(INDIA, EMPIRE and CHAOS – continued)

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INDIA, EMPIRE and CHAOS (9 of 10)

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A Military Coup and Invasions

In 185 BCE, the rule of the Maurya family ended when an army commander-in-chief, Pusyamitra Sunga, murdered the last Maurya king during a parade of his troops. Pusyamitra's rise to power has been described as a reaction by Brahmins to the Buddhism of the Maurya family. However accurate or inaccurate this description, Pusyamitra gave his support to orthodox Brahminism and appointed Brahmins to state offices. And, with Pusyamitra's rule, animal sacrifices and other outlawed activities returned, including the musical festivals and dances that had been outlawed.

The Laws of Manu

The uncertainties that came with the collapse of India's great Maurya Empire may have inspired a new book of laws, called the Laws of Manu. These were books that combined Hinduism with sacred law that kings and commoners alike were obliged to follow. The Laws of Manu drew from the Vedas, where Manu was described as the world's first king, as the father of the human race and the one who had received the plans of the god of creation: Brahma. The Laws of Manu include Manu's story about Brahma's creation of the universe. Manu brought together, in the form of maxims, Brahma's commandments regarding ritual, custom, caste and other institutions.

Modern-day scholars have considered the Laws of Manu texts as a composite created across centuries, maybe between 200 BCE and CE 200. One scholar, Patrick Olivelle, has argued that the structure of the text suggests a single author. Nothing is known as to who this author might be, but authorship is believed to belong to one or more Brahmins with conservative leanings. The Laws of Manu expressed the values of the Brahmin priesthood. It claimed that authoritarian rule and class privilege were best for everyone. The Laws of Manu claimed that one should give no pain to any creature – not tightly consistent with the ritual sacrifice of early Hinduism. Another commandment held that in childhood a female had to be subject to the authority of her father. When she married she was to be under the authority of her husband. She was to remain cheerful, clever in the management of her household affairs, careful in using utensils, economical in spending, and to do nothing independent of male authority. As a widow or in old age she was to be under the authority of her sons. According to the Laws of Manu, if a female sought to separate herself from her father, husband or son, she made her family contemptible.

The Laws of Manu declared that rulers were obliged to be considerate in judging and punishing their subjects. It claimed that punishment kept the world in order, that punishment properly applied kept all people happy, but applied without consideration it destroyed everything. The Laws of Manu claimed 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." 


Perhaps the collapse of the Maurya dynasty signaled to outsiders that India was now vulnerable. Invasions began roughly two years after Pusyamitra took power. The Greek king of Bactria since the year 200, Demetrius, followed the footsteps of Alexander through the Khyber Pass and in the year 180 extended his power into the northern Indus Valley, where he began what was to become a series of wars between the Greeks and the people of India.

The Greeks brought with them a better coin than was being used in India, which contributed to regional and inter-regional trade. They brought with them ideas in astronomy, architecture and art that spread through India, and with the new art came new depictions of Hindu gods and a new image of the Buddha.

The Greeks ruled in the northwest of India by the year 175. Demetrius' family lost control over Bactria to another Greek, and between the years 155 and 130 Greek rule in northwest India passed to a former general named Menander (known to the people of Indian as Milinda). He sent his army into the Ganges Valley as far as Magadha's capital, Pataliputra. But, failing to capture that city, he returned to his kingdom in the northwest. In Pataliputra the Sunga dynasty, created by Pusyamitra Sunga, continued its rule.

Like Ashoka, Menander converted to Buddhism. This conversion may have facilitated the passage of Buddhist ideas west to Bactria and from Bactria farther west. The road between India and Bactria had become a bridge to and from the West. To the Indus Valley came ideas from Zoroastrianism, and in India arose the belief in a savior who at the end of time would lead the forces of light and goodness in a final victory against the forces of darkness and evil.

Scythian and Parthian Invasions

Scythian Warriors

Scythian Warriors archaeological find

Migrants and armies were on the march. From 141 to 128 BCE, Scythians from an area southeast of the Caspian Sea expanded into Bactria against the Greeks there. Soon thereafter, the Kushans, an Indo-European speaking tribal people from Central Asia, took power in Bactria, driving the Scythians toward India's northwest. Then around 50 BCE, the Parthian empire, which in Persia had replaced the power of the Seleucid dynasty, invaded northwestern India.

The last of the Greek kings in the northwest of India, Hermaeus (reign 90-70 BCE), tried unsuccessfully to defend his rule from these attacks. In the Indus Valley, Greeks, Scythians and Parthians fought each other into the first century CE. The Scythians ended Greek rule in India but maintained the Indo-Greek culture, some of which they had acquired in Bactria. In India, the Scythians became known as Sakas. Like other conquerors, the Sakas kept local royalty as their subordinates. And Saka rulers became known as Satraps.

Kanishka's Empire and Buddhism

In the second century CE, Kushans led by Kanishka the Great (reign 127-151) expanded and built a great empire from Bactria to the center of the Ganges valley and south along the Indus River to the Arabian Sea. Like the Saka rulers. Kanishka absorbed lesser kings and made them sub-rulers.

Kanishka and the Kushans adopted aspects of the civilization they had conquered. Kanishka's empire prospered economically, and it is said that to his court from all over Asia, the wealth and wisdom of Kanishka attracted merchants, artists, poets and musicians. Like other so-called barbarian rulers, Kanishka found Buddhism more accessible than Hinduism. Kanishka became a patron of Buddhism, and Buddhists would rank him as one of their own and with Ashoka and Menander as a great king. Kanishka would remain attached to warfare for the remainder of his life, while his attachment to Buddhism remained an ideal separate from the struggle over power.

Kanishka was eclectic in religion. He appears also to have been inclined toward the Persian cult of Mithras, to Zoroastrianism, and to have also worshiped Greek and Hindu deities. Buddhism dominated in the cities of Kanishka's empire and in Kanishka's court, while through his empire Brahmin families maintained orthodox Hinduism.

Kanishka is said to have been attempting to reconcile Hinduism and Buddhism. He convened a Buddhist council in Kashmir – much as the emperor Constantine would call a council of Christians – in hope of resolving conflict that had developed among Buddhists, between Mahayana Buddhism, meaning the Great Vehicle, and Hinayana Buddhism, the Little Vehicle. Hinayana Buddhism was mainly in the southern half of India.

Trade, Prosperity and Cultural Diffusions

The centuries of invasions have been considered dark times for the people of India, but not so much for the southern part of the sub-continent. Unlike other Dark Ages, during the period of invasions into India much of its roads and ports were maintained. Southern India benefited from expanded economic and cultural contacts with the world outside India and an expanded trade with West Asia and the Roman Empire. 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.

Indian ships sailed south to Lanka and then east to Southeast Asian ports, where Indian merchants sold cotton cloth, ivory, brass wear, monkeys, parrots and elephants to Chinese merchants, who transported their goods by sea to China. From Southeast Asian ports Indian merchants acquired spices that they traded elsewhere. Trade between India and China passed also across Central Asia by camel caravan, across what would become known as the great northern silk route, China sending musk, raw and woven silk, tung oil and amber westward into India.

Accompanying this seagoing trade, wave after wave of Indians emigrated. These colonists reached Lanka, the coast of Burma, what is now Thailand and Cambodia, the Malay Peninsula, Java, Sumatra and Borneo, and a few reached Taiwan and the Philippines.

In India, meanwhile, the increase in India's trade led to the rise of bankers and financiers among the Indians, and these men of wealth gave support to monarchies and landlords 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 from Bactria.


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