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Inarch Center Publication

Kanishka and the Spread of Buddhism

InArchCenter ID: - IACABN0028


The Kushan’s originated from a central Asian region that was the site of extensive migrations of numerous ethnic groups. Around 130 BC, the Kushan’s were one of about five central Asian nomadic tribes that conquered the region of Bactria (Today’s 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, under the Kushan ruler Kujula Kadphises 1. 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 2 and then Kanishka. The Kushans gained control of a large part of India.

The territory of the Kushans extended to Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand which were in the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang).


The Kushan ruler Kanishka flourished in c. 78 BC – 103 CE controlled an empire covering most of India, Iran and Central Asia as well as Pakistan and China in 1st and 2nd century CE. Under his influence, the developing religious philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism was spread to areas of Central Asia and China gained a prominent following in the areas under his control. A supporter of the acts who embraced ideas from many peoples of his reign, Kanishka also helped in bringing about a new era of cultures, particularly the Roman empire. The Kushan empire became a powerful force when Kanishka became its leader.

Emperor Kanishka was a Kushan of Yuezhi ethnicity. He spoke an Indo – European language related to Tocharian and followed the Greek script in his inscriptions. Kushan empire also included Kashmir where a town Kanishkapur is named after him.1



In Chinese, Kanishka is spelt as Chia – ni- se- chia. Most of what is known about Kanishka derives from Chinese sources, particularly Buddhist writings when Kanishka came to the throne is uncertain. His accession has been estimated as occurring between 78 and 144 CE; his reign believed to have lasted for 23years. The year 78 marks the beginning of the Shaka era, a system of dating that Kanishka has initiated.

Through inheritance and conquest, Kanishka’s kingdom covered an area extending from Bukhara (Uzbekistan) in the west to Patna in the Ganges river valley in east and from the Pamirs (Tajikistan) in the north to central India in the south. His capital was Puruspura (Peshawar, Pakistan).

Contact between Kanishka and the Chinese in Central Asia have inspired the transmission of Indian ideas, particularly Buddhism to China. Buddhism first appeared in China in the 2ndcentury CE. As a patron of Buddhism, Kanishka is chiefly noted for having convened the fourth great Buddhist Council in Kashmir, which marked the beginnings of Mahayana Buddhism. At the council, according to Chinese sources, authorized commentaries on the Buddhist canon were prepared and engraved on copper plates. These texts have survived only in Chinese translations and adaptations.


There are so many legendary stories about Kanishka preserved in Buddhist religious scriptures. He was equally admired as Asoka, Harshavardhana and into Greek Menander 1. He followed the Buddhist tradition and was also considered one of the greatest Buddhist kings. The brilliant administrative efforts made others follow the Kanishka’s era and was generally accepted to have begun in 127 CE on the basis of Harry Falk’s groundbreaking research. Kushan’s used Kanishka’s era as a calendar reference by the Kushan king for about a century until the decline of Kushan empire.2


Kanishka was a tolerant king and his coins show that he honoured the Zorastrian, Greek and Brahmanic deities as well as the Buddha. During his reign, contacts with the Roman empire via the silk road led to a significant increase in trade and exchange of ideas; perhaps the most remarkable example of the fusion of eastern and western influence and his reign 3was the Gandhara school of art, in which classical Greco- Roman lines are seen in the images of the Buddha.4


The King’s reputation was largely discussed in Buddhist Scriptures. He followed Buddhist tradition and encouraged the Gandhara school of Greco – Buddhist art and the Mathura school of Hindu art. King Kanishka personally maintained religious equality. He had embraced both Buddhism and the Persian cult of Mithra. He maintained a close relationship with the Buddhist Scholar Asvaghosa and later he became a religious advisor.


The standing Buddha, holding the left corner of his cloak in his hand and forming the Abhaya Mudra. All these coins were minted in small size and in gold. On the coins, the Buddha represented wearing a monastic robe. The eras are extremely large and long and have an abundant topknot covering Usnisha. Later these styles were carved on the Buddha statues of Gandhara. Several coins of Kanishka are found in the Tarim Basin.


The archaeological excavations were held during the year 1908 – 1909 in Shah-Ji-Dheri on the outskirts of Peshawar. The Archaeologists discovered it in a deposition chamber under Emperor Kanishka stupa. It is today at the Peshawar Museum. It contains three bone fragments of the Buddha which are now in Mandalay, Burma. The casket is decorated with Buddha and his worshipping. The lid of the casket shows the Buddha on a lotus pedestal and worshipped by Brahmana and Indra. The body of the casket represented the king with the Iranian sun and Moon gods. On the sides of the casket, two images of a seated Buddha worshipped by royal figures.


In the beginning, the king was a very violent, faithless ruler and merciless tyrant. Once he embossed Buddhism he tried to spread peace all over like Asoka. The conquest of the Tarim basin caused the transmission of Buddhism to China. Probably, in 2nd century, the Buddhist monks play a key role in the development and spreading the Buddhist teachings and ideas in the direction of Northern Asia. Kanishka had scholars in his court; Nagarjuna was a philosopher, Asvaghosa was a Buddhist poet, Vasumitra was a Buddhist scholar and Charaka was a physician.

Under Kanishka, Pakistan and Afghanistan became a cradle of Mahayana Buddhism. Numerous stupas and monasteries were built in Gandhara. Attracting Pilgrims from China, they were decorated with statues of Buddha and bodhisattvas and scenes from the life of historical Buddha himself and his previous life. As Mahayana developed Buddha himself became the object of worship. The Swat valley was a major centre of Tantric Buddhism. Many tantras (manuals for mystical acts) were developed here. From Gandhara, Buddhism was carried by traders and pilgrims along silk road into China, Tibet and Central Asia. Buddhist engravings dating back to these periods can be seen on the rock faces along the Karakoram highway. Buddhism took hold in the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan where it remained strong until the 10th century CE.

Kushan art was a unique fusion of Indian, Central Asian, Buddhist and Greco- Roman styles. Particularly, noteworthy were the representations of Buddha in human form. The most famous of these is the fasting Buddha with its exposed ribcage, skeletal limbs. Some Gandharan style of Buddha has western features.


Overall we get to know that Kanishka was a great ruler of the Kushan dynasty who was almost similar to The Mauryan Emperor Asoka but later on when he came in contact with the thoughts of Buddha he started changing himself and found peace within oneself. He also believed in secularism as his coins are the evidence. On either side he was a great patron of Buddhism and contributed his life in spreading Buddhism through art and architecture, developing art schools like Gandhara school of art and Mathura school of Hindu art. He started spreading Buddhism through trade routes also especially through the silk route which made Buddhism spread in China too. During the reign of Kanishka, Mahayana Buddhism started developing.

Therefore, we could say though Kanishka was a great emperor he was a great patron of Buddhism and due to which he is notified as one of the greatest Buddhist kings.

Bibliography: -

1. https://www.encyclopedia.comm/Kushanakingkanishka





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