Sunga Empire (185 BCE to 75 BCE): The Story of a forgotten Empire of Ancient India

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Mauryan Empire which rose to prominence under gallant leaders like Samrat Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka was one of the greatest and biggest empires in Indian history.

However, after the death of king Ashoka, the empire started to crumble. Historians had suggested many reasons behind this and one of the prominent reasons which led to the downfall of this mighty empire was the poor administration and leadership of the later Mauryan kings.

Image and territorial extent of the Sunga Empire 
Pushyamitra Sunga
Image of the Sunga Empire

Due to this, the local populace generated a sense of resentment against the Mauryan king. Later the commander in chief of the Mauryan army known as Pushyamitra Sunga took the initiative to overthrow the Mauryan rule.

Pushyamitra Sunga laid the foundation of the Sunga/Shunga Empire on the remains of the Mauryas. This dynasty roughly ruled from 184/ 185 BCE to 75 BCE. Furthermore Ancient Indian texts like Upanishad, Harshacharita, Malavikaagnimitra, etc all provide valuable information about the Sunga Dynasty.

The Sunga’s emerged as a potent political power in North India which contributed a lot to Indian history. Their relationship with Buddhism and the stories of persecution of the Buddhist monks is a topic of intense debate that we will cover in this article.  

Reasons behind the downfall of the Mauryas

According to several historians, there were many reasons behind the downfall of the Great Mauryan Empire. Some of the most prominent causes are.

1 The policy of Ahimsa or non-injury which was introduced by emperor Ashoka is also considered the reason behind the downfall of the Mauryas. It completely vanished the martial and aggressive militarization of the Magadha.

2 The local population of the Northwestern region also grew a sense of resentment because of the poor administration and management of the region.

3 The invasion of the Bactrian Greeks continuously ravaged the Mauryan territories.

Furthermore, the later Mauryan kings could not able to hold their grip over such a vast empire as done by Samrat Chandragupta and Ashoka.   

Rise of the Sungas: Empire of Pushyamitra Sunga

The Senapati or the commander in chief of the Mauryan army during the period of Brihadrath took the responsibility to overthrow the hegemony of the Mauryas.

Pushyamitra Sunga assassinated the last Mauryan emperor Brihadratha when the latter was checking and reviewing his military unit. The story of Brihadratha’s assassination is mentioned in texts like the Puranas and Harshacharita (written by Banabhatta).

Pushyamitra Sunga
Sunga empire
A statue belonging to the Sunga Period

Note: According to ancient scholars like Panini, the Sunga’s belonged to the Brahmin category.

The empire of Pushyamitra covered the parts of Magadha, Ayodhya, Vidisa, and the capital at Pataliputra. It is also believed that the empire of the Sunga stretched to the Narmada River and also included the territories of Jalandhar and Punjab. The two most important cities of the Sungas were Patliputra and Vidisha.

He also performed two Asvamedha sacrifices to further strengthen his grip on his empire.

Note: It is pertinent to note that Pushyamitra also performed Vedic Sacrifices like Rajasuya and Vajapeya.

When the Sunga was emerging in the central Indian region several other kingdoms declared their independence. One kingdom that declared its independence from the Mauryan/ Sunga rule was the kingdom of Vidarbha.

Due to this, the Sunga emperor launched a military expedition for recapturing the Vidarbha region. Agnimitra the son of Pushyamitra who later became the governor of Vidhisha successfully conquered the region Vidarbha.

During the period of this conflict, king Yajnasena was the leader of the Vidarbha kingdom, and after his defeat, the kingdom was probably divided into two parts.

Besides the campaign against the Vidarbha Pushyamitra also faced an invasion by the Greeks.  

According to Patanjali’s Mahabhashya the famous author of the Sunga period the Greeks were defeated by Pushyamitra when the former marched towards Ayodhya. It is believed that the defeated Greek king in this conflict was Demetrius.  

But the conflict between the Sunga’s and the Bactrian Greeks continued. According to Kalidasa’s Malavikaagnimitram Vasumitra the son of Agnimitra defeated the Greeks near the Sindh River. The main reason behind this conflict was the Ashvamedha Sacrifices which were performed by Pushyamitra.

It is generally held that the horse of this Vedic Sacrifice was stopped by the Greeks when it reached near Sindhu River. 

All in all, Pushyamitra ruled for about 36 years and after his death, his son Agnimitra ascended the throne of the Sunga Empire.

Other Side of Sunga History: Relation with Buddhism

Apart from the aggressive military policy of the Sunga and their contribution towards the revitalization of the Brahmanical culture the Sunga’s had a bitter relationship with Buddhism.

There is a fierce debate among historians about the relationship between the Sungas and Buddhists.

Ancient Buddhist texts like Diyavadana, Manjushri, and Tibetan sources mentioned that the Sunga heavily persecuted the Buddhists. Especially the first king i.e. Pushyamitra is considered a cruel monarch who demolished the Buddhist monasteries and killed a large number of Buddhist monarchs at Sialkot.

However, according to R.C. Majumdar, there is no concrete evidence of the persecution of the Buddhists by the Sungas. Also, the great Buddha stupa at Bharhut was built during the period of the Sungas. Apart from this Pushyamitra also renovated the Buddhist monuments at Sanchi. 

To this date, the relationship between the Sunga and the Buddhists remains a topic of heated debate both politically and historically.   

Contribution of the Sunga to Indian History

The Brahmanical traditions were revitalized during the period of the Sunga. In central India, art and architecture also reached new heights and the famous scholar i.e. Patanjali was also the contemporary of Pushayamitra Sunga.

The Sanskrit language also gained a significant amount of impetus under the rule of the Sunga.

Furthermore, the famous historical drama of Kalidasa i.e. Malavikaagnimitram tells the love story of Agnimitra and Malavika. To this date, this text is considered one of the finest works of Ancient Indian literature.

The Sungas ruled for about 112 years in which a total of ten kings ruled from the region of Magadha. Devabhuti was the last Sunga ruler who was killed by Vasudeva Kanva who found the Kanva dynasty after the assassination of the former.    

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