The Kushan Period
100 - 200 AD
Praise the Horde
The label Kushan is used for the cultural group which came to dominate the region of Pakistan, Afghanistan and north-west India from the first century of this era onwards. Kushan is the name which appears upon the coins of the dynasty. It is often associated with the Kueh-Shan section of the great Yu-Chi horde. Chinese sources tell us this is the group that came to dominate the horde and who eventually conquered much of India; however, some scholars have argued on the basis of etymologies, that the Kueh-Shan was a group already present in Bactria (Afghanistan) before the arrival of the Ta Yu-chi.
Regal Gandharan Buddha
Gandhara was a central region of Kushan influence. It was located in northern India south of the Hindu Kush, at the convergence of the rivers that form the Indus. The area is now part of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Gandhara was also the site of several Greek kingdoms before falling under Parthian and Kushan domination in the first century AD. The region quickly became an important center for new artistic trends during the rise of the Kushans. This new artwork produced some of the first stone images of the Buddha, which were strongly influenced by classical Greek and Roman sculpture (as can be seen in the picture above).
Although Buddhist monks had been a common sight in India and Bactria for several centuries before the arrival of the Kushan invaders from Central Asia, Buddhist theology changed considerably. The Kushans began the division of practicioners into monks and laity, with monastic meditation strongly emphasized for monks. Desire for total enlightenment coupled with an abiding belief in reincarnation ushered in a new era of piety. This brave new path to salvation appears to have been highly favoured by the fourth Kushan king, Kanishka the Great, though some historians argue to this day that he never fully converted to Buddhism. Buddhism would slowly decline as a religion in India by the end of the Kushan period in the third century AD. Bactria reverted back to the Persians, and Hinduism reasserted itself in the land of Gautama Buddha. The rest, as they say, is history.
Kanishka the Great
Kanishka was the most famous of the Kushan kings. It is not known how he became the king, but he ascended the throne in AD 120. When he inherited the kingdom, his empire consisted of Bactria (Afghanistan), Sind, Punjab and portions of the former Parithan and Bactrian kingdoms. He extended his empire from the north-west into Kashmir and over most of the Gangetic valley. Kanishka also annexed three provinces of the Chinese empire, and was the only Indian king to ever rule over these territories. He had two capitals, one at Purushpura (Peshawar now in Pakistan), and another at Mathura in west Uttar Pradesh, India. At Purushapura he eventually built a famous towering monument to house relics of Buddha. You would think that relics of Buddha would have been hard to come by after Ashoka built thousands of stupas centuries earlier. Buddha must have been an avid nail clipper, or else the dust mites didn't get everything.
Buddha Becomes God
Kanishka embraced Buddhism towards the middle of his reign. He is said to have been Zoroastrian before he became a Buddhist. He spent his royal resources in spreading the dharma far and wide. Mahayana was the new form of Buddhism that was practiced during this historical period where the Buddha was literally worshipped as God. Old monastries were repaired, and many new ones were built to accomodate the growing flock. Buddhism had not seen such a comeback since the reign of Emperor Ashoka in the thrid century before Christ.
A Patron of Art and Commerce
Kanishka was a great patron of art and commerce. A new form of Buddhist art, Gandhara Art, was developed. Beautiful stone images of Buddha were fashioned in a Greek-Roman style. These images were carved in a realistic way, with graceful bodies and curly hair. Kanishka also developed the Bamiyan area of Bactria (Afghanistan) into a major religious and commercial centre (Silk Road). The smaller of the two Buddha statues of Bamiyan, recently destroyed by the Taliban, was built during Kanishka's reign. The much larger statue, sadly no more, was built two centuries later. Pilgrims from all over the ancient Buddhist world poured into Bamiyan to admire its spectacular artifacts and sacred sites. Bamiyan eventually fell to the Islamic scourge in the 9th Century, with the Taliban finishing the job in our brave new millennium. Such is the cult of hatred and ignorance that still prevails in a mystical world that has seen great men and buddhas come and go.
Ardour in the Court
Kanishka's royal court was adorned by many scholars like Ashvaghosha, Vasumitra, Nagarjuna and Charak. Ashvaghosha was a great poet and a master of music. He wrote Buddhacharita, a biography of the Buddha. Charak was a great physician and he wrote a book, Charak Samhita, which is based on the Ayurvedic system of medicine. Great men are generally surrounded by great men who come to share in the greatness of the times. Kanishka's reign is believed to have lasted 23 years. Through inheritance and conquest, he spread and fostered the noble teachings and spectacular new iconography of the Prince of Peace. Kanishka was a tolerant king, and his coins show that he honoured the Zoroastrian, Greek, and Brahmanic deities as well as the Buddha. During his reign, friendly and productive contacts with the Roman Empire led to a significant increase in trade along with an open exchange of ideas. The Gandhara school of art would not have risen to the heights that it did without his wise rule. No wonder many scholars have stated that the Kushan period was the most important period in the history of Buddhism and its iconography.
Carrying the Torch
Kanishka historically played the part of a second Ashoka to the Indian people, and as a result, the Buddhist arts once again evolved and flourished in brave new places like Gandhara and Mathura. Buddhism rapidly spread to Central Asia and China under Kanishka's auspicies, and he is historically noted for having convened the fourth great Buddhist council in Kashmir that marked the beginnings of Mahayana Buddhism. All these facts must be mentioned in the wake of the recent tragic events in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Those two blatantly unpretentious statues were part of the civilized world's cultural heritage, and harkened back to a time when rulers of true religious vision like Kanishka, and Ashoka before him, perceived the inherent greatness of the Saviour of the World, Lord Buddha.
Various notes appended and edited