After the Mahaparinirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha, his profound non-sectarian, universal teachings were not confined to the borders of India but rather travelled throughout Asia, crossing the paths of oceans, deserts and mountains and reaching to the rest of the world.
In the North-West of India, a network of ancient trade routes popularly known as Silk Route originated during the 2nd century A.D. It was used by different sections of people like merchants, traders, scholars, monks and missionaries etc. with which different ideas, culture, art and scriptures also travelled along.
One of the essential philosophies that transmitted through this route was the Buddha Dharma. The dissemination of Buddhism and Buddhist art was launched from northwestern India to modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan), China, Korea and Japan.
The transmission of Buddha Dharma from the North-West region of the Indian sub-continent to other land is incomplete without mentioning the royal patronage of King Ashoka of Maurya Empire, King Menander and King Kanishka of the Kushan Empire.
In Buddhist history, King Ashoka is considered as the first great royal patron of Buddhism post the Mahaparinirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha. It was through his efforts and determination that Buddhism came to occupy a prominent position in both India and abroad. Buddhism was the first religious philosophy that transmitted along the Silk Route from India to Gandhara region, Central Asia up to China.
According to Buddhist historical sources, King Ashoka organised the Third Buddhist Council under the chairmanship of Moggaliputta Tissa at Pataliputra (now Patna) in 247 B.C.
This council was conducted to preserve Buddha’s teaching in its purest form. Post this council, it was decided to send Buddhist religious missionaries to different parts of the world. Consequently, King Ashoka sent out Buddhist missionaries to countries outside India through land and sea routes, thus reaching the lands west of India in Central Asia and South costal countries like Sri Lanka.
Historical sources mentioned that he deputed monk Majjhantika to travel to Kashmir and Gandhara region though which Buddhism eventually reached China and thereafter further flourished up to Korea and Japan. Besides, he also sent his son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra to the southern countries as far as Sri Lanka.
As Ashoka’s empire extended to the northwestern borders of Punjab, the Buddhist monks were free to move throughout the region.
An ancient Khotanese tradition credits Vijayasambhava, a grandson of King Ashoka, for introducing Buddhism in Khotan. According to this tradition, Arya Vairocana, a Buddhist scholar from India, came to Khotan and became the preceptor of the Khotanese King.
With this the first Buddhist monastery in Khotan was erected in 211 B.C. Thus, during the Ashokan period, Buddhism emerged as a distinct religion with great potential for expansion.
After the decline of the Mauryan Empire, the Greeks established its suzerainty over Afghanistan and the north-western region of India. Among the Greek rulers, the account of King Menander (also known as Milinda) is found in the Pali Buddhist literature called Milinda Panha (Question of Milinda). This text records a dialogue between King Menander and Indian Buddhist monk Nagasena where the latter through his masterly skill was successful in resolving the doubts of the King that ultimately led him to embracing Buddhism.
It says the King made donations to Sangha and also built a monastery called Milinda-vihara and gifted it to Nagasena. Besides, the Buddhist wheel of Dharmachakra was found on the coins of Menander period and the king remained a great patron and supporter of Buddhism till his last breath.
Subsequently, the foundation of Buddhism along the Central Asian route was further strengthened by King Kanishka of the Kushana Empire whose suzerainty was stretched from today’s Hindu Kush to Kabul, Gandhara, northern Pakistan and north-west India.
Therefore, a ceaseless missionary activity was carried out from north-west India to the regions along the Silk Route. Buddhist history records that King Kanishka played a vital role in the history of Buddhism. Under his patronage, the fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir was convened, which was presided over by Vasumitra and Ashvagosha.
Also, during his period a new style of Indo-Greek art known as Gandhara Art was developed that flourished mostly in Punjab and north-western India. An example of this art is very much alive in the form of Buddhist paintings and statues in the Himalayan region of Ladakh.
Thus, the ancient trade route played a significant role in disseminating Buddhism beyond the Indian territory. Buddhist art that originated on the Indian subcontinent played a vital role in the proliferation of Buddha Dharma to Central Asia and Far East countries, thereby adapting the local style and norms in each new host country.