The greatest of the emperors of the Kushan Empire, which stretched through modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of northern India, Kanishka reigned for 20 years from about 127 c.e. During his reign the Kushan Empire reached its zenith as a major military power and also was to play an important role in redefining Buddhism in the region.
The Kushan emperors were of Yuezhi (Yueh-chih) ethnicity, tracing their origins back to China. In about 174 b.c.e. the Huns had driven them westward and southward from China, taking over the Greco-Bactrian kingdom in 135 b.c.e. and establishing their rule over a large part of Central Asia. The empire they created controlled important trade routes, and the aims of the Kushan emperors had been to try to control trade between Rome and China. There is evidence of contact with the Roman Empire at Pompeii and with China.
Kanishka’s major achievement was convening the Fourth Buddhist Council, held in Kashmir. Most historians argue that Kanishka embraced both Buddhism and also the Persian religion of Mithras, which later became popular among Roman soldiers. Followers of Theravada Buddhism criticized the Fourth Council, which led to the rise of Mahayana Buddhism. In spite of this opposition some 500 bhikhus (Buddhist monks) made their way to Kashmir at the request of Emperor Kanishka. Their task was to edit the Tripitaka, which was reported to have taken 12 years, resulting in 300 verses and 9 million statements. The entire Buddhist scriptures, which had been in the Gandhara vernacular of the Kushan Empire, were translated into Sanskrit. The new ideas that emerged essentially started to bridge the differences between Hinduism and Buddhism with the Lord Buddha portrayed as a god. Some of these developments can be traced on the very few surviving coins of Emperor Kanishka’s reign, which have an image of Buddha. Some Buddhist texts go as far as acclaiming Kanishka as a second king Ashoka whose kingdom was, by definition, a second holy land for Buddhism. Kanishka also launched wars against neighboring countries, extending the empire from the borders of China to modern-day Bengal in the east and to the basin of the Ganges in the west. It is not known exactly how Kanishka died, although popular accounts have him being smothered by his enemies.