The life of Kanishka, one of the great kings of ancient India, is documented by Chinese sources, inscriptions and coins.

The date of Kanishka was the subject of a two-day seminar in 1913 which fixed it at 58 A. D. The genesis of a debate among historians may never cease. The traditional date of Kanishka, 78 A. D. , is the beginning of the Saka era. Britannica has him flourishing circa 120 A. D. Other scholars have his reign starting as late as 140 A. D. Whatever the date of Kanishka, it is agreed that he ruled 23 years and that his realm included Kashmir and Afghanistan. He was a Kushan (Kuie-Shuang), belonging to one of the five tribes into which the Yue-Chi (Indo- Scythians) were divided after their occupation of Bactria.

Kanishka is thought to have been the successor of Kadphises II, the Kushan ruler who conquered parts of the Indian interior, set up a governor to rule in his name and then became a convert to Saivism. In his time Kanishka increased his domain so that ultimately it extended from Bukhara on the west to Pataliputra on the east and the Pamirs in the north to central India in the south. His capital was at Purushapura (Peshawar).

He was a patron of the arts, as were many of the great kings of ancient India, but his fame rests chiefly on his patronage of Buddhism. He expended large sums toward the construction of Buddhist monuments and convened the fourth Buddhist council at Jullundur under the leadership of his teacher, Vasumitra. The beginning of Mahayana Buddhist is thought to date from this council. The council was called because Kanishka was confused by the many different views expressed by monks who visited him daily. In the Chinese historical records is this account:

“In the 400th year after the Nirvana of Tathagata, Kanishka, king of Gandhara, at the proper time having fulfilled his destiny, his royal influence reached far, so that distant peoples adhered to him. In his spare moments amidst the affairs of government he always studied the Buddhist sutras, and daily invited one monk to enter the palace and to expound the doctrine. But because different explanations of the doctrine were held by the various sects, the king was filled with doubt, and he had no way to remove his uncertainty . . . .

“The king the issued an edict to assemble saintly and wise men from far and near. Thereupon people from the four quarters came together like the spoke at the hub . . . “The proceedings of the council were engraved on copper plates.

Kanishka was tolerant of all religions because his coins honoured Brahmanic, Zoroastrian and Greek gods — and the Buddha.

Suggested Further Reading

  • Narain, A. K.
    From Alexander to Kanishka. — Varanasi : Banaras Hindu University, 1967.
    vi, 117 p. , plates ; 26 cm. — (Department of Ancient Indian Culture & Archaeology. Monographs ; No. 1)