In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism in the Iranian World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Introduction of Buddhism into the Iranian World
  • Buddhism in Gandhāra
  • Buddhist Art and Architecture in Gandhāra and Afghanistan
  • Khotan and Chinese Turkestan
  • Contacts Between Buddhism and Iranian Religions
  • Legend of Barlaam and Iosaphat
  • Role of Iranians in the Transmission of Buddhism
  • Records about Buddhism after the Islamic Conquest

Buddhism Buddhism in the Iranian World
Georges-Jean Pinault
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0162


The territories of present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, and further countries of Transoxiana, belonging to the Iranian world, have seen the expansion of Buddhism from India into Central Asia, Chinese Turkestan (21st-century Xinjiang), and finally China. This movement started in the last centuries BCE. Peoples speaking various Iranian languages have been converted to Buddhism. Moreover, Buddhists of different Iranian countries (Sogdiana, Parthia, Bactria) have played a significant role in the transmission of Buddhist concepts and in the translation of Buddhist literature. Many Buddhist texts are found in different northeastern Iranian languages: Bactrian, Sogdian, Khotanese Saka, Tumshuqese Saka. The Gandhāra has played a decisive role as an intermediate region between northwestern India and the countries of Iranian language and culture. The success of Buddhism and its spread to neighboring countries along international trade roads has been enhanced in a cosmopolitan context, whereas the Buddhist cult was sponsored over the centuries in eclectic and pragmatic fashion by rulers and donors of Iranian descent or culture.

General Overviews

There is no book devoted entirely to the topic of the spread of Buddhism in the Iranian world. The accounts can be found in collective works about Iranian languages and cultures or about the history of Buddhism. One should keep in mind that our knowledge of the Buddhist culture in the Iranian-speaking countries and settlements governing a wide area are due mostly to the discoveries of manuscripts in various languages between 1890 and 1920 on sites along the trade routes known under the general name of the “Silk Road.” Several of these Middle Iranian languages were hardly known (or wholly unknown) before these archaeological expeditions. These findings completely changed the views about the transfer of Buddhism from its country of origin, India. They revealed texts that were not recorded in the Pāli canon, or that were known indirectly through Chinese or Tibetan translations. Many of the texts have been deciphered and commented upon, but the whole study of this documentation is still in progress. Besides, since 1990, the last decades have seen further findings of manuscripts and artifacts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. The best introductions are given in Emmerick 1983 and Emmerick 1990 because the author was an expert in Iranian languages with an excellent command of Indology and Buddhist literature. The survey in Emmerick 1990 is the most comprehensive, since it treats Buddhism in all Iranian-speaking countries and the contacts of Buddhism with Iranian religions and culture. The matter is treated more from the point of view of Indology, and not limited to Iranian sources, in Hinüber 1984 and Hartmann 2000. One can also consult Tremblay 2007, in a collection of essays, with bibliographies, about the expansion of Buddhism under its different forms, into various countries of Asia. The scope of Tremblay 2001 is larger than the present bibliography, because the book concerns Buddhism only marginally and concentrates mostly on the Turfan region.

  • Emmerick, Ronald E. “Buddhism among Iranian Peoples.” In The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian Periods. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater, 949–964. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521200929

    Still a good survey that has not been totally superseded by Emmerick 1990. It has a wide scope, tracing the expansion of Buddhism into Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang) and interior China.

  • Emmerick, Ronald E. “Buddhism among Iranian Peoples. i: In Pre-Islamic Times.” In Encyclopedia Iranica. Vol. 4. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater, 492–496. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1990.

    Has a good bibliography and covers briefly but accurately all the relevant topics, from the early spread of Buddhism in Gandhāra to the demise of Buddhism among Iranian peoples.

  • Hartmann, Jens-Uwe. “Die Verbreitung des Buddhismus nach Afghanistan und Zentralasien.” In Der Buddhismus. Vol. 1, Der indische Buddhismus und seine Verzweigungen. Edited by Heinz Bechert, Johannes Bronkhorst, Jacob Ensink, et al., 421–439. Die Religionen der Menschheit 24. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2000.

    Quite reliable general account, with select bibliography. Much attention is given to the literary sources, as known from the spectacular findings since the beginning of the 20th century CE, and to the affiliation with different Buddhist schools. To be read along with Hinüber 1984.

  • Hinüber, Oskar von. “Expansion to the North: Afghanistan and Central Asia.” In The World of Buddhism. Edited by Heinz Bechert and Richard Gombrich, 99–107. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

    Very reliable survey of all the topics, insisting on the diversity of Buddhist missions and of languages, the prosperity of monasteries, the rise of Mahāyāna, the Iranian influences, etc. Of mostly historical orientation and of wider scope compared to Hartmann 2000. The bibliography is relatively limited.

  • Tremblay, Xavier. Pour une histoire de la Sérinde: Le manichéisme parmi les peoples et religions d’Asie Centrale d’après les sources primaires. Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2001.

    The enormous documentation compiled by the author ought to be regularly controlled. While aiming at some kind of encyclopedia of Serindia, it is effectively a study of the relative impact of Buddhism and Manichaeism among the Sogdians, beside a controversial history of Manichaeism from the 6th to 11th centuries in the Turfan region.

  • Tremblay, Xavier. “The Spread of Buddhism in Serindia: Buddhism among Iranians, Tocharians and Turks before the 13th Century.” In The Spread of Buddhism. Edited by Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher, 75–129. Handbook of Oriental Studies. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: E. J. Brill, 2007.

    This essay is interesting, but partly biased and idiosyncratic, since the author is not an expert in Buddhism. Should be used with some caution and compared with more balanced accounts.

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