The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhara

1. The World of Gandhāran Buddhism

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1. The World of Gandhāran Buddhism

Gandhāra and India’s Northwest Frontier

GANDHĀRA is the ancient name, attested since the time of early Vedic texts dating back at least three thousand years, for the Peshawar Valley and adjoining regions along the Kabul River, stretching for about one hundred miles between the Suleiman Mountains on the edge of the Iranian plateau to the west and the Indus River on the east. In modern terms, Gandhāra corresponds to the area around Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (formerly North-West Frontier Province) of Pakistan.

But the term Gandhāra — or more accurately, Greater Gandhāra — is also applied more broadly to surrounding areas. This territory includes the Swat Valley to the north, the western Punjab including the ancient metropolis of Taxila to the east, eastern Afghanistan to the west, and in the north Bactria (modern northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan), and even parts of the region around the Tarim Basin in Central Asia in the modern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. All of these regions came under the cultural influence of Gandhāra during its glory days in the early centuries of the Common Era and thereby adopted the Gāndhārī language as a literary and administrative medium and Gandhāran Buddhism as their dominant religion. Thus Greater Gandhāra can be understood as a primarily linguistic rather than a political term, that is, as comprising the regions where Gāndhārī was the indigenous or adopted language.


With the spread of Gandhāran cultural and political power into Central Asia, particularly under the Kuṣāṇa emperors in the first and second centuries CE, Gandhāra came to be directly linked into the commerce of the silk roads, tapping into the lucrative trade in luxury goods between China and the Western world. This source of wealth was no doubt one of the major factors in the power and prosperity of the Kuṣāṇas. Besides the economic benefits that the silk road traffic brought to Gandhāra, it also provided cultural and artistic stimuli leading to the development of an eclectic Buddhist culture incorporating Central Asian and Hellenistic ideas and imagery, while also opening the way for the exportation of Buddhism into Central Asia and China.

The Bloody History of Paradise

In 1978, a Japanese rock group called Godiego recorded in English a song called “Gandhara” as the theme song for the television drama Saiyūki, or “Monkey.” These lyrics read in part:

A long time ago when men were all babes,

there was a land of the free.

Fantasy and dreams

were its untouched wealth,

and goodness and love were real.

Each man desires to reach Gandhara,

his very own utopia.

In the striving, in the seeking soul,

man can see Gandhara.

In Gandhara, Gandhara,

they say it was in India.

Gandhara, Gandhara,

the place of light, Gandhara.

Here we see the image of Gandhāra as it was, and still is, imagined 13by East Asian Buddhists: a magical holy land of peace and harmony. The television show Saiyūki was based on a popular Chinese novel of the sixteenth century, an imaginative account of the famous Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to Gandhāra and other parts of India nearly a millennium earlier. This idealized presentation of Gandhāra is a distant reflection of the glory days of Gandhāran Buddhism in the early years of the Common Era. Even by the time of Xuanzang’s epic journey to India in the early seventh century, Buddhism had largely declined in Gandhāra. But he was still able to see its legacy in the form of stūpas and other monuments, many of which still dot the landscape today, especially in the Swat Valley, and to collect the legends of its splendors and wonders in the centuries before his time.


Figure 6. The Manikiala stūpa.

The situation in this region today could hardly be more different. It is currently the epicenter of an ongoing bitter struggle between radical Islamists on one side and the ruling powers of Pakistan and Afghanistan on the other, each side fueled by foreign supporters. The willful destruction of the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Taliban in 2001 and the assassination of Osama bin Laden by American military forces in Abbotabad, Pakistan, in 2011, both within the territory of Greater Gandhāra, are only two of the most widely 14publicized battles in this war between the forces of fundamentalism and modernism. Viewed from a broad historic perspective, these conflicts are a sequel to the three Anglo-Afghan wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and to the Great Game, the struggle throughout the nineteenth century between the expanding British and Russian empires for control of Afghanistan.

But even then, strife was nothing new to this region. Throughout history, from the earliest recorded times, Gandhāra has been the scene of frequent wars and invasions from the west into the Indian subcontinent. This turbulent history is the inevitable outcome of its geographical and cultural setting. Gandhāra is an archetypal frontier region situated on a fault line between major geo-cultural zones. Lying on the seam between the Iranian world to the west, the Indian world to the east, and Central Asia to the north, it is the place where, again and again throughout history, these and sometimes other worlds have collided. The passes linking the Iranian plateau and the plains of the Punjab and northern India, including the fabled Khyber Pass, which leads directly into Gandhāra proper, have served for thousands of years as a geographical funnel into India, whose fertility, vast population, and fabled luxuries have enticed conquerors and settlers since the very dawn of history. It was through this funnel that, some four millennia ago, speakers of Indo-European languages began entering northern India, where they would establish the Sanskritic culture that has predominated in the Indian cultural world ever since.

In view of its role as a frontier region and zone of transit between several cultural regions, it is not surprising that Gandhāra has always had a distinct and complex cultural identity. On the one hand, Gandhāra has usually been culturally more part of India than of the Iranian world, despite the constant influence of and frequent political domination from the west, whether Hellenistic, Iranian, Afghan, or Central Asian. In this regard, the rugged mountains that define the western border of Gandhāra proper have also functioned as a cultural boundary, if a porous one. But on the other hand, even within the Indian cultural zone Gandhāra 15has always stood apart as a land on the fringe, with its own distinct ways and identity, and relationships between Gandhāra and the Indian heartland often seem to involve a certain ambivalence. Even in the early Vedic culture some three millennia ago, which was centered in the neighboring Punjab region to the east, Gandhāra was viewed as a foreign land at the outer limits of the known world, strange and vaguely threatening. The earliest Vedic text, the Ṛg Veda, barely mentions Gandhāra, referring only once to wool from Gandhāra, and also, more or less in passing, to the Kabul (Kubhā) and Swat (Suvāstu) Rivers. The somewhat later Atharva Veda, datable to around the early first millennium BCE, mentions Gandhāra only in a charm intended to dispel fevers to the far distant lands to the west and east: “We send the fever to the lands of Gandhāri, Mujavat, Anga, and Magadha.”8 In a later stage of Vedic literature, the Chāndogya Upaniṣad contains a parable of a man from Gandhāra who must find the way back to his distant homeland.9

But as the cultural purview of the heartland Indian culture in the Gangetic plain expanded in subsequent centuries, Gandhāra began to be brought within the pale. Early Buddhist literature contains several lists of the sixteen great countries of India in the Buddha’s time, and these usually include Gandhāra along with Kamboja (Afghanistan) as the westernmost places. Taxila (Skt Takṣaśilā, Pali Takkasilā) is mentioned frequently in the prose commentaries on the jātaka stories of the Buddha’s past lives as a center of learning to which young men were sent for their education. In the Brahmanical/Hindu tradition of the post-Vedic period, too, Gandhāra seems no longer to be perceived as a foreign land. For example, Pāṇini, the revered supreme grammarian of Sanskrit, was said to have come from the town of Śālātura in the eastern fringe of Gandhāra. Gandhāra is also within the purview of the Mahābhārata epic, in which its king, Subala, and especially his daughter, Gāndhārī — whose name means “woman of Gandhāra” — play major roles. Moreover, the first complete recitation of the entire epic was said to have taken place at Taxila.



Map 2. The World of Early Buddhism

Early Buddhism and Gandhāra

The geographic footprint of early Buddhism was determined by the regions in which the Buddha wandered during his lifetime, sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE.10 During and shortly after the Buddha’s lifetime, Buddhism was limited to the central Ganges-Yamuna Valley and the surrounding regions of north-central and northeastern India, hundreds of miles distant from Gandhāra. This can be seen from the locations of the four most sacred sites of Buddhism: Lumbinī, the Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal’s Terai region, near the Indian border; Bodhgayā in Bihar, where he attained enlightenment; Sārnāth, near Vārāṇasī in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where he first preached the Dharma; and Kuśinagara in the northeastern corner of Uttar Pradesh, where his last life ended in his parinirvāṇa. A similar picture emerges from a study of the names of the places mentioned 17in early Buddhist literature, especially the locations where he was said to have expounded the various sūtras. By far the most common references — nearly 60 percent according to a representative sampling of Pali texts11 — are places in and around the city of Śrāvastī, the capital of the Kosala kingdom in central north India. After Śrāvastī, the most frequently mentioned location is Rājagṛha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha, to the southeast of Kosala. Other commonly cited cities are Sāketa, Vaiśālī, Kauśāmbī, Vārāṇasī, and Campā, all of which lie in adjoining territories in and around the central and eastern Ganges Valley. The kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha were ruled during the Buddha’s lifetime by Kings Prasenajit and Ajātaśatru, and the prestige and material support afforded by their patronage was no doubt a major reason that the Buddha and his followers spent so much of their time in their capitals. The crucial importance of royal patronage for the maintenance and expansion of Buddhist monastic communities is a consistent pattern throughout the subsequent history of Buddhism in India and elsewhere, as we will see in connection with the two other prototypical royal patrons of Buddhism, Aśoka and Kaniṣka.

Gandhāra, in contrast, is still at the margins in early Buddhism. It is mentioned only in the conventional listings of the sixteen great countries of India, and even there it is absent from some versions. Although Taxila, the great metropolis of the northwest, is frequently referred to in the prose commentary on the Jātakas and in other Pali commentaries, it is never mentioned in the early sūtras. Thus we can conclude that Gandhāra was a distant land that was probably known only faintly and indirectly to the Buddha and his followers.

Aśoka and the Mauryan Empire

Very little is known of the history of Gandhāra until the time of the Achaemenid Empire of Iran, which conquered Gandhāra and adjoining territories and incorporated them into its eastern flank between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. After Alexander the Great destroyed 18the Achaemenid Empire in 331 BCE, he went on to conquer Gandhāra en route to his long-cherished goal of incorporating the wonderland of India into a realm that would embrace the entire known world. But soon after this, his enterprise failed as his army, weary after eight years of fighting, refused to go on beyond the rivers of the Punjab. His dream shattered, Alexander had to turn back westward and died three years after leaving India.

Within a few years after Alexander’s incursion, Gandhāra was incorporated into the newly born Indian empire of the mighty Mauryan dynasty, which rapidly grew into the first great transregional empire that controlled the majority of the Indian subcontinent. Under its founder, Candragupta Maurya, who ruled from approximately 324 to 300 BCE, Gandhāra and adjoining regions, along with most of northern and central India, came for the first time under the rule of an Indian power based far to the east in Pāṭaliputra (modern Patna, Bihar), in northeastern India. Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson Aśoka (ca. 273–232 BCE) was to become the greatest royal patron of Buddhism, “the Constantine of Buddhism,” under whose sponsorship Buddhism spread in all directions, far beyond its early strongholds in north and eastern India, and began to develop into a pan-Indian and ultimately into a world religion. It is at this point that Gandhāra became part of the Buddhist world.

We know precious little about the historical development of Buddhism between the lifetime of the Buddha and the reign of Aśoka. There are no inscriptions or other primary historical sources to guide us. The only information comes from the Buddhist texts themselves. But Buddhist canonical texts are uniformly ahistorical, in the sense that they are never dated and mention historical circumstances, if at all, only in passing and only with reference to some point of Buddhist teaching or doctrine. Although a sūtra must, in order to be considered authentic and authoritative, be prefaced with a nidāna, that is, a statement of when and where it was preached, this preface never includes a date. The time is invariably stated only as “Thus have I heard: at one time . . . ” (Skt evaṃ me śrutam: ekasmin samaye . . . ), but that “time” 19is never located in a historical sequence. As a result, the chronology of early Buddhist literature, and thus the history of early Buddhism, can be deduced only by internal comparisons and other indirect methods, and at best only in relative terms. We have no way to attach specific dates to any of the texts and events of early Buddhism whereby we might trace its spread and development; indeed, we do not even know with any precision when the Buddha himself lived.

This situation changes drastically with the reign of Aśoka. Aśoka was the first Indian monarch who saw fit not only to issue public proclamations to his subjects in all parts of his vast realm but, more importantly, to have them carved onto natural rock surfaces or artificial stone pillars, with the result that many of them have survived to the present day. In this, he was probably inspired by the monumental trilingual inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings whose territories he had inherited. Several of Aśoka’s inscriptions are dated by the year of his reign. The absolute chronological value of those dates has been determined with reasonable certainty and precision on the basis of his reference to five contemporary Hellenistic kings of the Western world to whom Aśoka addressed his message of “conquest by dharma.” Since the dates of these Hellenistic kings — Antiochus (Antiyoka) of Syria, Ptolemy (Turamāya) of Egypt, Antigones (Antikini) of Macedonia, Magas (Maka) of Cyrene (North Africa), and Alexander (Alikasudara) of Greece — are well attested in classical historical tradition, they allow us to correlate Aśoka’s regnal years to a known chronology, and thereby to establish the dates of his rule to approximately 273–232 BCE.

With the appearance of the Aśokan inscriptions, we have the first indication, albeit indirect, of a Buddhist presence in the region of Gandhāra. The matter is complicated, however, by the ambiguous character of these inscriptions. They fall into four main classes, which in turn may be divided into two subsets: first, those with explicit Buddhist content, namely the minor rock edicts and the separate pillar edicts, and second, the non-Buddhist inscriptions, namely the major rock edicts and the major pillar edicts. In the latter set, Aśoka promulgates a 20neutral, all-encompassing dhamma (= Skt dharma) that was designed to appeal to all of his diverse subjects, carefully avoiding any specific sectarian terms or ideas.

In light of this scrupulous neutrality, some historians have even questioned whether Aśoka was really a Buddhist, but this skepticism is excessive. For in his explicitly Buddhist inscriptions, he speaks in a very direct and personal manner of his conviction and dedication to the Buddhist Dharma. For example, in his minor rock edicts Aśoka confesses that although he had joined the Buddhist saṅgha as a lay follower, he felt dissatisfied with his spiritual progress during the first year and was now applying himself more diligently. Also, in his rock edict at Bairāṭ in Rajasthan he addresses himself directly to the local Buddhist monastic community and recommends seven canonical texts for special attention and study.12

Thus there can be no reasonable doubt that Aśoka was personally a committed Buddhist. In his mixed messages, Aśoka follows the typical pattern of Indian kings who patronized multiple religions, as we shall also see in connection with the Kuṣāṇa emperors some four centuries later. In the complex religious mosaic of traditional India, it was only normal that the ruler of a large kingdom would strive to appear to be all things to all of his people.

Aśoka’s fourteen major rock edicts, recorded in three different local dialects in nine places around India, include two in eastern Gandhāra at two adjacent sites, Shāhbazgaṛhī and Mansehrā. But the problem with regard to our main concern, namely the origins of Buddhism in Gandhāra, is that both of these are nonsectarian edicts and include none of his explicitly Buddhist proclamations. Therefore we cannot assume on the basis of the inscriptions alone that Buddhism had been brought to Gandhāra by Aśoka. To determine the early history of Buddhism in Gandhāra, we need to examine other types of information, namely textual and archaeological materials.

With regard to the first category, we turn to an extensive body of legends about Aśoka preserved in various postcanonical Buddhist 21texts, most notably in the Mahāvaṃsa (the ecclesiastical chronicle of Sri Lanka) and in collections of avadāna legends in Sanskrit and in Chinese translation that are sometimes grouped together under the heading “Legends of Aśoka” (Aśokāvadāna).13 In these stories, Aśoka is presented as the ideal Buddhist emperor and lavish patron of the saṅgha, one who gave up to it everything he owned, down to his last possession — half a myrobalan fruit.

Aśoka’s image is modeled on the pattern of the royal patrons of the Buddha’s lifetime, Prasenajit and Ajātaśatru, but on a far vaster scale. His most important act of patronage, reported in the Legends of Aśoka, was to retrieve the relics of the Buddha, which after his parinirvāṇa had been divided and buried in eight stūpas, and to redistribute them into 84,000 stūpas, which he had caused to be constructed throughout the earth on a single day and which came to be known as the dharmarājikā, the stūpas “of the Dharma-king.” This widespread legend about Aśoka can be understood as a symbolic or mythologized presentation of his role in promoting the spread of Buddhism beyond its original homeland in central north India and into his vast territories and sphere of influence, comprising not only nearly all of the Indian subcontinent but also adjoining areas of Afghanistan. In short, Aśoka is portrayed as the patron who changed Buddhism from a regional religion into a pan-Indian, and eventually a pan-Asian, one.

The magical multiplication of the relics and their distribution far and wide has a resounding echo in the archaeological record, albeit only from a later period. The abundant relic deposit inscriptions from Gandhāra in subsequent centuries often celebrate the foundation of relic stūpas in “a part of the earth where a relic foundation had never been made before” (apratiṣṭhāpitapūrve pṛthivīpradeśe). This frequent addition to the basic relic-dedication formula reflects the belief that establishing a relic in a region where this had not previously been done earns the donor or sponsor an extra share of karmic merit, a notion that is explicitly confirmed in canonical texts.14 This shows how the cult of the Buddha’s relics continued, even after Aśoka’s time, to serve 22as both a mechanism of and a symbol for the implantation of Buddhism in new territories.

Particularly interesting for our purposes is a secondary episode in the legend of Aśoka and the relics, in which the residents of Taxila request an extra share of relics, thirty-six sets in all, one for each thousand residents of the city.15 Aśoka responds that he could give them only one set of relics, and so to respect their wishes, he would have to kill 35,000 of them. At this point, the people of Taxila quite sensibly withdraw their greedy request. This can be understood as a mythologized reference to the special vitality of the Buddhist relic cult in Gandhāra, as shown by the abundance of Buddhist reliquaries, inscribed and uninscribed, that have been found in that region; over four hundred examples are collected in a recent comprehensive study.16

Aśoka’s harsh response to the pious greed of the Taxilans may seem shocking in view of his portrayal in Buddhist literature as an ideal Buddhist emperor, and even more so by comparison with his self-presentation as a benevolent and gentle ruler in his inscriptions. But there is much more to Aśoka than this; he is on multiple levels a complex and enigmatic figure. Despite the veneration he receives in Buddhist texts, his character in them is ambiguous. For example, he is described as a monster of cruelty before his conversion to Buddhism. This can of course be understood as the usual hyperbolic rhetoric of the reformed convert, but even after Aśoka becomes a Buddhist, he is still viewed with some unease and ambivalence, as shown by this and other episodes.17 In part, this is no doubt a reflection of the tense symbiosis between Buddhist institutions and secular powers that is a constant of the history of Buddhism, but it is also characteristic of Aśoka’s many-faceted character. In fact, Aśoka’s own inscriptions and the Buddhist legends also have little, if anything in common,18 and even for the most part refer to him by different names. In Buddhist literature he is always called Aśoka, while in the inscriptions he almost always refers to himself as Devānaṃpiya Piyadassī, “beloved of the gods, of loving regard,” except for a few places where he adds the name Aśoka.


But the evidence presented so far still does not prove that Aśoka was actually responsible for the implantation of Buddhism in Gandhāra. None of the many inscribed reliquaries is earlier than the second century BCE, at least a century or so after Aśoka. This raises the suspicion that the legends about Aśoka’s role in Buddhist literature represent later fabrications that were anachronistically cast back to the time of the archetypal royal patron and credited to him. Unfortunately, other indications of Aśoka’s role in the spread of Buddhism into Gandhāra are also less than conclusive. Xuanzang, visiting Gandhāra and other parts of India in the first half of the seventh century, reported that six stūpas that he saw in Gandhāra had been built by Aśoka, but this too reflects the legends current in his time, nearly a millennium after Aśoka, so that their historical accuracy is by no means beyond doubt. Some relatively early inscriptions also credit Aśoka with this achievement; for instance, an inscription of the early first century CE refers to the rededication of relics that had been taken “from a stūpa of the Mauryan time,”19 while an inscribed statue of the Buddha of about the same period records its dedication to a dharmarājikā stūpa that had been established by King Aśoka.20

One more clue to Aśoka’s role in the spread of Buddhism to Gandhāra involves a passage from the Mahāvaṃsa. This passage records the names of the missionaries who were sent to various regions of India after the third great Buddhist council, which had been convened by Aśoka at his capital, Pāṭaliputra. According to this account, a monk named Majjhantika was sent to the northwest, where he converted Gandhāra and Kashmir by preaching the Āsīvisopama Sutta. As it happens, this sūtra (in Gāndhārī, aśiviṣaama) is among the several dozen whose names are included in the list of texts in one of the index scrolls in the Senior collection of Gāndhārī manuscripts, although the text of the sūtra itself has not been found.21 This could be simply a coincidence, but the presence of this sūtra in Gandhāra might also support the accuracy of the tradition recorded in the Mahāvaṃsa regarding the conversion of Gandhāra in Aśoka’s time.


The Indo-Greeks

Even after the time of Aśoka, for about a century there is very little direct, datable evidence for Buddhist activity in Gandhāra. After the decline of the Mauryas in the early second century BCE, a succession of invaders and conquerors from the west dominated Gandhāra for four centuries. The first phase of this period involved the Bactrian Greeks and Indo-Greeks, inheritors of Alexander’s Hellenistic legacy in the eastern world, who conquered Gandhāra and other parts of northern India in the second and early first centuries BCE. During this period the Buddhist presence in Gandhāra gradually becomes more distinctly visible, until it reaches a climax in the first two centuries of the Common Era. But as is typically the case in the study of ancient India, our knowledge of the history of the thirty-odd Greek kings of Bactria and India is very incomplete. The main source for the history of this period is the abundant coinage of these kings; indeed, most of them are known from coins alone. Inscriptions, especially dated inscriptions, which are typically the best source of historical information in early India, are still very rare in this phase. The result is that the sequence and chronology of the kings is known only tentatively and approximately, as it has had to be reconstructed on the basis of interpretations, often quite subjective and controversial, of the features and relationships of the various coins.

Nonetheless, one point that is generally agreed on is that Menander, the Indo-Greek king who ruled in Gandhāra and adjoining parts of northern India around the middle of the second century BCE,22 stands out as one of the most prominent and influential of the Greek kings of India. This conclusion is based, first of all, on the abundance of his coins, which are the most numerous among all of the Indo-Greek rulers and which are found over a wide range from eastern Afghanistan to the central Ganges Valley.23 But Menander’s greatest claim to fame is the paracanonical24 Buddhist text whose title contains the Pali rendering of his name, the Questions of Milinda (Milindapañha). This work 25was probably originally composed in Gāndhārī, but it survives only in Pali and Chinese translations.25 The text is set in Menander’s capital, Sāgala, whose exact location is uncertain but was probably in the Punjab. This long text (some three hundred pages in Horner’s translation) consists of a series of philosophical dialogues about Buddhist ideas and principles between the king and a learned Buddhist monk named Nāgasena. The dialogues show the king to be a penetrating thinker who expresses a lively interest in Buddhism and asks Nāgasena difficult questions about the subtleties of Buddhist doctrine.


Figure 7. A coin of Menander.

At the end of the Pali text, King Milinda declares his acceptance of the Dharma, becomes a lay follower under the guidance of Nāgasena, and renounces his kingdom, leaving it to his son. He declares, “Among the Buddha’s followers, none but the elder Sāriputra compares to you for answering questions. . . . Forgive me my transgressions, Venerable Nāgasena. Accept me as a lay follower, Venerable Nāgasena, as one who goes for refuge from this day forth.” 26 However, this passage occurs only in the longer Pali version and is absent from the Chinese translation. Other than his appearance in his book of questions, Menander appears hardly anywhere else in Buddhist tradition, so that the historicity of Menander’s supposed conversion to Buddhism has been questioned by many historians.27

In many respects, including its content, style, format, and language, as well as its ambiguous status in the canon, the Questions of Milinda 26is a most unusual text. A further problem is that the Chinese translation agrees only partially with the Pali version. The extant Pali text, in seven sections, is much longer than the Chinese, which corresponds to only the first three sections of the Pali. The last four parts of the Pali version therefore are probably later additions to the original text, so that the Pali seems to be a composite of originally separate materials cobbled together by the device of attributing them to the dialogue of Menander and Nāgasena.

It has been suggested that the original text of the Questions of Milinda was in Sanskrit rather than Pali, but given its association with the northwest, it is more likely that its original language was Gāndhārī.28 Recently a few small fragments have been discovered of a Gāndhārī text that has some resemblance to the Questions of Milinda, including a reference to Nāgasena, but they seem to belong to some related tradition rather than to the Questions itself.

Thus Menander’s role in the implantation of Buddhism in the northwest, if any, was by no means comparable to that of Aśoka, the archetypal royal patron of Buddhism. Menander’s coinage, though abundant and important for historical studies, tells us little about Buddhism; a few of his bronze coins have a wheel design, which has been taken by some as the Buddhist symbol for the wheel of the law (dharmacakra), but this is uncertain. Quite likely Menander, like most kings of ancient India, engaged in multiple patronage, showing himself as a Buddhist to his local Buddhist subjects while also maintaining another image as a Hellenophile Greek, as demonstrated by his selection of the image of Athena as the principal motif on his coinage.

Regardless of the historicity of his supposed dialogues with the monk Nāgasena and his alleged conversion, the unique appearance of this Greek king in a semicanonical text set in the northwest is our best indication that Buddhism was flourishing, or at least was becoming a significant presence there, by the mid-second century BCE. But other than the Questions, we have little information about Menander’s role in the history of Buddhism. The only other archaeological information 27about him comes from an inscription on a broken stone reliquary that was found near the village of Shinkot in the Bajaur region, which is situated along the modern Pakistan-Afghanistan border.29 This reliquary, among the earliest of the many Buddhist reliquaries from Gandhāra, bears several inscriptions, and one of them, unfortunately very fragmentary, was evidently dated in a regnal year of Menander. The other inscriptions on the reliquary refer to a later king of the Apraca dynasty, Vijayamitra I, who ruled around the late first century BCE, so that they probably record the rededication of relics that had been previously established during the reign of Menander. But the reference to Menander in this inscription merely concerns his regnal year, according to the standard method of citing dates at this period, and does not prove that he patronized or was in any way involved in the initial relic dedication. Still, it is an important indication of the presence of Buddhism and the cult of the Buddha’s bodily relics in the Gandhāra region during Menander’s reign.


Figure 8. The Shinkot reliquary.

There is one other inscription that sheds a little further light on the Buddhism of this period. This is a reliquary found in the late nineteenth century by an Englishman in an unspecified village in the Swat Valley, “where it was employed by the local banya [shopkeeper] as 28a money-box.”30 The inscription is undated, but on the basis of the archaic form of the Kharoṣṭhī script, it can be attributed to the second or first century BCE. It reads “These relics of the Lord Śākyamuni are established by the meridarch Theodotos for the benefit of the populace.” Here, for the first but not the last time, we have what we lacked in the case of Menander: a clear instance of a lay Buddhist patron who, to judge from his name, was ethnically and/or culturally Greek. Moreover, Theodotos was not just any Greek; he was a meridarch: literally, “ruler of a division,” that is, a high-ranking government official, probably a military commander who was in charge of a territorial division of some (unfortunately unidentified) kingdom. So here we have the earliest concrete evidence of the implantation of Buddhism in the Gandhāra region and, equally importantly, its adoption by members of the non-Indian ruling elite at some point before the beginning of the Common Era.

The Age of the Scythian Kingdoms

The period of Indo-Greek domination in northwest India was followed in the first centuries BCE and CE by waves of invaders and nomads from the Iranian plateau and the Central Asian steppes, including the Indo-Scythians (a branch of the widespread Scythian nomads, also known as Sakas), the Parthians, and finally the Kuṣāṇas. This pattern of successive displacements in Central Asia and resulting invasions into India was driven by the movements of powerful tribes of nomadic herders across the steppes of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, movements that have profoundly affected not only the history of India but also of China, Iran, and other parts of the ancient world. In India these invaders established a series of kingdoms centered in Gandhāra that set the pattern for the history of the next several centuries, an era of unprecedented prosperity and influence.

Despite the chaos of successive invasions, this era ushered in a golden age of Buddhism in the northwest, as the invaders adopted 29Buddhism as their public faith and became enthusiastic patrons of monastic establishments and the associated cults of the Buddha’s relics. The universalist outlook and appeal of Buddhism, open to all people regardless of their ethnicity and culture, made it equally attractive to the Greek invaders and to their successors, the Scythians, Parthians, and Kuṣāṇas, offering to all of them both a key to salvation on the personal level and a ready means of assimilating into the local cultures of their conquered territories, helping them to gain legitimacy in the e

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