While continuing my read of the book Bones, Stones, And Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers On The Archaeology, Epigraphy, And Texts Of Monastic Buddhism In India, I was struck by a certain passage regarding an inscription where the Buddha Amitabha is mentioned. The book explains that the inscription was made in the 26th year of King Huveṣka (Huvishka), which is roughly 166 C.E. by a layperson of some wealth. The inscription is said to be the “earliest, indeed the only, reference to the Buddha Amitābha in Indian inscriptions and is, therefore, one of the few hard facts we have concerning this Buddha and his cult in India proper”. (pg. 39)
The inscription reads (translations by author above):
bhagavato buddha amitābhasya pratimā pratiṣṭhapita buddha pūjāye
“[an] image of the Blessed One, the Buddha Amitābha, was set up for the worship of the Buddha”.
Then ends with:
imena kuśalamulena sarva(satana)anuttarajñānaṃ prātp(i)m (bha) (va) (tu)
“through this root of merit may there be the attainment of supreme knowledge by all beings.”
I find this really fascinating for a few reasons:
- It definitely reaffirms that the existence of Amitabha Buddha in India was very sparse until the 2nd century C.E.
- The fact that northern India at this time was ruled by the Kushan Empire out of Pakistan (and not a native Indian empire) suggests that this could have been imported from outside of India. The layperson above is described as belonging to a family of merchants, caravan traders and bankers. So, it’s likely had travelled to and from other parts of the Kushan Empire.
- Also, the fact that inscription was made in reference to the reigning king at that time further suggests influence from the Kushan culture.
Further, the Kushan Empire was originally Zoroastrian, though it later became Buddhist under King Kanishka (Huvishka’s predecessor). This definitely lends credence to the old theory that Amitabha had origins outside of India, or at least borrowed from Zoroastrian culture. Perhaps local traditions mixed with imported iconography from Persia, but the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism¹ suggests that iconography of Amitabha Buddha in the Gandhara region, the heart of the Kushan Empire, predates anything in India proper.
¹ I am the lucky owner of a copy.