Shashanka the first important king of ancient Bengal, occupies a prominent place in the history of the region. It is generally believed that he ruled approximately between 600 AD and 625 AD, and two dated inscriptions, issued in his 8th and 10th regnal years from Midnapore, and another undated inscription from Egra near Kharagpur have been discovered. Besides Shashanka's subordinate king of Ganjam (Orissa) Madhavavarma's copper plate (dated 619 AD), Harshavardhan's Banskhera and Madhuvan copper plates and the Nidhanpur copper plate of the Kamarupa king Bhaskara Varman contain information about Shashanka. Besides, Shashanka issued gold and silver coins. A number of independent rulers flourished in Bengal in the intervening period between the decline of the Guptas and the rise of Shashanka, and their existence is known from a few inscriptions and gold coins. Besides the seal-matrix of 'Shri Mahasamanta Shashanka' from Rohtasgarh and the contemporary literary accounts of Banabhatta and the Chinese pilgrim hiuen-tsang and the Buddhist text Aryamanjushrimulakalpa are important sources of information.
Very little information about the early life of Shashanka is known. It appears that he ruled for sometime as a chieftain (mahasamanta) of Rohtasgarh under the Gauda king of Karnasuvarna, who possibly belonged to the family of the Maukharis. However, Jayanaga, another king of Karnasuvarna, appears to be close to the date of Shashanka. In fact, Karnasuvarna was the capital of Shashanka and the famous metropolis was situated near Chiruti railway station close to rajbaridanga (ie the site of Raktamrttika-mahavihara or modern Rangamati) in Murshidabad district, West Bengal.
Shashanka has been described both in the inscriptions and literary accounts as the ruler of Gauda. In the narrower sense Gauda is the territory between the river Padma and Bardhamana region. But in course of time it embraced much wider area. In the Satpanchasaddeshavibhaga, the seventh patala of Book III, Shaktisangama Tantra Gauda is said to have extended from the vanga country up to Bhuvanesha (ie Bhubaneshwar in Orissa). It is not unlikely that the author had described the extension of Gauda country keeping in mind the kingdom of Shashanka, which also embraced a part of Orissa.
The decline and fall of the Gupta Empire coincided with considerable progress in the outlying regions. Many obscure areas, which were possibly ruled by tribal chiefs and were thinly settled, came into historical limelight. This applied to the red soil areas of West Bengal, north Orissa and the adjoining areas of Madhyapradesh, which formed part of the Chhotonagpur plateau and were difficult to cultivate and settle.
Under this perspective Shashanka attempted to extend his political influence in different parts of India. His first task was the redemption of Magadha from the clutches of the Maukharis. Shashanka with his ally Devagupta, the king of Malava, next waged war against Maukhari king Grahavarman, the son-in-law of the Pusyabhuti king Prabhakaravardhana. Grahavarman was killed by Devagupta. At this point Rajyavardhana a Buddhist by faith and eldest son of Prabhakarvardhana, who became king of Thaneshwar proceeded against Devagupta and defeated and killed him. But Rajyavardhana himself was killed in an encounter with Shashanka.
Most of the authorities admit the result of the encounter with Shashanka, but passes the blame of the murder of Rajyavardhana on the shoulders of Shashanka, the king of Gauda. According to Bana, Rajyavardhana, though routed the Malava army with ridiculous ease, had been 'allured to confidence by false civilities on the part of the king of Gauda, and then weaponless, confiding and alone, despatched to his own quarters'. The Chinese pilgrim has repeated the same story. A fair criticism of Shashanka's conduct is impossible in the absence of detailed information relating to the actual circumstances that led to his enemy's death. Both Banabhatta, whose feelings were deeply shaken at the death of his patron's brother and Hiuen Tsang, whose pro-Buddhist predilections and personal regard for Harsavardhana are well known, may have found it difficult to restrain their emotions in stating the fact concerning the affair.
In the opinion of some scholars it is likely that Rajyavardhana was prepared to enter into negotiation for peace with Shashanka, and for this purpose accepted an invitation in the enemy's camp. Shankara, a 14th century commentator of the Harsacharita, states that the Gauda king invited Rajyavardhana in connection with a proposal of marriage between him and the daughter of the former. How far this is true is difficult to say, as the source of his information is not disclosed. The information about Rajyavardhana's death, furnished by the Banshkhera copper plate inscription of Harsavardhana, is meagre, but the bad impression created by the accounts of Banabhatta and the Chinese traveller is considerably mitigated when it is related in this inscription that his brother lost his life in keeping with the truth (satyanurodhena) in the abode of his enemy, though the name of the enemy is not given. It appears that Rajyavardhana's death was a sequel to the unfinished peace-talk, but Shashanka's personal responsibility for this incident cannot be determined with certainty.
After this event Harsavardhana, the younger brother, who ascended the throne of Thaneshwar proceeded with a huge army to punish Shashanka and formed an alliance with Bhaskaravarman (Kumara of Bana), king of Kamarupa and eastern neighbour of Shashanka. According to Bana, Harsa entrusted Bhandi to lead the army, while he engaged himself in searching for her widowed sister Rajyashri in the Vindhya forest. It is mentioned in the Harsacharita (8th ucchvasa) that Harsha reunited the advancing army after rescuing his sister. Later, Harsavardhana became the ruler of Kanyakubja (Kanauj) with the consent of his sister Rajyashri. The progress of Bhandi's march is not known. But there can be no doubt that Shashanka continued to rule his empire vigorously, which included northern Orissa and southern deltaic regions of Bengal.
Towards the end of his career in 640-43 AD Harsa's authority in southeastern Bihar and Orissa was established and during the same time Bhaskarvarman appears to have conquered the capital Karnasuvarna. These events are likely to have occurred after the demise of Shashanka as nothing more is heard about him, and there was a decline of Gauda power. But the story of the defeat of Shashanka at the battle of Pundravardhana by Harsa and Shashanka's reign for 17 years etc, as suggested by the Buddhist text Aryamanjushrimulakalpa are not supported by any other contemporary accounts. Rather, Shashanka's newly discovered inscription from Southern Midnapur records the existence of Dandabhukti-Janapada, combining parts of Midnapur and Orissa.
Harsa, a Shaiva in his early years, gradually became a great patron of Buddhism. As a devout Buddhist he convened a grand assembly at Kanauj to publicise the Mahayana doctrines. It is here that Harsa is said to make a bloody suppression of a revolt by the Brahmanas. After Kanauj, he held a great assembly at Prayaga and both the assemblies were attended by Hiuen Tsang and all the tributary princes, ministers, nobles, etc. Hiuen Tsang is said to have made a remark that Harsa was born at the behest of the Bodhisattva to punish Shashanka, a hater of Buddhist religion. He also cited a few instances of Shashanka's anti-Buddhist activities. But it may be mentioned that the flourishing condition of the Buddhist University at nalanda, where Hiuen Tsang himself studied for some time, and the existence of a number of monasteries in Shashanka's kingdom including the Raktamrttika-Mahavihara near Shashanka's capital Karnasuvarna, goes against the evidence of Hiuen Tsang.
In other words, it appears that the Chinese pilgrim, who enjoyed the patronage of Harsa, became partisan in his attitude towards the adversary of his patron. The vituperative languages used by Bana, court poet of Harsa, against the 'Gaudadhipa' (the name of Shashanka, meaning Shiva, is never mentioned; possibly Bana himself was a devout of Shaiva) as 'Gauda-bhujanga' or 'Gaudadhama' etc demonstrate his contempt for Shashanka. It is true that Shashanka was a strong champion of Brahmanical religion and a devout Shaiva, and had little sympathy for Buddhism which received patronage from wealthy mercantile classes and from no less than Harsavardhana himself, his sworn enemy. It is not unlikely that it wounded the sentiments of the Buddhists of his time.
On the contrary, Harsavardhana's pro-Buddhist and anti-Brahmanical attitude (the bloody suppression of a large number of Brahmanas during Kanauj assembly may be cited here) despaired the followers of Brahmanical religion who began to migrate to eastern India in large number. Hiuen Tsang mentioned of a large influx of learned Brahmanas in Kamarupa. A large number of Brahmanas were granted lands in Kamarupa by Bhaskaravarman for their settlement. The Kulaji texts also noted the influx of Kanauji Brahmanas into Bengal. The story of the migration of Graha-Vipras from the banks of the Sarayu river (in U P) to Bengal, possibly at the invitation of Shashanka, may be taken notice of in this connection. The impact of this large-scale migration though initially was welcomed both in Bengal and Kamarupa, told upon the socio-economic fabric of the respective countries. The social restrictions in behaviour, attitude and comingling among the different classes though not much felt under the rule of Buddhist Palas, became more and more acute under the Senas, who championed the Brahmanical religions, widened the gaps among different classes of people. The emergence of lowly untouchable classes and the antaja classes in the society became more and more pronounced. [PK Bhattacharyya]
Bibliography RC Majumdar (ed), History of Bengal, Dacca, 1943; Sudhir R Das, Rajbadidanga, Calcutta, 1962; RC Majumdar, History of Ancient Bengal, Calcutta, 1971; PK Bhattacharyya, 'Two Interesting Coins of Shashanka', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London, 2, 1979.