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Role of Sarvaastivaada in Afghanistan
C. S. Upasak

Buddhism reached Afghanistan very early, rather much earlier than many other Buddhist countries where Buddhism is still flourishing and which claim to have received it at the earliest. The message of the Buddha was brought to this country during the very life-time of the Buddha through Tapassu and Bhallika, the First Great Lay-Disciples, who hailed from Ballika or modern Balkh. This fact has been authenticated by the accounts of Hiuen-tsang who witnessed himself the two stuupas built over the hair and nail partings of the Buddha by them near this town. Hiuen-tsang worshipped these stuupas while journeying to India. A vihaara was built at Balkh or Bhallika when he returned to his town after being initiated to the Sa"ngha as a Bhikkhu by the Buddha himself during his second visit to Raajag.rha. Bhallika attained Arhatship, and some Gaathaas are there in the Theragaathaa after his name. Balkh or Bhalikaa became an important centre of Buddhism since then and with the passage of time its importance grew so much that it was called "Little Raajag.rha" by the people when Hiuen-tsang visited his place during 7th century A.D. Hiuen-tsang mentions the name vihaara called "Nava-vihaara" which was located outside the town. The name "Nava-vihaara" itself suggests the existence of an old vihaara in Balkh which was no more when Hieun-tsang came there. We may presume, the old vihaara was probably none other than the Bhallika-vihaara which crumbled in course of time for being built of perishable material and after that a new vihaara was erected outside the town and hence called "Nava-vihaara".

As a matter of fact Buddhism as religion spread in Afghanistan only after, the Second Buddhist Council held at Ve’saalii, a century after the Mahaaparinibbaana of the Buddha through the Mahaasaa"mghika monks who after being separated from the Early Theravaada or Paali-Theravaada arrived at Udyaana or U.d.diyaana, the easternmost part of this country. They established their strongholds there. It is said that another group of this school remained in India and settled at Mathuraa; but regular contacts were retained between these two groups for several centuries after, as it is evident by some epigraphs found at Mathuraa of about lst century A.D. Udyaana or U.d.diyaana remained as a great centre of Later Theravaada or Sanskrit Theravaada schools of Buddhism almost throughout the whole history of Buddhism in Afghanistan till its disappearance in about 10th century A.D. There is no doubt that Udyaana was the earliest centre of the Mahaasaa"mghika school of Buddhism, so also it developed as a great centre of Sarvaastivaada school from the very beginning of its existence.

The country of Udyaana or U.d.diyaana had two parts. The western area was also known as Nagara or Nagarahaara (Nagaravihaara) while the eastern retained its old name as Udyaana. This fact is evident by the accounts given by Fa-hien and Hiuen-tsang and also by the Tibetan records. The eastern part extended up to the western bank of the Indus beyond which lay the country of Gandhaara. The Mahaasaa"mghikas and so also the Sarvaastivaadins established their centres side by side in both the regions of this country, in Nagarahaara and so also in Swat valley. The head-quarters of the country was also called by the same name Nagara of Nagarahaara (or Nagaravihaara) or Udyaanapura. Nagar or Nagarahaara is a derivative from the term Nagaravihaara which I have discussed elsewhere. But there is no doubt that Nagarahara was one of the most famous Buddhist places in Afghanistan from the very early days. It is interesting to note that even today the province of this area is designated as Ningarahaara following the ancient name although the present capital of the province is called Jalalabad, as it was renamed by Jalaluddin Akbar, the Great Mughal Emperor of India after his own name. If one visits Jalalabad, innumerable antiquities in forms of stuupas, caves, ruined monasteries,temples, icons, etc. are to be seen scattered in and around this town. A place called Hadda about 7 km south of Jalalabad is abound in brick and stone stuupas and temples. The French Archaeologists have numbered as many as forty large stuupas standing in an area over a mile and half. This place was visited by almost all the pilgrims coming to this area since here was enshrined the skull relic of the Buddha. Fa-hien and Hiuen-tsang both paid visits to this place in order to worship this relic of the Buddha. A casket containing the relic of the Buddha with an inscription over it was discovered from this place. [1]

Nagarahaara remained as great a Sarvaastivaadins as it was of the Mahaasaa"mghikas. During the time of the Great Ku.saa.na Emperor Kani.ska in the 1st century. Nabarahaara wielded much religious and cultural significance on account of a number of sacred relics deposited there is stuupas and also of many temples and monasteries. From place near Jalalabad town called Bimrana a vase containing the sacred relics of the Buddha with an inscription over it were discovered. It mentions the name of Emperor Kani.ska as "the holder of principal merit" of this pious deed.[2] It is well known fact that Kani.ska was a great patron of Buddhism, particularly of the Sarvaastivaadin school. Probably during his rule and other places around the present town of Jalalabad were grown as the centres of school.

We may mention in this context the famous Lion capital Kharo.s.thii script and the Praakrit language. The inscription is not dated but scholars have ascribed it to c. 10-25 A.D [3]. This inscription refers to a Bikkhu Buddhila by name who is said to have hailed from Nagara. He is also described as the follower of the Sarvaativaadin school of Buddhism. In this very inscription, the name of a country Sakastan (i.e. Seistan) is also mentioned, and the gift of the relics of the Buddha is said to have been bestowed in or honour of "the whole Sakastan". The country of Sakastan is none other than the modern Seistain, somes parts of which is presently under Afghanistan and some under Iranian territory, although originally it was an integral part of Baluchistan in early days. It is interesting here to mention that some inscribed postherds were discovered by Sir Aurel Stein from a village called Tor Dherai in Baluchistan, the eastern most part of Kandhar province. On the postherds, when all the pieces joined together it could possible be read as the gift of the water-hall in the Yola-Miira-Shaahii-Vihaara for the Order of four quarters, in the acceptance of the Sarvaastivaadin teachers [4]. It thus transpires that in the area between Jalalabad in the east and Seistan or Sakastan in the southwest, the Sarvaastivaadins had their centers in a flourishing condition in the first century A.D

It may not be out of place to mention some inscriptions of this period found from the area of Gandhaara, presently Peshawar and adjoining districts in Pakistan which mention the name of Sarvaastivaada School. Such inscriptions are found from Zedas [5], Kurram [6] and Kaman [7]. We know that Gandhaara was the next eastern neighbouring country of ancient Udyaana across the Indus river. It appears that the whole area of north western part of the Indian sub-continent was the dominant stronghold of Sarvaastivaadin monks. They however got themselves established their center in this area soon after the Mahaasaa"mghikas. N. Dutta believes that "during the reign of A’soka the Sarvaastivaadín did not find a congenial place at Paa.taliputra, i.e., Maghadha and migrated to the North. They founded two centers, one in Kashmira under the leadership of Madhyaantika and the other as Mathuraa under that of Ven. Upagupta. Madhyaantika was the direct disciple of Aananda while Upagupta was the disciple of Saa.nvaasii, who was also a disciple of Aananda. The Sarvaastivaadins can therefore claim Aananda as the Patriarch.[8] From these places they spread over other Northern parts of Gandhaara, Afghanistan and Baluchistan.

When Hiuen-tsang visited Afghanistan he noticed several centres of this school at places like Balkh, near Bamiyan, Kapisa, Gaz and Udyaana. He mentions that in a monastery some 10 or 12 li from Bamiyan, the Sa"nghaa.tii of Sanakavaasa in nine stripes, of a dark-red colour made of cloth woven from the fibre of Saa.naka plant was deposited [9]. There Sanakavaasa is mentioned in the Paali texts as Sambhuuta Saa.navaasii who played a very important role in the Second Buddhist council [10]. He is said to have gone to Kipin, a place identified with Kapisa, modern Begram near Charikar in Afghanistan from where a lot of antiquities have been excavated by the French Archaeologists including the palace and some monasteries. Sa.navaasii stayed there for some time but later he returned to Mathuraa where he died.[11]

Hiuen-tsang before reaching Balkh visited Kuci in Central Asia where he found ten monasteries with above 1000 monks, all adherents of Sarvaasstivaada.[12] When he arrived at Balkh, he found there some one hundred monasteries with more than 8,000 monks all belonging to "Small Vehicle". He however does not exactly mention the names of the schools of these Hiinayanii monks residing there; but very likely some of the monasteries might gave belonged to Sarvaastivaadin monks. From Balkh he went to a place called Kie (ka)chih (modern Gaz or Darah) some 100 Li to the south of Balkh where he found ten monasteries with 800 brethren all attached to Sarvaastivaadin school. [13] It appears that Balkh or ancient Balhiika was a great centre of Later Theravaada schools of Buddhism including Sarvaastivaada.

When Hiuen-tsang arrives at Kapisa, he stays in a vihaara built by Han dynasty of China. He spent his Vassaavaasa there. He mentions the names of some important learned monks with whom he held several philosophical and doctrinal discussions. He says, "in that temple (of Sha-lo-kia=Shotorak) there was a Doctor of Three Pi.takas called Manoj~agho.sa and Sa-pa-to, Ali-ye-fa-mo (i.e., Aaryava"msa) of the Sarvaastivaadin school and also a priest of Mi-sga-seh (Mahii’saasaka) school named Ku-na po-to (Gu.nabhadra). These priests were reputed as chiefs in the convent.[14] We all know that Kapisa was of the western capitals of Kani.ska and the monastery at Shotorak where Hiuen-tsang stayed was built by him for Chinese Princes hostage of Han dynasty. It is pragmatic to presume that on account of patronage of Kanis.ka to Sarvaastivaada school, this monastery flourished as a center of it for several centuries where learned monks used to reside.

Fa-hsien did not visit many places in Afghanistan. He however came only to Hadda and Nagarahaara in order to worship the sacred relics there. At Hadda he found some 500 monks residing in the monasteries and they all belonged to Hiinayaana [15]. He also mentions about a monastery in the Swat Valley in Udyaana where the monks although belonging to Mahaayaana school followed the Vinaya of Hiinayaana school including Sarvaastivaadins. It is evident from his account that the monks belonging to both the branches of Buddhism, Mahaayaana and Hiinayaana were residing in different monasteries of Udyaana, including Sarvaastivaadins in 5th century A. D. But probably in Nagarahaara, Hadda and some other places in this area some monasteries belonging to Sarvaastivaadins were flourishing during this period.

When we make a survey of Buddhism in Afghanistan, it is conspicuous to observe that to observe that by and large the schools belonging to Later Theravaada were predominant throughout the ages. Mahaayanaa Buddhism probably could not prosper so well; and so also the Early Theravaada Buddhism could not take its root in this land although a special mission led by Ven. Mahaarakkhita was dispatched to this country after the Third Council held during the time of A’soka. Among the Later Theravaada schools, the Mahaasaa"mghika and the Sarvaastivaadins held upper hand in the country. The history of Buddhism in Afghanistan is still in obscurity; but the abundance of Buddhist antiquities scattered throughout the length and the breadth the country speak themselves about the affluence of great religion, some of them are of utmost importance like that of the huge images of Lord Buddha of Bamiyan and excellent pieces of icons of Greaco Indian Art at Hadda. They still tell the story of pristine glorious events of this great land of Buddhism.


This article was original published in Buddhist Studies, a Research Journal of the Department of Buddhist Studies, University of Delhi, Delhi, vol. XV. March, 1991.



[1] Konow, Stein, C.I.I.., vol. II. P. 157-158.

[2] Ibid, p. 50 ff.

[3] Sircar, D.C., Select Inscriptions, p. 112; Konow, Stein, C.I.I., Vol. II, p. 48.

[4] C,I.I, Vol. II, p. 176.

[5] Ibid, p.145.

[6] Ibid, p. 155.

[7] Luder’s list, No. 918 - 919.

[8] Dutt, N., Buddhist Sects in India. P. 140.

[9] Watters, T., On the Travel of Yuan Chwang, p. 120.

[10] Cf. Malalasekera, G.P., Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, Vol. II, p. 1063.

[11] Cf. Watters, T., op.cit. p. 121.

[12] Ibid, p.108.

[13] Watters, T., On the Travel of Yuan Chwang, p. 114; beal, S., Records of Buddhist Kingdoms, p. 49; beal, S, Life of Hiuen-tsang, p. 54.

[14] Beal, S. , Life of Hiuen-tsang, p. 56.

[15] Legge, J., Travels of Fa-hien, pp. 28-29.



Updated: 5-5-2001

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