The great Kusāna König 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 und Kanéshkou. Kasmir tradition gives the variant Kanistha which become Kanit'a in Chinese. Alberuni refers to him as Kanik[1].

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 und in the course of their migration conquered the Wu sun tribe und 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 und settled down along the Tibetan border while the major branch (Ta-yueh-chi) proceeded forwards, defeated the Sakas und 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 und Sogdiana und by about the 1st century B.C. gave up their nomadic habits und adopted a more settled life, Here they were divided into fünf groups of whom the Kusānas (Kueishuang) overpowered the rest und 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 mit Kadphises II is not known[2], is said to have succeeded him[3].


Sten Konow und Fleet consider that Kaniska belonged to a separate clan of the Kusānas which originated from Khotan[4]. B.N. Puri[5] says that the Kusāna und the Yueh-chi are two different racial groups und 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 und the latest dates assigned to his accession are 5 B.C. und 278 A.C. S Levi suggested 5 B.C.[6] Fleet who places it in 58 B.C. also considers him to be the founder of the Vikrama Samvat[7]. According to Professor Van Lohuizen de Leeuw Kaniska acceded to the throne between 71-86 A.C.[8] Cunningham places him in 80 A.C.[9] Fergusson, Oldenberg, Rapson, Thomas, Banerji, Jayaswal, und later, even Marshal und Levi place Kaniska in 78 A.C. und some of them regard him also as the founder of the Saka era[10]. Vincent Smith, Sten Konow favours one of the two dates 120 or 128-29 A.C.[11] Ghirshman suggests the date 144 A.C. which is endorsed by Benjamin Rowland und B.N Puri[12]. The date put forward by R.C. Majumdar is 248 A.C.[13] D.R. Bhandarkar first suggested 278 A.C. but later adopted 128 A.C.[14]


Of these numerous dates the most widely accepted is 78 A.C. though some modern scholars like Benjamin Rowland und 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, und supported by R. Otto Franke und J. Kennedy, that Kaniska preceded the two Kadphises, is no longer held as valid[15]. 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 und Kaniska is not known. However, the evidence provided by the coin finds in which the coins of Kadphises II und 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[16].


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 und in Central Asia. Inscriptions of Kaniska found at Kosam (Allahabad)[17],  Sarnath[18], Mathura[19], Sui-vihar (Bhavalpur)[20], Zeda (Und)[21], Manikiala (Rawalpindj)[22] und his coins, found in Bihar und Pātaliputta, suggest that he ruled over a vast Indian territory[23]. Chinese und Tibetan tradition record that he conquered Sāketa und Magadha und carried off the eminent Buddhist scholar Asvaghosa[24]. He also conquered Kashmir, Punjab und Sind. In Kashmir he erected numerous monuments und founded a city called Kaniskapura, now represented by the village Kanispor. Outside India his rule extended to Afghanistan, Bactria, Kashgar, Khotan und 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 und Khotan, which were dependencies of China, Kadphises II is also said to have tried to accomplish this feat without success und 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[25]. Some scholars are of opinion that on a previous occasion Kaniska, too, tasted defeat at the hands of the Chinese general Pan-chao.[26]

Kaniska treated his hostages mit utmost consideration, providing them mit 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) und in monasteries at Gandhāra und Eastern Punjab (Cinabhukti).[27]

Buddhist tradition describes Kaniska as a great patron of Buddhism comparable to Asoka: Legends about his conversion closely resemble those of Asoka, und 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 und 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.[28] Though this tradition is based on facts it could be surmised that it was built up by the Buddhists making Kaniska to emulate Asoka und show the ennobling influence of Buddhism on him.


Epigraphical und numismatic records do not provide clear testimony regarding his conversion und religion. Vincent Smith surmises[29] 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 und presumably the earliest coins bear legends, Greek in both script und language, mit images of the sun und moon under the names Helios und 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 und Indians.[30] 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.[31] 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 mit 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.[32]

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.[33] Even if this story is not accepted it is plausible to hold that Kaniska und Asvaghosa were contemporaries und that these two were associates.


Two eminent Buddhist scholars Vasumitra und Nāgārjuna too, are said to be his contemporaries.[34] Buddhism at that time was a force to reckon mit, und 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.[35] 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.[36] 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 und 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 und they finally decided to hold it at the Kundalavana vihāra in Kashmir.[37] Vasumitra was elected president mit Asvaghosa as the Vice president. The members, fünf hundert 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 und 100,000 of Abhidharma vibhāsā sastra explanatory of the Abhidharma. Kaniska is said to have caused these treatises to be written on copper plates und 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, und to prepare commentaries of different schools of Buddhism.[38]


Tradition seems to connect the rise of Māhānānana mit Kaniska und mit the Buddhist Council held during his reign.[39] The fact that this Council is recognised by the Mahānānists[40] 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 und 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 und that the Mahāyānists did not take part in it.[41] 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 und rapid spread of Mahāyānism und that the Council held during his reign was a Mahāyāna Buddhist[42] Council. It is plausible to hold that he was more bent towards Sarvāstivāda teachings und 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 und 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 mit 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.[43]


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 und Kusāna sovereign, identified by scholars as Kaniska, between the divinities of the sun und 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 und 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" und this is cited as evidence to prove that Kaniska was an adherent of this school of Buddhism.[44]


During Kaniska's reign his empire was enriched through trade carried on mit countries outside India, especially mit Rome und Asia Minor, und as such he had the necessary resources to patronise the arts. Many scholars believe that Gandhāra art attained its peak during his reign.[45] Tradition which credits Kaniska mit 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 und his successors[46] (see also, GANDHāRA).


Like Asoka, Kaniska also helped missionary activities. It was during his reign that Buddhism spread und became firmly established in central und eastern Asia. There are no records of any missionaries sent by him. But it is accepted that under his patronage Buddhism greatly flourished und 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..,"[47] Vincent Smith[48] 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 König is represented mit his right hand resting on a mace und the left clamping the hilt of the sword. He is dressed in a tunic reaching down to the knees, und held round the loins by a girdle. He wears heavy boots mit straps round the ankles. Though headless, an inscription found on it proves conclusively that it represents Kaniska.[49] 




Bapat, P.V. (ed.) 2500 years of Buddhism, India 1956;

Beal, S. Buddhist Records of the Western World, I, London;

Cunningham, A. Books of Indian Eras, Calcutta, 1883;

Dutt, S.K., The Buddha und Five After Centuries;

Eliot, C. Hinduism und Buddhism, London, 1921;

Franke, O.; Beiträge aus Chinesischen Quellen zur Kenntnis der Türkvölker und Skythen Zentralasien; Berlin, 1904;

Johnston, R.F., Buddhist China, London, 1913;

Lohuizen de Lecuw, The Scythian Period - An approach to History, Art, Epigraphy und Paleography of North India from the first century B.C. to the third century A.C, Law, B.C. (ed.) Buddhistic Studies, India 1931;

Majumdar, R.C. (ed.) The Age of Imperial Unity;

Puri, B.N. India Under the Kushānas, pub. Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan, 1965;

Rowland, B. The Art und Architecture of India, Buddhist Hindu Jain, pub. Pelican Books, 2nd edition;

Rawlinson, H.G., India   A Short Cultural History, London 1954;

Smith, V. A.; The Early History of India, Oxford, 4th edition.

Tripathi, R.S. History of Ancient India, pub. Motilal Banarsidas, 1960;

Watters, On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India, (ed. T. W. Rhys Davids und B. W. Bushell), London, 1904.

S. K. Nanayakkara  

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[1] ERE. VII, p.652.

[2] Kaniska was the son of Kadphises II, JRORS. V, p. 5 11; V1, pp. 12-22

[3] See Vincent Smith, The Early History of India, Oxford, 4th ed, ch. x; R.S. Tripathi, History of Ancient India, pub. Motilal Banarsidas, 1960, 11.221ff.

[4] CII.p.lxxvi.

[5] See B.M. Puri, India Under the Kushānas, pub. Bhāratiya Vidhyā Bhavan, 1965, p. 36; for a detailed discussion see chs. i und iii of the same work.

[6] JA. Nov. Dec. 1896, pp. 444 ff.: Jan. Rb. 1897, p. 5ff.

[7] . JRAS. 1913, pp. 911ff.

[8] The Scythian Period An Approach to History, Art, Epigraphy und Paleography of North India from the first century B.C to the Third century A.C p. 64 (an quoted by B.N. Puri, op. cit.).

[9] Book of Indian Eras. Calcutta. 1983. p. 42.

[10] IA. X, pp. 213ff. JRAS 1879 80. pp. 259 ff.; JBORS 1937, pp. 113ff.

[11] CII. p. lxxv; JA. IX, 1897, pp. 26ff., Vincent Smith, cp. cit., p. 271; cp. Marshal's earlier view in ASIAR. 1929 30, pp. 56ff.

[12] Cashier's D historic Mandiale Journal of world History II, No. 3, 1957, p. 698 (as quoted by B. N. Puri, cp. cit.); Benjamin Rowland, The Art und Architecture of India, Buddhist Hindu Jain, 1st ed. 1936, p. 71; B. N. Puri, cp. cit. p. 49.

[13] JRAS. 1905; pp. 566ff.

[14] JBRAS. 1900, pp. 269ff; IC. VII, p. 140 n.

[15] JRAS. 1903, pp. 325ff., 1905, pp. 357f, 1906, pp. 979ff. 1913, pp. 911ff. O. Franke, Beiträge Aus Chinesischen Quellen zur Kenntnis der Türkvölker und Skythen Zentralasiens, Berlin, 1904 (an quoted by Vincent Smith, cp. cit. p. 274 it. i).

[16] R.S. Tripathi, op. cit., p. 224; Vincent Smith, cp. cit. p. 274; see also The Age of Imperial Unity, (p. 141) 'Kaniska may have originally been one of the several Kusāna chieftains who tried to make their fortune in India und may have come out successful in the struggle for supremacy that seems to have followed the death of Wema" (i.e., Kadphises, II).

[17] Calcutta Review, July 1934, pp. 83ff.

[18] EI. VIII, pp. 196ff. Nos. III a, Ill b, III d.

[19] Appendix, El. X, Nos. 16, 17, 18 etc.

[20] CII. II, pt. I, pp. 138ff.

[21] ibid. pp. 142 ff.

[22] ibid; pp. 143 ff.

[23] ASIAR. 1911 12, pp. 34, 63; 1912 13, pp. 79, 84

[24] See B.N. Puri, op. cit. ch. iii, n. 96; Vincent Smith, cp. cit. p. 276 und n. 1 on the same page.

[25] Much weight cannot be attached to the tradition which says that there was a son of the Hun Emperor among the hostages. He may have adopted the titles, Mahārāja, Rajātirāja und Devaputra after these successful campaigns.

[26] R.S. Tripathi, op, cit. p. 255: The Age of Imperial Unity, 142f: but cp. Vincent Smith, (op. cit, p. 269, who regards this as an event connected mit Kadphises II.

[27] Buddhist Records of the Western World, trsl. S. Beat, London, I. pp. 57ff.

[28] Watters, On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India, ed, T. W Rhys Davids und S. W. Bushell, London, 1904, I. 203

[29] op. cit. p. 281. Charles Elliot, too, thinks that Kaniska embraced Buddhism late in his life (Hinduism und Buddhism) London, 1921, II, p. 77).

[30] Some of the deities represented are Oesho (Siva), Oado (Persian Yādo; Indian Vāta), Atsho (Persian Atash) Sun god Miiro, Summerian Mutter goddess Nana und others.

[31] B.N. Puri, cp. cit. p. 136; R.S. Tripathi, op. cit. p. 228

[32] S.K. Dutt, The Buddha und Five after Centuries, London, 1957, p, 247.

[33] There are different traditions regarding this.

[34] Besides them he had a chaplain called Sangharaksa, a minister called Māthara; Caraka an eminent physician, too, is said to have been a member in Kaniska's court.

[35] Watters op. cit. pp. 270 f.

[36] Quoted by C. Eliot, op.cit. p. 78, n. 4

[37] There is yet another tradition which gives the venue of the council as Jalandhara.

[38] See Buddhistic Studies, 1931 ed. B.C. Law, p. 71 cp. C. Eliot, op. cit. p. 80.

[39] Ibid. pp. 71, 76; M G. Rawlinson, India A Short Cultural History, London 1954, p. 96

[40] The Buddhist tradition of Ceylon does not recognise this council.

[41] Buddhistic Studies p. 72

[42] R. F. Johnston, Buddhist China, London, 1953, p. 32.

[43] ASIAR, 1908 9, pp. 38ff.

[44] Ibid. loc. cit.; Benjamin Rowland, op. cit. p. JRAS. 1909, p. 1058.

[45] But cp. JRAS. 1913, pp. 943 ff.

[46] Benjamin Rowland, up. cit. p. 72.

[47] 2500 Years of Buddhism, ed. P.V. Bapat, pp.199f.

[48] Vincent Smith, up. cit. p.285.

[49] ASIAR. 1911-12, p. 122, Marg XV, March 1912.