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Abaqa On Horse, Arghun Standing, Ghazan As A Child. Mongol rulers Arghun and Abaqa were Buddhists. From the 14th century Universal History by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani.

Adapting Buddhism: Ancient Disciples of Siddhartha Gautama in Afghanistan and Iran


Buddhism, in the first few centuries following the death of the Buddha, spread from India mainly to China, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. One place where its presence is less studied, in some ways, is eastern Iran. Before the 7th century AD, Buddhism played a prominent role in the religious landscape of the eastern fringes of the Iranian cultural region. One example would be the monastery at Nava Vihara near the city of Balkh. Nava Vihara remained active well into the 11th century, when it appears to have fallen into disuse.

Adapting to Current Beliefs

According to tradition, the first to spread Buddhism to Iran were two traveling merchants from the city of Balkh, Tapassu and Bhallika, who brought the message of Buddhism to the Zoroastrian west. After this initial contact, monasteries began to appear across the region. There is also evidence of attempts to adjust Buddhism to appeal to Iranian culture. For example, the term “good” is inserted in Buddhist texts to parallel its use in Zoroastrianism where Zoroastrianism is called “the good religion.” Buddhist texts in Iran also do not mention devas (a non-human being with godlike abilities) since they were viewed as evil by Zoroastrians.

Deva and three devis in reverence, with gold leaf. (Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania /CC BY SA 4.0)

Deva and three devis in reverence, with gold leaf. (Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania / CC BY SA 4.0 )

In the 3rd century BC, the Buddhist Emperor of the Maurya Empire, Ashoka, actively facilitated the spread of Buddhism across eastern Iran and Northern India by constructing stupas and monasteries all over the region. Inscriptions made by Ashoka were in many languages including Greek and Aramaic, two widely used languages in Iran. Aramaic was an administrative language of the old Achaemenid Empire and Greek was the imperial language of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom which replaced it. The use of these two western languages exemplifies the desire to spread Buddhism to the west among Iranian and Indian Buddhists.

Buddhist Monasteries in the Region

A prominent example of a Buddhist site in the region is Nava Vihara, a religious center and monastery near the city of Balkh in Afghanistan. The monastery flourished between the 7th and 11th centuries AD. The monastery remained open after the region was conquered by Umayyad caliphs though, according to legend, many Buddhist monks converted to Islam including the abbot of the monastery. Nonetheless, Buddhism persisted in the region and monasteries continued to be used. Even the parts of eastern Iran that became Islamized appear to still have had a strong legacy from their Buddhist past.

Covered ruins of Tacht-e Rostam (Nava Vihara), Balkh, Afghanistan. (kyselak/CC BY SA 4.0)

Covered ruins of Tacht-e Rostam (Nava Vihara ), Balkh, Afghanistan. (kyselak/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

An example of this legacy would be the Barmakids, a wealthy Iranian family that had prominent influence in the city of Balkh during the early days of the Abbasid caliphate in the 8th century AD. For a long time, it was believed by Islamic historians that the Barmakids had originally been hereditary Zoroastrian priests who were in charge of a fire temple in Balkh before converting to Islam. Later scholarship has shown that the Barmakids actually descended from hereditary Buddhist leaders who were administrators of the monastery, Nava Vihara. Barmak is in fact the Iranian form of the title for the head of a Buddhist monastery.

Islamic Practices at a Buddhist Temple?

Although the monastery remained active into the 11th century, showing evidence of a continued influence of Buddhist thought, it appears to have to have been a site of significant Buddhist-Islamic syncretism. An Arab author from the early 8th century made a description of the monastery that is similar to Mecca. He described it as a place where people gathered to bow prostrate before a black stone cube. If this account is accurate, it may represent the influence of the formerly Buddhist abbot that converted to Islam. Alternatively, it could simply be a misinterpretation of a practice that is entirely Buddhist.

Drawing of Mecca (1850). (Public Domain)

Drawing of Mecca (1850). ( Public Domain )

If it is in fact an example of Islamic practices in a Buddhist temple, it could also be an example of shared sacred space. Nava Vihara may have been a place where both Buddhists and Muslims gathered to worship. Throughout the region is evidence of Muslims coexisting with other religious groups and exposing non-Islamic groups to Islamic ideas to help bring them into Islam. This is similar to the way that early Christians connected their religion to Pagan religions in order to make it more appealing to the Pagans that they were trying to convert. For example, Christian missionaries emphasized the trinity to the Celts because the pagan Celts considered the number 3 to be sacred.

In the same way, Muslims may have tried to connect Buddhism to Islam in order to win converts from the Buddhist part of the population in Balkh. This is similar to the methods used centuries earlier by Buddhist missionaries with ancient Iranian culture in order to spread their religion by connecting it with native beliefs from Zoroastrianism.

Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, Iran. (Bernard Gagnon/CC BY SA 4.0)

Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, Iran. (Bernard Gagnon/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The pattern seen in the evolution of Iranian Buddhism and the practices at Nava Vihara reflects an important fact about religions. Proselytizing religions tends to be the most successful when they are able to connect their core message with core values and beliefs of the culture that they are trying to reach. This is clearly seen in the Mediterranean world during the 4th-5th centuries, Northern Europe during the Middle Ages, and Eastern Iran during the spread of Buddhism and, later, Islam.

Top Image: Abaqa On Horse, Arghun Standing, Ghazan As A Child. Mongol rulers Arghun and Abaqa were Buddhists. From the 14th century Universal History by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani. Source: Public Domain

By Caleb Strom


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Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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