Religion Hinduism Buddhism
185–151 BCE Pushyamitra Shunga
151–141 BCE Agnimitra
The Shunga Empire (IAST: Śuṅga) was an ancient Indian dynasty from Magadha that controlled vast areas of the Indian subcontinent from around 187 to 78 BCE. The dynasty was established by Pushyamitra Shunga, after the fall of the Maurya Empire. Its capital was Pataliputra, but later emperors such as Bhagabhadra also held court at Besnagar (modern Vidisha) in eastern Malwa.
Pushyamitra Shunga ruled for 36 years and was succeeded by his son Agnimitra. There were ten Shunga rulers. The empire is noted for its numerous wars with both foreign and indigenous powers. They fought the Kalinga, the Satavahana dynasty, the Indo-Greek Kingdom and possibly the Panchalas and Mathuras.
Art, education, philosophy, and other forms of learning flowered during this period including small terracotta images, larger stone sculptures, and architectural monuments such as the stupa at Bharhut, and the renowned Great Stupa at Sanchi. Shunga rulers helped to establish the tradition of royal sponsorship of learning and art. The script used by the empire was a variant of Brahmi script and was used to write Sanskrit.
The Shunga Empire played an imperative role in patronizing culture at a time when some of the most important developments in Hindu thought were taking place. Patanjali's Mahābhāṣya was composed in this period. Artistry also progressed with the rise of the Mathura art style.
The Kanva dynasty succeeded the Shungas around 73 BCE.
The Shunga dynasty was a Brahmin dynasty, established in 185 BCE, about 50 years after Ashoka's death, when the emperor Brihadratha Maurya, the last ruler of the Maurya Empire, was assassinated by his Senānī or commander-in-chief, Pushyamitra Shunga, while he was reviewing the Guard of Honour of his forces. Pushyamitra Shunga then ascended the throne.
Pushyamitra Shunga became the ruler of Magadha and neighbouring territories. The empire of Pushyamitra was extended to the Narmada River in the south, controlled Jalandhar and Sialkot in the Punjab region in the northwest and the city of Ujjain in Central India. Kabul and much of the Punjab passed into the hands of the Indo-Greeks and the Deccan Plateau to the Satavahana dynasty.
Pushyamitra died after ruling for 36 years (187–151 BCE). He was succeeded by son Agnimitra. This prince is the hero of a famous drama by one of India's greatest playwrights, Kālidāsa. Agnimitra was viceroy of Vidisha when the story takes place.
The power of the Shungas gradually weakened. It is said that there were ten Shunga emperors. The Shungas were succeeded by the Kanva dynasty around 73 BCE.
Following the Mauryans, the first Brahmin emperor was Pushyamitra Shunga, and is believed by some historians to have persecuted Buddhists and contributed to a resurgence of Brahmanism that forced Buddhism outwards to Kashmir, Gandhara and Bactria. Buddhist scripture Divyavdan and ancient Tibbatan historian Taranath have written about persecution of Buddhists, However, there is doubt as to whether he did persecute Buddhists actively.
Later Shunga emperors were seen as amenable to Buddhism and as having contributed to the building of the stupa at Bharhut.
Some writers believe that Brahmanism competed in political and spiritual realm with Buddhism in the Gangetic plains. Buddhism flourished in the realms of the Bactrian kings.
Some Indian scholars are of the opinion that the orthodox Shunga emperors were not intolerant towards Buddhism and that Buddhism prospered during the time of the Shunga emperors. The existence of Buddhism in Bengal in the Shunga period can also be inferred from a terracotta tablet that was found at Tamralipti and is on exhibit at the Asutosh Museum in Kolkata.
Cunningham has regretted the loss of the latter part of these important records. As regards the first coping inscription, he has found traces of eleven Brahmi letters after "Kuramgiye danam", the first nine of which read "rajapasada-cetika sa". Bloch reads these nine letters as "raja-pasada-cetikasa" and translates this expression in relation to the preceding words:
Wars of the Shungas
War and conflict characterized the Shunga period. They are known to have warred with the Kalingas, Satavahanas, the Indo-Greeks, and possibly the Panchalas and Mathuras.
The Shunga Empire's wars with the Indo-Greek Kingdom figure greatly in the history of this period. From around 180 BCE the Greco-Bactrian ruler Demetrius, conquered the Kabul Valley and is theorized to have advanced into the trans-Indus. The Indo Greek Menander is credited with either joining or leading a campaign to Pataliputra with other Indian rulers; however, very little is known about the exact nature and success of the campaign. The net result of these wars remains uncertain.
Some interpretations of the Mahabharata and Yuga Purana have attempted to account for this:
The Anushasana Parva of the Mahabharata affirms that the city of Mathura was under the joint control of the Yavanas and the Kambojas.
Also the Hindu text of the Yuga Purana, which describes Indian historical events in the form of a prophecy, relates the attack of the Indo-Greeks on the capital Pataliputra, a magnificent fortified city with 570 towers and 64 gates according to Megasthenes, and describes the ultimate destruction of the city's walls:"Then, after having approached Saketa together with the Panchalas and the Mathuras, the Yavanas, valiant in battle, will reach Kusumadhvaja ("The town of the flower-standard", Pataliputra). Then, once Puspapura (another name of Pataliputra) has been reached and its celebrated mud[-walls] cast down, all the realm will be in disorder." (Yuga Purana, Paragraph 47–48, 2002 edition.)
Pushyamitra is recorded to have performed two Ashvamedhas and Shunga imperial inscriptions have extended as far as Jalandhar. Scriptures such as the Divyavadana note that his rule extended even farther to Sialkot, in the Punjab. Moreover, if it was lost, Mathura was regained by the Shungas around 100 BCE (or by other indigenous rulers: the Arjunayanas (area of Mathura) and Yaudheyas mention military victories on their coins ("Victory of the Arjunayanas", "Victory of the Yaudheyas"), and during the 1st century BCE, the Trigartas, Audumbaras and finally the Kunindas also started to mint their own coins). Accounts of battles between the Greeks and the Shunga in Northwestern India are also found in the Mālavikāgnimitram, a play by Kālidāsa which describes a battle between Greek cavalrymen and Vasumitra, the grandson of Pushyamitra, on the Indus river, in which the Indians defeated the Greeks and Pushyamitra successfully completed the Ashvamedha Yagna.
Nevertheless, very little can be said with great certainty. However, what does appear clear is that the two realms appeared to have established normalized diplomatic relations in the succeeding reigns of their respective rulers.
The Indo-Greeks and the Shungas seem to have reconciled and exchanged diplomatic missions around 110 BCE, as indicated by the Heliodorus pillar, which records the dispatch of a Greek ambassador named Heliodorus, from the court of the Indo-Greek king Antialcidas, to the court of the Shunga emperor Bhagabhadra at the site of Vidisha in central India.
While there is much debate on the religious politics of the Shunga dynasty, it is recognized for a number of contributions. Art, education, philosophy, and other learning flowered during this period. Most notably, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and Mahabhashya were composed in this period. It is also noted for its subsequent mention in the Malavikaagnimitra. This work was composed by Kalidasa in the later Gupta period, and romanticized the love of Malavika and King Agnimitra, with a background of court intrigue.
Artistry on the subcontinent also progressed with the rise of the Mathura school, which is considered the indigenous counterpart to the more Hellenistic Gandhara school of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
During the historical Shunga period (185 to 73 BCE), Buddhist activity also managed to survive somewhat in central India (Madhya Pradesh) as suggested by some architectural expansions that were done at the stupas of Sanchi and Barhut, originally started under Emperor Ashoka. It remains uncertain whether these works were due to the weakness of the control of the Shungas in these areas, or a sign of tolerance on their part.
The last of the Shunga emperors was Devabhuti (83–73 BCE). He was assassinated by his minister (Vasudeva Kanva) and is said to have been overfond of the company of women. The Shunga dynasty was then replaced by the subsequent Kanvas.
The script used by the Shunga was a variant of Brahmi, and was used to write the Sanskrit language. The script is thought to be an intermediary between the Maurya and the Kalinga Brahmi scripts.