In this article we will discuss about the role of sungas and kanvas of magadha in Indian history.

The Sungas (187-75 B.C.):

I. Pushyamitra (187-151 B.C.):

The Buddhist text, Divvavadana described that the Sungas belonged to the Maurya-family. But historians do not accept this view. The majority of them described that Pushyamitra, the founder of the Sunga dynasty in Magadha was a Brahamana. However, they have differed concerning their Kula. In his text, Malvikagnimitra, Kalidas described that the Sungas belonged to Bembic-family of the Brahamanas.

The Bembic Brahamanas have been regarded belonging to Kasyapa-gotra. But the majority of the scholars do not accept this view. They have opined that the Sungas belonged to Bharadwaj- gotra of the Brahamanas.


Pushyamita was the commander-in-chief of the army of the last Maurya ruler Brihadratha. By that time, the Mauryas had lost not only their power but prestige also and their empire was reduced because of the successful revolt of the Satavahanas (Andhras) in the South and intrusion of the Greeks in their North-West territories.

Brihadratha was also an incapable ruler and lost influence over his army. Pushyamitra once assembled the army and requested the king to inspect it. At the time of inspection, Pushyamitra assassinated Brihadratha before the army and usurped the throne of Magadha.

Pushyamitra tried to consolidate the remaining territories of the Magadha empire and he succeeded. The South, being already lost, his territories extended only up to the river Narmada in the South while in the North-West he could check the intrusion of the Greeks at the banks of river Indus.

Pushyamitra succeeded in defeating Yajnasena, the king of Vidarbha (Berar). Yajnasena had declared himself independent of Magadha. He was attacked by Agnimitra, son of Pushyamitra who was the governor of Vidisa at that time. Yajnasena was defeated and, eventually, Vidarbha was divided between the two cousins, Yajnasena and Madhavasena, under Pushyamitra as their suzerain.


But the primary achievement of Pushyamitra was to check the penetration of the Greeks in India. The Greeks had already occupied the North-West in India and had succeeded in attacking upto Ayodhya during the period of Brihadratha.

Pushyamitra had succeeded in defeating them even at that time and their further intrusion in India was checked. Probably, this had been the basic reason of his popularity among the soldiers of Magadha which helped him in usurping the throne itself.

When he became the king, he pursued the task of fighting against these foreigners. The one big invasion of the Greeks was led by king Demetrius but it was successfully repulsed by Vasumitra, son of Agnimitra. Pushyamitra performed two Aswamedha (horse-sacrifice) vajnas and probably both of them were performed after his success against the Greeks. During his time the Greeks could not proceed into India beyond the river Indus.

Dr V. A. Smith and Dr Jayaswal have described that Pushyamitra fought a war against king Kharvela of Kalinga and was defeated. Dr Satyaketu Vidyalankar has also agreed with this view. But Dr H.C. Ray Chaudhry and Dr R.S. Tripathi have proved that Kharvela was not a contemporary of Pushyamitra and so there was no question of any war between them. The majority of historians accept their view.


Pushyamitra supported Brahamanical religion and revived its traditions. The Buddhist texts the Aryamanjusrimulakalpa and the Divyavadana describe that he destroyed Buddhist monasteries, killed the monks and during his course of march to Sakala (Sialkot in Punjab) declared a prize of one hundred gold coins on the head of each monk. But, there is no independent evidence to prove this charge. Of course, the Sungas were strong supporters of Brahamanical religion but they were not intolerant of Buddhism.

The great Buddhist stupa at Bharhut was erected during the reign of the Sungas. If Pushyamitra and his descendants had been the destroyers of Buddhist monasteries then it could not be possible. E.B. Havell has opined that even if we accept the version of Buddhist-texts that Pushyamitra destroyed Buddhist monasteries, he did so not for destroying Buddhism but for breaking their political power as these had become its centres.

Pushyamitra has been branded as a traitor to his master by some historians but deposition of a weak ruler by a stronger contestant was a rule at that time. Pushyamitra was not an exception. The weak Maurya rulers had lost their right to rule because of their incompetency. The Maurya empire was disintegrating because of its own weaknesses and had become an easy prey to foreign invasions by the Greeks.

Pushyamitra succeeded in repulsing the foreign invasions and also in checking further disintegration of the empire. Therefore, his actions justified his usurpation of the throne. The success of Pushyamitra against the Greek invasions is enough to justify not only his claim over the throne but also his right to rule.

II. The Successors of Pushyamitra:

According to the Puranas there were nine other rulers of the Sunga dynasty. Pushyamitra was succeeded by his son Agnimitra. Besides, Sujyestha, Vasumitra, Bhagvata were other rulers of this dynasty. Its last ruler Devabhumi or Devabhuti was killed by his minister Vasudeva who laid the foundations of the rule of the Kanva dynasty in Magadha.

III. The Importance of the Sunga Dynasty:

The rule of the Sunga dynasty in Magadha, for more than a century, was important in many aspects. It checked the further disintegration of the Magadha empire and atleast kept its central part intact. It also checked the further intrusion of the Greeks in the mainland of India. Besides, the process of revival of Brahamanical religion and the Sanskrit language started with the rule of the Sungas.

The great grammarian Patanjali was a contemporary of Pushyamitra. The Manu-Smiriti the Vishnu-Smiriti and the Yagvavalka-Smiriti were compiled during this age. The Mahabharat was also written at this time. Dr K.M. Panikkar has expressed the view that the great Sanskrit scholar.

Kalidas, was a contemporary of Agnimitra though it has not been accepted by other scholars. The period also witnessed the growing influence of the Bhagvata religion and drew converts even from among foreigners particularly the Greeks.

The arts, particularly architecture, also progressed during this period. The stupa of Bharhut, some additions to Buddha-Gaya-Stupa and the gates and boundary wall of the stupa at Sanchi were built during this age, which have been regarded as fine specimens of architecture.

It is also believed that a new school of architecture grew up at Vidisa which remained the capital of later Sunga rulers. Thus, the rule of the Sungas positively contributed to the betterment of the then Indian polity and culture.

The Kanva Dynasty (75-30 B.C.):

The last ruler of the Sungas, Devabhumi was killed by a slave-girl at the instruction of his minister Vasudeva who established the rule of the Kanva dynasty in Magadha. The rulers of this dynasty, namely, Vasudeva, Bhumimitra, Naravana and Susarman ruled for 9. 14. 12 and 10 years respectively.

Very little is known about the history of the Kanvas and their successors. However, it is accepted that the Andhras from the South conquered Magadha and destroyed the rule of the Kanvas and when they left Magadha, it was divided into several small kingdoms which existed till the establishment of the Gupta empire.