The Buddhist Heritage of Kashmir, a Journey Through Time

The Buddhist Channel, 28 August 2023

Leh, Ladakh (India) -- Nestled amidst the majestic mountains and serene landscapes, the history of Buddhism in Kashmir emerges like a tale from the ancient scrolls. Delving into the annals of time, we uncover the profound influence of this peaceful faith in the picturesque region.

Enthroned Buddha with inscription, Gilgit Kingdom circa 600 CE

Believed to have arrived in the third century B.C., Buddhism's presence in Kashmir is a legacy that has endured through centuries. Reverberating with the whispers of history, ancient Buddhist texts reveal a prophecy made by Buddha himself - the prediction of Bhiksu Madhyandina establishing Buddhism in the land of Kashmir. In this era, the Naga king Aravala reigned over the realm, and it was the efforts of Madhyandina that led to the king's conversion to Buddhism.

This historical fact is corroborated by none other than the renowned scholar Hieun-Tsang. His accounts support the narrative of a significant shift, with as many as 84,000 Nagas embracing Buddhism in Kashmir. Furthermore, an astonishing 280,000 Bhiksus embarked on a journey from Kashmir to Sri Lanka, participating in the construction ceremony of the revered Shrine (Maharhupa) on the distant island.

The echoes of this epoch resonate in the words of Francis Younghusband, a British geographer and travel writer, in his work "Kashmir." He eloquently narrates how Ashoka's dominion extended to the enchanting valleys of Kashmir. Ashoka, a fervent Buddhist ruler, governed a vast empire that spanned from Bengal to the Deccan, Afghanistan to the Punjab. His influence, lasting over two centuries before Christ, is still evident today in the remnants of Buddhist temples and statues, as well as the ancient cities he founded.

During this era, Buddhism flourished as the prevailing religion in northern India, fortified by connections with Greek kingdoms established by Alexander the Great's conquests. Ashoka's reign was marked by the establishment of Buddhism as a state religion, accompanied by the construction of stupas and temples. The initial incarnation of Srinagar emerged on the grounds of present-day Pandrathan, a testament to Ashoka's visionary endeavors.

Breaking free from the clutches of Brahmanism, Ashoka fostered diplomatic ties with Greece and Egypt, leading to an infusion of architectural and sculptural elements. The pages of history reveal the interplay of Graeco-Buddhist art, a testament to the prominent Greek influence in India during that era.

Emperor Ashoka's pivotal role in introducing Buddhism to Kashmir is undeniable. Noted historian Mr. M.L. Kapur underscores this by highlighting the importance of the 6th century B.C. as a turning point in India's religious history. Buddhism, born in this period, spread across Asia, advocating for a path of moderation and compassion, rejecting ritualistic practices and hierarchical structures.

It is within this historical backdrop that Buddhism found its home in Kashmir. The Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and Mulasarvastivada Vinya records attribute the introduction of Buddhism to Majjhantika or Madhyantika, a disciple of Buddha. Prophecies woven into the texts predicted the advent of Buddhism in Kashmir through Madhyandina, a Bhiksu who walked the path of Buddha's teachings.

Tracing the evolution of Buddhism in Kashmir, Mr. M. L. Kapur examines its eventual decline. The rise of Tantric Buddhism captured the populace's imagination, intertwining with aspects of Brahmanism. The harmony between the two faiths negated animosity, leading to the gradual absorption of the new by the old. While external factors, such as persecution and opposition, played a role in Buddhism's decline, its spirit found refuge in the inviting lands of Ladakh, where it thrives even today.

As we journey through the tapestry of time, the story of Buddhism in Kashmir remains a testament to the enduring power of faith, adaptation, and cultural exchange. The landscapes might have changed, but the echoes of the past continue to resonate, inviting us to explore the depths of this ancient legacy.
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