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Buddhism was one of the major religions in Afghanistan during pre-Islamic era. The religion was widespread south of the Hindu Kush mountains. Buddhism first arrived in Afghanistan in 305 BCE when the Seleucid Empire made an alliance with the Indian Maurya Empire. The religion started fading with the arrival of Islam in the 7th century but finally ended during the Ghaznavids in the 11th century.
The territory within the borders of Afghanistan has seen many cultural and religious shifts over the centuries. The geographical position of the area between the Middle East, South Asian, and Central Asian cultures, and the proximity to the famous Silk Road (connecting East Asian and Mediterranean civilizations, and others in between), have been major drivers of local historical and cultural developments. One major influence was the conquest of the area by Alexander the Great, which incorporated the area for a time into the Hellenistic World, and resulted in a strong Hellenistic influence on Buddhist religious art. In 305 BCE, the Seleucid Empire made an alliance with the Indian Maurya Empire. The Mauryans brought Buddhism from India and controlled the area south of the Hindu Kush until about 185 BCE when they were overthrown.
Alexander took these away from the Aryans and established settlements of his own, but Seleucus Nicator gave them to Sandrocottus (Chandragupta), upon terms of intermarriage and of receiving in exchange 500 elephants.—Strabo, 64 BC – 24 AD
At the time of these developments, most of the area belonged to the kingdoms of Bactria and Sogdiana. Many of the Iranian forebearers of the Pashtuns, including the Scythians, followed Buddhism until the arrival of Islam.
Many monuments testify to the Buddhist culture in present-day Afghanistan. Greek cultural and artistic influence in the region can be researched under Buddhist art and Greco-Buddhism. Additional historical detail can be researched under Pre Islamic Hindu and Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan and Hinduism in Afghanistan.
The Buddhist religion survived the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan by the Umayyads and rule by the Abbasid Caliphate. Buddhism in Afghanistan was extinguished by the Saffarids, Ghaznavids, and Ghurids.
One of the early Buddhist schools, the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravāda, were known to be prominent in the area of Bamiyan. The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang visited a Lokottaravāda monastery in the 7th century CE, at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and this monastery site has since been rediscovered by archaeologists. Birchbark and palm leaf manuscripts of texts in this monastery's collection, including Mahāyāna sūtras, have been discovered at the site, and these are now located in the Schøyen Collection. Some manuscripts are in the Gāndhārī language and Kharoṣṭhī script, while others are in Sanskrit and written in forms of the Gupta script. Manuscripts and fragments that have survived from this monastery's collection include the following source texts:
In August 2010, it was reported that approximately 42 Buddhist relics have been discovered in the Logar Province of Afghanistan, which is south of Kabul. Some of these items date back to the 2nd century according to Archaeologists. Some Buddhist sites were found in Ghazni. The items in Logar include two Buddhist temples (Stupas), Buddha statues, frescos, silver and gold coins and precious beads.
There is a temple, stupas, beautiful rooms, big and small statues, two with the length of seven and nine meters, colorful frescos ornamented with gold and some coins... Some of the relics date back to the fifth century (AD)... We have come across signs that there are items maybe going back to the era before Christ or prehistory... We need foreign assistance to preserve these and their expertise to help us with further excavations.—Mohammad Nader Rasouli, Afghan Archaeological Department
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