Myth Of Pushyamitra Shunga Persecuting Buddhists - Vatsal tyagi

Pushyamitra, the founder of the Shunga dynasty has been represented by a great majority of scholars as persecutor of Buddhists.

E.J. Rapson writes:

“In Buddhist literature Pushyamitra figures as a great persecutor of Buddhists bent on acquiring fame as the annihilator of Buddhist doctrine.’

V.Smith writes:

“Pushyamitra was not content with the peaceful revival of Hindu 17 rites, but indulged in savage persecution of Buddhism, burning monasteries and slaying monks from Magadha to Jalandhara, in the Punjab.”

R.P. Chanda says:

“This legend clearly indicates that Pushyamitra was remembered by the Buddhists as a non-Buddhist monarch whose dominion extended as far as Sakala (Sialkot) and who tried to rival Ashoka in power and fame.”

The consensus of these historians clearly indicates that Pushyamitra was indeed a Persecutor of Buddhists.

However, let’s now look at the specific sources mentioned by these Historians. The texts are- Divyavadana and History of Buddhism by Tarantha. So it’s said that there are mainly these two Buddhist texts from which historians infer that Pushyamitra Shunga persecuted Buddhists. But on close examination it will be found that there are no positive historical evidences to sustain this verdict on Pushyamitra Sunga.

The materials contained in the Divyavadana and Taranatha’s history, on which reliance has been placed, are not of such a character as to enable us to draw with any degree of confidence the conclusion that Pushyamitra Sunga persecuted the Buddhists. The source most strongly and commonly relied upon is the Divyavadana. But we must remember at the outset that the Divyavadana is a very late work. It is not doubt a fact that it does speak of one Pushyamitra who had made up his decision to put an end to the religion of Buddha. But the real question arises is that is this the same Pushyamitra Shunga?

Let’s see what Divyavandana states, “He(Pushyamitra) along with a huge army had proceeded to the Buddhist monastery, the Kukkutarama, with a view to demolish it. Then he proceeded to Sialkot where he thought to uproot the Buddhist organisation and to kill the monks and for which  he offered a reward of 100 dinaras to those who would give him the head of a sramana. By this proclamation, the Bhikshus began to be persecuted mercilessly irrespective of age.”

Though this is a fact with regard to one Pushyamitra of the Divyavadana, but the point to be determined is “Is there any sound reason for identifying Pushyamitra of the Divyavadana with Pushyamitra Sunga, the commander-in-chief (mentioned in the Puranas)?

Raychaudhuri(Another famed Historian)has rightly pointed out that Pushyamitra, the persecuting monarch of the Divyavadana, is represented as a Maurya, a descendant of Ashoka himself. HE IS NOT THE PUSHYAMITRA OF SHUNGA DYNASTY. That he belonged to the Maurya dynasty is further made clear in the last line of the Divyavadana:

‘यदा पुष्पमित्रो राजा प्रघातिता तदा मौर्यवंश’ (Divyavadana page 434)

No attempt by any writer, save Raychaudhuri, was made to explain this great obstacle in identifying Pushyamitra of the Divyavadana with Pushyamitra Sunga, the commander-in-chief. But Raychaudhuri also missed the most significant point in this connection, which is, that Pushyamitra of the Divyavadana is never described by the epithet Senani or Senapati.

But Pushyamitra Sunga is almost invariably referred to as Pushyamitra, the Senani or Senapati in the Ayodhya inscription, Malavikagnimitram,” Puranas,” and Harshacharita.” Specially significant is his description as Senapati in the Ayodhya inscription, where he is referred to as:  सेनापतेः पुष्पमित्रस्य Thus, it appears that Pushyamitra did not assume the royal title. He was only known or liked to be known by the title Senapati or Senani. The term Senapati or Senani was, therefore, an important epithet of Pushyamitra Sunga by which he could easily be recognized.

Now let’s look at Taranatha’s History of Buddhism. Tāranātha was a Lama of the Jonang school of Tibetan Buddhism, born around 16th century.

It passes one’s comprehension as to how on this material Taranatha can be relied to support the conclusion that Pushyamitra,was the persecutor of Buddhists. N.N. Ghosh seems to be the only scholar who has, on the authority of Taranatha, maintained that Pushyamitra Sunga was the persecutor of Buddhists. But a careful study of the translated passage below will show the truth “It was in Bengal that king Harichandra who began the Royal line of Chandra, appeared. Of this race there were seven kings who openly supported Buddhism and who because of this are known by the common designation of the seven Chandras.”

“Soon after Nemachandra took possession of the throne he was deprived of by his minister Pushyamitra, who usurped it. It was at this time that the first inroad of strangers called Tirthikas or heretics into India, took place.”

“After commencing war against Pushyamitra, they burnt, it is said, a number of temples beginning from Jalandhara, and as far as Magadha, they killed a number of Bhishu, but a great many of them fled to other countries and Pushyamitra himself died in the North five years after.”

The allusion here to the persecutor of Buddhists is at the hands of the invaders i.e. Tirthikas and not to Pushyamitra. Another point to be noted in this connection is that Pushyamitra of Taranatha cannot be identified with Pushyamitra Sunga as he is not referred to as Senapati. Another inconsistency mentioned here is that according to Tarantha, Pushyamitra usurped the throne of Nema, however Pushyamitra Shunga usurped the throne of Brihardth Maurya.

As against this evidence of a highly doubtful character of Pushyamitra Sunga being a persecutor of Buddhists, we have positive evidence showing Pushyamitra Sunga as a monarch tolerant towards Buddhism. In this connection we may refer to the Bharhut inscription. It records the erection of a Buddhist monument during the rule of the Sungas.

Moreover, the Buddhist Railpillars at Bodh-Gaya of the Sunga period which record the gifts of queens Kurangi and Nagadevi respectively also suggest that Buddhism was looked upon with respect by the  Sunga kings in which Pushyamitra Sunga was also included. The most significant point to be noted in this connection is that in the very heart of the dominion of Pushyamitra Sunga, there were various Asokan Buddhist monuments which were not destroyed either by Pushyamitra or by his followers. The Ashokan pillar at various places, e.g. at Lauria-Nandangarh, at Samatha and various other Buddhist organisations both at Magadha and at Vaishali were also not disturbed by Pushyamitra Sunga.

Thus, it would be not far from correct to conclude that Pushyamitra Sunga persecuted the Buddhists, is largely based on conjectures and surmises rather than on any sound historical material, which alone can be the basis for the verdict of the historians.

Sources/Further Readings-

1) Pushyamitra Shunga and the Buddhists: Ram Kumar Mishra

2) E.J. Rapson, Cambridge History of India

3)  V. Smith, The History of India, 4th edition, 1924

4) Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol. V, 1929,

5) K.P. Jaiswal, An Imperial History of India,

6) Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature,

7) H.C. Raychaudhuri, Political History of Ancient India, 5 edition,


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