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Harsha Rule- Political Organisation and State Administration – Society – Religion

Buddhism under Harsha

The Buddhists were divided into eighteen sects when the Chinese pilgrim Hieung Tsang was in India. The old centres of Buddhism had fallen on bad days. The most famous centre was Nalanda, which maintained a great Buddhist university meant for Buddhist monks. It is said to have had as many as 10,000 students, all monks. They were taught Buddhist philosophy of the Mahayana school.

Although all the mounds of Nalanda have not been dug, excavations have exposed a very impressive complex of buildings. These were raised and renovated over a period of 700 years from the fifth century onwards. The buildings exposed by excavations do not have the capacity to accommodate 10,000 monks.

In AD 670, another Chinese pilgrim, I-tsing, visited Nalanda, and he mentions that only 3000 monks lived there. According to Hsuan Tsang, the monastery at Nalanda was supported from the revenues of 100 villages. I-tsing raises this number to 200. Nalanda thus had a huge monastic establishment during the reign of Harshavardhana.

Harsha followed a tolerant religious policy. A Shaiva in his early years, he gradually became a great patron of Buddhism. As a devout Buddhist he convened a grand assembly at Kanauj to widely publicize the doctrines of Mahayana. The assembly was attended not only by Hsuan Tsang and the Kamarupa ruler Bhaskaravarman, but also by the kings of twenty states and by several thousand priests belonging to different sects. Two thatched halls were built to accommodate 1000 persons each.

However, the most important construction was a huge tower in the middle of which a golden statue of the Buddha, as tall as the king himself, was placed. Harsha worshipped the image and gave a public dinner. The discussion in the conference was initiated by Hsuan Tsang who dilated on the virtues of Mahayana Buddhism and challenged the audience to refute his arguments. However, nobody came forward for five days, and then his theological rivals conspired to take the pilgrim’s life.

Hearing of this plot, Harsha threatened to behead anybody causing Hsuan Tsang the slightest harm. Suddenly the great tower caught fire and there was an attempt to assassinate Harsha. Harsha then arrested 500 brahmanas. He banished most of them, and also executed a few. This would indicate that Harsha was not as tolerant as he is painted.

After Kanauj, he held at Prayag a great assembly which was attended by all the tributary princes, ministers, nobles, etc. On this occasion, an image of the Buddha was worshipped, and discourses were given by Hsuan Tsang. At the end of it, Harsha made huge donations, and according to a tradition, he gave away everything except his personal clothing. Hsuan Tsang speaks of Harsha in glowing terms. The king was kind, courteous, and helpful to him, and the pilgrim was able to visit the various parts of the empire.

Banabhatta gives us a flattering account of the early years of his patron in his book Harshacharita in an ornate style which became a model for later writers. Harsha is remembered not only for his patronage and learning but also for the authorship of three plays: Priyadarshika, Ratnavali, and Nagananda. Bana attributes great poetical skill to him, and some later authors consider him to have been a literary monarch. However, Harsha’s authorship of the three dramas is doubted by several medieval scholars. It is held that they were composed by a person called Dhavaka in the name of Harsha for some consideration.

Political Organisation and State Administration

 Harsha made Kanauj his seat of power, and from there he extended his authority in all directions. By the seventh century Pataliputra fell on bad days and Kanauj came to the fore. How did this happen? Pataliputra owed its power and importance to trade and commerce, and the widespread use of money. Tolls could be collected from the traders who came to the city Irom the east, west, north, and south across four rivers.

However, once trade declined, money became scarce, and officers and soldiers were paid through land grants, the city lost its importance. Power shifted to military camps (skandhavaras), and places of strategic importance which dominated long stretches of land. To this class belonged Kanauj. It shot into political prominence Irom the second half of the sixth century onwards. Its emergence as a centre ol political power from the reign of Harsha onwards typifies the coming of the feudal age in north India just as Pataliputra largely represents the pre-feudal order.

The fortification of places in the plains was far more difficult, but Kanauj was situated on an elevated area which was easily fortifiable. Located right at the centre of the doab, it was well-fortified in the seventh century.

The early history of Harsha’s reign is reconstructed from a study by Banabhatta, who was his court poet and who wrote a book called Harshacharita. This can be supplemented by the account of the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, who visited India in the seventh century and stayed in the country for about fifteen years. Harsha’s inscriptions speak of various types of taxes and officials.

Harsha’s authority was limited to north India excluding Kashmir. Rajasthan, Punjab, UP, Bihar, and Orissa were under his direct control, but his sphere of influence spread over a much wider area.

In eastern India he faced opposition from the Shaivite king Shashanka of Gauda, who felled the Bodhi tree at Bodh-Gaya. However, Shashanka’s death in AD 619 put an end to this hostility.

Harsha’s southward march was stopped at the Narmada river by the Chalukya king Pulakeshin, who ruled over a great part of modern Karnataka and Maharashtra with his capital at Badami in the modern Bijapur district of Karnataka.

Apart from this, Harsha did not face any serious opposition and succeeded in giving a measure of political unity to a large part of India.


 Harshavardhana’s reign is an example of the transition from ancient to medieval times. Harsha governed his empire on the same lines as did the Guptas, but his administration had become feudal and decentralized. It is stated that Harsha had 100,000 horses and 60,000 elephants. This appears astonishing because the Mauryas, who ruled over virtually the entire country except the deep south, maintained only 30,000 cavalry and 9000 elephants.

Harsha could have had a larger army only if he was in a position to mobilize the support of all his feudatories in the time of war. Evidently every feudatory contributed his quota of foot soldiers and horses, and thus enormously added to the imperial army.

The vast numbers of the imperial army suggests a great increase in population. Land grants continued to be made to priests for special services rendered to the state.

More importantly, Harsha is credited with the grant of land to the officers by issuing charters. These grants allowed the same concessions to priests as were allowed by the earlier grants.

The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang informs us that Harsha’s revenues were divided into four parts. One part was earmarked for the expenditure of the king, a second for scholars, a third for the endowment of officials and public servants, and a fourth for religious purposes. He also tells us that ministers and high officers of the state were endowed with land. The feudal practice of rewarding and paying officers with grants of land seems to have begun under Harsha. This explains why we do not have very many coins issued by this king.

In Harsha’s empire, law and order was not well maintained. Hsuan Tsang, about whose welfare, special care may have been taken by the government, was robbed of his belongings, although he reports that according to the laws of the land, severe punishments were inflicted for crime.

Robbery was considered to be a second treason for which the right hand of the robber was amputated. It however appears that, under the influence of Buddhism, the severity of punishment was mitigated and criminals were imprisoned for life.

Political Scenario

 The observations of Hiuen Tsang throw considerable light upon the political arrangements of India in the regions beyond the limits of Harsha’s empire during the seventh century A.D.

In the north, Kashmir was the predominant power, and had reduced the kingdoms of Taxila and the Salt Range (Simhapura), as well as the minor principalities of the lower hills, to the rank of dependencies.

The greater part of the Punjab between the Indus and the Bias Rivers was comprised in the kingdom called Tseh-kia by the pilgrim, the capital of which was an unnamed city situated close to Sakala, where the tyrant Mihiragula had held his court.

The province of Multan, where the Sun-god was held in special honour, and a country called Po-fa-to, to the northeast of Multan, were dependencies of this kingdom.

Sind was remarkable for being under the government of a king belonging to the Sudra caste, and for the large number of Buddhist monks which the country supported, estimated at ten thousand. But the quality was not in proportion to the quantity, as most of the ten thousand were denounced as idle fellows given over to self-indulgence and debauchery. The Indus delta, to which the pilgrim gives the name of O-tien-pochi-lo, was a province of the kingdom of Sind.

The Kings of Ujjain in Central India and of Pundravardhana in Bengal, both of which kingdoms were more or less subject to Harsha’s control, belonged to the Brahman caste. The Ujjain country supported a dense population, which included few Buddhists. Most of the monasteries were in ruins, and only three or four, occupied by some three hundred monks, were in use. The early decay of Buddhism in this region, which was sanctified by the traditions of Asoka, and included the magnificent buildings at Sanchi, is a very curious fact.

Bhaskara-varman, or Kumara Raja, the King of Kamarupa, or Assam, who played such a prominent part in Harsha’s ceremonials, was also by caste a Brahman, and without faith in Buddha, although well disposed toward learned men of all religions. He was so far subject to the sovereign of Northern India that he could not afford to disobey Harsha’s commands.

Kalinga, the conquest of which had cost Asoka such bitter remorse nine hundred years earlier, was depopulated, and mostly covered with jungle. The pilgrim observes in picturesque language that “in old days the kingdom of Kalinga had a very dense population. Their shoulders rubbed one with the other, and the axles of their chariot-wheels grided together, and when they raised their arm-sleeves a perfect tent was formed.” Legend sought to explain the change by the curse of an angry saint.

“As the administration of the government is founded on benign principles, the executive is simple…People are not subject to forced labour.  In this way taxes on people are light and personal service required of them is moderate.  Each one keeps his own worldly goods in peace, and all till the ground for their subsistence.  Those who cultivate the royal estates pay a sixth part of the produce as tribute.  The merchants who engage in commerce come and go in carrying out their transactions, and so on.”

Society during the time of Harsha

 Hieung Tsang has left valuable accounts of the observation which he had made on the society of those times.

According to him people were known for their honesty, courage and love for learning. They were not deceitful or treacherous in their conduct and were faithful in their oaths and promises. They were known for their personal hygiene and used to clean the floors of their houses with cow-dung and strewn it with season flowers. They bathed daily and smeared their bodies with scented unguents like sandal and saffron. They used to wash their hands before meals and fragments and remains of meals were not served up again.

He praises the Indian people and the administration. “With respect to the ordinary people”, he says, although they are naturally light-minded, yet they are upright and honourable.  In money matters, they are without craft, and in administering justice, they are considerate…They are not deceitful or treacherous in their conduct, and are faithful in their oaths and promises.  In their rules of government there is remarkable rectitude, whilst in their behaviour there is much gentleness and sweetness.  With respect to criminals or rebels, these are few in number, and only occasionally troublesome.

He tells that when a person fell ill in India, he immediately fasted for seven days.  Most people recovered during this fast.  But if the illness continued, then they took medicine.

A striking feature of India in those days was the great deference and respect shown by rulers and military men to learned and cultured people.  In India and in China a deliberate attempt was made, and with great success, to give the place of honour to learning and culture, and not to brute force or riches.



Hiuen Tsang gives a vivid description of the great Kumbh Mela at Prayag.

Hiuen Tsang tells us how Harsha, though a Buddhist, went to this typical Hindu festival.  On his behalf an imperial decree invited all the poor and needy of the “Five Indies” to come and be his guests at the mela.  It was a brave invitation, even for an emperor.  Needless to say, many came; and 100,000 are said to have fed daily as Harsha’s guests.

At this mela, every five years, Harsha used to distribute all the surplus of his treasury: gold, jewellery, silk-indeed everything he had.  He even gave away his crown and rich clothing and took from his sister Rajashri a common garment which had already been worn.

As a pious Buddhist, Harsha stopped the killing of animals for food.  This was probably not objected too much by the Brahmans, as they had taken more and more to vegetarianism since the Buddha’s coming.

Hiuen Tsang took with him from India 150 pieces of the bodily relics of Buddha, a large number of Buddha images in gold, silver and sandalwood and above all, 657 volumes of valuable manuscripts, carried by twenty horses of his escort party.

Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the various cults of those two religions, were already so much nearer to each other that people accepted them all with intense devotion. A synthesis of religious ideas was taking place within a broad spiritual outlook.

Puranic Hinduism was sweeping over India in full force. The Hindu gods and goddesses had come to dominate the religious faith of the people. The Buddha’s images were also worshipped by the Hindus along with the images of their major gods. Hiuen Tsang, though a Buddhist himself, and proud to have counted about two lakhs of Buddhist monks in India during his travel, was impressed to see the predominance of the Brahminic religion. Sanskrit was the language of both Buddhist and Brahminical scholars. Idol worship had become common with the Mahayan Buddhists and the Hindus.

Within the Puranic Hinduism, there were many sects. Gods like Vishnu, Siva, and Surya were prominently worshipped. Though Buddhism was already heading towards decline, its hold on the popular imagination was still considerable. Jainism was confined to a few places like Vaisali and its former holy centres.

One thing was certain in these conditions, that the Indians of that time were perfectly free to practice their faiths as they liked. There were of course religious controversies, but there was no religious dogmatism or fanaticism. An individual also could be a believer in different faiths.

Members of the same family could belong to different sects while living together. It was no doubt a time of religious assimilation and spiritual synthesis.

Educational System

 Hiuen Tsang found that the education of the people was organized and began early.  After the primer had been learnt, the boy or girl was supposed to begin the study of the five Shastras at the age of seven.

“Shastras” are supposed to mean purely religious books, but in those days they meant knowledge of all kinds.  Thus the five Shastras were (1) Grammar; (2) Science of arts and crafts; (3) Medicine; (4) Logic; (5) Philosophy.

The study of these subjects went on in the universities and was usually completed at the age of thirty.  I suppose not very many people could goon up to that age.  But it appears that primary education was comparatively widespread, as all the monks and priests were the teachers, and there was no lack of them.

Hiuen Tsang was much stuck by the love of learning of the Indian people, and right through his book he refers to this.

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