RHYS DAVIDS: BUDDHIST INDIA

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Chapter XVI

Kanishka

FROM, the death of Asoka onwards to the time of the Guptas, the history of India is, at present, in a state of the utmost confusion and darkness. The Jain and Buddhist literature of this period is still, almost entirely, buried in manuscript. From time to time a ray of light, now in one part of what had been the great Magadhā empire, now in another, illumines the darkness. The labours of numismatists and epigraphists have been directed to the reconstruction, from such isolated data as the the coins and inscriptions give us, of a continuous chronology and of a connected history. The progress of this work, especially in the past few years, has been great. But the field is so vast, the data are so sporadic, doubt as to the eras used is so persistent an obstacle, that the difficulty of this reconstruction is immense.

One or two of the ancient sites have been partially excavated; but archaeological exploration has been almost confined, as yet, in India, to what can be found on the surface. There was a widely diffused [309] and continuous literary activity throughout the whole of this (now, to us) dark period; and much of it is still extant. But only one portion of it, that portion preserved in the brahmin schools of theosophy and the sacrifices, has been as yet, adequately explored. And this portion-partly because it has been mostly recast at a later date, partly because the priests, very naturally, tended to ignore the events of a period when they were not yet in the ascendant - has yielded but little result. No attempt has, therefore, been made to describe the social or economic condition of the people, or to trace the gradual change of opinion, according to the varying local influences, within this period. And even as regards the bare lists of kings and names of battles, the loss or gain of this or that town or province by this or that combatant, there is at present only little evidence, and a very imperfect consensus of opinion as to the meaning even of that little. It will be sufficient, under these circumstances, if we confine ourselves here to a rapid outline of the salient facts.

During the whole period there was no really paramount power in India. One or other of the many smaller kingdoms into which it was divided attained, at one time or another, considerable extension of boundary, and held for a generation or two a position superior to the rest. But no one of them attained at any time to so much as a quarter of the size of the old empire of Magadhā.

It is veiy suggestive that of Magadhā itself we hear almost nothing for more than five centuries [310] after the death of Asoka. This is, indeed, scarcely surprising. For while, in the western parts of India, the coins have preserved the names of the kings, in Magadhā the people continued to use the coinage bearing only the private mark or marks of the individual or guild that issued them. None of the ancient sites there - Sāvatthi or Vesāli or Mithilā, Pataliputta or Rājagaha - have been excavated. And, thirdly, the literature of Magadhā in this period, mostly Jain or later Buddhist, lies also still buried in MSS. But as early as 150 B.C. we have one short note in the Elephant Cave inscription of Kharavela, King of Kalinga, who claims to have twice invaded Magadhā successfully, having advanced the second time as far north as the Ganges. As he also gives us to infer that his father and grandfather had preceded him on the throne, Kalinga must, in that case, have become independent of Magadhā very soon after the death of Asoka. It is unfortunate that the name of the then King of Magadhā is not mentioned in this inscription. We may fairly conclude, at all events provisionally, from the fact that no neighboüring king claims to have conquered them, that both Magadhā and Kalinga retained their independence from the time of Asoka down to that of Kanishka. Magadhā, however, must have lost all its outlying provinces, and consisted, usually, only of the ancient kingdoms of Magadhā and Champā, together with the eastern portion of Kosalā. South of Kalinga was the important and powerful kingdom of the Andhras, with its chief capital at Dha- [311] nakaṭaka or Amarāvati, at the mouth of the Krishṇa. We know little of its history in early times (after the death of Asoka), but later on, though it was never able to conquer the other Dravidian states in the south of India, it pushed its conquests to the north, and conquered a large province in the Dekkan. There in Patiṭṭhana, the subordinate Andhra capital, ruled a viceroy who was often at war with the sovereigns of Avantī and Gujarat.

The south of the peninsula was occupied with the three kingdoms of the Cholas, the Keralas, and the Pāṇḍyas. All the ancient traditions of these peoples have been lost. But it is evident from the few references to them in the second Rock Edict of Asoka, and in the Chronicles of Ceylon, that they had attained, at and shortly after Asoka's time, to a civilisation not incomparable with that of the Aryan settlements. The conquest of Ceylon by the Chola Tamils under their prince Elara, and the victorious combat afterwards waged against him by the Sinhalese national hero, Dushta Gāmini, form the main episode in the Great Chronicle. This must have been about the beginning of the second century B.C. Twice afterwards, in the middle and at the end of the same century, the Chola Tamils, under Bhalluka and Bāhiya respectively, issued from their capita], Madhurā, overran the north of Ceylon, and remained for some years in possession of Anurādhapura, the capital of the island. It is true that they were each time driven back again out of the island. But this shows us at least an amount of military organisation which may make it easier to understand [312] how the Andhras found it easier to push forward to the north-west than to attempt the conquest of the south of the peninsula.

When they established themselves in the Dekkan, probably shortly after the Christian era, the Andhras found opposed to them in the north and northwest viceroys (called Satraps) of a Scythian overlord. There had probably been distinct viceroys, one ruling from Ujjen over Avantī, the other ruling from Giri-nagara over the Kāthiawād and Katch. But early in the second century A.D. they had declared themselves independent of their overlord, and had then, by a process we are not yet able to follow, become amalgamated into a powerful kingdom extending about six hundred miles from east to west and more than three hundred miles from north to south. The reigning king, usually resident, it is supposed, at Giri-nagara, was called the Great Satrap. The crown prince bore the title of Satrap. And as their coins have been found in large numbers, and give the names and titles both of the reigning satrap and his father, and also a date, it is possible to reconstruct the line of this dynasty with unusual precision. The names, also, of most of the Andhra kings are known to us, but there is a difference of opinion as to the order in which they should be arranged. We thus have the dry bones of the skeleton of the history of one kingdom, and many of the bones of the history of the adjacent kingdom, for a long period after the commencement of the Christian era.

For the more than two centuries between Asoka [313] and that time we are still almost in the dark. Only a few hints have survived, and those in Chinese sources, as to how or when the Sakas or Scythians had come into possession of these provinces. These hints enable us to conjecture that immediately after the death of Asoka the provinces to the extreme north-west of the empire of Maghada (those provinces which Seleukos had ceded to Chandragupta) asserted their independence; and that they did this not as a whole, but in small divisions, under the leadership of local magnates, mostly of Greek extraction. In the course of internecine conflicts these smaller states had been gradually amalgamated into one or two, or perhaps three, Greek kingdoms, when, in about 160 B.C., the Sse or Sakas, just then expelled from Sogdiana by the Yueh-ti, appeared upon the scene. After a long-continued series of campaigns, with varying fortune, against the possessors of the country, they forced their way through, in about 120, into India proper. Their route was prob-bably southward through Sind. But, in any case, in the course of the following years they established outposts, under the rule of officers called Kshatrapas (the Persian word "satraps") at Mathura, Ujjeni, and Giri-nagara, the overlord remaining behind in Seistan, which means simply, "the land of the Sse," or Sakas.

Meanwhilfe the five tribes of the Yueh-ti, themselves pressed on from behind by other nomad tribes, followed close on the heels of the Sakas, and, in about 120 B.C., became the rulers of Baktria. About a century afterwards, one of the five tribes, [314] the Kushanas, became the predominant partner in the confederation. This added very greatly to the power of the organisation; and it was probably the pressure they were able to exert on the Saka overlord that gave opportunity to the Saka satraps in the south to make themselves independent of their suzerain in Seistan. Soon afterwards the Kushanas, also, in their turn, pushed forward into India, but by a northern route, taking possession of the Panjab, and then ousting the Saka satrap from Mathura. The capital of the whole of this wide dominion, from Baktria, or even west of Baktria down to the Doab, became Takkasilā, the ancient rock fortress of the Takka tribe, the Taxila of the Greeks. Mathura, however, remained the subordinate capital. And it is chiefly in the course of the systematic excavations carried out there that the numerous inscriptions have been found, giving the names and the dates of Kushan kings. With the help of these, and of the coins, the dynastic list has now been drawn up with comparative certainty; but there is the greatest diversity of opinion as to the era to which the dates ought to be referred.

It is strange that the third line of evidence, that of the Indian literature, has not been hitherto taken in aid towards the decision of this question. It supplies at least one consideration of the first importance that should not have been overlooked. By the unanimous testimony of the best authorities we yet have (pending the publication of the Buddhist Sanskrit texts themselves) on the later forms of Buddhism, that is to say, the Tibetan and Chinese [315] historiographers, Asvaghosha, the author of the Buddha Carita, lived in the time of the most famous of the Kushan kings, Kanishka. This work is a poem in pure Sanskrit, and in elegant style, on the life of the Buddha. It is addressed therefore, of course, not to brahmins as such, but to the laity. Now at what period in the history of Indian literature could such a poem have been composed, taking into consideration the facts as to the history of the language set out above in Chapter IX.?[1] The oldest inscription in pure Sanskrit is of the middle of the second century A.D. Even if Asvaghosha's poem be the very earliest literary work written in regular Sanskrit for the use of the laity (and that is not at all impossible), it can scarcely be dated earlier. It is therefore improbable, if the authorities just referred to can be relied on, that the era used in the Kushana inscriptions can be fixed at any date so early as to be incompatible with the evidence as to the history of language, drawn from hundreds of inscriptions of equal genuineness.[2] On the other hand, if Kanishka be much earlier it is impossible that the poem can have been written at his court; but the evidence is such that we should, [316] provisionally, accept this till the authorities on which it rests shall have been proved to be mistaken. In either case the date of the poem must be approximately the last half of the second century A.D. And just as the first public proclamation addressed, in regular Sanskrit, to the public, was written at the court of a foreign king, the Scythian satrap at Giri-nagara, so it would be consistent with all our other information if one of the first, if not the first, literary work addressed, in regular Sanskrit, to the laity, should have been written at the court of a foreign king, the Tartar sovereign of the Kushan realm.

The above argument is further confirmed by the fact that at a Council of the Buddhist Order, held under the patronage of Kanishka, three works were composed in Sanskrit as official commentaries on the ancient canonical books. These three Sanskrit works are extant in our European libraries, and it is most deplorable that these important documents have not yet been published. But even without having them, in full, before us, we can safely draw the conclusion that Kanishka cannot have reigned before the time when it had become recognised that the right language to use on such an occasion was, not Pāli, but Sanskrit, and this would be equally true though the Sanskrit of these works should turn out, when we can consult them, to be less elegant than that written by Asvaghosha.[3]

This introduction of the use of Sanskrit as the lingua franca is a turning-point in the mental [317] history of the Indian peoples. The causes that preceded it, the changes in the intellectual standpoint that went with it, the results that followed on both, are each of them of vital importance. The main cause has been supposed to be the study, in the brahmin schools, of the Vedic forms no longer familiar, the evolution in this manner of a grammatical system, and then the gradual application of this system to the vernacular speech, until at last any form not in accordance with the system became considered as vulgar, and fell into disuse. A subsidiary cause, which also deserves consideration, is the influence of the intercourse with foreigners, and especially with the socially powerful Greeks, Scythians, and Tartars. The teaching of grammar, and the spread of ideas of learned diction among the more educated people, would be greatly strengthened by the necessity of explaining linguistic forms to people of this sort. Who so likely to have been asked to do this as those who were known to have already devoted attention to the subject, and had a well-earned reputation, that is, the brahmins? And why, otherwise, should it be precisely these border districts on the extreme north-west frontier (not looked upon in other matters as the home of orthodox teaching) that were the home of the most developed ahd most authoritative grammatical teaching, and the place of residence of the most distinguished grammarians?

Hand in hand with the gradual adoption, and at last with the almost exclusive use, of the brahmin [318] literary language, must have come a gradual increase in the deference and respect paid to the acknowledged masters of that tongue. There were other reasons, of course; and there was action and reaction in all these matters. But the result is very striking. Three-fourths or more of the persons named, and the objects of donation specified, in all the inscriptions throughout India, from Asoka's time to Kanishka's,[4] are Buddhist, and the majority of the remainder are Jain. From that time onwards the brahmins, the gods they patronised, the sacrifices they carried out, receive ever-increasing notice till the position of things is exactly reversed, and in the fifth century A.D. three-fourths are brahmin, and the majority of the rest are Jain. This is the clearest evidence of a strange revulsion of feeling. What had been the predominant national faith has become the faith of a minority. India, which can fairly, down to the time of Kanishka, be called "Buddhist India," ceases to be so. And the process goes on, slowly indeed but continually, until there is not a Buddhist left in the land where Buddhism arose.

How slow the process was is shown by the accounts of the state of things when the Chinese pilgrims travelled in India. Fa Hian, in the early years of the fourth century A.D., finds Buddhism nearly everywhere in decay. He unfortunately gives no figures. But Yuan Chwang, in the seventh century, has done so. These I have examined in detail,[5] and the result shows still, at that time, in India, [319] nearly two hundred thousand of the Buddhist Order, of whom three-fourths still adhered to the older forms of the faith, and one-fourth were Mahāyānist. Brahmin accounts attribute the final stages in the movement to a furious persecution brought about at the instigation of the great brahmin apostle, Kumārila Bhaṭṭa, in the first half of the eighth century. This view, having received the support of the distinguished European scholars, Wilson and Cole-brooke,[6] has naturally been widely repeated until we find the Rev. W. T. Wilkins saying:

"The disciples of Buddha were so ruthlessly persecuted that all were either slain, exiled, or made to change their faith. There is scarcely a case on record where a religious persecution was so successfully carried out as that by which Buddhism was driven out of India."[7]

I do not believe a word of it. In the Journal of the Pāli Text Society for 1896, I have discussed the question in detail, and have come to the conclusion, entirely endorsed by the late Professor Bühler,[8] that the misconception has arisen from an erroneous inference drawn from expressions of vague boasting, of ambiguous import, and doubtful authority. We must seek elsewhere for the causes of the decline of the Buddhist faith; and they will be found, I think, partly in the changes that took place in the faith itself, partly in the changes that took place in the [320] intellectual standard of the people. And in both respects the influence of the foreign tribes that invaded India from the north-west can scarcely be exaggerated.

Just as when the Goths and Vandals invaded the Roman Empire in Europe - and it is surprising that an historical parallel so close, and so full of suggestive analogues, has not been pointed out before - they did indeed give up their paganism and adopted the dominant Christian faith; but in adopting it they contributed largely to the process of change (some would call it decay) that had already set in; so also in India the Scythians and the Kushan Tartars, after they had conquered all the Western provinces, gave up their paganism, and adopted the dominant Buddhist faith of their new subjects. But in adopting it they contributed largely, by the necessary result of their own mental condition, to the process of change (some would call it decay) that had already set in.

Gibbon has shown us, in his great masterpiece, how interesting and instructive the story of such a decline and fall can be made. And it is not unreasonable to hope that, when the authorities, especially the Buddhist Sanskrit texts, shall have been made accessible, and the sites shall have been explored, the materials will be available from which some historian of the future will be able to piece together a story, equally interesting and equally instructive, of the decline and fall of Buddhism in India.

 


[1] These facts have now been admirably collected and criticised in Professor Franke's Pāli and Sanscrit (1902); a work, which, I regret to say, reached me too late to be utilised in Chapter IX.

[2] All the authorities on this question of the Kushan era are mentioned in the valuable article by Mr. Vincent Smith in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Āor 1903. He dates Kanishka from 125 to 153 A.D. Mr. J.F. Fleet will also discuss the question in an article to be immediately published in the same Journal.

[3] See, on this Council, my Milinda, vol. ii., pp. xv., xvi.

[4] 3rd century B.C. to 2nd century A.D.

[5] Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1891, pp. 418-421.

[6] Wilson, Sanskrit Dictionary, p. xix.; Colebrooke, Essays, vol. i., P. 323.

[7] Daily Life and Work in India (London, 1888), p. 110.

[8] J.P.T.S., 1896, pp. 108-110,

 

 

 


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Previous: Chapter XV: Asoka

[Preface]  [Table of Contents][1. The Kings]  [2. The Clans and Nations]  [3. The Village]  [4. Social Grades]  [5. In the Town]  [6. Economic Conditions]  [7. Writing — The Beginnings]  [8. Writing — It's Development]  [9. Language and Literature. I. General View]  [10. Literature. II. The Pali Books]  [11. The Jataka Book]  [12. Religion — Animism]  [13. The Brahmin Position]  [14. Chandragupta]  [15. Asoka]  [16. Kanishka]  [Appendix]  [Index]

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