The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iranians' Role in Expansion of Buddhism
By: Dr. Ali Asghar Mostafavi
Abstract: In the six century BCE, the Buddism was established in India simultaneously with the formation of the Achaemenid Dynasty in Iran. According to Chinese textbooks Buddhism was spread by Parsi monks including An Shi Kao, An Huvan, Te Al and Fagin. Buddhism was influenced by mysticism and Manichaeism in Iran and before conversion to Islam the Barmakians who were one of the biggest family of scholars and statesmen in Iran followed that religion.
the six century BCE and simultaneously with the formation of the
Achaemenid Dynasty in Iran many Indians abandoned their homes and wandered
as monks into deserts and jungles. Their purpose from such wandering life
was to lead a religious life in order to get rid of all the pains that
mortals are doomed to suffer. One of these monks was Gautama or Buddha
whose real name was Sidarta.
a book written by Alexander Polyhistor 80 or 60 years before the birth of
Christ he speaks about Buddhism, its relation with Iran and specially
Balkh and gives detailed account about Shamans in Balkh (1).
the same manner that the Iranian scholars contributed greatly to the
propagation of Islam after its birth, many centuries before Islam they
propagated Buddhism in the eastern part of the Persian empire and wrote
many books about it.
we can gather from Chinese textbooks proves that the propagation of
Buddhism in that country 67 years before the birth of Christ was due to
the exertions of Parsi missionaries and monks. One can even see the name
of a Parthian prince called An Shi Kao among these missionaries who is
said to have been a learned prince and skilled in many branches of science
and industry. This Parthian prince was very keen to learn the language and
religious books of other nations and after the death of his father,
depressed with the life of mortals in a passing world, bestowed the crown
to his uncle and sought seclusion and mental contemplation. He then
studied the Buddhism doctrines and the mortifications of the monks'
ascetic life. In 148 A.D. he arrived in Luing, the capital of China, and
preached the Buddhism religion until 170 A.D. During this time he wrote a
book on Buddhism principles and translated the sacred Buddhism books into
Chinese language (2).
Fagin, another famous Iranian Buddhist monk, wrote several books in
Chinese language but his books have been lost.
was another Iranian missionary who preached Buddhism and wrote several
books in Chinese of which two books have survived.
the eastern Iranian empire Buddhism greatly influenced mysticism and
recent excavations in present Afghanistan have revealed that influence to
the world, but it does not prove whether Buddhism influenced the official
Mazdian religion in the central, western or southern Iran. Even if it did,
there is no evidence available to that effect today. But as we can clearly
see below, Buddhism greatly influenced mystical sects in east of Iran
after the birth of Islam. In the same way the influence of Bhuddism is
visible in Manichaeism which was considered as one of the official
religions of the Sassanid empire for a number of years.
we do not know how many Iranians were converted into Buddha worshippers by
the missionaries of Ashuka, an Indian king, who was a Buddhist. But
history says that during the reign of Kanishka, the Indian king of Kushan
Dynasty, Buddhism reached its peak and many Buddha temples were built
throughout the eastern Iranian borders some of which survived until
second, third, and fourth century A.H. It is well known that the giant
Buddha statue in Bamian, Afghanistan, which is gravely threatened by
fanatic Taliban militia (they destroyed the biggest Buddha statute in the
country) was built during the time of Kanishka (3).
which gradually stopped its spread in parts of Transoxiana during the end
of the Sassanid Dynasty, for a long time preserved its strongholds in
Bukhara, Balkh, Qandehar and Kabul. According to Hodud-ul Alam written in
372 A.H. Kabul possessed an idol temple that Raj Ghanouj visited as a
pilgrim from India. Raj Ghanouj used to receive the scepter of his
kingship from the monks of that temple (4). Also during the time of
Noshakhi, the chronicler of the History of Bukhara (who died in the year
348 A.H.), Bukhara possessed a market which was known as the idol
worshipers district, where idols were sold to customers (5).
enraged the Muslims who put the town on fire which burnt for three days
and razed it to the ground because until that time Buddhism was the
official religion of the citizens of Bukhara. According to Noshakhi many
of the idol temples in Bukhara and Bikand and other cities were plundered
and burnt by Hojjaj's army (6).
gradual advance of Islam in Transoxiana limited the operation of Buddha
missionaries and preachers and put a halt to the spread of that religion
but the impact of Buddhism principles has survived among the mystic sects
and part of Islamic scholars (7).
to Balkh, the writer of Turkestan Nameh says: "Balkh was the most
ancient city in the Amu Darya region. Muslim writers have rightly called
Balkh the mother of cities. Balkh had been the capital of
semi-mythological Bacteria which was later converted into a western Satrap
(Bacterian Satrap) of the Achaemenid Dynasty and during the time of Darius
Marviania (or Marv district) was part of that territory."
to Islamic historiographers Balkh was the residence of one of the four
governors of Khorassan during the Sassanid Dynasty (8).
Shoara Bahar (9) writes: "Undoubtedly during the fifth century A.D. and
a little after that a great part of Iranian eastern territories were
converted into Buddhism. It is therefore not strange for some Buddhist
scholars to have said that the religion of Buddha had stretched to Aloub
islands, Mecca and Yemen and part of Saebeh and Haranians and Hanfa were
followers of that faith. These Buddha worshipers existed until the end of
the Sassanid period and early centuries of the Islamic period. Buddhist
priests had strong influence in Khorassan and after them the Manichians
and later on the Zoroastrians held the majority. The coins surviving from
the Sassanid kings of Khorassani descent show that during that time Mani,
Buddha and Zoroaster were worshipped in Khorassan province but the
Buddhists held the majority."
or Buddha idol temples which were called Now Bahar in Balkh, and Beit-ul
Sanam in Bamian, existed after the emergence of Islam and a long time
after that. Each year Buddhist pilgrims from China and Khotan used to
visit the sacred Buddha temples in Khorassan and right now the dungeons in
Bamian, Afghanistan, point to that period of the history.
the kings of Zabolestan and Sind who have been erroneously called Zanbils
or Zantbils in ancient Persian manuscripts (the last of whom was slain
during the third century A.H. by Yaqoub, the Safari ruler), were Iranian
Buddha worshipers and the remnants of Indo-Sakki dynasty which stretched
from Sistan to Punjab. They were Sakkis of Aryan origin who have presently
abandoned their former religion, are living in India and are known as
Sekkeh or Sikhs. These were Buddhist immigrants who migrated from Sistan
to India and after settling in Punjab they called themselves Singe, Segeh,
Sek or Sikh.
residents of Kafarestan state, located southeast of Takharestan state in
present Afghanistan, were Buddha worshipers until the fourteenth century
A.H. and were eventually converted into Islam by Amir Abdol rahman Khan
(1844-1901) and their state was named Noorestan or the realm of light
were one of the biggest and oldest tribes of Iranian scholars and rulers
among whom several dignitaries served as ministers for the Abbassid
caliphs. The Barmakian tribe which dwelt in Khorassan were followers of
Buddha before the birth of Islam. Because of being the guardians of the
well known Now Bahar Temple in Balkh, the Barmakians had accumulated
enormous wealth from donations made to the temple and were envied by the
caliphs in Baghdad. Their wealth and strength and reputation instigated
the caliph in Baghdad to find a pretext to destroy them and confiscate
their property. At last they found a pretext to attack them by alleging
that Jafar, the Barmakian king had unlawful relationship with the sister
of the Abbassid caliph, and under such provocation they massacred the
Barmakian tribe and seized their properties.
term Baramakeh or Barmaki in this tribe is derived from Parmookhia in
Sanskrit language which means a head (which is the customary title of the
custodians of the Now Bahar Temple in Balkh).
Khorassan was taken the grand custodian of the Now Bahar Temple was Barmak,
the father of Barmak and grand father of Khalid.
to Masoodi Now Bahar, the giant temple in Balkh was called Mah Bonyad
during Manouchehr Shah (11). At that time the custodian of the temple was
greatly respected by the kings and all the citizens obeyed his orders and
presented much property and money to that idol temple. As we said the
custodians of the temple were called Baramakeh and Khalid Barmak was the
last custodian of the temple. This was a very lofty building and adorned
by spears on which green silk was hung.
"The religious custodian of the Now Bahar Temple was called a Barmak and the Barmakians descended from these priests and inherited the title from generation to generation. Now Bahar Temple was constructed to compete with the Kaaba in Mecca. Its walls were adorned by precious jewels and covered by gold embroidered curtains. On many occasions and specially during spring the temple was adorned with beautiful flowers. For that reason the temple was called Now Bahar. It was in that season that pilgrims flocked to the temple from all over Iran. The temple was capped with a dome called Asten that was 100 gaz (nearly 93 meters) high and was adorned by flags. Many pilgrims from Kabul and Indo-China visited the temple, worshiped the idol and kissed the hands of the Barmak or the grand custodian of the temple." (14)
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