History has recognized Kanishka as one of the greatest monarchs of ancient India.
As a conqueror, an empire-builder, a patron of Buddhism, and a promoter of culture, Kanishka played an important role to earn that distinction.
Though of foreign origin, Kanishka became an Indian in very sense of the term. Even though he ruled over vast territories outside India, he ruled over them as an Indian king.
He was also the only Indian King to have ruled over an extensive region of Central Asia and to have conquered lands beyond the Pamirs. As a conqueror, he undoubtedly played a most heroic part.
His empire also went by its distinctive character. The Kushana Empire in fact was the largest empire in India after the fall of the Maurya Empire and before the rise, of the Gupta Empire. Politically, Kanishka linked up his Indian territories with Central Asia. In order to maintain his supremacy over the external conquests, he established his capital in the north-west at Purushapura or Peshawar. That he gave his empire a sound administration is evident from the fact that there were no internal revolts during his rule. His continuous conquests also show that he maintained a mighty army.
There was no external invasion or internal unrest because of his power. True to the traditions of the ancient Indian monarchy, Kanishka tried for the unification of as much of India as possible and succeeded in bringing large portions of the northern, the north-western and the western India under his imperial authority. The real greatness of Kanishka rests on his role as a Buddhist. Like Asoka, he took up the cause of Buddhism in true missionary spirit.
He built stupas, monasteries, relic towers, chaityas, and other Buddhist monuments in great numbers. Like Asoka, Kanishka also held a Buddhist Council to give the Buddhist Samgha new direction, and to settle religious disputes and controversies. As Asoka opened path for the missionaries towards Ceylon, Myanmar and South-East Asian countries, Kanishka prepared ground for missionary activities in Tibet, China and Japan. In a sense, Kanishka followed the traditions and examples of Asoka for the propagation of Buddhism beyond the boundaries of India.
Of course, there were differences between the two. Asoka, after his conversion to Buddhism renounced war and violence. But, Kanishka did not do so. He believed in wars and conquests even as a Buddhist King. Asoka preached the Hinayana form of Buddhism true to the sayings of Buddha.
In that form, the best way to honour Buddha was to follow His Teachings of eternal value, and not to worship his mortal personality in shape of images. It was the symbols of Buddha which gave meaning to the devotees to follow His doctrines. But, in changed circumstances, Kanishka adopted Mahayana form of Buddhism which believed in the worship of the images of Buddha. He preached this new doctrine which appealed to the people of that time both inside and outside India.
With similarities and differences between the two great Buddhist monarchs, Kanishka is given the second place to Asoka in the history of Buddhism as a missionary religion. As a builder and a patron of art and learning, Kanishka also rendered great services to the country of his adoption. He developed several cities of India like Taxila, Purushapura, and Mathura. He also built new cities like Kanishkapura near Srinagar in Kashmir.
The court of Kanishka was one of the best royal courts of ancient times with the most illustrious persons to adorn it. By patronising men like Asvaghosha, Vasumitra, Charaka and Nagarjuna, Kanishka demonstrated his own genius as a great king. Similarly, by his liberal policy towards other religions, he manifested the true spirit of Indian culture which went by assimilation and synthesis of different faiths.
Last but not the least, Kanishka’s encouragements of the Gandhara Art opened up a vast opportunity for the evolution of the Indian artistic genius. For all these distinctions Kanishka occupies a high position among the rulers of India. He is remembered today for the foundation of the Saka Era which has been accepted for the National Calendar of India.
Kushana Art-Gandhava School of Art: Mathura School of Art:
The Kushana art of Gandhara was the outcome of a synthesis between the Hellenistic art of the west and native Buddhist traditions. The Gandhara artists were inspired by the Greek ideal of Apollo. So the Gandhara school of Art is described as an eastern expansion of Hellenistic civilization mixed with Indian taste and elements. Hellenistic motifs are noticed in Gandhara School of Art.
Gautama Buddha was one of the greatest reformers in history. He realized the decline of the Rig-Vedic religious faith and social oneness of men, and raised his voice against the vices of the time. More than the Fatherhood of God, Buddha preached for the Brotherhood of Men’. Buddha denied the infallibility of the Vedas, the supremacy of the Brahmanas, worship of divinities and religious ceremonies. He made Buddhism as simple as possible. It was a faith in moral values and purer life.
For six hundred years since Buddha, His religion existed as the Hinayana form of Buddhism in which Buddha was not a God. Only some Buddhist symbols like the ‘Eternal Wheel of Law’ or the Bodhi Tree were venerated by the Buddhists. The missionary-emperor Asoka preached the Hinayan system inside India and also in outside countries like Ceylon, Myanmar and South-eastern Asia.
Times, however, changed. By the time of the rule of the Kushana Emperor Kanishka during 1st century A.D., his empire covered a larger part of Central Asia, Tibet, parts of China, besides, of course, northern India. Kanishka was a Buddhist. His capital was at Purusliapura, near modern Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province.
As the second greatest Buddhist Emperor in Indian History, Kanishka tried to preach Buddhism among the people of his vast empire outside the natural frontiers of India. Buddhist missionaries were sent to central Asian countries, to Tibet and towards China to propagate the moral principles of Buddhist Faith. But, the simple-minded people of all place wanted a God to worship, not spiritual lessons of a religion. In other words, they wanted the images, icons and idols of the Buddha more than Buddha’s tenets.
In order to solve this critical problem, Kanishka summoned learned Buddhist philosophers and scholars from all over the country together in a great assembly. The learned men of Buddhism, in their debates and discussions, finally decided in favour of a new system of Buddhism, named as the Mahayana. Buddhism thus got divided into two parts, the Hinayana and the Mahayana. While the Hinayana system remained as the religion of Ceylon, Myanmar and south-eastern Asia, the Mahayana form of Buddhism spread in Tibet, China and later on in Japan.
The new form of Buddhism adopted the Buddha as a God. Images of the Lord were required in great many number. Along with Buddha Images, there was also the need of the images of Buddhist divinities like the Bodhisattvas and figures of the Jataka stories. Hundreds of sculptors were required to carve in stone thousands upon thousands of Buddhist images. Around Kanishka’s capital and in eastern Afghanistan, known as Gandhara in those days, the process of artistic activities began.
Out of those hectic activities there emerged a new style of art, famous as the Kushana Art of Gandhara or the Gandhara School of Art. The artists or sculptors of those areas were very much nearer to the Greek world and were influenced by the Hellenistic or the Greek style of image-making. The artists were engaged by the Kushana monarchs who had themselves come from outside. They were acquainted with several races like the Seythians.
Bactrian Greek, the Shakas and the Chinese. It was natural for them to adopt cosmopolitan attitude. They therefore encouraged the Gandhara sculptors to work in their own way. Their style, thus, came to be known as Graeco-Buddhist form of art.
In Greek art, even divine figures looked like human figures with muscle. While carving Buddha Images, the Gandhara artists made Greek divinities like Apollo as their model for imitation. The Buddhist images thus looked somewhat different from what they could have looked according to Indian religious traditions of grace, serenity and spirituality. The Bodhisattva images of the Gandhara school were shown with royal dresses and ornaments. Some of the Bodhisattvas were dressed in dhoti with folds.
Their head-dresses were artistic and ornamental. Among the many Bodhisattva figures, the most attractive were the images of Avalokitesvara, Padmapani, Manjusri and Maitreya. They were shown in standing postures or in sitting postures of meditation. Numerous images of other Buddhist divinities were constructed in Gandhara. So much was the influence of the Greek style that one of the large-sized statues of a Buddhist divinity was shown with a moustache.
Though countless Buddhist images, big or small, were carved by the Gandhara school, yet the art remained confined to a limited area. The period of its glory was also brief.
It goes to the credit of the Gandhara builders that they constructed a huge stupa at the order of Kanishka near his capital. It was built in form of a tower. It was 700 feet in height and contained 13 storey’s. It was like a wonder of ancient times. Huge pillars and columns were decorated with ornamental sculptures. The Chinese’s pilgrim Hiuen-tsang who saw it six centuries after Kanishka regarded it as the greatest monument he had seen.