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The Nostalgia of 2,500 Years: Celebrating South Asia’s Buddhist Heritage

This article is based on a panel address given by the author at the International Buddhist Confederation’s “International Seminar on India’s North Eastern Region and Buddhist Heritage – Bridge between SAARC and ASEAN: Forging synergies for growth and sustainable development,” a forum held from 18–20 December this year in Tripura, India.

A girl skateboards in front of one of the destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas, Afghanistan. From

We all feel nostalgic at times. This pensive mood is defined on as: “A wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.” Nostalgia is not restricted to one’s fond memories of high-school friends or a long-lost first love; it can be a shared feeling. It is often associated with a search for cultural or national identity, a practice associated with invoking the past in order to understand our present and future. Think of the British writers enamored of Arthurian literature’s knights and ladies, or how the French look back to symbols of national defiance, like Joan of Arc.

Still, nostalgia has a bad reputation. At best, many see it as a futile longing for a time that might not even have existed in the way we think it did. We often associate nostalgia with historical simplification and certain political instincts, particularly cultural conservatism. At worst, it might be a political desire to “turn back the clocks,” to return to a time when certain groups of people were discriminated against or dehumanized. It is therefore important to make sure that our fondness for the past does not become an impediment to our work for human progress.

An informed sense of nostalgia, however, can help us see connections where we hadn’t previously expected to find them. Properly channeled, it can stimulate a community’s preservation or rejuvenation. In China, nostalgia for the Confucian past as well as its great dynasties and emperors maintains the flame of patriotism and national integrity and pride. Imperial Britain is gone, but contemporary nostalgia for Britishness (royalty, James Bond, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and much more) has given the UK a new empire of culture that is being exported and adored around the world. I also have many Turkish friends who enjoy invoking their Ottoman heritage. Tempered nostalgia therefore has its uses, both to nurture a sense of pride in and romance about the past and to come to terms with the present.

The breathtaking complex of Takht-i-Bahi in Pakistan. From

For this panel address, I was asked to talk about Buddhist traditions and spiritual heritage across the region, and so I wish to invoke a sense of nostalgia in relation to South Asia. As one of the culturally richest and most diverse regions in the world, there are many things to be proud of. But I feel there has not been enough nostalgia for Buddhism, a religion that once thrived in South Asia and continues to do so in specific pockets today. Buddhism was not practiced in a social and cultural vacuum, either: many empires that were sympathetic to Buddhism contributed to South Asia’s economy and society, most notably the Kushan Empire (30–375) and the Pala Empire (750–1174). The SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) members—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (but not Mauritius, sadly)—are part of Buddhism’s great cultural complex. Buddhism has had a unique role in defining the region’s history.

Two and a half millennia ago, South Asia was a cluster of kingdoms and empires that hosted the ancestors of the citizens of today’s SAARC countries. But the shared history of this region begins in modern-day Nepal, when a prince was born to a small kingdom ruled by the Shakya family. Northern India soon became the primary region in which the Enlightened One would teach. His doctrines spread across the region, and to Afghanistan and Pakistan. These three countries happen to be the cradle of the earliest stirrings of Mahayana Buddhism. The birch bark manuscripts of Greco-Bactrian Gandhara in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the earliest dating to the 1st century CE, are the oldest extant records of a nascent movement that would become one of the most influential religious traditions of East Asia.  

One of the most beautiful temples dating back to the beginning of the Common Era is a magnificent complex on a mountain in Mardan, Pakistan. Built during the reign of the Parthian king Gondophares in the 1st century BCE, Takht-i-Bahi (Persian and Urdu for “spring at the top”) was taken over by the Kushan emperors Kanishka I (r. c. 127–63), Kanishka III (r. c. 268), and Vasudeva II (r. c. 275–300), who have left their architectural mark on this complex, too. The temple subsequently served as a Buddhist monastery thanks to the Kushans’ Buddhist sympathies, and is one of the few Buddhist monuments dating back to that era. Meanwhile, we know that the preservation of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka contributed immeasurably to the diffusion of the tradition throughout Southeast Asia. 

Nalanda University, India. From

From the 7th century on, tantric Buddhism became part of the religious landscape. For some time, the areas of modern Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan were united under one of the greatest and last Buddhist dynasties in South Asian history: the Palas. Gopala built the famous Odantapuri monastery in Bihar State, which would serve as the model for Tibet’s first monastery, Samye. Built by the Pala emperor Dharmapala (r. c. 781–821) in the 8th century, Somapura Mahavihara in Pahapur is Bangladesh’s answer to the Buddhist universities of India: covering 27 acres, Somapura formed a network of Buddhist learning with the super-monasteries of Nalanda (founded by the Guptas in the 5th century) and Vikramashila (also built by Dharmapala) during the Pala period. Somapura’s ruins bear testimony to the understated but vital part that the region of modern Bangladesh played in the development of Buddhism, not least because of the figure of Atisha, who is likely to have been born in Bikrampur.  

Even as Buddhism waned in South Asia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh would irrevocably shape the culture and identity of Bhutan and Tibet by transmitting tantric doctrines and people to the snowy plateau, most importantly the master Padmasambhava, who is often said to have been from the Swat Valley. This interconnected heritage had ended by the 13th century, but not without leaving behind more than 1,800 years of priceless literature, refined culture, and archaeological beauty, and an elevated religion and philosophy that went far beyond the borders of northern India and Nepal. South Asia’s history, thanks to Buddhism, became a part of the histories of countries far beyond its borders. Surely this is worthy of nostalgia.

Somapura Mahavihara, Bangladesh. From

This brief historical sketch is just a reminder of the spiritual unity with which Buddhism graced South Asia. I would encourage the SAARC nations to indulge in the kind of cultural pride that inspires tourism, instills cosmopolitan pride, and reignites international interest. For example, Mes Aynak and the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan have become more famous than any other heritage site in Afghanistan and are the focus of international interest, having won the love of conservators, filmmakers, journalists, and more. Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, and not least India are all basking in the spotlight of global organizations devoted to preserving Buddhist artifacts and sites. Today, Islam is an integral part of the lives of people in several SAARC countries, but it would be a waste, both culturally and politically, for them to limit their identities to this relatively new import. The Greeks and Italians take great pride in the Classical Greek and Roman culture that flourished before the dominance of Christianity. It is time for those who understand the stakes in South Asia to proclaim loudly and proudly their Buddhist past. 

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