The following points highlight the top three foreign invasions on North-West India. They are: 1. Greek Invasions and their Effect 2. The Sakas (Scythians) and the Parthians (Pahlavas) 3. The Kushanas and Emperor Kanishka.

Foreign Invasion # 1. Greek Invasions and their Effect:

One of the causes of the downfall of the Maurya dynasty was the invasion of the Greeks from towards the North-west of India. At that time, the Greeks were called the yavanas by the Indians, the word which was used as a synonym of mlechchha and indicated every foreigner afterwards. The Greek invasion under Alexander had remained limited only up to the Punjab and had failed to affect Indian polity and culture.

But this time the Greeks succeeded in penetrating into India as far as the Ganges-Yamuna-Doab. After the Greeks, the Sakas, the Parthians and the Kushanas also penetrated deep into India towards the East and the South. Thus, these invasions proved more successful and, thereby, more effective. The aim of these invaders was also different from the aim of Alexander.

While Alexander desired to keep Indian territories as part of his empire and govern them with the help of Indian rulers, the Greeks, the Sakas, the Parthians, and Kushanas who invaded India during this period desired to settle in India as their homeland. The Indians, on their part, converted them to their religion, accepted them in their society and, thus, encouraged them all to settle down here.


Thus, in turn, all of them became Indians. Therefore, K.M. Panikkar has not accepted them as foreign invaders. He has regarded them simply as immigrants. The merger of these foreigners into Indian society and religion certainly affected Indian society and culture, the like of which could not be possible during the Greek invasion under Alexander.

The vast empire of Alexander was parceled out between his governors and its eastern part fell to the lot of Seleucus who was a contemporary of Chandra Gupta Maurya. .After the death of Seleucus, the eastern empire too was divided.

In the third century B.C. independent kingdoms were established in Parthia and Bactria. The attempt of the emperor Antiyochus III, the Great of Syria to conquer Parthia and Bactria also failed and he practically acknowledged the independence of both the countries.

While making peace with Euthydemus of Bactria, he also married one of his daughters to Demetrius, son of Euthydemus. Antiyochus, then, proceeded towards India. One of the frontier rulers of India, Subhagasena, accepted his sovereignty and presented him a number of war elephants. Antiyochus did not proceed into Indian mainland and went back. Then, Euthydemus attacked the north-west frontier of India but he also failed to penetrate into Indian territory. He died in 190 B.C.


Euthydemus was succeeded by his son Demetrius who succeeded in conquering Punjab and probably Sindh also. Demetrius seemed to have attacked as far as Rajasthan and borders of Pataliputra in the East. But while he was busy with his Indian campaigns, his throne at Bactria was occupied by Euckratides near about by 175 B.C. Euckratides even snatched away the territories west of the river Jhelum from Demetrius.

The Royal Houses of Euckratides and Demetrius constantly fought against each other in India where they remained for about two centuries. These internal conflicts of the Greeks gave Pushyamitra Sunga the opportunity to check them on the banks of river Sindhu (Indus).

The Greeks were driven out of Bactria by the Sakas and were forced to take shelter in Afghanistan and the Western Punjab where they ruled for nearly two centuries. More than thirty names of these Indo-Greek rulers are known from the coins.

But the fact that there existed about thirty rulers after Demetrius and Euckratides during a period of less than two centuries suggests that some of them ruled contemporaneously with others in different parts of the Greek dominions.


Amongst these Indo-Greek rulers Menander has been regarded as the greatest ruler. He probably belonged to the dynasty of Demetrius. He was a powerful king and seems to have ruled about 115-90 B.C. He is identified with king Milinda or Milindra in Indian history. His name has become famous because of the Buddhist text Milinda-Panha. The text is in the form of a dialogue between the king Milinda and the Buddhist monk Nagasena.

Nagasena was responsible for the acceptance of Buddhism by the king who, ultimately, proved himself as a scholar and patron of Buddhism. Milinda created a vast empire in India. His coins have been found in large numbers in the valleys of Kabul and Sindhu and also in the Western districts of Uttar Pradesh.

According to Dr D.C. Sarkar the empire of Milinda included Central Afghanistan, North-West Frontier Province, Punjab, Sindh, Rajasthan, Kathiawar and some western districts of Uttar Pradesh.

His capital was Sakala (Sialkot), a flourishing city of beautiful buildings and strong defences. Buddhist texts describe Milinda as a just and scholarly king. Plutarch says that he enjoyed great popularity with his subjects and upon his death diverse cities contended for the possession of his ashes.

Besides Menander, another Indo-Greek king is mentioned in an epigraphic record found at Besnagar. The inscription records that the king of Taxi la. Heliodours (Antialcidas) erected a garuda-dhvaja in honour of Lord Vasudeva (Vishnu). This king, probably, belonged to the dynasty of Euckratides and had Taxila as his capital.

Little is known about other Indo-Greek rulers. Their internal dissensions and the invasions of the Sakas, Parthians and Kushanas doomed them, both in Afghanistan and India. In the first century A.D. even their last vestiges were wiped out from the Indian soil.

These later invasions of the Greeks certainly affected Indian culture in a few fields while the Greeks also learned something from the Indians. The Greeks were primarily influenced by the Indian philosophy and religion and many of them accepted Buddhism or Hinduism as their religion.

The Indians, in their turn, were benefited by the knowledge of the Greeks in astronomy, art of coinage and sculpture. That the Indian astronomy was influenced by western system is clear from the acceptance of their debt by Gargi Samhita.

It states, “the yavanas are indeed barbarians, but astronomy originated with them and for this they must be venerated as gods.” The great Indian astronomer Varahamihira also acknowledged the debt of Greek-astronomy. The Indians learnt the art of coins from the Greeks. The Greeks were the first who introduced coins in India with names and portraits of rulers who issued them.

The Indian rulers followed their example and issued coins of similar type though, comparatively, their quality remained inferior. The art of sculpture was also affected by the Greeks. The Gandhara school of sculpture which reached its zenith during the period of the Kushanas was primarily influenced by the Greek art of sculpture. At one time, it was accepted by scholars that the Gandhara school was the only source of inspiration for every school of Indian sculpture.

Though this claim has been refuted now, the Gandhara school has an important place in the history of Indian sculpture. Certain scholars have maintained that compilation of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata during later period, the Indian drama and medical science were also influenced by the Greeks. But it is a debatable point. The influence of the Greeks on Indian literature is negligible while Indian dramas are quite different from Greek dramas.

The same is the case with Indian medical science. From the political point of view, no doubt, the Greeks cleared the way for the Sakas, Parthians and Kushanas. Thus, in a few fields the debt of the Greeks to Indian culture is acknowledged.

It was possible because the Indians and the Greeks remained in contact with each other over a long period due to their mutual trade and political relations. But, more than that, the cause of mutual learning by the two was that the Greeks remained in India as their homeland for nearly two centuries during this later period.

Foreign Invasion # 2. The Sakas (Scythians) and the Parthians (Pahlavas):

In the second century B.C. the Hunas turned out the Yueh-chi nomadic race from western China. The Yueh-chi moved towards the West and put pressure on the Sakas. The Sakas, in their turn, moved towards the South and destroyed the Hellenistic monarchy of Bactria. Later on, they proceeded south and east and after capturing Sakastan (Seistan) entered India in various bands through different routes.

The Sakas, before their entry- into India, lived for a considerable period of time in Bactria and Iranian Sakastan and, primarily, it were the Sakas of eastern Iran and Bactria who occupied the western part of Northern India. The Sakas, first of all, settled down in the lower valley of the river Indus, the area which was called the Saka-dwipa at that time. Afterwards they penetrated into different parts of India.

One of the earliest Saka rulers mentioned in Indian inscription is Maues (20 B.C.). He occupied large parts of north-western India. Gandhara and west Punjab were certainly under his rule while towards the East, the territories, as far as Mathura, were occupied by him.

He was succeeded by Azes (Aya: 5 B.C.-30 A.D.) who conquered the rest of the territories of the Punjab. Azes was succeeded by Azilises and Azes II respectively. Afterwards, the place of the Sakas was taken by the Parthians (Saka-Pahlavas).

The Sakas and the Parthians cannot be distinctly distinguished from each other. They have been treated as people of the same race in Indian literature. However, it seems that the Parthians were those Sakas who had lived under the Parthian rulers for a long time in Parthia and rose to power only afterwards.

But by that time they had received a good deal of admixture of blood. Afterwards, they proceeded towards India and were able to capture Indian territories of the Sakas. Thus, originally the Parthians were also the Sakas, though because of their long stay in Parthia and mixure of blood with the local inhabitants they were preferably called the Parthians.

The first Parthian (Saka-Pahlava) ruler was Vonones who established an independent kingdom in East Iran after Mithradate II, the ruler of Parthia. His empire extended upto south Afghanistan and he entered into matrimonial relations with the Saka-dynasty of Maues.

There greatest Indo-Parthian ruler was Gondaphernes who extended his empire in East as far as Punjab But while the Indo-Parthians succeeded in eliminating the power of the Sakas in India they, in turn, were eliminated by the invading Kushanas a little later.

As the Sakas and the Parthians (Saka-Pahlavas) have been regarded as the people of the same stock in Indian literature, it has been found difficult to distinguish the rulers and the kingdoms of the two. The Indians treated them as one for all purposes. These Sakas and the Saka-Pahlavas established many different kingdoms in India. The rulers of these kingdoms were called Kshatrapas.

Among these Kshatrapas, the Kshatrapas of Taxila, Mathura, Nasik and Ujjayini became the most renowned. The existence of their kingdoms in different parts of North-west India proves that they had not only succeeded in completely eliminating the kingdoms of the Greeks in India but also had exten­ded their territories farther than that.

They had conquered the entire North-West Frontier of India, Punjab, Sindh, Saurastra, Kathiawar, Rajputana, Central India, Malwa, Maharashtra, North Konkan, Western Uttar Pradesh and probably Kashmir.

The Sakas fought against the Satavahanas also and, later on, entered into matrimonial alliances with them. In the first century A.D . the Sakas and the Parthians were overpowered by another invading race, the Kushanas. The Kushanas captured most of their territories, however, their western Kshatrapas in Malwa and Kathiawar Peninsula who owed allegiance to the Kushanas continued to rule for a long time even after the fall of the Kushanas.

Thus, it is clear that though the Kushanas had snatched away the overlordship of North­west India from the hands of the Sakas and the Parthians they had not totally uprooted their numerous principalities under subordinate chiefs.

After the downfall of the Kushanas, the western Kshatrapas of the Sakas again rose to power, particularly under the rule of king Nahapana and king Rudradaman who successfully waged wars against the Satvahanas of the south. They were finally finished only by the rulers of the Gupta dynasty.

The Sakas and the Parthians did not affect Indian culture in any way. Rather, after the extinction of their political power, they were completely merged into the Indian society.

Foreign Invasion # 3. The Kushanas and Emperor Kanishka:

The Kushanas proved to be the most important invader of this time and amongst the Kushanas emperor Kanishka ruled as the greatest ruler.

The Yueh-chi tribe was turned out of China by the Hunas near about 165 B.C. After being defeated when it moved towards the South-West, it came in conflict with the Sakas. It defeated the Sakas and established itself in Bactria and the valley of the river Oxus. There the Yueh-chis left their nomadic habits and lived there for long years though they divided themselves into five principalities or branches.

The Kushanas were one of those branches. Thus, the Kushanas were a branch of the Yueh-chi tribe. Eastern scholars have maintained that the Kushanas were a branch of the Sakas. However, it is not accepted though certainly, there was mixture of blood of the Yueh-chi and the Sakas in them.

Kujula Kadphises or Kadphises I, the first well-known ruler of the Kushanas, united the five Yueh-chi principalities under him. He conquered Gandhara and southern Afghanistan. He was the first king to strike coins to the south of Hindukush. He was succeeded by his son Kadphises II or Vema Kadphises who extended his authority to the Indian interior. His Indian empire included Punjab and part of Uttar Pradesh.

He was a great ruler whose territories touched the boundaries of the empires of Rome and China. His coins bear the imprint of the images of Lord Siva and Nandi which proves that he had accepted Hinduism. However, amongst the Kushana rulers who occupied a place among Indian rulers, the greatest one was emperor Kanishka.

I. Emperor Kanishka (78-101 or 102 A.D.):

Kanishka has been accepted as an Indian ruler. His capital was Punishapura (Peshawar), well within the frontiers of India. Kanishka was the Kshatrapa (Governor) of the eastern Indian empire of Vema Kadphises. When Vema Kadphises died, there ensued struggle between Kshatrapas of his different provinces in which, ultimately, Kanishka succeeded.

Thus, Kanishka was intimately connected with the Indian soil from the beginning of his rise to power and started his career of conquest from Uttar Pradesh. Besides, by that time, the Kushanas were completely Indianised and so was Kanishka. Therefore, he has been rightly accepted as an Indian King.

Kanishka was a great conqueror and succeeded in establishing a vast empire whose boundaries extended far beyond the frontiers of India. There is a difference of opinion with regard to the period of his rule. According to Dr R.C. Majumdar, Kanishka ascended the throne in 248 A.D. while Dr Bhandarkar has opined that it was the year 278 A.D.

Both the opinions have been rejected by the majority of modern historians. Mr Marshall, Dr V. A. Smith and Mr Cono have opined that he sat on the throne either in 125 A.D. or 144 A.D. But after consulting the Chinese and the Tibetan sources and reviewing the dates of accessions of other Indian rulers, modern scholars have rejected their opinions as well.

Mr Fergusson, Dr Rakhaldas Banerjee, Mr Rapson and Mr Oldenburg, however, have described that Kanishka ascended the throne in 78 A.D. And the majority of scholars have accepted that his regime began in the year 78 A.D. and he started the Saka Era which commenced from the first year of his regime, i.e., 78 A.D. Details of the conquests of Kanishka are not available but it is believed that his empire extended from Uttar Pradesh or probably Bihar in the East to Khotan and Khorasana in the West and from Kashmir in the North to Konkan in the South.

Thus, it included Bihar, U.P., Malwa, Rajputana, Saurastra, part of north Maharashtra, Sind. Punjab, Kashmir, the entire north-west of India, Afghanistan and part of Central Asia. Its boundaries in the North-West touched the boundaries of the empires of Iran and China. Most of it was conquered by Kanishka himself because it is believed that when he ascended the throne he possessed only a part of Central Asia, Afghanistan and a part of Sindh as territories of his kingdom.

However, probably, his army was once defeated by a Chinese general Pan-Chao. Some years later he himself led another expedition across the plateau of Pamir to avenge his former defeat. He was successful against the Chinese but was killed by his own soldiers and commanders during this very expedition. His soldiers had become tired of constant fighting and therefore, revolted and killed him. Yet his military successes prove that he was a great commander and conqueror.

Kanishka was a capable administrator. He kept his vast empire intact during his life-time. He himself ruled the territories around his capital, Purushpura (Peshawar) while his Kshatrapas (governors) ruled over distant provinces under his directions.

These provincial governors enjoyed vast powers in relation to their territories, yet there is no evidence of any revolt against the Emperor. Provincial governors were posted at Mathura, Banaras, Kausambi, Ayodhya and North­western Province of India during the time of Kanishka. Peace and order prevailed in the vast empire of Kanishka.

Kanishka issued good coins. The script inscribed on them was not Kharoshthi as had been the case with the coins of earlier foreign rulers. The script on them was sometimes a corrupt form of Greek and sometimes Persian. His gold coins were similar to the coins issued by Roman emperors on which his own image was inscribed on the right side while on the reverse side image of some god or goddess was inscribed.

Although Kanishka is regarded as a Buddhist, the reverse of his coin types represents Greek. Sumerian, Persian. Elamite and different Indian deities, which appears to point out the various forms of religion that prevailed in the different parts of his vast empire. Some copper coins depict him offering sacrifice to a goddess.

Sanskrit language and literature flourished under the patronage of Kanishka. His court was the centre of learning and great scholars of that time gathered there. Asvaghosha, Parsva, Vasumitra and Sangharaksha who were great scholars of that time were at his court. Nagarjuna, the great exponent of Mahayanism and the celebrated physician of his age, Charaka also flourished at his court.

Mathara who was a shrewd politician of his age was his minister and the Greek engineer Agesilaus looked after his construction works. The religious texts of Mahayanism sect were mostly prepared by his court scholars. Asvaghosha wrote the Saudernanda-Kavya, the Buddha-Charita and the Sariputra-Prakrana. When king Kanishka held the fourth Buddhist council, commentaries were written on the Tripitakas and were compiled in a text called the Mahavibhasa which has been regarded as the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism.

Nagarjuna wrote his texts named the Prajan-Pramit-Sutra-Shastra and the Mahavibhasa-Shastra. The same way writings of Vasumitra and Sanghraksha have been regarded scholarly writings of this age. As all of them were written in the Sanskrit language, it helped in the progress of language and literature of Sanskrit.

The empire of Kanishka extended up to Central Asia in the west. Therefore, it helped in maintaining mutual political, cultural and trade relations between India and its western neighbours as far as China and the Roman empire.

India maintained brisk trade with western states both by sea and land. The Indians exported luxury articles to the Roman empire and brought back so much gold to their country that the Roman scholar, Pliny expressed regrets at the plunder of gold of his country by the Indians.

This favourable foreign trade and peace and order within the country resulted in increased prosperity to Indians. Kanishka was a patron of arts. The stupa and the monastery built by him at Peshawar excited the admiration of Chinese and Muslim travellers many centuries after his death. He built a town near Taxila and probably, the town of Kanishkapura in Kashmir was also established by him.

Buddhist literary tradition affirms that Kanishka became a convert to Buddhism at the beginning of his reign. In Peshawar he erected a monastery and a stupa. He summoned the fourth and the last General Council of the Buddhists which was held in Kashmir or Jalandhar. Its deliberations were guided by Vasumitra and Asvaghosha. In this very Council the great split of Buddhism took place which divided it into major sects, the Hinayana and the Mahayana.

The new sect was called the Mahayana and it was this sect which was accepted by Kanishka as his religion. Kanishka helped in the propagation of this new sect within and outside the borders of India. He sent missionaries to distant lands for propagation of Mahayanism. It raised the status of Buddhism in India and it also spread into distant lands as far as Central Asia, Tibet, China and Japan.

It was Mahayanism which made Buddhism the foremost religion of Asia at one time and it was Kanishka who helped in starting this process, that is why it has been rightly observed that what Asoka was to Hinayanism, Kanishka was to Mahayanism.

Yet, Kanishka and other Kushana rulers were very much tolerant in religious affairs. Kadphises I, probably, was a Buddhist. Vema Kadphises or Kadphises II was a Saiva. Kanishka accepted Buddhism while after him Vasudeva was a Saiva. This proves the liberal religious tradition of Kushana kings. All of them provided protection to all religions including Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism irrespective of their personal religions.

The reverse part of the coins of Kanishka bore imprint of different images of gods and goddesses of various Indian, Greek, Sumerian and Persian gods. Kanishka had established a vast empire which was inhabited by people of different faiths and he and other Kushana rulers had the wisdom to respect each of these religions so as to command faith of all their subjects.

The one basic feature of the age of Kanishka in the field of religion had been the establishment and propagation of Mahayanism but equally important had been the increasing popularity of the Bhagvatism sect of Hinduism. And, both encouraged the Bhakti-marg of traditional Hindu philosophy to attain salvation of the soul.

Architecture, painting and the art of sculpture progressed during the period of the Kushanas. Kanishka built many monasteries, stupas, rock-edicts and rock- pillars for the propagation of Buddhism. The mural paintings of Ajanta-caves began to take shape during this period. But the greatest success was achieved in the field of sculpture. The Gandhara school of sculpture grew and progressed during this period.

For the first time the images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas were built in India. The Gandhara school was very much influenced by the Greek or Hellenistic art of sculpture. Therefore, the images of Buddha were built so beautifully that these could be favourably compared with the images of Apollo, the Greek god of beauty. Besides, the Mathura and the Amravati schools of sculpture also grew up during this age and beautiful pieces of sculpture were built at different places under these different schools.

It was a novel experiment in India in the field of sculpture. Of course, the entire credit for the progress in the field of sculpture and other arts does not go to Kushana rulers. Further, it also cannot be maintained that the progress in different fields of arts reached its perfection during their period.

But, certainly a good beginning was made and success achieved in many fields and it could be possible because the Kushana rulers established a vast and prosperous empire, maintained order and peace within its boundaries, provided facilities of contacts with foreign countries, pursued a policy of religious toleration and, thus, created those circumstances which helped in the growth of fine arts and literature.

Therefore, the period of Kushana rulers occupies an important place in the history of India and amongst the Kushana rulers Kanishka certainly has a place of primary importance. He built a strong and vast empire and administered it well. The close contacts with the western world during his period helped in economic and cultural progress in India.

He created conditions which helped in the progress of various fine arts, literature and religion that achieved perfection in the age of the Guptas. Describing the cultural achievements of the period of the Kushanas it has been commented that the Kushana age was a period of great literally activity. It is proved by the works of Asvaghosha. Nagarjuna and others.

It was also a period of religious ferment and missionary activity. It witnessed the development of Saivism and the allied cults of Kartrikeya, of the Mahayana form of Buddhism and the cults of Mihira and Vasudeva Krishna, and it saw the introduction of Buddhism into China by Kasyapa Matanga (61-67 A.D.). The dynast) of Kanishka opened the way for Indian civilization to Central and Eastern Asia.

And, there is no doubt that Kanishka had contributed a lot to this progress. Therefore, he rightly deserves an honoured place not only amongst the Kushana rulers but also among the great rulers of India.

II. The Successors of Kanishka:

Kanishka was succeeded by Vasishka who, probably, was his son. But his rule was short-lived. He ruled only for four years, i.e., 102-106 A.D. He was then succeeded by Huvishka (106-138 A.D.) His relationship with Kanishka or Vasishka is not clear. Probably he was a great grandson of Kadphises I. Huvishka was a capable ruler but, probably he lost his hold over the lower Indus valley which seems to have been occupied by the great Saka Satrap Rudradaman.

He was a patron of Buddhism and built a splendid monastery at Mathura. During his period, another ruler named Kanishka II seemed to have ruled jointly with him for some time. Kanishka II, probably, was the son of Vasishka. The next and the last important Kushana king in India was Vasudeva I who ruled between 145-176 A.D. But by his time the power of the Kushanas had declined.

Though nothing is known about the extent of his empire, probably, in India, it was limited only to Uttar Pradesh and North Western provinces. Most of the coins of Vasudeva exhibit the figure of Siva with his Nandin. Therefore, it has been suggested that he was a Saiva.

The Kushana power declined in India shortly after the reign of Vasudeva. By the middle of the third century A.D. the Kushana power was left limited only to the Punjab. N.W.F.P. and Afghanistan. Their history after Vasudeva is also obscure. Though there were Kushana rulers up to fourth, fifth and even ninth century A.D., they were not mighty kings of an empire but rulers of small kingdoms who owed their allegiance to other overlords.

The later Kushana rulers proved incapable and failed to maintain the unity of the empire. The different provincial governors and local dynasties threw off their supremacy and established independent kingdoms. The Sakas in Western and Central India, the Nagas in Mathura and its nearby regions, Daudheyas in the valley of the river Sutlej in Punjab, the Malavas in Rajputana and the Siladas in the North-West succeeded in establishing their independent kingdoms and the mighty Kushana empire broke into pieces.

The powerful neighbours also drew advantage from the weakness of the Kushanas. The Sassanian Emperors of Persia started extending their power towards the East near about the middle of the third century A.D. and succeeded in conquering the central part of the Kushana empire in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

The Kushana rulers of the North-West seemed to have accepted the suzerainty of the Sassanian emperors. However, in the fourth century A.D. the supremacy of the Sassanians was replaced by that of the Gupta rulers.

But the Kushana rulers existed and they were regarded as notable powers in the North­west even in the middle of the fourth century A.D. They continued to exist even afterwards and fought against the Hunas and the Muslims later on. But the mighty empire of the Kushanas was lost forever. The Kushana’s rule was finally exterminated even from the North-West by the Hindushahi dynasty of Afghanistan and the Punjab in the ninth century A.D.