Buddhism in Central Asia

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Buddhism in Central Asia
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Buddhism in Central Asia is a saga of peaceful pursuit by Buddhist scholars from Kashmir and Kabul to propagate the message of the Buddha. This vast region between the Tien-Shan and the Kunlun ranges was the centre of activities of these Buddhist savants. Here people of different races and professions, speaking many languages, were finally blended into a cosmopolitan culture. This created an intellectual climate of high order. In this context, the famous silk trade route was helpful in assign to the material prosperity of the people in this region.

The present study, therefore, is not one of Buddhism in isolation. It equally provides an account of the political forces confronting each other during the course of history of this region for well over a thousand years.

For centuries the drifting desert sand of Central Asia enveloped this civilization and the religion connected with it. The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century explorers and archaeologists successfully uncovered it at different centres along the old Silk Route. This has been helpful for a comprehensive study of Buddhism with its literature and art. The finds of hundreds of inscriptions have added to the cultural dimensions of the study.


Author of the book

Dr. Baijnath Puri the Professor Emeritus, was one of the leading Indian historians, a widely travelled man and was often invited to deliver lectures at many universities in Europe. He was for more than five years Professor and Head of the Department of Ancient Indian History and Archaeology at the Lucknow University.

His two works ‘Indian in the time of Patanjali and ‘The History of the Gurjara – Pratiharas’ earned him the two research degrees of M. Litt. and D.Phil. from the Oxford University. He has more than 25 published works to his credit.

…Buddhism in Central Asia is a work packed with information representing great labours among the source material. It describes and summarizes a complex period of momentous import for the development of Buddhism beyond its Indian homeland.


Eric Cheetham
The Middle way Vol. 63, No 3, 1988

…Dr. Puri has focused on this area (Buddhism) and has brought together a wealth of material in a condensed and compact form.


Buddhist Studies Review 9,1,1992



Central Asia is still an enormously important area of the world in a political sense, its vitality unabated. Buddhist texts were certainly disseminated into the Khotan area during the time of the ‘Old Silk Road’(100B.C – A.D. 200). This road went from China to the Oriental Roman empire through Central Asia and had a branch extending down into Northwest India. A variety of dialects and dialect mixtures were current in Central Asia. Buddhism spread from India by way of the trade routes, in China stating with Tunhuang at the Western gateway. After the downfall of the Han in A.D. 220 Buddhism rapidly advanced and from about A.D. 300 had penetrated the high gentry clans in Northern China. When the Tibetan king Sron-btsan sgam-po (b. A.D 569) was converted to Buddhism by two Buddhist princesses, one Nepalese, the other Chinese whom he married, he sent a mission to India (possibly Kashmir) to create a Tibetan alphabet. Then translations were begun in the seventh century, at first from both Sanskrit and Chinese by end of that century just from Sanskrit.

B.N Puri’s work on Buddhism in Central Asia recounts these fascinating events. He has spared no inspection of previous scholarly work for his coverage of the main facts. Whether it be the history, the literature, realities of life, or the art, Puri maintains a firm control of the relevant supporting treatises. Students of Central Asia should welcome this addition to the topic and the bibliographical introduction. There are of course many specialized works on particular aspects of Central Asia but Puri’s broad coverage is probably unique. Sixteen tastefully chosen plates add an artistic touch to this valuable addition for the Buddhist Traditions series.,



The study of Buddhism in Central Asia cannot be carried out in isolation, since it is related to several factors. Its introduction there was the result of religious mission as also of peaceful international relations. Traditional accounts, no doubt, suggest that Indian colonists settled in Khotan during the reign of Asoka. This may not be accepted as final since no precise date can be fixed for the introduction of Buddhism in the Tarim basin. It is, however, evident that the religion of the Tathagata was flourishing in Central Asia about the time of the Christian era. It was from there that Buddhism spread to China not later than the middle of the first century A.D. The enormous breadth of the landscape provided by Buddhism and Buddhist savants in Central Asia from China to the frontiers of Persia, during the course of a long period of nearly a millennium or more, with various races contributing to its growth from the Yuehchi and the Kusanas to the Uighurs, therefore, demands its comprehensive study. This study is to be undertaken against the background of the geographical area – its configuration and peoples – nomadic and sedentary, as also its location as the meeting ground of the Orient and the Occident. It was a two-way traffic with the role of Central Asia peoples in other countries, and that of others in different parts of this region

The political history of Central Asia has to be studied in details since royal patronage to the creed of the Buddha was always forthcoming, as recorded by the Chinese pilgrims who passed through their kingdoms. Those lying on the Northern Route– Badakshan, kashgar and Kucha– were great centres of the Sarvastivadin School, while Mahayanism dominated in Khotan and Yarkand. This demarcation of distinct representation symbolised two religious currents passing over these areas. The spread of the Sarvastivadin school of Buddhism is no doubt connected with the growth of the kusana empire, maybe preceding the conversion of kaniska as supposed by some scholars. Mahayanism subsequently become more popular. The two schools were like coaches provided for travelling the same road to salvation, gradually absorbing the traffic awaiting the final journey. Names of Hindu rulers in the north and a long list of Vijaya monarchs of Khotan, available from the Kharosthi records which also mention purely Indian as also mixed names of donors and administrators, suggest the Indian way of life being adopted in the countries of the Tarim basin.

Those contributing towards the expansion of Buddhism in Central Asia, as also providing new dimensions included savants of different nationalities, besides the Indian ones. These comprised Tokharian, Parthian, Sogdian and Yuehchi scholars, some of whom were from royal families. The names of Dharmagupta from Kashghar, Suryabhadra and Suryasena from Chokkuka –Karghalik-Yarkand, Dharmsksema, Siksa-nanda from Khotan, and above all, Kumarajiva of Kucha and his contemporaries –Dharmamitra, Buddhayasa, Buddhabhadra and many other, are notable of translating Buddhist texts into Chinese. The Buddhist literature discovered in Central Asia is equally abundant and, like its architecture, represents several periods, catering to the needs of both the schools. The fragments of the Sanskrit Agamas from Turfan, Tun-huang, and in the Khotan district those of the dramas and Kavyas of Asvaghosa from Turfan, the Pratimoksa of the Sarvastivadins from Kucha and numerous version of the anthology called Dharmapada or Udana, with extracts in Tokharian and Sanskrit, may be noted in this context. The newer stratum of literature consists of Mahayanist sutras and includes Prajnaparamita, ‘the Lotus of True law’ –Saddharmapundarika and Suvarnaprabhasa Sutra – translated into Uighur and Iranian oriental, and to a still later period the dharants or magical formulae which have been found in great numbers. Turkish sutras discovered at Turfan and Bhalika. Buddhist texts in Kuchean, Tokharian, Sogdian and Bactrian Greek have also been traced. A survey of the Buddhist literature and the contribution of the Buddhist savants have been made separately. The relation of Buddhism to other religions, especially Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity was in true with the eclectic and tolerant spirit of the peoples of Central Asia. Tibetan Lamaism and its acceptance in Mongolia suggests that Buddhism provided a creed acceptable in different forms to superstitious, emotional and metaphysical minds.

The study of material culture in Central Asia provides an insight into cultural integration and people’s life, manifested through different facets–with joint family ties, position of women, items of food and food habits, dress and ornaments, pastime and recreations, agricultural and pastoral economy, trade and transport and several other items related to the socio-economic life. It is interesting to find Buddhist monks owning land and slaves, and participating in the material life of the time. Buddhism, thus, provided a living and a changing stream of thought adaptable to men of different emotional backgrounds. New forms of Buddhism providing a moral ideal and not personal perfection or individual salvation were evolved with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas serving as angels of mercy, peace and knowledge. These are manifest in Central Asia art. These Bodhisattvas are supposed to have indefinitely postponed their nirvana process for the sake of alleviating the sufferings of mankind while faith in a Buddha especially in Amitabha could secure rebirth in his paradise.

Factors accounting for this change in the gospel of Buddhism were both internal and Indian, and external. The Indian factor, involving development of both Brahmanism and Buddhism in a parallel way with more areas of similarities in thought and action, seems to have emanated from Taxila –Taksasila, the great centre of learning as also from Kashmir which provided the largest number of Buddhist savants to Central Asia and from thence to China. Foreign influence was the product of all those who contributed to Buddhism after accepting it in their way of life. Greeks, Parthians, Sakas and Kusanas were greatly responsible for stimulation to Buddhist mythology and imagery. When Buddhism passed into the hands of those foreigners, especially Greeks, who were accustomed to Greek statuary the desire to venerate Buddhist personalities especially the figure of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas took a definite shape on the western model without alienating Indian characteristic futures.

The Central Asia artists –some being imported from the region of Gandhara and including Greeks, like Titus at Miran, were inspired by Greek tradition as modified in Rome. Native tradition however accepted and adopted these artistic influences with discrimination. With the expansion of Buddhism in Central Asia and setting up of stupas and free-standing shrines the demand for artists and sculptors shot up. Commercial enterprise on the trade routes with the patronage and contribution of traders and merchants provided incentives for artists who received handsome payments for their service. Well-defined styles of Central Asia paintings are the result of contributions and impacts of different art traditions –Indian, Persian and Chinese. The common factor however is the Buddha and his legend. Diversities in design and treatment did not rule out an identical mannerism in the same composition at different places. A study of the Central Asia Centres of art with particular reference to painting at Buddhist Cave Shrines, lying on the Northern as well as the Southern routes, would not fail to reveal in a way the competitive spirit of the votaries of the Buddha in venerating their lord. They displayed their artistic talents in projecting new forms of Buddhist ideals for the masses.

A comprehensive study of Buddhism in Central Asia is thus attempted in this work, taking into account all the factors and forces responsible for its introduction, prosperity, and eventual decay and decline. Nature no doubt provided complete shelter to Buddhist art treasures and polyglot libraries which were sealed off to protect them from vandalists and marauders. These lay enveloped till the spade of explorers and archeologists could reveal the mysterious past of Buddhism in this vast area of the Tarim basin studded with sites and spots which are separated by considerable distances and which were once humming with the spiritual and temporal activities of the people wedded to the religion of the Buddha.

The present study fulfils the demand of the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi, which provided me a fellowship as also contingency expenses towards its successful completion. I am grateful to the Council.

This work is dedicated to the memory of my younger daughter Taruna, who left us over seven years back in a road accident. Her memory is ever fresh and green and is a source of constant incentive for me to work with dedication.



The term Central Asia is supposed to connote the Tarim Basin, with the inclusion of neighboring regions such as the Oxus region and Badakshan. This basin is a depression, surrounded on three sides by high mountains. On the north it is bounded by the Tien-Shan ‘the Celestial Mountain’ while the snowy Kiun-Lun on the south separates it forms the Tibetan part of Central Asia. To the west, the Pamirs, the ‘Imaos’ of the ancients, join the Tien-Shan to the Hindu Kush, giving rise to the head-waters of the Oxus on its western flank. On the east, the barrier dividing it from China is relatively low. The water of the entire area is discharged through the many branched Tarim river into Lake Lob-Nor –only a flooded morass. The basin is a desert with occasional oases lying chiefly near its edges. There might have been more fertile portions in the past, but this remote and lonely region has only provided interest for exploration among archaeologists and explorers of different nationalities with in the last hundred years or more. Its complete isolation from oceanic influences as also its geographical insularity have no doubt contributed to evolving its own cultural pattern with the contribution of warring tribes of this as well as the neighbouring areas in the past. While in the north the taiga, the Siberian forest zone serves as a barrier for any communication, in the south an almost unbroken chain of mountain ranges, nearly four thousand miles or six thousand four hundred kilometers long running from China to the Black Sea restricts any access in the direction of the South-East Asia, the Indian Sub-continent and the mountain ranges –the Hindu Kush the paropamisus and the Elburz have never restricted the movements of peoples in either direction. The two plate-aux–Tibet on the south, enclosed by the Himalayas, and Iran, flanked on the south-east by the Kirthar and Sulaiman ranges, and on the south-west by the Zagros, have provided historical links with Central Asia proper.

The eastern and western limits of Central Asia are not properly defined. In the east the Great wall of China could provided an approximate line, while in the west the grasslands of the Ukraine extending as far as Rumania and Hungry supposedly provide both a geographical and historical extension of the Central Asia steppe zone. This might be an exaggerated concept of Central Asia western limit, but it is now accepted that the vast region its geographical and political aspects need not extends beyond Iran, especially its eastern part. The physical features of Central Asia with predominant steppe and desert area, include some of the highest mountain ranges in the world also depressions like those around Turfan in Sinkiang at the area north-east of the Caspian with extreme rise of temperature. This last region of Central Asia lying approximately between latitude 35 N and 55 N could be divided in a convenient manner into a northern and a southern zone separated by a line along the Syr Darya and the Tien-Shan. The northern zone with its sufficient moisture provided extensive cultivation of land through skilful application of irrigational techniques for agricultural purpose. Shortage of water no doubt required hard and laborious efforts in storage of rain water into reservoirs. The clash between the northern nomads and the settled and domesticated peoples north of the Tien-Shan from time to time plundered and occupied the oases of the Tarim Basin without making their occupation a permanent features.

The configuration of the mountain ranges has no doubt exercised control over the movements of peoples of Central Asia from one region to the other. So also the influence of the deserts has been profound in this direction. Geographical factors, thus, tended to segregate civilizations bordering on its peripheries –Indian, Iranian and Chinese in the past. The ancient caravan routes provided not only mutual information but also established some sort of limited but important contact between the two extreme ends– China and Iran and the western world. Of course in terms of commerce and cultural achievements there been only some important parts of Central Asia, as for instance the one between the Amu-Darya (Oxus) and the Syr-Darya (Jaxartes) and the area known as Khurasan to the Arabs, which lay to the south of the Amu-Darya and extended south-west as far as the Iranian Dasht-i-Kavir. Between the middle reaches of the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya lay the country known to the Greeks as Transoxania, and to the Arabs as Mawarannahr, with Bukhara and Samarkand as its most important urban centers of importance –political and cultural –in the medieval period. Khwarazm on the lower reaches of the Amu-Darya Shash, north-west from Mawarannahr beyond the Syr-Darya comprising the country round Tashkent, were other areas of importance in the medieval period. For the earlier period one has to follow the ancient caravan routes linking China with the west, which passed through many centers. These caravan trade routes are also described as ‘Silk Routes’ or ‘Silk Roads’, transgressing the Central Asia forbidden no-men’s land. While geographical factors provided insularity and security to the Central Asia peoples, with the Lop and Gobi deserts in the east, the long chains of the Tien-Shan and the Kun-Luns to the north and south respectively and the Pamirs to the west linked to the Kun-Luns by the Karakoram ranges, man triumphed over natural barriers and successfully crossed the hurdles lying in his way.

Silk, one of China’s chief mercantile commodities became the key word along the general trade and transport routes. It was along these routes that not only traders and merchants moved from one direction to the other, but Chinese pilgrims and Indian Buddhist savants covered long distances to satisfy their intellectual curiosity as also to convey the message of the Tathagata in the language of the peoples of those areas where these scholars were invited or where they finally settled down. The expansion of Buddhism in Central Asia is closely linked with the silk trade routes and the centers associated with these communication lines as also the settlements and the Sylvain retreats nearby for meeting the seclusive requirements of the Buddhist monks. The finds of monuments associated with Buddhism no doubt confirm this affirmation. A study of Buddhism in Central Asia would demand fuller reference to the land and its peoples as also to its physical and political geography in depth, and also to the nature of migratory movements of these peoples and its impact on the areas lying with the peripheries of Central Asia.

This interior portion of Asia is at present divided politically into three parts: a Soviet one, a Chinese one and Mongolia. The Soviet part of Central Asia was called Turan, now referred to as Russian or Western Turkestan. It includes the present territory of Uzbek, Tadzhik, Turkmanian and Kirghiz Republics and the southern part of the Kazakh Republic. The Chinese part, historically known as Chinese Turkestan, is now represented by Sinkiang-Uighar Autonomous Region. It is bordered on the north-east by the Mongolian Peoples Republic, on the south-west by Kashmir and a narrow strip of Afghanistan, and on the west and north by the Central Asia Republics of the Soviet Union. Sinkiang, physiographically, consists of two mountain ringed basins from the east-west treading Tien-Shan. The Dzungarian basin in the north with an elevation of 600 to 1500 ft, receiving summer rainfall makes it an ideal grazing land while the Tarim basin with an elevation of 2500 to 3000 ft, more arid than Dzungaria, has the sandy Takla Makan desert in the center and the salt lake marsh land of Lop Nor at the eastern end. Thus, Central Asia as whole is a land of sharp geographical contrasts with the greater part of the area occupied by high mountain systems or great desert unfavorable for human settlement. Many of its river valleys, however with their fertile loess soil, have been occupied by settled population from very early times.

It has, no doubt been established by archaeological investigation and exploration that man appeared in Central Asia as early as the Paleolithic period and continues to be in occupation of some part or the other since then, and has been in communication with peoples of the Orient and the Occident. The continental forces have never been lull and the role of the peoples of Central Asia has always been significant in the history of other countries as also in the export of tribal culture in those areas. It is proposed that the wild horse was first domesticated on the steppes of Central Asia and that it was from this region that the horse-culture –the use of the horse for driving and later on for riding –gradually spread to other parts of the world. Many objects associated with horses, the saddle and the stirrup of the later times had their origin in Central Asia. As horse riding became very common, so also the custom of wearing trousers spread from Central Asia to other arts of Asia and Europe. Another product closely associated with horse riding, namely boots, gradually replaced the slippers and sandals, which were universally worn. At a later time the Central Asia people also initiated the custom of putting heels on boots and shoes. As such the contribution of Central Asia to the diffusion of culture has been significant and the role this region is considered still more important in the transmission of cultural traits from one part of the world to another.

The exchange of cultural traits between East and West also took place by way of Central Asia. New inventions, ideas manners and customs were transmitted from one region to another transgressing political boundaries. Constant exchange between East and West were provided through this region of the world –from Europe of the Near East to the East, India and China, as also in the reverse direction. These exchanges of cultural traits started long before the period of written history. Excavations at Anau in Central Asia suggest that the ancient civilization. In historical times too Alexander’s invasion provide cultural stimulus to the Far East through the people of Central Asia. The emergence of the well-known Greek school of art, also called Greco-Buddhist Art, exerted a widespread influence in different parts of Turkestan and eventually reached China where it revolutionized the indigenous school of painting and sculpture. It is proposed that the importation of Greco-Roman glass through Central Asia into the Celestial Empire of China had a profound influence on local workmanship, and indirectly contributed to the invention of Chinese porcelain. It was also through Central Asia that China imported from Iran alfalfa and grape vine, and that country also contributed towards the development of Chinese armour as also its military strategy. Manichaenism, a third century Persian religion and for a long time a rival of Christianity in Central Asia, could also secure a foothold in China. Central Asia also established communication between India and China, and it was from here that Buddhism spread to china. Many of the early missionaries carrying the message of the Buddha to the land of Confucius were not from India but native scholars of Central Asia.

China in return also transmitted cultural traits of its own to the Near and Middle East. Many features of her civilization were passed on the same channel. Peach and apricot, as also ginger and tea and several other items were indigenous Chinese products which were introduced into the western world through Central Asia. It was in the time of Augustus that Chinese silk reached Rome, and for several centuries the import of silk from china was a regular feature of the commercial activity of the Roman Empire. The Great Silk Road from China to Rome passed through Central Asia, and the control of this Road, occasionally became a subject of dispute leading to important political changes. It is also suggested that the art of paper making discovered by the Chinese in the second century A.D was carried through Central Asia to the Arabs in the eighth century, and the European method of paper making is merely a copy of the old Chinese craftsmanship. The issue or paper currency well-known in China was taken to Persia during the thirteenth century by the Mongols a Central Asia people whose extensive empire covered both China and Persia. Several other instances could be quoted like the art of printing of books, known in China as early as the beginning of the tenth century which were taken from the Chinese and then developed in the West.

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