The 4 Freedoms Library

It takes a nation to protect the nation

800 years of Buddhism in Pakistan

Emi Foulk writing for The Friday Times

Buddhism took root in Pakistan some 2,300 years ago under the Mauryan king Asoka, whom Nehru once called “greater than any king or emperor.” A great proselytiser, Asoka sent missionaries as far away as the Mediterranean and Sri Lanka have every reason to be knowledgeable about Buddhism; I am not. My father is a scholar of Buddhism. My mother is from Japan, a nation that is 80 per cent Buddhist. Generations of my maternal ancestors are buried in the Buddhist cemetery blanketing the steep slope that runs down from the stunning pagoda of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu temple. I spent childhood summers running through the halls of centuries-old temples, playing hide-and-go-seek behind medieval bodhisattvas and tasseled zazen cushions. Hell, I even had a dog named Mu – that is, the Buddhist ideal of emptiness, non-self, non-ego – and he was featured in a cover story on the Buddha nature of dogs in the Buddhist magazine Tri-cycle. (No matter that Mu is short for Mussafa, after the 16th century Ottoman general and grand vizier.)

Perhaps it was precisely because the quotidian nature Buddhism took on for me that I learned early on to block out anything smelling faintly of the religion – that, and the fact that my father liked nothing better than to infuse Buddhist principles into every “life lesson.” “Em,” he would say when I was distraught about a spat with a friend or criticism from a teacher, “the Bodhidharma taught that words signify nothing.” For a 13-year-old, these words, too, signify nothing. And now, despite my bachelor’s degree in religious studies, I know as little about the world’s fourth largest religion as I did a decade ago.

Needless to say, when I decided to move to Pakistan, Buddhism was the last thing I had on my mind; after all, it’s the Islamic Republic of Pakistan we’re talking about, where 96 per cent of the population are practicing Muslims. Yet, since arriving in the country six months ago, I have heard more than a few people speak of Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage as some sort of lost Utopia. The kingdoms of Maurya, of Gandhara, they’ll sigh, were progressive and advanced, tolerant and moderate; the implicit juxtaposition with at least some strains of Islam is obvious. This reductionist perspective is, of course, as useless to understanding the contemporary religious climate as it is historically naïve.

Buddhism took root in what is now Pakistan some 2,300 years ago, under the rule of the Mauryan king Asoka (sometimes called Ajoka or Ashoka), widely recognised as the first great proselytiser of the religion. The Edicts of Asoka, a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Asoka, monuments erected by the king across modern-day Pakistan and India, as well as on rocks and in caves in the same area, describe Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism and his efforts to expand the religion in the sub-continent and beyond.

In the inscriptions, Asoka explains he converted to Buddhism as a form of repentance after conquering the Kalinga republic in central-eastern India, around 264 BCE. In one of the most historically significant inscriptions, Rock Edict VIII, Asoka, who refers to himself as “Beloved-of-the-Gods” and “King Piyadasi,” writes: “Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died [from other causes]. After the Kalingas were conquered, Beloved-of-the Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma [Dharma], a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in the Dhamma. Now the Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.” The edict goes on to describe Asoka’s consequent change in foreign policy, from one of military might to non-violent proselytisation.

Yet, despite this avowal of remorse and newfound piety, some scholars question the king’s religious integrity, based on the locales where the edict has been found. To date, eight versions have been excavated, in Afghanistan (2 copies), Pakistan (2), Andhra Pradesh, Gujerat, Uttar Predesh and Maharashtra, near Bombay; the edict is conspicuously missing in and around Kalinga itself. Asoka, whom Nehru called “greater than any king or emperor,” and who can include among his namesakes a liberal theatre troupe currently operating out of Lahore, seems to condemn himself when, in another edict, he addresses the variations in the edicts by explaining that certain content was “unsuitable” for certain peoples in his “wide dominion.” As Professor Ananda WP Guruge asks, “What exactly is it that he [Asoka] did not want them [his subjects in Kalinga] to know? The number of casualties? His repentance? Or the ‘softening’ of his militaristic policy?” Historian Romila Tharpar went even farther when she dismissed Asoka as a “monster of piety” who used Buddhism for his own political purposes. “Whatever his personal convictions may have been regarding the religion, it was eminently suitable for such a ruler who wished to use it to consolidate political and economic power,” she wrote.

According to the edicts, Asoka exported the religion north into the Iranian speaking regions of the eastern Seleucid Empire, in present-day Afghanistan and Central Asia, and south to Sri Lanka. In time, these two missions would lead to the spread of Mahayana (“the Great Vehicle”) Buddhism to China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan; and the advent of Theravada (“Ancient Doctrine”) Buddhism and its spread to Southeast Asia, respectively. The northern mission, extending as far as the Hellenistic kingdoms on the Mediterranean, may have led to the emergence of Greek-speaking Buddhist rulers, who would rule what is now Pakistan during the second to first centuries BCE.

Plagued with a series of weak rulers, the Mauryan Empire began to crumble after Asoka’s death, falling 50 years later in 185 BCE when a military coup set the commander-in-chief of the Mauryan armed forces, Pusymitra Sunga, on the throne. (Some things, it seems, never change.) Under the Hindu Sungas, Buddhism splintered into various factions, warring over differences in religious opinion and doctrine. Sunga rule, however, was short-lived, and five years later the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I invaded the region, bringing it into the fold of the Indo-Greek kingdom. According to some scholars, the annexation was made in order to protect the Buddhist faith from Sunga persecution, though whether there was indeed persecution is itself a point of debate. The Greco-Bactrians converted to Buddhism under the rule of Demetrius I’s general and successor, Menander I, who first ruled the kingdom from Taxila, later moving the capital to Sialkot. Menander is remembered in the Milinda Panha, or “Questions of Milinda” (a variation of Menander), for his dialogues on Buddhist doctrine with the philosopher Nagasena the Elder.

But the “golden age” of Buddhism in the region came about two centuries later, under the Kushan kings of Gandhara, peaking in the second century CE. Gandhara, a thriving centre of trade between Persia and Central Asia, at different times encompassed parts of present-day Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir and the Northwest Frontier Province. According to apocryphal Christian sources, the Apostle Thomas visited Gandhara in 40 CE; and architectural evidence, too, exists of the kingdom’s communication with Rome. The main cities of Gandhara were at Peshawar and Taxila, where ruins of stupas (memorial markers) and monasteries remain today. Still popularly associated with ancient Buddhism, Taxila was Gandhara’s seat of power until the second century CE, when the capital moved to Peshawar. The shrine at Taxila, however, continued to be a major pilgrimage site for Chinese Buddhists until the sixth century, when it was destroyed by Hun invaders from Central Asia.

Like Asoka and the Mauryans before them, the Kushans were active in spreading Buddhism, primarily east along the Silk Road through Central Asia and onward to Han China. Although the Kushans were a Central Asian tribe, they espoused the Hellenised Buddhism of the Greco-Bactrians, and this is reflected in Gandhara’s unique Buddhist art and architecture, which flourished during this period. Like Greek sculpture, Gandharan art was characterised by an idealised form of realism. Anthropomorphised representations of the Buddha were constructed for the first time, often as enormous stone statues carved into hillsides; and this, too, was exported eastward. Sculptures of Buddhas across East Asia can be found draped in toga-like robes, originally an attempt to model the icons after Greek kings. In fact, strong influences of Gandharan art can be seen in the towering stone Daibutsu (“Great Buddha”) of Nara and Kamakura in Japan, which continue to attract millions of tourists each year; and the Ni? guardian deities that stand watch in front of nearly every Japanese temple were inspired by the Greek mythological hero, Hercules.

The decline of Buddhism in what is now Pakistan closely follows the fall of the Kushan Empire. The empire bifurcated in 225 CE, and the western half, in present-day Afghanistan, was swallowed by the Persian Sassanid empire less than a quarter century later. The eastern half, based in Punjab, survived for another 100 years before it was conquered by the Indian Gupta empire. The Central Asian Indo-Hephthalites, or White Huns as they are sometimes called, invaded Gandhara and Punjab in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, and wiped out the little that remained of the Kushans, destroying numerous Buddhist monasteries and shrines in the process.

And here Buddhism in Pakistan fades off the historical radar. There is little extant information about South Asian Buddhism in the latter half of the first millennium; what little we have comes primarily from the seventh century travel journal of a Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang. Xuanzang describes Buddhism on a sharp decline across the subcontinent, but reports pockets of Theravada Buddhists in Sindh. But the veracity of the pilgrim’s accounts is uncertain; conflicting accounts assert that few Buddhists remained in Pakistan by the Umayyad invasions of the seventh century.

For nearly a millennium, Buddhism played a prominent role in what is now Pakistan. It was truly another time, in what seems to be a far different land. Yet, Buddhist Pakistan saw its fair share of wars, coups and manipulative politics, religious infighting and persecution. Utopia it was not.

At present, the only Buddhists in Pakistan reside in Azad Kashmir.
Emi Foulk is a features editor at TFT

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