Nava Vihara

Nava Vihara

Nava Vihara (Sanskrit: नव विहार "new temple" or "new monastery" (see vihara), has been arabized as Nau Behar or Navbahar) was a Buddhist stupa or monastery near the ancient city of Balkh, in the Greater Khorasan province of the Persian Empire (now in present-day Afghanistan).

The temple may have been an old Zoroastrian fire-temple, or it may have been converted to a Zoroastrian temple (sources differ). Balkh was also the birth place of Zoraster.

Rise to prominence

Nava Vihara, the main monastery at Balkh became the center of higher Buddhist study for all of Central Asia, comparable to the Nalanda Monastery in Northern India upon the return of Ghoshaka from the Fourth Buddhist council. The Tokharian monk Ghoshaka was one of the compilers of the Vaibhashaka (a sub-division of the Sarvastivada School of Hinayana) commentaries on abhidharma and established the Western Vaibhashika (Balhika) School. Nava Vihara emphasized the study of primarily of the Vaibhashika (Tibetan: bye-brag smra-ba) abhidharma, admitting only monks who had already composted texts of the topic.

Nava Vihara also housed a tooth relic of the Buddha, making it one of the main centers of pilgrimage along the Silk Route from China to India.

Xuanzang's report

From the Memoirs of Xuanzang, we learn that, at the time of his visit in 630, there were in Balkh, or its vicinity, about a hundred Buddhist convents, with 3,000 devotees, and that there was a large number of stupas, and other religious monuments and that Buddhism was flourishing in the Bactrian portion of Western Turk empire. He cited the monastic Nava Vihara monastaery for its scholarship and remarkable statues of the Buddha draped in silks and ornamental jewels in accordance with local Zoroastrian custom. He also described it as having strong links with the Kingdom of Khotan in East Turkistan. The temple was led by Kashmiri Brahmins called Pramukh (who, under the arabized name of Barmak, came to be known as the Barmakids).

History under the Arabs

The Umayyads captured Balkh in 663 from the Turki-Shahis who had taken over the teeritory from the Western Turks. Although some Buddhists and even an abbot of Nava Vihara converted to Islam most Buddhists kept their faiths and accepted dhimmi status, as loyal non-Muslim protected subjects within an Islamic state by paying a poll tax {jizya}, and the monastery remained open and functioning.

The Barmakids, who attained great power under the Abbasid caliphs, are regarded as having their origin in a line of hereditary priests (Sanskrit प्रमुख Pramukh, arabized to Barmak) at Nava Vihara, who had convereted to Islam.

An Arab author, Omar ibn al-Azraq Al-Kermani, wrote a detailed account of Nava Vihara at the beginning of the eighth century that is preserved in a later tenth-century work, the Kitab al-Buldan by Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani. He described Nava Vihara in terms more readily understandable to Muslims by drawing an analogy with the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest site of Islam. He described that the main temple had a stone cube in the center, draped with cloth, and that devotees circumambulated it and made prostration, as is the case with the Kaaba. The stone cube referred to the platform on which a stupa stood, as was the custom in Bactrian temples. The cloth that draped it was in accordance with Persian custom of showing veneration that applied equally to Buddha statues as well as to stupas. Al-Kermani's description indicates an open and respectful attitude by the Umayyad Arabs in trying to understand the non-Muslim religions, such as Buddhism, that they encountered in their newly conquered territories.

The Han Chinese pilgrim Yijing (I-tsing) visited Nava Vihara in the 680s and reported it flourishing as a Sarvastivada center of study.

In 708 Nazaktar Khan, a Turk Shahi prince, in alliance with the Tibetan Kingdom recaptured Bactria from the Umayyads and established a fanatic Buddhist rule, including the beheading of the abbot who converted. In 715 Ibn Qutaybah recaptured the region for the Umayyads and Tibet switched sides to ally with the him against the Turk Shahis. In retribution for the insurrection Qutaiba inflicted heavy damage on Nava Vihara resulting in many monks fleeing to Khotan and Kashmir. The Muslims destroyed select monasteries that harbored opposition but then let them rebuild and prosper to exact a pilgrim tax.

Al-Biruni, a Persian scholar and writer in service to the Ghaznavid court, reported that, at the turn of the millennium, the Buddhist monasteries in Bactria, including Nava Vihara, were still functioning and decorated with Buddha frescoes. A curious notice of this building is found in the writings of Arabian geographer Ibn Hawqal, an Arabian traveler of the 10th century.

Cultural Influence

The word Navbehar (or it's variants) appears in several locations of present-day Iran, a sign of the extent of Buddhist impact in ancient times. The Arch of Nawbahar can still be seen today near Balkh.

The many Buddhist references in the Persian literature of the period also provide evidence of Islamic-Buddhist cultural contact. Persian poetry, for example, often used the simile for palaces that they were "as beautiful as a Nowbahar (Nava Vihara)." Further, at Nava Vihara and Bamiyan, Buddha images, particularly of Maitreya, the future Buddha, had 'moon discs' or halo iconographically represented behind or around their heads. This led to the poetic depiction of pure beauty as someone having "the moon-shaped face of a Buddha." Thus, eleventh-century Persian poems, such as Varqe and Golshah by Ayyuqi, use the word budh with a positive connotation for "Buddha," not with its second, derogatory meaning as "idol." It implies the ideal of asexual beauty in both men and women. Such references indicate that either Buddhist monasteries and images were present in these Iranian cultural areas at least through the early Mongol period in the thirteenth century or, at minimum, that a strong Buddhist legacy remained for centuries among the Buddhist converts there to Islam.

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