In This Article Buddhism in Gandhāra

  • Introduction
  • Cultural and Historical Geography
  • Gandhāran Studies

Buddhism Buddhism in Gandhāra
Jason Neelis
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0101


Ancient Gandhāra was a major center for cultural production of early Buddhist art and literature. Located in a pivotal contact zone between the northwestern frontiers of the Indian subcontinent, the Iranian plateau, and Central Asia, Gandhāra served as a springboard for Buddhist transmission beyond South Asia in the early centuries CE. Interactions between regional inhabitants and exogenous migrants, including Greeks, Śakas (Scythians), Kushans, and Huns (Hūṇas) who vied to control important routes connecting Gandhāra with northern India, enriched its vibrant political and religious history. Gandhāra’s fertility and material prosperity generated surpluses to support the establishment and proliferation of seemingly innumerable Buddhist stūpas and monasteries, where the worship of relics and localization of narratives continued to attract East Asian pilgrims throughout the first millennium CE. Gandhāran Buddhists synthetically appropriated and transformed elements from multiple cultures (including Hellenistic features with long and complex afterlives). Distinctively hybrid and cosmopolitan styles are reflected in Gandhāran art, architecture, coins, and inscriptions. With recent discoveries of the earliest attested Buddhist manuscripts (in fact, the earliest South Asian manuscripts) written in Gāndhārī (the regional language of Gandhāra), it is now possible for the emerging Gandhāran Buddhist literary culture to shed new light on old questions about the special characteristics of Buddhism in Gandhāra and beyond. There is no single textbook treatment of Buddhism in Gandhāra, and a comprehensive treatment of the topic must be multidisciplinary. This article is intended to serve as a bibliographic guide to primary sources and secondary literature. The selection of annotated references is representative rather than comprehensive, although some areas (such as recent advances in the study of Gāndhārī Buddhist literature) receive more attention than fields which have traditionally received more scholarly attention (such as Gandhāran art history).

Cultural and Historical Geography

The “center of gravity” (Foucher 1905: 1.13, cited under Gandhāran Art History) of ancient Gandhāra was in the Peshawar basin of modern northwestern Pakistan and extended westward following the Kabul River valley into eastern Afghanistan. The cultural and linguistic influence of “Greater Gandhāra” (Salomon 1999: p. 3, cited under British Library) encompassed surrounding areas across the Indus River to the east (including Taxila, see Excavations), northward to the Swat Valley and Upper Indus, westward to Bāmiyān (see Buddhist Sites) and across the Hindu Kush of central Afghanistan to ancient Bactria and the Oxus Valley, and south of the Peshawar basin to the Kurram Valley and neighboring border areas of Afghanistan with links to Kandahar. This bibliographic guide is not restricted in scope to the geography of Gandhāra proper, but draws connections to contiguous regions of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Alfred Foucher, rightly called the “father of Gandhāran Studies” (Zwalf 1996: p. 74, cited under Museum Catalogues and Exhibitions), pioneered the identification of Buddhist sites referred to by Chinese pilgrims (Foucher 1915; see also Pilgrimage) and posited three stages for Buddhist propagation in Gandhāra from c. 250 BCE to 150 CE, eventually following what he termed la vieille route (“the ancient route”) (Foucher 1942–1947) across the Hindu Kush to the Oxus Valley and western Central Asia. Fussman 1994 refers to a similar pattern in which Buddhist institutions expanded from stūpas and monasteries established near cities in Aśoka’s time in the middle of the 3rd century BCE into mountainous zones from the 2nd century BCE and rapidly proliferated from the 1st century CE onward. In mapping routes for Buddhist expansion, Foucher was not aware of subsequent discoveries of petroglyphs and inscriptions in the valleys of the upper Indus, Gilgit, and Hunza Rivers, which provide evidence for alternative networks of pathways for Buddhist expansion (Neelis 2002, Jettmar and Thewalt 1985, cited under Graffiti on Rocks and Pottery). Foucher 1942–1947, Fussman 1994, and Witzel 2011 elucidate complex religious, cultural, and linguistic conditions for the growth of Buddhism in Gandhāra, which was already notable for Sanskrit scholarship (as the birthplace of Pāṇini), its administrative role as a frontier province of the Persian Achaemenids with a persistent exogenous presence of foreigners (from the Indian perspective), and indigenous and non-Buddhist Brahmanical and Śaiva traditions that preceded the regional entry of Buddhism.

  • Foucher, Alfred. Notes on the Ancient Geography of Gandhāra: A Commentary on a Chapter of Hiuan Tsang. Translated by Harold Hargreaves. Calcutta: Superintendent of Government Printing, 1915.

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    Accessible guide to localization of sites (especially those associated with jātaka narratives of the Buddha’s previous births) in Gandhāra visited by the 7th-century Chinese traveler Xuanzang (see under Pilgrimage) was originally published as “Notes sur la géographie ancienne du Gandhâra,” Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 1 (1901): 322–369. Originally published in 1901.

  • Foucher, Alfred. La vieille route de l’Inde de Bactres à Taxila. 2 vols. Mémoires de la Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan 1. Paris: Les Éditions d’art et d’histoire, 1942–1947.

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    In a masterly culmination of half a century pioneering the study of Gandhāran Buddhist art history and archaeology, Foucher retraced an “ancient route” across the Hindu Kush of modern Afghanistan, which he contended was the primary artery for foreign invasions into northwestern India and Buddhist expansion beyond the Indian subcontinent into Central Asia.

  • Fussman, Gérard. “Upāya-kauśalya: L’implantation du bouddhisme au Gandhāra.” In Bouddhisme et cultures locales: Quelques cas de réciproques adaptations: Actes du colloque franco-japonais de septembre 1991. Edited by Fukui Fumimasa and Gérard Fussman, 17–51. Etudes thématiques 2. Paris: École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 1994.

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    A major synthesis of archaeological, art historical, numismatic, epigraphic, and textual sources addresses long-standing issues and disputes in the study of Gandhāran Buddhism. Fussman’s provocative assessment of the evidence has been a very productive contribution to current scholarship, but his argument that Gandhāran Buddhism was not ideologically different from Gangetic Buddhism was advanced before recent discoveries of Gāndhārī manuscripts.

  • Neelis, Jason. “La Vieille Route Reconsidered: Alternative Paths for Early Transmission of Buddhism beyond the Borderlands of South Asia.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 16 (2002): 143–164.

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    Reassessment of Foucher’s “ancient route” in light of Buddhist petroglyphs and inscriptions from the Upper Indus in northern Pakistan, which indicate ancient travel via capillary routes through valleys and passes across the Karakorum Mountains to the Tarim Basin in eastern Central Asia (see also Rock Carvings and Inscriptions along the Karakorum Highway, cited under Graffiti on Rocks and Pottery).

  • Witzel, Michael. “Gandhāra and the Formation of the Vedic and Zoroastrian Canons.” In Travaux de Symposium international: Le livre. La Roumanie. L’Europe: Troisième édition—20 à 24 Septembre 2010. Vol. 3, Études Euro- et Afro-Asiatiques. Edited by Florin Rotaru. Marian Nencescu and Iulia Macarie, 490–532. Bucharest, Romania: Éditeur Bibliothèque de Bucarest, 2011.

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    Advances “Gandhāra thesis” for the significance of Gandhāra as a “syncretic node” for the formation of Vedic and Avestan canons.

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