(INDIA, EMPIRE and CHAOS – continued)
Scythian Warriors archaeological find
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, perhaps inaccurately, as a reaction by Brahmins to the Buddhism of the Maurya family. Nevertheless, the influence of state power on religion continued, with Pusyamitra supporting orthodox Brahminism and appointing Brahmins to state offices. And, with Pusyamitra's rule, animal sacrifices and other outlawed activities returned, including musical festivals and dances.
Then came invasions. Perhaps the collapse of the Maurya dynasty signaled to outsiders that India was now vulnerable – much as division after Alexander's death had brought an assault by Celts. The first of the great invasions began roughly two years after Pusyamitra took power. The king of Bactria, Demetrius, 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 between the Greeks and Indians.
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.
Between the years 155 and 130, a Greek named Menander (known to Indians as Milinda) ruled in India's northwest. 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 Asoka, Menander converted to Buddhism. This conversion may have facilitated the passage of Buddhist ideas west to Bactria and from Bactria farther west. The Greeks in India helped in spreading ideas westward. 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.
Those herdsmen whom the Chinese called Xiongnu expanded against Indo-European speaking tribes called the Yüeh Chih – also called Kushans. The Kushans pushed against Scythians, who migrated from their homeland in Central Asia into an area southeast of the Caspian Sea, an area to become known as Parthia. From 141 to 128 BCE the Scythians were able to expand into a lush, agricultural area, Bactria, against the Greeks there, who were already weakened by warfare. Soon thereafter, the Kushans invaded Bactria. Then around 50 BCE, the Parthian empire – which in Persia had replaced the power of the Seleucid dynasty – invaded northwestern India. And also invading India were the Scythians from Bactria.
The last of the Greek kings in India, Hermaeus, tried unsuccessfully to defend his rule from these attacks. In the Indus Valley, Greeks, Scythians and Parthians fought into the first century CE, and the Scythians extended their rule into north-central India and south along India's western coast, to the Gulf of Cambay. They 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 the local royalty as their subordinates. And Saka rulers became known as Satraps.
In the middle of the first century CE, Kushans led by Kanishka expanded from Bactria to the center of the Ganges valley and south along the Indus River to the Arabian Sea, and like the Saka rulers he absorbed lesser kings and made them sub-rulers.
The centuries of invasions were dark times for much of India, but not so for the southern part of the sub-continent, which was peopled by Dravidians. 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 had become 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 it had among the Greeks. Science and the arts flourished, stimulated too by ideas that the Greeks brought from Bactria.
Like tribal people before them – and like the Germans who would invade the Roman Empire – 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 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 Asoka (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. And 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.
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