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The Era of Heroism: The Splendour of Shashanka

Age of Glory

In the recent writings on Indian history, there are several episodes and events that have been given undue respect and importance. Several details that are not found in honest treatises of history have been presented to us and we are misguided and cheated; these also come in the way of our pursuit for the vision of truth. Almost all our history textbooks of today fall under this category of deceitful writing.

Our country has given birth to so many heroes, so many standalone champions. At one point of time, India was as large as—or perhaps larger than—Europe (not considering the landmass of the former USSR). It was so large that it could have been a continent in itself. In terms of landmass, China is larger than India. But several portions of the land are not inhabitable; further those regions lack vegetation. Those regions have neither natural resources nor cultural richness. Therefore, many parts of China are just arid land and snow deserts; further, we must not forget that it was filled with barbarianism.

Buddhism went to China without any weapons or allurements and yet gained prominence. It becomes evident therefore that a cultured lifestyle and customs that Buddhism embodied [which is itself something drawn from the ancient Sanātana-dharmic tradition of India] appealed to the inhabitants of China. Due to its ancient culture, diversity of life, and continuity of tradition, two countries of Asia stand out: India and China. However, in those times, China had to look to India for cultural and spiritual guidance. [The Chinese diplomat Hu Shih famously said, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for twenty centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.”]

In reality, China is not a land of plenty. If a country is constantly attacking other countries, it is to be understood that the country is not culturally self-sufficient [in other words, it doesn’t have what’s called the ‘abundance mindset.’] One of the characteristics of barbarism is constantly invading other countries by using brute force, for the sake of natural resources.

Bhārata, on the other hand, never invaded any other country, never attacked any land to loot its wealth. We don’t have any records to show that we ever invaded any other country. No other country has any records that we attacked them; the reason being that India was always a land of plenty, full of natural resources and a rich culture. In our own land, several great kings and heroes were ruling over huge territories. Today, we aren’t even aware of their existence. Our great heroes and champions never got the sort of publicity that a single European hero got – be it Bismarck, or Garibaldi, or Napoleon.

Unsung Heroes

For instance, after Prithvīrāj Chauhān, the throne of Delhi went to the Muslims, which was wrested from them by Hemu or Hemachandra. He was a brave warrior. Through his valour and heroism, he defeated Humayan and rose to power. Through his mentor Bairam Khan, Akbar locked horns with Hemachandra and managed to take the empire away. Many of our historians don’t highlight this episode of a Hindu king valorously taking back control over Delhi, which was under the thumb of Islamic invaders for over two hundred years. Au contraire, the textbooks paint Hemachandra as a rebel, whose intent was mutiny. And not only that, they never refer to him by his full name – Hemachandra Vikramāditya and cover up the fact that he was an unparalleled warrior.

The names of several kings have gained prominence thanks to some great poets, foreign travellers, and a few ācāryas of specific schools of philosophy. However, the names of many kings who were stronger, superior, and far more powerful have not gained popularity at all.

वल्मीकप्रभवेण रामनृपतिर्व्यासेन धर्मात्मजो
व्याख्यातः किल कालिदासकविना श्रीविक्रमाङ्को नृपः।
भोजश्चित्तपबिल्हणप्रभृतिभिः कर्णोऽपि विद्यापतेः
ख्यातिं यान्ति नरेश्वराः कविवरैः स्फारैर्न भेरीरवैः॥
“Rāma gained fame due to Vālmīki, Dharmarāja gained fame due to Vyāsa. Vikramaditya gained fame because of Kālidāsa. Bhoja gained fame because of Cittappa, Bilhaṇa, and others. ‘Vidyāpati’ Bilhaṇa wrote a play called Karṇasundari that brought fame to the Gujarat king Karṇadeva; ultimately kings have gained fame through poets.”

Without Ravikīrti, we would never have known about Pulakeśi. In the precincts of the Aihole temple, in the upper portions, we find close to thirty-five poems carved in stone, composed by Ravikīrti about King Pulakeśi. It is because of that inscription we learn about Pulakeśi’s heroism. We also learn about a few episodes from the travelogue Siyuki of Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang).

If Pulakeśi had found a poet like Bāṇabhaṭṭa, how many details would have emerged of his life and times! If today we see Harṣavardhana as a great king then the writings of Bāṇabhaṭṭa and Xuanzang are largely responsible for it. Among the Maukhari kings who were not fortunate to find a poet to sing their paeans, the foremost is Śaśāṅka.

Śaśāṅka, the Crest-jewel of Courage

Śaśāṅka ruled Bengal even before the Pālas. Śaśāṅka was an adversary to Harṣavardhana’s father and elder brother. This is the reason Bāṇabhaṭṭa—in his poem Harṣacarita—doesn’t give Śaśāṅka the prominence he deserves.

In the Rohtasgarh Inscription, King Śaśāṅka has been called ‘Śrī-mahā-sāmanta-śaśāṅka.’ He was a great sāmanta (ruler, leader, general). He waged war against the strong king of Kānyakubja (Kannauj). He was originally from the Gauḍa-deśa (modern-day Bengal).

Śaśāṅka waged war against the Maukharis. Śaśāṅka killed Gṛhavarma, who was Harṣavardhana’s brother-in-law (Rājyaśrī’s husband) and the chief of the Maukharis. Harṣavardhana’s elder brother, Rājyavardhana fought against Śaśāṅka and lost. Harṣavardhana too waged war against Śaśāṅka but we’re unsure if he won or lost. Bāṇabhaṭṭa’s Harṣacarita is silent on this episode. According to the Buddhist treatise Manjuśrī, Harṣavardhana’s attack on Śaśāṅka hardly caused a dent and it wasn’t possible to bring him under control.

Due to the lack of historical records, we don’t get complete information about great heroes like Śaśāṅka. Our people have not properly recorded several episodes from our history. Sometimes in traditional accounts, we get a lot of details that are completely irrelevant to us. Useless bits of information are available aplenty. In this manner, a deficiency in our recording of history and our lack of systematic documentation has often troubled the writers of history and continue to do so.

According to Xuanzang, Śaśāṅka chopped down the Bodhi tree in Gayā and ordered the removal of an image of Buddha from a neighbouring temple. Writing about this, R. C. Majumdar says in The History and Culture of the Indian People (Volume 3, pp. 80-81), “These and other stories of persecution of Buddhism by Śaśāṅka cannot be accepted as true, without independent testimony. Besides, the flourishing condition of Buddhism in the capital-city of Śaśāṅka, as described by Hiuen Tsang, is hardly compatible with the view that he was a religious bigot and a cruel persecutor of Buddhism.”

We find no records to show that Śaśāṅka destroyed Buddhism. It is because of a few unenlightened bigots, who in a bid to win over the hearts of their sectarian friends, have hurled accusations at certain kings of harming their sect, while in fact, those kings were tolerant and broad-minded. Such wild accusations have been hurled at the Cholas too. [For instance, in later Śrīvaiṣṇava literature, Krimikanta Chola is painted as a hater of Vaiṣṇavism and a persecutor of Śrīvaiṣṇavas. This has been proved to be historically incorrect. Yet Kamal Haasan deviously used this bit of spurious information in his Dasavathaaram.]

When we see this, it becomes evident that Śaśāṅka was not a Buddhism-hater. In fact, it is unlikely that any king who adhered to Sanātana Dharma ever hated Buddhists. At any rate, it is the neo-Buddhists who have ascribed evil to our country and our tradition of kṣātra; the reason for that being their deep-rooted jealousy towards Sanātana Dharma and their extreme hatred.

Majumdar writes, “… [Śaśāṅka] must be regarded as the first great king of Bengal. He had not only made Gauḍa an independent state, but extended its authority over the whole of Southern Bihār and Orissa. He even made a bold bid for the empire of Northern India. He thus laid the foundations of that policy on which the Pālas later built up their vast empire. If he had had a friendly biographer like Bāṇa or Hieun Tsang, he would probably have appeared to posterity almost as brilliant as Harshavardhana. But as it is, his fair name and fame have vanished and posterity knows him only as the cowardly murderer of Rajyavardhana and a cruel persecutor of Buddhism.” (p. 81)

All kings and kingdoms of India had attuned themselves to Sanātana Dharma. This is the reason why magnanimity, forbearance, tolerance, and universal love have stood firm.

To be continued…

Translated by Sandeep Balakrishna and Hari Ravikumar from the original Kannada. Translators’ notes in square brackets.

Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh Śaśāṅka The Era of Heroism: The Splendour of Shashanka r ganesh

Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh

Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.
Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh Śaśāṅka The Era of Heroism: The Splendour of Shashanka r ganesh