Article abstract: One of the last great rulers of the classical age of Hindu India, Harsha defended Buddhism in its homeland, established relations with the Chinese Empire, and distinguished himself in classical Sanskrit theater.
Much of the information recorded about Harsha’s youth comes from the account of Baña, a contemporary Sanskrit poet. Harsha was the second son of Prabhakaravardhana, the raja of Thanesar (probably a small, independent state in the Punjab). The death of his father ultimately led Harsha, however reluctantly, to rule for more than forty years over a great north Indian empire. Yet the path to the throne was neither easy nor obvious.
After their mother, Yasomati, committed suttee—self-sacrifice on her husband’s funeral pyre—both Harsha and his elder brother, Rajyavardhana, declined the succession. Thus matters remained, until their sister, Rajyasri, who had married Grahavarman, the Maukhari king of Kanauj, was imprisoned after the death of her husband by Devaqupta, King of Malava (in west-central India). Rajyavardhana, abandoning his ascetic life, defeated Devaqupta; unfortunately, the young king was assassinated by Devaqupta’s ally, Sasanka, King of Gauda (modern Bengal). On learning of her brother’s death, Rajyasri—who had been freed by a sympathetic noble—wandered into the Vindhya Mountains, while Rajyavardhana’s army fell into disarray. Harsha, who had been left in charge of the government by his brother, rallied the royal forces; formed an alliance with another of Sasanka’s enemies, Bhaskaravarman, King of Kamarupa; and found his sister, who was about to mount a funeral pyre in the mountains.
Vowing vengeance against Sasanka, his brother’s murderer, the sixteen-year-old Harsha began a war of universal conquest. Although his objective would not be achieved, he nevertheless managed to transform a desperate situation. According to tradition, his initial hesitance about ascending the throne was overcome by encouragement from the statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (the merciful, earthly manifestation of the eternal Buddha). Although apocryphal, this story of the statue certainly indicates the spiritual dimension of Harsha’s personality.
The rich details provided by Baña in Sri Harshacharita (seventh century; The Harshacharita of Banabhatta, 1892) break off abruptly with Harsha’s reunion with his sister. Aside from royal seals and inscriptions, the account of a contemporary Buddhist pilgrim, Xuanzang, is the only record of the remainder of Harsha’s lengthy reign. Unfortunately, Xuanzang only met the king around 643 and left India in 644, three years before Harsha’s death. Thus much about Harsha’s reign remains unknown.
Harsha, who was always on the move, amassed a huge standing army; his forces easily exceeded those of Chandragupta Maurya in the fourth century b.c.e., even if figures of sixty thousand elephants, 100,000 cavalry, and perhaps one million infantry are discounted as hyperbole. Although he apparently campaigned vigorously even in the early years of his reign, by about 620 he was deeply involved in warfare, battling the forces of King Pulesin II of the Chalukya dynasty of the northern Deccan and after 636 annexing much of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. These facts somewhat modify contemporary claims of thirty years of peace under his rule. Historical opinion is divided as to the extent of his conquests and the range of his empire. He suffered defeat at the hands of the Chalukya, which may or may not have established the sacred Narmada River as his southern boundary. He never apparently defeated his avowed enemy Sasanka (who cut down the Bodhi tree at Gaya), only making his eastern acquisitions sometime after the latter’s death in about 637. Apparently, Harsha also had little success against the states of western India. Lata, Malava, and Gurjara were buffer states protected by Pulakesin, and powerful Sindh fought him off, although Dharasena IV of Valabhi became his son-in-law.
Harsha’s political power, based in Kanauj (a minor village today with few traces left of his era), embraced the populous, traditional heartland of the Gangetic plain. His prestige and influence extended throughout northern India but was counterbalanced by the Chalukya of the Deccan plateau region. His empire was not a centralized one under his direct control as has sometimes been asserted.
The state was highly organized, yet few details about it are known. In a traditional society based on bureaucratic villages, tours of inspection through the provinces and districts were the means of control. Taxes were light and 50 percent of the budget went to religion and the arts. (At quinquennial...
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