Harsha appears as a great devotee of Gautama Buddha in the account left behind by Xuanzang. Like many Indian monarchs of his time, he was eclectic when it came to matters of faith. His family revered not only the Buddha but also Surya and Shiva. But Buddhism, specifically Mahayana Buddhism, held a special place in the monarch’s heart. His sister Rajyashri was also an ardent Buddhist. There are several episodes where Harsha’s preference for Buddhism comes to the fore. In one account, after the tragic deaths of his brother-in-law (Grahavarman) and elder brother (Rajyavardhan), Harsha overcame his reluctance to assume royal power only after the appearance of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Xuanzang speaks of a special religious assembly held in his honour at Kannauj which was attended by the emperor’s feudatories, eighteen lords from all over North India. Harsha had a great monastery built and a life-sized golden image of the Buddha installed. The statue was put on top of a caparisoned elephant and taken out in a huge procession. Harsha, dressed as Sakra, along with Bhaskaravarman (of Kamarupa) in the guise of Brahma, accompanied the image. They were followed by nobles, priests and officers of the Pushyabhuti domain. The emperor gave away pearls, gold and precious stones to members of the procession. Later, the Buddha’s image was worshipped and a public dinner organized.

This was followed by a series of debates between Xuanzang and Hinayana Buddhists, over a period of five days, in which the former bested the latter. It seems that an atmosphere of sectarianism prevailed in those days. The Hinayana partisans conspired against the Chinese scholar but relented when the emperor spoke of grave consequences for those who sought to harm the learned guest. Nevertheless, they might have expressed their displeasure by setting a tower (where the golden Buddha had been kept) on fire. The assembly did not end on a pleasant note with some assassins making an attempt on Harsha’s life, which the monarch foiled.

The assembly at Kannauj was followed by a gathering at Prayag. Here, on a stretch of river sand near the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna, Harsha undertook a great distribution of alms. Once again, his preference for Buddhism was on display. On the first day of the gathering, an image of Buddha was set up and consecrated. On the second day, an image of Surya, and on the third day, an image of Shiva. The amount spent on the third day was half of the amount spent on the second day, and a quarter of what was spent on the first day. On the fourth day, donations were made to Buddhist monks. This was followed by alms distribution to Brahmans, Jains and members of other sects. The final recipients of royal charity were the poor, the orphaned and the destitute.

There are other instances of Harsha’s leanings. The king was acclaimed as a man of letters. There are three major plays (in Sanskrit) attributed to him – Ratnavali, Priyadarsika and Nagananda. In Nagananda (Joy of the Snake World), Harsha opens the play with benedictions (Nandis or lines calling for the blessings of a particular deity to be bestowed on the audience) invoking the Buddha. The play itself is inspired by the Buddhist legend of Jimutavahana. In 635 CE, Harsha paid a visit to Kashmir where he acquired (it is said by force) a tooth relic of the Buddha, which was subsequently installed in a sangharama in Kannauj. Harsha also established Buddhist monasteries, prohibited the slaughter of animals, and constructed hospices for travellers. The military intervention of the Chinese, Nepalese and Tibetans in North India, after Harshavardhana’s demise in 647 CE, can be construed as one orchestrated by devout Buddhists seeking to revive a kingdom administered by a model Buddhist sovereign.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a bronze statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara from Sri Lanka (750 CE). Emperor Harsha was a partisan of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is a major figure in the Mahayana school. The image was uploaded by Sean Pathasema.

References:

  • India: The Ancient Past (A History of the Indian-Subcontinent from 7000 BC to AD 1200) by Burjor Avari (2007)
  • The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 by Romila Thapar (2002)
  • Ancient Indian History and Civilization by Sailendra Nath Sen (1988)
  • The Culture and Civilization of India in Historical Outline by DD Kosambi (1964)
  • Nagananda (translated into English) by Palmer Boyd (1872)