Maharaja Shashanka

Maharaja Shashanka: The First King of Bengal (Gauda Kingdom) or the Enemy of Buddhism?

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Ancient Indian History is filled with the valorous sagas of many Hindu kings and from the reign of the great Chandragupta of the Mauryan empire to the rise of Samrat Samudragupta India witnessed some fascinating tales of glory.

Continuing the stories of some of the great yet forgotten kings of ancient India in this article we will shed light on the story of a king who faced many challenges during his tenure but his courage and leadership stood firm against all odds.

Maharaja Shashanka
Artistic portrayal of Shashanka

He was the ruler of Bengal who carved out an independent empire and even crossed swords against powerful empires like the Maukharies and the great Pushyabhutis.     

The name of this king was Shashanka who has been mentioned in the contemporary records of scholars like Banabhatta and Hiuen Tsang as the powerful monarch of Gauda.

He is regarded as the first king of Bengal as he was the first monarch who politically unified the region of Bengal.

Background: Rise of Shashanka the maker of Bengal

The early history of King Shashanka and his rise to the throne still remains a mystery for historians. Nothing can said accurately about his early life and career.

However, most of the scholars agreed on the fact that Shashanka initially worked as a feudatory chief. After the downfall of the Gupta Empire, the Later Gupta ruler occupied the region of Gauda (North and western parts of Bengal).

It is believed that Shashanka worked as the feudatory of these later Gupta kings.

Some scholars also suggest that the Gauda king at the start of his career worked under the Muakharies ruler of Kannauj. He was a highly ambitious ruler full of military leadership, and courage.

He removed the authority of the later Guptas around the region of Gauda and declared himself the independent ruler of Bengal around 603-604 CE.

Military Campaigns

According to R.C. Majumdar Shashanka defeated the ruler of the Mana dynasty which had extended its ruler over Midnapore, Gaya, and even Orissa.

He defeated this dynasty and took possession of the region of Utkala, Kongoda, etc. Due to this achievement, the Sailodbhava dynasty acknowledged the suzerainty of Shashanka and it remained under his influence till 619 CE.

It is believed that he brought up the whole of Bengal under his suzerainty. Furthermore, he also extended his suzerainty as far as the Mahendragiri Mountains in the south.

Supremacy for North India

However, the military campaigns that took place in the western portion of his empire were a formidable challenge to him. It was his greatest test which remained unforgotten to this date.

Shashanka fought against the two most powerful empires of North India i.e. The Muakharies and the Pushyabhutis.

The Maukharies were the rulers of Kannauj who had previously fought battles against the later Guptas of Bengal. With the rise of Shashanka, the chances of hostility increased significantly.

Under this precarious condition, the ruler of Gauda made his move and attacked Magadha. This invasion has resulted in a huge success and the king of Gauda is believed to have marched against Benaras too.

To counter the growing power of Shashanka the Maukharies formed an alliance with the Pushyabhutis of Thanesar. Prabhakarvardhana the king of the Pushyabhutis married his daughter Rajyashri with Grahavarman the future king of the Maukharies.

This alliance was an alarm for the Gauda king and in return he also formed an alliance with the Malava king Deva Gupta. At this critical juncture where both sides were desperately waiting to launch severe assault on each the death of Prabhakarvardhana made the alliance of the Maukharies and the Pushyabhutis vulnerable.

The death of Prabhakarvardhana gave an ideal opportunity to the Gauda King and he launched an invasion of Kannauj aided by Deva Gupta.

The attack was so fierce and the defenseless capital city of Kannauj was annexed by Deva Gupta and Shashanka. In this struggle, Grahavarman the king of Kannauj was killed and his wife Rajyashri was imprisoned.

All this happened in a short period of time which suggests that both Shashanka and Deva Gupta executed their move wisely. But the successful expedition over Kannauj made the Malava ruler far more ambitious and he decided to launch a full-scale invasion of Thanesar the capital of the Pushyabhutis.

The overconfident Deva Gupta left his ally at Kannauj and marched towards Thanesar. But the Pushyabhutis were prepared for this move and its king Rajyavardhana defeated the invading army and was even successful in killing the Malava ruler Deva Gupta.

This was a huge setback for Shashanka as now he had to face the brunt of the mighty Pushyabhutis and the Maukharies all alone.

Rajyavardhana marched against the Gaudas but the latter defeated and killed the former. However, there is still a debate on this battle. Some historians suggest that Rajyavardhana was treacherously killed by Shashanka however no conclusive evidence has been discovered on it.

Clash of the Titans: Shashanka against Harshvardhana

Later after the death of Rajyavardhana Harsha became the king of the Pushyabhutis. It is believed that after hearing the death news Rajyavardhana pledged to take revenge against Shashanka.  

According to a Buddhist text named Manjushri Mula Kalpa Harsha marched against Shashanka and reached as far as northern Bengal. But there is no conclusive evidence about the battle between Shashanka and Harsha.

Harsha rescued his sister Rajyashri and it is believed that he took six years in capturing Kannauj.

However, according to R.C. Majumdar the attacks of Harsha ‘didn’t do any significant damage to Shashanka’s kingdom. Also according to Hiuen Tsang Shashanka was ruling the region of Magadha at the time of his death. It was probably after Shashanka’s death when Harsha was able to annex the region of Kongoda and Magadha.

Furthermore, Shashanka’s rule over Bengal, South Bihar, and Orissa gives us evidence that if there would have been any confrontation between him and Harsha then the assaults of Harsha were audaciously faced and probably repulsed by the Gauda king.

After the death of Shashanka, his empire witnessed rebellions and civil wars. According to Arya Manju Sri Mulakalpa

“After the death of Soma (Shashanka), the Gauda Empire was reduced to mutual distrust, mutual jealously. One king for a week, another for a month, then a republican constitution, such will be the daily condition of the country of the Gauda. ”

Shashanka and Buddhism

Just like other kings of ancient India Shashanka had also faced the criticism of many modern-day historians because of his bigotry policies towards Buddhism. Today this great monarch who unified the whole of Bengal is known as a cruel persecutor of Buddhism. However, history tells a different story.

According to the accounts of Hiuen Tsan and Arya Manju Sri-Mulakalpa the Gauda had been portrayed as a persecutor of Buddhism.

Hiuen Tsang mentioned that Shashanka destroyed the sacred Bodhi tree and even destroyed a stone that had Buddha’s foot impression. Also, Arya Manju Sri Mulakalapa mentions that Shashanka destroyed Chaityas and monasteries.

However according to R.C.Majumdar

These and other stories of persecution of Buddhism by Shashanka cannot be accepted as true, without independent testimony. Besides the flourishing condition of Buddhism in the capital city (Karnasuvarna) of Shashanka as described by Hiuen Tsang is hardly compatible with the view that he was a religious bigot and a cruel persecutor of Buddhism”

All in all Shashanka despite achieving a lot through his leadership and courage became a persecutor of Buddhism. How far the accounts of Buddhist text are true we are not sure and according to R.C. Majumdar Shashanka would have been a lot more famous monarch if he had historians like Banabhatta and Hiuen Tsang in his court.

He was a valiant warrior who united the province of Bengal on his own.


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