Kushan ruler Kanishka (flourished c. 78-c. 103 A.D.) controlled an empire covering most of India, Iran, and central Asia in the first and second centuries. With his conversion to and official support of Mahayana Buddhism, the religion underwent a period of substantial growth, gaining converts throughout the Kushan realm, including parts of China. This growth was attended by a blossoming of Buddhist iconography, sculpture, and architecture.
Kanishka was the greatest ruler of the Kushan Empire, a realm that covered much of present-day India, Pakistan, Iran and other parts of central Asia and China during the first and second centuries. Under his influence, the developing religious philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism was spread to areas of central Asia and China and gained a prominent following in the areas under his control. A supporter of the arts who embraced ideas from the many peoples of his region, Kanishka also helped bring about a new era of sculpture that combined Buddhist themes with representational approaches adopted from other cultures, particularly the Roman Empire.
Almost no biographical information on Kanishka exists; what is known is primarily drawn from legends and archaeological artifacts originating during his rule. Modern scholars debate even the exact dates of his reign. For many years Kanishka was generally accepted to have flourished during the years 78 A.D. to 103 A.D., but some more recent arguments have placed him between 128 A.D. and 151 A.D. The Kushan empire was already a powerful force when he became its leader. The Kushan people had originated from a central Asian region that was the site of extensive migrations of numerous ethnic groups. Around 130 B.C., the Kushans were one of about five central Asian nomadic tribes that conquered the region of Bactria, which is now part of northern Afghanistan. Here the Kushans absorbed the Greek and Indian cultural influences that had developed in Bactria. The tribe eventually became the most powerful group in the area, and under the Kushan ruler Kujula Kadphises I, the various tribes were unified. Eventually, the Kushans moved east, adopting the Hindu Kush region of northwestern India as their home. Beginning with the rule of Kujula Kadphises, and continuing through the reign of his son, Wima Kadphises II, and then Kanishka, the Kushans gained control of a large part of India. This was a notable feat, as the area was historically unstable due to the feuding of a number of states.
It has been suggested that Kanishka may not have been of the same lineage as the Kadphises rulers. Various theories propose that he may have been a successful invader from a northern region, such as Khotan in Sinkiang, or that he may have been a leader of an Indian state who emerged victorious from a power struggle after the demise of the Kadphises line. Once he assumed power, Kanishka instituted a system of co-rule, sharing his authority with a man named Vashishka, who was probably his son or brother. Control of his huge empire was maintained by instituting a number of local governments headed by provincial governors (satraps), district officers (meridareks), and military governors (strategoi) appointed by Kanishka. Like many royal rulers, Kanishka claimed a divine heritage. This is reflected in the many titles he adopted from a number of cultures, including King of Kings," Great King," "Son of Heaven," and "Emperor." It is also evident in the Kushan practice of deifying emperors and dedicating temples to them after their death.
Under Kanishka, the Kushan empire reached its greatest heights. The center of the region was the upper Indus and Ganges river valleys in what is now Iran and India; its capital was the city of Purushapura, now the city of Peshawar in Pakistan. Kushan holdings in central Asia gave them control of a number of major trade routes and ports, and traders were charged significant fees to transport goods through these routes. The kingdom's economy thrived on the money brought in by foreign trade, creating a prosperous urban society filled with merchants and guilds. The Kushans were also enriched by the new ideas and artistic influences that they gained from their interactions with other cultures ranging as far as the Roman Empire in the west to China in the east.
Kanishka himself seems to have embodied the strong, yet tolerant and diverse Kushan culture. As depicted in sculpture and on coins of the period, he presented a forceful image; one statue of him in Mathura portrays him in the costume of a warrior. But he also took an eclectic interest in religion and the arts, as can be seen by the variety of deities that appear on his coins. Eventually, like many other Kushan people, Kanishka came to favor Buddhism, probably due to the fact that in the caste system of Hinduism, the Kushans would have held a rather low position. The Mahayana form of Buddhism was just developing at this time, and by his official support of the religion it enjoyed a rich period of growth. By providing resources for Buddhist practitioners to educate others in the faith, particularly through the spread of religious iconography, Mahayana Buddhism spread throughout central Asia and into China. Acting under Kanishka's authority, the Sarvastivadin monks, supporters of the new Mahayana Buddhism, held a religious council in which a series of Buddhist canonical writings was drafted. This work also helped to establish the fledgling denomination.
Kanishka's religious policies, combined with artistic influences arriving from the western Greco-Roman and Iranian cultures resulted in the development of a new trend in sculpture that represented Buddhist themes in a more naturalistic, popular style. The emperor was also responsible for some impressive architectural accomplishments. In Peshawar he oversaw the construction of a 638-foot tall Buddhist shrine. The building, which was known across Asia for its magnificence, was composed of a five-stage base, a second section comprised of a 13-story structure of carved wood, and the crowning detail of an iron column decorated with umbrellas of gilded copper. Kanishka is reputed to have been an enthusiastic patron of scholarship and the arts who brought scientists and writers to his court.
There is no available information about the death of Kanishka. A relic casket bearing an inscription of Kanishka, however, was found early in the twentieth century and now resides at the museum in Peshawar. Despite the dearth of concrete information, the effects of Kanishka's rule are evident in the cultural and religious history of India, China, and central Asia. The spread of Mahayana Buddhism that was made possible by his support provided a strong base for the religion. In addition, this development also affected the retention of Hinduism by many Indian people, who considered Kanishka and his religion to be a foreign presence. Research will probably never reveal a complete picture of Kanishka's life, but the numerous artistic and architectural artifacts surviving from his reign testify to his recognition of the value of the ideas and traditions of a multitude of cultures.
Basham, Arthur L., Papers on the Date of Kanishka, E. J. Brill (Leiden, Netherlands), 1968.
Davids, T. W. Rhys, Buddhist India, T. Fisher Unwin (London), 1903.
Majumdar, R. C., The History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume 2: The Age of Imperial Unity, 5th ed., Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan (Bombay, India), 1980.
Warder, A. K., Indian Buddhism, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi, India), 1970.