48 views this wk.


The basics
AKA Sophagasenos
The details

Sophagasenos also spelt Sophagasenus or Sophagasenas (Sanskrit: Subhagasena) was a local Indian king ruling in Kabul and Kapisa valley (Paropamisade of the classical writings) during the last decade of 3rd century BCE. Sophagasenus finds reference only in "The Histories" of Polybius. The identity of Sophagasenus is not clear. Many historians believe that Sophagasenus was a princely scion of the Mauryas of Magadha but others believe him to have been a non-Mauryan local ruler from the area he ruled i.e. from Kabul/Kapisa land. Some writers relate him to the Jatt lineage while others claim him from Yadava or Yadu line, but for no valid reason.

Polybius on Sophagasenus

Polybius (c. 204 – c. 122 BCE), the Greek historian, makes reference to Sophagasenus in context with Antiochus III’s expedition across the Caucasus Indicus (Hindukush) in around 206 BCE. Having crossed the Caucasus Mountains, Antiochus moved up to Kabul and met Sophagasenus the Indian king with whom he renewed league and friendship he had made previously. and received more elephants until he had one hundred and fifty of them altogether. He then returned home via Arachosia, Drangiana and Karmania. No other source except Polybius makes any reference to Sophagasenus.

Thomas' hypothesis on identity of Sophagasenus

Approximate extent of Maurya empire. The empire stretched from Afghanistan to Bengal to southern India

F. W. Thomas makes use of Ashoka’s genealogical list given in the Ashokavadana or Divyavadana as well as the list of kings given by Taranatha in his "The History of Buddhism in India". to connect Sophagasenus with the Maurya king Vrishasena mentioned in Divyavadana, thus theorizing that Virasena of Taranatha’s account was a Maurya king Vrishasena of Divyavadana and that king Sophagasenus of Kabul/Kapisa valley was probably a son and successor of this Virasena. As it can be seen, the belated accounts of Taranatha (completed in 1608 CE) indicate that Virasena was the father of the Magadhan king Nanda and the grandfather of king Mahapadama (sic). But simultaneously, Taranatha also makes Virasena the great grandson of king Ashoka and the grandson of Kunala and the son of king Vigatasoka. It is notable that Taranatha's accounts establish that Arhat Kasyapa II was born in Gandhara but they nowhere indicate Virasena was the king of Gandhara. Taranatha simply says that when Kasayapa II was working for the welfare of living beings "with threefold deeds of Law", king Virasena at that time (apparently in Central India) was maintaining monks from four quarters for three years and offering gifts to all the Chaityas in the whole world. Thus Taranatha simply makes king Virasena a "contemporary" of Arhat Kasyapa II (who was born in Gandhara) and nothing more.

To enumerate king Ashoka's successors, Taranatha has followed an old Buddhist quasi-historical text Manjusrimulakalpa. Manjusrimulakalpa (Mmk) lists king Ashoka's successors as Visoka (=Vigatasoka of Taranatha), Surasena (=Virasena of Taranatha), Nanda, Chandragupta, and Bindusara. Another variant of king Virasena found in Taranatha's account itself is Indrasena. Scholars have restored king Virasena of Taranatha with king Surasena mentioned in the Manjusrimulakalpa. Dr K. P. Jayaswal, Dr N Dutt etc have also identified Ashoka of Manjusrimulakalpa with Kalasoka (of Saisunaga dynasty) mentioned in the Mahavamsa. Further, Nandivardhana, son of Kalasoka of Saisuanaga dynasty has been identified with Visoka or Vagatasoka of Taranatha. Thus, the Manjusrimulakalpa list of kings of Central India (Magadha) actually starts with Saisunaga kings, covers the Nanda kings and ends with Mauryas Chandragupta and Bindusara.

King Surasena, (misquoted by Taranatha as Virasena or Indrasena), was succeeded by his son king Nanda who ruled Central India (Madhyadesa) i.e Magadha for 29 years. This Surasena of Manjusrimulakalpa has been identified with Nanda king Ugrasena (founder of Nanda dynasty) mentioned in Mahabhodivamsa, or Nanda king Mahapadamapati of the Puranas. Taranatha also mistook the name Mahapadama Nanda for two personages Nanda and Mahapadama and made the latter son of the former; or it may be that Nanda took appellation of Mahapadama sometime after commencement of his reign. It is noteworthy that Taranatha's Virasena (restored as Surasena by later scholars) was the king of Magadha and not of Gandhara as was erroneously supposed by Dr F. W. Thomas. Thus, it was this wrong interpretation of Tarantha's account by Dr F. W. Thomas which has led him to erroneously identify Virasena of Tarantha with Vrishasena of Divyavadana and derive erroneous conclusion that Virasena was a Maurya ruler of Gandhara and king Subhagasenna was probably his son/successor who later succeeded Virasena as the ruler of Kabul valley.

Also in the light of above facts, Dr Thomas' equation to relate Vrishasena of Divyavadana with Virasena of Taranatha automatically loses its argumentative weight since Virasena was misquoted by Taranatha for king Surasena of Central India. Many scholars have, however, accepted Dr Thomas's hypothesis without critical scrutiny.

Interestingly, some scholars also identify Virasena of Taranatha variously with the later Maurya king Suyasas (son of Ashoka) or with Jalauka (son of Ashoka) or with Shalishuka or with Somasarman. There are even some who say that Sophagasenus was the epithet worn by king Ashoka himself. Louis de La Vallée-Poussin holds that Sophagasenus which translates to Subhagasena may be considered to be the father of Virasena, which does not however bear scrutiny. As can be seen from the known facts of history and from the chronological order of kings given in Manjusrimulakalpa as well as by Taranatha, it is hard to believe the list given in Taranatha's History. Thus, Taranatha’s list of Ashoka’s successors is obviously erroneous, commingled and confused. Commenting on Taranatha's accounts in respect of Ashoka, Vincent A. Smith observes that Taranatha’s account is hopelessly confused. Sir Charles Elliot has also branded Taranatha’s account as confusing and untrustworthy. Susan L. Huntington too comments on Taranatha’s history and calls it unreliable. Thus, we can not put too much reliance on Taranatha’s account on Ashoka and his successors.

Differing opinions on the antecedents and ancestry of Sophagasenos

Many scholars have rejected the hypothesis propounded by Dr Thomas's and followed by several later scholars. Dr V. A. Smith does not accept Sophagasenus connection with Virasena or with the Maurya rulers of Pataliputra. Sophagasenus is not identified with the name of any known Indian king. The detailed lists of Maurya successors in numerous Puranas do not mention any king named Virasena or Subhagasena. We are really inclined to doubt F. M. Thomas's theory that Subhagasena was successor of Virasena until we equate the latter with Vrishasena of Ashokavadana. But as we have seen above, there is absolutely no equation or equivalence between Vrishasena of Divyavadana/Ashokavadana and king Virasena of Taranatha (restored as Surasena of Manjusrimulakalpa). Thus, Dr Thomas's hypothesis does not seem to hold. Dr Romila Thapar is strongly against the view that Subhagasena was a Maurya king. Dr Thapar calls Subhagasena an obscure Indian ruler. Scholars like M. M. Austin, Max Cary, and others, also write that the identity of Subhagasena is uncertain. It is admitted that the antecedents and ancestors of that Subhagasena are not known.

H. G. Rawilson also opines that the identity of Subhagasena is uncertain. According to Cambridge History of India, Indian history knows no ruler of corresponding name, and it has therefore been conjectured that Sophagasenus was some local ruler who had taken advantage of the decay of the Maurya empire to establish his own in the country west of Indus. John Ma also calls Sophagasenos a local dynast, otherwise unknown from any of Indian sources. It was also conjectured at one time that Subhagasena was a title for Jalauka, son of great Ashoka who had died in 231 BCE. But Jalaukla himself is a misty personality. We do not know who the Sophagasenus was. "After Ashoka's death, the interest of his successors, west of Indus must have disappeared because when later on (~206 BCE), Antiochus III, 6th successor of Seleucus entered the Indus valley, he was resisted not by Mauryas but by a local ruler named Subhagasena..." . One quite agrees with Dr Thapar, Dr Rawilson and other scholars as quoted above that the ancestry of Sophagasenus is unclear and uncertain and in no can it be linked to Maurya rulers of Magadha on the basis of flimsy and unreliable evidence of Taranatha who is a careless and untrustworthy writer of comparatively recent times.

A possible identity of Sophagasenus

Polybius, our only source on Sophagasenus, gives few very important clues about this ruler. Firstly, immediately on crossing Caucasus, Antiochus faces Sophagasena. This shows that the king was ruler of Kabul/Kapisa valleys. or what is also known as Paropamisadean territory south of Hindukush. Secondly, Sophagasenus is called an Indian king. Thirdly, the expression "renewal of friendship" used by Polybius which seems to suggest that Sophagasenus had previous dealings or prior alliance with Antiochus III. Fourthly, there is reference to Sophagasenus providing a large cash indemnity and many elephants to Antiochus.

All these clues are very interesting and revealing. The region of Kabul/Kapisa (Paropamisade) was the heartland of the Ashvakan Kambojas who were especially engaged in horse-culture and cavalry profession. The linguistic traces of Kamboja have been found in plenty in Pull-i-Drunta and Lamghan valleys. We also know that just a century prior to Antiochus III's inroads into Kabul and Kapisa, the Aspasio and Assakenoi clans of the Kambojas had offered a stubborn resistance to his predecessors i.e the Alexander of Macedon in the same very region where Sophagasenus of Polybius is said to have been ruling. It is an admitted fact that the Aspasio section of the Kambojas was more Iranian than Indian in culture and customs but the Assakenoi section had been completely Indianized by this time. Based on the evidence of historians who had accompanied Alexander, Arrian calls the Ashvakas/Assakenoi as Indians. Even the name Kapisa, which constituted the heart of this region, is said by scholars to be another variant of Sanskrit Kamboja. Evidence from Rock Edicts V and XIII of king Ashoka, which were inscribed between 260 BCE and 240 BCE, locate the Yonas in Arachosia, the Gandharas (western Gandharas) in Peshawar valley, and the Kambojas in Paropamisade i.e in Kabul/Kunar and Swat valleys south of Hindukush, as neighbors to Daradas.

Polybius's attestation about elephants being provided by Sophagasenus as a gift to Antiochus is in line with the preponderous evidence from several ancient Sanskrit and other sources that, like their horses, Kambojas were also noted for their celebrated war elephants. There are references to Kamboja kings presenting thousands of elephants, besides blankets, cows, camels and horses etc as gifts to king Yudhishtra at the time of Rajasuya Yajna. Mahabharata refers to a wonderful army of war elephants fielded by Sudakshina at Kurukshetra. In the fierce fight that took place between the prince Prapaksha Kamboja (younger brother of Sudakshina) and Arjuna after Sudakshin Kamboj was martyred, Arjuna is said to have slaughtered numerous steeds and elephants of his antagonist's division. In the battle of Massaga, the Ashvaka Kambojas had faced Alexander with an army of 30,000 cavalry, 30,000 infantry and 30 elephants. The Asama-patras of king Valabhadeva of Assam, also proudly refer to the prized elephants from Kamboja in his stable. All this evidence seems to reinforce the view that Sophagasenus was a Kamboja ruler from Kabul/Kapisa land.

Lastly, Polybius's reference to "renewal of friendship" indicates that Sophagasenus must have come to the throne some years prior to 206 BCE. The existence of at least one independent kingdom in north-west before BCE 206 shows that Maurya empire must have begun to break-up nearly a quarter century prior to usurpation of Magdhan throne by Pushyamitra in 185 BCE. However, the reference could simply refer to past friendships between the Greeks and Indians (e.g. the marriage alliance between Seleucus I and Chandragupta Maurya.)


Maurya Empire declined after 232 BCE, after the strong arm of Ashoka was withdrawn on his death. His successors were unable to keep possession of the outlying regions including Kamboja (Kabul/Kunar valleys), Yona (Arachosia) and western Gandhara (Peshawar valley). These areas were inhabited by martial and freedom loving self-ruling people who seldom easily yielded to foreign control. Already during the heydays of Maurya empire, three revolts had occurred in eastern Gandhara alone—two during reign of Bindusara and one during later years of king Ashoka. We do not have any surviving records of the political conditions in the regions west of river Indus including Kamboja, but it is not too difficult to visualize that the areas west of Indus were even more impatient of foreign control. Not long ago, the same Ashvakas had assassinated Nicanor, the Greek Satrap of Massaga in 326 BCE while Alexander was still in Punjab. Ashoka’s Rock Edicts V and XIII amply prove that the nations of Kamboja, Yona, Gandhara (i.e. western Gandhara) etc were semi-sovereign and were ruled by their own community chieftains who enjoyed a feudatory status under the Mauryas. The 'Ŕāja-Vişayas' of king Ashoka's thirteenth Rock Edict, which include the Kambojas, Yonas, Nabhika, Bhojas, Andhras etc, were "the sovereign (self-ruling) states within the Maurya Empire".

M Boyce writes: "The Kambojas enjoyed a measure of autonomy...and were governed in some measure by the members of their own community on whom was laid the responsibility of transmitting to them the king's words, and having these engraved on stone". We have the case of Sibyrtios as a local ruler of Arachosia during time of Chandragupta and Whsu (Vakshu) a local ruler of Kamboja during time of king Ashoka. Since the status of these border nations was midway between provincials proper and the unsubdued borders, the moment these local feudatory rulers found a ripe opportunity to say good-bye to their nominal overlords, they did exactly so after the strong arm of king Ashoka was withdrawn in 232 BCE. According to Dr R. K. Mukerjee, Dr. Satyaketu Vidyalankar, Dr J. L. Kamboj etc, the Yonas, Kambojas, Gandharas etc became bolder after the powerful arm of king Ashoka was withdrawn after 233 BCE and they shook the Maurya yoke off their shoulders. These semi-sovereign border nations were mainly responsible for the eventual break-up and ultimate fall of the Maurya empire.

It is possible that Antiochus-Sophagasenus alliance which Polybius, the Greek historian, refers to may have been directed against the Imperial Mauryas of Pataliputra. It may have been designed couple of years prior to 206 BCE since Polybius does allude to Antiochus III's renewal of treaty with Sophagasenus. It appears likely that the Greeks intrigue played a part in the creation of an independent nation under Sophagasenus and ultimate disintegration of the Maurya empire before the Greek raids. Thus, it seems reasonable to think that on finding the right opportunity to strike, the local ruling chieftain of the Ashavka Kambojas (Paropamisade) broke off with Magadha and carved out an independent kingdom of his own in Kabul/Kapisa valley. We know that since Paropamisade was the heart of Kamboja land, the local ruler for these warlike and freedom loving people naturally may have been a Kamboja background. This may indeed be true since in the Rock Edicts V and XIII which were inscribed only a couple of decades ago, the Kambojas as a feudatory or semi-sovereign (self-ruling) nation finds most prominent position in the edicts of Ashoka. The same Kambojas a century earlier had played a very prominent role in the creation of Mauryan Empire by constituting an important component of Chandragupta's army of frontier-highlanders in 324-20 BCE. All this evidence shows that the Kambojas had been very powerful during these centuries.

Therefore, looking at time and space propinquity in the context of political scenario during time of Sophagasenus (Subhagasena), one is naturally led to infer that king Sophagasenus must have belonged to the Ashvakan Kshatrya branch of these powerful Kambojas of Kabul/Kapisa region. This view is further reinforced by the fact that the coins of the Ashvaka Kambojas, bearing a legend "Vatasvaka" in Brahmi, have been found in north-west frontiers. Dr E. J. Rapson has dated these coins to at least 200 BCE which affirms that the Ashvakas were indeed the powerful rulers on west of Indus around 210/200 BCE and that Indian king Sophagasenus of Polybius may indeed have been an Ashvaka Kamboja ruler. It is also tempting to link the Apraca branch of the kings of Bajaur to king Sophagasenus in this background. Scholars have linked the princes of Apraca dynasty of Bajaur to the Ashvaka clan. And Yuvaraja Kharaosta Kamuio (Kamboja) mentioned in the Mathura Lion Capital appears to be connected with Apraca kings through Apracaraja Indravarman's Silver Reliquary(q.v.). Later when Bactrian Greeks under Demetrius conquered Paropamisade and rest of Afghanistan, the ancestor of Apraca rulers of Kunar/Bajaur finds reference with Greek king Menander in Shinkot reliquary inscriptions found from Bajaur in Kunar.

The contents of this page are sourced from a Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
comment(s) so far
Leave a comment
Add a word
What's the good word on Sophagasenus?
To suggest a correction, or to flag this profile for review, click: