Nationalism And Imperialism Under The Guptas
THE MAURYA EMPIRE FADED AWAY AND GAVE PLACE TO THE SUNGA dynasty, which ruled over a much smaller area. In the south great states were rising, and in the north the Bactrians, or Indo-Greeks, were spreading out from Kabul to the Punjab. Under Menander they threatened Pataliputra itself but were defeated and repelled. Menander himself succumbed to the spirit and atmosphere of India and became a Buddhist, a famous one, known as King Milinda, popular in Buddhist legend and regarded almost as a saint. From the fusion of Indian and Greek cultures rose the Graeco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, the region covering Afghanistan and the frontier.
There is a granite pillar called the Heliodorus column, dating from the first century B.C., at Besnagar, near Sanchi in Central India, bearing an inscription in Sanskrit. This gives us a glimpse of the process of Indianization of the Greeks who had come to the frontier, and their absorption of Indian culture. The inscription has been translated thus:
‘This Garuda column of Vasudeva (Vishnu), the God of gods, was erected by Heliodorus, a worshipper of Vishnu, the son of Dion, and an inhabitant of Taxila, who came as Greek ambassador from the great King Antialcidas to King Kashiputra Bhagabhadra, the saviour, then reigning in the fourteenth year of his kingship.’
‘Three immortal precepts, when practised well, lead to heaven—self-restraint, self-sacrifice (charity), conscientiousness.’
In Central Asia the Shakas or Scythians (Seistan=Shakasthan) had established themselves in the Oxus Valley. The Yueh Chih, coming from further east, drove them out and pushed them into North India. These Shakas became converts to Buddhism and Hinduism. Among the Yueh Chih, one of the clans, the Kushans, established their supremacy and then extended their sway over Northern India. They defeated the Shakas and pushed them still further south, the Shakas going to Kathiawad and the Deccan. The Kushans thereupon established an extensive and durable empire over the whole of North India and a great part of Central Asia. Some of them became converts to the Hindu faith, but most of them became Buddhists, and their most famous king, Kanishka, is also one of the heroes of Buddhist legend, which records his great deeds and public works. Buddhist though he was, it appears that the state religion was a mixed affair to which even Zoroastrianism had contributed. This borderland state, called the Kushan Empire, with its seat near modern Peshawar, and the old university of Taxila near by, became the meeting place of men from many nations. There the Indians met the Scythians, the Yueh Chih, the Iranians, the Bactrian Greeks, the Turks, and the Chinese, and the various cultures reacted on each other. A vigorous school of sculpture and painting arose as a result of their interactions. It was during this period that, historically, the first contacts took place between China and India, and a Chinese embassy came to India in 64 A.C. Minor but very welcome gifts of China to India at that time were the peach and the pear trees. Right on the borders of the Gobi Desert, at Turfan and Kucha, rose fascinating amalgams of Indian, Chinese, and Iranian cultures.
During the Kushan period a great schism divided Buddhism into two sections—the Mahayana and the Hinayana—and controversy raged between them and, as has been India’s way, the issue was put to debate in great assemblies, to which representatives came from all over the country. Kashmir was situated near the centre of the empire and was full of this debate and of cultural activities. One name stands out in this controversy, that of Nagarjuna, who lived in the first century A.C. He was a towering personality, great in Buddhist scholarship and Indian philosophy, and it was largely because of him that Mahayana triumphed in India. It was the Mahayana doctrine that spread to China, while Ceylon and Burma adhered to Hinayana.
The Kushans had Indianized themselves and had become patrons of Indian culture; yet an undercurrent of nationalist resistance to their rule continued, and when, later, fresh tribes poured into India, this nationalist and anti-foreign movement took shape at the beginning of the fourth century A.C. Another great ruler, also named Chandragupta, drove out the new intruders and established a powerful and widespread empire.
Thus began the age of the imperial Guptas in 320 A.C. which produced a remarkable succession of great rulers, successful in war and in the arts of peace. Repeated invasions had produced a strong anti-foreign feeling and the old Brahmin-Kshatriya element in the country was forced to think in terms of defence both of their homeland and their culture. The foreign elements which had been absorbed were accepted, but all new-comers met with a vigorous resistance, and an attempt was made to build up a homogenous state based on old Brahminic ideals. But the old self-assurance was going and these ideals began to develop a rigidity which was foreign to their nature. India seemed to draw into her shell, both physically and mentally.
Yet that shell was deep enough and wide enough. Previously, in the ages since the Aryans had come down to what they called Aryavarta or Bharatvarsha, the problem that faced India was to produce a synthesis between this new race and culture and the old race and civilization of the land. To that the mind of India devoted itself and it produced an enduring solution built on the strong foundations of a joint Indo-Aryan culture. Other foreign elements came and were absorbed. They made little difference. Though India had many contacts with other countries through trade and otherwise, essentially she was absorbed in herself and paid little attention to what happened elsewhere. But now periodic invasion by strange people with strange customs had shaken her up and she could no longer ignore these eruptions, which not only broke up her political structure but endangered her cultural ideals and social structure also. The reaction was essentially a nationalist one, with the strength as well as the narrowness of nationalism. That mixture of religion and philosophy, history and tradition, custom and social structure, which in its wide fold included almost every aspect of the life of India, and which might be called Brahminism or (to use a later word) Hinduism, became the symbol of nationalism. It was indeed a national religion, with its appeal to all those deep instincts, racial and cultural, which form the basis everywhere of nationalism today. Buddhism, child of Indian thought, had its nationalist background also. India was to it the holy land where Buddha had lived and preached and died, where famous scholars and saints had spread the faith. But Buddhism was essentially international, a world religion, and as it developed and spread it became increasingly so. Thus it was natural for the old Brahminic faith to become the symbol again and again of nationalist revivals.
That faith and philosophy were tolerant and chivalrous to the various religions and racial elements in India, and they still continued to absorb them into their wide-flung structure, but they became increasingly aggressive to the outsider and sought to protect themselves against his impact. In doing so, the spirit of nationalism they had roused often took on the semblance of imperialism as it frequently does when it grows in strength. The age of the Guptas, enlightened, vigorous, highly cultured, and full of vitality as it was, rapidly developed these imperialistic tendencies. One of its great rulers, Samudragupta, has been called the Indian Napoleon. From a literary and artistic point of view it was a brilliant period.
From early in the fourth century onwards for about a hundred and fifty years the Guptas ruled over a powerful and prosperous state in the north. For almost another century and a half their successors continued but they were on the defensive now and the empire shrank and became smaller and smaller. New invaders from Central Asia were pouring into India and attacking them. These were the White Huns, as they are called, who ravaged the land, as under Attila they were ravaging Europe. Their barbarous behaviour and fiendish cruelty at last roused the people, and a united attack by a confederacy under Yasho-varman was made on them. The Hun power was broken and their chief, Mihiragula, was made a prisoner. But the descendant of the Guptas, Baladitya, in accordance with his country’s customs, treated him with generosity and allowed him to leave India. Mihiragula responded to this treatment by returning later and making a treacherous attack on his benefactor.
But the Hun rule in Northern India was of brief duration— about half a century. Many of them remained, however, in the country as petty chiefs giving trouble occasionally and being absorbed into the sea of Indian humanity. Some of these chiefs became aggressive early in the seventh century A.C. They were crushed by the King of Kanauj, Harshavardhana, who thereafter built up a powerful state right across Northern and Central India. He was an ardent Buddhist but his Buddhism was of the Mahayana variety which was akin in many ways to Hinduism. He encouraged both Buddhism and Hinduism. It was in his time that the famous Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang (or Yuan Chwang) came to India (in 629 A.C.). Harshavardhana was a poet and dramatist and he gathered round his court many artists and poets, making his capital Ujjayini, a famous centre of cultural activities. Harsha died in 648 A.C., just about the time when Islam was emerging from the deserts of Arabia, to spread out rapidly across Africa and Asia.
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