The Shunga Empire was an ancient Indian dynasty of Magadha that controlled areas of the central and eastern Indian subcontinent from around 174 to 75 BCE. The empire was founded by Pushyamitra Shunga with it's capital at Patliputra, which later shifted to Vidisha.
Pushyamitra was the founder of the Shunga dynasty, which had emerged from the deteriorating Maurya empire. The dynasty of the Mauryas was uprooted by Pushpamitra or Pushyamitra. Pushyamitra Shunga is considered one of the greatest emperors of India who fought against foreign invading powers and also eliminated them - especially the Greeks who were left behind after Alexander's failed military campaign in India.
The Malavikagnimitra makes it evident that to the south, Pushyamitra extended his command over the territories as far as the Narmada and even up to Wardha. For, the drama informs us that, the brother-in-law of his son Agnimitra, was appointed as an Antapala of a fort on the banks of the Narmada.[ref]
Foundation of Empire
The disintegration of the Maurya empire had begun after the death of Ashoka Maurya, which was further accelerated by the Yavana invasions as referred to in Sanskrit texts such as the Yuga Purdna and the Mahdbhashya of Patanjali.
Brihadratha came to power in 180 BCE. The Mauryan empire had considerably shrunk, attacked in the North by King Demetrius who had invaded what remained of the Mauryan territories and seized the capital Pataliputra.[ref]
Pushyamitra, (the Commander-in-Chief of Emperor Brihadratha), saw the ruler as a weakling and sensed the need to reestablish another stable central power in India. Thus he killed Brihadratha while he was reviewing his army, and seized the throne, founding the Shunga Dynasty. Pushyamitra thus became the ruler of Magadha.[ref]
Pushyamitra is recorded to have performed numerous Ashvamedha campaigns to legitimize his right to rule. Inscriptions dating to the Shungas have been found as far as Ayodhya (the Dhanadeva-Ayodhya inscription), and the Divyavadana mentions that his empire stretched as far as to Sakala (Sialkot) in the Punjab region in the northwest.
Elimination of Yavanas (Greeks)
Kalidasa in his Malavikagnimitra refers to the conflict between Prince Vasumitra, the son of Agnimitra and also a general of Pushyamitra, and a Yavana on the southern or the right bank of the Sindhu river which may be taken to be either a river in the Punjab or its namesake in Central India. According to Kalidasa, this conflict took place in connection with the horse-sacrifice (Ashwamedha Yagya) of Pushyamitra when his troops, escorting the horse under Vasumitra, were stopped by the Yavanas on the south bank of the Sindhu. The Yavanas were defeated and the horse was brought back safely home.
This was the last Greek aggression in India. This terrible defeat inflicted by Pushyamitra consumed their strength to such an extent that they never had the heart and courage to strike back at India again. India, thus annihilated the Greek invasions which were a constant trouble since the time of Alexander.[ref]
Pushyamitra annexed the territory liberated from the Greeks and appointed Agnimitra as the viceroy of the region. Pushyamitra ruled for about 36 years until he was succeeded by his son Agnimitra. Agnimitra is the protagonist of Malavikagnimitram, a play composed by Kalidas.
The Malavikagnimitram informs us that during Pushyamitra's reign, Agnimitra, his son and viceroy at Vidisha, waged a successful war with the adjoining state of Vidarbha, thus making the Vidarbha rulers acknowledge the suzerainty of the house of Magadha.[ref]
The Malavikagnimitra refers to an independent kingdom which had been recently established in the region of Vidarbha or Berar. Yajnasena, the king of Vidarbha, is stated to have been a relation (sisters husband) of the Sachiva (minister) of the Mauryan emperor, and thus a natural rival of Pushyamitra. The relations between Vidarbha and Vidisa became strained. The poet relates how Agnimitras friend Madhavasena, who was a cousin of Yajnasena, was arrested by an Antapala (governor of the frontier) of Yajnasena. On his way to Vidisha, Agnimitra at once called upon Yajnasena for his release. The latter agreed to do so on a condition that his relation, the Mauryan minister be released first in an exchange. Agnimitra at once issued orders to Virasena to invade Vidarbha. Virasena defeated Yajnasena and released Madhavasena. Eventually, Vidarbha was then divided between the two cousins, Yajnasena and Madhavasena, with Emperor Pushyamitra as their suzerain.[ref]
Devabhuti (also known as Devbhomi) was the last ruler of the Shunga dynasty of ancient India. He was assassinated by his minister Vasudeva Kanva, who then founded the Kanva dynasty. He was a weak king and thus was vulnerable to assassination and annexation of his kingdom. He is said to have been overfond of the company of women.[ref]
Pushyamitra killed the last Mauryan Emperor Brihadratha in Patliputra and crowned himself the ruler of Magadha. The capital of the Shunga empire was at Patliputra, a city of great importance, during reign of Pushyamitra.
Vidisha played a great part in the politics of the Shunga period. Its importance during the Shunga period was acknowledged by foreign rulers of that time, citing the mission of a Greek emissary named Heliodorus who was sent from Takshashila by the Indo-Greek ruler Antialcidas, to the Vidisha court.[ref]
Art, education, philosophy, and other forms of learning flowered during this period which can be indicated by small terracotta images, larger stone sculptures, and architectural monuments such as the majestic stupa at Bharhut, and the renowned Great Stupa at Sanchi. Shunga rulers helped establish the tradition of royal patronage to learning and art. The script used by the empire was a variant of Brahmi script and was used to write Sanskrit.
The Shunga Empire played an imperative role in patronising culture at a time when some of the most important developments in Hindu thought were taking place. Maharshi Patanjali's Mahbhya was composed in this period. Artistry also progressed with the rise of the Mathura art style.
The two most important personalities who lived during the Shunga rule were :
- Maharshi Patanjali
The Shunga empire played an important part in history. Pushyamitra stemmed the tide of foreign invasions and maintained his authority over a large part of his empire. He thus arrested, for the time being, the disintegration of the Magadha empire which, throughout the century of Shunga rule, extended as far as Bhilsa in Madhya Bharat, if not further to the west. The Bactrian Greeks maintained friendly relations with them. The Shunga period saw the revival of the Vedic influence and the growing importance of the Bhagavata religion which counted even the cultured Greeks among its votaries. It also witnessed a revival in art and literature specially in Central India. The great grammarian Patanjali, born at Gonarda in Central India, was a contemporary of Pushyamitra, as mentioned above. The Bharhut stupa is the most famous monument of this period. There was also an important school of art in Vidisha, the later capital of Shunga empire..[ref]