Buddhism in Iran

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Mongol rulers Arghun and Abaqa were Buddhists. From the 14th century Universal History by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani.

Buddhism in Iran may date as far back as the 5th or 6th century BCE, during the life of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni.[citation needed] A Pali legend suggests that the spread of Buddhism to Balkh was initiated by two merchant brothers from Bactria (present-day Afghanistan) and through the Kushan, Indo-Parthian, Indo-Scythian rule at Khorasan and Gedrosia of East Iran.[1]

From the 2nd century Parthians such as An Shigao, were active in spreading Buddhism in China. Many of the earliest translators of Buddhist literature into Chinese were from Parthia and other kingdoms linked with present-day Iran.[2]


Greater Khorasan[edit]

Names of territories during the Caliphate in 750 CE.

Khorasan, also written as Khurasan (Middle Persian: Khwarāsān, Persian: خراسان بزرگ or خراسان کهنAbout this sound listen ), is a historical region[3] lying in the northeast of Persia. "In pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, the term "Khurassan" frequently had a much wider denotation, covering also parts of Central Asia and Afghanistan; early Islamic usage often regarded everywhere east of western Persia, sc. Djibal or what was subsequently termed 'Irak 'Adjami, as being included in a vast and ill-defined region of Khurasan, which might even extend to the Indus Valley and Sind."[4] Before Islamization of the region, the inhabitants of Khorasan had mostly practiced Zoroastrianism, but there were also followers of Buddhism and Surya Hinduism.

Margu (Greek: Μαργιανή Margiane, Latin: Margiana, Old Persian: Marguš) was a region within the Achaemenid satrapy of Bactria, and a province within its successors, the Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian Empires.

It was located in the valley of the river Murghab which has its sources in the mountains of Afghanistan, and passes through Murghab District in modern Afghanistan, and then reaches the oasis of Merv in modern Turkmenistan and Khorosan area at Merv.

Buddhism Period[edit]

Meanwhile, the Buddha's teachings had spread north-west, into Parthian territory. Buddhist stupa remains have been identified as distant as the Silk Road city of Merv.[5] Soviet archeological teams in Giaur Kala, near Merv, have uncovered a Buddhist monastery, complete with huge buddharupa. Parthian nobles such as An Shih Kao are known to have adopted Buddhism and were among those responsible for its further spread towards China at greater Khorasan.

Maurya Empire Gedrosia[edit]

From the 1st century to the 3rd century CE, the Balochistan region was ruled by the Pāratarājas (lit. "Pārata Kings"), a dynasty of Indo-Scythian or Indo-Parthian kings. Gedrosia is the name of an area that corresponds to today's Balochistan, that consists of Balochistan Pakistan & Iranian Baluchistan, and Afghan Baluchistan.[6] It is said that Buddhism was also practised in Iranian Baluchistan.

Map showing the route of Alexander the Great through Gedrosia

Pre-Islamic Iran[edit]

Buddhists were persecuted during the Sasanid rule in the region, who made Zoroastrianism the state religion in 224 AD, and thereafter burned many Buddhist sites. Surviving Buddhist sites were later raided in the 5th century by the White Huns.[7]

Arab conquests and decline[edit]

At the time of the Arab conquests in the mid-7th century, much of the eastern Iranian world was mainly Buddhist. Afghanistan is rich in Buddhist sites; others have been found in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and within Iran itself.[8] The Arab conquests brought the final demise of Buddhism in Eastern Iran and Afghanistan, although in some sites like Bamiyan and Hadda it survived until the 8th or 9th century.[7]

Mongol ruler Ghazan, who received Buddhist education in his youth, converted to Islam in 1295 AD and made it the state religion of the Ilkhanate.[9] He also prohibited the practice of Buddhism, but allowed monks to go into exile into neighboring Buddhist regions.[10]


In recent years, as part of the post-revolution period. Buddhist ideas and practice, as part of a broader reemergence of various faiths in Iran, has experienced an upsurge of interest among Iranians. Some of the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri shows Buddhist influence, and another major contemporary poet, Ahmad Shamlou, translated a book of Japanese haiku poetry into Persian.[11]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Mostafa Vaziri (2012). Buddhism in Iran: An Anthropological Approach to Traces and Influences. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781137022936. 

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Golestan, Mehrak (December 2004), "History of the Buddhism in Iran", The Iranian, retrieved 2009-01-28 
  2. ^ Willemen, Charles; Dessein, Bart; Cox, Collett; Gonda, Jan; Bronkhorst, Johannes; Spuler, Bertold; Altenmüller, Hartwig, Handbuch der Orientalistik: Sarvāstivāda Buddhist Scholasticism, Brill, pp. 128–130, ISBN 978-90-04-10231-6 
  3. ^ "Khorasan". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2010-10-21. historical region and realm comprising a vast territory now lying in northeastern Iran, southern Turkmenistan, and northern Afghanistan. The historical region extended, along the north, from the Amu Darya (Oxus River) westward to the Caspian Sea and, along the south, from the fringes of the central Iranian deserts eastward to the mountains of central Afghanistan. Arab geographers even spoke of its extending to the boundaries of India. 
  4. ^ "Khurasan", The Encyclopaedia of Islam, page 55. Brill. Retrieved 2010-10-22. 
  5. ^ "The Silk Road city of Marv (Grk. Margiana), situated in the eastern part of the Parthian Empire, became a major Buddhist center" Foltz, "Religions of the Silk Road", p47
  6. ^ Gedrosia
  7. ^ a b Yarshater (1993). The Cambridge History of Iran. Cambridge University Press. pp. 956–7. ISBN 978-0-521-24693-4. 
  8. ^ Richard Foltz, "Buddhism in the Iranian World," The Muslim World 100/2-3, 2010, pp. 204-214
  9. ^ Dunn, Ross E. (2005), The adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim traveler of the fourteenth century, University of California Press, pp. 86, 161, ISBN 978-0-520-24385-9 
  10. ^ Anna Akasoy; Charles Burnett; Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim (2011). Islam and Tibet: Interactions Along the Musk Routes. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-0-7546-6956-2. 
  11. ^ Foltz, pp. 212-213