The Great Dynasties

The 6th, 5th and the 4th centuries B.C. saw the rise of several dynasties in Northern India. The most remarkable and strong of these was the Magadha dynasties of kings which flourished from the south of the present Bihar state of India. Of these, the Haryanka dynasty was a brilliant one, followed by the Sisunaga dynasty, during which Buddhism and Jainism developed faster. It was followed by the Maurya dynasty, which lasted for about four centuries, and it was a colorful period of several achievements in the history of India. The dynasty was founded by King Chandragupta (317 – 293 BC), a skilful warrior and commander, himself ably assisted by Chanakya a great master of political strategies. Chanakya, also known as Kautiliya, is the celebrated author of Arthashastra, a classic work on statecraft. Chandragupta expanded his empire to the borders of Persia and Central Asia in the North West and to the deep south of India. He embraced Jainism and this made the religion more popular in South India. He ruled his empire, one of the largest in the history of India, for 24 years.

Chandragupta's son was Bindusara who expanded the empire to more areas by military conquests and historians say his empire was almost the same in form as modern India. Bindusara was succeeded by his son Ashoka (304-232 BC – the dates are disputed), who conquered Kalinga (modern Orissa) also, which was left out by his father's campaign. But this terrible war, in which more than 100,000 were killed and 150,000 were taken prisoners, made him repent and he was convinced of the futility of wars. The change in his mind made him turn to Buddhism and he became the greatest propagator of the religion. He erected rock edicts in different parts of his empire, declaring the message of Buddhism, the important events during his reign, and his principles of administration. But he did not make Buddhism the state religion. He wanted all sects to co-exist. Ashoka's rock edicts remain some of the greatest tourist attractions even today. Buddhism reached all over South and South East Asia. His empire extended in the West up to Afghanistan, Kashmir in the North, and Bengal in the East.

Ashoka (one who is free from sadness) was the greatest and the most famous of the emperors in the history of India. He was also called devanaam priyadassi (dear to the gods). He treated his subjects as his own children, and he wanted them to consider him as their father.

After the death of Ashoka, Pushamitra Sumga, the army chief, grabbed power and established a new dynasty, and this was soon thrown out by the Kanvas and they were defeated by the powerful Satavahanas of the South who established their own empire. These days of turbulence also saw a series of invasions from abroad – the Kushanas, Indo-Greeks, Indo-Scythians, Indo-Parthians, the Sakas… These invaders set up their own kingdoms of power in parts of India. The Kushanas were the invaders coming from Turkmanistan, and their empire lasted for almost two centuries from 1st to 3rd AD. The most famous of the Kushana rulers was Kanishka, under whose order Buddhism was propagated to various areas of his empire. The Sakas were invaders from abroad, but their rule in India lasted for almost four centuries from AD 35 through 405, according to historical records. The Saka calendar was started by the famous King Chasthana, to mark his coronation.

Now enter the Guptas of Magadha, who unified various kingdoms and ruled over India from AD 320 through 540. Historians hail this period as the golden period in the history of India. The most famous of the Gupta rulers were Chandragupta I, Samudragupta and Chandragupta II, more famously known as Vikramaditya, whose reign was marked by classic authors like Kalidasa, Varahamihira and Amarasimha. Vikramaditya's court was adorned by great scholars and scientists of the day. It was during his time that Fahien, the Chinese traveler visited India. It was the invasion from the Huns that marked the end of the Gupta period and as historians have pointed out there has been no trace of the Guptas after 6th century. Most of their monuments were destroyed. Only the classic works of authors like Kalidasa remain as living monuments to those wonderful years of all round glory of India.

After the fall of the Guptas, a new kingdom came up in the North West. The most noted ruler of this dynasty was King Harsha Vardhana, who ruled for a long period of 40 years from AD 606 to 647. Great authors like Banabhatta adorned his court, literature and culture flourished, and his period was also a glorious one.

Harsha Vardhana having gone, the political scene lay fragmented and it took a long time for history to be active again. Historians have found India being unified again only during the time of Akbar, the famous Mughal Emperor.