Buddhism in Afghanistan: beginning of growth and decline
BUDDHISM, a religion of Indian origin, developed in the Indian subcontinent centuries after the death of Gautam Buddha, when he gained the protection and promotion of Mauryan King Ashoka in the 3rd century BC.
The third emperor of the kingdom first conquered modern Afghanistan and with it came Buddhism, a body of comprehensive daily teachings where the whole philosophy of life lies.
In Afghanistan, several inscriptions written in Greek and Aramaic date back to 260 BCE giving us the detailed status of Buddhism, especially in the area south of the Hindu Kush mountain, the main center of Buddhism and Hinduism in Afghanistan.
Besides Ashoka, many kings and kingdoms of Afghanistan also supported Buddhism and several monks of the religion were patronized by Menander 1 who was a king of the Greco-Bactrian king in his period from 165 to 130 BCE and more far back in the days of an Indo-2nd century Greek monk Mahadhamaraksita had worked hard to develop Buddhism there and led 30,000 Buddhist monks from the city of Yonas, a colony of Alexander the Great, located approx. 150 km north of present-day Kabul.
As we are aware that the territory of Afghanistan has undergone many cultural and religious changes 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 the Seleucid Empire, in 305 BC, which also established close relations with the Mauryan Empire of India.
Apart from the Mauryan Empire, Buddhism also flourished in Afghanistan under the rule of the Kushan dynasty.
At the time, most regions such as Sogdiana, the Scythians, which belonged to the kingdom of Bactria, followed Buddhism until the arrival of Islam.
Regarding the decline of Buddhism in Afghanistan, it started when the country was conquered by Arab Muslims who followed the rise of Islam in Afghanistan in the 7th century BC.
Additionally, it faced decline under the rule of the Muslim Ghaznavid era in the 10th and 12th centuries and came to an end in the 13th century under the rule of the Mongol conquests.
Themes of Buddhism: With the arrival of Buddhism in Kashmir, a new chapter has begun in its history.
All the credit for the spread of Buddhism in the valley must go to great kings like Asoka of the Gupta dynasty and Kanishka, the most famous king of Kushan.
It was after the terrible massacre of the Kalinga War that Asoka decided to give up the war in full victory.
He refrained from any further aggression and his mind turned, under the influence of the gospel of Buddha.
Undoubtedly, Asoka was a Buddhist and much of the Dhamma ideology he enunciated was inspired by Buddhism.
Asoka’s Dhamma aimed to create an attitude of mind among its subjects in which social behavior was of the utmost importance.
It emphasized tolerance, non-violence, respect for those in positions of authority, including Brahmins and Buddhist monks, consideration and benevolence towards inferiors, and general acceptance of ideals favorable to human dignity.
The ethical, social and practical idealism of Buddha and his religion which has influenced our people has left an indelible mark on them.
It was like the ethical ideals of Christianity and Islam which we may not pay much attention to, but their human, social and practical approach influenced many people who were not drawn to its forms and his religious beliefs.
Buddha’s teachings penetrated deep into people’s hearts. “Go into all countries,” the Buddha had told his disciples, “and preach this gospel.
Tell them that the poor and the humble, the rich and the rich are one, and that all castes are united in this religion like the river in the sea”. His message was that of universal benevolence, of love for all.
Lessons for the audience: Gautam Buddha was of the firm opinion that “Never in this world will hatred cease with hatred; hate ends with love. ‘ And ‘Let man overcome anger with kindness, evil with good.
According to him “one can defeat a thousand men in battle, but he who defeats himself is the greatest victor”.
It is not by his birth, by his conduct alone, that a man becomes a low caste or a Brahmin. A man’s position in society is not determined by his birth (Jati) but by his worth, conduct and character rather than by his descent.
Buddha preached without any religious sanction or any reference to God or another world. It is based on reason, logic, experience and asks people to search for the truth in their minds.
He himself said of the teachings: “You must not accept my law out of reverence, but first try it as gold is tried by fire. Ignorance of the truth was the cause of all miseries.
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 scholarly controversies on metaphysical issues.
He is reported to have said, “Truth was to be found in life itself and not in discussions of matters beyond the reach of life and therefore beyond the knowledge of the human intellect.” He had sown the seeds of revolt against the conventional religious practice of his time.
It was not his theory or his philosophy that was challenged. The old system was free and flexible in thought, allowing for any variety of opinions, but in practice it was rigid.
Buddhism today: Even today, a large number of countries largely follow the teachings of Gautam Buddha, although due to five decades of continuous violence and terrorist insurgency, there are virtually no signs of Buddhism left in the country.
It flourished in the country mainly before the conquests of Islam, but with their arrival it fell on bad days and eventually became a thing of the past.
In modern democratic life, most 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 founded states on religion and the mass of the people follow the state religion.
As a result, in this phase, the protection and promotion of any old religion became optional on the part of the regime.
— The author is Professor and Head of Department of Political Science, BN Mandal University, Madhepura, Bihar, India.