Buddhist and Greek Vestiges in Former Afghanistan


Abdul Hai Habibi


Three centuries before Christianity Alexander’s conquest was underway in the land in what is now known as Afghanistan. The people of the region resisted the military invasion of the Greeks for four years. In 325 BCE Alexander left the area by way of Baluchistan and went back in the direction of Pars (Persia). He died in Babul in 323 BCE.

After his death, the Greek established an extensive monarchy in Bactria, and for a period of 250 years 36 kings and one queen ruled there. These Greeks amalgamated their thoughts and lifestyle with the cultural affinities of the people of the area and created a different pattern of thought, art and civilization which historians consider as the Greco-Bactrian civilization.

During this time, to the east of Afghanistan, Prince Chandra Gupta, had established the great empire of the Maurya family. Chandra Gupta died in 300 BCE. When his grandson, Ashoka, became the king in 273 BCE, he captured all of India and spread his influence to the west as far as the Arghandab and Helmand valleys.

Ashoka’s military conquest does not have much bearing on Afghanistan’s history since his political influence lasted only for a few years. However, when he embraced Buddhism in 260 BCE he became a strong supporter and missionary of his newly found religion and it was due to his efforts that Buddhism spread to the western regions of Afghanistan as far as Kandahar. Wherever Ashoka went he wrote inscriptions to propagate the religion and invited people to Buddha’s righteous faith. He wrote sermons on rocks in which he refrained people from pestering and tormenting others. Such stone tablets have been discovered in Mardan near Peshawar, Darunta in Nangarhar, and the old city of Kandahar.

During the second century CE, the great Kushan king, Kanishka, was also an ardent proponent of Buddhism. It was as a result of the efforts of these two emperors that Buddhism spread throughout eastern and northern Afghanistan, Trans-Oxiana and China.

Five centuries before the rise of Christianity, a prince was born in the Shakya clan of the Kashteryans, in Lumbini, Nepal, who was known as Shakyamuni, meaning scholar of the Shakya clan. He was born in 565 BCE and left his royal family at the age of 29. He renounced lay life and practiced self-restraint, meditation and asceticism for six years until he became enlightened and started preaching his religion. He invited royalty to his religion and the people of India embraced Buddhism. He died at the age of 80 in the year 483 BCE in Kushinagar, India.

Buddha did not leave a book of his teachings and after his death his disciples held a large council  in Bajagarh. His three students Ananda, Yupali and Kasiapa, gathered his teachings and wrote a compendium of rules named Tripatika, which means three garlands of flowers. When Ashoka embraced Buddhism and engaged in spreading the religion he held the third great council in which it was decided that Buddhist missionaries will be sent to far-fetched places. Among these people four were sent to Gandahara, who were engaged in spreading Buddhism around 258 BCE in the eastern regions of Afghanistan.

The Bactrians managed to subdue the political influence of the Mauryans and when Ashoka died in 232 BCE he did not leave behind a strong successor. The Bactrian king, Euthydemus, crossed the Hindu Kush and put an end to the temporary administration of the Mauryans in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan but the cultural and intellectual influence of Buddhism remained among the people of Afghanistan for another thousand years. As mentioned earlier, Buddha did not leave behind a structured philosophy but his disciples gathered his religious theology and divided the journey to enlightenment into two major stages each of which is called a yana. This word is in use in Pashto until this day as yun and yana, meaning religion and conduct.

The first vehicle of Buddhism is Mahayana (the greater vehicle) which spread from northern India to Tibet, China and Japan. The followers of this vehicle believe that each human is part of one entity that live under a harma (law). If a person desires to free himself from evil he needs to participate in the common struggle in order to attain the state of bodhi (awakening) and thus be  able to help others. The followers of this great vehicle ascertain two stages for human beings: attainment of knowledge and service of others.

The other vehicle is Hinayana (the lesser vehicle). The followers of this vehicle live in southern India and they believe in the achievement of enlightenment by the individual. Their teachings are in the Pali language while that of the greater vehicle are in Sanskrit. Chinese explorers, who came to Afghanistan before Islam, talk about the presence of thousands of Buddhist temples. The monks in these temples  were followers of both vehicles.

Buddha based his religion on seven principles: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right concentration. He believed that if someone were to follow these seven principles then he will be free from carnal bonds and concentrate on releasing his thoughts from worldly desires to be able to go through these four stages:

1. Search for truth.

2. Search for righteousness.

3. Delve into deep thought and stillness.

4. Attain tranquility which will lead to Nirvana.

The French researcher, Foucher, provides the following reason for the spread of Buddhism in Afghanistan: “The people of eastern parts of Aryana, who had come under repeated attacks by the Achamenids, Alexander and the Mauryans, found Buddhism to be an acceptable religion since it preached compassion, peace and tranquility. Since the people were tired of war and bloodshed therefore they accepted the religion wholeheartedly.”

The religion spread throughout the land with the encouragement of Ashoka to the extent that thousands of temples were built and whenever one digs in the eastern parts of Afghanistan it is possible to find Buddha’s statues.

After the second century CE, the Kushanians were also engaged in spreading Buddhism in Afghanistan, and when Hsuan Tsung, the Chinese traveler and monk, came to visit Buddhist temples in this land, he traveled from northern Afghanistan to Kabul, Ghazni, Paktia, Nangarhar, Swat and Taxila during the 7th century and made pilgrimage to numerous Buddhist temples. The impact of Buddhist religion could be seen among the people of Afghanistan until the coming of Islam. Buddhism had left its mark on the thought, literature and politics of the people. Thousands of Buddhist statues were built and displayed in the temples. The Indian style of statue building admixed with the local Aryan arts. With the coming of Alexander, Greek art and statue making had also spread among the people resulting in the building of the two largest statues of Buddha in Bamian. Scholars consider this art as the school of the Gandahara art or the Greco-Buddhist Bactrian school of art. The architecture of Buddhist temples and stupas built here had its own unique style which eventually spread to India and Kashmir. The temples which Hsuan Tsung saw in the northern provinces of Bamian, Kapisa, Laghman, Nangarhar and Hada were embellished with ornaments and gold. Hundreds of monks lived in the caves and chambers near the temples and Buddha’s bones, teeth, clothes and wooden ornaments were stored in these temples. Thousands of pilgrims visited these temples. Kings were the keepers of these temples where precious jewels, gold and wealth was stored.

Buddha’s statues, built by skilled Indian and Greek artisans, were very exquisite and from the term pudh, the word buth (idol) surfaced which in Arabic is budh (plural budha). The beautiful idols of Gandahara became famous to the extent that during the Islamic period, kings of this region sent them as gifts to the courts of the caliphs of Baghdad. The statues built by the Gandahara school of art were so well made that centuries later their names appear in Dari literature. Poets of the language referred to their lovers as “the Kandahari idol” or the “Kandahari sweetheart.” Faruki states:

        The Kandahari idol is not sugar-lipped

        You are sugar-lipped like the Kandahari idol.

If one were to write about the arts and buildings of Afghanistan several volumes of such a compilation will be about the impact of Buddhist religion and art in the country. The priceless works of such art are present in Hada near Jalalabad, Sardar mound in Ghazni, Gul Dara of Musahi in Logar, Kapisa, Bamian, Khair Khana pass, and the Kabul, Peshawar and Lahore museums.[1]





[1]Wazma Magazine, 1350 Solar Hijra, Vol. 5-6, pp. 1-6.