During the life of Buddha Shakyamuni and for many centuries after his departure to parinirvana to the north-west of India, there was a country called Gandhara. At the beginning of our era, Kanishka, the most famous ruler of the Kushan empire, ascended the throne in Gandhar. The years of his reign brought the country a real flowering of crafts and were marked by the advent of Buddhist fine art.
It was in the Kushan Empire that Buddhist sculpture and painting were born, and Gandhara became the most important center for their distribution. Hundreds of sculptures, skillfully made of golden sandstone and representing both single forms of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, and large scenes with many figures illustrating the plots of sutras have come down to us. During his lifetime, the Kushan king saw the treasured fruit of his efforts – the highest stupa in the Buddhist world. In our units of measurement, its height would exceed 200 meters!
The first capital of Gandhara was the colorful city of Taxila – there was the oldest university in the world, whose fame boomed not only throughout the country, but also abroad. Noble young people from Indian families went to study there. Apparently, it was there that Jivak studied medicine, the illegitimate son of the courtesan Amrapali and King Bimbisara, who later became the personal doctor of Buddha Shakyamuni.
Of course, Taxila was not a university in the modern sense of the word – with departments, halls for lectures and classrooms for seminars. Teachers each lived in their own house, collected students for classes in the courtyards under the spreading trees, and were guided by their own teaching programs. Young people, starting at the age of 16, studied Vedic sciences, law, medicine, martial arts and even hunting skills there.
In the 4th century BC, the territories of Gandhara became part of the empire of Alexander the Great. Then the culture of Greece came to these lands. The great Taxila University ceased to exist even before the Greek conquests, and we know almost nothing about Gandhara of that period. But at the turn of the millennium and at the beginning of our era, they again spoke of her almost like a paradise on earth.
By that time, Buddhism had spread widely throughout much of Asia in the form of the Lesser Chariot schools. And everywhere the Sangha managed to split – mainly into two parts. Schools of strict monasticism represented the conservative trend, basing their Teaching on the text of the Pali canon. The most important of them were Sarvastivada and Theravada – the latter today is the ruling religion in the five countries of southern Buddhism.
The second, liberal part, was represented by the tradition of Mahasangiki. From time immemorial, its followers did not want to remain only within the narrow framework of monastic Buddhism; they were interested in everything new – especially the teachings on the emptiness and the path of the Bodhisattva, which were increasingly sounded in Buddhist circles. The dogmatic Mahasangiks opened the doors of their community to the laity. It was in this spiritually sensitive environment that the Mahayana sutras began to spread – here the Great Chariot met more than a warm welcome. Many communities of Mahasangiki along with the communities of Sarvastivada were located in the territory of Gandhara.
At the beginning of our era, Kanishka, the most famous ruler of the Kushan Empire, ascended the throne in Taxil. In historical literature there are very different dating of his life – from the 0s to the 270s of our era. Accepting the point of view of most researchers, we will assume here that he ruled in the second century.
In all likelihood, Kanishka was a descendant of nomadic Central Asian tribes, was notable for his short stature, Mongoloid facial features, and the steep and stubborn disposition of a born warrior. In the very first years of his reign, he equipped several military campaigns, capturing and annexing the lands of India and Central Asia. He expanded the Kushan empire to Bactria in the west and the banks of the Ganges in the east, and in the north it now extended to Ferghana and Khotan.
The era of Kanishka brought a real flowering of arts and crafts. In particular, coins of that period are extremely interesting and informative. The first coins – mostly silver, usually rectangular in shape – were circulated in India during the time of Buddha. But the royal court of Gandhara elevated the making of coins to the rank of art. Copper and gold, they are so diverse, rich in relief images and inscriptions in different languages, which in fact constitute a whole encyclopedia on the history of the Kushan kingdom. They can be used to judge how multicolored the religious and cultural landscape was under Kanishka. Some coins are decorated with figures of ancient or Hindu gods, others with shapes of ancient Iranian deities of fire, wind, etc., and others with images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
It is not known what aroused interest in Buddhism in Kanishka, but once amazing rumors swept through the empire. During the next military campaign, the king captured Pataliputra (now Patna) – the ancient capital of Magadhi. It was said that almost the main trophy of the victorious emperor was the famous Buddhist poet and thinker Ashwaghosh, the author of the first classical dramas about Buddha and his time. Kanishka promised to give the captured city relative independence if he could take the philosopher with him to Gandhara. So the king gained a personal mentor, and Magadha, remaining under the protectorate of Kushan, did not enter the empire.
The years of Kanishka’s reign are marked by the advent of Buddhist art. Until the 2nd century AD, no one created images of the Shakyamuni Buddha, and even less so of other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas – neither in stone nor on canvas. The Buddha was represented only in the form of symbols – for example, the wheels of the Dharma or footprints. It was in the Kushan Empire that Buddhist sculpture and painting were born, and Gandhara became the most important center for their distribution.
Hundreds of sculptures, skillfully made of golden sandstone and representing both single forms of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, and large scenes with many figures illustrating the plots of sutras have come down to us. It is noteworthy that the first stone Buddhas in history looked like the Apollo – after all, the art of Gandhara developed under the influence of late Hellenism. Very naturalistic, sensual bodies; Greek faces subtle draperies; hairstyles from curls with characteristic bangs; often a mustache – this is how the Gandhara artists imagined Bodhisattvas. The figure of Maitreya, the Buddha of the next era, was extremely popular in the art of Gandhara.
Apparently, Kanishka was haunted by the former glory of his “colleague” Ashoka, the king of the ancient Mauryev empire. Ashoka has remained in history as the most progressive ruler of India, devoted to the Dharma of the Buddha and his people; as the builder of many stupas and the patron of the third Buddhist cathedral convened in Pataliputra in the 3rd century BC. Looking at the deeds of Kanishka, one can imagine that he could not wait to equal Ashoka and surpass him if possible.
A stupa erected by order of Ashoka in the III century. BC e, Taxila, Punjab, Pakistan
The Kushan emperor ordered to strengthen and enlarge all the stupas of Ashoka, overlaying them with burnt red brick, and around them to build male and female monasteries of various schools. The work began to boil, and soon the pilgrim, following the traditional route from the birthplace of Buddha to the place of his death, could see monumental buildings everywhere on many floors, surrounded by evergreen parks and clear reservoirs. Today, walking among the majestic ruins in Kapilavastu, Shravasti, Caesarea, Vaishali, Kushinagar and other holy places, we can gratefully recall Kanishka.
Once the king decided to hold the fourth Buddhist cathedral in Gandhar. The event took place; the cathedral lasted almost a year, and among other scholars of celebrity it was presided over by the “prisoner” Ashvaghosh. In all likelihood, it was at this cathedral that the Hinayana schools finally dissociated themselves from the Mahasangiks, and they accepted the Mahayana as their main teaching.
The conservative community for a long time could not come to terms with the news of the existence of a second, ‘great’ chariot. But Mahayana teachers explained that Buddha devoted not only all, but only a few, selected followers to certain sections of his Teaching. For centuries, these teachings remained a mystery behind seven seals, until people were born on earth who could understand and benefit from them. This happened in the Kushan era.
For several decades, Gandhara sculptors have perfectly mastered the art of creating Buddhist statues; There were several schools of fine arts in the country where famous scholars taught the canon of the Mahayana in detail to students. In order to create a true masterpiece, the artist had to meditate and know the sutras so deeply that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas would come to him as friends, even in a dream.
But even such participation in the development of Buddhism did not completely satisfy the emperor’s pride. Based on the Buddha’s prediction about the appearance of Ashoka, the king put into circulation a very similar legend about himself. She said that once Buddha with monks visited Gandhara. In the middle of the vast valley, they saw a boy who molded handfuls of clay on one another, so that a structure was formed that resembled a stupa in outline. Buddha pointed to the boy and said: “After many centuries this child will become a great emperor and in this very place he will erect a great stupa.”
Naturally, now Kanishka started the construction of a stupa, the highest in the Buddhist world – in our units of measurement its height would exceed 200 meters! Ashvaghosh’s mentor by that time had long gone to the Clean countries, and we do not know who became the spiritual father of the Kanishka shrine. There are suggestions that it could be the famous philosopher Nagarjuna, who in India is called the second Buddha.
Be that as it may, even during his lifetime, the Kushan king saw the fruit of his efforts. Not far from the modern city of Peshawar (Pakistan), a grandiose stupa surrounded by many small stupas has grown. Inside the main shrine, in a golden container, relics were kept, of which the most precious were the remains of the bones of Buddha Shakyamuni.
The bases of the stupas were covered with bas-reliefs representing events from sutras and Buddhist legends. Without any puritanism, festive rituals were depicted with rows of half-naked dancers. Kanishka himself stood out among other figures – bearded, in military clothes, belted with an expensive belt, in large shoes and with a scepter in his hand.
One can imagine how Nagarjuna, dressed in saffron toga, consecrates this building – with a large gathering of people, in the presence of the emperor and his entourage; as court architects and sculptors are honored, and in the sky, with wings spread, majestic eagles are circling.
Unfortunately, now only ruins remain of the Kanishka stupa, on the excavations of which brave scientists work. Buddha statues made in Gandhar, we see only in museums in London, Paris, Delhi, Patna and other cities outside of Muslim territories. Many of the figures are damaged – most of them have noses broken off, because the soldiers of Islam believed that without a nose the statue would not be able to breathe and die. But Buddhist art, which originated in Gandhar, spread throughout all Buddhist countries, changing and perfecting its forms. Today it flows into European culture.