The Kushan Era : India's Golden Age


The Kushans were nomadic people who migrated from China sometime in the first century CE. They carved out a large empire covering Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India which endured for more than 2 centuries. One of the most interesting aspects of the Kushan Empire was its spirit of cultural assimilation. A wide variety of deities on Kushan coins indicates that the empire was characterized by a tremendous spirit of religious assimilation; a trait which would have helped them to rule over a varied population. We find on Kushan coins, Greek gods such as Helios and Salene, Iranian gods such as Nana, Mithra, Pharro, Mao and Ardoksho, Hindu gods such as Shiva and Kartikeya, the Zoroastrian deity, Ahura Mazda and the Buddha.

An important event of the Kushan Empire is that it not only witnessed the spread of Buddhism but also a split within the religion itself. The Buddhist religion was permanently divided into two big camps - Hinayana and Mahayana. The former chose to follow the original teachings of the Buddha and considered him a human who had found the way to Nirvana while the latter venerated Buddha as a God born in human form to deliver people of their worldly miseries. Kanishka, the greatest Kushan emperor, is best remembered today for sponsoring a Buddhist conference in Kashmir which led to the adoption and promotion of Mahayana Buddhism. It is said that for this council, Kanishka gathered 500 monks to compile extensive commentaries on the Dharma.

The Kushan age was a time when trade with the Roman Empire led to huge surpluses for the Kushans who controlled these trade routes. This was a time when gold flowed into India in large quantities. Vima Kadphises was an early Kushan emperor who added to the Kushan territory by his conquests in Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan. Vima’s coins were the first indigenous Indian gold coins which were minted. The Kushans called these coins the Dinara. The gold weight standard of approximately 8 grams corresponds to that of Roman coins of the 1st century. With Kushan coinage, the character of coins in north India had become far more Indian. The Kushan gold coins also introduced to Indian numismatics the concept of attributing divinity to royalty. Most of Vima’s coins feature Shiva on the reverse indicating that he was his devotee. Some numismatists point out that the God represented above is actually a Zoroastrian God called Oesho. The symbolism inherent in the trident and other motifs indicate that this was a time when the identity of the Zoroastrian God Oesho was being blended with that of the Indic God Shiva!


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