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Shashanka ( Shôshangko), the first important king of ancient Bengalmarker, occupies a prominent place in history of the region. It is generally believed that he ruled approximately between 600 CE and 625 CE, and two dated inscriptions, issued in his 8th and 10th regnal years from Midnaporemarker, and another undated inscription from Egra near Kharagpurmarker have been discovered. The copper plate (dated 619 CE) from Shashanka's subordinate king of Ganjam (Orissamarker) Madhavavarma, Harshavardhana's Banskhera and Madhuvan copper plates and the Nidhanpur copper plate of the Kamarupa king Bhaskaravarman contain information about Shashanka. Shashanka also issued gold and silver coins. A number of independent rulers flourished in Bengal in the intervening period between the decline of Guptas and the rise of Shashanka, and their existence is known from a few inscriptions and gold coins. The seal-matrix of Shri Mahasamanta Shashanka from Rohtasgarh, the contemporary literary accounts of Banabhatta and the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (also known as Hiuen Tsang) as well as the Buddhist text Aryamanjushrimulakalpa are important sources of information on him.

Shashanka has been described both in the inscriptions and literary accounts as the ruler of Gauda. In the narrower sense Gauda is the territory between the river Padma and Bardhamanmarker region, however in course of time it embraced much wider area. In the Satpanchasaddeshavibhaga (Seventh Patala of Book III, Shaktisangama Tantra) Gauda is said to have extended from the Vanga up to Bhuvanesha (modern Bhubaneshwarmarker in Orissa). It is not unlikely that the author had described the extension of Shashanka's Gauda kingdom, which also encompassed parts of Orissamarker.

Early life

Very little information about the early life of Shashanka is known. It appears that he ruled for sometime as a chieftain (mahasamanta) of Rohtasgarh under the Gauda king of Karnasuvarna, who possibly belonged to the family of the Maukharis. According to the Vappa Ghoshavata grant of Jayanaga, Karnasubarnamarker served as the administrative capital for a king named Jayanaga (prior to the reign of Shashanka). In fact, Karnasuvarna was the capital of Shashanka and the famous metropolis was situated near modern Chiruti railway station close to Rajbadidanga (the site of Raktamrttika-mahavihara or modern Rangamati) in the Murshidabadmarker district, West Bengal.

The decline and fall of the Gupta Empire coincided with considerable progress in the outlying regions. Many obscure areas, which were possibly ruled by tribal chiefs and were thinly settled, came into historical limelight. This applied to the red soil areas of West Bengalmarker, north Orissa and the adjoining areas of Madhya Pradeshmarker, which formed part of the Chhotonagpur plateau and were difficult to cultivate and settle.

From this perspective Shashanka attempted to extend his political influence in different parts of India. His first task was the recapture of Magadha from the Maukharis. With his ally Devagupta, the king of Malava, Shashanka waged war against the Maukhari king Grahavarman (the son-in-law of the Pusyabhuti king Prabhakaravardhana), during which time Grahavarman was killed by Devagupta. At this point Rajyavardhana, a Buddhist, and the eldest son of Prabhakarvardhana (who had become king of Sthaneshwermarker) proceeded against Devagupta and defeated and killed him. However Rajyavardhana himself was killed in an encounter with Shashanka.

Conflicts with Harshavardhana

Most of the authorities admit the result of the encounter with Shashanka, but passes the blame of the murder of Rajyavardhana on the shoulders of Shashanka. According to Banabhatta, Rajyavardhana, though routed the Malava army with ridiculous ease, had been 'allured to confidence by false civilities on the part of the king of Gauda, and then weaponless, confiding and alone, despatched to his own quarters'. The Xuanzang also relates the same story. However, fair criticism of Shashanka's conduct is impossible in the absence of detailed information relating to the actual circumstances that led to his enemy's death. Both Banabhatta, whose feelings were deeply shaken at the death of his patron's brother and Xuanzhang, whose pro-Buddhist predilections and personal regard for Harshavardhana are well known, may have found it difficult to restrain their emotions in stating their opinions concerning the affair.

In the opinion of some scholars it is likely that Rajyavardhana was prepared to enter into negotiation for peace with Shashanka, and for this purpose accepted an invitation in the enemy's camp. Shankara, a 14th century commentator of the Harshacharita, states that the Gauda king invited Rajyavardhana in connection with a proposal of marriage between himself and the daughter of the king of Sthaneshwer. The truth of this statement is difficult to verify, as the source of his information is not disclosed. The information about Rajyavardhana's death, furnished by the Banshkhera copper plate inscription of Harsavardhana, is meagre, but the negative impressions created by the accounts of Banabhatta and Xuanzang are considerably mitigated when it is related in the inscription that Rajyavardhana lost his life in keeping with the truth (satyanurodhena) in the abode of his enemy (although the name of the enemy is not given). It appears that Rajyavardhana's death was a result to the unfinished peace-talk, but Shashanka's personal responsibility for this matter cannot be determined with certainty.

After these events the younger brother, Harshavardhana, ascended the throne of Sthaneshwer and gathered a huge army before proceeding to punish Shashanka. Harshavardhana had also formed an alliance with Bhaskaravarman (Kumara of Bana), king of Kamarupa and the eastern neighbour of Shashanka. According to Banabhatta, Harsha entrusted Bhandi to lead the army, while he engaged himself in searching for his widowed sister Rajyashri in the Vindhya forest. It is mentioned in the Harsacharita (8th ucchvasa) that Harsha reunited with the advancing army after rescuing his sister. Later, Harsavardhana became the ruler of Kanyakubja (Kanauj) with the consent of his sister Rajyashri. The progress of Bhandi's march is not known for certain, but there can be no doubt that Shashanka continued to rule his empire vigorously, which included northern Orissa and southern deltaic regions of Bengal.

Towards the end of his reign in 640-43 CE Harsa's authority in southeastern Bihar and Orissa was established and during the same time Bhaskarvarman appears to have also conquered the capital Karnasuvarna. These events are likely to have occurred after the demise of Shashanka as nothing more is heard about him, resulting in a decline of Gauda power. The story of the defeat of Shashanka at the battle of Pundravardhana by Harsha and Shashanka's reign for 17 years, as suggested by the Buddhist text Aryamanjushrimulakalpa are not supported by any other contemporary accounts. Rather, Shashanka's newly discovered inscription from Southern Midnapur records the existence of Dandabhukti-Janapada, combining parts of Midnapurmarker and Orissa points to the contrary.

Evaluation

Harsha, a Shaiva in his early years, had gradually become a great patron of Buddhism. As a devout Buddhist he convened a grand assembly at Kannauj to publicise the Mahayana doctrines. It is here that Harsha is said to make a bloody suppression of a revolt by the Brahmanas. After Kannauj, he held a great assembly at Prayaga and both the assemblies were attended by Xuanzang and all the tributary princes, ministers, nobles and other officials. Xuanzang is said to have made a remark that Harsha was born at the behest of the Bodhisattva to punish Shashanka, a hater of Buddhist religion. He also cited a few instances of Shashanka's anti-Buddhist activities. But it may be mentioned that the flourishing condition of the famed Buddhist University at Nalanda (where Xuanzang himself had studied for some time) and the existence of a number of monasteries in Shashanka's kingdom including the Raktamrttika-Mahavihara near Karnasuvarna, goes against the claims made by Xuanzang.

In other words, it appears that the Chinese pilgrim, who enjoyed the patronage of Harsha, exhibits a strong bias against the adversary of his patron. The vituperative languages used by Banabhatta, court poet to Harsha, against the Gaudadhipa (the name of Shashanka, meaning Shiva, is never mentioned; possibly Banabhatta himself was a devout Shaiva) as Gauda-bhujanga or Gaudadhama etc demonstrates his contempt for Shashanka. While it is true that Shashanka was a strong champion of Brahmanical religion and a devout Shaiva, and had little sympathy for Buddhism which received patronage from the wealthy mercantile classes and from no less than his arch rival, Harshavardhana himself. It is not unlikely that it wounded the sentiments of the Buddhists of his time.

On the contrary, Harshavardhana's pro-Buddhist and anti-Brahmanical attitude (the bloody suppression of a large number of Brahmanas during the Kannauj assembly may be cited here) caused despair among the followers of Brahmanical religion who began to migrate to eastern India in large numbers. Xuanzang mentions of an influx of learned Brahmanas in Kamarupa, where a large number of them were granted lands in Kamarupa by Bhaskaravarman for their settlement. The Kulaji texts also note the influx of Kanauji Brahmanas into Bengal. The story of the migration of Graha-Vipras from the banks of the Sarayu river (in Uttar Pradeshmarker) to Bengal, possibly at the invitation of Shashanka, may be taken notice of in this connection. The impact of this large-scale migration though initially was welcomed both in Bengal and Kamarupa, told upon the socio-economic fabric of the respective countries. The social restrictions in behaviour, attitude and co-mingling among the different classes though not much felt under the rule of Buddhist Palas, became more and more acute under the Senas, who championed the Brahmanical religions, widened the gaps among different classes of people. The emergence of lowly untouchable classes and the antaja classes in the society became more and more pronounced.

Legacy

He was succeded by his son Manava, who ruled for 8 months.

Soon after Shashanka's demise, his kingdom fell apart, and was captured by Harshavardhana and his ally, Bhaskarvarmana. His death marked a state of great political and social unrest in Bengal, with small kings and vassals fighting intermittently to gain power; which is often termed as the era of "Matsyanyay"a, a word that translates as "law of the fish", alluding to the unwritten law of the ocean, where a smaller fish is devoured by a larger fish, only to be devoured by a still larger fish, sooner or later. This era of uncertainty lasted for about two centuries, before the rise of Gopala and the establishment of a new dynasty, the Pala Empire, which unified Bengal once again.

References

  • RC Majumdar, History of Bengal, Dacca, 1943, pp 58–68
  • Sudhir R Das, Rajbadidanga, Calcutta, 1962
  • RC Majumdar, History of Ancient Bengal, Calcutta, 1971
  • PK Bhattacharyya, Two Interesting Coins of Shashanka, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, London, 2, 1979

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