The great Kusāna king of India, a renowned patron of Buddhism. His name is spelt as Kāniska in inscriptions. On coins it appears, in Greek script, as Kanérki, or in the genitive Kanerkou which some scholars read as Kanéshki and Kanéshkou. Kasmir tradition gives the variant Kanistha which become Kanit'a in Chinese. Alberuni refers to him as Kanik.
There are different theories regarding the nationality of Kaniska. It is widely accepted that he is of Yuch-chi origin. It is said that during the 2nd century B.C. the Yuch-chi, a Mongoloid nomadic tribe of Central Asia, was forced out of their pasture lands by their more powerful neighbours, the Hiung-nu. Being thus driven out they migrated westwards and in the course of their migration conquered the Wu sun tribe and settled down in the basin of the lli river. Here they were divided into two branches of which the minor branch (Siao-yueh-chi) deflected southwards and settled down along the Tibetan border while the major branch (Ta-yueh-chi) proceeded forwards, defeated the Sakas and settled down in the conquered territory. From there they were again expelled by the son of the dead Wu sun chieftain. Resuming their march, they finally occupied Bactria and Sogdiana and by about the 1st century B.C. gave up their nomadic habits and adopted a more settled life, Here they were divided into five groups of whom the Kusānas (Kueishuang) overpowered the rest and united the whole tribe under Kadphises I (i.e., Kujula Kadphises) who captured some regions of North West India. He was succeeded by his son Kadphises II (i.e., Wima Kadphises) who annexed further Indian territory. Kaniska, whos connection with Kadphises II is not known, is said to have succeeded him.
Sten Konow and Fleet consider that Kaniska belonged to a separate clan of the Kusānas which originated from Khotan. B.N. Puri says that the Kusāna and the Yueh-chi are two different racial groups and that the former is of Iranian Saka stock while the latter is of Mongoloid origin.
There is no consensus among scholars regarding the date of Kaniska. The earliest and the latest dates assigned to his accession are 5 B.C. and 278 A.C. S Levi suggested 5 B.C. Fleet who places it in 58 B.C. also considers him to be the founder of the Vikrama Samvat. According to Professor Van Lohuizen de Leeuw Kaniska acceded to the throne between 71-86 A.C. Cunningham places him in 80 A.C. Fergusson, Oldenberg, Rapson, Thomas, Banerji, Jayaswal, and later, even Marshal and Levi place Kaniska in 78 A.C. and some of them regard him also as the founder of the Saka era. Vincent Smith, Sten Konow favours one of the two dates 120 or 128-29 A.C. Ghirshman suggests the date 144 A.C. which is endorsed by Benjamin Rowland and B.N Puri. The date put forward by R.C. Majumdar is 248 A.C. D.R. Bhandarkar first suggested 278 A.C. but later adopted 128 A.C.
Of these numerous dates the most widely accepted is 78 A.C. though some modern scholars like Benjamin Rowland and B.N. Puri prefer the date 144 on the ground that the latest archaeological discoveries made at Begram in Afghanistan by Ghrishman add more weight to it.
The view put forward by Fleet, and supported by R. Otto Franke and J. Kennedy, that Kaniska preceded the two Kadphises, is no longer held as valid. The excavation done at Taxila has shown that the coins of the Kaniska group of the Kusāna kings were found in the upper (i.e. later) strata of earth while those of the Kadphises group were in the lower (i.e., earlier) strata. The connection between Kadphises II and Kaniska is not known. However, the evidence provided by the coin finds in which the coins of Kadphises II and Kaniska were found together proves that they were close to each other in time. It is plausible to hold that Kaniska succeeded Kadphises II after a short interregnum.
It is quite certain that Kaniska succeeded to a fairly large kingdom of Kadphises II. He expanded this kingdom by annexing more territory both in India and in Central Asia. Inscriptions of Kaniska found at Kosam (Allahabad), Sarnath, Mathura, Sui-vihar (Bhavalpur), Zeda (Und), Manikiala (Rawalpindj) and his coins, found in Bihar and Pātaliputta, suggest that he ruled over a vast Indian territory. Chinese and Tibetan tradition record that he conquered Sāketa and Magadha and carried off the eminent Buddhist scholar Asvaghosa. He also conquered Kashmir, Punjab and Sind. In Kashmir he erected numerous monuments and founded a city called Kaniskapura, now represented by the village Kanispor. Outside India his rule extended to Afghanistan, Bactria, Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand.
Though he seems to have cherished a marked preference for Kashmir he had his capital at Purusapura, the modern Peshawar which lay in the main route from Afghanistan to the Indus plain.
Kaniska was a renowned warrior. His most daring military feat is his conquest of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan, which were dependencies of China, Kadphises II is also said to have tried to accomplish this feat without success and consequently had to pay tribute to China. Kaniska not only freed his kingdom from this obligation, but also took away hostages from a dependency of China. Some scholars are of opinion that on a previous occasion Kaniska, too, tasted defeat at the hands of the Chinese general Pan-chao.
Kaniska treated his hostages with utmost consideration, providing them with places of residence suitable for each season. These hostages are said to have resided in the Sha lo ka monastery probably situated in the hills of Kapisa (modern Kafiristan) and in monasteries at Gandhāra and Eastern Punjab (Cinabhukti).
Buddhist tradition describes Kaniska as a great patron of Buddhism comparable to Asoka: Legends about his conversion closely resemble those of Asoka, and it is probable that these legends were based on stories detailing Asoka's conversion. Tradition represents Kaniska, before his conversion to Buddhism, as one who had no faith either in right or wrong and as a person who did not pay any attention to Buddhism. It is also said that the immediate cause of his conversion was the deep remorse he felt over the bloodshed in his numerous wars. Though this tradition is based on facts it could be surmised that it was built up by the Buddhists making Kaniska to emulate Asoka and show the ennobling influence of Buddhism on him.
Epigraphical and numismatic records do not provide clear testimony regarding his conversion and religion. Vincent Smith surmises that his coins show that his conversion to Buddhism did not take place until he had been on the throne for some time. The finest and presumably the earliest coins bear legends, Greek in both script and language, with images of the sun and moon under the names Helios and Selene (spelt Saléné on the coins). On later issues, the Greek script is retained but the language is Knotanese, while the reverse of the coins represents gods worshipped by Greeks, Persians and Indians. The coins that bear the images of Sākyamuni are considered to be the latest. Some Indian scholars think that if numismatic evidence proves anything, it is only his eclecticism, or that his coins only depict the various forms of faith prevailing in his vast empire. Despite attempts to adduce evidence to prove that he was not a Buddhist, the testimony provided by the numerous monuments he has built, as well as his association with the Buddhist Council held during his reign show that, even if he was not a Buddhist, he was more bent towards Buddhism than towards any other religion. An inscription found on a relic casket, too, is taken by some scholars as evidence to establish that he favoured the Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism.
Tradition records that Kaniska studied Buddhism in his leisure hours under the guidance of Pārsva. Tradition also states that he carried off Asvaghosa from Pātaliputra. Even if this story is not accepted it is plausible to hold that Kaniska and Asvaghosa were contemporaries and that these two were associates.
Two eminent Buddhist scholars Vasumitra and Nāgārjuna too, are said to be his contemporaries. Buddhism at that time was a force to reckon with, and despite the possibility that Kaniska was doing his best to consolidate big vast empire; he adopted Buddhism to keep abreast of the trends prevalent at the time.
According to the Buddhist tradition the greatest service rendered to Buddhism by Kaniska is his convening of the Buddhist Council during his reign. There are different accounts of this council. The best known is that of Hsuan-tsang. Paramārtha in his Life of Vasubandhu gives another version which, though generally considered to be the same as that of Hsuan-tsang, contains different information. Tārānātha also records an account, which, though confused, contains important information. It is not relevant at present, to extract facts from these legendary accounts which are confused and often discrepant.
It is said that Kaniska, greatly puzzled by the conflicting teachings found in different schools, suggested to Pārsva to summon a council of eminent monks to obtain an authoritative disposition of the doctrine. There was some difference of opinion among them as to the venue of the council and they finally decided to hold it at the Kundalavana vihāra in Kashmir. Vasumitra was elected president with Asvaghosa as the Vice president. The members, five hundred in all composed 100,000 stanzas of Upadesa Sāstra explanatory of the canonical sutras, 100,000 stanzas of Vinaya vibhāsā sastra explanatory of the vinaya and 100,000 of Abhidharma vibhāsā sastra explanatory of the Abhidharma. Kaniska is said to have caused these treatises to be written on copper plates and enclosed them in stone boxes which he deposited in a stūpa specially constructed for that purpose.
It is not possible to form a clear idea about the work accomplished at the Council. Some scholars think that the chief business of the Council was to collect canonical texts, and to prepare commentaries of different schools of Buddhism.
Tradition seems to connect the rise of Māhānānana with Kaniska and with the Buddhist Council held during his reign. The fact that this Council is recognised by the Mahānānists is also taken as evidence on this point. But a close scrutiny of the available information regarding the Council as well as the Buddhist activities carried out by Kaniska shows that this tradition cannot be relied upon. It is a fact that Tārānātha observes that all kinds of Mahāyānist writing appeared at this time and that the Theravādins raised no objection. But he neither clearly states nor implies that Kaniska personally took any interest in promoting Mahāyāna teachings, or that any Mahāyāna treatises were composed at that Council. On the other hand, it is generally regarded that this Council was exclusively a council of the Sarvāstivādins of northern India and that the Mahāyānists did not take part in it. It is apparent that after holding this Council the Sarvāstivādin school of Buddhism gained more importance than before.
Whatever the tradition is there is no reasonable ground to hold that Kaniska was responsible for the rise and rapid spread of Mahāyānism and that the Council held during his reign was a Mahāyāna Buddhist Council. It is plausible to hold that he was more bent towards Sarvāstivāda teachings and this is established by the inscription on the relic casket.
Of the numerous stūpas he is said to have built, the most famous is the one at Shah-ji-ki-Dheri near Peshawar. From the accounts of the Chinese travellers of the fifth and seventh centuries it appears that it was one of the wonders at the time. This stūpa is said to have been 130 metres in height, resting upon a stone substructure 50 metres high, topped by an iron mast 10 metres high with gilded metal discs. It is assumed that the original form of the stūpa as it appeared in the days of Kaniska, looked quite different from the form that could be reconstructed from the ruins. It is also believed that it was rebuilt many times.
The reliquary enshrined in the Kaniska cetiya is also worthy of note. The object is a round pyxis, made of an amalgum of precious metals. The lower hand of the drum consists of representation in relief of garland bearing erotes and Kusāna sovereign, identified by scholars as Kaniska, between the divinities of the sun and moon; on the side of the lid is a flock of geese (hamsa). To the top of the cover are fastened free standing statuettes of the Buddha, flanked by Indra and Brahmā. The most interesting feature of the object is the Greek name of the maker, agesilas, the overseer of works at the Kaniska-caitya. The inscription found on the reliquary also states that it was made "for acceptance of the teachers of the Sarvāstivādin school" and this is cited as evidence to prove that Kaniska was an adherent of this school of Buddhism.
During Kaniska's reign his empire was enriched through trade carried on with countries outside India, especially with Rome and Asia Minor, and as such he had the necessary resources to patronise the arts. Many scholars believe that Gandhāra art attained its peak during his reign. Tradition which credits Kaniska with having built many stūpas, also seems to support this contention. According to Benjamin Rowland "The Art of Gandhāra is, properly speaking; the official art of the Kushān emperor Kaniska and his successors (see also, GANDHāRA).
Like Asoka, Kaniska also helped missionary activities. It was during his reign that Buddhism spread and became firmly established in central and eastern Asia. There are no records of any missionaries sent by him. But it is accepted that under his patronage Buddhism greatly flourished and spread throughout his vast empire. One writer has observed that "there was ceaseless missionary activity throughout his vast empire which extended from Madhyadesa in India to Central Asia. A truly integrated Asian culture came into existence at this time..," Vincent Smith observes that the legend regarding his death possibly may be founded on fact.
A statue of Kaniska was discovered by Tokritila, in the village of Māt. In this headless statue the king is represented with his right hand resting on a mace and the left clamping the hilt of the sword. He is dressed in a tunic reaching down to the knees, and held round the loins by a girdle. He wears heavy boots with straps round the ankles. Though headless, an inscription found on it proves conclusively that it represents Kaniska.
S. K. Nanayakkara