Scythian Zoroastrian Influence on early Buddhism
Ancient Iranians played an important part in the transmission of Buddhism to the east. Among the early translators of Buddhist texts into Chinese were Parthians, Sogdians, and Khotanese. (The earliest known of these translators was An Shih-kao, a Parthian; q.v.).
It was among an ancient Iranian people, the Sakas/Scythians, that Buddhism found its most enthusiastic reception. They formed the ruling class in Khotan, the chief kingdom of southern Chinese Turkestan in the present-day Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region during much of its history.
These ancient Iranians in Saka/Scythian kingdom of Khotan were active on the southern branch of the Silk Route (in the present-day Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China) and it is likely that much of the influence of ancient Iranians on Buddhist thought and culture was actually exerted in Saka/ Scythian kingdom of Khotan in the present-day Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region.
It is not possible to assess the part played by Saka/ Scythian kingdom of Khotan in the development of the Mahāyāna, but its role is likely to have been of considerable importance. That Buddhism should have passed through ancient Iranian territory to the present-day Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region without being affected by ancient Zoroastrian Iranian influence seems highly improbable.
The spread of Buddhism under the Kushans coincides with dramatic developments in Buddhist doctrine, art, and literature, developments that are characteristic of northern Buddhism exclusively, and in which Zoroastrian Bactrians, Zoroastrian Scythians/Sakas, and Zoroastrian Parthians must certainly have participated.
It is noteworthy that, in the Old Khotanese Suvarṇabhāsottamasūtra, the name Śrī of the Indian goddess of fortune is either taken up as such or translated by the Zoroastrian name śśandrā-matā–; compare Avestan speñtá ár-maiti, the “auspicious flow of thoughts/meditation” and the guardian of the good earth (Emmerick, 2002, pp. 7-9 with reference to earlier literature).
A few magic texts and a collection of sacred formulas against demons are extremely similar to Vi-dæv-dát (Vendidad) in the Avestan lore.
Among other influences are the rise of the Mahāyāna school of Buddhism and the Scythian style of Buddhist art known as “Gandharan.”
In Mahāyāna Buddhism the historical Buddha Śākyamuni is regarded as only one of many Buddhas and hence less as an almost unattainable ideal. The ideal of the Boði-sattvas in the Mahāyāna supplanted the ideal of the Saöshyánts (future saviors) among the Zoroastrians (q.v.; Rosenfield, pp. 227ff.)
In the Mahāyānist conception of the Boði-sattvas, Amitābha and Avalokiteśvara, the Zoroastrian influence has been detected (de Mallmann, pp. 85-95).
To the Kushan period dates the most famous example of Buddhist rock-hewn architecture among Iranians, the colossal rock-hewn Buddhas, 35 and 53 m tall, at Bāmīán in Afghanistan (Beal, I, pp. 49-53) and seem to have been first mentioned in the west by Thomas Hyde in a.d. 1700 (Hyde, p. 132).
Kushan influence is known to have spread northward into Chorasmia and Sogdiana, but it seems doubtful whether these regions were ever under Kushan rule, and there is not much evidence of Buddhism in these regions in the Kushan period. When the Korean pilgrim Huei-cḥʿao visited Samarkand early in the 8th century, he found only a solitary Buddhist monastery with a solitary monk (Fuchs, p. 452). Everywhere Zoroastrianism was practiced. Moreover, there is hardly a trace of Buddhism in the 8th-century Sogdian documents from Mt. Mugh.
It has been suggested that the term “Nov-bahār,” a Persian form of Sanskrit nava-vihāra “new temple,” may designate the sites of a specifically Iranian Buddhist sect (Bulliet; see also ii, below). The most famous Novbahār was at Balḵh.
The word bót in Persian came to mean not only an image of the Buddha but also an “idol.”
The Persian poet Boḵārī writes “My idol (bót) came alive; its monk became inanimate/Here I am a monk to it with my house as its vihāra.” The metaphor presents the beloved one as a beautiful idol into which life has been breathed, while the lover is rendered inanimate as he is overcome with emotion.
The significance of studying the Parthian and Scythian form of Buddhism is the wealth of information and glimpse they provide into the pre-Sassanid Zoroastrianism, and how the Zoroastrian faith looked like during the earlier periods. Remarkably, the similarities seem to be more astonishing than some minor differences.