Kashmir’s Buddhist Past

I am reminded of my visit to Swayam Bhumanjh on a chilly day of January ‘89
Kashmir’s Buddhist Past
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Sahitya Akademi New Dehli, organized a two day seminar on Buddhism and Kashmir recently in Srinagar. I was one of the invitees. The event was graced, by luminaries, scholars, teachers, senior citizens. Altogether large number of professors, historians from various parts of the country presented papers or spoke in academic interaction. Noted scholars from Kashmir including Prof. Zaman Azardha, Prof. Shad Ramzan, Prof. Farooq Fayaz, Prof. Bashar Bashir and Prof. M. Ashraf also attended the event.

Siddartha Gautama, the lord Buddha was born in 623 B.C. in Nepal at Lumbini located at Rupandehi, Nepal, which is one of the world’s most prominent pilgrimage sites and attracts Buddhist Pilgrims. In January 1989 I, along with my family visited Lumbini, around 260 km away from capitol Khatmandu.

Once in Lumbini, one feels the place is a testament to the power of Buddhism to bring together people from all walks of life, nationalities, and cultures to live peacefully and in harmony. Lumbini consists of a large 3 mile by 1 mile complex overseen by the Lumbini Development Trust from the government of Nepal.

Inside the complex one can find 32 monasteries from different countries around the world. Inside the sacred garden area of Lumbini has been recognized as a ‘UNESCO’ world heritage site since 1997. The birth place of Budha has been worshipped for centuries so it stands as an auspicious place for Buddhist devotees. Ashoka the king, in 249 BCE erected a pillar in remembrance of the Budha, that stands till this day. Pali inscription in Brahmi script signifying and stating the importance of the site.

In fact, in Nepal, one can find 136 identified archaeological sites where one can find remains of stupas and monasteries. My visit to Swayam Bhumanjh on a chilly day of January 89 was full of learning. This place is an ancient religious complex atop hill in the Kathmandu city, very similar to our ‘Tukhti Sulaiman top’ (Shankar Acharya Temple) Buchawara, Srinagar.

Swayam Bhunath is an ancient stupa (a dome shaped building erected as a Buddhist Shrine). This place is also known as monkey temple. One can find dozens of full size monkeys in groups on both sides of long stairs consisting of 575 un-even steps. Both sides devotes feed them mostly with bananas. Avoiding feeding monkeys there is a tricky affair, and at times harassment from the animal follows. We offered one dozen bananas on arrival. Inside the sacred temple is Buddha’s huge statue with gold plating and is in sleeping position where monks keep on candles burning around the stupa, presenting a spectacular view. I wanted to click the pictures but was stopped by a monk. However, on paying few Nepali bucks, the monk pleased me with one click only. I could not pay more, he did’t permit me further.

There are many interesting and beautiful monasteries in many parts of the world, but nothing can match the reputation of the superb monasteries in Nepal, which are known for their commitment to spiritual living, which is practiced by many, even today.

In historical times, as there was no India and Nepal, Buddha [Siddharth, his parental name] wandered around mostly northern India and acquired nirvana in Gaya where he stayed for years together. Followers of the faith from all over the world visit gaya in search of enlightenment as it was under a Banyan tree (Bodhi tree) that Gautama attained knowledge, becoming Buddha. Traditional accounts relate that he died at the age of eighty in Kushinagara, 483/486 B.C. after ingesting a tainted piece of either mushroom or pork. His body was cremated and the remains distributed among groups of his followers.

Buddhism entered China via the silk road, during the Kushan era. Buddhism spread across Asia both overland and through maritime routes. Silk road became an important link not only for the development of trade between the neighbouring countries but also resulted in spreading of Buddhism and pushing towards East Asian countries especially in Thailand and Indonesia. But the main architect of taking Buddhism to different countries has been Ashoka, who kept on sending monks in groups to share the teachings of the Buddha, obviously conversion began and the faith kept on spreading internationally as well. Today China, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) Bhutan, and Sri Lanka has the highest number of Buddhists in the world, sadly India and Nepal, where Buddha was born and started his holy teachings due to many reasons has lost the territory, and Buddhism is almost wiped out.

Buddhism in Kashmir

Historians believe that Buddhism in Kashmir may have entered in the third century B.C. In some very old Buddhist text it is written that Buddha made a prophecy that a century after the mahaparinievona Bhiksu named Madhyandina would establish Budhism in Kashmir. It’s said that a Naga king named Aravala then ruled over Kashmir and Madhaantikas converted him to Buddhism. This fact is endorsed by Hieun-Tsang also. Conversion of as many as 84 thousand Nagas took place in Kashmir, and two hundred and eighty thousand Bhiksus from Kashmir left for Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in order to participate in the ceremony organsied at the commencement of the construction of important Shrine (Maharhupa) there.

Francis Younghusband, a British geographer, travel writer and Resident, in his book, Kashmir writes: “Thus among the first authentic facts we can safely lay hold of from among the misty and elusive statements of exuberant oriental historians, is the fact that Ashok’s sovereign power extended to Kashmir – Ashoka, the contemporary of Hannibal, and the enthusiastic Buddhist ruler of India, whose kingdom extended from Bengal to the Deccan, to Afghanistan and to the Punjab, and the results of whose influence may be seen to this day in Kashmir, in the remains of Buddhist temples and statues, and in the ruins of cities founded by him 250 years before Christ, 200 years before the Romans landed in Britain, and 700 years before what is now known as England had yet been trodden by truly English feet.”

“At this time Buddhism was the dominating religion in northern India, and perhaps received an additional impulse from the Greek kingdoms in the Punjab, planted by Alexander the great as the result of his invasion in 327 B.C. Asoka had organized it on the basis of a state religion, he had spread the religion with immense enthusiasm, and in Kashmir he caused stupas and temples to be erected, and founded the original city of Srinagar, then situated on the site of the present village of Pandrathan, three miles above the existing capital. He had broken through the fetters of Brahmanism and established a friendly intercourse with Greece and Egypt, and it is to this connection that the introduction of some architecture and sculpture is due. The Punjab contains many examples of Graeco-Buddhist art, and Kashmir history dawns at the time when Greek influence as most prominent in India.”

So we can safely say that Emperor Ashoka introduced Buddhism in Kashmir. Mr. M.L. Kapur a noted historian in his book History and Culture of Kashmir says: “The 6th century B.C. forms an important landmark in the religious history of India. Buddhism was born during this period. In the course of time, it spread practically to the whole of Asia. In protest against increasing ritualisation, necessitating animal sacrifices, and the hegemony of the Brahman priests, the Buddha recommended a life based on the middle path, eliminating both Vedic sacrifices and ascetic practices. He enjoined right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right living, right recollections and right meditation. A messiah of the poor and down-trodden, he believed in equality of status and freedom for all.”

“In Kashmir Buddhism seems to have entered in the 3rd century B.C. According to the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa the credit for introducing it here goes to Majjhantika or Madhyantika. In the Mulasarvastivada Vinya also there is a prophecy made by the Buddha himself that a century after the Mahaparinirvana, a Bhiksu named Madhyandina would establish Budhism in Kashmir. This man must be identified with either Madhyantika or Majjhima of the Pali texts. His time is, of course, later than one hundred years after the Nirvana of the Buddha as he was a contemporary of Ashoka. Madhtantika’s mission is mentioned by Hieun-Tsang also.”

Mr. M. L. Kapur further says, that the reasons of its disappearance (Buddhism) have, however, yet to be investigated properly. A recent study shows that it was the Tantric form of Buddhism which became popular in Kashmir. As the adherents of Brahmanism also indulged in Tantric practices, the followers of the two faiths did not develop any animosity towards each other, and ultimately the older religion absorbed the new one. To this we may add the persecution of the Buddhists at the hands of some kings, and the combined opposition of the Nagas and the Brahmans as the other important factors. Later, some Buddhists might have migrated to more hospitable land of Ladakh where it is still flourishing.

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