Scythian Zoroastrian Influence on early Buddhism

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.


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7 Responses to Scythian Zoroastrian Influence on early Buddhism

  1. John Easter says:

    This is a very good and also much needed article. Much attention has been spent on the influence of Zoroastrianism to the West on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam within the Middle East and Europe. However not nearly as much attention has been spent looking into the influence to the immediate East of Iranian lands on the Mahayana Buddhism that developed there and later spread and flourished in China, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

  2. It is my pet theory that the word Mahayana is a corruption of Mazdayasna. The theory goes that Mazdayasni who adopted Buddhism as a practice would have continued to call their syncretic religion Mazdayasna. But when they travelled into Indian lands the original term wouldn’t have had a meaning in the Indian language and so was corrupted to Mahayana and given an artificial etymology to make it meaningful.

    I don’t know how it fits with the ideas in the article, but I read that Bactra/Balkh became a stronghold of Buddhism. Also I read that Taxila – perhaps the first Indian city on the route from Bactria into India is known as an early adopter of Mahayana Buddhism.

  3. John Easter says:

    I been doing some research lately and looked into this subject some more and discovered an interesting similarity.

    Siksananda was the name of the Buddhist monk from the Kingdom of Khotan(within the ancient Greater Iran area now in modern China) who in the 600s A.D. made the first translation, and also earliest existing copy, of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapranidhana Sutra which is the text about Ksitigarbha.

    Ksitigarbha is a bodhisattva(spiritual benefactors in Buddhism similar to saoshyants in Zoroastrianism) who vows to try and help the mind streams(souls) of all sentient beings, especially children, escape from all the Naraka(Hell) realms.

    This is similar to Asha Vahishta in Zoroastrianism. The Pahlavi(Middle Persian) Zoroastrian text, Greater Bundahishn, states that Ardwahisht(Asha Vahishta the Amesha Spenta or archangel) alleviates the suffering of beings in Hell (Greater Bundahishn 26.35). The text goes on to state that all beings will eventually go to the House of Song(Heaven) through Asha (Greater Bundahishn 26.37).

  4. Danny says:


  5. buddhabanter says:

    Has anyone made the link between Asha Vahishta (Best Truth) and Viśiṣṭacāritra (Superior – i.e. Best – Practices) in the Lotus Sutra? Vahishta / Viśiṣṭa looks like a cognate or corruption, and from my limited knowledge, Viśiṣṭacāritra is seen in some forms of Buddhism as the embodiment of True Self, and also assumed the mission to spread the teachings of the Lotus Sutra to all beings in the Saha World, leading everyone to enlightenment.

  6. Malla says:

    Well it goes more than that. Gautam Buddha himself was of Scythian descent from the Indo Scythian branch.

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