Kanishka (Kushan language: Κανηκι, Ancient Chinese:) was a king of the Kushan Empire in Central Asia, ruling an empire extending from Bactria to large parts of India in the 2nd Century of the common era, famous for his military, political, and spiritual achievements. His main capital was at Peshawer, Purushpura in northern Pakistan, with regional capitals at the location of the modern city of Taxila in Pakistan, Begram in Afghanistan and Mathura in India.
A great Kushan king
Kanishka was a Kushan of Yuezhi ethnicity. He probably spoke an Indo-European language related to Tocharian, and he used the Greek script in his inscriptions.
Kanishka was the successor of Vima Kadphises, as demonstrated by an impressive geneaology of the Kushan kings, known as the Rabatak inscription.
A number of legends about Kanishka were preserved in Buddhist religious traditions. Along with the Indian kings Ashoka and Harshavardhana, and the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Milinda), he is considered by Buddhists to have been one of the greatest Buddhist kings.
Kanishka’s era is now generally accepted to have begun in 127 CE on the basis of Harry Falk’s ground-breaking research. Kanishka’s era was used as a calendar reference by the Kushans for about a century, until the decline of the Kushan realm.
Conquests in South and Central Asia
Kanishka’s empire was certainly vast. It extended from southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, north of the Amu Darya (Oxus) in the north west to Northern India, as far as Mathura in the south east (the Rabatak inscription even claims he held Pataliputra and Sri Champa), and his territory also included Kashmir where there was a town Kanishkapur, named after him not far from the Baramula Pass and which still contains the base of a large stupa.
Knowledge of his hold over Central Asia is less well established. Chinese records indicate that general Ban Chao fought battles with a Kushan army of 70,000 men led by an otherwise unknown Kushan Viceroy named Xie (Chinese) near Khotan in 90 CE. Though Ban Chao claimed to be victorious, forcing the Kushans to retreat by use of a scorched-earth policy the region fell to Kushan forces in the early 2nd century. As a result, for a period (until the Chinese regained control c. 127 CE) the territory of the Kushans extended to Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand, which were Chinese dependencies in the Tarim Basin, modern Xinjiang. Several coins of Kanishka have been found in the Tarim Basin.
Controlling both the land and sea trade routes between South Asia and Rome seems to have been one of Kanishka’s chief imperial goals.
Kanishka’s coins portray images of Indo-Aryan, Greek, Iranian and even Sumero-Elamite divinities, demonstrating the religious syncretism in his beliefs. Kanishka’s coins from the beginning of his reign were written in Greek language and script and depict Greek divinities. Later coins are in the Bactrian language (the Iranian language that the Kushans evidently spoke), and Greek divinities were replaced by corresponding Iranic ones. All of Kanishka’s coins – even ones with a legend in the Bactrian language – were written in a modified Greek script that had one additional glyph (Ϸ) to represent /š/ (sh), as in the word ‘Kushan’ and ‘Kanishka’.
On his coins, the king is typically depicted as a bearded man in a long coat and trousers, with flames emanating from his shoulders. He wears large rounded boots, and is armed with a long sword similar to a scimitar as well as a lance. He is frequently seen to be making a sacrifice on a small altar.
A few coins at the beginning of his reign have a legend in the Greek language and Greek script: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΚΑΝΗšΚΟΥ, basileus basileon kaneshkou “[coin] of Kanishka, king of kings.”
Greek deities, with Greek names are represented on these early coins:
- ΗΛΙΟΣ (elios Helios), ΗΦΑΗΣΤΟΣ (ephaestos Hepaistos), ΣΑΛΗΝΗ (salene Selene), ΑΝΗΜΟΣ(anemose Anemos)
Following the transition to the Bactrian language on coins, Iranic and Indic divinities replace the Greek ones:
- ΑΡΔΟΧšΟ (ardoxsho, Ashi Vanguhi)
- ΛΡΟΟΑΣΠΟ (lrooaspo, Drvaspa)
- ΑΘšΟ (athsho, Atar)
- ΦΑΡΡΟ (pharro, personified Khwarenah)
- ΜΑΟ (mao, Mah)
- ΜΙΘΡΟ, ΜΙΙΡΟ, ΜΙΟΡΟ, ΜΙΥΡΟ (mithro, miiro, mioro, miuro, variants of Mitra)
- ΜΟΖΔΟΟΑΝΟ (mozdaooano, “Mazda the victorious?”)
- ΝΑΝΑ, ΝΑΝΑΙΑ, ΝΑΝΑšΑΟ (variants of pan-Asiatic Nana, Sogdian nny, in a Zoroastrian context Aredvi Sura Anahita)
- ΜΑΝΑΟΒΑΓΟ (manaobago, Vohu Manah)
- ΟΑΔΟ (oado, Vata)
- ΟΡΑΛΑΓΝΟ (orlagno, Verethragna)
Only a few Indic divinities were used as well:
- ΒΟΔΔΟ (boddo, Buddha),
- šΑΚΑΜΑΝΟ ΒΟΔΔΟ (shakamano boddho, Shakyamuni Buddha)
- ΜΕΤΡΑΓΟ ΒΟΔΔΟ (metrago boddo, the bodhisattava Maitreya)
Additionally, ΟΗšΟ (oesho) was long considered to represent Indic Shiva, but recent studies indicate that oesho is Avestan Vayu conflated with Shiva.
Kanishka and Buddhism
Kanishka’s reputation in Buddhist tradition is based mainly on the Buddhist tradition that he convened the 4th Buddhist Council in Kashmir.
He provided encouragement to both the Gandhara school of Greko-Buddhist Art and the Mathura school of Hindu art (An inescapable religious syncretism pervades Kushana rule). Kanishka personally seems to have embraced both Buddhism and the Persian cult of Mithra.
His greatest contribution to Buddhist architecture was the Kanishka Stupa at Peshawar, Pakistan. Archaeologists who rediscovered the base of it in 1908-1909 ascertained that this stupa had a diameter of 286 feet. Reports of Chinese pilgrims such as Xuan Zang indicate that its height was 600 to 700 (Chinese) “feet” (= roughly 180-210 metres or 591-689 ft.) and was covered with jewels. Certainly this immense multi-storied building ranks among the wonders of the ancient world.
Kanishka is said to have been particularly close to the Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha, who became his religious advisor.
The Buddhist coins of Kanishka are comparatively very few (well under one percent of all known coins of Kanishka). Several of them display Kanishka himself on the obverse, and the Buddha standing on the reverse, in Hellenistic style. A few also show the Shakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya. Like all coins of Kanishka, their design is rather rough and proportions tend to be imprecise, and the image of the Buddha is slightly corrupted, as seen in the huge oversize ears, and the feet spread apart in the same fashion as the Kushan king, indicating a rather rough imitation of pre-existing Hellenistic images.
Three types of Kanishka’s Buddhist coins are known:
The standing Buddha in Hellenistic style, bearing the mention “Boddo” in Greek script, holding the left corner of his cloack in his hand, and forming the Abhaya Mudra. Only six Kushan coins of the Buddha are known (the sixth one is the centerpiece of an ancient piece of jewelry, consisting in a Kanishka Buddha coin decorated with a ring of heart-shaped ruby stones). All these coins were minted in gold under Kanishka I, but are quite small (about the size of an obol) compared to the other gold coins of Kanishka.
The Buddha is represented wearing the monastic robe, the antaravasaka, the uttarasanga, and the overcoat Sanghati.
The ears are extremely large and long, a symbolic exaggeration possibly rendered necessary by the small size of the coins, but otherwise visible in some later Gandharan statues of the Buddha typically dated to the 3rd-4th century CE. He has an abundant topknot covering the usnisha, often highly stylicized in a curly or often globular manner, also visible on later Buddha statues of Gandhara.
In general, the representation of the Buddha on these coins is already highly symbolic, and quite distant from the more naturalistic and Hellenistic images seen in early Gandhara sculptures. On several design, a mustache is apparent. The palm of his right hand bears the Chakra mark, and his brow bear the urna. An aureola, formed by one, two or three lines, surrounds him.
The “Shakyamuni Buddha”
The Shakyamuni Buddha (with the legend “Sakamano Boudo”, ie Shakamuni Buddha, another name for the historic Buddha Siddharta Gautama), standing to front, with left hand on hip and forming the abhaya mudra with the right hand. All these coins are in copper only, and usually rather worn.
The gown of the Shakyamuni Buddha is quite light compared to that on the coins in the name of Buddha, clearly showing the outline of the body, in a nearly transparent way. These are probably the first two layers of monastic clothing the antaravasaka and the uttarasanga. Also, his gown is folded over the left arm (rather than being held in the left hand as above), a feature only otherwise known in the Bimaran Casket and suggestive of a scarf-like uttariya. He has an abundant topknot covering the ushinisha, and a simple or double halo, sometimes radiating, surrounds his head.
The “Maitreya Buddha”
The Bodhisattva Maitreya (with the legend “Metrago Boudo”) cross-legged on a throne, holding a water pot, and also forming the Abhaya mudra. These coins are only known in copper and are badly worn. On the clearest coins, Maitreya seems to be wearing the armbands of an Indian prince, a feature often seen on the staruary of Maitreya. The throne is decorated with small columns, suggesting that the coin representation of Maitreya was directly copied from pre-existing statuary with such well-known features. The qualification of “Buddha” for Maitreya is inaccurate, as he is instead a Bodhisattva (he is the Buddha of the future). This may indicate a limited knowledge of Buddhist cosmology on the part of the Kushans.
The iconography of these three types is very different from that of the other deities depicted in Kanishka’s coinage. Whether Kanishka’s deities are all shown from the side, the Buddhas only are shown frontally, indicating that they were copied from contemporary frontal representations of the standing and seated Buddhas in statuary.Both representations of the Buddha and Shakyamuni have both shoulders covered by their monastic gown, indicating that the statues used as models were from the Gandhara school of art, rather than Mathura.
The “Kanishka’s Casket” or “Kanishka reliquary”, dated to the first year of Kanishka’s reign in 127 CE, was discovered in a deposit chamber under Kanishka’s Stupa, during the archeological excavations in 1908-1909 in Shah-Ji-Dheri on the outskirts of Peshawar. It is today at the Peshawar Museum, and a copy is in the British Museum. It is said to have contained three bone fragments of the Buddha, which are now housed in Mandalay, Burma.
The casket is dedicated in Kharoshthi. The inscription reads:
- “(*mahara)jasa kanishkasa kanishka-pure nagare aya gadha-karae deya-dharme sarva-satvana hita-suhartha bhavatu mahasenasa sagharaki dasa agisala nava-karmi ana*kanishkasa vihare mahasenasa sangharame”
The text is signed by the maker, a Greek artist named Agesilas, who oversaw work at Kanishka’s stupas (caitya), confirming the direct involvement of Greeks with Buddhist realizations at such a late date: “The servant Agisalaos, the superintendent of works at the vihara of Kanishka in the monastery of Mahasena” (“dasa agisala nava-karmi ana*kaniskasa vihara mahasenasa sangharame”).
The lid of the casket shows the Buddha on a lotus pedestal, and worshipped by Brahma and Indra. The edge of the lid is decorated by a frieze of flying geese. The body of the casket represents a Kushan monarch, probably Kanishka in person, with the Iranian sun and moon gods on his side. On the sides are two images of a seated Buddha, worshiped by royal figures. A garland, supported by cherubs goes around the scene in typical Hellenistic style.
The attribution of the casket to Kanishka has been recently disputed, essentially on stylistic ground (for example the ruler shown on the casket is not bearded, to the contrary of Kanishka). Instead, the casket is often attributed to Kanishka’s successor Huvishka.
Kanishka in Buddhist tradition
In Buddhist tradition, Kanishka is often described as a violent, faithless ruler before his conversion to Buddhism, as in the Sri-dharma-pitaka-nidana sutra:
- “At this time the King of Ngan-si (Pahlava) was very stupid and of a violent nature….There was a bhikshu (monk) arhat who seeing the evil deeds done by the king wished to make him repent. So by his supernatural force he caused the king to see the torments of hell. The king was terrified and repented.” Śri-dharma-piṭaka-nidāna sūtra
Additionally, the arrival of Kanishka was reportedly foretold by the Buddha, as well as the construction of his stupa:
“. . . the Buddha, pointing to a small boy making a mud tope….[said] that on that spot Kaṇiṣka would erect a tope by his name.” Vinaya sutra
The same story is repeated in a Khotanese scroll found at Dunhuang, which first described how Kanishka would arrive 400 years after the death of the Buddha. The account also describes how Kanishka came to raise his stupa:
“A desire thus arose in [Kanishka to build a vast stupa]….at that time the four world-regents learnt the mind of the king. So for his sake they took the form of young boys….[and] began a stūpa of mud….the boys said to [Kanishka] ‘We are making the Kaṇiṣka-stūpa.’….At that time the boys changed their form….[and] said to him, ‘Great king, by you according to the Buddha’s prophecy is a Saṅghārāma to be built wholly (?) with a large stūpa and hither relics must be invited which the meritorious good beings…will bring.”
Chinese pilgrims to India, such as Xuanzang, who travelled there around 630 CE also relays the story:
“Kaṇiṣka became sovereign of all Jambudvīpa (Indian subcontinent) but he did not believe in Karma, and he treated Buddhism with contumely. When he was hunting in the wild country a white hare appeared; the king gave a chase and the hare suddenly disappeared at [the site of the future stupa]….[when the construction of the stūpa was not going as planned] the king now lost patience and threw the [project] up….[but] the king became alarmed, as he [realized] he was evidently contending with supernatural powers, so he confessed his errors and made submission. These two topes are still in existence and were resorted to for cures by people afflicted with diseases.”
Transmission of Buddhism to China
Kanishka’s expansion into the Tarim Basin probably initiated the transmission of Buddhism to China.
Buddhist monks from the region of Gandhara played a key role in the development and the transmission of Buddhist ideas in the direction of northern Asia from the middle of the second century CE. The Kushanmonk, Lokakshema (c. 178 CE ), became the first translators of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese and established a translation bureau at the Chinese capital Loyang. Central Asian and East Asian Buddhist monks appear to have maintained strong exchanges for the following centuries.
Kanishka was probably succeeded by Huviska. How and when this came about is still uncertain. The fact that there were other Kushana kings called Kanishka is just another complicating factor.