Pushyabhuti, the founder of the dynasty to which Harsha belonged, was a devotee of Siva. Harsha’s father, Prabhakara Vardhana “offered daily to the Sun a bunch of red Lotuses”.
Harsha’s brother Rajya Vardhana and sister Rajyasri were deeply attached to the Hinayana form of Buddhism. And, Harsha himself turned into a strong believer in Mahayana Buddhism.
The religious beliefs of Harsha’s family are like a reflection of the general religious beliefs of the Indian people in 7th century A.D.
Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the various cults of those two religions, were already so much nearer to each other that people accepted them all with intense devotion. A synthesis of religious ideas was taking place within a broad spiritual outlook.
By the time of Harsha, the Puranic Hinduism was sweeping over India in full force. The Hindu gods and goddesses had come to dominate the religious faith of the people. Buddha’s images were also worshipped by the Hindus along with the images of their major gods. Hiuen Tsang, though a Buddhist himself, and proud to have counted about two lakhs of Buddhist monks in India during his travel, was impressed to see the predominance of the Brahminic religion. Sanskrit was the language of both Buddhist and Brahminical scholars. Idol worship had become common with the Mahayan Buddhists and the Hindus.
Within the Puranic Hinduism, there were many sects. Gods like Vishnu, Siva, and Surya were prominently worshipped. Though Buddhism was already heading towards decline, its hold on the popular imagination was still considerable. Jainism was confined to a few places like Vaisali and its former holy centres.
One thing was certain in these conditions that the Indians of that time were perfectly free to practice their faiths as they liked. There were of course religious controversies, but there was no religious dogmatism or fanaticism. An individual also could be a believer in different faiths. Members of the same family could belong to different sects while living together. It was no doubt a time of religious assimilation and spiritual synthesis.
In his religion, Harsha represented this kind of liberal spirit of his time. His ancestors were Saivites, his father was a devotee of the sun, and his brother was a Buddhist. Harsha became a devotee of all the three, Siva, Surya, and Buddha.
In the later part of his reign, however, Harsha became an exponent of the Mahayana form of Buddhism. It is suggested that his strong liking for Mahayanism was due to his close association with Hiuen Tsang, famously described as the Chinese ‘Master of the Law’. There is no doubt that Hiuen Tsang was a vastly learned Buddhist. By his time, the whole of China and the Chinese population had come under the hold of the Mahayana Buddhism. Hiuen Tsang visited India, the birth place of Buddha and the holy land of Buddhism, to study more of that religion and to understand more and more of its philosophy.
His influence on Harsha became profound. Harsha, too, paid him high honour. Few kings in history had paid so much attention to a foreign divine as did Harsha towards Hiuen Tsang. This was because of their mutual devotion to a common religion. It is said that Hiuen Tsang’s exposition of Mahayanism deeply impressed Harsha.
But, though Harsha became devoted to Buddhism, he did not come out of the fold of Hinduism completely. In his religious activities, as described in detail by Hiuen Tsang, Harsha is seen paying deep devotion to the Hindu deities. His respect for all faiths and sects was the most noteworthy feature of his religion. The two memorable assemblies which Harsha held, and to which Hiuen Tsang was an intimate witness, give a picture of Harsha’s religion. Brief accounts of those assemblies are presented below.
The Kanauj Assembly:
In the year 643 A.D., Harsha held a great religious assembly in his capital at Kanauj on the bank of the river Ganges. The purpose of the assembly was to highlight the teachings of Buddha. On that occasion, Harsha also wanted to honour the Chinese Master of the Law, Hiuen Tsang.
This grand function was attended by twenty tributary kings, including the kings of Kamarupa Bhaskara Varman from the extreme east, and the King of Vallabhi Dhruvasena from the extreme west. Three thousand Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhists, three thousand Brahmins and Jainas, and one thousand Buddhist scholars from the University of Nalanda attended this assembly. Harsha himself proposed the name of Hiuen Tsang to take the chair. The subject of discussion in the assembly related to Mahayana Buddhism. The assembly continued for long 23 days.
From the accounts of Hiuen Tsang it is known that a splendid monastery with a shrine was constructed, on the bank of the Ganges for the purpose of the assembly. There, on the huge tower, 100 feet high, a golden image of Buddha equal to the height of Harsha himself was kept for the view of the large gathering. A smaller image of Buddha, 3 feet in height was every day carried in a procession, joined by all the 20 kings, and with 300 elephants. In that procession, Harsha himself, appearing as god Sakra, held the canopy on the image. The King of Kamarupa, dressed as the god Brahma, waved a white fly-whisk around the image.
As the procession progressed, Harsha scattered golden flowers, pearls and gems on all sides for showing honour to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. At the end of the procession, Harsha used to wash the image in his own hands at the altar, and carry it on his own shoulders to be placed at the appropriate tower. There, the image was dressed in many silken robes, decorated with gems.
Harsha’s devotion to the image of Buddha in the Kanauj Assembly clearly proves his deep attachment to Mahayana Buddhism. The Hindu gods like Sakra and Brahma were shown as the attendants of Buddha in a symbolic way, since Buddha was considered as an incarnation of Vishnu.
The Kanauj Assembly was marred by two unfortunate incidents. Those incidents also show that many in that assembly did not like Harsha’s extraordinary favour to the Chinese Master of the Law, and to the Mahayana faith. The first incident relates to a threat to the life of Hiuen Tsang. Coming to know of it, Harsha issued a proclamation to warn the intolerant ones : “If anyone should touch or hurt the Master of the Law, he shall be forthwith executed, and who ever speaks against him, his tongue shall be cut out; but all those who desire to profit by his instructions, relying on my good will, need not fear this manifesto”.
The second incident relates to an attempt on the life of Harsha himself. One night a monastery on the site of the assembly suddenly caught fire, and Harsha himself came out to put it down. As he was coming down the steps of a stupa from where he supervised that work, a fanatic with a dagger rushed towards the emperor to assassinate him.
He was caught, and he confessed that he had been set to kill the king for his favour to Buddhism. Following the investigation 500 Brahmins were arrested and they confessed their guilt. They were all exiled from the country for their act of treason against the King.
These incidents show that Harsha’s attempts to give a new vitality to Buddhism by being its royal patron did not carry much appeal to the Hindu mind in those declining days of Buddhism. Once that religion had come nearer to Hinduism both at intellectual and popular level, its exclusive predominance was out of question. Harsha could not have recalled the old spirit of Buddhism to the India of his time.
Nine hundred years separated Harsha from Asoka. The latter, while patronising Buddhism, laid absolute emphasis on the ethical aspects of Buddha’s religion. Harsha, by championing the Mahayana Buddhism, laid emphasis on the worship of the image of Buddha. As Puranic Hinduism also accepted Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, there was no novelty in the royal patronage of a decadent faith in India, even if it was in full vigour outside.
The Prayaga Assembly:
The Kanauj Assembly was followed by another spectacular assembly at Prayaga in the same year. While the Kanauj Assembly was a religious assembly to highlight Mahayanism, the Prayaga Assembly was an assembly of universal character for offerings of royal charities to all classes of people. It was known as the Maha Moksha Parishud. Harsha was at his best in the Prayaga Assembly as a generous monarch and an admirer of all the major faiths of his country.
The Prayaga Assembly saw a huge gathering of people. The Emperor came there with Hiuen Tsang, and the kings of twenty countries. The site of the assembly was on the vast expanses of sands at the meeting place of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. Half a million people, summoned from the distant corners of the ‘Five Indies’ attended this unique assembly to receive gifts from the king. The ceremonies lasted for 75 days. Every arrangement was made for the accommodation and food of such a big multitude.
Harsha held this assembly every five years for donating gifts to people. The assembly which Hiuen Tsang saw at Prayaga in 643 A.D. was the sixth Moksha Paris had of Harsha’s reign.
On the first day of the Prayaga Assembly, an image of Buddha was worshipped amidst distribution of valuables. On the second day was worshipped the image of Surya. And, on the third day, the image of Siva was worshipped.
There after followed the many days of gift making to thousands upon thousands of Buddhists, Brahmanas, Jainas, and the followers of other faiths. Next followed the giving of alms to the mendicants, to the poor, the orphans, and the destitute. The Prayaga Assembly finally closed after 75 days.
Hiuen Tsang describes the conclusion of the ceremony in the following words:
“By this time the accumulation of five years was exhausted. Except the horses, elephants, and military accouterments, which were necessary for maintaining order and protecting the royal estate, nothing remained. Besides these the King freely gave away his gems and goods, his clothing and necklaces, ear-rings, bracelets, chaplets, neck jewel and bright headjewel, all these he freely gave without stint. All being given away, he begged from his sister (Rajyasri) an ordinary second-hand garment, and having put it on, he paid worship to the Buddhas of the ten regions, and rejoiced that his treasure had been bestowed in the field of religious merit”.
History does not present another example of a king who gave away his wealth so freely to the believers and the needy as did this king. Harsha’s munificence at the Prayaga Assembly was not described by a court-poet, but by a foreign pilgrim who saw the science and wrote on them in his far-away home in China, having no reason to flatter him either for favour or out of fear. Soon after the Prayaga Assembly, Hiuen Tsang left for home, and travelling through long distances, finally reached China in 645 A.D. Within the next two years, early in 647 A.D., Harsha Siladitya died.