Harsha: In the footsteps of Ashoka

By M.S.N. Menon, The Organiser, May 8, 2007

New Delhi, India -- Men walk the path of their ancestors—in particular of their greatest exemplars of history. Such were Ashoka and Harsha. Much has been written about Ashoka and Akbar, but little on Harsha. Yet I consider him as the finest example of a great ruler in the Hindu tradition.

“Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history… the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone—a star,” writes H.G. Wells.

Not alone. He has for company Harsha—another exemplar of our history. His life was very remarkable. It had no parallel in human history. He was a great conqueror philanthropist and dramatist, all at the same time!

Harsha appeared at a time of Indian history when India was in chaos. The Huns were responsible for it. Harsha’s father fought a long war against them. He died in one of these battles. Harsha’s mother courted Sati. And his sister was abducted.

Harsha started his wars as acts of revenge. He recovered his sister with the help of a Buddhist monk. (Perhaps this explains why he chose to be a Buddhist in later years. But he postponed his conversion to Buddhism till he had taken his revenge on the Huns.) In the process, he conquered Punjab, Bengal, Orissa and many other regions. After conquering much of the rest of India, Harsha turned to peace. Here he was in the footsteps of Ashoka.

But Harsha was no pacifist. He knew that he was in constant danger unless he had a powerful army. So he built one of the most powerful armies of his time. It consisted of 60,000 elephants, 100,000 horses and a huge army of foot-soldiers, according to Hieun Tsang, the famous Chinese pilgrim. With such a huge army no country dared to challenge him. Harsha devoted the rest of his life (30 years) to religion and peace.

Harsha adopted the Mahayana form of Buddhism under the teaching of Yuan Chwang, one of the celebrated Chinese Buddhists. But he continued to support the Hindus.

To provide a boost to the Mahayana sect, he called a religious assembly at Kanauj, which was already a major centre of Buddhism. He invited all regligious sects including the Hinayanists and the Brahmins.

Chwang himself was a man with an open mind. He offered his head to anyone “who could find a single word of his contrary to reason.” Reason dominated life in India in those days.

Harsha encouraged the cultural development of the people. He made a gift of a temple of bronze 100 feet high to the Nalanda University, which was the greatest seat of learning in the world with 15,000 students.

But Harsha will be known for his unprecedented philanthropy. Once in every five years Harsha visited Prayag to distribute all his wealth accumulated in five years. He gave his gifts to both Buddhists and Brahmins. Even the heretics received his patronage. He gave away even the shirt he wore.

Bana, author of Harsha Charita (The story of Harsha), who was also the Prime Minister of Harsha, tells us that Harsha was interested in poetry and drama and was the author of three plays: Priya Darshika, Nagananda and Ratnavali. He himself directed Nagananda and composed music for it. Harsha Charita is a mine of information on Harsha’s administration. In all the towns and highways, he erected homes for the destitute and sick.

Buddhism was already in decline by the times of Harsha. Corruption has seeped into its body. Buddhists were divided into 18 sects. However, Chwang records that during the time of Harsha, there were still many viharas which were noted for their eminent teachers. Many students came from far and near. Chwang himself studied for two years in Kashmir. Later he moved to Nalanda, which provided both Buddhist and Brahmanic studies.

Chwang says that there were many thousands of private teachers during Harsha’s time, who provided special education to students in specialised subjects.

It was Harsha’s court which first gave us the protocol procedures. It is interesting that he chose a Brahmin, not a Buddhist, as his envoy to China (641 AD). It is evident from this that the highest jobs in the empire were open to non-Buddhists.

Harsha had a powerful navy. This is clear from the fact that he offered a sea passage to Chwang under his full protection.