Apparently it had only been a few centuries, a mere heartbeat in the eternally present minds of the holy men he had been hosting. How did one fellow – one gentle, wandering teacher – found this new religion? How did he establish a movement so great that long after his death, lords and kings would be prostrating before his image alongside his clean-shaven followers?
Huvishka, emperor of the Kushans, Maharaja of all Central Asia, equal of the Caesars in the west and Tianzi to the east, was still pondering that question as he listened to his monastic guests chanting briskly before his newly built Buddhist shrine.
The pungent incense of flowers plucked at the foothills of the Bactrian mountains filled the air, tickling his nose. Unable to keep up with the chanting, he glanced up and looked around at the monks flanking him, whose heads remained bowed (no one would rebuke him; he was the emperor). Keeping his calloused palms joined, he looked up at the tall, majestic image of the deity he had converted to (his preceptors kept on insisting that the Buddha wasn’t a god, although he wasn’t sure of the difference, especially when he had patronized divinities like the Roman Jupiter or Vedic Indra).
No matter. What was important was that he believed in the Buddha. He believed in the Dharma that he taught. And he believed in the Sangha that formed the repository of ecclesiastic and lay sanctity. The monks had assured him that by taking refuge, he’d be taking after the heroic Buddhist emperor Ashoka, whom every king, great and petty, had tried to emulate since. Huvishka would enforce the peace of Buddhism across his lands. His rivals in Rome boasted of Pax Romana. He had something quite different in mind.
The Indian and Parthian monks thundered their thanks to Huvishka, their sonorous drone proclaiming their imperial patron: “Mahayana-samprasthito – one who has set forth on the Great Vehicle.” This was the climax of his lay ordination ceremony. Huvishka was now a follower of the bodhisattvas. He drew himself up, striding several steps to stand before the shrine. He gazed at the flowers at the Buddha’s feet, before looking up at the image’s tranquil, bejewelled countenance. He put his right hand to his left breast, heart swelling in fervour. The era of his Buddhist peace had come.
“You have my… undying gratitude!” he bellowed.
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*This postcard is based on a Sanskrit manuscript in the Schøyen Collection titling the Kushan emperor Huvishka with the lay title of “one who has set forth on the Great Vehicle.”