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The Fourth Buddhist Council

The history of Buddhism includes four great councils on Buddhist doctrine. The first and second councils happened shortly after the death of the Buddha. A third was held under the auspices of Ashoka, in the third century BC. Ashoka's council is only reported in some Buddhist traditions so it was probably a local matter concerned with the doctrine of a particular area or sect. As was the case with the fourth Buddhist Council, held under Kanishka in the second century AD1.

The main source for the council is the travelogue of Hsuan Chuang. Hsuan travelled through most of India in the seventh century and collected Buddhist traditions on his journey. One of the traditions he collected concerns Kanishka's council. Kanishka was interested in Buddhism and each day he invited a different monk to explain Buddhist doctrine. But none of the monks could agree. In order to resolve these differences Kanishka convened a council and invited all of the most learned men2. The council resolved the disputes and made definitive copies of the most important Buddhist texts.

It is hard to tell from Hsuan's largely mythical account what the historical reality of the council was. The evidence of Hsuan indicates that the council was composed of orthodox Sarvastividins. Yet the second century also saw the rise to prominence of Mahayanism. The relationship between this Buddhist tradition and the orthodox one that Kanishka supported is not well understood but it is hard to reconcile this result with the description of the council by Hsuan Chuang. A clue is held in a confused account of the council by Taranath. He says that the council put an end to dissensions inside Buddhism and that it recognised all eighteen sects as legitimate. This is an odd result for a religious council but the outcome makes political sense.

Inscriptions show that some of the satraps of the Kushan Empire gave official patronage to Buddhism . The satraps, Vanaspara and Kharapallana, certainly supported the Sarvastivadins but it is not clear if other officials gave their support to the same sect. So Kanishka's council may have been about appeasing political tensions in the Empire rather than resolving a religious dispute.

The purpose of the council seems to have been to put an end to dissension and disagreement in Kanishka's Empire. It is hardly surprising that the council occurred under Kanishka's reign as this was the first time in hundreds of years that this vast area of Buddhist activity had been politically united. So Kanishka was the first king to face the growing dissension and fragmentation of Buddhism. His solution was radically different to the Roman Emperor Constantine. Instead of holding one sect to be true and all others to be false, Kanishka seems to have authorised dissent. Certainly, Kanishka and his subordinates patronised the orthodox sect of the Sarvastividins. But the price of this patronage seems to have been the toleration of other sects.

It is interesting to speculate why Kanishka chose a policy of toleration. Did the Kushans really have an ethic of religious toleration? Did their own syncretic tradition of religious belief leave them unable to comprehend the idea of religious persecution? Were Kanishka's satraps divided among the rival Buddhist sects? Or was the Fourth Buddhist Council directed by religious considerations largely outside Kanishka's control? The questions can be extended to the effect of the council. Was the policy of toleration responsible for the flourishing of the Buddhist literature and art in the period? And did the division of Buddhism lead to the resurgence of Hinduism after the collapse of the Kushan Empire? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered if Kanishka's religious policy is to be understood by historians.

The Nun Buddhamitra Epigraphic Evidence for Women in the Kushan Empire Bibliography


1 Since the authorities who report Kanishka's council do not recognise Ashoka's it is often known as the third Buddhist council.
2 No women are mentioned in the sources. Yet the importance of women in inscriptions implies that some were probably involved.
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