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RAJYASHRI (Seventh Century)

Rajyashri was the sister of Harsha Vardhan (590–647) and was instrumental in getting her brother to convert to Buddhism. They were the children of Prabhakar Vardhan, a king of Sthanvisvara or modern Thanesar in Haryana. Prabhakar Vardhan was a follower of the sun cult. Rajya Vardhan was the eldest brother and succeeded to the throne in 606; he appears to have been a Hinayana Buddhist. His younger brother was initially Shaivite. Rajyashri was married to the Maukhari king, Grahavarman of Kanauj. Kanauj and Magadha were strong centres of Buddhism, and here Rajyashri was exposed to Buddhist teachings and became a Mahayana Buddhist.

Some months after Rajya Vardhan’s succession, Grahavarman was defeated in battle and killed by Deva Gupta of Malwa and Rajyasri was thrown into prison. Rajya Vardhan marched against Deva Gupta and defeated him. He rescued his sister, but was attacked and killed by Sasanka, king of Gauda in Bengal, in an act of treachery. Thus Harsha succeeded his brother to the throne of Thanesar at the age of sixteen. He allied with Bhaskaravarman of Kamarupa and marched against Sasanka. Sasanka was defeated but escaped, and Harsha was able to rescue Rajyashri and bring her home to Thanesar. Under Rajyashri’s influence, Harsha inclined towards Mahayana Buddhism, although he remained a syncretist all his life. His play Nagananda is based on the Jataka tale of Jimutavahana but also introduces Shaivite motifs into the story. He was a renowned playwright as well as a successful ruler.

Harsha continued his father and brother’s expansion of the kingdom. He conquered Kanauj and transferred his capital there. At the height of his power his kingdom spanned the Punjab, Gujarat, Bengal, Orissa and the entire Indo-Gangetic plain North of the Narmada River. There his rule ended as he could not overcome the powerful Chalukyas of Karnataka.

Rajyashri is said to have been instrumental in persuading Harsha to simplify the style of his court and to become a renouncer in later life. Harsha became a great patron of Buddhism, making many endowments to the university at Nalanda and organizing great Buddhist debates, one of which was won by the Chinese monk Xuanzang, who has left an account of Harsha’s rule. Rajyashri herself is said to have become a bhikkuni or Buddhist nun.
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