ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS           home | history

Fragmented India, 185 BCE to 321 CE

Invasions into what had been the Mauryan empire began roughly two years after the military coup in 185 BCE led by the military commander Pusyamitra. In the year 180, an ethnically Greek king, Demetrius of Bactria (today northern Afghanistan), followed the footsteps of Alexander through the Khyber Pass and extended his power into the northern Indus Valley, where he began what was to become a series of wars.

Pusymitra ruled 36 years, and Buddhist texts were to describe him as having persecuted the Buddhists. He began a dynasty of his own, the Shunga dynasty. To 87 BCE there were ten Shunga rulers, and there were numerous wars within the Shunga empire and outside powers, with the Shunga empire pushed back to India's northeast. The Brahman Kanva dynasty ruled in India's central (Deccan plateau) region beginning perhaps around 75 BCE.

There were Laws of Manu, a text on duties, rights, laws, conduct and virtues said to express the values of the Brahman priesthood. It claimed that authoritarian rule and class privilege were best for everyone, that one should give no pain to any creature but that without punishment inferior people would "take the place" of their superiors, that the castes would be corrupted by intermixture, that "all barriers" would fall and "men would rage against each other." It held that a female married was to be under the authority of her husband, that she was to remain cheerful, clever in the management of her household affairs, careful in using utensils, economical in spending, to do nothing independent of male authority.

By 155 BCE, another Greek king from Bactria was expanding into northwest India. This was Menander. He replaced the line of seven Greeks kings that had followed Demetrius I. Menander has been described as establishing an empire as far east as what today is Lahore and as having sent an army through the Ganges Valley as far as Pataliputra (Patna), from which he had to withdraw. The Greek geographer Strabo was to write that he "conquered more tribes than Alexander the Great." He is said to have converted to Buddhism and to have lived to 130 BCE.

The last of the Greek kings in the northwest of India was Hermaeus (reign 90-70 BCE). He was unsuccessful in defending his rule from attacks by the Scythians, Eurasian nomads from around the Caspian Sea who had overrun Bactria. In Greek-ruled in India they maintained an Indo-Greek culture, and they were to become known as Sakas. Like other conquerors, the Sakas kept local royalty as their subordinates.

Around 50 BCE, the Parthians, a nomadic Iranian people invaded northwestern India. Into the first century of the Common Era (CE) in the Indus Valley, Greeks, Scythians and Parthians fought each other. By the second century CE, Kushans had joined the mix. They also had been a nomadic a nomadic people and were Eurasians. They were led by Kanishka the Great (reign 127-151) who established an empire from Bactria across the Ganges valley and as far east at Pataliputra and south to the Deccan plateau in central India, where the Satavahana empire was ensconced.

The Kushan adopted aspects of the civilization they had conquered, and Kanishka's empire prospered economically. More was to be sold to the Roman Empire than was being imported and Roman coins would be piling up. It is said that Kanishka's realm attracted merchants, artists, poets and musicians. Kanishka was a patron of Buddhism while remaining attached to his military, his attachment to Buddhism an ideal separate from the struggle over power. Buddhists would rank him, as they did Ashoka and Menander, as a great king. Buddhism dominated in the cities of Kanishka's empire and in Kanishka's court, while Kanishka leaned toward eclecticism and tolerance. He appears to have been inclined toward the Persian cult of Mithras and to Zoroastrianism and to have also worshiped Greek and Hindu deities.

In his empire, Brahman families maintained orthodox Hinduism, while Kanishka is said to have been attempted to reconcile Hinduism and Buddhism, and also the conflict between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism. But as was to happen with Emperor Constantine and Christianity's inner conflicts, without total success.

Kushan kings would adopt the manners and language of the Indians and intermarrying with Indian royal families. The southern part of the sub-continent, meanwhile, had been benefitting from its roads and ports having been maintained. The south became the most prosperous part of India. Leaving southern ports were ivory, onyx, cotton goods, silks, pepper and other spices, and from the Roman empire the Indians imported tin, lead, antimony and wine. The increase led to the rise of bankers and financiers among the Indians, men of wealth who supported local landlords and local monarchs short on cash. Families in banking and commerce extended their enterprises into as many urban centers as they could, in India and abroad. And the increase in trade brought a rise in intellectual activity among the Indians — as trade had among the Greeks. Science and the arts flourished, stimulated too by ideas that the Greeks brought into India from Bactria.

By the early 300s CE, power in India was returning to the northeast, the Magadha region that had been the century of the Maurya Empire, and India was entering what would be called its classical age.

CONTINUE READING: Rise, Glory and Fall of the Gupta Empire

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