Kashmiri Buddhist History

by SAHF Team

Arrival of Buddhism

150 years after the passing of Buddha, his teachings spread across Kashmir through monks such as Mahajjantika. Buddhism was prominent in Kashmir during the rule of the Buddhist king, Surrendra, who erected the first ‘vihāras’ (monasteries) across Kashmir. From Kashmir, Buddhism spread to the neighbouring Ladakh and Tibet regions through the ‘Karakoram Silk Route’, before entering mainland China.

According to Kalhana’s ‘Rajatarangini’, King Ashoka (273-236 BC), ruler of the Maurya empire, introduced Buddhism to the valley and built several Buddhist ‘stupas’. He deployed the Buddhist preacher Madhyantika and other monks for the propagation of the faith. Buddhism and early practices of Kashmiri Hindu Shaivism co-existed in harmony during Ashoka’s rule.

Golden Age of Buddhism

Under the reign of King Kanishka of the Kushana dynasty, Buddhism was rejuvenated. The ‘Fourth Buddhist Council’ was held in Kashmir, to reconcile different interpretations of varying Buddhist sects. This renowned included scholars such as Vasumitra, Ashvaghosha, Vasubandhu Shungamitra and Jinamitra. The entire conference was inscribed on copper plates in Sanskrit, enclosed in stone boxes, deposited in a Vihar. such as This garnered a lot of attraction from Buddhists of other regions of India, Central Asia, China and Tibet, long after these councils had ended. During the Kushana period, the renowned Buddhist philosopher, founder of the ‘Madhyamaka school’ lived in Kashmir. He led the Buddhists to defeat the scholars of other traditions, as Buddhism was adopted by the majority of the residents of the Kashmir Valley.

Syncretism between Buddhism and Hinduism

During the 12th century, there was a syncretism between ‘Hindus’ and ‘Buddhists’ such that there was no difference between them. According to the ‘Nilamata Purana’ (a principal text on the history of Kashmir), Lord Buddha was integrated into Hindu beliefs as an incarnation of ‘Lord Vishnu’, and thus was a prominent deity worshipped by the Kashmiri Hindus. On the birthday of Lord Buddha, the Kashmiri Hindus, the idols of Buddha were adorned with paintings of Lord Buddha, with rituals performed for their worship based on Buddhist doctrines. Kashmir became an epicentre of ‘Buddhist art’, and it had an impact on Tibetan art from the 11th-13th century.

Decline of Buddhism

At the end of the Kushan period, Buddhism suffered massively. The Rajatarangini and the Chinese traveller ‘Hieun Tsang’ mention, that under the attacks of the ‘Huns’, Buddhism received major blows. The ruthless Hun ruler, ‘Mihirakula’, persecuted a large number of Buddhists in the sixth century. In the late ninth century, there was a revival of Kashmiri Shaivism due to scholars such as Vasugupta, challenging the currently existing Buddhism. The tenth-century witnessed excessive snowfalls and severity of cold weather. The Kashmiris felt that these calamities were due to the wrath of the deities for the abandonment of Vedic practices, thus Buddhism suffered a decline.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, Buddhism became a significant minority faith of Kashmir. Buddhist monks still existed in the thirteenth century. The Rajatarangini mentions a large metallic image of Lord Buddha in Srinagar. This was later destroyed by the invader ‘Sikandar Butshikan’ in the fourteenth century. A substantial number of Buddhist bronze statues have still been preserved.

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