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History on Buddhism

Various schools of Hinayana Buddhism were present in Afghanistan from the earliest times, along the kingdoms that lay on the trade route to Central Asia. The main kingdoms were Gandhara and Bactria. Gandhara included the areas on both the Pakistani Punjab and Afghani sides of the Khyber Pass. Eventually, the Afghani half, from the Khyber Pass to the Kabul Valley, received the name Nagarahara; while the Punjabi side retained the name Gandhara. Bactria extended from the Kabul Valley northwards and included southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. To its north, in central Uzbekistan and northwestern Tajikistan lay Sogdia. The southern part of Bactria, just north of the Kabul Valley, was Kapisha; while the northern part later received the name Tocharistan.

According to early Hinayana biographies of the Buddha, such as the Sarvastivada text The Sutra of Extensive Play (Skt. Lalitavistara Sutra), Tapas­su and Bhallika, two merchant broth­ers from Bac­tria, became the first disciples to receive layman’s vows. This occurred eight weeks after Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, traditionally ascribed to 537 BCE. Bhallika later became a monk and built a monas­tery near his home city, Balkh, near present-day Mazar-i-Sharif. He brought with him eight hairs of the Buddha as relics, for which he built a stupa monument. At about this time, Bactria became part of the Achaemenid Empire of Iran.

In 349 BCE, several years after the Second Buddhist Coun­cil, the Mahasanghika tradition of Hinayana split off from the Theravada. Many Mahasanghikas moved to Gandhara. At Hadda, the main city on the Afghan side, near present-day Jalalabad, they eventually founded Nagara Vihara Monastery, bringing with them a skull relic of the Buddha.

A Theravada elder, Sambhuta Sanavasi, soon followed and tried to establish his trad­ition in Kapisha. He was unsuc­cessful, and Maha­sanghika took root as the main Buddhist tradition of Afghanistan.

Eventually, the Mahasanghikas split into five sub-schools. The main one in Afganistan was Lokottaravada, which later established itself in the Bamiyan Valley in the Hindu Kush Mountains. There, some time between the third and fifth centuries CE, its followers built the world’s largest standing Buddha statue, in keeping with their assertion of Buddha as a transcendent, superhuman figure. The Taliban destroyed the colossus in 2001 CE.

In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered most of the Achaemenid Em­pire, including Bactria and Gandhara. He was tolerant of the religious traditions of these regions and seemed in­terested primarily in military conquest. His successors established the Seleucid Dynasty. In 317 BCE, however, the Indian Mauryan Dynasty took Gandhara from the Seleucids and thus the area was only superficially Hellenized during this short period.

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