The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Buddhism in Iran
By: Mehrak Golestani
During the course of this paper, I will seek to examine the spread of Buddhism amongst Iranian people, a subject the significance of which is often overlooked by modern day scholars. The paper begins with a brief background of the region and then examines the circumstances under which Buddhism entered the Persian Empire and how it spread amongst the people of the region. It then looks at the patterns of cross cultural influence and the mark that Buddhism left on Iranians and vice versa.
To clarify, the area I am concerned with is not the region of modern day Iran, rather the area of Central Asia inhabited by Iranian people from roughly 500 BCE onwards. This would include modern day Iran Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, as well as parts of North-West Pakistan and India.
"The process whereby Iranians spread over Central Asia and the Iranian Plateau can be compared with the later expansion of the Turkic peoples... As in the Turkification of Anatolia, the Iranians gave their languages and practises to the aboriginal population" (Frye 1996). In the middle of the sixth century BCE, the Achaemanid clan of the Persians was headed by Cyrus, who ruled, under Median domination, as sub-king of Parsa, or Persis. In 553 BCE Cyrus led a revolt that resulted in the overthrow of the Median ruler and the rise to the power of the Achaemenids.
A close union of Persians and Medes soon followed, and an army drawn from these tribal groups embarked on a series of successful campaigns that resulted in the establishment of the first world Empire. Inclusion in the huge Achaemenid empire brought Central Asia into closer contact with Western Iran and the entire near East which consequentially brought about changes in traditions, customs and ways of life through exposure to so many different cultures.
According to a Buddhist legend preserved in Pali (an ancient Prakrit language, derived from Sanskrit, which is the scriptural and liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism), the first instance of Buddhism entering Iran seems to have been during the life of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni (roughly 5/6th century BCE. The legend speaks of two Merchant brothers from Bactria (modern day Afghanistan) who visited the Buddha in his eighth week of enlightenment, became his disciples and then returned to Balkh (major city of Bactria) to build temples dedicated to him. Whatever the historical validity of this story, there is strong evidence to show that Balkh did become a major Buddhist region and remained so up until the Arab Muslim invasion of the 7th century.
Under the reign of King Ashoka of the Indian Maurya dynasty (324-187 BCE), Buddhism was helped to spread throughout the surrounding region. After his only conquest of Kalinga, Ashoka was so full of sorrow and remorse that he resolved to refrain from violence, took the vows of an upsaka (lay Buddha) and dedicated the rest of his life to helping spread Buddhism to distant parts of his Kingdom. A great number of Buddhist missionaries were sent to spread the teachings of Buddha, and rock edicts set up by Ashoka state that he sent some to his North-West territories.
In 1958, edicts inscribed on rock pillars promulgating the ethical standards of Buddhist teaching were discovered in Qandahar, Afghanistan and in 1962 a long inscription entirely in Greek (later identified as parts of Ashokas edicts) was found in the surrounding area. During the first century Balkh was famous throughout the region for its Buddhist temples and the Greek scholar Alexander Polyhistor mentions Buddhism's relationship with Iran and refers to Balkh and its temples specifically. It is widely agreed that without Ashokas patronage of Buddhism, it would have remained another minor Hindu sect as opposed to the world religion it is today.
Legend also attributes the erection of 84,000 stupas (Buddhist memorial monument or [more likely in this case] a monument or reliquary representing the enlightened mind) to Ashoka and while this figure may be somewhat exaggerated, "The famous 7th century Chinese pilgrim Hsuan-tsang observed a large number of Stupas in the Ashokan style [which were markedly different from the ones built later by the Kushanas] in the north-west, three at Taxila, five in Gandhara three near Jalalabad and dozens in Qandahar" (Emmrick 1983)
The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom was another major force in the development of the region. "Perhaps the best parallel to the Greek settlement in Bactria would be the British to India in the 19th century" (Frye 1996). The eventual demise of the Maurya dynasty was followed by the weak rule of the Sunga and Kanva respectively. The Greek king of Bactria exploited this period of weak rule and managed to take Gandhara, the Punjab and the Indus valley while his General Menander conquered Pataliputra in Northern India.
During his reign there, Menander adopted a policy of religious tolerance and treated Buddhist communities under his command with benevolence. He was immortalized by a grateful Buddhist monk, in a treatise called the "Milindapanha" or the questions of Menander. There was then the reign of the nomadic Sakas who absorbed some of the Buddhist religion as can be seen by the discovery of Buddhist inscriptions they left behind. The nomadic people known as the Parni, later to become widely known as the Parthians then came to power around 75 AD but were defeated by the Kushana Dynasty.
The development of Mahayana Buddhism is closely associated with the Kushan rule and in particular the development of "Ghandaran" Buddhist art, an amalgamation of Greek, Iranian and Indian influences. We will return to examine the phenomenon of Ghandaran art later as it is fundamental in understanding the thin line between influencing and being influenced that is so characteristic of this period and region. So far it seems that Buddhism had met little or no opposition from "rival" religions of the time.
This was to change under the Sassanian Dynasty when Zoroastrianism was declared the state religion of the empire in 224 AD. Under instruction from the highly influential Mobad (High Priest) Kartir, Buddhists were persecuted and Buddhist temples were burnt down. However, contrary to popular belief amongst scholars, there exists very strong evidence to suggest that around the same time, practising Buddhist communities continued to exist in places such as Sistan (where the aforementioned Saka steppe tribe eventually settled), Baluchestan and Khorasan.
Recent excavations in Khorasan have unearthed coins bearing the head of Buddha, following the Greek influenced tradition of coins bearing religious deities significant to the people of the region. A Satrap of Khorasan known only as Piroz minted the coins. The Buddhists met even more hardship at the hands of the White Huns or Hephtalites who invaded in the 5th century. Buddhism had a period of calm when the White Huns were defeated by the more tolerant Turks who allowed the religion to continue.
Buddhism eventually demised with the Arab Muslim invasion of the 7th century. The Muslims considered Buddhists idol worshipers and did all they could to destroy "heretical" temples and deface artwork. Even one of the most famous testaments to Buddhism in the middle east, the massive Buddha rock carvings at Bamiyan were vandalized, a task that was tragically completed when the Taliban blew up what remained of the statues in 2001 with explosives, tanks, and anti-aircraft weapons.
The colossal Buddhas were cut at immeasurable cost (probably in the third and fifth centuries A.D.) into the tall, sandstone cliffs surrounding Bamiyan, an oasis town in the centre of a long valley that separates the mountain chains of Hindu Kush and Koh-i-Baba. The taller of the two statues (about 53 meters or 175 feet) is thought to represent Vairocana, the "Light shining throughout the Universe Buddha" The shorter one (36 meters or 120 feet) probably represents Buddha Sakyamuni, although the local Hazara people believe it depicts a woman.
The two colossi must once have been a truly awesome sight, visible for miles, with copper masks for faces and copper-covered hands. Vairocana's robes were painted red and Sakyamuni's blue. These towering, transcendental images were key symbols in the rise of Mahayana Buddhist teachings, which emphasized the ability of everyone, not just monks, to achieve enlightenment. While the dates of the statues are somewhat equivocal, the aforementioned Buddhist monk Hsuan-Tsang, who travelled to India to bring back to China copies of the original sutras of the Buddha's teachings, bore witness to the statues in A.D. 630-31.
Iranian influence on Buddhism and Buddhist influence on Iran
According to Chinese historical sources, the first missionary Buddhist monks to travel to China were Parsi scholars, amongst them An Shi-Kao (the name is a Chinese version of the word Arsacid, meaning to come from Parthia, but as there is no written form of the letter R in Chinese, it was shortened to An in that language) a Parthian prince who had bestowed his crown to his uncle after the death of his father in search of mental contemplation. There are also several other mentions of Iranian people in Chinese sources; An Huvan was another prince from the Parthian tribe who has been praised for his good morals and motives. An Huvan also preached Buddhism in China and grew so famous in virtue that was appointed as a colonel of the cavalry by the Chinese emperor.
The most obvious example of Iran's influence on Buddhism is to be found in "Gandharan" the style of art that developed under the Kushans and is closely linked with the development of Mahayana Buddhism. Scholars agree that "It seems probable that both [development of art as well as development of Mahayana school of thought] arose from the contact between Greek, Iranian and Indian influences" (Emmerick 1983).
One of the main characteristics of Gandharan art is that we can see the first instance of the representation of the Buddha in human form, previously he was considered beyond the reach of artists. A main characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism is that it stresses the idea that the historical Buddha should be regarded as one of many Buddhas as opposed to the idea of an unattainable ideal. Also we begin to see the idea of the layman attaining Enlightenment emerging in Mahayana and this is reflected in the more frequent portrayal of laymen in religious Buddhist art.
The oldest dated monument attesting Mahayana Buddhism was found in Gandhara dating back to the late 1st century AD and is in a distinct Indian/Iranian Shahnameh style. Also the famous image of the "Persian Boddhisattva", a Khotanese painted panel from 8th century AD, stylistically resembles a Bodhisattva while showing a very strong influence of the Persian art of the period, the face even closely resembles that of the Persian hero from the Shahnameh, Rostam.
Iranian influence is also found in the figure of the Buddha Amitabha, the way he is so closely related to eternal light and endless life is very similar to the Iranian Time God, Zurvan. Scholars agree that this notion of Iranian influence is certainly possible especially during the formative phase of Central Asia when Iranian and Indian concepts came into close contact.
The process of cultural influence worked both ways and Buddhism has also left its mark on Iran. The town Bukhara derived its name from "Bahara" from the Sanskrit "Vahara" meaning temple or holy place but referring to a Buddhist place of worship specifically. Sogdians of the time pronounced the phonetic sound "H" as "Kh" therefore the town became known as Bukhara. There are also many villages with "Bahar" in their names that still exist to this day. Buddhism was at one point adopted as the state religion of the Sassanian court under King Piroz, although this may have been for more political reasons as the King was forced to flee from Persia by the conquering Arabs and adopting Buddhism was a way to gain favour with the Chinese whom he planned to ask for military assistance.
Although many ancient sources are fragmentary and it is at times hard to establish an accurate picture of the past, it is clear to see not only the influential role that Buddhism played in the development of Iranian civilization but also the importance that Iranians played in the development of Buddhism, an often-overlooked part of Buddhist history.
Dabbs, JA, History of the Discovery and Exploration of Chinese Turkestan, The Hague: Mouton and Co, 1963
Emmerick, RE, "Buddhism amongst Iranian peoples" in: Yarshater, Ed, Cambridge History of Iran, vol 3.2, Cambridge, CUP, 1983
Emmerick, RE, Book of Zambasta, London: Oxford University Press, 1968
Foltz, R, Religions of the Silk Road: Overland trade and Cultural exchange from Antiquity to Fifteenth Century, New York: St. Martins Press, 1999
Frye, RN, The Heritage of Central Asia from Antiquity to the Turkish Expansion, Princeton, Markus Weiner Publishers, 1996
Hinuber, Oskar v, "Expansion to the north: Afghanistan and Central Asia" in: The World of Buddhism, London: Thames and Hudson, 1984
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