Throughout history, religion, like everything else has been in a constant state of change. As every aspect of human life, religion to has never been static in a single condition. Change has always been the only constant. Probably one of the most intriguing journeys of this change can be witnessed in the evolution of Buddhism. In this essay, the topic that is going to be discussed in detail is the evolution of Buddhism during the period of 100 BCE to 200 CE, based on the sculptures and the sutras available in the Kushan Empire. Coins and sculptures are two of the most overlooked things in archaeology. If properly studied, these two things can help to document evolutions of socio-political conditions in detail. Sutras of the Kushan empire have a huge importance in documenting the path that Buddhism took while evolving during the given time period. All these documents – coins, sculptures, and sutras can be studied with great care if the evolution of Buddhism is to be understood.
Figure 1: Coins in the Kushan Empire
As trade flourished across the world, new trade routes were invented. Cross-cultural interactions became the societal norm. With trade came, the exchange of currency and coins became the medium of exchange of goods. Every coin from every region had a distinct set of characteristics and when this was exchanged among the traders, people started becoming aware of the new cultures. Coins of the orient influenced the cultures of the west and new sculptures were being erected by artists who grew more interested in the new world and the new cultures.
Figure: 2 Gandhara Art
The Kushan Empire was highly influenced by Buddhism. Kushan Empire developed a specific art form that is characterized by distinct and very evident influences of Buddhism. This art form, named Gandhara Art, depicted the life of Buddha.
While Vima, the second ruler of the Kushan dynasty was a devotee of Shiva, his son, Kanishka wanted to foster the influences of Buddha in order to claim a stronghold over the Indus valley. Both of them wanted to be the sole controllers of the Silk Road and thereby controlling the trade of the region (Lawler, Page 336).
Figure 3: Sculpture of the Kushan Empire
The coins found in the Kushan empire give us insights into how were the monks treated and what was the social designation of the monks. The coins give us clear indications that the monks were treated with the utmost respect. They did not even have to beg for food, as they were provided with every day from the public kitchens. The monks and the people all followed Buddhist laws and led a life that was simple and lived a moral life that was dictated by the teachings of the Buddha. The coins also give documents that let us know that there were huge monasteries situated all over the Silk Road.
The Gandhara art form shows the Buddha as an Apollo-like face. This suggests that the trade between the Indian subcontinent and Europe was very strong during that period of time and that Buddhism had spread across borders and even the Western cultures were being influenced by this religion. This was very much different from the previous era, most notably during the reign of Ashoka (Jongeward and Cribb, Page 19). However well established and popular the religion was, during his time, Buddhism was mostly bound in the Indian subcontinent. But under the patronage of the Kushan dynasty, the religion really took off and expanded to most parts of Asia and even started influencing European cultures and new art forms were being created by mixing two completely different art styles.
The time of the Graeco-Bactrian rulers was marked by periods of great wealth that were accumulated through extensive mercantile activities along the Silk Road. Urban life flourished and Buddhist ideologies were established in the empire. The fact that the Kushan Empire had its capital at almost the mid-point between China and Europe, made it very easy for them to control a large territory of land. Buddha’s teachings were followed by the Royal family and hence even the subjects were influenced by this. This was the ideal medium for Buddhism to spread into the realms of Europe (Homrighausen, Page 26-35).
Around the time of 100 AD, Kanishka hosted the 4th Buddhist Council in Kashmir. This was a pivotal moment for the dominance of Mahayana Buddhist tradition. He was a patron of both the Mathura-based Hindu art form as well as the Gandhara school of Greco_buddhist art. The Kanishka stupa of Peshawar is probably his greatest contribution to Buddhist architecture.
Figure 4: One of the Buddhist architecture
(Source: Bhatti et al. page 156)
During Kanishka’s reign, Buddhist monks from the Gandhara region took influence back to China. Lokaksema, the Kushan monk, was the first person to translate the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. He also established an institution that only translated Buddhist scriptures from various other languages into Chinese.
Gandhara sculptures depicted Buddha with Greek gods like Hercules. Folklores from the Indian subcontinent also spread with the spreading of Buddhism and their stories began being sculpted into various art forms (Bhatti et al. Page 151).
The great Buddha sculptures in Bamiyan are the living proof of the impact Buddhism had on the people and on their lives, who lived in the region that was situated in the northwestern part of India, northern parts of Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The coins of the Kushan era were also carrying stories of the Buddha’s life and his teachings were engraved in the coins. This is one of the most important things to notice. The exchange of coins due to trade expansion was one of the biggest reasons as to how and why Buddhism expanded so much during this era. Moreover, the fact that the Kushans controlled the trade between India, China, and European routes made sure that their coins traveled on both sides. So the legends and stories of Buddha spread easily across the lands. (Beckwith, Page 109-136).
Sutras can be very important when it comes to learning about the social structures of a certain time or era. Sutras are often written in the form of conversations or the teachings of great people are compiled in these sutras.
The Kushan era has a huge collection of sutras. These sutras help immensely when it comes to understanding how society was during that time. The conversations between the Buddha and his disciples are written down in these sutras with utmost respect and proficiency. The teachings that were spread by the Buddha are also part of these sutras. These documentations give proper ideas about how the society used to function during the Kushan reigns. The moral fiber that held the society together is easier to understand with the help of these (Amitabha Sutra). The attitude towards monks and how the general public, as well as the royal family, used to lead their lives can be studied through the sutras that are available from this time frame. The gradual change of general mentality and the nature of the society over three decades can also be deciphered by paying heed to the sutras of the Kushan era.
During the Kushan Empire, Buddhism witnessed experienced quite a few transformations. It grew larger, more popular. More people were being converted into, and following, Buddhism than ever before. It even expanded in terms of geographical boundaries. Buddhism spread even in the Steppes. While coins and sculptures have long been overlooked by historians, they are increasingly proving to be more and more helpful to understand the evolution of the religion under the Kushan Empire. The coins and sculptures, along with the sutras, of the Kushan Empire can give insights into the daily lives of the people and the duties of the monks that can be very useful when it comes to writing and understanding history.
Lawler, Andrew. “Huge statue suggests early rise for Buddhism.” Science353.6297 (2016): 336-336.
Jongeward, David, and Joe Cribb. Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian, and Kidarite Coins. New York: The American Numismatic Society, 2015.
Bhatti, Muhammad Ilyas, and Anwar Mohyuddin. “Structural Design of the Buildings in Gandhara as Gleaned on Sculptures.” Journal of Asian Civilizations 37.2 (2014): 151.
Beckwith, Christopher I. “THE ARAMAIC SOURCE OF THE EAST ASIAN WORD FOR ‘BUDDHIST MONASTERY’: ON THE SPREAD OF CENTRAL ASIAN MONASTICISM IN THE KUSHAN PERIOD.” Journal Asiatique 302 (2014): 109-136.
Benjamin, Craig G. “Big History, Collective Learning, and the Silk Roads.” Globalistics and Globalization Studies: Big History & Global History (2015): 167.
Homrighausen, Jonathan. “When Herakles Followed the Buddha: Power, Protection, and Patronage in Gandharan Art.” The Silk Road 13 (2015): 26-35.Order Now