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Harshavardhana and the Harshacharita
Biographies, as written histories, are rich sources for personality portraits. Harṣavardhana ruled approximately 300 years after Samudragupta; his biography was authored by court poet, Bāṇabhaṭṭa; it is known as the Harṣacharita, or the deeds of Harṣa.
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Bāṇabhaṭṭa, the Portrait of a Poet
Bāṇabhaṭṭa is one of the greatest poets of India. He was born in Pritikuta, on the shores of river Hiranyavahu. The area where Bāṇabhaṭṭa was born is called Chhapra today.
He was born a Brahmin, to Chitrabhanu and Rajadevi; the family belonged to Vatsyayana Gotra. The family didn’t have much money but Bāṇabhaṭṭa was a clever and precocious child. He was a stellar student and demonstrated immense discipline with his schoolwork.
His father was a highly learned poet, and due to this influence, Bāṇabhaṭṭa went on to carve a legacy for himself as one of the greatest poets in India, being an integral part of the court of Harṣavardhana of Kannauj.
He became the Asthana Kavi at the court of King Harṣa who ruled from 606-647 AD beginning from the region of Sthanishvara and later on, Kanauj. In addition to the Harshcharita (“The Deeds of Harṣa”) he worked on one of the world’s preliminary novels, “Kadambari”.
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Genealogy of Harṣa
The genealogy of Harṣa is greatly disputed by historians, and they have put forth theories on his origins. Bhim Singh Dahiya and Thakur Deshraj, state Harṣa belonged to the Virk clan. The Virk clan is native to the Virks of Mandsaur.
Other historians such as Carlyle and Alexander Cunningham, and Dilip Singh Ahlawat, claim he belonged to the Bain clan.
The Bains clan is connected to Punjab. Other historians claim that Harṣa hailed from the royal family of Thaneswar who belonged to the Bhatti gotra.
Bhattis, Bains, and Virks, all fall under the Jats.
Harṣavardhana – The Life of a Ruler
Harṣa, referred to as Harṣavardhana, lived from 590 to 647. He was the second born of Prabakara Vardhana, of the Pushyabhuti Dynasty, and he had an elder brother, and a younger sister.
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Ascension to the Throne
As per tradition, upon his father’s passing, his brother Rajya Vardhana ascended the throne. Prior to his father’s death, Rajyasri had been married off to Grahavarman, a Maukhari. They were a prominent, powerful, and ruling family in the city of Kannauj.
Harṣa’s rise to power was a road fraught with personal tragedy. His brother-in-law, Grahavarman was killed by a Malava who kidnapped his sister. His elder brother took to war against the Malava King, but was killed in a sinister fashion by Shashanka, a Gauda ruler. His sister escaped to the Vindhya forests, but her fate remained unknown.
After the fall of the Guptas, a strong ruler was the need of the hour. Several kingdoms less significant than the Guptas were engaged in a battle for power in a time of political strife and confusion. There was no clear ruler who could take the reins and lead Northern India forward, and in this backdrop, Harṣa ascended the throne his brother had left, with much anger and sadness.
Religion and Beliefs
Much like King Asoka, he was a convert to Buddhism, in an age dominated by Hinduism; Harṣa himself was a devotee of Lord Shiva, prior. Harṣa’s father, Prabhakara Vardhana, and his siblings, Rajyasri, and Rajya Vardhana were staunch followers of Himayana Buddhism.
This is speculated to have prompted Harṣa’s conversion to Mahayana Buddhism. What is noteworthy is that he banned animal slaughter in his kingdom, and established an innumerable number of Buddhist monasteries all over his kingdom.
The Reign of Harṣa
Harṣa was known as Maharaja Adhiraja, having vanquished rulers of smaller states, he consolidated them into his empire and called himself the “Supreme Ruler.” Harṣa’s self-coronation demonstrates his individualism, and his go-getter attitude, something that was much ahead of its time.
Harṣa made several tactical decisions, and one of them was to provide his empire with its own unique identity. His kingdom’s capital was Patliputra, but he shifted this to Kannauj.
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Patliputra was the capital of both the Guptas and the Mauryans, and Harṣa’s individualism can be seen here, much like his conversion to Buddhism – he didn’t want to be one among the masses, and he didn’t want his empire to be lost in the shuffle by sharing a capital.
Harṣa took over various regions ranging from Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Odisha, Bengal, and the totality of the Indo-Gangetic plain north of the Narmada into his fold. This success, however, did not help him in making an impact in the southern regions of India. Harṣa was a diplomatic and democratic ruler who had a sympathetic stance towards the disenfranchised populace. In addition to several Buddhist monasteries, he made it a point to open a lot of rest houses throughout his empire for the poor, providing them with shelter, medicine, and food.
He didn’t look at them as a burden, and he didn’t believe they owed him anything. Even further, he didn’t consider himself to be above his citizens, often touring his kingdom to observe how his subjects were coping with life – he took a hands-on approach to public welfare, even though he was very privileged and had a good lot in life.
The economy thrived, and was increasingly self-sufficient, with Kannauj becoming a trade hotbed. There was eventually a decline in commerce and a shift towards an agrarian economy, but Harṣa’s moral integrity and unwillingness to turn his back on his subjects became the fibre that held the empire together.
The Harṣacharita – A Forerunner among History’s Biographies
Bāṇabhaṭṭa labels his work an akhyayika (a tale, or tradition) due to its basis in history. It is composed of eight ucchavasas, which literally means “breathing out”, and is like the modern concept of a ‘chapter’.
- The first chapter speaks about Bāṇabhaṭṭa, his genealogy and what distinguishes him.
- The second chapter is considered to be historically significant, as it speaks about Harṣa’s administrative and military organization – matters central to the rule of the kingdom.
- The first three chapters of the Harṣacharita are partially, an in-depth look at Bāṇabhaṭṭa’s family and lineage.
- There is a mention of Harṣa’s ancestry in the third chapter. It speaks of his clans achievements, military and diplomatic.
- The third chapter also mentions Harṣa’s military prowess, his cavalry and elephant troops.
- The third, fifth, and eighth chapters present compelling info that Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism were dominant religions of the time.
Bāṇabhaṭṭa’s work is compelling as it provides an accurate historical portrait of the socioeconomic and political conditions of the time, in addition to insight on Harṣa himself. Bana strays away from inauthentic praise, and salacious exaggeration, instead focusing on the facts – something sorely absent today. While undoubtedly a work beautified by Bana, it presents a neutral portrait of a man, a kingdom, and its people.
- Bāṇabhaṭṭa, from the court of Harṣavardhana, is one of the greatest poets in Indian history.
- Harṣa’s ancestry is disputed, but historians believe that he belonged to the Jats, a tribe whose origins are disputed.
- Harṣa ascended the throne after the death of his brother Rajya Vardhana, who was killed while attempting to rescue their kidnapped sister; he did kill the Malava King who’d captured their sister, but was killed by the treacherous Shashanka, an ally of the Malavas. Rajyasri escaped to the forests to an unknown fate.
- Harṣa was a Mahayana Buddhist, while he was previously a follower of Shiva. He was inspired to follow Buddhism by his siblings, also Buddhists.
- The Harṣacharita is a depiction of the king, the peoples of the nation, and the prevailing socioeconomic and political climate of the time.
Q1. Who was Bāṇabhaṭṭa?
Ans. Bāṇabhaṭṭa was the court poet of Harṣa.
Q2. Why did Harṣa change his kingdom’s capital from Patliputra to Kannauj?
Ans. He wanted his kingdom to have a unique identity, as Patliputra was the shared capital of the Gupta and the Mauryans.
Q3. Why did Harṣa ascend the throne?
Ans. His elder brother was slain by an ally of the Malava who had kidnapped their sister. Due to his death, Harṣa became king.
Q4. What was King Harṣa’s religion?
Ans. He was a Mahayana Buddhist.
Q5. Was Harṣa a just and kind ruler?
Ans. Yes, he established several rest houses for the poor to clothe, feed, and shelter them.
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