Let’s read the story of the forgotten king- Kanishka I.
The land of India has seen a long list of great rulers. There is no ultimate answer as to who was the greatest among them. But we do have a definite list of great Kings to choose from. Kanishka comes on that list along with Ashoka, Chandragupta, Akbar, Vikramaditya, and many more.
Kanishka was a king of the Kushan dynasty. He was the successor of Vima Kaphises. He grew up without any religion. According to some Buddhist texts from the book Mahayana, Kanishka was very spiritual but wasn’t satisfied by the values of the religions around him. He sought after something that the Buddhists called ‘the only truth’. During his days of rulings, he stumbled upon a great sage of the Buddhist faith. Kanishka described the man as a ‘golden sage’, probably because he was dressed in saffron. This encounter with the golden sage changed him. The two of them had lengthy discussions and debates. Finally, Kanishka was enlightened and he took Buddhism as his religion.
Present-day Afghanistan sadly has no remains of its glorious past. But under Kanishka, the region of Afghanistan known as Gandhar had a boom in Buddhism. Gandhar became an epicentre of Buddhism for the whole of Asia and Europe.
Unlike Ashoka, Kanishka didn’t stop expanding his territory after adopting Buddhism. Before his succession, the Kushan dynasty was already the biggest kingdom in the Indian subcontinent. But Kanishka managed to expand it even more. He went on to capture Magadha and its capital Patliputra. Patliputra was the place of origin of Buddhism. It was also close to Gaya, where Buddha got his enlightenment. It also had the ancient university of Nalanda which produced monks of both Hindu and Buddhist faith. After capturing Patliputra, Kanishka took a large number of Buddhist monks from Patliputra to Gandhar.
Kanishka opened a school of art in Gandhara with the help of Buddhist monks. He then shifted his focus to the lands of Kashmir. The Kashmir region was notorious for its mountainous demography. After capturing the region of Kashmir, Kanisha held the fourth council of Buddhism there. This was done as an attempt to spread Buddhism in the valleys of Kashmir.
In his final years, he too became a monk and left the throne. He busied himself with councils and schools of Buddhism. The year and the cause of his death are unknown to our historians. He must have passed away while travelling for the expansion of Buddhism. He spent most of his last years in modern-day Kazakhstan. Historians believe the Kazakh, which means ‘to wander’ also comes from Kanishka.
The greatness of King Kanishka is mostly unheard of and unpopular, for a king of his stature and deeds. The reason behind this is very depressing. The other great kings of India left a great heritage to remember them by. But all the works of Kanishka were wiped clear by the Islamic invasion. All the temples of Buddhism and Hinduism were destroyed including the magnificent statues of Buddha carved out of mountains. Unfortunately, all the efforts of Kanishka were revered in the years to come. Today, Buddhism doesn’t even exist in Afghanistan.
But fortunately, some of the Buddhist texts of his time remained hidden from the invaders. They were the key to unveiling the greatness of King Kanishka. And even though very few people remember him today, the bigger victory is in being remembered as a good human being, a good leader, and a good King.