Iranians' Role in Expansion of Buddhism
By: Dr. Ali Asghar Mostafavi
In the six century BCE and simultaneously with the formation of the Achaemenid Dynasty in Iran many Indians abandoned their homes and wandered as monks into deserts and jungles. Their purpose from such wandering life was to lead a religious life in order to get rid of all the pains that mortals are doomed to suffer. One of these monks was Gautama or Buddha whose real name was Sidarta.
It didn't take a long time for the followers of Buddhism to spread all over India. During the reign of Ashuka, an Indian king of Parsi descent, who ruled the Indian subcontinent from 273 to 236 A.D. he became a convert to Buddhism like Goshtasb the Iranian supporter of Zoroastrian religion or Constantine who laid the foundation of Christianity in Rome. After that Buddhism crossed the Indian borders and the domain of Buddha preachers stretched to Kashmir and Qandehar and Kabul from the Indian northwestern borders. Later on the religion spread to the Jeyhoon Sea and greater Khorassan and Balkh and Bukhara and eventually to the Persian empire. It did not take a long time by the Iranian Buddhist converts to build a magnificent temple in Balkh and many of these temples flourished until the thirteenth century A.H. (19th century A.D.).
In a book written by Alexander Polyhistor 80 or 60 years before the birth of Christ he speaks about Buddhism, its relation with Iran and specially Balkh and gives detailed account about Shamans in Balkh.
This reminds us that during the first century A.D. Balkh was famous with Buddhism temples and a large number of Iranian citizens in Balkh were followers of that faith and preached and propagated Buddhism.
In the same manner that the Iranian scholars contributed greatly to the propagation of Islam after its birth, many centuries before Islam they propagated Buddhism in the eastern part of the Persian empire and wrote many books about it.
What we can gather from Chinese textbooks proves that the propagation of Buddhism in that country 67 years before the birth of Christ was due to the exertions of Parsi missionaries and monks. One can even see the name of a Parthian prince called An Shi Kao among these missionaries who is said to have been a learned prince and skilled in many branches of science and industry. This Parthian prince was very keen to learn the language and religious books of other nations and after the death of his father, depressed with the life of mortals in a passing world, bestowed the crown to his uncle and sought seclusion and mental contemplation. He then studied the Buddhism doctrines and the mortifications of the monks' ascetic life. In 148 A.D. he arrived in Luing, the capital of China, and preached the Buddhism religion until 170 A.D. During this time he wrote a book on Buddhism principles and translated the sacred Buddhism books into Chinese language.
An Huvan was another prince from the Parthian tribe who has been praised for his good morals and motives. An Huvan also preached Buddhism in China and grew so famous in virtue that was appointed as a colonel of the cavalry by the Chinese emperor. This Iranian prince became known as Prince An or Colonel An in China. Along with Yen Fo Tao, another Chinese scientist, An Huvan translated his two books into the Chinese language and bestowed them to followers of Buddha in China.
Besides these two princes, a number of Parthian followers of Buddhism traveled to China from east of Iran during the end of the Parthian period and preached that religion. Among these one can name T. An Wan Ti, an Iranian worshipper of Buddha, who translated several Parthian books into Chinese in 254 A.D. in Luing.
An Fagin, another famous Iranian Buddhist monk, wrote several books in Chinese language but his books have been lost.
Fagin was another Iranian missionary who preached Buddhism and wrote several books in Chinese of which two books have survived.
As to why these names were not Iranians it was because foreign preachers elected Chinese names in China but affixed the name of their homeland to their Chinese names as a distinction. As we can see the Iranian preachers were called by adding the prefix "An" to their names because the Parthians or Arsacids were called An Shi in Chinese or An Suk in Japanese and since the letter "r" was not spelled out in the Chinese language, the word "Arsacid" or "Ashk" was shortened to "An" in that language.
In the eastern Iranian empire Buddhism greatly influenced mysticism and recent excavations in present Afghanistan have revealed that influence to the world, but it does not prove whether Buddhism influenced the official Mazdian religion in the central, western or southern Iran. Even if it did, there is no evidence available to that effect today. But as we can clearly see below, Buddhism greatly influenced mystical sects in east of Iran after the birth of Islam. In the same way the influence of Bhuddism is visible in Manichaeism which was considered as one of the official religions of the Sassanid empire for a number of years.
Also we do not know how many Iranians were converted into Buddha worshippers by the missionaries of Ashuka, an Indian king, who was a Buddhist. But history says that during the reign of Kanishka, the Indian king of Kushan Dynasty, Buddhism reached its peak and many Buddha temples were built throughout the eastern Iranian borders some of which survived until second, third, and fourth century A.H. It is well known that the giant Buddha statue in Bamian, Afghanistan, which is gravely threatened by fanatic Taliban militia (they destroyed the biggest Buddha statute in the country) was built during the time of Kanishka.
Buddhism which gradually stopped its spread in parts of Transoxiana during the end of the Sassanid Dynasty, for a long time preserved its strongholds in Bukhara, Balkh, Qandehar and Kabul. According to Hodud-ul Alam written in 372 A.H. Kabul possessed an idol temple that Raj Ghanouj visited as a pilgrim from India. Raj Ghanouj used to receive the scepter of his kingship from the monks of that temple. Also during the time of Noshakhi, the chronicler of the History of Bukhara (who died in the year 348 A.H.), Bukhara possessed a market which was known as the idol worshipers district, where idols were sold to customers.
This enraged the Muslims who put the town on fire which burnt for three days and razed it to the ground because until that time Buddhism was the official religion of the citizens of Bukhara. According to Noshakhi many of the idol temples in Bukhara and Bikand and other cities were plundered and burnt by Hojjaj's army.
The gradual advance of Islam in Transoxiana limited the operation of Buddha missionaries and preachers and put a halt to the spread of that religion but the impact of Buddhism principles has survived among the mystic sects and part of Islamic scholars.
Referring to Balkh, the writer of Turkestan Nameh says: "Balkh was the most ancient city in the Amu Darya region. Muslim writers have rightly called Balkh the mother of cities. Balkh had been the capital of semi-mythological Bacteria which was later converted into a western Satrap (Bacterian Satrap) of the Achamenid Dynasty and during the time of Darius, Marviania (or Marv district) was part of that territory."
According to Islamic historiographers Balkh was the residence of one of the four governors of Khorassan during the Sassanid Dynasty.
Malek-ul Shoara Bahar says: "Undoubtedly during the fifth century A.D. and a little after that a great part of Iranian eastern territories were converted into Buddhism. It is therefore not strange for some Buddhist scholars to have said that the religion of Buddha had stretched to Aloub islands, Mecca and Yemen and part of Saebeh and Haranians and Hanfa were followers of that faith. These Buddha worshipers existed until the end of the Sassanid period and early centuries of the Islamic period. Buddhist priests had strong influence in Khorassan and after them the Manichians and later on the Zoroastrians held the majority. The coins surviving from the Sassanid kings of Khorassani descent show that during that time Mani, Buddha and Zoroaster were worshipped in Khorassan province but the Buddhists held the majority."
Baharats or Buddha idol temples which were called Now Bahar in Balkh, and Beit-ul Sanam in Bamian, existed after the emergence of Islam and a long time after that. Each year Buddhist pilgrims from China and Khotan used to visit the sacred Buddha temples in Khorassan and right now the dungeons in Bamian, Afghanistan, point to that period of the history.
Zandbils, the kings of Zabolestan and Sind who have been erroneously called Zanbils or Zantbils in ancient Persian manuscripts (the last of whom was slain during the third century A.H. by Yaqoub, the Safari ruler), were Iranian Buddha worshipers and the remnants of Indo-Sakki dynasty which stretched from Sistan to Punjab. They were Sakkis of Aryan origin who have presently abandoned their former religion, are living in India and are known as Sekkeh or Sikhs. These were Buddhist immigrants who migrated from Sistan to India and after settling in Punjab they called themselves Singe, Segeh, Sek or Sikh.
The residents of Kafarestan state, located southeast of Takharestan state in present Afghanistan, were Buddha worshipers until the fourteenth century A.H. and were eventually converted into Islam by Amir Abdol rahman Khan (1844-1901) and their state was named Noorestan or the realm of light.
Barmakians were one of the biggest and oldest tribes of Iranian scholars and rulers among whom several dignitaries served as ministers for the Abbassid caliphs. The Barmakian tribe which dwelt in Khorassan were followers of Buddha before the birth of Islam. Because of being the guardians of the well known Now Bahar Temple in Balkh, the Barmakians had accumulated enormous wealth from donations made to the temple and were envied by the caliphs in Baghdad. Their wealth and strength and reputation instigated the caliph in Baghdad to find a pretext to destroy them and confiscate their property. At last they found a pretext to attack them by alleging that Jafar, the Barmakian king had unlawful relationship with the sister of the Abbassid caliph, and under such provocation they massacred the Barmakian tribe and seized their properties.
The term Baramakeh or Barmaki in this tribe is derived from Parmookhia in Sanskrit language which means a head (which is the customary title of the custodians of the Now Bahar Temple in Balkh).
In his Albaldan, Ibne Faqid Hamedani says: "Before turning to feudals the Barmakians enjoyed high position and reputation and were idol worshippers. The citizens of Mecca had told them about the custom of the Qoraish tribe and Arabs in Mecca who worshipped the idols in Kaaba. This induced the Barmakians to build a rival giant idol temple in Balkh. They called this temple the Now Bahar Temple or the new temple. They respected the temple and presented gifts to the temple and adorned it with silk and ornamented the dome with flags. The dome of the temple was 100 x 100 gaz (one gaz is about 93 cm) in size. 360 nosegays (cells) were constructed around the temple in which the temple's servants and guards dwelt. Each day one servant served the temple and thus in one year 360 servants served the temple by turn so that each servant worked one day in the year. The grand custodian of the temple was called Barmak or a custodian from Mecca or ruler of Mecca. Thus those who were appointed as the custodian of the Now Bahar Temple were called Barmaks."
Te kings of China and Kabul also worshipped idols and whenever they traveled to the Now Bahar Temple they worshipped the grand idol. Thus all the properties surrounding the Now Bahar Temple and seven hundred villages in the Takharestan region known as Zavan which was 8 x 4 farsangs in size were owned by the Barmakis. All these villages were ruled by Barmaki headmen. Their sway continued until the time of Othman, the caliph, when Khorassan was conquered by Ibne Offan.
When Khorassan was taken the grand custodian of the Now Bahar Temple was Barmak, the father of Barmak and grand father of Khalid.
According to Masoodi Now Bahar, the giant temple in Balkh was called Mah Bonyad during Manouchehr Shah. At that time the custodian of the temple was greatly respected by the kings and all the citizens obeyed his orders and presented much property and money to that idol temple. As we said the custodians of the temple were called Baramakeh and Khalid Barmak was the last custodian of the temple. This was a very lofty building and adorned by spears on which green silk was hung.
Yaqoot Hamavi (539-626 A.H.) relates a lengthy story from Omar ibne Azraq Kermani about Now Bahar. Qazvini and Mohammad ibne Mahmood ibne Ahmad Toosi have also described the temple like that written by Hamavi.
The following inscription was written on the gate of the Now Bahar Temple: "Buddha says the courts of the kings need wisdom, patience and money." Under that inscription an Arabic script says: "Buddha is in the wrong because a man who possesses one of these qualifications would never agree to be a vassal in the court."
The second part of Hamavi's chronicle depicts other aspects of Iranian influence on Buddhism and the impact of Buddhism on the Iranian civilization.
"The religious custodian of the Now Bahar Temple was called a Barmak and the Barmakians descended from these priests and inherited the title from generation to generation. Now Bahar Temple was constructed to compete with the Kaaba in Mecca. Its walls were adorned by precious jewels and covered by gold embroidered curtains. On many occasions and specially during spring the temple was adorned with beautiful flowers. For that reason the temple was called Now Bahar. It was in that season that pilgrims flocked to the temple from all over Iran. The temple was capped with a dome called Asten that was 100 gaz (nearly 93 meters) high and was adorned by flags. Many pilgrims from Kabul and Indo-China visited the temple, worshiped the idol and kissed the hands of the Barmak or the grand custodian of the temple." 
The History of Iranian People Before Islam, Abdolhussein Zarrinkub, p. 389.
Pashts, Vol. 2, by Professor Poor Davood, p. 31.
Iran in Ancient Times, by Javad Mashkoor, pp. 377 and 315.
Hodud-ul Alam, p. 2393.
The History of Bukhara, p. 29.
The History of Bukhara, p. 62.
The History of Iranian People Before Islam, Abdolhussein Zarrinkub, p. 159.
Turkestan Nameh by Ibne Khordad, translated by Qareh Janloo, p. 17.
Mehr magazine, first year, 3rd. issue, p. 227.
Al-baldan, by Ibne-ul Faqid Hamedani, translated by H. Masood, p. 172.
Rooh-ul Mazaheb, translated by Abolqasem Payandeh, vol. 1, p. 589.
Ma'jam-ul Baldan, Beirut edition, 1957, vol. 5, p. 307.
Ajayeb-ul Makhlooqat, edited by Manoochehr Sotoodeh, p. 279.
Historical Geography of Eastern Caliphate Lands, Guy Listering, translated by Mahmood Erfan, 1958, p. 447.
*** Note: This article is the courtesy of CAIS at SOAS.