Journey of the Aryan People and Their Influence on Buddhism

(This paper is an appendix to the “Buddhism in the Middle Kingdom” series)

Because of Adolf Hitler (and others) most Westerners think of the word “Aryan” as a racial term, referring to a superior race.  This is actually not the case.  Indian born Romila Thapar who earned a doctorate from London University, corrects this notion:  “Indo-Aryan is in fact a language label, indicating a speech-group of the Indo-European family, and is not a racial term. To refer to 'the Aryans' as a race is therefore inaccurate. The racial identities of speakers of Indo-Aryan languages are not known” (xxiii).

Both the authors of the Vedas (adopted by Hindus later), and the authors of the Avesta (Zoroastrian Scriptures) called themselves Aryans.  The Vedas were written in archaic Sanskrit.  The language of the Avesta is closely related.  Ideas from both the Avesta and the Vedas were influential in the development of Buddhism.

Not only were the Brahman Vedas influential on the (Theravada) Buddhist Pali Canon, incorporating deities from the Vedas (though the Buddha was still portrayed as superior), but ideas from the Zoroastrian Avesta have had pivotal influence in the creation of Mahayana Buddhist deities, even usurping the central role of the historical Buddha.

Northern India and the Iranian Plateau

Regarding the Aryan language speakers, Thapar writes, “Some migrated to Anatolia [Turkey], others to Iran, and some among the latter, it is thought, migrated to India. In the texts composed by them, such as the Avesta [Scriptures of the Zoroastrians] in Iran and the Rig-Veda [one of the sources Hinduism drew from to form its doctrines] in India, they refer to themselves as airiia and arya, hence the European term, Aryan” (105).

“…the eventual arrival of the Iranian and the Indo-Aryan speaking people in Iran and northwest India is well documented by their respective sacred hymns of the Avesta and Veda…” (Kulke & Rothermund, 32).  Incidentally, the word “Iran” is from the word “Aryan,” though the Aryan settlements included other places besides what is now Iran.

Horses—A Time Indicator in Northern India

The Indo-Aryans used horse drawn chariots.  Archeology shows that horses were not native to the Harappan civilization of the Indus Plain, into which the Indo-Aryans moved.  Thapar further points out, “The animal central to the Rig-Veda, the horse, is absent on Harappan seals” (110).  Horse sacrifices were also performed by the Vedic Brahmins.

“…the keeping of horses has to be mentioned which was obviously unknown in the Harappan civilisation before c.2000 BC, as horses were never depicted on its seals” (Kulke & Rothermund, 33).  “The Vedas were religious hymns of the Indo-Aryans, who had entered northwest India over the Khyber Pass (beginning sometime after 1600 B.C.E.), and who came to dominate the local population” (Robinson & Johnson, 8).  In the Bible horses and chariots are first mentioned with regard to Joseph in Egypt (c. 19th century BC). 

Hinduism and the Date of the Vedas

Hinduism uses the Vedas, but the Vedic religion was a distinct religion of the Indo-Aryan Brahman priests before Hinduism had fully developed.  “The Vedic corpus reflects the archetypal religion of those who called themselves aryas, and which, although it contributed to facets of latter-day Hinduism, was nevertheless distinct” (Thapar, 127).  For example, reincarnation was not a concept taught in the Vedas! 

“The Rig-Veda is the earliest section of the Vedic corpus. The composition of the later Vedic corpus - the Sarna, Yajur and Atharva Vedas - is generally dated to the first half of the first millennium BC” (Thapar, 110).  Roughly speaking, the Vedas and other related texts were composed (mostly in oral form) from about 1200-500 BC (Witzel 2011; 1).  “It is unclear as to when the Rigveda was first written down. The oldest surviving manuscripts have been discovered in Nepal and date to c. 1040 AD…. The Upanishads were likely in the written form earlier, about mid-1st millennium CE” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rigveda).

“We must suppose rivalry between various groups of [Vedic] priests… where several groups were contending for the monopoly of arranging and carrying out certain rituals and their texts” (Witzel, 1997; 264).  “The dispersal of Vedic schools now becomes even more important in order to understand the development of the Vedic canon in its later stage…. It was in the east that their texts received their final redaction, apparently after the Maurya period, at 150 B.C. under the Sunga dynasty, which is characterized by a brahmanical revival.  Some of the redactions may have been established at c. 50 B.C. under the Kanva dynasty” (Witzel, 1997; 334).  Because different Vedas were used by competing schools, and because they were kept in oral form for so long, with the oldest manuscripts being more than 2000 years after the date of composition, it is debated just how much redaction took place.

Greek Mythology

The Avesta and the Vedas are similar to Greek mythology in having a polytheistic line-up of dueling deities.  Looking at the dates when Greek mythology was codified, “It wasn’t until around 700 B.C. when the poet Hesiod wrote Theogony that the origins and nature of the Greek pantheon… were officially described” (Landis, 306).  Related to Theogony are Homer’s Epics, fixed in form by Alexandrian scholars in the 2nd century BC (Witzel, 2011; 11).  The characteristics of the Greek deities and the Vedic deities have many surprising parallels, though using different names, and the deities of the Vedas and the Avesta are highly similar in the names they use.  Clearly there was contact between these groups, with borrowing and redefining of concepts and names.  An impressive list of Vedic and Greek similarities is given here:  (https://www.quora.com/What-parallels-can-we-draw-between-Indian-and-Greek-mythology).  Greek and Vedic mythologies both have half-human/half animal deities.  And, interestingly, some Greek names seem to point to Persian influence, such as Persephone (“Persian speaker”), Perseus, the Perseid dynasty, and Perses (https://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/olympicflame/page2.htm).

Pali is Related to Sanskrit

The most complete Buddhist Canon stemming from an early time was written in Pali, a language that is related to Sanskrit:  “The only Buddhist school using this language [Pali] is the THERAVADA in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Theravadins erroneously consider Pali to be the language spoken by the Buddha himself…. By comparing the languages used in the inscriptions of ASOKA (third century B.C.E.), it is possible to demonstrate that Pali, while preserving some very old Eastern elements, is clearly based on a western Middle Indic language, one of the languages that developed out of Vedic Sanskrit…” (von Hinuber, 625).

Pali and European Language Similarities

“In 1786 Sir William Jones, the founder of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, discovered the close relationship between Sanskrit, the language of these Indo-Aryans, and Greek, Latin, German and Celtic languages. His epoch-making discovery laid the foundation for a systematic philological study of the Indo-European family of languages which as we know by now includes many more members than Jones had once assumed” (Kulke & Rothermund, 31).  In 1688, Frenchman Nicolas Gervaise wrote:  “The Pali language is very different from Thai and has many resemblances to European languages, it being the only oriental language that has declensions, conjugations, and tenses. Few monks can teach it correctly and scarcely any can speak it” (Veidlinger, 201).  “Note that Gervaise made this casual observation a century before William Jones presented his famous thesis that the Indo-Aryan languages are related to Latin and Greek” (Veidlinger, 232). 

Adoption of Sanskrit words in Thai

When the Thai language adopts Sanskrit or Pali words it usually shortens them, keeping in line with the Tower of Babel principle that languages throughout history have gone from complex to simple. One example would be the word “zero” in Thai, which is pronounced “soon.”  This comes from the Sanskrit “sunyata.”  Most Sanskrit words adopted into Thai have extra letters which are not pronounced.  In the word “zero” in Thai (“soon”), there’s a silent “y” after “soon” (from “sunyata”) that is written for this word, but not pronounced.  Also, the Sanskrit word “duhkha” (suffering), a word frequently used to explain Buddhist doctrine, is shortened to “tuk.”  Interestingly, the word used to translate the word “noble” in Thai in the “the four noble truths” of Buddhist doctrine, is “Araya,” which comes from the word “Aryan,” so translated literally, they are the “four Aryan truths.” 

Similarities between Sanskrit, Thai, English, Greek, and Latin go beyond similar sounding words, to include even the structure of words—such as the negative prefix “a” and “an” (i.e. apolitical; atheist).  For example, the Thai word for “dharma” (doctrine or teachings) is “tam.”  A person who is righteous in Thai is a person who literally likes the teachings “choap tam.”  In Thai, an unrighteous person is “atam,” which is from the Sanskrit influence on Thai.  There are other examples of this in Thai also, using an “a” to negate.  The following is a list of Sanskrit words, many of which are related to Buddhism, which have influenced the Thai and in some cases the English language:  

Sanskrit

Thai

English

Saptaha

สัปดาห์ (“sapdaa” with silent “h”)

Week

Purohita

ปุโรหิต (“burohit”)

Priest

[to like the] Dharma

ชอบธรรม (“choap tam”)

to like righteousness

Adharma

อธรรม (“atam”)

unrighteous

Karma

กรรม (“gam”); other Thai words also use this root such as กิจกรรม and พฤติกรรม

karma; also from Thai “activity” and “behavior”

Duhkha

ทุกข์ (“tuk”)

suffering

Arya

อริย (“arya”)

noble/Aryan

Tripitaka (three baskets of Pali Canon)

พระไตรปิฎก (“pradripitok”)

Tripitaka (Pali Canon)

Swasti

สวัสดี (swasdi)

well-being; swastika

Ksatriya (the warrior class which the Buddha is said to have been born into)

กษัตริย์ (“gasat” with a silent “riya”)

King

Nama

นาม (“naam”)

Name

Cakra

Cakravartin (universal ruler)

จักร (“jag” with a silent “r”—related to จักรวาล, อาณาจักร, คริสตจักร, จักรยาน)

wheel (a word from which many others are derived in Thai such as “universe,” “kingdom,” “church,” and “bicycle.”)

Yana

มหายาน (“Mahayaan”—great vehicle); หีนยาน(“Hinayaan” lesser vehicle)

vehicle (a word referring to Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism)

Nikaya

นิกาย (“nigai” with a silent “y”)

groups of teachings; denominations related to churches or to Buddhist schools

Kaal

Kalachakra (“wheel of time”—a Tibetan Buddhist text)

ฤดูกาล(“ruedugaan”—“gaan” is spelled “gaal,” but now pronounced “gaan”), กาลเวลา (“gaanwela”)

season; time

Manusya

มนุษย์ (“manut” with a silent “sy”)

man (human)

Sunyata (the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of emptiness) 

ศูนย์ (“soon” with a silent “y”)

zero (which also seems to stem from the Sanskrit “sunyata” via the Arabic “sifr” and cipher, etc.)

Sutra

สูตร (“soot” with a silent “r”)

rule; recipe; Buddhist text

Even in Thailand they observe a seven-day week.  The Hebrew language and the Bible is ultimately where the seven-day week comes from.  In Hebrew the word for week is “shabua,”—which is also similar to the Thai, Greek, and Sanskrit words.  Some of the Greek words related to the Sanskrit words in the chart above, are “sabbaton” (week), treis/tria (three), and “onoma” (name).  

Also, in Thai one word for friend is มิตร (“meet” with a silent “r”—which is derived from the Vedic deity Mitra).  Although that word no longer carries the religious connotations of Mitra, it is nonetheless from that Sanskrit root.  More about Mitra later.  The Sanskrit word “Vedas” (knowledge) is related to the Greek “eidos” (a view/shape), and the English “wit” and “idea.”  The Thai word for science is also related to these (“witayasaat” วิทยาศาสตร์). 

The wheel is significant in Buddhism, because in the first sermon of the Buddha, by explaining the four noble truths, he is said to have symbolically turned the wheel of doctrine (many temples have an eight-spoked wheel representing the eightfold path [which is the fourth of the four noble truths] towards nirvana).  Sometimes other Buddhist schools claim that their school is a second or third turning of the wheel of doctrine.  The wheel theme is also related to the “vehicle” distinctions between the major schools of Buddhism.  It’s interesting that the word in Thai for “church” is literally a “Christ Wheel” (essentially meaning the doctrine of Christ).  The Thai alphabet was invented in the 13thcentury AD, but many of the words mentioned above were in the Thai language well before that.

Buddhist Alphabet Influenced by the Aramaic of a Persian Empire

The Gandhari manuscripts, mostly found in the 1990s in Afghanistan, are sometimes called the Buddhist Dead Sea Scrolls.  Richard Salomon, of the University of Washington, points out, “Gandhari is closely related to its parent language, Sanskrit…. The Gandhari manuscripts date from about the first to third centuries C.E.  They include the oldest surviving manuscript remains of any Buddhist tradition….”  (Salomon, 299). 

Gandhari was written in the Kharosthi script, a script which shows signs of being derived from the Aramaic script during the Achaemenid Persian Empire.  Kharosthi, unlike Indian Brahmi is written from right to left (Dietz, 51-52).  “Extensive evidence from other parts of the Persian Empire indicates that Aramaic language and script – as the official administrative language -- was introduced in northwestern India in the last half of the 6th century BCE, after the conquest of Gandhara by the Persians” (Witzel 2011; 9).

“The Gandhari sutras are broadly similar to the parallel texts in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan, but they differ significantly in structure, contents, and wording…. the majority of the Gandhari texts have no known parallels in other Buddhist traditions...” (Salomon, 300).

Japanese Scripts Influenced by Sanskrit

James H. Buck of the University of Georgia, connects the historical dots:  ”…the modern Japanese sound system is arranged in a pattern based on the Sanskrit sound system…. In short, the Japanese syllabary of today would probably not exist in its present arrangement had it not been for Sanskrit studies in Japan.  Scholars of ancient Japan extracted from the devānagarī those sounds which corresponded to sounds in Japanese and arranged the Japanese syllabary in the devānagarī order” (https://sites.google.com/site/sanskrtavak/home/ resources/sa-ja).  The Devangari was a script that was used for the Sanskrit language (among other languages), just as Roman letters are used for various European languages.  In Japan, Sanskrit was an important language, because the Japanese imported their Buddhism from China, and China in turn imported their Buddhism using Sanskrit texts.  The Sanskrit language itself is not similar to Japanese, except for imported Sanskrit words used to describe Buddhism, but the sound system of Japanese and their two “alphabets” of Hiragana and Katagana are based on the Sanskrit sound system, using the Devangari script, as well as having stylistic influence from the Chinese (Kanji) characters.

First Documentation of Sanskrit in Syria

“…the first clearly documented historical evidence of these Vedic Aryans comes neither from central Asia nor from India but from upper Mesopotamia and Anatolia. About 1380 BC a Mitanni king concluded a treaty with the Hittite ruler Suppiluliuma I in which the Vedic gods Mitra,Varuna, Indra and the Nasatyas were invoked. Moreover, among the tablets

which were excavated at Boghazköy, the Hittite capital, a manual about horse training was found which contains a large number of pure Sanskrit words” (Kulke & Rothermund, 34).

“The earliest dated evidence of a form of Indo-Aryan, which, although not identical to Rig-Vedic Sanskrit is nevertheless close to it, comes not from India but from northern Syria.... A treaty between the Hittites and the Mitannis dating to the fourteenth century BC calls upon certain gods as witnesses and among these are Indara/Indra, Mitras(il)/Mitra, Nasatianna/ Nasatya, and Uruvanass(il)/Varuna, known to the Rig-Veda and the Avesta. Curiously, there is no reference to the dominant deities of the Rig-Veda - Agni and Soma” (Thapar, 107).

“Evidence of Proto-Indo-Aryan in Syria has a bearing on the date of the Rig-Veda. If the Indo-Aryan of the Hittite-Mitanni treaty was more archaic than the Sanskrit of the Rig-Veda, the compositions of the latter would date to a period subsequent to the fourteenth century BC” (Thapar, 109).  Michael Witzel of Harvard University puts the starting point of the Rig-Veda (the oldest of the Vedas) at 1200 BC (Witzel 2011; 1). 

Date of the Persian Avesta

German professor Michael Witzel, who has taught at Harvard since 1986, wrote, “We cannot be entirely sure about the exact form of the Avestan texts in Darius’ time [522-486 BC] as we depend [on] their Sasanide archetype [around the third or fourth century AD] or rather, with J. KELLENS, on the reconstitution after the end of the 9th century…. Be that as it may, it is clear that we do not have a written Achaemenid [550 - 330 BC] Avesta text” (2011; 7-8).  Regarding the supposed founder of Zoroastrianism, Witzel writes, “…the date of Zarathustra and his eastern Iranian homeland is elusive…” (2011; 11-12). 

Professor Touraj Daryaee of the University of California, Irvine puts the canonization and further redactions of the Avesta in the third and fourth centuries AD of the Persian Sassanid Empire, and adds, “The Avesta is said to have had 21 chapters (nask) of which most are now lost, but it is the Zand or Middle Persian commentaries which gives us information on the lost portion of the Avesta” (109). 

In conclusion, the Avesta underwent numerous redactions and was written down late, and has a founder whose history is elusive.  Furthermore, “Remnants of earliest extant (existing) Avestan manuscript date back to the 10 century CE, while the bulk of the complete manuscripts in libraries today, were written in the 18th century CE” (https://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/scriptures/manuscripts.htm)

Mahayana Buddhism Influenced by Sanskrit and Iranian Religion

Richard Foltz of Concordia University writes, “The Mahayanists are characterized mainly by their identification with certain texts, many of which were apparently composed in the multicultural Indian-Iranian border region” (209-210).  Most of the Mahayana texts were first written in Sanskrit, or an adapted form of it called Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.  The famous Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (AD 602-664), who was patronized by Empress Wu, traveled through Central Asia and India to find Sanskrit texts to bring back to China.  Concerning the manuscripts of such texts, Gregory Schopen of the University of California, Los Angeles, puts this into historical perspective, “…probably none of the Chinese sources go back beyond the second century C.E. and most are considerably later; the Sanskrit sources for the early literature-and here we are talking about manuscripts-are, with few exceptions, even later (from the fifth century on)…” (27).

Two of the similar deities found in Zoroastrianism and in Mahayana Buddhism are pointed out by Richard Foltz:  “Another bodhisattva, Amitabha (which means ‘infinite radiance’), the Buddha of Light, bears many features associated with the Iranian god of time, Zurvan.  A third, Avalokiteshvara, shares certain elements in common with Mithra, originally the Iranian god of covenants, identified with the sun” (210).

Those two deities are currently the most popular in Mahayana countries including Tibet, whose Panchen Lama (Amitabha) and Dalai Lama (Avalokiteshvara) are supposed to be incarnations of those two deities; Japan, where Amida and Kannon are the Japanese names for these; and China, where they are known as “A-mi-t'o” and “Kuan-yin.”  These were all derived from the Sanskrit, which apparently were derived from Iranian deities.

Regarding Pure Land Buddhism, which is the most popular form of Buddhism in Mahayana countries, Foltz writes, “…this markedly soteriological faith is at odds with the ‘do-it-yourself ‘ approach of early nikaya Buddhism in India, and seems to owe far more to Iranian tradition” (210).  Even the festival of the “feeding” of the souls of departed ancestors practiced in China and Japan, “…resembles the Iranian ‘all souls’ festival of Fravardigan, from which it may be derived” (210).  Foltz summarizes the evidence, “The ‘Iranian World,’ defined as the Iranian plateau and adjacent regions historically inhabited by Iranian-speaking peoples or influenced by their culture, played an important role in the development and transmission of Buddhism especially during the early centuries” (204).  

In ancient days Iran/Persia had an influential role in China.  Iranian An Lushan even seized the Tang capital of China in AD 756 and started his own dynasty, which lasted for about 6 years (Forte, 278-279).  Iranians helped introduce Buddhism, Manicheism, Zoroastrianism, and Nestorian Christianity to China.  That was all well before An Lushan’s rebellion.

Opposite Meanings in the Avesta and the Vedas

The Vedas and the Avesta used a similar language:  “…the language [of the Vedas] was a more archaic form of Sanskrit that is now called Old Indo-Aryan” (Thapar, 104).  “The language of the Avesta and Indo-Aryan [used to write the Vedas] were cognates, descended from the same ancestral language” (Thapar, 108).  “The linguistic relationship between the two [the Brahmanical Rig-Veda and the Zoroastrian Avesta] includes not just words but also concepts. The interchangeability between 'h' and V is one of the differences, but there is a consistency in this change such as haoma, daha, hepta hindu, Ahura in Avestan, and soma, dasa, sapta sindhu, asura in Rig-Vedic Sanskrit. In terms of religious concepts the attributes of gods are often reversed. Thus Indra is demonic in the Avesta, as are the daevas (devas or gods in Sanskrit) and Ahura /asura emerges as the highest deity” (Thapar, 108-109).

Robinson and Johnson in writing about “asuras” and “devas” (the meanings of which would be reversed in the Avesta as compared to the Vedas), said, “The early Buddhists inherited a diverse tradition of spirits and celestial beings from their Aryan and non-Aryan predecessors, and the early texts offer no one standard list of who's who in the lower deva realms” (21). “There is a significant reversal of meaning in concepts common to both the Avesta and the Rig-Veda” (Thapar, 106). 

The following chart shows the relationship between various deities in the Avesta, the Vedas, the Mitanni-Hittite treaty, and Mahayana Buddhism.  In some cases these have opposite meanings (Avesta vs. Vedas).  And Aryan deities are paralleled in Buddhism.  By the way, the Japanese car company “Mazda” is named after the Persian/Iranian deity Ahura Mazda (https://mazda-classic-frey.de/en/the-museum/mazda-history/):

The Zoroastrian Avesta

Mitanni-Hittite treaty

Sanskrit Rig-Vedas

Mahayana Buddhism

Mithra, deity of light associated with the Sun and covenants

Mitra

Mitra, (asura deity of daylight, friendship and covenants)

Avalokitesvara (representing light and found with the swastika Sun symbol in the Tun-huang caves)

Ahura Mazda (“ahura” is the linguistic equivalent of “asura” in Old Iranian, meaning “lord”) Mazda is the supreme deity according to some (but not according to some other Zoroastrian teachers)

Varuna

Varuna (asura deity of nightlight—asuras were mischievous; jealous deities in the Vedas)  Supreme over the Vedic pantheon, though later demoted by Indra

Amitabha (the supreme deity in the Buddhist trio, corresponding to either Mazda or Zurvan, depending on which branch of Zoroastrianism it traces back to)

Indra (demonic)

Indra

Indra (king of the devas)

 
 

the Nasatyas

the Nasatyas

 

Daevas (demonic)

 

Devas (gods)

 

Zurvan is the supreme deity according to some (but not according to some other Zoroastrian teachers)

   

Amitabha

Vrthragna, force and wisdom

   

Mahasthama (representing force)

Atar, fire manifestation of Mazda

 

Agni, fire deity (related to the Latin word “ignis,” and the English word “ignite”)

The Buddha is called Angirasa (in the Theravada Pali Canon), a  classification among which Agni is foremost

Archeological researcher Charles Allen traces the influence of two of Buddhist Asia’s most popular deities, though he conflates the two into one, as do some branches of Buddhism:  “The cult of Amitabha/Avaokitesvara became hugely popular along the Silk Road, so much so that by the seventh century he had all but eclipsed the other Buddhist deities, possibly because he took over from an earlier non-Buddhist god sharing many of his qualities.  A tantalizing clue into this same deity’s origins can be found in a ninth-century silk scroll painting from the Tun-huang caves.  This shows Avalokitesvara with a book resting on the palm of the most prominent of his right hands.  Painted in red on the cover is the counter-clockwise swastika of Bon…. The safest conclusion to draw is that Shenla Wokar [a Bon deity] and Amitabha have common roots in Tajik and Iran:  From Mithra and Zurvan by way of Zoroaster and Mani” (234).  Allen’s conclusion at the end of his book is that Bon, Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion which also was influential in shaping Tibetan Buddhism, was made up of a synthesis or Iranian religious ideas.  The swastika mentioned above was a symbol of the Sun, and of blessings, which is a further point of connection between the character of Avalokitesvara (“Kannon”/“Kuan-yin”) and Mithra.

“There are some reasons to believe that the sun-worship of the Zoroastrians had influenced Mahayana Buddhism…. Some scholars suggest a connection between the Pure Land triad of Amitabha [Amida in Japanese], Avalokitesvara (representing light), Mahasthama (representing force) and an Iranian trinity, in which Zurvan is the supreme deity, Mithras the luminous element, and Vrthragna, force and wisdom.  As further support of this line of reasoning, it is pointed out that these ideas in Buddhism developed not in India proper but in those areas in northwest India and beyond where the Kushan Dynasty was dominant and where Iranian influences were uppermost.  Moreover, the first monk to introduce and translate a Pure Land Sutra in China was An Shih-kao [a.k.a. An Shigao who came to China in AD 148], a Parthian; he was followed by other monks from Central Asia…” (Ch’en, 15-16). 

Some say An Shigao may have been a Sogdian (e.g. Tremblay) instead of a Parthian.  Others (e.g. Dietz; Foltz) still say he was a Parthian.  Sogdians were Eastern Iranians whose national religion was Mazdaism (Zoroastrianism).  Parthians were from the West of what is now Iran where Zoroastrianism was also dominant.  Either way, An Shigao came to China from an area of what now is Iran, an area which was heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism.  And, he translated a Pure Land sutra, which advocates totally different ideas from traditional Theravada Buddhism, including putting faith in savior Buddhas including Amitabha (probably based on ideas about Zurvan or Mazda). 

King Kaniska and the Melting Pot of Northwestern India

The area of Bactria and Sogdiana (which border on Parthia) was a melting pot of cultural and religious influences and was, “…ruled over in turn by the Achaemenid Persians, Mauryans [Indians], Alexander’s Greeks, Parthians, Scythians, Sasanid Persians and Huna [Huns]—as well as a nomadic people known to the Chinese as the Yuezhi, who came to call themselves the Kushans” (Allen, 184).  Probably the most famous of the Kushan kings was Kaniska, who reigned in the second quarter of the second century AD (slightly before An Shigao the translator came to China).

“…the earliest images of Avalokitesvara, according to Mallman, are of a Greco-Roman type found in northwestern India and date approximately to the second-century A.D. reign of the great Greco-Buddhist king Kaniska (who was sympathetic to religious influences from the Iranian cultural area)…” (Holt, 38).  It has been found that king Kaniska was more pluralistic than Buddhist (Dietz, 57).  More inscriptions of Kaniska’s pay respect to Zoroastrian deities than to the Buddha, and in his coins he uses the title belonging to Christ, calling himself the “king of kings” (Allen, 197-199). 

Drawing conclusions from this era in northwestern India, Mallman finds parallels between Buddhist, Iranian, and Greek deities:  1.  Amitabha corresponding to Zeus, and Ahura Mazda (of the Avesta); 2. Avalokitesvara corresponding to Apollo, Helios, Hermes, and Mithra (of the Avesta/Vedas); and 3.  Mahasthama corresponding to Artemis, Ares, Heracles, and Varuna (in the Vedas).

Buddhism has been quite syncretistic from the start, incorporating deities from the Vedas and elsewhere into its beliefs, and it seems that king Kaniska’s syncretism had an influence on others in this region also.  “One of the most striking examples of Iranian-Buddhist syncretism is an image of the Buddha found in Qara Tepe, Afghanistan which bears the inscription “Buddha Mazda” (Foltz, 207).  That Buddhist-Zoroastrian hybrid image was from the Kushan period (sometime during the first three centuries AD).

Buddha In the Same Class as Agni the Fire Deity

Supposedly when the Buddha was preaching a sermon to a thousand fire-worshipping brahmins (priests of the Vedas), “multi-coloured flames” came out of the Buddha’s body to impress them.  “The Buddha is called Angirasa… several times in the Pali Canon. In the Rg Veda Angiras is a class of supermen, standing between men and gods, and Agni, the personification of fire, is the first and foremost Angiras (RV 1.31.1)…. he [the Buddha] shines and glows like the sun. So in this passage he is virtually impersonating Agni, the brahmins' fire god. This looks less like a debate than a takeover bid” (Gombrich, 113).  The Vedic deity Agni is said to be literally two faced—one face blessing and the other malicious, and is associated with Rudra, the predecessor of Shiva the destroyer.  In some Rig Veda texts Agni is represented as a treacherous traitor (O’Flaherty, 114-115). 

And, the Buddha is said to be in the same class as Agni—not an association that’s very flattering—similar to Buddhism’s association with Naga snakes—snakes which supposedly protected the Buddha from rain during his enlightenment, and also transmitted some of his teachings.  The goal of Buddhism is to “extinguish” (Nirvana) the flame of existence, any form of which is said to be suffering.  The means is supposedly through enlightenment.  The parallel with the garden of Eden “enlightenment” through obeying the serpent and the Buddha’s enlightenment in the company of a giant serpent is striking.  Buddhism promises “special knowledge” through meditation, ignoring God’s Word, just as the serpent in the garden of Eden promised “special knowledge” by ignoring God’s Word.      

Conclusion

In this brief survey we see that not only are Buddhism’s holy languages more Western than would have been expected, but that two of the key deities of Mahayana Buddhism probably have been adapted from Iranian sources.  The two most popular deities in Mahayana lands, Avalokitesvara, and Amitabha both seem dependent on Iranian Zoroastrian sources.  Those two deities are currently the most popular in Tibet, whose Panchen Lama (Amitabha) and Dalai Lama (Avalokiteshvara—who transgendered from male to female in both China and Japan) are supposed to be incarnations of those two deities; Japan, where Amida and Kannon are the Japanese names for these; and China, where they are known as “A-mi-t'o” and “Kuan-yin.”  If a book or deity has a divine origin, it will not need to copy and syncretize and completely change its core ideals as we see evident in these two Buddhist deities.

The Aryans of Iran and the Aryans of India held views that were diametrically opposite on many points, though speaking of the same deities.  The composition of the Vedas in India and the Avesta in Iran goes back to possibly about 1200 BC, but the writing and canonization process of these was much later-- because both the Brahmin Vedas and the Zoroastrian Avesta were intentionally kept in oral form so the priests could retain their monopoly over this knowledge.  Both canons underwent numerous revisions, and were not finalized in written form until well into the Christian era.

Just to cite one example of the confusion between the Vedas, the Avesta, and Buddhist Scriptures-- Indra, who is the most frequently mentioned deity in the Rig Veda, and is there portrayed as the king of heaven, is seen as a demonic opposer of truth in the Avesta.  “His importance diminishes in the post-Vedic Indian literature where he is depicted as a powerful hero but one who constantly gets into trouble with his drunken, hedonistic and adulterous ways, and the god who disturbs Hindu monks as they meditate because he fears self-realized human beings may become more powerful than him.  Indra rules over the much-sought Devas realm of rebirth within the Samsara doctrine of Buddhist traditions.  However, like the Hindu texts, Indra also is a subject of ridicule and reduced to a figurehead status in Buddhist texts, shown as a god that suffers rebirth and redeath” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indra).

When looking at the credentials of any deity we would put our trust in, those two clearly display the impulsive and deceitful nature of human inventors, rather than the unchanging Almighty characteristics of the God of the Bible.  We see in Vedic, Avestan, and Greek religions complete reversals of ideals and overturning and reinventing of deities—deities who are just as prone to failure as any human.  Here are God’s Words for anyone caught up in the deceptions of invented gods lacking in credentials: 

“Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:22). 

“And said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world” (John 4:42).

References

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Ch’en, K.  (1972).  Buddhism in China:  A Historical Survey.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press. 

Daryaee, T.  (2009).  Sasanian Persia:  The Rise and Fall of an Empire.  London:  I.B. Tauris.

Dietz, S.  (2007).  Buddhism in Gandhara.  In Heirman, A. & Bumbacher, S.P. (Editors), The Spread of Buddhism (pp.49-74).  Leiden:  Brill.

Foltz, R.  (2010).  Buddhism in the Iranian World.  Oxford:  Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Forte, A.  (1996).  Iranians in China:  Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Bureaus of Commerce.  (English version of paper read (in French) at the international conference "La Sérinde terre d'échanges, art, religion, commerce, du premier au dixième siècle," Paris, February 13-15, 1996).

Gombrich, R.  (2009).  What the Buddha Thought.  London:  Equinox.

Holt, J.C.  (1991).  Buddha in the Crown:  Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Kulke, H. & Rothermund, D.  (2004).  A History of India.  New York:  Routledge. 

Landis, D.  (2016).  Greek Mythology.  In Hodge, B. & Patterson, R. (Editors), World Religions and Cults:  Moralistic, Mythical and Mysticism Relgions (Volume 2) (pp. 305-319).  Green Forest:  Master Books.

O’Flaherty, W.D.  (1988).  The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology.  Delhi:  The University of California Press.

Robinson, R.H., Johnson, W.L., Wawrytko, S.A., & DeGraff, G.  (1997).  The Buddhist Religion:  A Historical Introduction.  Belmont:  Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Salomon, R.  (2004).  Buddhist Literature in Gandhari.  In Buswell, R.E. Jr. (Editor in Chief), Encyclopedia of Buddhism (pp.299-301).  New York:  Macmillan Reference USA. 

Schopen, G.  (1997).  Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks:  Collected Papers on the Archeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan. 

Thapar, R.  (2002).  The Penguin History of Early India:  From the Origins to AD 1300.  London:  Penguin Books Ltd.

Veidlinger, D.M. (2006).  Spreading the Dhamma:  Writing, Orality and Textual Transmission in Buddhist Northern Thailand.  Bangkok:  O.S. Printing House.

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Witzel, M.E.J.  (1997).  The Development of the Vedic Canon and its Schools:  The Social and Political Milieu.  In Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts, (ed. M. Witzel).  (pp.257-348).

Witzel, M.E.J. (2009). Moving Targets? Texts, language, archaeology and history in the Late Vedic and early Buddhist periods. Indo-Iranian Journal 52(2-3): 287-310.

Witzel, M.E.J.  (2011).  Gandhāra and the formation of the Vedic and Zoroastrian canons. In Proceedings of the International Symposium.  (https://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:9887626)

Journey of the Aryan People and Their Influence on Buddhism

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