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History and Historiography of the Age of Harsha.

As Shankar Goyal notes, the reign of King Harsa of Kanauj (r. ca. 606-47) is better documented than that of any king of ancient India. The most important sources are Harsa's own inscriptions, a "biographical" courtly romance by Banabhatta, and a lengthy traveller's account by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Yuan Chwang (Hsuan Tsang). Nonetheless, even this evidence is decidedly partial and often highly tendentious. As a result many basic facts about Harsa's reign remain quite controversial, including the homeland and early history of his family, the circumstances of his accession, the character of his state and administration, his religious preferences, and the extent and timing of his military conquests.

This new book by Shankar Goyal, son of the ancient historian S. R. Goyal, analyzes these controversies with good common sense and a healthy dose of skepticism. With regard to the evidence found in Bana's Harsacarita, Goyal's analysis relies on V. S. Pathak's important work on the nature of this and other courtly romances of ancient and early medieval India. According to Pathak, the main purpose of most of these texts was to justify the accession to the office of king by a younger brother instead of the oldest brother, to whom the law of primogeniture gave a better legal claim. In the case of the Harsacarita, Bana even neglects to mention the earlier accession of Harsa's older brother, known to have taken place from inscriptions. Goyal rightly concludes that all this, and several logical and chronological inconsistencies, place much of Bana's account of Harsa's accession under a cloud of suspicion. Goyal goes so far as to accept his father's claim that Harsa probably had a hand in the murder of his older brother, a suggestion that is supposedly "proved" by Bana's statement that "like the Lord of the Immortals, he |that is, Harsa~ appeared busy in wiping away the stain of his elder brother's (agraja) slaughter." Goyal claims that this refers to Indra's "crime of killing Visvarupa, the three-headed son of Tvastr, who was in a sense his agraja." Unfortunately for this interpretation, Visvarupa's claim to be Indra's older brother is somewhat dubious. One or two passages of the Rg Veda do seem to suggest that Indra was the son of Tvastr, who is known from other Vedic passages to be the father of the demon Visvarupa. Other passages suggest that Indra was the son of Dyaus and brother of Agni. In any case, Indra and Visvarupa are never called brothers, either in Vedic or post-Vedic sources. Indra's killing of Visvarupa (and/or Tvastr and Vrtra) is considered to be improper, but this is because Visvarupa is a Brahmin. Curiously, Rg Veda 9.5.9 gives Tvastr the epithet "agraja." That Bana would include, even surreptitiously, an allusion to Harsa having played a role in his own brother's death in a work dedicated to the fervid praise of Harsa is, on the face of it, highly unlikely. A more obvious interpretation of the passage is that Bana is simply alluding to the fact that Harsa fought with many kings, as Indra fought with many demons. If Harsa had had a role in his brother's death, how could he expiate the sin by conquering other kings?

Another aspect of Shankar Goyal's study that I find less than completely convincing is his discussion of Harsa's religious preferences. The elder Goyal treated this topic at length in his Harsha and Buddhism (Meerut, 1986), and the younger Goyal is mostly content to follow his father's lead. Their basic conclusion is that "Harsha never adopted Buddhism as his personal faith and remained a Saiva throughout his life". Strictly speaking, however, Harsa's personal faith is not really a historical issue at all, however interesting it may be for his personal biography. Historically what matters is Harsa's public policy toward the different religious groups in his kingdom. All that can really be said about this is that he showed royal favor to both Buddhist and Saiva religious institutions. What in fact seems to lie behind the Goyals' obsession with Harsa's personal religion is an implicit desire to disassociate him from the supposedly debilitating influence of Buddhist pacifism. The elder Goyal has disparaged the noxious effects of this pacifist ideology and the monasteries that supported it in several of his books. It is not clear to what extent Shankar Goyal supports this argument.

The best feature of this new study of Harsa is its analysis of the feudal character of Harsa's state. Many historians, especially conservative ones, have taken umbrage at the use of this term to describe virtually any of the states of premodern India. Nonetheless, Goyal makes it clear that in military, administrative, economic, social, and even cultural terms, the state controlled by Harsa bears a convincing similarity to the feudal states of Europe and Japan. For Goyal, "the political essence of feudalism lay in the organisation of the whole administrative structure on the basis of land and its economic essence in a system of self-sufficient local economy in which peasants were attached to the soil held by the landed intermediaries placed between the kings and actual tillers who had to pay rent in kind and labor". Given this ample definition, he is also forced to concede that "the broad features of feudalism emerged in the Gupta age," although he elsewhere draws back from calling the Gupta state feudal in character.

Goyal also rightly points out that the complicated and extremely varied nature of the relations between Harsa and his "vassal chiefs" (samanta) goes far to explain why scholars have been unable to agree on the geographical extent of Harsa's empire. Once again invoking the authority of his father, Shankar Goyal argues that "in that age of feudal-federal polity the relationship of the imperial authority with the various regions was not only of two types--directly controlled regions and regions within the sphere of influence--it could be of several types, the quantum of hold exercised by the imperial authority on them differing from state to state". The best procedure, in Goyal's view, is to "rely on the description by Yuan Chwang of the political condition of India as he found it in the last decade of Harsha's reign". On this basis Goyal concludes that "we can include in the empire of Harsha only Punjab (of the Indian Union), Haryana and U.P." Most of Bihar, Bengal and Orissa were also probably under Harsa's direct control during the last decade or so of his reign. Much of the rest of north India, in Goyal's view, was controlled by states that for different periods acknowledged different degrees of Harsa's sovereignty. All in all, a solid piece of work.

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Author:Lorenzen, David N.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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