Buddhism in Central Asia

Buddhism in Central Asia

by Sita Arunthavanathan

Colombo – Central Asia recognized as the ‘Cradle of Human Civilization’ connotes the Tarim Basin with the incision of neighboring regions such as Oxus and Badakshan with the Northern limit as Siberia and the Southern as Tibet. The Eastern and Western limits are not properly defined but the Great Wall of China is generally taken as the approximate Eastern boundary and the Western is reckoned as Ukraine, spreading up to Romania and Hungary. Date of the spread of Buddhism Though no exact date can be fixed for the introduction of Buddhism to the Tarim Basin, it provides an interesting study because it took place right through the early period of the present era in several waves comprising various strata. However the available evidence shows that Buddhism was flourishing here at the beginning of the 1st century AD or even earlier, in the time of Demetrius and Menander and spread to China not later than the middle of the same century. Factors that facilitated the spread of Buddhism The two famous ‘Silk Routes’ of the ancient trading world passed through the Tarim Basin from Balkh to the Chinese Frontier at a place called the Jade Gate. Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkhand were important centers on the Northern route, while Kucho or Kuchi was their counterpart on the Southern route. These centers were important not only from the commercial point of view but also as the hub of the Buddhist Doctrine and culture. The people that disseminated Buddhism and the Indian Buddhist Culture differed from the countries of the Northern Route to the Southern although they possessed common affinities in certain respects. The fact that the monks were well-versed in Sanskrit helped to weld them together. Further to the North was Bactria; its local culture had a blending of Hellenic and Indian influence with the Iranian in its substratum and this too was responsible for the spread of Buddhist learning.

Who spread Buddhism?

The process of introduction of Buddhism to Central Asia and from thence to China was gradual but steady. It was the combined effort of missionaries, scholars, savants of different nationalities and even of political exiles rather than that of zealots. Chinese annals of the Tsin Dynasty (265-316AD) mention that royal invitations were extended to Indian Buddhist scholars to visit their country and propagate Buddhism. Besides the Indian scholars there were Saka, Parthian, Tocharian, Sogdian and Yueuchi savants, providing new dimensions of thought and contributing towards the spread of Buddhism in Central Asia. In addition to these Turks and Mongols also communicated with other nationalities and transported idea and cultural trends from one region to another along with their trading activities. The people that came into contact with these races were equally receptive and accepters because they were already well-informed of the positive contribution made by Buddhism towards the revival and transformation of Indian culture, settled life patterns of the Indians and their enormous wealth.

Literary Works

Many literary finds of extreme importance in the reconstruction of Buddhism have been discovered from Central Asia. Many manuscripts found in Brahmi, Sanskrit, Chinese, Karosthi, Persian, Tibetan, Turkish and Tocharian languages suggest the cosmopolitan nature of those who built this culture. Portions of the lost Sanskrit Canon which correspond in substance to the Pali Canon, though not verbally, have been found. Apparently, this may have been the original text that was translated into the Chinese Tripitaka. In Tuang Huang alone 20,000 MSS have been found written in the languages mentioned above. Some palm leaves from Mingoi contain fragments of two Buddhist religious dramas, one being Sariputra-prakarana of Asvaghosa written in the script prevalent at the time of King Kanishka. It is the oldest known Sanskrit MSS as well as the oldest specimen of Indian dramatic art. Prakrit version of the Dhammapada in Kharosthi characters was discovered by Dutrewil de Rhine near Khotan in addition to numerous other documents; the language and alphabet of these are more or less similar to those of the period of the Kushanas in India. There were also books on quasi-religious subjects like medicine, grammar and comparatively modern Mahayanist literature, in abundance. A large number of Chinese texts both religious and secular were also discovered. Some documents of the Tang Dynastry show an admixture of Buddhist and Taoist ideas. The newer stratum of literature consists of Mahayanist Sutras – Saddharmapundarika and Suvarnaprabhasa translated into Uighur and Iranian. Turkish Sutras discovered contain a discourse of the Buddha delivered to the merchant brothers, Tapassu and Bhalluka.

Sarvastivada School

The adherents of this school were found especially in Kashmir and Gandhara from where they spread to Central Asia, Tibet and China. It had its own Sanskrit Canon which is similar to the Pali Canon in wordings and arrangement, in spite of certain dissimilarities. Winternitz is of opinion that both Canons were based on the same source – probably the lost Magadhi one. The Sanskrit texts of the Sarvastivadins and the Vinaya texts of the Mahisasakas, Dharmaguptas and Mahasanghikas discovered evidently show various differences and divergences from the Pali Canon and also from one another. But the original set of rules remains the same in all the versions.


Published Manuscripts

These include Sutras from the Samyukta and Ekottara Agamas. (Nikayas), a considerable part of the Dhammapada and Patimoksha of the Sarvastivada School from Kuchi. A part of the Dirghagama Sutras and Sangitisutra are more in agreement with the Chinese translation that with the Pali. Atanatiya Sutra is also very much different from the Pali and the Mahasamaya Sutra is more related to the Chinese, while Upali Sutra of the Madhyagama and a good many Sutras of the Central Asian MSS. agree with the Chinese MSS.


Gotami Vihara of Khotan on the Southern Silk Route was the leading centre where erudite savants wrote Canonical works and contributed to Buddhist literature. The countries along the Northern Route from Kashgar to Chinese Frontier were equally important for dissemination of Buddhism and Buddhist Culture. Scholars such as Dharmagupta from Kashgar, Suryabhadra and Suryasena from Yarkhand, Sikshananda and Dharmakshema were some of the scholars. The last-mentioned is said to have translated 25 texts to Chinese. Buddhaswami was a Hinayana scholar but his pupil Kumara became a Mahayanist and was responsible for introducing Mahayana to the countries of the Tarim Basin and also to China in an authoritative manner. He was not only one of the greatest exponents of Mahayana but also a renowned Madhyamika philosopher. Of all the celebrities the name of Kumarajiva towers far above the rest. He hailed from a noble family of State Ministers in India and was a monk who had a following of 3,000 Chinese monks at Kucha. He introduced a new alphabet and translated 50 works including Prajnaparamita, Saddharmapundarika, Sarvastivada Pratimoksha etc. Kumarajiva is said to be not only a scholar but a veritable institution by itself that drew thousands of votaries to his shrines of learning both in China and Kuchi. He brought china into the intellectual glow of Buddhism and Buddhist Culture of India. Languages Central Asia also provided two new languages. The first was a special variety of the Brahmi Script called Nordarisch, probably the language of the Kushans and the Sakas. The base of it was Iranian but richly influenced by the Indian idioms. Many Mahayana works like Vajracchedika and Suvarnaprabha were translated into this language. The second language was Indo-Scythian or Tocharian which was the language of Kuchi also called Kuchinese. Translations discovered in this langauge include Dhammapada and Vinaya Texts.

Buddhist Mythology and Imagery

Kashmir provided the largest number of Buddhist monks who were savants to Central Asia and from there to China. Greeks, Parthians, Sakas and Kushanas were greatly responsible for stimulation to Buddhist mythology and imagery. Greeks were accustomed to statuary which was an art by itself in their country. When the desire to venerate personalities grew among the people, they created figures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas with the robes fashioned after the toga of Greek and Roman Emperors.

Monuments and Buildings

There were many libraries in Kuchi and seemed to have been well equipped and contained rare books of immense value such as Samyukta Hradaya, Abhidharma Kosha and Vibhasha. At the Jade Gate there had been over a 1000 grottos carved out for the monks proceeding to China to rest and also for scholars to hold debates and discussions. There were also many nunneries, for the nuns of the royal families and the others. One nunnery was large enough to house 180 nuns. There were hundreds of stupas as evinced by the ruins and quite a number of monasteries housed hundreds of monks. Hieun Tsang was said to have seen a vast number of monasteries and he also described a car festival where thousands of Buddha images were taken in a procession. The foregoing account proves beyond doubt that in the early centuries of the present era Buddhism and Buddhist Culture had seeped through to Central Asia from India stamping a significant impact on the people of the ‘Cradle of Human Civilization’ in illuminating their lives and thoughts with the luminescence of Buddhist Doctrine and Culture.


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