Buddhism in Afghanistan

Buddhism in Afghanistan was one of the major religious forces in the region during pre-Islamic era. The religion was widespread south of the Hindu Kush mountains. Buddhism first arrived in Afghanistan in 305 BC when the Greek Seleucid Empire made an alliance with the Indian Maurya Empire. The resulting Greco-Buddhism flourished under the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250 BC-125 BC) and the later Indo-Greek Kingdom (180 BC - 10 AD) in modern northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Greco-Buddhism reached its height under the Kushan Empire, which used the Greek alphabet to write its Bactrian language.

Lokaksema (c. 178 AD), who travelled to the Chinese capital of Luoyang and was the first translator of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese,[1] and Mahadharmaraksita who, according to the Mahavamsa (Chap. XXIX[2]), led 30,000 Buddhist monks from "the Greek city of Alasandra" (Alexandria of the Caucasus, around 150 km north of today's Kabul in Afghanistan), to Sri Lanka for the dedication of the Great Stupa in Anuradhapura. The Greco-Bactrian King Menander I, (Pali) "Milinda," ruled 165 BC - 135 BC, was a renowned patron of Buddhism immortalized in the Buddhist text the Milinda Panha.

The famous Persian Buddhist monastery in Balkh in northern Afghanistan, known as Nava Vihara ("New Monastery"), functioned as the center of Central Asia Buddhist learning for centuries.

The Buddhist religion in Afghanistan started fading with the arrival of Islam in the 7th century but finally ended during the Ghaznavids in the 11th century.[3]

Ancient buddhist cave, Jalalabad, Afghanistan
Ancient Buddhist cave in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.


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 that region. In 305 BC, 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 BC 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.[4]

— Strabo, 64 BC – 24 AD
Mes Aynak stupa
Mes Aynak stupa

At the time of these developments, most of the area belonged to the kingdoms of Bactria and Sogdiana, 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.

Soon after the Sassanian Persian dynasty fell to the Muslims (in 651 AD), the Nava Vihara monastery in Balkh came under Muslim rule (in 663 AD), but the monastery continued to function for at least another century. In 715 AD, after an insurrection in Balkh was crushed by the Abbasid Caliphate, many Persian Buddhist monks fled east along the Silk Road to the Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan, which spoke a related Eastern Iranian language, and onward into China. Nava Vihara's hereditary administrators, the Persian Barmakids, converted from Buddhism to Islam after the monastery's conquest and became powerful viziers under the Abbassid caliphs of Baghdad. The last of the family's line of viziers, Ja'far ibn Yahya, is a protagonist in many tales from the Arabian Nights. In folktales and popular culture Ja'far has been associated with a knowledge of mysticism, sorcery, and traditions lying outside the realm of Islam.

The Buddhist religion survived the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan by the Umayyads and rule by the Abbasid Caliphate. Buddhism in Afghanistan was effectively removed by the Saffarids, Ghaznavids, and Ghurids.[5][6]

Archaeological finds

Manuscript fragment of the Buddhist Jatakamala, Sanskrit language in the Gilgit-Bamiyan-Typ II Protosarada script, Toyuk, probably 8th-9th century - Ethnological Museum, Berlin - DSC01754
Manuscript fragment of the Buddhist Jatakamala, Sanskrit, language in the Gilgit-Bamiyan-Type II Protosarada script, Toyuk, probably 8th-9th century - Ethnological Museum, Berlin.

Bamiyan monastery library

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.[7] 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:[7]

Buddhist relics

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.[8] The items in Logar include two Buddhist temples (Stupas), Buddha statues, frescos, silver and gold coins and precious beads.[9][10][11]

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.[12]

— Mohammad Nader Rasouli, Afghan Archaeological Department

Jain Relics

Two rare Jain bronze relics have been found in Afghanistan.[13] The 3rd/4th century c.e. Jain text Vasudevahindi mentions Jain merchants travelling overseas to Java, China and central asia. Two additional Jain images have been reported in Afghanistan, a marble Padmasan image, and an image in the private collection of the king.[14]

Buddhist sites


Cave system, stupa and monastery at Samangan

Cave system, stupa and monastery at Samangan, Takht-i-rustam


The Bodhisattva and Chandeka, Hadda, 5th century CE


Wardak Vase in British Museum


Bamiyan Grotto paintings

Afghanistan, stupa TK23, sito di hadda, monastero di tapa-kalan, IV-V sec

Afghanistan, stupa TK23, hadda site, tapa-kalan monastery, 4th-5th cent

Afghanistan, capitello di stupa, dal sito di hadda, monastero di chakhil-i-ghoundi, II-III sec

Afghanistan, capital of stupas, from the site of hadda, chakhil-i-ghoundi monastery, II-III century

Afghanistan, scala per piattaf. di stupa, dal sito di hadda, monastero di chakhil-i-ghoundi, II-III sec

Afghanistan, stairway of stupas, from the site of hadda, chakhil-i-ghoundi monastery, II-III cent

Stupa No. 4 after excavation, Ali Masjid

Court with stupa, after excavation, Ali Masjid

CH-NB - Afghanistan, Shewaki (Chakari, Chakri)- Landschaft - Annemarie Schwarzenbach - SLA-Schwarzenbach-A-5-21-001

Shewaki stupa

General view of Stupa No. 6, with Buddha images in niches, Ali Masjid

General view of Stupa No. 6, with Buddha images


Reconstitution of the Buddhist monastery of Ahin Posh Tepe, Afghanistan

Figure (AM 7493-3)

Grey schist figure of Buddha, Auckland Museum

Afghanistan, buddha assiso in maharajalilasa, II sec.

Afghanistan Buddhist art

Begram Decorative plaque from a chair or throne, ivory, room 13, c.100 BCE

Begram Decorative plaque from a chair or throne, ivory, room 13, c.100 BCE

See also


  1. ^ Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, p. 46
  2. ^ Full text of the Mahavamsa Click chapter XXIX
  3. ^ Berzin, Alexander (December 2006). "History of Buddhism in Afghanistan". Retrieved June 5, 2016.
  4. ^ Nancy Hatch Dupree / Aḥmad ʻAlī Kuhzād (1972). "An Historical Guide to Kabul – The Name". American International School of Kabul. Archived from the original on August 30, 2010. Retrieved September 18, 2010.
  5. ^ Amy Romano (2003). A Historical Atlas of Afghanistan (illustrated ed.). The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 25. ISBN 0-8239-3863-8. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
  6. ^ Steven Otfinoski (2004). Afghanistan (illustrated ed.). Infobase Publishing. p. 6. ISBN 0-8160-5056-2. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
  7. ^ a b "Schøyen Collection: Buddhism". Retrieved 23 June 2012.
  8. ^ Embassy of the United States, Kabul. Ghazni 10.26.2011
  9. ^ Embassy of the United States, Kabul. Mes Aynak 10.29.2011
  10. ^ "42 Buddhist relics discovered in Logar". Maqsood Azizi. Pajhwok Afghan News. Aug 18, 2010. Archived from the original on 2010-03-17. Retrieved 2010-08-23.
  11. ^ "Afghan archaeologists find Buddhist site as war rages". Sayed Salahuddin. News Daily. Aug 17, 2010. Archived from the original on 2010-08-18. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
  12. ^ "Buddhist remains found in Afghanistan". Press TV. Aug 17, 2010. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
  13. ^ [Evidence of Jainism in Afghanistan and Kashmir in Ancient Times, Pratapaditya Pal, Bulletin of the Asia Institute, New Series, Vol. 21 (2007), pp. 25-33]
  14. ^ [Archaeological Remains of Jainism in West Pakistan & Afghanistan, Klaus Fischer, The Voice of Ahinsa. Lord Mahavira Special Number" (Vol. VI, No. 3-4, March-April 1956, pp. 84f., continued at p. 81]

External links


Bactria (), or Bactriana, was a historical Iranian region in Central Asia. Bactria proper was north of the Hindu Kush mountain range and south of the Amu Darya river, covering the flat region that straddles modern-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. More broadly Bactria was the area north of the Hindu Kush, west of the Pamirs and south of the Tian Shan with the Amu Darya flowing west through the center.


Bamyan (; Dari: بامیان‎) also spelled Bamiyan or Bamian is the capital of Bamyan Province in central Afghanistan. With an altitude of about 2,550 m and a population of about 100,000, Bamyan is the largest town in the central Afghanistan region of Hazarajat, and lies approximately 240 kilometres north-west of Kabul, the national capital. Many statues of Buddha are carved into the sides of cliffs facing Bamyan city. In 2008, Bamyan was found to be the home of the world's oldest oil paintings.

The city of Bamyan has a population of 100,000 (in 2014). It has four districts and a total land area of 3,539 hectares. The total number of dwellings in this city are 4,435.The Bamiyan valley marked the most westerly point of Buddhist expansion and was a crucial hub of trade for much of the second millennium CE. It was a place where East met West and its archaeology reveals a blend of Greek, Turkic, Persian, Chinese and Indian influence. The valley is one of Afghanistan's most touristic places.Bamyan City joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a Crafts and Folk Art city in 2017.


The Barmakids (Persian: برمکیان‎ Barmakīyān; Arabic: البرامكة‎ al-Barāmikah, from the Sanskrit प्रमुख pramukha, "leader, chief administrator, registrar"); also spelled Barmecides, were an Iranian influential family from Balkh where they were originally hereditary Buddhist leaders (in the Nawbahar monastery), and subsequently came to great political power under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. Khalid, the son of Barmak became the prime minister (wazir) of Al Saffah, the first Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. His son Yahya aided Harun Al-Rashid in capturing the throne and rose to power as the most powerful man in the Caliphate. The Barmakids were remarkable for their majesty, splendor and hospitality. They are mentioned in some stories of the Arabian Nights.

Bimaran casket

The Bimaran casket or Bimaran reliquary is a small gold reliquary for Buddhist relics that was found inside the stupa no.2 at Bimaran, near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

Gandhari language

Gāndhārī is the modern name, coined by scholar Harold Walter Bailey (in 1946), for a Prakrit language found mainly in texts dated between the 3rd century BCE and 4th century CE in the northwestern region of Gandhāra. The language was heavily used by the former Buddhist cultures of Central Asia and has been found as far away as eastern China, in inscriptions at Luoyang and Anyang. Gāndhārī Prakrit appears to be descended from, or heavily influenced by, Vedic Sanskrit or a closely related language, although there is an ongoing debate about the question of whether some Prakrits were originally non-prestige contemporaries and/or antecedents of Sanskrit.

It appears on coins, inscriptions and texts, notably the Gandhāran Buddhist texts. It is notable among the Prakrits for having some archaic phonology (some being characteristic of the Dardic languages of the modern region), for its relative isolation and independence, for being partially within the influence of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean and for its use of the Kharoṣṭhī script, a unique sister to the Brahmic scripts used by other Prakrits.

Gandhāran Buddhist texts

The Gandhāran Buddhist texts are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts yet discovered, dating from about the 1st century BCE to 3rd century CE, and are also the oldest Indian manuscripts. They represent the literature of Gandharan Buddhism from present-day northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, and are written in Gāndhārī.

They were sold to European and Japanese institutions and individuals, and are currently being recovered and studied by several universities. The Gandhāran texts are in a considerably deteriorated form (their survival alone is extraordinary), but educated guesses about reconstruction have been possible in several cases using both modern preservation techniques and more traditional textual scholarship, comparing previously known Pāli and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit versions of texts. Other Gandhāran Buddhist texts—"several and perhaps many"—have been found over the last two centuries but lost or destroyed.The texts are attributed to the Dharmaguptaka sect by Richard Salomon, the leading scholar in the field, and the British Library scrolls "represent a random but reasonably representative fraction of what was probably a much larger set of texts preserved in the library of a monastery of the Dharmaguptaka sect in Nagarāhāra."

Ghor Province

Ghōr (Dari/Pashto: غور), also spelled Ghowr or Ghur, is one of the thirty-four provinces of Afghanistan. It is located in Hazarajat region in central Afghanistan, towards the north-west. The province contains ten districts, encompassing hundreds of villages, and approximately 657,200 settled people. Firuzkoh, (called Chaghcharan until 2014) serves as the capital of the province.

Hadda, Afghanistan

Haḍḍa (Pashto: هډه‎) is a Greco-Buddhist archeological site located in the ancient region of Gandhara, ten kilometers south of the city of Jalalabad, in the Nangarhar Province of eastern Afghanistan.

Hindu and Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan

Before the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan communities of various religious and ethnic background lived in the land. South of the Hindu Kush was ruled by the Zunbil and Kabul Shahi rulers. When the Chinese travellers (Faxian, Song Yun, Xuanzang, Wang-hiuon-tso, Huan-Tchao, and Wou-Kong) visited Afghanistan between 399 and 751 AD, they mentioned that Buddhism was practiced in different areas between the Amu Darya (Oxus River) in the north and the Indus River in the south. The land was ruled by the Kushans followed by the Hephthalites during these visits. It is reported that the Hephthalites were fervent followers of the god Surya.

The invading Muslim Arabs introduced Islam to a Zunbil king of Zamindawar (Helmand Province) in 653-4 AD, then they took the same message to Kabul before returning to their already Islamized city of Zaranj in the west. It is unknown how many accepted the new religion but the Shahi rulers remained non-Muslim until they lost Kabul in 870 AD to the Saffarid Muslims of Zaranj. Later, the Samanids from Bukhara in the north extended their Islamic influence into the area. It is reported that Muslims and non-Muslims still lived side by side in Kabul before the arrival of Ghaznavids from Ghazni."Kábul has a castle celebrated for its strength, accessible only by one road. In it there are Musulmáns, and it has a town, in which are infidels from Hind."

The first mention of a Hindu in Afghanistan appears in the 982 AD Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam, where it speaks of a king in "Ninhar" (Nangarhar), who shows a public display of conversion to Islam, even though he had over 30 wives, which are described as "Muslim, Afghan, and Hindu" wives. These names were often used as geographical terms by the Arabs. For example, Hindu (or Hindustani) has been historically used as a geographical term to describe someone who was native from the region known as India, and Afghan as someone who was native from a region called Bactria.


Jalālābād , or Dzalalabad, (Pashto: جلال آباد‎) is a city in eastern Afghanistan. It is the capital of Nangarhar Province. Jalalabad is located at the junction of the Kabul River and the Kunar River. It is linked by an approximately 150-kilometre (95 mi) highway with Kabul to the west, and a 130-kilometre (80 mi) highway with the Pakistani city of Peshawar to the east. Jalalabad has a population of 356,274 (2015 estimate), making it one of the five largest cities of Afghanistan.Jalalabad is a leading center of social and trade activity because of its proximity with the Torkham border crossing, 65 km (40 mi) away. Major industries include papermaking, as well as agricultural products including oranges, rice, and sugarcane. It has six districts and a total land area of 12,796 hectares (31,620 acres). The total number of dwellings in this city is 39,586.


Kāfiristān, or Kāfirstān (Dari: کافرستان‎), is a historical region that covered present-day Nuristan Province in Afghanistan and its surroundings. This historic region lies on, and mainly comprises, the basins of the rivers Alingar, Pech (Kamah), Landai Sin and Kunar, and the intervening mountain ranges. It is bounded by the main range of the Hindu Kush on the north, Pakistan's Chitral District to the east, the Kunar Valley in the south and the Alishang River in the west.

Kafiristan took its name because of the enduring pagan Nuristani inhabitants of the region who once followed a form of ancient Hinduism, mixed with locally-developed accretions, were non-Muslims and were thus known to the surrounding Muslim population as Kafir, meaning "Disbeliever". They are closely related to the Kalash people, a fiercely independent people with a distinctive culture, language and religion.

The area extending from modern Nooristan to Kashmir was known as "Peristan", a vast area containing a host of "Kafir" cultures and Indo-European languages that became Islamized over a long period of time, which eventually led them to become Muslim by Abdul Rahman Khan. The region was earlier surrounded by Buddhist states that temporarily brought literacy and state rule to the mountains; the decline of Buddhism heavily isolated the region. It was completely surrounded by Muslim states in the 16th century.

Laghman Province

Laghman (Pashto/Persian: لغمان) is one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, located in the eastern part of the country. It has a population of about 445,600, which is multi-ethnic and mostly a rural society. The city of Mihtarlam serves as the capital of the province. In some historical texts the name is written as "Lamghan" or as "Lamghanat".


Maues (Greek: Μαύης; epigraphically ΜΑΥΟΥ Mauou; r. 85–60 BCE) was the first recorded Indo-Scythian king. He invaded India and established Saka hegemony by conquering Indo-Greek territories.

Mes Aynak

Mes Aynak (Pashto/Persian: مس عينک, meaning "little source of copper"), also called Mis Ainak or Mis-e-Ainak, is a site 40 km (25 mi) southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan, located in a barren region of Logar Province. Mes Aynak contains Afghanistan's largest copper deposit, as well as the remains of an ancient settlement with over 400 Buddha statues, stupas and a 40 ha (100 acres) monastery complex. Archaeologists are only beginning to find remnants of an older 5,000-year-old Bronze Age site beneath the Buddhist level, including an ancient copper smelter.

The site of Mes Aynak possesses a vast complex of Buddhist monasteries, homes, and market areas. The site contains artifacts recovered from the Bronze Age, and some of the artifacts recovered have dated back over three thousand years. The site's orientation on the Silk Road has yielded a mixture of elements from China and India. The wealth of Mes Aynak’s residents has been well represented in the site's far-reaching size and well guarded perimeter. Afghanistan’s eagerness to unearth the copper below the site is leading to the site's destruction rather than its preservation. Archaeologists have photographed the site and the relics excavated.

Nava Vihara

The Nava Vihāra (Sanskrit: नवविहार "New Monastery", modern Nawbahār, Persian: نوبهار‎) were two Buddhist monasteries close to the ancient city of Balkh in northern Afghanistan. Historical accounts report it as flourishing as an important centre of Buddhism between the seventh and eleventh centuries CE. It may have been founded considerably earlier, perhaps in or after the reign of the Kushan emperor Kaniṣka, in the second century CE.


Padmasambhava (lit. "Lotus-Born"), also known as Guru Rinpoche, was an 8th-century Buddhist master from the Indian subcontinent. Although there was a historical Padmasambhava, little is known of him apart from helping the construction of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet at Samye, at the behest of Trisong Detsen, and shortly thereafter leaving Tibet due to court intrigues.A number of legends have grown around Padmasambhava's life and deeds, and he is widely venerated as a "second Buddha" by adherents of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, the Himalayan states of India, and elsewhere.In Tibetan Buddhism, he is a character of a genre of literature called terma, an emanation of Amitābha that is said to appear to tertöns in visionary encounters and a focus of guru yoga practice, particularly in the Rimé schools. The Nyingma school considers Padmasambhava to be a founder of their tradition.

Tepe Narenj

Tepe Narenj, also Tappe-e Narenj, is the archaeological site for the remains of a 5th or 6th century Buddhist monastery near Kabul, Afghanistan.

Trapusa and Bahalika

Trapusa and Bahalika (alternatively Bhallika) are attributed to be the first two lay disciples of the Buddha. The first account of Trapusa and Bahalika appears in the Vinaya section of the Tripiṭaka where they offer the Buddha his first meal after enlightenment, take refuge in the Dharma (while the Sangha was still not established), and become the Buddha's first disciples. Xuanzang says that Buddhism was brought to Central Asia by Trapusa and Bahalika (referring to Balkh) two merchants who offered food to the Buddha after his enlightenment.The era of Trapusa and Bahalika is during the life of the Historical Buddha: most early 20th-century historians dated his birth and death as c. 563 BCE to 483 BCE, but more recent research dates his death to between 486 and 483 BCE or, according to others, between 411 and 400 BCE (or between 623 and 624 BCE.


Zabulistan (Persian: زابلستان Zābulistān/Zābolistān/Zāwulistān or simply زابل Zābul, Pashto: زابل Zābəl), was a historical region in southern Afghanistan roughly corresponding to the modern provinces of Zabul and Ghazni.Following Ghaznavid dominion, Zabul became largely synonymous with the name of its capital Ghazna. By the tenth century, Islamic sources mention Zabulistan as part of the Khorasan marches, a frontier region between Khorasan and India. In the Tarikh-i Sistan, finished around 1062 CE, the author regards Zabul as part of the land of Sistan, stretching from the Hamun Oasis all the way to the Indus.Today, the modern Afghan province of Zabul and the Iranian city Zabol take their names from the historical region. Zabulistan has become popularized as the birthplace of the character Rostam of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama in which the word Zabulistan is used interchangeably with Sistan, a historically separate region located to its west.

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