The Kannauj Assembly
In the year of 643 A.D., Harsha held a great religious assembly in his capital at Kanauj on the bank of the river Ganges. The purpose of the assembly was to highlight the teachings of the Buddha. On that occasion, Harsha also wanted to honour the Chinese Master of the Law, Hiuen Tsang.
This grand function was attended by twenty tributary kings, including the kings of Kamarupa Bhaskara Varman from the extreme east, and the King of Vallabhi Dhruvasena from the extreme west. Three thousand Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhists, three thousand Brahmins and Jainas, and one thousand Buddhist scholars from the University of Nalanda attended this assembly. Harsha himself proposed the name of Hiuen Tsang to take the chair. The subject of discussion in the assembly related to Mahayana Buddhism. The assembly continued for long 23 days.
From the accounts of Hiuen Tsang it is known that a splendid monastery with a shrine was constructed, on the bank of the Ganges for the purpose of the assembly. There, on the huge tower, 100 feet high, a golden image of Buddha equal to the height of Harsha himself was kept for the view of the large gathering. A smaller image of Buddha, 3 feet in height was every day carried in a procession, joined by all the 20 kings, and with 300 elephants.
As the procession progressed, Harsha scattered golden flowers, pearls and gems on all sides for showing honor to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. At the end of the procession, Harsha used to wash the image in his own hands at the altar, and carry it on his own shoulders to be placed at the appropriate tower. There, the image was dressed in many silken robes, decorated with gems.
Harsha’s devotion to the image of Buddha in the Kanauj Assembly clearly proves his deep attachment to Mahayana Buddhism. The Hindu gods like Sakra and Brahma were shown as the attendants of Buddha in a symbolic way, since Buddha was considered as an incarnation of Vishnu.
Nine hundred years separated Harsha from Asoka. The latter, while patronising Buddhism, laid absolute emphasis on the ethical aspects of Buddha’s religion.
Harsha, by championing the Mahayana Buddhism, laid emphasis on the worship of the image of Buddha. As Puranic Hinduism also accepted Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, there was no novelty in the royal patronage of a decadent faith in India, even if it was in full vigour outside.
The Prayaga Assembly
The Kanauj Assembly was followed by another spectacular assembly at Prayaga in the same year. While the Kanauj Assembly was a religious assembly to highlight Mahayanism, the Prayaga Assembly was an assembly of universal character for offerings of royal charities to all classes of people. It was known as the Maha Moksha Parishud.
Harsha was at his best in the Prayaga Assembly as a generous monarch and an admirer of all the major faiths of his country.
The Prayaga Assembly saw a huge gathering of people. The Emperor came there with Hiuen Tsang, and the kings of twenty countries. The site of the assembly was on the vast expanses of sands at the meeting place of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna.
Half a million people, summoned from the distant corners of the ‘Five Indies’ attended this unique assembly to receive gifts from the king. The ceremonies lasted for 75 days. Every arrangement was made for the accommodation and food of such a huge multitude.
Harsha held this assembly every five years for donating gifts to people. The assembly which Hiuen Tsang saw at Prayaga in 643 A.D. was the sixth Moksha Paris had of Harsha’s reign.