Interim period: Mathura as the Vaishnava-Buddhist seat of culture and learning
The most important and earliest non-Indian literary record of ancient India is found in the book Indica by Megasthenes. In the 3rd century BC Megasthenes journeyed to India. The King of Taxila had appointed him ambassador to the royal court at Pataliputra of the great Vaisnava monarch Chandragupta. While there Megasthenes wrote extensively on what he heard and saw. Unfortunately, none of Megasthenes's original book survived. However, through Megasthenes's early Greek and Roman commentators, like Arrian, Diodorus and Strabo, fragments of his original work are available to us today, as well as Megasthenes's general message.
Megasthenes described Mathura as "a place of great regional importance" and suggested that it was then, as now, "a center of Krishna worship."
Christian Lassen noted that Megasthenes wrote of Krishna under the pseudonym of Heracles and that "Heracles", or Krishna, was worshipped as God in the area through which the Yamuna River flows.
A respected Indologist, Richard Garbe, agreed with Lassen's analysis and called the testimony of Megasthenes indisputable. Soon, scholars like Alan Dahlquist, who had formerly supported the "borrowing theory," changed their minds and admitted, in Dahlquist's words, that Garbe had "exploded Weber's theory once and for all." The life of Krishna and the religion of Vaisnavism had not been influenced by Christianity, but had appeared autonomously on Indian soil and was already well-established by at least the third century BC.
See also Search for the historical Krishna
Heliodorus and Vaishnava-Jewish connection
In Mathura, Gandhara, Ratnagiri, Taxila/Taksasila and Nalanda existed ancient Eastern Vaishnava-Buddhist universities. These centers of learning had a focus on the medical arts and were built and attended by both Vaishnavas (Vishnu worshipers) and Buddhists. The Buddhist art produced at all of these Mahayana Buddhist related places of learning, shows that the Buddhists there believed Buddha to be an incarnation of Lokeshvara or Vishnu. The two most important locations for the study of early Mahayana Buddhist art were in the area of Gandhara and Mathura. Both Gandharan and Mathuran school show Greek Rhodian connections.
From Britannica Concise:
Kushan (Kusana) art
"Art produced during the Kushan dynasty (late 1st - 3rd century AD), in an area that now includes parts of Central Asia, northern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
"There are two major stylistic divisions among artifacts of the period: the imperial art of Iranian derivation, and the Buddhist art of mixed Greco-Roman and Indian sources. The former is exemplified by stiff, frontal portraits (including those on coins) emphasizing the individual's power and wealth. The second, more realistic, style is typified by the schools of Gandhara and Mathura art."
From "Buddhist Art in India" by Radha Banerjee:
"Different forms of the Avalokitesvara have been mentioned in the Sadhana-mala, of these the important ones are Shadakshari Lokeshvara, Simhanada, Khasharpana. Lokanatha, Halahala, Nilakantha and few others."
"Mathura also was a great centre of art and culture during this period. Here flourished side by side all the important religions of India, such as Brahmanism, Jainism and Buddhism. It is believed that the first Buddha images were carved at Mathura simultaneously if not earlier, with the Gandhara school. Mathura has produced Buddha images of various dimensions. The Kushana Buddha or Bodhisattva images of Mathura served as the prototypes of the more beautiful specimens of the Gupta period."
"In northwest India, in a region that was called Gandhara in ancient times and now includes Afghanistan and part of the Punjab, a Greco-Buddhist school of sculpture arose that combined the influence of Greek forms and Buddhist subject matter. It reached the peak of its production in the 2nd century AD. Although the Gandhara style greatly influenced sculptural work in Central Asia and even in China, Korea, and Japan, it did not have a major effect in the rest of India; it is probable, however, that the images as well as the symbols of Buddha developed at Gandhara later spread to Mathura, now in Uttar Pradesh, where an important school of sculpture developed from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD. Remains of the earlier work of this school also show a close relationship to the style of the sculpture at Bharhut. Later, in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the Mathura school discarded the old symbols of Buddha and represented him with actual figures. This innovation was carried on through subsequent phases of Indian sculpture." (source: kuwaitoriya.com)
"In 221 AD, the Han dynasty came to an end and China broke up into two. One was Fu-Nah (Cambodia). There is evidence that the king of Fu was in contact with the Saka king of Mathura. Mathura was a major kingdom then." source
Mathura Vaishnava-Buddhist University
Vrindavana-Mathura was the ancient capital of Vaishnava Krishna-Baladeva and Vishnu worship. It was also the area's capital of Pure Land Buddhist Amitabha-Amitayus and Lokeshvara worship.
Amitayus (analogous to Baladeva), the sambhogya kaya, further 'expands' as Avalokiteshvara. Amitayus is the original spiritual master and servitor Lord / Savior of all beings. As personified wisdom, he may be worshiped as Manjushri. Buddhist sources document that Amitayus-Manjushri was worshiped with Amitabha in ancient Vrindavan-Mathura.
As Lokeshvara, all the benevolent forms of Vishnu and the wrathful forms of Shiva are all forms of His. This fact proves that the Pure Land Buddhist tradition dates to before Vaishnavism and Shaivism became distinct separated traditions. In other words, Mahadeva Shiva is considered a form of Lokeshvara. All his wrathful forms are thus forms of Lokeshvara. This is the same as in ancient Egypt, Palestine and Europe, where both the benevolent and wrathful forms were considered forms of the same Deity, the second person of the Godhead, Baal-Yahu-Osiris-Dionysos-Amun, etc.
There is much archeological evidence of Pure Land Buddhism in Mathura, where Baladeva was always worshiped with Krishna. This is the same salvific tradition in two different, but closely related forms. Thus the icons and symbols of the great Vaishnava and Buddhist schools of sacred art at Mathura are extremely similar. Mathura was also a great Vaishnava-Buddhist center of learning in ancient times, and is one of the two most important places to study for early Buddhist art.
"Mathura Evidence for the Early Teachings of Mahayana," in Mathura: The Cultural Heritage, Edited by Doris M. Srinivasan, American Institute of Indian Studies, New Delhi, 1989, pp. 85-95.
Investigation of Early Mathura Buddhism Sculpture [Construction of Early Hindu Buddhism Art] (1995-1999) By Yagihashi Tsukasa.
The Central Significance of Vrindavana-Mathura in Mahayana Buddhist History
In Joseph Campbell's "Masks of God" (4 volumes, Viking) and other comparative and exclusive studies of Buddhism, it has been readily acknowledged that Ashoka's own Buddhist master had a great monastery in Mathura. Campbell cites a reference to this claiming that Ashoka's master's (3rd century BCE) monastery in Mathura had 10,000 [sic] resident monks.
History of Buddhism in India during time of Ashoka
Mathura is an ancient cultural and religious center. The Buddhist monasteries that were built here received considerable patronage from Ashoka, and Mathura was mentioned by Ptolemy and by the Chinese visitors Fahsien (who visited India from 401 to 410 AD) and Xuan Zhang (634-762 AD) in their works.
More about this topic in "Glimpses from India-China contacts" by M.S.N. Menon
Ashoka (Third Century BCE) was the last of the great Mauryan Dynasty Emperors. The Mauryas were Vaishnavas, but Ashoka, after a particularly horrific military campaign (against Kalinga) that consolidated his rule over much of India, is said to have 'converted' to the non-violent discipline of Buddhism, becoming its greatest royal advocate. Filled with missionary zeal, he energetically patronized this Buddhism, building up its holy places and supporting its monasteries and sending missionaries with its messages of benevolence as far as the Mediterranean. It is one of these missions (actually related to his personal family) that supposedly reached the Island of Sri Lanka, establishing Buddhism there. He participated in Buddhist councils, and while he protected Vaishnavism and some other traditional Indian religions, he also suppressed heterodox groups. In fact, "There is also evidence from the Edicts [of Ashoka] that he intervened to expel dissident elements from the Buddhist Order..." (page 100, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, 1997, Oxford University Press.)
It is not contested that Ashoka continued his protection and support of Vaishnavism, or that his own Buddhist master's ashram was in Mathura, the royal religio-cultural capital of Krishna-centric Vaishnavism, so what was the so-called Buddhism that in his liberality he found so intolerable that he actually suppressed and expelled as "dissident"? Well, what is the heterodox Buddhism that arrived in Sri Lanka at that time? What Buddhism has continuously denied the clearly Mahayana-related evidence of Pure Land Ashokan Buddhism, which from all of the archeological hard evidence arrived in Sri Lanka during the same era and was spread throughout the entire region (and beyond) by Ashoka's missionaries? Considered heterodox, it appears that Theravada Buddhism was expelled from India by the Emperor Ashoka.
[See "The Transmission of Buddhism to the Andhra Region, translated from Japanese
by Trevor Leggett (volume 77:4 p. 237) February 2003")
Is it conceivable that everywhere else Ashoka's missionaries were spreading Vaishnava-Bhakti-related Pure Land Mahayana Buddhism, but that in Sri Lanka alone they were teaching Theravada / Hinayana atheism? Is it conceivable that atheistic Theravada Buddhism would be blissfully co-existing with Krishna-centric Vaishnavism in Mathura, the very world intellectual epicenter of Krishna-centrism? Would the 'Vatican City' of Krishna-Vaishnavism tolerate the presence of thousands of Theravada Buddhist atheists who believed that Krishna was a demon?
Nearby Vrindavana, as the more esoteric 'Bridal Mysticism'-type center of pastoral ("bucolic", from Vaishnava "Gokula" and Pure Land Buddhist "Gokura-ku") Krishna-Vaishnavism was never the university (monastery) intellectual or royal seat of Krishna Vaishnavism. As the sanctum sanctorum of Sri Sri Radha-Krishna and Baladeva and the gopis' Bridal Mysticism / rasa lila pastimes, Vrindavan's sacred pastoral character was always religiously safeguarded from certain kinds of development. However, as the center of awesome and reverential royal / raja Krishna-worship, nearby Mathura was the diffusional royal epicenter of Krishna-centric Vaishnavism for countless centuries. At the time of Ashoka, it was the intellectual and artistic capital of Krishna-centric Vaishnavism. How could Ashoka's own master have had an ashram with 10 000 monks in it in the royal capital of Sri Krishna's worship (Sri Krishna's own birthplace), if he had been a Theravada Buddhist? The Theravadin Buddhists of Sri Lanka teach that Krishna and Balarama are demons, and some teach the Jain doctrine that Krishna is in a hell for His role in the Great (Mahabharata) War(!)
In fact, in both of the university-like intellectual 'Buddhist' centers of Mathura and Gandhara, the Vaishnavas and Buddhists were completely compatible as members of various lineages or orders of the same religion. This fact cannot be contested. No honest scholar can deny that Gandhara and Mathura, the two greatest early Mahayana centers of Buddhist intellectual and artistic activity and diffusion, were also Vaishnava centers of the same. This was not a sequential phenomenon either. The Vaishnava and Buddhist presence in these centers of Bhakti Yoga was contemporaneous. In fact, there was a Western Bhakti Asyla Temple Federation representation in the visitors and residents of these two great Vaishnava and Buddhist 'university' centers of Gandhara and Mathura too. Greeks, Romans and other western Eli-Yahu / Heli-os / Heri-Asu worshipers visited and lived in these two centers.
When it is known that Mathura was the North Indian regional center of Krishna Bhakti, how is it possible that the very antithesis of Krishna-Vaishnavism and closely related Pure Land Buddhist Bhakti, namely atheistic Theravada Buddhism, could have been the Buddhism that Ashoka patronized there? When it is clear from evidence all over the region (and beyond) that Ashoka equally protected and supported Vaishnavism and Mahayana (Pure Land) Buddhism and that at the time these two great Bhakti traditions were considered part of the same religion, how is it conceivable that the 'Buddhism' that he patronized in Sri Lanka was Theravada, the historical and doctrinal antithesis of both Vaishnavism and Pure Land Buddhism?
It is widely accepted by Western scholars that missionaries of Ashoka the Great were present in Judea, Greece and Egypt. The Theravadins have appropriated Ashoka, but there is no evidence that his 'Buddhism' was Hinayana (the atheistic form). All the evidence is that the original Buddhism, both before and after Sakyamuni was at first indistinguishable from Krishna-centric Vaishnavism. The late and insignificant heretical Theravadins, who were suppressed by Ashoka etc., thus diffused to S.E. Asia through Sri Lanka.
(Reposted from India Archaeology group, From Than Hsiang Temple Site: The reign of King Ashoka, The Maurya Dynasty):
"Ashoka's visit to Bodh Gaya and his devotion to the Bodhi tree is shown by a sculpture on the eastern gate at Sanchi which represents the emperor's visit to the sacred tree. It was followed by many other pilgrimages on which both legends and inscriptions throw some light according to northern tradition confirmed by Yuan Chwang. Ashoka's preceptor in Buddhism was Upagupta of Mathura, the son of a performer Gupta of Benares who took Ashoka on an extensive pilgrimage to the principal holy places of Buddhism such as Lumbini Garden where the Buddha was born, Kapilavastu where he renounced the world, Bodhi-tree at Gaya where he attained enlightenment, Isipatana (Sarnath) where he first preached, Kusinagara where he died, Sravasti where he mostly lived and taught. At each of these places, Ashoka gave gold and built a chaitya."
This scholar also describes that Ashoka did something that an atheist would not do. He patronized the worship of Vaishnava-like Pure Land Buddhist murtis. So it is strange indeed that the atheistic so-called Buddhists of Sri Lanka insist that Ashoka sent atheistic Theravadin Buddhism to that island.
Ashoka devoted himself strenuously to the moral uplift of the community. As stated in Minor Rock Edict 1, the gods were popularized so that the people in India (Jambudvipa) who knew nothing of them i.e. the wild tribes now became associated with them and adopted them as objects of their worship. A further appeal to the religious instincts of the people was made by the emperor's organization of shows and processions exhibiting images of the gods in their celestial cars, which were accompanied by elephants, bonfires or illuminations and other heavenly sights (Rock Edict IV). The institution of Buddhist processions continued at Pataliputra down to Fa-hsien's time (4th century A.D.). Thus the originator of Buddhist processions seems to be Ashoka. Ashoka's intention when he started this was not for his own material gain but for the spiritual advantage of his people by bringing their gods before their eyes.
Mathura's fame eclipsed
In 1018 AD Mahmud of Ghazni sacked and plundered the magnificent temples of Mathura which were known for their fabulous wealth. Towards the end of 1756 Ahmad Shah Abdali swooped down on the plains of Hindustan and plundered Delhi, Mathura and Agra in 1757.
Sherman, David (Bhakti Ananda Goswami), Pure Land Buddhism as Vaishnavism, other unpublished writings
Sharma, R. C., Buddhist Art: Mathura School. New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Limited, 1995. Cites recent archaeological finds to argue the primacy of the Mathura (native Indian) school of sculpture over the Gandharan (Indo-Greek) in the development of the Buddha image.
Sharma, R.C., The Splendour of Mathura Art and Museum.(Printed on Art Paper) 1994, N.Delhi, D.K.
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In service to His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder-acarya, International Society for Krishna Consciousness