Buddhism and the Parthian Empire

Courtesy of the British Museum (direct link here) under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Speaking of the Parthians, let’s talk about Buddhism. As mentioned in the previous post, the Parthians primary religion was Zoroastrianism, a fascinating subject by itself. However, they were quite tolerant of other religions and faiths, including the Greek colonists, Babylonians and their venerable pantheon, but also faiths that arose in the eastern parts of the Empire.

Buddhism at this time had firmly begun to move outside of the Indian subcontinent: to the northwest in modern Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to the south in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The former gave rise to the Mahayana tradition, the latter the Theravada tradition.

The Greek colonists leftover from Alexander the Great’s conquests had many positive interactions with India under Ashoka the Great, and in a previous post we saw how Ashoka sent Buddhist inscriptions to places like Kandahar and so on. But Buddhism spread even further into the Parthian Empire, if only a little.

The city of Merv, in modern Iran, was probably the Western-most outpost of Buddhism until the modern era. Here, monasteries existed, and people studied the Buddhist doctrine. Later, Mani the founder of Manichaeism also borrowed elements of Buddhism (among other sources) for this teachings.

This influence of Buddhism (however minor) on the Parthian Empire was because the Parthians had a close connection with, and positive relation with their neighbors the Kushan Empire. The Kushans were a major patron of Mahayana Buddhism at this time as it spread on the Silk Road, and had inherited the earlier Bactrian-Greek artistic styles (such as those shown above), and Gandhari-language Buddhist literature. It’s fair to say that Buddhism as we know it today wouldn’t have been the same without the Kushans.

The artwork above shows the Buddha flanked by the Indian gods Indra and Brahman, both mentioned frequently in old Buddhist literature. The style definitely shows some Greek influence as well.

Anyhow, it’s fascinating how this one work of art can show such a confluence of cultures and influences. As for the Parthians, the eastern frontier hasn’t been explored archaeologically as much as the western half, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of this in the coming years. 🙂

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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