Today Afghanistan has become synonymous with Islam but it is a fact that it has been Islamic only for the last one thousand years. Prior to that for five thousand years it was the cradle of Hindu and Buddhist cultures. In ancient times Afghanistan was politically and culturally an integral part of India. Its ancient name was ‘Upgansthan’.
In sixth century AD Varahmihir has mentioned the term ‘Avgaan’ in his book ‘Brihatsamhita’. French scholar Saan Martin is of the opinion that the word ‘Afghan’ originates from the Sanskrit word ‘ashvak’ meaning horserider. There are references to Afghanistan in Sanskrit literature as ‘Ashkayan’ meaning the route of horseriders.
The name Afghanistan came into vogue during the rule of Ahmed Shah Durrani (1747-1773 AD). Prior to that Afghanistan was referred to as Aryana, Aryanam Viju, Pakhtiya, Khurasan and Pashtoonkhwah. The Parsi religious leader Zarathrushta in his work ‘Zendavesta’ calls this region ‘Aeseen Vijo’ or “Aryanum Vijo’ meaning the land of the Aryans.
The Rig Veda and the Zendavesta are believed to be the oldest texts in the world. Many European scholars believe that both the texts were composed in Afghanistan. Zarathrushta, the composer of Avesta was born in north Afghanistan near Balkh, where he preached the Zorastrian religion which was the national religion of Iran for almost one thousand years. Not only is the language of the Vedas and that of the Avesta similar, but also the names of their gods like Mitra, Indra, Varun are the same. The description of battles between the gods and the demons are found in both the texts.
There are so many references made to Afghanistan in the Chhandogya Upanishad, Markandey Puran and other Vedic and Buddhist literature that it becomes impossible to write our cultural history without taking into consideration Afghanistan, the land of our forefathers.
According to famous Afghan historians Mohammed Ali and Prof. Pajhvak, the Rigveda was composed in the ancient homeland of the Aryans, Afghanistan. The language of the ancient Afghans was Brahmui which is very similar to the language of the Vedas. References of the Pakhtoon people and the Afghan rivers are found in the Rigveda. The rivers which are today known as Aamu, Kabul, Kurram, Ranga, Gomal and Harirudh were known to the ancient Indians as Vakshu, Kubha, Krum, Rasaa, Gomati, Haryu respectively. The places which are now called Kabul, Kandhar, Balkh, Wakhan, Bagram, Pameer, Badkhasha, Peshawar, Swat and Charsadda are referred to in Sanskrit and Pali literature as Kuhka, Gandhar, Bahlik, Vokkan, Kapisha, Meru, Kamboj, Purushpur, Suvastu and Pushkalavati respectively. Gandhari, the devoted wife of King Dhritrashtra of Hastinapur (now Delhi), Panini, the great Sanskrit grammarian and Guru Gorakhnath were all Pathans. Takshshila, which is believed to be the first university in the world was established in 600 BC.
Around 500 BC Persian kings Darius and Cyrus established their rule over Afghanistan. The region to the north of the Hindukush was called Bactria and to the south was called Gandhar. Two hundred years later Alexander, the Greek conqueror occupied this territory and the Greeks ruled it for some two hundred years. Due to a treaty signed between Seleucus and Chandragupta Maurya, Buddhist culture had started making roots in Afghanistan. There are references of two Afghan kings – Nagnajit and Pukku Sati, in Pali literature who were the rulers of Gandhar and the contemporaries of Bindusar of Magadh. Takshashila was the capital of Gandhar. King Ashoka had sent his missionaries to Afghanistan to preach Buddhism. His son Kunal was the ruler of Gandhar. Asang, Vasubandhu, Matang Kashyap and Bharat Pandit were Buddhist scholars of international fame who belonged to Gandhar.
During the Kushana period also Buddhism spread in this region. The Gandhara school of art flourished during this period. Kanishka installed a 638 feet high pillar in the memory of Gautam Buddha in Purushpur (now Peshawar). Bimaran, Begram, Hadda, Shotorak, Kunduj, Phodankistan and Bamiyan were famous Buddhist centres of this period. Goshak, Dharmamitra, Lokshem, Dharmaraksh, Aryachandra were famous Buddhist scholars of this period. Chinese travelers Fahien (400 AD), Shangun (578 AD) and Hiun-Tsang (629 AD) have dealt with the Hindu-Buddhist culture of Afghanistan at length in their travelogues. For them Afghanistan was an extension of India. They have made special reference to Balkh which was later destroyed by the Arab invaders towards the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the eighth century. There are descriptions of Buddhist monasteries on both the sides of the road on the trade route from Balkh to Khyber Pass. There were more than fifty Buddhist centres in the Kabul valley alone. Many remains of Hindu-Buddhist temples, idols and paintings have been found during archaeological excavations in Afghanistan. Historians believe that between 383 AD and 810 AD, many Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese by the Afghan Buddhist monks.
The most popular of these were the 180 and 120 feet tall statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan. There were dozens of cave temples and monasteries around these statues which housed fifty thousand Buddhist monks. It is believed that Bamiyan was founded by the royal family of Kapilvastu. In the seventeenth century Aurangzeb tried to destroy these statues, though he was successful in only damaging them. The work that was left undone by him was recently completed by the Taliban.
Many Hindu kings ruled over Afghanistan just before the advent of Islam. It is not that these kings came from Kashi or Patliputra, they were the indigenous Aryans, the sons of the soil. These kings were referred to as Hindushahi by the Arab historians. In the year 843 A.D. the Hindushahi was established by Kallar. The contemporary coins reveal that before Kallar, Hindu and Buddhist kings like Ranthal, Spalpati and Lagturman reigned over Afghanistan. The Hindu kings were called either Kabulshah or Maharaj Dharmpati. Kallar, Samantdeo, Bheem Ashtapal, Jayapal, Anandpal, Trilochanpal, and Bheempal were some of the prominent Hindu kings. The most remarkable aspect is that Arab and Persian historians are full of praises for these Hindushahi rulers. Al-beruni and Al-Utabi have written that Muslims, Jews and Buddhists lived together peacefully and no discrimination was made amongst them by the rulers. Art, education and trade flourished during this period. These kings were so prosperous that they had issued gold coins.
These kings successfully resisted the Arab invaders for more than three centuries. They did not allow them to cross the river Indus and enter India. In 1019 A.D. Mahmud Ghazni defeated Trilochanpal and changed the history of Afghanistan. It was almost 400 years after the Prophet that Afghanistan was islamised. Mahmud Ghazni destroyed temples, buildings, education centres, trade centres and markets wherever he went and forcefully converted the local people. Al-beruni has written that because of the harsh treatment and the destructive policies of the Sultans, this region was no longer fit for scholars, merchants, traders, warriors and princes. According to Muslim historian Farishta the ambassadors of other kingdoms were awestruck when the bounty gathered from the Hindushahis was displayed in Ghazni. There weren’t enough camels to carry the loot from Bheemnagar which is now called Nagarkot.
Al-beruni writes that people fled from Afghanistan and took shelter in different parts of India like Kashmir and Kashi to protect their religion, knowledge, arts and sciences. History seems to have repeated itself when with the coming of the Taliban thousands of Afghans fled to their neighbouring countries for shelter and protection. As the renowned Indian journalist Muzaffar Husain wrote, “Taliban may attempt to destroy every vestige of pre-Islamic civilization, but it cannot deny the historical reality.”