Buddhism In Afghanistan

Buddhism In AfghanistanBuddhism in Afghanistan has a long history. Many monuments, such as the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan, testify to the Buddhist culture in Afghanistan. It was during Ashoka’s reign that Buddhism was introduced to Afghanistan. Kanishka (120 to 160 CE) was a Buddhist who built many stupas.

The very first Buddha statue in the world was built in Gandhara, in the Kabul region of Afghanistan. Presently the area known as Kandahar. Afghanistan was a Buddhist country, quite similar to Tamil Nadu which I touched briefly in the last article, where Buddhism was popular during Buddhagosha’ era although the Mahavansa did not touch substantially. Incidentally, Dr.Shu Hikosake as well as Pandit Hisselle Dhrmaratna Maha Thero who wrote extensively on Buddhism in South India, believed Badanthachrya Buddhgosha to be a Tamil, although Mahavansa says his birthplace is Gaya. His father is Kesa and Mother Kesini. Let’s look into this at the end.

Buddhism was introduced to Afghanistan in 305 BC in pre-Islamic era according to available historical evidence. Religion started fading in the 7th century and by 11th it was completely faded out. The region became popular with the introduction of the Chinese Silk trade route. Theravada was strong during one of the kings in the Graeco-Bactarian kingdom, Meander. The great Bacterian scholar and soldier (Milinda according to Milindapanna) who was converted to a Buddhist by the visiting Indian monk, Nagasena. Two merchants, Tapasu- Ballaka became the first disciples and they built the monastery near their home town, Balkh. It was the first monastery of Buddhists built in Afghanistan. Subsequently there had been many caves in the Bamiyan mountain range, where Buddhist monks were residing and in most of the caves they had drawn frescos relevant to Buddhism. The priceless Bamiyan Buddha statues were carved in the cliff of the Bamiyan mountain. The highest was a stunning 420 feet, and had followed Gandhara style. These statues were blown out 11 years ago, by Taliban rebels. The Taliban didn’t tolerate idols as Muslims were not idol worshippers. But later they may have repented because the inestimable priceless archaeological monuments they possessed were totally lost to the history of Afghanistan. If the Buddhist world with the help of other countries of UN and Unesco protested effectively this could have been avoided. They used their powerful canons and crushed them in March 2001.The famous Aukana statue in Sri Lanka to a greater height was carved simulating Bamiyan statues. Even most of the gigantic Buddha statues of great heights in temples today in Sri Lankan are based on the façade of those statues however following Sariputtra technique.

In ancient Afghanistan there were other religions too, but there was a tolerance level. Balka was the birth place of Zoroaster. This Iranian religion that grew from his teaching came to be known as Zoroastrianism. According to Graeco-Bactrian policy Buddhism and Zoroastrianism peacefully coexisted. Due to amalgamation of Buddha and Azura Mazda there were paintings in Buddhist caves of Bamiyan valley where the Buddha with auras of flames and inscriptions calling the ‘Buddha-Mazda.’ It was because Zoroastrianism emphasized the veneration of Fire.

30 years after the death of Prophet Mohammed, Arab Muslims defeated Persia and attacked Bacteria, captured the area around Balka where Buddhism had flourished. Then the New Regime introduced poll-tax on Buddhist shrines and a pilgrim tax on those who visit temples. They plundered Buddhist monasteries in the Kabul valley and statues of Buddhist-idols presented as war trophies to Caliph. That is how resentments started. Buddhism declined initially in Kabul valley and ultimately was completely lost from Afghanistan. And in this century it included the loss of the priceless gigantic Bamiyan Buddhist statues.

Museum Director, Omarkhan Massoude, who joined the museum 34 years ago, said a week ago, that he is happy that he preserved some masterpieces through a difficult time in Afghanistan, and said they have repaired more than 300 sculptures. Many artifacts were hidden in secret vaults, outside the museum and protected by museum staff. He further laments the destruction of Bamiyan statues was a big tragedy, because they were part of our history.

During the early part of Buddhism , Buddha was not represented by a statue, a human figure, until Gandhara Buddha was erected. Instead some sculptures became very prominent avoiding direct representation of the human figure, original formation period of Buddhist art was anechoic. Foot prints of the Buddha, the Sri Pada, was the first attempt in this formation. A chart has been drawn on the foot prints in conjunction with healing system quite similar to Mahayana yantra/Mandala with innumerable signs and symbols indicating the efficacy of the formulated healing system. Dr.Waldermer Sailor who has done research on this for nearly 25 years could not get the purported meaning on the symbols on the soles of the feet.

Later years, he affirmed similar foot prints have been structured with symbols in many Buddhist countries including Sri Lanka. During my school days when we ascended the peak I noticed on the cement foot prints there were similar symbols but not so much as that had been in Afghanistan foot prints of the Buddha as Dr.Tailor has described.

When Buddhist devotees with difficulty made the pilgrimage with great devotion to venerate the constructed foot prints with symbols they are fully contended with it. In the Gatha composed by monks to worship Sripada there is a stanza which emphasizes Buddha has implanted left foot print on Samanola and right foot print in Yonakapure, (Saudi Arabia) Makkama, in Macca . This actually referred to Kaba in Macca. The patriarch of Muslims, Christians and Jews, Abraham who has kept his foot print on a rock where there was another, which he believed that of the Adam’s, he covered this with short walls and named it Kaba. Subsequently it has been reconstructed several times. Only Muslims are allowed to worship this sacred place. Buddhist never travelled there to venerate Buddha’s foot print. But still for several decades this Gatha is being used. No elders ever come forward to correct the embodied myth.

Sailors and merchants who passed Sri Lanka according to history, had sailed as far as Java. When they disembarked in Mahathitha (present Mannar), sojourned in the country to purchase available commodoities. During their leisure times they have related stories relevant to their countries. That is how poranikas, primitive people of those by gone years had coined various stories, including a lion having coitus with a woman as carved in the Ishtar, the gate of Babylon which conveyed to Rev.Mahanama who got inspired to synthesized Lion and Suppadevi sketch in his Epic. Similarly to fabricate a Buddha’s foot prints Afghan structure of the Buddha’s foot print may have induced him the idea as Buddha’s three trips were recorded in earlier Vansa the Deepa Vansa, the earliest attempt of recording historical traditions of the Island, but the authors are unknown. This I believe is how Rev.Mahanama was inspired with the Afghan caricature to add Buddha’s foot prints on the peak of Samanola in his imaginary third trip with 500 Bhikkus as indicated in Deepa Vansa. (MV. 1,77ff)

In the great Sangayana held at Pataliputta, the present Patna under the patronage of King Asoka not a word has been spoken with regard to Buddha’s visits to Lanka or preaching his doctrine to yakkas or nagas and implanting of foot prints on a peak. I advocated in my last article truism is not paramount to climb Samanola and worship the foot prints. It could be treated as a cultural trip not only for Buddhists but for Christian, Muslim and Hindus. Perhaps in the next article I`ll carry what were the opinion expressed by recognized personalities relevant to Buddha’s three trips recorded in Deepa Vansa and later with full elaborations in Mahavansa.

Similar to Afghanistan the other Buddhist country totally lost to Buddhists was South India. Dr.Shu Hikosake who did ample research to write his thesis for his doctorate, emphasized that there were numerous Buddhist temples with a good number of Buddhist monks of Theravada as well as Mahayana in South India.

If I were to borrow some alluring points from Mr. J. L. Devanada`s article with due courtsey to him, it is quite true that there was a strong and cordial relationship of Tamils with Sinhalese. Most of the Sinhalese during Kotte, Gampola and Kandy periods were quite fluent in Tamil in the same trend Sinhalese and Tamils were fluent in English during British era. Kerala is a country that had plenty of connections, with Sri Lanka particularly during the Kandy period. Feudal families of upcountry had family connections too. However I prefer to use the term South India instead of Tamil Nadu as Tamil Nadu is a term coined recently, in 1967 proposed by DMK. Tamil Nadu comprised with former Chola and Pandiyan kingdoms only, whereas Buddhism exists in Kerala too. When you use the term South India all the three former regimes are encompassed.

As an element for ethnic and religious unity I am in favour of his suggestion, where he characterized, the lost Tamil Buddhism should be restored back in the North and East of Sri Lanka. The erection of the Buddha statues in the North and East should be welcomed and the Tamils should consider Buddha also as a part of their religion (just like in Sri Lanka where in every Buddhist temple you find Hindu Gods, if you go to India , especially the North, in every Hindu Temple there is a Buddha statue). There is nothing wrong in having a Buddha statue in the Hindu temples, also, Tamil Buddhist temples should come up. Tamils should embrace Buddhist monkhood. Buddhism must be taught in Tamil; preaching and worshipping Buddhism in Tamil; Tamil Buddhist monks and a Tamil Buddhist Mahasangam should be formed. It’s a timely suggestion Mr.Devananada, but I have not seen Buddha statues in Hindu temples in Sri Lanka. I have visited a few in former Madras, I did not notice there either.

Relevant to this I wish to quote a paragraph from my novel, ‘the Therapy’, which I wrote to emphasize all human beings are alike (p.431). All human beings have the same anatomy. So there cannot possibly have any physical contrast other than the gender difference. Whether the people are black, white, brown or yellow, they are all human beings. They may have different ideas, different attitudes, different philosophies, different shapes and different intelligence. But still for all they are a global family. In a family if there are five or six members they may have different status, different intelligent levels, different ideologies and several different attitudes but still they are one family. They live in peace and unity. Therefore why don’t we promote the concept of one global family on this glorious Earth. As I am living in Canada, where there are over 100 communities with divergent religions and cultures, who live amicably, has immensely inspired me this adorable concept. It is a multi religious, multi ethnic, where there is a tolerance for multiculturalism. The Government extends all support and possible assistance to maintain this position.

With regard to the unity with Tamils I wish to further enlighten, by referring to the p.183 of the same book-‘There is an famous ancient temple by the name Lankatilake Viharaya in the central province, built by king Bhuwanekabahu, in which there is a rock inscription prominently scribed in Sinhala and Tamil to say it was offered to monks by the king.

I wanted to emphasize even in that ancient time king has given a place for Tamils as there were Tamils in the country. Why don’t the present people consider a similar place today. During Kandy and Gampola and Kotte periods most of the Sinhalese were fluent in Tamil language unlike today. One of the Generals, Rathwatte Disava signed in Tamil characters in the famous Treaty of the Kandy 1815, where the lion flag was pulled down and hoisted the union Jack. Sinhala and Tamil languages coexisted for several centuries prior to the British period.

It is not quite inappropriate if I quote the Edict # 12 of the Great Emperor, Dharmasoka following the tolerance and understanding, honoured and supported all other religions in the vast Empire. He who introduced the Tri Pitaka Dharma of Gauthama Buddha, through his son Maha Mahinda and his daughter, Sangamiththa to Sri Lanka. May I quote:

“ One should not honour only one’s own religion and condemns the religion s of others, but one should honour other’s religions for this or that reasons. So doing, one helps one’ own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others. In acting otherwise one digs the grave of one’s own religion and also does harm to other religions. Whosoever honours his own religion and condemns other religions, does so indeed through devotion to his own religion, thinking I will glorify my own religion. But on the contrary, in so doing he injures his own religion more gravely. let all listen and be willing to listen to doctrines by others.( pps.175-76.Views on Buddhism. Vol 1.by Dr.S.Vaiamon.)


  • Dr. Sripali Vaiamon. Buddhist History of Afghanistan and South India. Toronto, Sri Lanka Guardian.

See also

Buddhism in Asia
Buddhism in: Afghanistan | Armenia | Azerbaijan | Bahrain | Bangladesh | Bhutan | Brunei | Cambodia | People’s Republic of China (Hong Kong | Macau) | Republic of China (Taiwan) |
buddha monk

buddha monk