Sunga Dynasty - A Glimpse into Post-Mauryan India


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      The Sunga dynasty emerged as the successor to the Mauryan Empire in ancient India, marking a significant transition in the political landscape of the Indian subcontinent. The Mauryan Empire, led by the illustrious Emperor Ashoka, had reached its zenith in the 3rd century BCE, but by the mid-2nd century BCE, it began to decline, paving the way for the rise of the Sunga dynasty.


The Sunga dynasty took control of northern and central India around 185 BCE after the fall of the Mauryan Empire. Its founder, Pushyamitra Sunga, is said to have been the commander-in-chief of the last Mauryan ruler, Brihadratha. The emergence of the Sunga dynasty occurred in a backdrop of political instability, as the Mauryan Empire disintegrated, providing an opportunity for new powers to assert themselves.


The Sunga dynasty ruled during a crucial period in Indian history, known as the post-Mauryan or Shunga period, lasting until approximately 73 BCE. This era witnessed a complex interplay of political, social, and cultural developments. The Sunga rulers faced the challenge of consolidating power and stabilizing the political landscape after the Mauryan decline.


One of the key significances of the Sunga dynasty lies in its patronage of Brahmanical traditions, particularly Hinduism. Pushyamitra Sunga, the first ruler, is believed to have been a staunch supporter of Brahmanical orthodoxy. This marked a shift away from the Buddhist orientation of the Mauryan Empire, as the Sunga rulers sought to reestablish the dominance of traditional Vedic practices. Despite this emphasis on Brahmanism, the Sunga period also witnessed a continuation of Buddhist influence, with some rulers supporting Buddhism alongside Hinduism.


The Sunga dynasty's contributions to Indian art and architecture are also noteworthy. Although not as monumental as the Mauryan legacy, the Sunga period saw the development of early forms of Indian art, with the creation of sculptures and reliefs that depicted both Hindu and Buddhist themes. These artistic endeavors laid the foundation for the rich artistic traditions that would flourish in later centuries.


Rise and Establishment of the Sunga Dynasty


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Pushyamitra Sunga and the Mauryan Downfall:

Pushyamitra Sunga, the founder of the Sunga dynasty, played a crucial role in the downfall of the Mauryan Empire. He is believed to have been the military commander under the last Mauryan ruler, Brihadratha. According to historical accounts, Pushyamitra assassinated Brihadratha and seized power, marking the end of the Mauryan dynasty. The exact reasons for this act are not explicitly documented, but it is often attributed to a power struggle or discontent within the military.


Pushyamitra Sunga is often portrayed as a staunch Brahmanical ruler, and his ascent marked a shift in the religious orientation of the Indian subcontinent. While the Mauryan Empire, under Ashoka, had embraced Buddhism, Pushyamitra Sunga and subsequent rulers favored Brahmanical traditions, which influenced the cultural and religious landscape of the Sunga period.


Reasons for the Decline of the Mauryan Empire and the Rise of the Sunga Dynasty:

The decline of the Mauryan Empire can be attributed to a combination of internal and external factors. Ashoka's successors faced challenges in maintaining the vast territorial extent of the empire, and regional governors began to assert greater autonomy. The vast administrative machinery, coupled with the economic strain of maintaining a large standing army, might have contributed to internal instability.


Externally, the Mauryan Empire faced incursions from foreign invaders and external pressures. The northwest regions were particularly vulnerable to attacks from Central Asian and Greek forces. The weakening central authority and military challenges left the Mauryan Empire susceptible to fragmentation.


The emergence of the Sunga dynasty can be seen as a response to the power vacuum created by the Mauryan decline. Pushyamitra Sunga, with his military prowess and support from Brahmanical circles, seized the opportunity to establish a new ruling dynasty.


Extent of the Sunga Empire and Administrative Structure:

The Sunga Empire covered substantial parts of northern and central India. Its core territories included the Gangetic plains, extending from present-day Uttar Pradesh to the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent. The exact territorial boundaries may have fluctuated during different reigns.


The administrative structure of the Sunga Empire followed a pattern similar to the Mauryan model, with provinces or regions administered by governors. The empire was likely organized into districts (janapadas), and local administration was carried out by officials appointed by the central authority. The administrative machinery also played a role in revenue collection, which was crucial for sustaining the empire.


Despite the Brahmanical leanings of the rulers, there was a degree of religious tolerance, and Buddhism continued to coexist alongside Hinduism. The Sunga period laid the groundwork for the subsequent development of Indian polity and culture, contributing to the diverse historical tapestry of ancient India.


Wars of the Shungas

War and conflict characterised the Shunga period. They are known to have warred with the Kalingas, Satavahanas, the Indo-Greeks, and possibly the Panchalas and Mathuras.

The Shunga Empire's wars with the Indo-Greek Kingdom figure greatly in the history of this period. From around 180 BCE the Greco-Bactrian ruler Demetrius conquered the Kabul Valley and is theorised to have advanced into the trans-Indus to confront the Shungas.The Indo-Greek Menander I is credited with either joining or leading a campaign to Pataliputra with other Indian rulers; however, very little is known about the exact nature and success of the campaign. The net result of these wars remains uncertain.

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Vedika pillar with "Yavana" Greek warrior. Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, Shunga Period, c. 100-80 BC. Reddish brown sandstone. Indian Museum, Calcutta.

Literary evidenceedit

Several works, such as the Mahabharata and the Yuga Purana describe the conflict between the Shungas and the Indo-Greeks.

Military expeditions of the Shungasedit

Scriptures such as the Ashokavadana claim that Pushyamitra toppled Emperor Brihadratha and killed many Buddhist monks. Then it describes how Pushyamitra sent an army to Pataliputra and as far as Sakala (Sialkot), in the Punjab, to persecute Buddhist monks.

War with the Yavanas (Greeks)edit

The Indo-Greeks, called Yavanas in Indian sources, either led by Demetrius I or Menander I, then invaded India, possibly receiving the help of Buddhists. Menander in particular is described as a convert to Buddhism in the Milindapanha.

The Hindu text of the Yuga Purana, which describes Indian historical events in the form of a prophecy, relates the attack of the Indo-Greeks on the Shunga capital Pataliputra, a magnificent fortified city with 570 towers and 64 gates according to Megasthenes, and describes the impending war for city:

Then, after having approached Saketa together with the Panchalas and the Mathuras, the Yavanas, valiant in battle, will reach Kusumadhvaja "the town of the flower-standard", Pataliputra. Then, once Puspapura (another name of Pataliputra) has been reached and its celebrated mud-walls cast down, all the realm will be in disorder

— Yuga Purana

However, the Yuga Purana indicates that the Yavanas (Indo-Greeks) did not remain for long in Pataliputra, as they were faced with a civil war in Bactria.

Western sources also suggest that this new offensive of the Greeks into India led them as far as the capital Pataliputra:

Those who came after Alexander went to the Ganges and Pataliputra

— Strabo 

Battle on the Sindhu riveredit

An account of a direct battle between the Greeks and the Shunga is also found in the Mālavikāgnimitram, a play by Kālidāsa which describes a battle between a squadron of Greek cavalrymen and Vasumitra, the grandson of Pushyamitra, accompanied by a hundred soldiers on the "Sindhu river", in which the Indians defeated a squadron of Greeks and Pushyamitra successfully completed the Ashvamedha Yagna. This river may be the Indus river in the northwest, but such expansion by the Shungas is unlikely, and it is more probable that the river mentioned in the text is the Sindh River or the Kali Sindh River in the Ganges Basin.

Epigraphic and archaeological evidenceedit

Dhanadeva-Ayodhya inscriptionedit

Ultimately, Shunga rule seems to have extended to the area of Ayodhya. Shunga inscriptions are known as far as Ayodhya in northern central India, in particular, the Dhanadeva-Ayodhya inscription refers to a local king Dhanadeva, who claimed to be the sixth descendant of Pushyamitra. The inscription also records that Pushyamitra performed two Ashvamedhas (victory sacrifices) in Ayodhya.

Yavanarajya inscriptionedit

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The Yavanarajya inscription, dated to "year 116 of Yavana hegemony", probably 70 or 69 BCE, was discovered in Mathura. Mathura Museum.

The Greeks seem to have maintained control of Mathura. The Yavanarajya inscription, also called the "Maghera inscription", discovered in Mathura, suggests that the Indo-Greeks were in control of Mathura during the 1st century BCE. The inscription is important in that it mentions the date of its dedication as "The last day of year 116 of Yavana hegemony (Yavanarajya)". It is considered that this inscription is attesting the control of the Indo-Greeks in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE in Mathura, a fact that is also confirmed by numismatic and literary evidence. Moreover, it does not seem that the Shungas ever ruled in Mathura or Surasena since no Shunga coins or inscriptions have been found there.

The Anushasana Parva of the Mahabharata affirms that the city of Mathura was under the joint control of the Yavanas and the Kambojas.

Later however, it seems the city of Mathura was retaken from them, if not by the Shungas themselves, then probably by other indigenous rulers such as the Datta dynasty or the Mitra dynasty, or more probably by the Indo-Scythian Northern Satraps under Rajuvula. In the region of Mathura, the Arjunayanas and Yaudheyas mention military victories on their coins ("Victory of the Arjunayanas", "Victory of the Yaudheyas"), and during the 1st century BCE, the Trigartas, Audumbaras and finally the Kunindas also started to mint their own coins, thus affirming independence from the Indo-Greeks, although the style of their coins was often derived from that of the Indo-Greeks.

Heliodorus pillaredit

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The Heliodorus pillar was built in Vidisha under the Shungas, at the instigation of Heliodorus, ambassador of the Indo-Greek king Antialcidas. The pillar originally supported a statue of Garuda. Established circa 100 BCE.

Very little can be said with great certainty. However, what does appear clear is that the two realms appeared to have established normalised diplomatic relations in the succeeding reigns of their respective rulers. The Indo-Greeks and the Shungas seem to have reconciled and exchanged diplomatic missions around 110 BCE, as indicated by the Heliodorus pillar, which records the dispatch of a Greek ambassador named Heliodorus, from the court of the Indo-Greek king Antialcidas, to the court of the Shunga emperor Bhagabhadra at the site of Vidisha in central India.


Religion and Culture in the Sunga Period:


Shift towards Brahmanism and Revival of Vedic Rituals:

The Sunga dynasty marked a notable shift in the religious landscape of ancient India. Pushyamitra Sunga and subsequent rulers were patrons of Brahmanism and actively supported the revival of Vedic rituals. This marked a departure from the Buddhist orientation of the preceding Mauryan Empire under Ashoka. The Sunga rulers sought to reestablish the dominance of traditional Vedic practices, promoting the authority of Brahmanical priests and the performance of Vedic rituals.


The revival of Vedic rituals during the Sunga period had a significant impact on society, influencing both religious and social practices. The support for Brahmanism contributed to the development of a Brahmanical orthodoxy that continued to shape Indian culture for centuries to come.


Evolving Relationship between Buddhism and the Ruling Dynasty:

While the Sunga rulers were proponents of Brahmanism, they did not entirely abandon Buddhism. The relationship between Buddhism and the ruling dynasty during the Sunga period was complex and nuanced. Some rulers were more tolerant towards Buddhism, and there is evidence that both religions coexisted during this time.


The Sunga dynasty did not engage in the large-scale persecution of Buddhists, as witnessed during the later Gupta period. However, the state's patronage shifted towards Brahmanical traditions, leading to a decline in the royal support for Buddhism. Despite this, Buddhism continued to thrive at the regional and local levels, with monastic communities and Buddhist teachings persisting in various parts of the subcontinent.


Contributions in Art, Literature, and Architecture:

The Sunga period made significant contributions to Indian art, literature, and architecture. Although not as monumental as the Mauryan legacy, the artistic endeavors of the Sunga dynasty laid the foundation for the subsequent development of these cultural aspects.


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Sanchi Stupa and Bharhut Stupa:

One of the most enduring legacies of the Sunga period is the construction of stupas, with the most notable examples being the Sanchi Stupa and the Bharhut Stupa. These stupas served as important religious monuments and were adorned with intricately carved reliefs depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, Jataka tales, and various other motifs.


The Sanchi Stupa, in particular, stands as a remarkable achievement of Sunga architecture. It was initially commissioned by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and later expanded and renovated by the Sunga rulers. The stupa is a UNESCO World Heritage site and remains an iconic symbol of Indian Buddhist art and architecture.


The Bharhut Stupa, located in Madhya Pradesh, is another significant structure from the Sunga period. It features a wealth of sculptural panels portraying diverse aspects of life and culture during that time.


These stupas, with their elaborate carvings and architectural finesse, exemplify the synthesis of religious and artistic expression during the Sunga period, contributing to the rich cultural tapestry of ancient India.


Trade and Economy during the Sunga Rule:

Trade and commerce were integral components of the Sunga dynasty's economic landscape. The empire's strategic location, well-connected trade routes, and effective administration contributed to economic prosperity and stability during this period, leaving a lasting impact on the cultural and historical development of ancient India.

Importance of Trade and Commerce:

Trade and commerce played a crucial role in the economic dynamics of the Sunga dynasty. The Sunga period witnessed the continuation and expansion of trade networks that had been established during the earlier Mauryan Empire. The economic activities of the time were diverse, involving both internal and external trade, contributing significantly to the prosperity and stability of the Sunga Empire.

Flourishing Trade Routes and Role of the Sunga Empire:

The Sunga Empire was strategically located in the fertile Gangetic plains, providing an ideal geographical setting for economic activities. The Ganges River served as a vital waterway, facilitating inland transportation and trade. The empire was well-connected to important trade routes that crisscrossed the Indian subcontinent and extended to regions beyond.


The Grand Trunk Road, a major ancient trade route, passed through the heart of the Sunga Empire, connecting key cities and facilitating the movement of goods. This road played a pivotal role in promoting both internal and external trade, fostering economic exchanges between different regions.


Externally, the Sunga Empire engaged in trade with neighboring regions, including Central Asia and the Hellenistic kingdoms. The contacts established through trade contributed to cultural exchanges and the flow of goods and ideas.


Economic Prosperity and Stability:


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The Sunga period is generally associated with economic prosperity and stability. The agricultural sector thrived in the fertile Gangetic plains, contributing to food surplus and supporting a growing population. The stability of the empire, combined with effective administration and infrastructure development, created an environment conducive to economic growth.


The administration of revenue collection, which was crucial for the sustenance of the empire, was likely well-organized. The surplus generated from agricultural activities and trade would have played a role in financing state expenditures, including the maintenance of the military and infrastructure projects.The economic prosperity of the Sunga period is also reflected in the patronage of art, literature, and architecture. The construction of stupas, like the Sanchi Stupa, and other cultural endeavors, suggests a degree of financial affluence and the availability of resources to support such projects.


 Trade and commerce were integral components of the Sunga dynasty's economic landscape. The empire's strategic location, well-connected trade routes, and effective administration contributed to economic prosperity and stability during this period, leaving a lasting impact on the cultural and historical development of ancient India.



Decline and Fall of the Sunga Dynasty

The Sunga Dynasty, which emerged in 185 BCE after the Mauryan Empire's decline, brought about a significant shift in Indian history. However, despite its initial prosperity and achievements, the dynasty eventually succumbed to internal and external pressures, leading to its downfall in 73 BCE.

  • Factors Contributing to the Decline:

Several factors contributed to the eventual decline of the Sunga Dynasty. Some of the most significant include:

1. Internal Conflicts:

  • Dynastic Struggles: The Sunga dynasty witnessed several power struggles within the royal family, weakening its central authority and stability.
  • Rebellions: Disgruntled regional rulers and powerful families often challenged the Sunga authority, leading to internal rebellions and unrest.
  • Economic Instability: The later Sunga rulers faced economic challenges due to factors like over-expansion of the empire and mismanagement of resources.

2. External Threats:

  • Foreign Invasions: The Sunga dynasty faced repeated invasions from foreign powers like the Indo-Greeks and the Shakas, leading to territorial losses and military exhaustion.
  • Rise of Regional Kingdoms: Powerful regional kingdoms like the Satavahanas and the Kalingas challenged the Sunga supremacy, further destabilizing the empire.

3. Loss of Popular Support:

  • Shifting Religious Landscape: The Sunga dynasty's emphasis on Brahmanism and revival of Vedic rituals alienated some sections of the populace, particularly those following Buddhism.
  • Declining Administrative Efficiency: Growing corruption and inefficiencies in the administration led to dissatisfaction among the people and weakened the dynasty's legitimacy.

4. Rise of the Kanvas:

In 73 BCE, Vasudeva Kanva, a Brahmin minister in the Sunga court, assassinated the last Sunga ruler, Devabhuti. This marked the beginning of the Kanva dynasty, which ruled for another 45 years before being overthrown by the Satavahanas.

Fall of the Sunga Dynasty:

The combined impact of internal conflicts, external threats, and declining popular support led to the Sunga dynasty's gradual decline. The assassination of Devabhuti by Vasudeva Kanva marked the final nail in the coffin, signaling the end of the Sunga rule.

Despite its decline, the Sunga dynasty left behind a significant legacy. Some of its notable contributions include:

  • Revival of Brahmanism: The Sunga dynasty played a crucial role in reviving Vedic rituals and restoring the dominance of Brahmanism.
  • Development of Art and Architecture: The Sunga period saw the construction of several important monuments like the Sanchi Stupa and the Bharhut Stupa, showcasing remarkable artistic achievements.
  • Literary Contributions: The Sunga period witnessed the flourishing of Sanskrit literature, with works like the Malavikagnimitra and the Brihatkatha being composed during this time.

Sources:



Legacy of the Sunga Dynasty:

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The legacy of the Sunga dynasty encompasses cultural, religious, artistic, and economic contributions that left a lasting imprint on the trajectory of Indian history. The shift towards Brahmanism, the construction of iconic stupas, and the economic prosperity of the Sunga period collectively played a crucial role in shaping the future development of Indian civilization.
1. Cultural and Religious Shifts:
The most enduring legacy of the Sunga dynasty lies in its influence on Indian culture and religion. The shift towards Brahmanism initiated by the Sunga rulers marked a significant departure from the Buddhist-centric policies of the preceding Mauryan Empire. This shift contributed to the coexistence of Hinduism and Buddhism in Indian society, shaping the religious landscape for centuries to come.

2. Art and Architecture:
The Sunga period made noteworthy contributions to Indian art and architecture. The construction of stupas, such as the Sanchi Stupa and the Bharhut Stupa, exemplifies the synthesis of Buddhist and Brahmanical influences. The intricate carvings and reliefs on these stupas laid the foundation for the rich artistic traditions that flourished in subsequent centuries. The artistic endeavors of the Sunga period played a pivotal role in shaping the visual and sculptural heritage of India.

3. Literature and Intellectual Developments:
While specific literary works from the Sunga period may not be as well-documented, the cultural and intellectual climate of the time contributed to the development of Indian literature. The support for Brahmanism and the revival of Vedic rituals likely influenced the literary production of the period. Additionally, the flourishing trade and cultural exchanges during the Sunga period facilitated the exchange of ideas, contributing to intellectual developments in various fields.

4. Economic Contributions:
The Sunga dynasty presided over a period of economic prosperity and stability. The empire's strategic location, well-connected trade routes, and effective administration contributed to economic growth. The economic achievements of the Sunga period provided a foundation for subsequent economic developments in the Indian subcontinent.

5. Political Transition:
The rise and fall of the Sunga dynasty marked a crucial political transition in ancient Indian history. The decline of the Mauryan Empire and the subsequent emergence of regional powers, including the Sunga and later Kanva dynasties, set the stage for a fragmented political landscape. This period of political decentralization paved the way for the rise of diverse regional kingdoms and political entities, shaping the complex political map of ancient India.


 A Legacy of Cultural Renewal and Political Transformation

Though relatively brief in its duration (185 BCE - 73 BCE), the Sunga Dynasty occupies a pivotal space in the annals of Indian history. Its reign, characterized by significant cultural, political, and artistic developments, left an enduring legacy that continues to resonate even today.

From Mauryan Ashes to Regional Powerhouse:

Emerging from the ashes of the Mauryan Empire, the Sunga Dynasty ushered in a period of political transformation. Instead of a centralized Mauryan administration, a dynamic tapestry of regional kingdoms emerged, with the Sungas playing a pivotal role. This shift paved the way for the rise of powerful regional players like the Satavahanas and Kalingas, reshaping the political landscape of India and laying the groundwork for centuries of diverse regional power dynamics.

Renewing the Vedic Flame:

Marked by a significant cultural revival, the Sunga Dynasty witnessed a resurgence of Brahmanism. Under their patronage, Vedic rituals and scriptures regained prominence, significantly impacting the social and religious fabric of the era. This cultural shift not only solidified the core tenets of Hinduism but also influenced the artistic and literary expressions of the time.

A Golden Age of Artistic Expression:

The Sunga period witnessed a flourishing of art and literature. The dynasty's artistic legacy is etched in stone, with magnificent monuments like the Sanchi and Bharhut stupas standing as testaments to exquisite craftsmanship and intricate stone carvings. These architectural marvels continue to capture the imagination, serving as a window into the artistic sensibilities of the time.

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Literary Luminaries:

The Sunga period also nurtured the growth of literary brilliance. Sanskrit flourished under the dynasty's patronage, giving rise to renowned authors like Kalidasa and Aryabhatta. Kalidasa's timeless masterpieces, such as "Malavikagnimitra" and "Abhijñānaśākuntalam," continue to be celebrated for their lyrical beauty and captivating narratives. Aryabhatta, on the other hand, made significant advancements in mathematics and astronomy, leaving a lasting impact on scientific thought.

A Legacy that Continues to Shape:

The influence of the Sunga Dynasty extends far beyond its reign, shaping the future of India in profound ways:

1. Foundations of Hinduism: The Sunga revival of Vedic traditions laid the groundwork for the development of Hinduism as we know it today. This period paved the way for the rise of powerful Hindu empires like the Guptas, further solidifying the influence of Vedic practices and beliefs on Indian society.

2. A Decentralized Landscape: The Sunga reign marked a pivotal turning point from centralized empires to a more decentralized political structure. This shift fostered a diverse political landscape, with regional kingdoms vying for power and shaping the political landscape of India for centuries to come.

3. An Enduring Artistic Legacy: The Sunga period's architectural marvels and literary masterpieces continue to inspire artists and scholars alike. Their influence can be seen in later artistic movements and literary works, serving as a constant reminder of the dynasty's creative heritage.

An Invitation to Further Exploration:

The Sunga Dynasty offers a captivating glimpse into a transformative period of Indian history. Its rich tapestry of political, cultural, and artistic achievements invites further exploration and study. By delving deeper into the dynasty's fascinating history, we gain a deeper understanding of the foundations that shaped India into the nation it is today. So, let us embark on this journey of discovery, unearthing the hidden treasures of the Sunga legacy and appreciating its enduring impact on the Indian subcontinent.

Thank you for your time and consideration 🙏...

@Puja Singh...





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