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Harsha – Society, Religious Policy & Art

Religious Policy

  • Harsha was a worshipper of Siva at least up to 631 CE.
  • But he embraced Buddhism under the influence of his sister Rajyasri and the Buddhist monk Hieun Tsang.
  • He subscribed to the Mahayana school of thought.
  • Yet he held discourses among learned men of various creeds.
  • Slaughter of animals and consumption of meat was restricted.
  • Harsha summoned two Buddhist assemblies (643 CE), one at Kanauj and another at Prayag.
  • The assembly at Kanauj was attended by 20 kings including Bhaskaravarman of Kamarupa.
  • A large number of Buddhist, Jain and Vedic scholars attended the assembly.
  • A golden statue of Buddha was consecrated in a monastery and a small statue of Buddha (three feet) was brought out in a procession.
  • The procession was attended by Harsha and other kings.

Buddhist Assembly at Prayag

  • Harsha convened quinquennial assemblies known as Mahamoksha Parishad at Prayag (at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna).
  • He distributed his wealth among Buddhists, Vedic scholars and the poor people.
  • Harsha offered fabulous gifts to the Buddhist monks on all the four days of the assemblage.
  • Hieun Tsang observed that the principles of Buddhism had deeply permeated the Hindu society.
  • According to him, people were given complete freedom of worship.
  • Social harmony prevailed among the followers of various creeds.
  • Harsha treated the Vedic scholars and the Buddhist bikshus alike and distributed charities equally to them.

Caste System

  • Caste system was firmly established in the Hindu society.
  • According to Hieun Tsang, the occupations of the four divisions of society continued to be in practice as in the previous times.
  • People were honest and not deceitful or treacherous in their conduct.
  • The butchers, fishermen, dancers and sweepers were asked to stay outside the city.
  • Even though the caste system was rigid, there was no social conflict among the various sections of the society.

Status of Women

  • Hieun Tsang’s account also provides us information on the position of women and the marriage system of the times.
  • Women wore purdah.
  • Hieun Tsang, however, added that the purdah system was not followed among the higher class.
  • He pointed out that Rajyasri did not wear purdah when listening to his discourse.
  • Sati was in practice.
  • Yasomatidevi, wife of Prabhakara Vardhana, immolated herself after the death of her husband.


  • The life pattern of the people of India during the rule of Harsha is known from the accounts of Hieun Tsang.
  • People lived a simple life.
  • They dressed in colourful cotton and silk clothes.
  • The art of weaving fine cloth had reached perfection.
  • Both men and women adorned themselves with gold and silver ornaments.
  • The king wore extraordinary ornaments.
  • Garlands and tiaras of precious stones, rings, bracelets and necklaces were some of the ornaments used by the royalty.
  • The wealthy merchants wore bracelets.
  • Women used cosmetics.

Dietary Habits

  • Hieun Tsang also noted that Indians were mostly vegetarians.
  • The use of onion and garlic in the food preparation was rare.
  • The use of sugar, milk, ghee and rice in the preparation of food or their consumption was common.
  • On certain occasions, fish and mutton were eaten.
  • Beef and meat of certain animals were forbidden.


  • Education was imparted in the monasteries.
  • Learning was religious in character.
  • Much religious literature were produced.
  • The Vedas were taught orally and not written down.
  • Sanskrit was the language of the learned people.
  • An individual took to learning between 9 and 30 years of age.
  • Many individuals devoted their whole life to learning.
  • The wandering bhikshus and sadhus were well known for their wisdom and culture.
  • The people also paid respect to such people of moral and intellectual eminence.

Harsha as a Patron of Art and Literature

  • Harsha patronised literary and cultural activities.
  • It is said the state spent a quarter of its revenue for such activities.
  • Bana, the author of Harshacharita and Kadambari, was a court poet of Harsha.
  • The emperor himself was a renowned litterateur, which is evident from the plays he wrote such as Priyadarsika, Rathnavali and Nagananda.
  • Harsha gifted liberally for the promotion of education.
  • Temples and monasteries functioned as centres of learning.
  • Renowned scholars imparted education in the monasteries at Kanauj, Gaya, Jalandhar, Manipur and other places.
  • The Nalanda University reached its utmost fame during this period.

Nalanda University

  • Hieun Tsang recorded the fame of the Nalanda University.
  • Students and scholars from the Buddhist countries like China, Japan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Tibet and some other countries of Central and Southeast Asia stayed and studied in the university.
  • Shilabhadra, a reputed Buddhist scholar, who probably hailed from Assam, was the head of the University during the visit of Hieun Tsang.
  • As an educational centre of international fame, Nalanda had 10,000 students on its rolls.
  • Dharmapala, Chandrapala, Shilabhadra, Bhadrihari, Jayasena, Devakara and Matanga were important teachers in the university receiving royal patronage.

Hiuen Tsang

  • Hiuen Tsang, hailed as the prince of pilgrims, visited India during the reign of Harsha.
  • Born in China in 612 CE he became a Buddhist monk at the age of twenty.
  • During his travels, he visited various sacred places of northern and southern India.
  • Hieun Tsang spent about five years in the University of Nalanda and studied there.
  • Harsha admired him for his deep devotion to Buddha and his profound knowledge of Buddhism.
  • Hieun Tsang carried with him 150 pieces of the relics of Buddha, a large number of Buddha image in gold, silver, sandalwood and above all 657 volumes of valuable manuscripts.

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