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Emergence of Mahayana Buddhism & Revival of Gandhara Civilization

September 20, 2023


Mahasanghika is the name of the branch of Buddhism that is in harmony with the world (Lokottaravadins). They tried to gain favor by adopting the beliefs of the locals. Mahasanghika would use names connected to the original Buddhism in his stories to fit in with whatever Brahminism believed. Asvaghosa and Nagarjuna were two scholars who founded the Mahasanghika Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Even though they diverged from the original form of Buddhism, they didn’t strive to discredit it. The terms Hinayana and Mahayana were not in use at the time.

Mahasanghika and Mahayana Buddhism

Born to a Brahmin household after 500 BCE, Asvaghosa was a well-known poet. He transitioned from Bhraminism to the Sarvastivadin School, where the original was modified slightly, to become a monk. He added enthusiasm to the Buddha legends because he was both a poet and a scholar. His first poetry collection was titled Buddhacharita (Acts of the Buddha) and was written in Sanskrit. 

The second book was Saundarananda, which combined a love narrative with Dhamma teaching. It was written in Kavya poetry. It concerns Nanda, a charming guy who is Buddha’s younger brother, and Saundra, his lovely fiancée. Despite being in love, they had to be split apart. The Buddha took Nanda to train as a monk on their wedding day. The two lovers were so depressed that they could not eat or sleep.

The celestial beings in heaven, who were infinitely more attractive than his fiancée, were shown to Nanda by the Buddha. Nanda didn’t miss his fiance all that much. He continued practicing, upholding moral principles, refining his focus, and gaining understanding, hoping to encounter a celestial being in his next life. Ven. Ananda advised him that getting to Nirvana is happier than going to heaven.

Asvaghosa: Transition from Brahminism to Buddhism

When Nanda finally realized what was happening, he went to the forest to practice and obtained arahantship. The Buddha instructed him not to do this as he prepared for his death and to become a Bodhisattva and spread happiness worldwide. Nanda concurred. Mahayana, also known as Bodhisattva-yana, places a high value on the Bodhisattva.

His third book, Sutralankara, uses Mahpajpat Gotam, Buddha’s aunt, as an example to inspire women to follow the nirvana route. The book asks adherents of the two religions to join Buddhism and references the scriptures of the Brahman and Jaina faiths. It was successful and received widespread approval. Thus, Mahayana Buddhism was reformatted, and a new school of Buddhism emerged in India. Women found it simple to obtain charity food when they trusted it.

In addition to those three well-known volumes, Asvaghosa produced the suttas and scriptures that served as the foundation for the Mahayana and its subsequent offshoots. Even though they made an effort to coexist with Brahminism, they nonetheless opposed its caste structure.

Around this period, many semi-fictional Buddhist tales appeared and were translated into several languages, including German. We read Kamanita-Vasitthi, a Thai story, as one of the tales. Many people think that it is accurate and it is amusing. A hundred years after Asvaghosa, the Brahmin caste member Nagarjuna was born in southern India. He had to join the Buddhist Order after completing his study of the Vedas. He was a playboy earlier.

He could work magic or pull pranks, including turning invisible and entering harems undetected. He was taken in. The monarch desired to punish him severely. Nagarjuna asked for one that was gentler.

He committed not to do it again. In addition, he would renounce his lofty Brahmin status and become a Buddhist monk, shaving his head and donning a yellow robe as an expression of regret. The benevolent king, who respected Buddhism, granted his request. It was strange and unprecedented for Nagarjuna to choose to become a monk without having confidence in it. He put a lot of effort into the Order after joining. Being an intelligent guy, he understood Buddhism’s most important concept, the anatta, or non-self.

Sutralankara and Inspiration for Women

This anatta implies that atta (self) exists by nature but that one must approach it wisely and recognize that it is transient and not of us or ours. We shall suffer as long as we cling to atta as eternal. To help those who hold to the atta understand it would be difficult to convey. Nagarjuna founded the Shunayavada school of Buddhism and gave it a new name, “Sunyata.” He entirely rejected the idea of the ego by teaching that everything will eventually lead to shunaya (nothingness/emptiness). There is no such thing as a self if we disassemble it. 

The only things we can refer to as “self” are the mental formations that result from cause and consequence. Without cognitive structures, cause and effect end and return to emptiness. Both Lokiya-dhamma and Lokuttara-dhamma levels are subject to the Shunayavada concept.

His statement raised a lot of controversy since it went against the Brahmin concept of permanent atta, which endures through reincarnation. If “sunyata” is understood by Buddhists to mean the cessation of the ego (I, me, my, mine), then this rule can be applied. The attachment to the five aggregates ends along with the ego. The Pali word sunyata denotes this.

Only a few Buddhist monks in India could comprehend the idea of anatta. Shunayavada initially generated a lot of excitement, but Brahminism harshly attacked it. To make the name sound more impartial, Nagarjuna renamed it Madhyamika. In addition, he made a new argument based on the Noble Eightfold Path, stating that when someone passes away, their spirit, or atta, will unite with the great-sunyata of the universe. 

The Jaina faith’s teachings assert that the spirit or atta will join the world’s baron-atta (world great atta), which are similar. Great-sunyata was created to diminish the idea of voidness after death. As a result, after death, the atta will join the great sunyata of the world. It wouldn’t be a lost cause if this helped with the teachings about good and bad karma.

Nagarjuna: Founder of Shunayavada (Madhyamika)

The Brahmins first opposed the idea of the Shunayavada School. In response, Nagarjuna argued in a tale that the Buddha had already explained Shunayavada’s philosophy to a naga (Serpent King). According to the Buddha’s prophecy, the naga has a long lifespan and can retain its teachings (perhaps memorizing them) until Nagarjuna, the deity, is reincarnated on earth 500 years later. They stopped challenging him since he imitated the Brahminism ideology, and they most likely initially believed his claim.

For those of intelligence, the name Nagarjuna is a blend of nag-agara-arajuna. India has a tree by the name of Arjuna. “The naga who was born at home, under the arjuna tree,” was how his father described him. A knowledgeable and witty man, Nagarjuna. He created a myth about a strong naga so that people would be terrified and respect him.

When the myth was contested, people questioned why the naga did not impart knowledge over those 500 years. Nagas may be extremely strong, but Nagarjuna emphasized that they could not teach or explain; they could only remember and repeat. The ruler of the gods ordered them to wait until his reincarnation. Brahmins refrained from pressing their objections about why the god had to issue a directive. God has unlimited power and is free to do anything he pleases.

Although it was given a new name—Madhyamika—it did not help it survive long in India since it could not compete with Brahminism. Shunayavada/Madhyamika slowly vanished from India but thrived in other countries like China, Japan, and Korea.

Madhyamika is a beautiful meaning for a name. It links the new Mahasanghika with the conventional Theravadin school of Buddhism. The wonderful thing about Nagarjuna was that he was polite, composed, and adhered to the Vinaya when he became a Buddhist monk. He did not attempt to disparage other religions. Despite departing from the original, he merely wished to spread Buddhism under his knowledge and aid others in growing their faith in it. At least Hinaya-na and Mahayana didn’t exist at the time.

Development and Legacy of Madhyamika

But the pupils of Nagarjuna were different. Due to their vices and biases, some boasted that they were better than others. His top pupil, Deva, excelled in argument and frequently defeated Brahmin opponents. People started to focus more on Madhyamika. An envious Brahmin eventually killed him. Satasastra was Deva’s most well-known book. Aryadeva and Amaraindra were two of Nagarjuna’s other famous followers who contributed many new teachings to his philosophy. This will be covered in more detail when we study the Mahayana’s flourishing time.

Buddhism flourished between 400 and 700 BCE, marking the commencement of Mahayana. For Buddhists to show respect, Gandharan artwork, stupas, and Buddha images became commonplace.

I had the opportunity to study Gandahran art in the Peshawar Museum and visit Buddhist World Heritage sites that were active during the reign of King Kanishka of the Kushan dynasty while I was a visitor to Peshawar. On August 2nd, 2565 BE, I paid the Takht-i-Bahi a second visit. I appreciate how well the site has been constructed, demonstrating the Takht-i-Bahi’s immense importance as a World Buddhist Heritage Site. Here are some intriguing site-related facts.

Flourishing of Buddhism (400-700 BCE)

Takht-i-Bahi is a vast complex of monasteries. It must have been a crucial location for Buddhists at the time for Dhamma instruction and practice. The fact that there are numerous monks’ homes scattered throughout the mountain may mean that the place also served monks who traveled there from other locations.

Therefore, the field trip I took today to the Takht-i-Bahi was quite valuable since it allowed me to admire the well-preserved Buddhist heritage site that functioned as the epicenter of Gandharan Buddhism under the Kushana Dynasty. In particular, it was up to me to construct the sand pagoda (maha stupa cetiya) in honor of the Buddha, who, as stated by Faxian Bhikkhu, visited all regions of Jambudpiva, including Peshawar. Dr. Abdul Samad, Director of Archaeology & Museum, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, whose assistance in planning and facilitating this tour made it possible, deserves credit for this outstanding achievement.

It was, therefore, great merit to erect a sand pagoda in honor of the maha stupa that King Kanishka had previously built on August 2, 2565, BE, at 9:30 a.m. in tribute to the Buddha. As the only feature visible in old photographs is the bayan tree located at the location where I erected the sand pagoda in homage to the Buddha, it is significant evidence that the largest and most beautiful stupa in Jambudvipa once stood there. Today, that location is a Pakistani cemetery. May we all celebrate with gratitude.

Tribute to King Kanishka and Revival of Gandhara Civilization

Upon the traces of the Gandhara Civilization

King Kanishka promoted the Buddhist foundation and religion

To transmit the Gandharan Dhamma spirit, 

with magnificent pagodas and monasteries

A Ratna pagoda is currently being constructed in front of Kanishka’s Maha-Cetiya.

So challenging, given the circumstances

Even contemplating it is so challenging

Despite the difficulty, you remain steadfast

Even in the face of peril, we succeeded.

Therefore, the Ratna Sand Pagoda

My hands are clasped together in awe.

May the Buddha’s strength keep you safe.

Bowing before the Lord

with any of my heart.” in the Buddha Land

 9.30 am, August 2, 2022


On the spot where, according to Faxian’s records, King Kanishka’s most stunning pagoda in Jambudvipa formerly stood, I constructed a sand pagoda using only my two hands. The place is currently a Muslim cemetery.

The air was thick with the smell of bodies the day I arrived. A foreigner of a different faith entering can be risky; thus, security guards with firearms were on duty.

Thanks to Dr. Abdul Samad, Director of the Archaeology & Museum in KP, the objective to revive the essence of the Gandhara civilization was successful.


Q1. What are the critical characteristics of Mahasanghika and Mahayana Buddhism during this period?

Ans. Mahasanghika emphasized harmonizing with local beliefs and adapting Buddhism. Mahayana scholars like Asvaghosa and Nagarjuna contributed to its development.

Q2. Who was Asvaghosa, and how did he transition to Buddhism?

Ans. Asvaghosa was a Brahmin poet who became a Buddhist monk. He was crucial in promoting Buddhism through his works like “Buddhacharita” and “Saundarananda.”

Q3. Can you explain the story of Nanda and its significance?

Ans. Buddha’s younger brother Nanda was in love but became a monk on his wedding day. Through practice, he eventually attained arahantship, emphasizing the importance of the path to Nirvana.

Q4. What was the impact of Asvaghosa’s “Sutralankara” on Buddhism?

Ans. “Sutralankara” inspired women to follow the path to Nirvana and contributed to the reformulation of Mahayana Buddhism by using scriptures from Brahman and Jaina faiths.

Q5. Who was Nagarjuna, and what was his contribution to Buddhism?

Ans. Nagarjuna transitioned from a Brahmin playboy to a devoted Buddhist monk. He founded the Shunayavada (Madhyamika) school, emphasizing the concept of “Sunyata” or emptiness.

Q6. How did Nagarjuna’s teachings differ from Brahminism’s atta (self) concept?

Ans. Nagarjuna rejected the concept of a permanent self (atta) and emphasized that everything, including the ego, leads to emptiness (sunyata) when disassembled.

Q7. Why did Nagarjuna rename Shunayavada to Madhyamika?

Ans. To make the philosophy sound more impartial and lessen opposition from Brahminism, Nagarjuna renamed Shunayavada to Madhyamika.

Q8. What was the impact of Madhyamika beyond India?

Ans. Madhyamika spread to countries like China, Japan, and Korea, thriving despite its decline in India.

Q9. How did Asvaghosa and Nagarjuna contribute to the development of Mahayana Buddhism?

Ans. Asvaghosa’s writings and Nagarjuna’s philosophy played significant roles in the reformulation and spread of Mahayana Buddhism.

Q10. What is the significance of constructing a sand pagoda in honor of King Kanishka’s Maha-Cetiya?

Ans. The sand pagoda symbolizes the revival of the Gandhara Civilization and the historical importance of King Kanishka’s contributions to Buddhism.

Q11. What challenges were faced during the construction of the sand pagoda?

Ans. Challenges included security concerns due to cultural differences, as the location was a Muslim cemetery. However, with Dr. Abdul Samad’s assistance, the objective succeeded.

Q12. How did Dr. Abdul Samad contribute to the revival of the Gandhara Civilization?

Ans. Dr. Abdul Samad, the Director of Archaeology & Museum in KP, played a crucial role in planning and facilitating the construction of the sand pagoda and preserving the Gandhara heritage.

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