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Andrew Skilton


OUR KNOWLEDGE OF THE SPREAD OF BUDDHISM into Persia is still at a primarily speculative stage. This said, a summary of current views is relevant to any account of the history of Buddhism. There has been little archaeological investigation of potential Buddhist sites in modern Iran, and none at all, to my knowledge, further west into the Caucasus. The documentation of literary evidence for the influence of Buddhist literature on Persian and Arabic culture began in the 19th century. The assessment of the evidence for the influence of Buddhist monuments, and for a knowledge of Buddhism in practice, has begun only in the last few decades. 

In the last century it was pointed out that the Buddhist Jataka stories, via a Hindu recension under the title of the Pancatantra, were translated into Persian in the 6th century at the command of the Zoroastrian king Khusru, and in the 8th century into Syriac and Arabic, under the title Kalilag and Damnag. The Persian translation was later translated into Greek, Latin, and Hebrew and was to form the basis of the collections of stories known as Aesop’s Fables (complied in the 14th century by a Byzantine monk), the stories of Sinbad, and the Arabian Nights. In the 8th century a life of the Buddha was translated into Greek by St John of Damascus and circulated widely in Christian circles as the story of Balaam and Josaphat. So popular was this story in medieval Europe that we arrive at the irony of the figure of Josaphat, this name a corruption of ‘bodhisattva’, being canonized, by the 14th century, and worshipped as a saint in the Catholic church. Rashid al-Din, a 13th century historian, records some eleven Buddhist texts circulating in Persia in Arabic translations, amongst which the Sukhavati-vyuha and Karanda-vyuha Sutras are recognizable. More recently portions of the Samyutta and Anguttara-Nikayas, along with (parts of) the Maitreya-vyakarana, have been identified in this collection.

Whilst the Persian and Arab cultures of the area clearly appreciated the edifying stories of the Jataka book, no Arabic, Persian, or other Middle Eastern translation of more scholastic literature is known to have survived. Accounts of Buddhism that we do have in Persian literature occur in the works of historians and geographers, and bear a distinctly anthropological cast. Relying upon anecdote, as such an approach was bound to do, these writers knew of al Budd (the Buddha) as an Indian idol, al Budasf (the Bodhisattva), and of the sumaniyyas (sramanas), one of two Indian sects (the other being the Hindus), but did not draw them together into a coherent account of Buddhism proper. Persian literature, especially that from eastern Persia, draws both imagery and locale from Buddhist sites such as Merv and Balkh, although the interest in these derived considerably from their mysterious and even romantic desolation. Knowledge of Buddhist ritual connected with the stupa at Balkh is shown by the 10th century Persian historian, Ibn al-Faqih, and Yaqut, a Syrian historian of the 13th century. That Persian knowledge of Buddhism should be so slight and even then restricted to that from Central Asia and Afghanistan is partly explicable in the light of the demise of Buddhism in India, a demise for which militant Islamic conquest was itself largely responsible. Buddhist influence upon Islam itself has been mooted through the mystical Sufi movements, at least one early leader of which, Ibrahim ibn Adham (8th century), came from Balkh.

So much then for the Persian awareness of Buddhism. As for Buddhists themselves, any movement into Persia appears to have taken place during two periods, the former possibly beginning in the 3rd century BCE and lasting at least until countered by the eastward movement of Islam from the 7th century onwards; the latter, the result of the Mongol conquest of Iran in the early 13th century.

The first of these movements undoubtedly involved two mechanisms. Missionary activity in the area probably began in the reign of Asoka. Legend records missions sent to Bactria and Gandhara, both in modern Afghanistan, and there is no doubt that the flourishing Buddhism of the area split over into Khurasan (in the north-east of modern Iran). Buddhism also became established in Sindh and this would have served as a second point of geographical contact with the Sassanian and later Muslim dynasties. 

The second mechanism involved in this movement was trade. From the earliest times Buddhism made great headway with the mercantile community in India (witness the great cave monasteries lining the trading routes of western India), and this very likely involved contact with traders from other countries. Branches of the ancient silk route passed through Bactria and Gandhara en route to the Mediterranean Sea, and would have carried Buddhist traders far westwards (as they also did eastwards). It is also known that as early as the 2nd century BCE Indian traders, from western and southern India, and doubtless Sind too, were regularly visiting ports in the Gulfand Arabia, and these contacts probably explain the frequency of names in the region which contain elements such as but, and also hind (Indian), and bahar (from the Sanskrit vihara ie a Buddhist monastery). It certainly explains the conversion of the Maldive Islands to Buddhism in the 6th century.

Although Zoroastrianism was the dominant religious force in the area, Buddhism did make headway there, as demonstrated by the coins of Peroz, son of Ardashir (226-41CE), which present him as honouring the Zoroastrian and Buddhist faiths. However there is also evidence that Buddhism met with resistance, for in the 3rd century a Zoroastrian high-priest, Kartir, recorded in inscriptions that Buddhists (and others) in the Sassanian kingdom (ie the pre-Muslim Persian dynasty) were being suppressed. Al-Biruni, writing in the 11th century, claims that prior to this suppression, Khurasan, Persis, Irak, Mosul, and the country up to the frontier of Syria were Buddhist, and that the resultant retreat of Buddhist eastwards explains their concentration in the area of Balkh.

Concrete evidence for the presence of Buddhism in Persia is slim. Rock-cut cave complexes at Chehelkhaneh and Haidari on the Gulf have been tentatively identified as Buddhist monasteries, built in the same style that is ubiquitous in both India and Central Asia to serve the local trading community. Unfortunately no explicit evidence survives to substantiate this identification. Persian tradition describes a powerful dynastic family of the 8th and 9th centuries, originating in Balkh, and with the name Barmak. Arab authors recognized this as the hereditary title of the ‘high priest’ of a temple in that city known as the Nawbahar. In fact barmak is derived from the Sanskrit term pramukha, literally ‘chief’, the term for the head of a Buddhist monastery. This interpretation is confirmed by the name Naebahar itself, which is a corruption of the Sanskrit for nava-vihara, ‘new monastery’. The diffusion of the name Nawbahar to sites in Persia, the greatest concentration in north-eastern Iran, and spreading both west and south from there, had led to speculation that the nava-vihara of Balkh (a known site, mentioned independently by Chinese pilgrims) had been the centre of a western-oriented Buddhist sect, overseen by the Barmakid family and acting as their powerbase, albeit shrinking, in negotiations with the ruling Abbasid dynasty based in Baghdad. It seems likely that the Persian Nawbahar system had been effectively suppressed by the time of the Islamic conquest of the area, such that specifically Buddhist associations with these sites were not known to them. Even so, the theory has also been advanced that the Nawbahar monasteries of Persia served as the model for the Islamic madrasa, on the grounds that they retained their function as centres of learning after their specifically Buddhist function was removed or suppressed. (This theory is circumstantially supported by the reputation of such monasteries as Nalanda in India as centres of both secular and religious learning.) The Buddhists of Sindh, which was sporadically ruled by Buddhist kings until the 7th century, appear to have been able to negotiate a stable and friendly modus vivendi with their Muslim conquerors, and again this may have been through some connection with the nava-vihara in Balkh - there being sites of the same name there. We should not assume that Buddhism disappeared from Persia as a result of religious persecution, for there is evidence that Muslim rulers showed tolerance towards other religious groups.

The second wave of movement westwards was powered by the Mongol conquests of the early 13th century which led to the establishment of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty in Persia from 1256 onwards. The Mongol Khans were Buddhist, of a Tantric character, and patronized Buddhism in their kingdom for the remainder of the century, until Ghazan Khan was converted to Islam in 1295. This brief period of patronage witnessed an enthusiastic programme of temple building, in Maragheh the capital in north-eastern Persia, and elsewhere, but was curtailed by Ghazan’s order that all Buddhist temples be destroyed or converted to use as mosques. Possible physical evidence for this are two further sets of rock-cut caves, at Rasatkhaneh and Varjuvi, both sites near the old Mongol capital of Maragheh. Both conform to the well-known pattern of Buddhist caves complexes, but have been frescoes removed and have been converted for use as mosques. Later attempts by Buddhists to convert Uldjaitu Khan (1305-16) to Buddhism are witness to the survival of Buddhism in Persia after this date, although it appears to have disappeared by the mid-14th century. The presence to this day of stupa-type buildings ornamented with flags in Dhagestan in the Caucasus may also reflect Mongol influence of this period. 

Source: Andrew Skilton (1994), A Concise History of Buddhism, British Library, England.


Computer typing : Lydia Quang Nhu
Update : 01-12-2001

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