By: Mirza Ahmad Ebrahimi

Introduction 

Buddhism is one of the world’s largest religions and originated thousands of years ago in India, which is founded on the teachings of Gautama Buddha. Buddhists believe that the human life is one of suffering, and that meditation, spiritual and physical labor, and good behavior are the ways to achieve enlightenment, or nirvana.The goal of Buddhism is to overcome suffering caused by desire and ignorance of reality, true nature, including impermanence ( annica ) and non-existence of the self ( abatta ). At present Buddhism is practiced and followed in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, China, India, Nepal, Malaysia, Bhutan, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Tibetan, Mongolia and other parts of the world. 

Buddhism in Afghanistan

Historically, until the early 2nd millennium, Buddhism was widely practiced in Afghanistan and it also had a foothold to some extent in other places including the Philippines, the Maldives and Uzbekistan. 

Buddhism was one of the major religious influences in Afghanistan during the pre-Islamic era, arriving in the region in 305 BCE when the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire formed an alliance with the South Asian Maurya Empire.

Various schools of Buddhism were present in Afghanistan from the earliest times, along the kingdoms that lay on the trade route to Central Asia. The main kingdoms were Gandhara and Bactria. Gandhara included the areas on both the Pakistani Punjab and Afghani sides of the Khyber Pass and Hadda main city now it called Jalalabad center of Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan. Eventually, the Afghani half, from the Khyber Pass to the Kabul Valley, received the name Nagarahara; while the Punjabi side retained the name Gandhara. Bactria extended from the Kabul Valley northwards and included southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. To its north, in central Uzbekistan and northwestern Tajikistan lay Sogdia. The southern part of Bactria, just north of the Kabul Valley, was Kapisa; while the northern part later received the name Tokharistan.

According to early biographies of the Buddha, such as the Sarvastivada text The Sutra of Extensive Play, Tapas­su and Bhallika, two merchant broth­ers from Bac­tria, became the first disciples to receive layman’s vows. Bhallika later became a monk and built a monas­tery near his home city, Balkh, near present-day Mazar-e-Sharif which currently serves as the commercial hub for northern provinces of Afghanistan. 

Nava Vihara, the main monastery at Balkh, was the center of higher Buddhist study for all of Central Asia. Since it housed a tooth relic of the Buddha, it was also one of the main centers of pilgrimage along the Silk Route from China to India. On the other hand, Balkh had been the birthplace of Zoroaster in about 600 BCE. It was the holy city of Zoroastrianism, the Iranian religion that grew from his teachings and which emphasized the veneration of fire. Buddhism and Zoroastrianism peacefully coexisted in Balkh, where they influenced each other’s development. Cave monasteries from this period, for example, had wall paintings of Buddhas with auras of flames and in­scrip­tions calling them “Buddha-Mazda.” This was an amal­gam of Buddha and Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of Zoroastrianism. In Balkh district of Balkh province there is Noh Gonbad mosque it was built by Muslim on the remains of a Buddhist monastery.

Many Buddhism stupas and heritages can be seen or found in Afghanistan, one of such historical heritage is the Bamiyan stupas. This monumental pair of sixth century statues (standing 55 meters and 37 meters high) of Shakyamuni Buddha, carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan Valley, where now it called as Afghanistan National Park. The ancient landmarks like Buddha in Bamyan and many other stupas acrossAfghanistan serves as a reminder of a long history, a rich culture, and a land of religious diversity. 

The Buddhism Gloom in Afghanistan

Five years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, in 637, the Arabs defeated the Persian Sassanids and founded the Umayyad Caliphate in 661. It ruled over Iran and much of the Middle East. In 663, they attacked Bactria, which the Turki Shahis had taken from the Western Turks by this time. The Umayyad forces captured the area around Balkh, including Nava Vihara Monastery, causing the Turki Shahis to retreat to the Kabul Valley. It was at this period that some Buddhists in Bactria and even an abbot of Nava Vihara converted to Islam forcefully, while other Buddhists in the region accepted to remain as loyal non-Muslim protected subjects within an Islamic state. The religion began to decline in Afghanistan after Arabconquest following the rise of Islam in the 7th century. it saw further decline in the region during the Muslim Ghaznavid era of the 10th–12th centuries. Buddhism was eliminated in Afghanistan by the 13th century during the Mongol conquests, with no further mention of a Buddhist presence in the area past the 14th century.

While much of Afghanistan’s Buddhist history has been lost forever, numerous traces are still extant today. Undoubtedly the most well-known landmarks from this ancient heritage were the Buddha’s of Bamiyan, which were the world largest standing Buddha statue sometime between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE.  In August 2010, it was reported that approximately 42 Buddhist relics have been discovered in Mes Aynak of the Logar Province in 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.

The writer is a PhD Research scholar