It is well known that Buddhism is widespread in Ladakh and surrounding regions, but it comes as a surprise to many that it spread to Ladakh, Tibet and China from Kashmir. The origin of Buddhism in Kashmir is uncertain. Historians have various theories and ideas about the origin of Buddhism in Kashmir. Kalhana’s Rajatarangni has it that even before Ashoka (3 rd Century B. C.), Kashmir had many Buddha Viharas. Buddhist sources attribute the origin of Buddhism in Kashmir to a monk of Varanasi, Majjhantika, who was also a disciple of Ananda. Majjhantika was sent to Kashmir and Gandhara (modern day Afghanistan) by Ashoka to spread Buddhism. According to some Buddhist writers, the Buddhist preacher Madhyantika introduced saffron cultivation in Kashmir. Buddhism and Shaivism flourished side by side in Kashmir during Ashoka’s time and received the Emperor’s patronage in equal measure. It is believed that Emperor Ashoka visited Kashmir twice and founded the city of Srinagar. He named it Puranadhisthan which evolved to become Pandrethan as we know it today. Buddhism in Kashmir became dominant in the time of Emperor Ashoka. Kalhana in Rajatarangini, mentioned King Ashoka as a devout Buddhist who built many stupas and Shiva temples. In Kalhana’s time, and before, there was apparently no distinction between “Hindus” and Buddhists in Kashmir. Kalhana himself used Buddhist terms and expressions as a Buddhist would. Nilamata Purana was the text of the worshippers of Nila Naga. It mentions the prevalence of Buddhist worship in Kashmir. Here is one quote from the Nilamata Purana which represents the religious spirit of ancient India: 709-710a. O Brahman, the god Visnu, the lord of the world, shall be (born as) the preceptor of the world, Buddha by name, at the time when the Pusya is joined with the moon, in the month of Vaisaksha, in twenty eighth Kali Age. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini mentions that a monumental metallic image of Buddha once stood in Srinagar, which was eventually destroyed by Sikandar Butshikan. A significant number of beautifully crafted Buddhist bronzes have survived. One of the most celebrated Buddhist king was King Kanishka, who ruled over Kashmir from 78 C.E. to 103 C.E. He is not only remembered as a great king, but also as a dedicated Buddhist. He organized and held the famous Fourth Buddhist Council at Kundalvana vihara in Kashmir. This conference was held with the purpose of preserving the teachings of Buddha. These teachings were engraved onto copper plates and buried in the ground, and are yet to be discovered by archaeologists. Scholars say that this took place in present day Harwan. Some archaeologists say that it actually took place in Jalandhar but most scholars agree that it is not plausible and it actually took place in Harwan. It is exciting to know that this place is the birthplace of one of the two major sects of Buddhism, known as Mahayana Buddhism. There arose a controversy between the Mahayana sect and the Theravada sect, where according to the Theravada sect, the fourth conference convened in Aluvihara in SriLanka, but historians and scholars agree that the meeting that took place in Sri-Lanka was not held under the Head of the state, but rather a local chieftain, so it does not count as an official Buddhist Council. Thus, it is credible to say that the fourth and the last council took place in Kashmir. After the introduction of Islam in Kashmir by sultans like Sikandar Butshikan, much of Hinduism was gone and little of Buddhism remained.
(Contributed By: Rahil Ayoub – 10th)