Pusyamitra Shunga was the founding ruler of the Shunga Empire in Northern India. He has his roots in the Maurya Empire where he served as the Chief of Army or ‘Senapati’.
He acceded to the throne in 204 B.C. after killing the Mauryan Emperor Brihadratha Maurya, thus marking the end of a great dynasty and making Brihadratha the last Mauryan Emperor. Proclaiming himself the new Emperor, he was still not satisfied and arranged for an ‘Ashvamedha Yajna’ for the purpose of territorial expansion and brought major parts of Northern India under his reign.
There is a major conflict among the historians and their theories about the lineage and ancestry of Pusyamitra. Many of historians are of the opinion that Pusyamitra belonged to the Brahmin ‘gotra’ (clan). Puranic manuscripts found by the historians say that a person belonging to the Shunga descent was, “a descendent of Bharadvaja, by a woman married in the family of Kata, a descendent of Vishvamitra”.
The great historian, K.P. Singh, based upon this above fact put forward the theory that a Shunga person had two gotras, with their families belonging both to the lineage of Bharadvaja and Vishvamitra. However, other Puranic texts, such as the Matsya Purana mentions the Shungas as a combination of the Bharadvaja and the Kashyapa clans.
The Harivamsa texts mention a member of the Kashyapa clan who performed Ashvamedha sacrifice. This unknown man, many believe is Pusyamitra Shunga.
The Puranic texts reveal that Pusyamitra became the King after killing his master Brihadratha, who was the last Mauryan Emperor however, the matter of greatest conflict is that the Divyavadana (of which the Asokavadana is a part) text calls Pusyamitra as the last of the Mauryan Kings. Many scholars believe that this is a human error in the text and Brihadratha was confused with Pusyamitra. .
The majority of the reign of Pusyamitra has been focused in the persecution of Buddhists as many historians theorize from the written accounts we have till date. The Asokavadana claims that Pusyamitra wanted to destroy the Buddhist religion because it was propagated by the great Mauryan Emperor, Asoka.
He sent his army to various parts of India to kill the Buddhist monks and even announced bounties on the heads of Buddhist monks. Even Pusyamitra ministers advised him that Asoka’s popularity would out shadow his if he doesn’t uproot the entire religion. Pusyamitra tried destroying the stupas which Asoka had erected.
He also tried destroying the Kukkutarana monastery but it was saved miraculously. Later, he went so far as to announce a reward of one hundred gold coins for anyone who would behead a Buddhist monk and bring the head to him.
Vibhasa text of the 2nd Century claims that Pusyamitra burned Buddhist scriptures, killed Buddhist monks, and destroyed 500 monasteries in and around Kashmir region. The texts state that natural spirits called ‘Yakshas’ and demons helped him undertake this massive persecution operation. It is also recorded in those texts that when, however, he went to the Bodhi tree at Gaya, the deity of that tree took the shape of a beautiful woman and killed him.
There are several other texts which corroborate this incident, the principal of which is the Shariputrapariprichha which had been translated into Chinese. There are medieval era texts like the Arya-Manjushri-Mula-Kalpa that describes a wicked King that had a face resembling a bull that annexed territories and killed monks. In this account however, the King was killed by falling mountain rocks.
This cruel king, many scholars believe is Pusyamitra. The proficient Tibetan historian of the 16th century, Taranath, in his accounts have mentioned that because of large scale persecution of the Buddhist from the Central to Northern India, Buddhism in this part was completely wiped out in about three years. Most Buddhists were either killed or fled to neighbouring areas of China and Tibet.
There is another set of Historians who are of the opinion that Pusyamitra’s strong hatred for the Buddhists was because he was a Brahmin and could not see the rise of another religion, a religion which the Mauryas patronized. And this is the main reason why he hated the Mauryas and killed them.
However, noted historians like H.C. Roychaudhury are of the opinion that Pusyamitra’s killing of Brihadratha was not a Brahmin reaction because there are written records of Brahmins being treated fairly well during the Maurya rule. The appointment of Pusyamitra, a Brahmin at the important post of Army General further strengthens this viewpoint.
Another school of thought of historians is that Pusyamitra’s persecution of the Buddhists was a political response rather than a religious one.
The Buddhists at that time supported the Indo-Greek elements that were trying to overthrow Pusyamitra. This is particularly believable because the Asokavadana states that Pusyamitra declared reward for killing Buddhist monks in present day Sialkot which was the stronghold of the Indo-Greek rulers.
Few historians are also of the opinion that Pusyamitra’s extreme hatred toward the Buddhists was an exaggeration and fabrication by the Buddhist scholars of the age because he did not extend royal patronage to them. For example, the reward for killing Buddhist monk as announced by Pusyamitra was in a currency form called Dinara which did not come into existence until the next century.
Several other inconsistencies have been also noted in the Sri Lankan Buddhist text called Mahavamsa which states that several monasteries existed during the rule of Pusyamitra that had not been demolished. This can mean two things – either they miraculously survived the lashes of Pusyamitra’s hatred or they were never attacked by Pusyamitra.
After the fall of the Mauryan empire, the Buddhists lost their massive control they enjoyed at the Mauryan court and were extremely dissatisfied with Pusyamitra’s Brahminical actions and thoughts. As a result of this discontent, they have elaborated vastly exaggerated and fabricated accounts of Pusyamitra being a persecutor of the Buddhists.
Agnimitra Shunga, the son of Pusyamitra Shunga succeeded the throne in 148 B.C.E. and carried on with his father’s ideals and the Shunga dynasty.