to the treacherous Buddhists who may have sided with Greeks was well deserved. The Sungas were orthodox Hindus no doubt, but there is nothing to show their intolerance to Buddhists or any other religious sect.
(iv) The inscriptions discovered at Vidisa and Ghosundi testify to the growing importance and prevalence of Bhagavata religion. Although the Sungas did not indulge in missionary activities on behalf of Hinduism, the influence of Bhagavata religion spread on the Greeks as is exemplified by the setting up of a Garuda column by a Greek named Heliodorus at Besnagar.
(v) In both art and literature the Sunga period left impress of its genius on the history of India, comparable to the glory of the Guptas. Vidisa (Besnagar) grew into an important centre of ivory and stone-carving. The ornamental stone gate at the Sanchi Stupa was the work of the artists of Vidisa. Foucher remarks that “it was the ivory workers at Vidisa who carved, in the immediate vicinity of the town, one of the monumental gates of Sanchi”.
Rockcut stupa at Bharut is the most famous monument of the Sunga period. “They (the Sungas) were responsible for the fine gateway railings which surround the Sanchi Stupas built by Asoka.” The gate and railings of the Sanchi Stupa stand even today as excellent specimens of lithic ornamental art of the Sunga period.
The Sunga period also witnessed a revival of literature specially in central India. Gonarda was the birth place of Patanjali, the greatest literary genius of the period. His Mahabhashya, a commentary on Panini’s grammar is a celebrated piece of Sanskrit literary work. This period also saw the development of Sanskrit language which gradually reached the peak under the Guptas.
II. The Kanvas (75—30 B.C.):
The plot which killed the dissolute Sunga king Devabhuti brought the contriver of the plot Vasudeva, his Brahmana minister, on the throne of Magadha. Vasudeva’s dynasty came to be known as Kanva or Kanvayana after the name of his gotra.
The chronology of the Kanva dynasty is a matter of controversy. According to Dr. Bhandarkar the Kanva dynasty should be regarded as contemporaneous with the Sungas. But the distinct testimony of the Puranas and Bana prove that the rois faneant of the Sunga stock who lingered to rule in a corner of the former Sunga empire have not been considered as the Sunga kings the last of whom, Devabhuti, was killed by Vasudeva.
Vasudeva was succeeded by three of his descendants and the entire dynasty comprising the rule of four kings covered a total period of forty-five years. Vasudeva was succeeded by Bhumimitra, Narayana and Susarman. According to Dr. Smith the short period of forty five years covered by four reigns indicates that the times were disturbed and the succession to the throne was often affected through violent means.
Although in the Puranas it is mentioned that the Kanvas would keep the neighbouring kings in subjections and would rule righteously, nothing really is known about the reign of any of the Kanva kings.
Magadha After the Kanvas:
Dr. Raychaudhuri observes that very little is known about the history of Magadha proper after the fall of the Kanvas and the veil of obscurity is not lifted till the rise of the Guptas. It is, therefore, difficult to reconstruct the history of Magadha in the intervening period of nearly three hundred years.
A number of copper coins have been discovered in Rohilkhand with names ending with ‘Mitra’, such as Agnimitra, Jethamitra, Bhumimitra as also Bhadraghosa. These kings have been identified, with the Sunga and Kanva kings of the same name. But these identifications although plausible are not definite.
It is not known in what relation these Mitra kings stood with the families of the Sungas and the Kanvas. The kings with names ending with Mitra seem to have been replaced eventually by the Scythian Satraps both in Pataliputra and Mathura, and the Scythians themselves were ultimately supplanted by the Naga and the Gupta kings.
It may, however, be concluded that some of the Mitra kings might have ruled in Magadha after the fall of the Kanvas. In any case, it will be reasonable to hold that a large number of independent states flourished in Northern India during this period.