Buddhism in Afghanistan: Early growth and decline | By Dr Rajkumar Singh


Buddhism in Afghanistan: Early growth and decline

BUDDHISM, a religion of Indian origin, expanded in the Indian subcontinent centuries after the death of Gautam Buddha, when it got the protection and promotion of Mauryan King Ashoka in the 3rd century BC.

The third emperor of the kingdom conquered first the modern day Afghanistan and with him came Buddhism, a package of full daily teaching where the whole philosophy of life rests.

In Afghanistan, there are several inscriptions, written in Greek and Aramaic dates back to 260 BCE gave us detail status of Buddhism, especially in the area located to the south of the Hindu Kush mountain, the main centre of both Buddhism and Hinduism in Afghanistan.

Apart from Ashoka, many kings and kingdoms of Afghanistan also supported Buddhism and several monks of the religion were patronised by Menander 1 who was a king of Greco-Bactrian king in his period ranging from 165-130 BCE and further at the time of an Indo-Greek in 2nd century monk Mahadhamaraksita had worked hard to expand Buddhism there and led 30,000 Buddhist monks from the city of Yonas, a colony of Alexander the Great, located approx. 150 km north from the present day Kabul.

As we are aware that the territory of Afghanistan has seen many cultures and religious shifts over the centuries, but in line, the most important was the conquest by Alexander the Great, who left a long and deep influence on Buddhist religious art in the region.

It followed the period of Seleucid Empire, in 305 BC, who also established close relations with the Mauryan Empire of India.

Apart from Mauryan Empire, Buddhism also flourished in Afghanistan during the reign of Kushan dynasty.

At the time, most of the areas like, Sogdiana, Scythians, which belonged to the kingdom of Bactria followed Buddhism until the arrival of Islam.

So far as the decline of Buddhism in Afghanistan is concerned, it began when the country was conquered by Arab Muslims which followed the rise of Islam in Afghanistan in the 7th century BC.

Further it faced decline in the reign of Muslim Ghaznavid era in 10th -12 th centuries and witnessed an end in 13th century during the reign of Mongol conquests.

Themes of Buddhism: With the coming of Buddhism in Kashmir, a new chapter began in its history.

The whole credit for spread of Buddhism in the valley must go to the great kings like Asoka of Gupta dynasty and Kanishka, the most famous king of Kushan.

It was after the terrible slaughter in the war of Kalinga that Asoka decided to abandon warfare in the full tide of victory.

He refrained from any further aggression, and his mind turned, under the influence of Buddha’s gospel.

Undoubtedly Asoka was a Buddhist and much of the ideology of Dhamma which he enunciated was inspired by Buddhism.

Asoka’s Dhamma aimed at creating an attitude of mind among his subjects in which social behaviour had the highest relevance.

It stressed toleration, non-violence, respect for those in positions of authority, including both the Brahmans and the Buddhist monks, consideration and kindness towards inferiors and the general acceptance of ideals conducive to human dignity.

The ethical, social and practical idealism of Buddha and his religion that influenced our people had left their imperishable marks upon them.

It was like the ethical ideals of Christianity and Islam to which we may not pay much attention, but their human, social and practical approach influenced many people who were not attracted by its religious forms and beliefs.

The teachings of Buddha went deep down into the hearts of the people. ‘Go unto all lands’, had said the Buddha to his disciples, ‘and preach this gospel.

Tell them that the poor and the lowly, the rich and the high, are all one, and that all castes unite in this religion as do the river in the sea’. His message was one of universal benevolence, of love for all.

Teachings for public: Gautam Buddha was firmly of the view that ‘Never in this world does hatred cease by hatred; hatred ceases by love.  ’ And ‘Let a man overcome anger by kindness, evil by good.

According to him ‘one may overcome a thousand men in battle, but he who conquers himself is the greatest victor’.

Not by birth by his conduct alone, does a man become a low caste or a Brahmin. A man’s position in society is determined not by birth (Jati) but by worth, by conduct and by character rather than by descent.

Buddha preached without any religious sanction or any reference to God or another world. He relies on reason, logic, experience and asks the people to seek truth in their minds.

He himself said about the teachings,’ One must not accept my law from reverence, but first try it as gold is tried by fire. ’ Ignorance of truth was the causes of all misery.

Whether there is a God or an Absolute or not, he does not say. He neither affirms nor denies.

He had repeatedly warned his people against learned controversy over metaphysical problems.

He is reported to have said, ‘Truth was to be found in life itself and not in argument about matters outside the scope of life and therefore beyond the ken of human intellect. He had sown the seeds of revolt against the conventional practice of the religion of his day.

It was not his theory or philosophy that was objected to. The old system was free and flexible in thought, allowing for every variety of opinion, but in practice it was rigid.

Buddhism today: Even today, there are a large number of countries which largely follow the teachings of Gautam Buddha, although due to five decades continued violence and terror insurgency there remains hardly any sign of Buddhism in the country.

It flourished in the country mainly before the conquests of Islam but with their arrival it witnessed bad days and ultimately became a thing of the past.

In modern democratic life most of the nations have adopted secularism which means that the state has no religion of its own, and in its eyes, all religions are equal, there are very few states which are religion-based and there mass of the people follow the state religion.

As a result, in this phase protection and promotion of any old religion has become optional on the part of regime.

— The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, B N Mandal University, Madhepura, Bihar, India.


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