Sunga Empire

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The Sunga empire (or Shunga empire) controlled North-central and Eastern India from around 185 to 73 BCE. It was established after the fall of the Indian Maurya empire. The capital of the Sungas was at Pataliputra.


Overthrow of the Mauryan dynasty (185 BCE)

The Sunga dynasty was established in 185 BCE, about 50 years after Ashoka's death, when the king Brhadrata, the last of the Mauryan rulers, was assassinated by the then commander-in-chief of the Mauryan armed forces, Pusyamitra Sunga, while he was taking the Guard of Honour of his forces. Pusyamitra Sunga then ascended the throne.

Attitude towards Buddhism

Pusyamitra Sunga, a Brahmin, is believed by Buddhist scholars to have been hostile towards Buddhists and allegedly persecuted the Buddhist faith. He is recorded in the 2nd century CE Divyavadana and Ashokavadana as having "destroyed monasteries and killed Monks", offering one dinara for every shramanashirah, "head of a Buddhist monk" (Divyavadana, p429-434). According to other sources, 84.000 Buddhist stupas which had been built by the Mauryan king Ashoka were destroyed (R. Thaper), and 100 gold coins were offered for the head of each Buddhist monk (Indian Historical Quarterly Vol. XXII, p.81 ff cited in Hars.407). According to the 2nd century Ashokavadana:

"Then King Pusyamitra equipped a fourfold army, and intending to destroy the Buddhist religion, he went to the Kukkutarama. (...) Pusyamitra therefore destroyed the sangharama, killed the monks there, and departed.
After some time, he arrived in Sakala, and proclaimed that he would give a hundred dinara reward to whomever brought him the head of a Buddhist monk" Ashokavadana, 133, trans. John Strong.

A large number of Buddhist monasteries (viharas) were allegedly converted to Hindu temples, in such places as Nalanda, Bodhgaya, Sarnath or Mathura. The extent of this persecution remains a subject of modern debate, especially as the Sungas are thought by many to have contributed largely to the new Buddhist religion.

Proponents point to the proclamations and a propogation of the Manu Smriti and detractors often cite the building of a Buddhist stupa at Bharhut.

Conflict with the Indo-Greeks (180 BCE- )

The Sunga Empire's wars with the Indo-Greek Kingdom figure greatly in the history of this period. From around 180 BCE the Greco-Bactrian ruler Demetrius, conquered the Kabul Valley and is theorized to have advanced into the trans-Indus. He is credited with established the Indo-Greek kingdom. At its maximum extent (under Menander), it is deemed to have run from the Hindu Kush to Mathura, which was to last in parts until the end of the 1st century BCE, and under which Buddhism flourished. Menander (Pali: Milinda) was a strong benefactor of the Buddhist faith at that time. He is also credited with a campaign to Pataliputra; however, very little is know about the exact nature and success of the campaign. The net result of these wars remains uncertain.

The Anushasanaparava of the Mahabharata affirms that the city of Mathura was under the joint control of the Yavanas and the Kambojas.

Also the Brahmanical text of the Yuga Purana, which describes Indian historical events in the form of a prophecy, relates the attack of the Indo-Greeks on the capital Pataliputra, a magnificent fortified city with 570 towers and 64 gates according to Megasthenes, and describes the ultimate destruction of the city's walls:

"Then, after having approached Saketa together with the Panchalas and the Mathuras, the Yavanas, valiant in battle, will reach Kusumadhvaja ("The town of the flower-standard", Pataliputra). Then, once Puspapura (another name of Pataliputra) has been reached and its celebrated mud[-walls] cast down, all the realm will be in disorder." (Yuga Purana, Paragraph 47-48, 2002 edition.)

Pushyamitra is recorded to have performed the Ashvamedha Yagna and Sunga imperial inscriptions have extended as far as Jalandhar in modern Indian Punjab. Moreover, if it was lost, Mathura was regained by the Sungas around 100 BCE (or by other indigenous rulers: the Arjunayanas (area of Mathura) and Yaudheyas mention military victories on their coins ("Victory of the Arjunayanas", "Victory of the Yaudheyas"), and during the 1st century BCE, the Trigartas, Audumbaras and finally the Kunindas (closest to Punjab) also started to mint their own coins). Accounts of battles between the Greeks and the Sunga in Central India are also found in the Mālavikāgnimitram, a play by Kālidāsa which describes a battle between a group of Greek cavalrymen and Vasumitra, the grandson of Pushyamitra, during the latter's reign, in which the Indians repelled the Greeks.[5]

Nevertheless, very little can be said with great certainty. However, what does appear clear is that the two realms appeared to have established normalized diplomatic relations in the succeeding reigns of their respective rulers. The Indo-Greeks and the Sungas seem to have reconciled and exchanged diplomatic missions around 110 BCE, as indicated by the Heliodorus pillar, which records the dispatch of a Greek ambassador named Heliodorus, from the court of the Indo-Greek king Antialcidas, to the court of the Sunga king Bhagabhadra at the site of Vidisha in central India.

Cultural Contributions

While there is much debate on the religious politics of the Sunga dynasty, it is recognized for a number of contributions. Art, education, philosophy, and other learning flowered during this period. Most notably, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and Mahabhasya were composed in this period. It is also noted for its subsequent mention in the Malavikaagnimitra. This work was composed by Kalidasa in the later Gupta period, and romanticized the love of Malavika and King Agnimitra, with a background of court intrigue.

During the historical Sunga period (185 to 73 BCE), Buddhist activity also managed to survive somewhat in central India (Madhya Pradesh) as suggested by some architectural expansions that were done at the stupas of Sanchi and Barhut, originally started under King Ashoka. It remains uncertain whether these works were due to the weakness of the control of the Sungas in these areas, or a sign of tolerance on their part.

The last of the Sunga kings was Devabhuti. He was assassinated by his minister (Vasudeva Kanva) and is said to have been overfond of the company of women. The Sunga dynasty was then replaced by the subsequent Kanvas.

The Sunga dynasty

The Sunga dynasty started with Pushyamitra Sunga became the ruler of the Magadha and neighbouring territories. The north-western regions comprising Rajputana, Malwa and Punjab passed into the hands of the foreign rulers. The kingdom of Pushyamitra was extended up to Narmada in the south, and controlled Jalandhar and Sialkot in the Punjab in the north-western regions.

Pushyamitra died after ruling for 36 years (187-151 BCE). He was succeeded by son Agnimitra. This prince is the hero of a famous drama by one of India's greatest playwright, Kalidasa. Agnimitra used to hold his court in the city of Vidisa, modern Besnagar in Eastern Malwa. The power of the Sungas gradually weakened. It is said that there were ten Sunga kings.

The Sungas were succeeded by the Kanva dynasty around 73 BCE.

List of Sunga kings

  • Pusyamitra Sunga (185 - 149 BCE)
  • Agnimitra (149 - 141 BCE)
  • Vasujyeshtha (141 - 131 BCE)
  • Vasumitra (131 - 124 BCE)
  • Andhraka (124 - 122 BCE)
  • Pulindaka (122 - 119 BCE)
  • Ghosha
  • Vajramitra
  • Bhagabhadra
  • Devabhuti (83 - 73 BCE)