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Iron Age India

The Sungas and Kanavas

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 2 August 2009

The Sunga dynasty (187-75 BC) began through treachery and also ended, as if by divine justice, through treachery.

The founder of the Sunga dynasty was Pushyamitra, a minister in the court of the last Mauryan ruler, Brihadrata. Mauryan rule was on its last legs, after revolts by the Satvahanas in the south and intrusions by the Greek forces in the north-western part of the kingdom.

The ineptitude of Brihadrata led to the usurpation of his throne by his Brahmin minister, Pushyamitra.

Pushyamitra not only managed to consolidate the remaining Magadhan territories (previously part of the Mauryan empire), but was also successful in pushing back the Greeks beyond the River Indus. His son, Agnimitra, who was made the governor of Vidisha, campaigned in the south-west against Yajnasena, the ruler of Berar (Vidharba). He successfully divided the kingdom in two and parcelled it out between Yajnasena and his estranged cousin, Madhavasena (who had sought Pushyamitra's help). Both kings accepted Pushyamitra's suzerainty.

After his success against the Greeks, Pushyamitra was reported for having performed the Ashwamegha (horse sacrifice) so he declared himself emperor.

Certain Buddhist texts such as Divyavadana and Ashokavadana have mentioned Pushyamitra as a Brahmin bigot who destroyed Buddhist 'stupas' and 'viharas' and offered a bounty of a hundred gold pieces on the head of every monk who was killed.

However, historians like Romila Thapar have refuted these stories as an exaggeration. Whatever the truth might be, there is evidence which reveals that the construction of the great Buddhist stupa at Bharhut took place during the reign of the Sungas.

The great grammarian Patanjali was a contemporary of Pushyamitra. Also the famed Bramhana texts like Manusmriti, Vishnusmriti and Yagyavalkasmriti were compiled during the reign of the Sungas.

Pushyamitra was succeeded by his son, Agnimitra, and later by his grandson Sujyestha. His other grandson, Vasumitra, who probably succeeded Sujyestha, is credited with having repulsed the attack by the Greek king Demetrius.

There were subsequent Sunga kings such as Bhagvata. The last Sunga king, Devabhumi, was killed by a slave girl at the behest of his minister, Vasudeva, who laid the foundation of the Kanava dynasty which ruled Magadha for another 45 years. There is little evidence about the rule of these later kings, making them a very shadowy dynasty of kings.

Kanava rule was quickly eclipsed after an attack by the Andhras from the south.


Main Sources

Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Thapar, Romila - Penguin History of India, Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.