Buddhism, Pax Kushana and Greco-Roman Motifs: Pattern and Purpose in Gandharan Iconography

By Aldrovandi, Cibele; Hirata, Elaine | Antiquity, June 2005 | Go to article overview
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Buddhism, Pax Kushana and Greco-Roman Motifs: Pattern and Purpose in Gandharan Iconography

Aldrovandi, Cibele, Hirata, Elaine, Antiquity


I see the shadows which show that the sun must have distorted local colour, I saw the lackeys announce the king, but I do not see the sun, I do not see the king.

--Paul Gauguin, 1900

The present Afghan and Pakistan landscape of Gandhara, largely devastated by recurrent wars, would hardly be seen by modern readers as a quiet, peaceful and prosperous region inhabited by pious Buddhist monks and laity. Nevertheless, as we go back two millennia in time, archaeological remains from the upper Indus valley, nowadays north Pakistan and from the eastern parts of Afghanistan, have shown it to be a crossroad of cultures. Over many centuries trade routes spread throughout the Gandharan valleys, and merchant caravans connected the Mediterranean lands with the farthest regions of East Asia and the Indian subcontinent (Allchin 1995). This created a highly populated and diverse milieu, a politically and economically significant locus prone to many external influences.

Although chronologies still remain under dispute, this strategically located region that had formerly been an Achaemenid satrapy was subjected to Mauryan rule during the fourth century BC, becoming the Indian north-west frontier. Then followed the Greco-Bactrian dynasties, which remained about one hundred years, and were defeated by the Sakas (Scythians) and the Parthians around the beginning of the first century BC. During the first century AD, the Kushans (Yueh-chi) from the Chinese north-west region arrived in Bactria and then in Gandhara, and there reigned for many centuries, controlling its economic network and political system. At the time Rome rivalled Parthian and later Sasanian empires for supremacy over trading routes, while maintaining diplomatic contacts with the Kushan and Han dynasties. Therefore, Gandharan Buddhist iconography emerged in very specific historical circumstances, conditioned by current social and political pressures (Tissot 1985; Zwalf 1996). The artistic repertoire of this ritual landscape should be capable of revealing a discourse which served the political as well as religious strategies of their patrons.

It has already been suggested that political conflict can be reduced by religion and ritual, which are observable in the archaeological record (Hodder 1979: 450-2). Religion may provide a neutral context for cross-cultural exchange, a mechanism for ensuring acceptance and reducing conflict between the individual and society (Rappaport 1971: 26). As later mentioned by Morris (1987: 42), 'changes in the form of material symbols by which social groups define themselves might be the results of pressures on the group, or the desire to emulate another group. As pressures within the group grow, an increase in the scale of consumption in terms of the given symbolic order is expected, as pressures from outside build up, material symbols may be changed to preserve boundaries, in what has been called by Hodder (1982: 191-4) a style war'.

During the Mauryan empire, and since the days of Ashokan rule, Gandhara has been connected with Buddhism. Contacts between Mauryas and Hellenistic monarchs on official levels might have been entrusted to Buddhist monks (Schopen 1988-9: 156-7; Karttunen 1997: 266). After the fall of this dynasty, the region was dominated by Bactrian-Greeks who opposed and defeated the Shunga rulers of Brahmanic origin. As noted by Tam (1951: 176), although there was not a state of war between Buddhists and Brahmanists, it is possible that a good level of tension arose from religious and political grounds. How was Buddhism able to prosper and disseminate its beliefs throughout Gandhara and other regions in the following centuries? When the outcaste Kushans--or mlecha as Brahmins would name all foreigners (Auboyer 1961: 50)--arrived in Gandhara, it seems possible that their relation might have been more easily settled with Buddhism, since it had no concern with caste system as Brahmanism.

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Buddhism, Pax Kushana and Greco-Roman Motifs: Pattern and Purpose in Gandharan Iconography


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