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Buddhist Culture in Kashmir

By Sayan Lodh

India’s crown Kashmir has been the cradle of Indic civilisation throughout ages. At

one time, Kashmir played a prime role in the dissemination of Indic culture in Central Asia

(Parthia, Sogdia, Khotan, Kucha) Tibet, and China with Kashmiri monks braving all dangers to

carry and propagate the culture to these distant lands. Kashmiri Buddhism still survives in

Ladakh and Tibet albeit in altered forms. Buddhist schools such as Sarvāstivāda (Mahayana),

Madhyamika, and Yogācāra were centred around Kashmir. However, the Kashmiri Buddhist

pantheon was much limited than those of Bengal and Orissa in the total number of divinities.

Unlike other religious traditions (such as Hinduism), Buddhism has almost vanished completely from Kashmir being only visible to those who search for it.

All these Buddhist schools followed Buddha’s teachings, and considered moksha as

life’s aim. However different interpretations of Buddhist scriptures such as the Tripitakas, and image worship of Buddha (alongside the Boddhisattvas) created a rift between the various

schools of Buddhism. Sarvāstivāda especially flourished in Kashmir attracting monks from

outside – Tibetan monk Rahul Bhadra, and Upa Gupta of Mathura. A commentary on the

Sarvāstivāda philosophy titled Vaibhesika was composed here, as was the division of

Abhidamma Pitaka into six volumes (translated into Chinese in 383 BCE) by Vasubandhu.

Vasubandhu’s biography mentions that he invited noted Sanskritist Asvaghosha (who was vice- president of the fourth Buddhist council) from Saket (near Ayodhya) to Kashmir to help him in composing the literary version of Vibasha (termed Abhidharma Mahavtbhashashastrai) in ten lac cantos. (Anonymous 2022)

The question of the arrival of Buddhism in Kashmir valley is debated among the scholars. The second century BCE text Ashokavadana records that Gautama Buddha visited Kashmir along with his disciple Ananda, and predicted the future spread of Buddhism in the region under Majjhantika or Madhyantika. (Ganie and Ul 2017, 639-640) However, this seems fantastic, and was probably a later addition.

According to some, Buddhism first arrived in Kashmir during the reign of Ashoka (265-232 BCE). Maggaliputta Tissa (Ashoka’s Buddhist Minister) sent the preacher Majjhantika (a Buddhist scholar from Benaras) to propagate the new faith in Kashmir. Ashoka himself also visited outlying areas in Kashmir as part of his Dhammavijaya (conquest by piety or dhamma) yatras (which replaced the wars, and pleasure tours), and even laid the foundation of the city of Srinagar. Kalhana’s Rajataringini mentions Ashoka as one who has “extinguished sin and sorrow.” Ashoka built two viharas (monasteries) in Kashmir at Vitastatra (Vethavutur) and Shuskaletra (Hukhalitar). (Gandhar and Gandhar 1957, 18-22) However, no stone edicts of Ashoka have been discovered in Kashmir yet.

The second opinion is that Buddhism spread to Kashmir a few decades after the

Mahaparinibbana (480 or 400 BCE) of Tahathagata Buddha during the reign of Kashmiri ruler

Surrendra. Surrendra built two viharas at Narendrabhavana near Suraka (Suru beyond Zojila

pass) and at Saurasa (Sowur village on the shores of Achar Lake). According to Kalhana, his life was wondrous and he kept “himself from sinfulness”. J. N. Gandhar and P. N. Gandhar have called Surrendra the ‘first Buddhist king of Kashmir’. (Gandhar and Gandhar 1957, 14-17) This version is likewise attested by the Chinese sources of travellers such as Hsien Tsang, Fa Hsien, and I-Tsing. Hsien Tsang mentions that Buddhism was propagated in Kashmir by Madhyantika, a disciple of Buddhist scholar Ananda (one of the earliest converts to Buddhism). Madhyantika is also credited with introduction of saffron cultivation in the valley. (Ganie and Sisodia 2021, 356- 357)

After the fall of Mauryas, the history of Buddhism in Kashmir becomes a little cloudy. Buddhist text Milindapanho narrates the conversation between king Milinda (Indo Greek ruler Menander, 165/155-130 BCE) and Buddhist monk Nagasena, whereby the former embraced Buddhism (and became an Arhat or high-ranking monk) convinced by the latter. Zahied Rehman Ganie and Shanti Dev Sisodia opine that this conversation took place in Kashmir at a place named Twelve Yojanas in the second century BCE. (Ganie and Sisodia 2021, 358)

Kushana age was the golden period of Buddhism in Kashmir. The patronage of Kushana rulers towards various Indic (Hinduism, Buddhism) and foreign (Greek, Zoroastrianism) religions was visible in the pictures of deities on their coinage. Kushanas covered Kashmir with Chaityas, Stupas, Viharas, and other Buddhist monuments during their rule. Towards the later period of Kushana rule, the adoption and appropriation of Buddhism by the wider Hindu pantheon was visible by the mention of Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu in texts such as Vishnu Purana and Nilamata Purana.

Kashmiri Buddhism reached its zenith under Kanishka the Great (78-150 CE) who convened the Fourth Buddhist Council at Kundalvana Vihara (present-day Harwan) in c. 72 CE for six months. A legend narrates that Kanishka was attracted towards Buddhism due to the efforts of local Kashmiri ruler Sudarshana or Simha. (Anonymous 2022) The council of about 500 monks was presided over by Vasumitra, and the vice-chairman was Asvaghosha. The chief aim of this council was to collect, collate and finalize the fundamental Buddhist principles and get a commentary written on them in accordance with the Mahayana Buddhist thought. The council compared 100,000 stanzas each of Papadesh Shastra, Vinaya Vibhasa Sastra and Abhidharma Vibhasa Shastra, to explain the canonical Sutras, Vinaya, and Abhidharma respectively. Three main Mahayana treatises of were composed, of which only the Maha Vibhasha Shastrastill exists in Chinese. (Ganie and Sisodia 2021, 357)

The commentaries of the council (akin to the minutes of a meeting) were written in Sanskrit (Kharoshthi script) language on copper plates, and enclosed in stone boxes ultimately buried under a specially built stupa. These lost records if discovered, could shed new light upon the fourth Buddhist Council. Buddhist lore recounts that Kanishka donated entire Kashmir to the Sangha (Main Institution of the Buddhists) and built many stupas and viharas across Kashmir including the city of Kanishkapur (Kanispur in Baramulla) after the council. (Ganie and Ul 2017, 640) The former seems to be an exaggeration.

The fourth Council’s significance lies the emergence of the rift between the two major branches of Buddhism – Hinayana or Theravada (original form of Buddhism without any concept of God and image worship, Pali language), and Mahayana or Sarvāstivāda (image worship of the Buddha as God, influence of Hindu customs, Sanskrit language.) Under Kanishka, and the later Kushana rulers, Mahayana Buddhism flourished and spread across Central, East, and South-East Asia with Gandhara and Kashmir as its base to emerge as one of the earliest global religions. Buddhism’s dominance continued till the arrival of Islam in the eighth century CE.

In the post-Kushana era, the decline of Kashmiri Buddhism began. Kings such as Nara and Mihirkula Bhoja harassed the Buddhist monks (forcing some such as Nagarjuna to flee Kashmir), destroyed viharas, and killed Buddhists (precluding the later persecution after Islam’s arrival). However, even in such periods of no patronage, the ruler Raja Durlabhavardhana treated Hsien Tsang with respect according him the status of ‘state guest.’ He even provided Tsang the service of 20 clerks to copy Kashmiri Buddhist texts. Hsien Tsang mentioned about Jainder Vihara near Srinagar which contained a huge Buddha idol. Tsang stayed at this place for a few days.

There was a brief revival of Buddhism in seventh-eighth centuries CE during the reign of Karkota dynasty, especially under Lalitaditya Muktapida who professed the policy of toleration. After Karkota dynasty’s decline, no more monarchs gave serious patronage to Buddhism apart from Queen Sugandha who constructed the Nishpalaka Vihara. There was a brief attempt to patronise Buddhism under the Lohara dynasty, but the decline continued.

Buddhism’s decline coincided with the rise of Shaivism in Kashmir under Shankaracharya in the eighth century CE. However, the influence of Buddhism continued. Shankaracharya adopted some aspects of Buddhism such as philosophy, Sangha system, and idealistic Matha system. Both Kashmiri Hindus (Ashtami, Amavasya, Ekadashi and KhirbhawaniMela) and Muslims (Rishi Molsaheb and Batmalu Saheb days) adopted vegetarianism on certain days primarily due to the influence of Buddhism. Even today, Kashmiri Hindus invoke the Triratna (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) during the pujas and yajnas. Muslims also continued to follow some Buddhist traditions (some of which would seem un-Islamic) such as the worship of the sacred relic as the Hazratbal shrine. Ganie and Sisodia strangely claimed that mostly Buddhists got converted to Islam. (Ganie and Sisodia 2021, 363) This argument is possibly derived from the case of Central Asia, where most of the Buddhist Turkish and Mongol kingdoms adopted Islam one after another within a brief span of a few centuries.

While Buddhism declined in Kashmir, it continued in altered forms in Ladakh and

Tibet. Tibetan ruler Jnanprabha who disagreed with some aspects of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism sent 21 young scholars to Kashmir to learn about the basic tenets. Of them only Rattan Bhadra Suprajnya (who later became a great Buddhist scholar) survived the dangerous and harsh travel conditions to return alive to Tibet. One of the Buddhist scholars who propagated Buddhism in China was a Kashmiri, Pandit Kumar Vijaya. Smrityakara Siddha, a member of the Eight great scholars of Vikramshila Mahavihara in Pala Bengal, hailed from Kashmir. Despite the decay, some Buddhist Viharas continued to exist till as late as the twelfth century CE. The Jayendra monastery near Srinagar and the Raja monastery at Parihasapura declined by the eleventh century, but the Ratnagupta monastery and Ratnarashmi monastery at Anupamapura flourished till the twelfth century. (Singh 2008, 963 (pdf))

Buddhism’s influence is further visible in the architecture of Kashmir in at least three periods. First is the Indo-Parthian architecture in Harwan (near Srinagar). Second, the Gandhara style architecture of Kushana ruler Huvishka in the city of Hushkapura (Ushkur in Baramulla) in the first century CE. Third and most visible is the Gupta period architectural and sculptural ruins at Pandrethan near Srinagar. The sculpture of Mahamaya (Gautama Buddha’s mother) alongside her sisters a few moments before the Buddha’s birth is of special importance. Mahamaya is seen wearing a special earring called Dajeharu (a vestige of the now extinct Naga tradition of Kashmir) which is still worn by married Kashmiri Hindu women. (Ganie and Sisodia 2021, 362)

Buddhism thrived in Kashmir for a millennium (till about ninth century CE) being an important part of the classical Kashmiri culture, attracting Buddhist pilgrims came from various parts to learn and take back scrolls, and even art forms. Tibet became the last bastion of Kashmiri Buddhism (which later influenced and got absorbed into the Tibetan variant) after the arrival of Islam in Kashmir. Alike Hinduism, Buddhism suffered greatly during the reign of Kashmiri Muslim rulers (except under Zainul Abedin) especially Sikander Butshikan, and most monks shifted to Ladakh and Tibet. However, a handful of Buddhists continued to reside in Kashmir as late as the seventeenth century whereby Abul Fazl mentions about Akbar meeting a few old Buddhist lay people during his third visit to Kashmir. (Ganie and Sisodia 2021, 364)


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