King Kanishka (Cheu-tan Kia-ni-cha in Chinese historical records) is considered to be one of the greatest kings of Kushana dynasty of ancient India. The Kushana were a nomadic tribe who had split from the Yueh-chi tribes. The Yueh-chi originally lived in Mongolia before they established themselves in Bactria. Kanishka strengthened and expanded his ancestral empire successfully. He ruled from Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) in the west, to Patna in the Ganges Valley in the east, and from the Pamirs (now in Tajikistan) in the north to central India in the south. The time period in which King Kanishka is mentioned in Chinese historical sources especially Buddhist writings, is from 78 to 144 AD.

Kanishka was neither a Hindu nor did he patronize Hinduism. He was a converted Buddhist and was tolerant to all other religions in his empire. His coins show that he honored the Zoroastrian, Greek and Brahmanic deities. But he is mostly remembered as a great patron of Buddhism and for convening the fourth great Buddhist council in Kashmir, which marked the beginning of pantheistic Mahayana Buddhism. According to Chinese sources, commentaries on the Buddhist canon were prepared and engraved on copper plates during this council. These texts have survived only in Chinese translations and adaptations. During Kanishka’s reign contacts with the Roman Empire led to a significant increase in trade and exchange of ideas. Contact between Kanishka and the Chinese in Central Asia may have inspired the transmission of Indian ideas, particularly Buddhism, to China.

His greatness lies not only in the great conquests he made but also in developing art and culture associated with the name of Gandhara. Undoubtedly, the most remarkable example of the fusion of eastern and western influences in his reign was the Gandhara School of art, in which Greco-Roman classical lines are worth seeing in the images of the Buddha. His court became a grand center of literary activities and his capital city, Peshawar (Purusapura) attracted people from far and near.

This article was last updated on Monday, Jan 03, 2005