The White Huns And Good King Harsha

A.D. 450 TO A.D. 648

The name Huns has quite a familiar sound. We think of Attila; we

remember the 350 pounds weight of gold which Theodosius of Byzantium

paid as an annual tribute to the victorious horde which swept into

Europe about the middle of the fifth century; finally, we hark back to

Gibbon's description of this race of reckless reiving riders; for the

Huns seem to have been born in
he saddle and never to have lived out

of it. This is what he says:--

"They were distinguished from the rest of the human species by their

broad shoulders, flat noses and small black eyes, deeply buried in the

head; and, as they were almost destitute of beards, they never enjoyed

either the manly graces of youth or the venerable aspect of age." (En

passant, we can but wonder what our poor Gibbon would have said to

the shaven chin of to-day!) "A fabulous origin was assigned worthy of

their form and manners--that the witches of Scythia, who for their

foul and deadly practices had been driven from society, had united in

the desert with infernal spirits, and that the Huns were the offspring

of this execrable conjunction."

Again, poor Huns! We do not need such legend to know that they were

utterly barbarian; that they rode like the devil, fought with

bone-tipped javelins, clothed themselves in skins, and ate herbs and

half-raw meat which they had first made tender by using it as their

saddle! It is a sufficiently black indictment, and, though it applies

only to the rolling swarm of savages which, on leaving that hive of

humanity, the wide Siberian Steppe, turned westward, we have no reason

to suppose that the swarm which turned eastward differed much from the

type. It is true they are called the White Huns, but that is most

likely because among the dark races of Hindustan, the yellow Mongolian

complexion showed fair.

India had been overrun many times before, but it needs small

consideration to see that this invasion must have been the worst, must

have brought with it a perfect horror of havoc. Far more so than the

Hun invasion in Europe. There the ultimate savage met, for the most

part, with Goths and Visigoths. In India they stood between a Brahman

and his salvation, between culture and comfort. For India was in these

days far more civilised than Europe; its people were refined, bound

hand and foot by ritual, curiously conventional in custom.

The long ages which had passed since the Vedic times had made religion

more complex, had multiplied ceremonial to such an extent that the

performance of the simplest duty was hedged about by the danger of

fateful commissions, and still more fateful omissions. The revival of

Hinduism during the paling days of the Gupta empire had vastly

increased the power of the Brahman. In brief, Puranic Hinduism--that

is, religion based on the Puranas, as distinct from the Vedas--with

all its hair-splitting, its overlay of ritual by ritual, was at its

zenith. From birth to death a man--even the meanest man--was in the

grip of innumerable petty commandments.

The very gods he worshipped had changed. The elemental deities of the

Rig-Veda--the Winds, the Fire, the Sun, the Dawn--behind which lay

ever (half recognised, wholly mysterious) the Unconditioned, the

Absolute, were lost; crowded out, as it were, by the three hundred and

thirty millions of Puranic godlings, which rumour says had replaced

the thirty-and-three of the Vedas. And beset by an Athanasian furore

for faith, the Puranas had defined the undefinable. The doctrine of a

Trinity seems about this era of the world's history to have been more

than usually in the air, and we find it here, hard and fast,

crystallised unchangeably.

Brahma the Creator, Siva the destroying Spirit, Vishn or Krishn the

Saviour, the Man-God, kind to the weaknesses of humanity. The three

hundred and thirty millions of little gods were contained in the

Three; they were emanations, attributes, as such imaged and

worshipped. A great change this from the singing of a hymn to Agni the

Fire-God, as the victim's flesh shrivelled in the flame, and the

cooling of the ashes with a libation of soma juice.

And the worshipping of images brought with it a veneration for

temples, a reverence for a paid priesthood, with its inevitable

corollary of cult and custom and ceremonial. This complexity of

religion naturally showed itself in the character of the people. As Mr

Dutt writes:--

"Pompous celebrations and gorgeous decorations arrested the

imagination and fostered the superstitions of the populace; poetry,

arts, architecture, sculpture, and music lent their aid, and within a

few centuries the nation's wealth was lavished on these gorgeous

edifices and ceremonials which were the outward manifestations of the

people's unlimited devotion and faith. Pilgrimages, which were rare or

unknown in very ancient times, were organised on a stupendous scale;

gifts in land and money poured in for the support of temples, and

religion gradually transformed itself to a blind veneration of images

and their custodians. The great towns of India were crowded with

temples, and new gods and new idols found sanctuaries in stone

edifices and in the hearts of ignorant worshippers."

Add to this the testimony of the literature of the period. The dramas

of Kalidasa, beautiful as they are, concern themselves entirely with

Love. The very descriptions of nature have reference to it, as when we


"The oleander bud

Shows like the painted fingers of the fair,

Red tinted on the tip and edged with ebony."

His very reflections also are tinged with the same soft note of

underlying passion:--

"Not seldom in our hours of ease,

When thought is still, the sight of some fair form

Or mournful fall of music breathing low

Will stir strange fancies thrilling all the soul

With a mysterious sadness."

And, leaving poetry alone, such knowledge as we have of social life in

these days points to a certain effeminacy. In fact, there is evidence

that woman played a larger part in society than she does in the India

of to-day. The perennial joke against learned ladies, indeed, appears

in the drama of the "Toy Cart," where the comic man says he always

laughs when he "hears a woman read Sanskrit, or a man sing a song!"

Then the heroine of this drama is frankly a courtesan, an Indian

Aspasia, who received her lovers in a public court furnished with

books, pictures, gambling-tables, etc., and who was

"Of courteous manners and unrivalled beauty,

The pride of all Ujjain."

Such, then, were the people who "felt, dreaded, and magnified" (as

Gibbon says of the Goths--a far less civilised nation--in like

predicament) "the numbers, the strength, the rapid motions and

implacable cruelty of the Huns; who beheld their fields and villages

consumed with flames and deluged with indiscriminate slaughter."

Perhaps it is as well, therefore, that history is for the most part

silent concerning the horror and the havoc of the century or so of

time during which the Huns ravaged India. We hear only of the greater

tragedies, of Toramava the Tyrant, and his son Mihiragula, who

out-Heroded his father in implacable cruelty towards the cultured,

caste-bound Hindus, to whom all things were sacred. Of him it is

written that his favourite amusement in Kashmir was watching elephants

goaded into impassable, precipitous hill-paths, so that he might laugh

like a fiend if they slipped and fell; fell with a wild shriek of

terror and anger, to be dashed to pieces thousands of feet below. An

unpleasing picture this! One cannot wonder at the criticism passed on

his death, when "the earth shook, thick darkness reigned, and a mighty

tempest raged." It was succinct, bald, but forcible: "He has now

fallen into the lowest hell, where he shall pass endless ages."

After his death, which must have occurred about the year A.D. 540, the

clouds gather darkly, and we are permitted few peeps as to what was

going on behind them. Certain it is that no trace of a paramount power

is to be found in the scant records of the last half of the sixth


The beginning of the seventh, however, finds the historian in very

different case. He has first and foremost the detailed account of

Hiuen T'sang's travels with which to deal, and this is supplemented by

the "Harsha-charita," or "Deeds of Harsha," written by a learned

Brahman who lived at the court of the good king. That this latter book

partakes more of the character of a historical romance than a steady,

straightforward chronicle of events is true; but even so, the

information at disposal is fuller and more precise than that which has

been forthcoming hitherto, excepting, perhaps, in regard to the great

Maurya kings.

Harsha, then, was younger son of a Rajah of Thaneswar, in the Punjab.

His father dying in A.D. 606, his elder brother ascended the throne,

but was almost immediately most treacherously assassinated in

conference by the King of Bengal; the conference apparently being for

the purpose of arbitrating between the young Rajah of Thaneswar and

the King of Malwa, who had murdered the former's brother-in-law for

the sake of possessing his wife, and was keeping the Thaneswar

princess a prisoner, with "iron fetters kissing her feet."

The assassinated king being too young to have a son, his brother

Harsha was invited to take the throne. For some unknown reason he

hesitated, and his formal coronation did not take place until nearly

six years after he had assumed the actual responsibilities of


The story of the recovery of his widowed sister from the hands of her

abductor is full of incident and romance. The rescue was but just in

time, for the Princess Raj-yasri--a most attractive and learned young

lady, and well versed in the Buddhistic schools, apparently--was about

to commit suttee amid the pathless forests, whither she had fled to

escape her persecutor, when her brother, led to her retreat by the

aboriginal chieftains, arrived upon the scene. The hurry was so great,

that in it the assassin-lover appears to have escaped.

It will be observed by this that the family of Harsha was of the

Buddhist faith. How, or why, we know not. The very name of his

kingdom, Than-eswar (S'thaneswara, or, The Place of God), is purely

Hindu; nevertheless, this, the last great King of Hindu India,

professed the religion of Gautama.

In fact, in many ways his reign is a poor imitation of that of Asoka.

He did not, however, follow that king's example as a peace prophet,

for he spent nearly thirty-six years out of his forty-two in bloody

warfare. And in all his long career of aggression he met with but one

check. He was unable to push his forces through the narrow defiles of

the Deccan passes, and had to confine himself to being Lord Paramount

of the North. So his empire, though extensive, never touched that of

Asoka; in truth, he did not touch that monarch in any way.

Nevertheless, his rule was excellent, and our Chinese pilgrim is loud

in praise of it. Harsha did not trust to officialdom; personal

supervision was his theory of government, and he was constantly on the

move inspecting, punishing, rewarding. His camp must have been quaint,

for in those days tents were unknown, and the "King's Palace" was

built at each halting-place of boughs and reeds, and solemnly burnt

after it had been used.

Like all these Eastern kings whose personalities have survived the

years, he appears to have been somewhat of a genius. Besides being a

most expert penman and draughtsmen, he wrote various learned books,

and in his salad days produced several plays which still remain part

of the literature of India. One, "The Necklace," is quite the

liveliest of all Indian plays, and with appropriate songs and dances

must have been rather like a Savoy comic opera. There is a legend that

Harsha spent so much money on poets, actors, dancers and artists of

all descriptions, that he had eventually to sell the gold and silver

ornaments of the Hindu temples in order to pay for his pleasures; but

this is pure legend. Following the example of Asoka, he established

rest-houses for travellers, hospitals for the sick, magistrates for

the regulation of morals; yet in all this, somehow, the sense of pose

is never absent. Asoka's voice is still to-day a cri du c[oe]ur;

Harsha's is--fin de siecle.

He could not help it. The curious religious eclecticism of the period

favoured it. His family showed keenly the general tendency to

self-consciousness, and it was written of his father:

"He offered daily to the Sun a bunch of red lotuses set in a pure

vessel of ruby, and tinged, like his own heart, with the same hue."

Could Oscar Wilde have done more? Strange, indeed, how the cycles of

culture come round and round.

It was in his later years that King Harsha became a pronounced

Buddhist. This was largely owing to the preachings and teachings of

Hiuen T'sang, in honour of whom a solemn assemblage was held at Kanauj

in the fresh spring-time of the year A.D. 644. The scene is admirably

given in Hiuen T'sang's Record, and is well worth a reading. We can

imagine the king carrying in person the canopy upheld over the golden

statuette of Buddha; we can see him "moving along, scattering golden

blossoms, pearls and other rare gems." We catch a glimpse of the

flaming monastery accidentally catching fire, to be extinguished by

the mere sight of the good Harsha. The rush of the mad Hindu fanatic

to slay this "favourer of Buddhists" comes as a startling incident, to

be followed by the immediate exile of five hundred Brahmans for high


Then we learn of the journey to Prag (Allahabad), where every five

years Harsha, in accordance with ancient custom, had held a

distribution of alms.[2]


[Footnote 2: This assemblage, or fair, still exists, under the name of

the Magh-mela.]


The description of this is even more entrancing, and we can take part

in all the ceremonials of the seventy-five days during which Buddha,

the Sun, and Siva were apparently worshipped indiscriminately. The

proceedings were opened by a magnificent procession of feudatory

princes, and ended with a forty-days' distribution of alms to all and


After this, Hiuen T'sang writes,

"the royal accumulation of five years was exhausted. Except the

horses, elephants and military accoutrements ... nothing remained....

The king gave away his gems and goods, his clothing and neck-laces,

ear-rings, bracelets, chaplets, neck jewels, and bright head jewel;

all these he freely gave away without stint."

Was it a real gifting, we wonder, or, after duly worshipping in a

borrowed second-hand suit, did Harsha return to his palace to find his

wardrobe much the same as ever?

The hint of unreality in all things provokes the question.

King Harsha died in A.D. 648, shortly after his beloved Chinese

pilgrim had departed for his native land. Once again it has to be

written that the "withdrawal of the strong arm plunged the country

into disorder."

Arjuna, his minister, seized the throne, but drew down on himself the

wrath of China, and after a brief interval was carried thither as a


Meanwhile, no one appeared to take the reins. In truth, degeneration

had already set in. The people who had posed so long as a nation of

culture, of refinement, who had spent their lives in applauding

poetasters, who had laughed when the court wit said the

commander-in-chief's nose was as long as the king's pedigree, who had

been ready to worship any god if so be the ceremonial pleased their

aesthetic sense, who had given free pass to their emotions in all ways,

such people were not ready for action. And so once for all the clouds

cover Hindu supremacy.

The next four hundred years are the Dark Ages of Indian history. Even

the impressionist outlook of our case of coins is denied us. A

thousand names jostle each other in commonplace confusion. In the

chaos of conflicting claims, any attempt at classification is