Afghan"isthan" was once center of Vedic Culture. The Indo Aryans definitely lived in that region before migrating further either upwards or downwards. For the Aryans Afghanistan was the land of the Gandharvas or the celestial beings. The Gandharvas were depicted in the Vedic scriptures as celestial beings, skillful in music, with magical powers, and beautiful forms. In status they were not equal to the devas, but regarded as higher beings with divine powers, mischievous at times, but mostly friendly and reliable.
In ancient times, the valleys of Afghanistan must have resonated with the sounds of many caravans crisscrossing the country. The Indus valley people conducted their overland trade with Mesopotamia through Afghanistan. Their caravans carried a variety of goods that included rare and precious stones, minerals, food grains, resins, gold, silver and bronze, incense, Pistachios and more. After the expansion of the Vedic culture and the decline of the Indus valley civilization Afghanistan was invaded and occupied by the Persian army headed by Darius, the Great, (522 to 486 BC). We have little information as to who were ruling Afghanistan at that time. Probably it was part of an Indian kingdom from the Punjab region or was ruled by local chieftains.
When Alexander marched towards India, he passed through the mountainous territories of Afghanisthan and had to subdue many native tribes in the region. In the course of multiple battles he fought with them, his army was put to enormous strain and loss. Since his army was not familiar with the territory and his soldiers were not that skilled in mountain warfare, his army was literally exhausted by the time they reached the Indian borders and lost much of their motivation to fight further and march deeper into the subcontinent. The tired and frustrated soldiers insisted Alexander to return to their homeland. On their way back, Alexander had problems once again in the region and had to remain cautious till they crossed the borders of Afghanistan.
Alexander appointed Seleucus I as the viceroy of the Asian territories he conquered, which comprised of a vast area that stretched from the northwestern borders of India to most of Anatolia and parts of Syria-Phoenicia. Selucus I was not able to maintain his hold on the region for long. A few years after he took over the reign, about 303 BC, Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the mighty Mauryan Empire from eastern India waged a war with Seleucus and defeated him.
As a part of the agreement, Seleucus I gave his daughter in marriage to Chandragupta Maurya and also ceded him Afghanistan and surrounding areas. For a few centuries from then on, Afghanistan remained under the control of the Mauryan Empire and enjoyed some degree of stability. During the Mauryan rule, Buddhism spread into Afghanistan and became a dominant religion there.
The Mauryan emperor who made this possible was Ashoka. He was the son of Bimbisara and the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. During his reign the Mauryan empire reached its zenith. (See the Map). Perhaps under no other ruler before him or after him, so much of the country owed allegiance to one power.
Ashoka had a special relation with Afghanistan. When he was still a young prince, his father Bimbsara appointed him as the viceroy of this region, with Taxila (Org.SK. Takshasila, currently located in Pakistan near Rawalpindi ) as his headquarters. Taxila was then a great religious and trade center. It was a great seat of Vedic learning, where flourished the study of Vedic scriptures, many arts, crafts and ancient sciences. With the emergence of Buddhism in the region this region started attracting Buddhist scholars too.
Originally a cruel king, who allegedly ascended the throne after killing nearly a hundred of his own brothers, Ashoka underwent a life transforming experience at the height of his career. In the course of his conquests, which were many, he waged a bitter and bloody war against the people of Kalinga. This kingdom existed in those days in south eastern India, comprising the present day Orissa. The people of Kalinga were equally ferocious and stubborn people. Hence a bloody battle ensued in which there was a huge bloodshed on both sides and thousands of innocent people were killed, while materially nothing much was gained. The tragedy of the war and the ruin it brought upon so many people disturbed the emperor severely and changed his thinking forever. From a ruthless and ambitious ruler, he became converted to Buddhism and the ideals of compassion and non violence it preached. With in a few years after the war, he developed a philosophy of his own called the law of piety or dhamma, which was a hotch potch of Buddhist philosophy, Vedic dharma and the prevailing social and moral values of his times.
He spent the rest of his life in pious activities and spreading his dhamma, which he got carved into stone inscriptions in the form of edicts. He appointed a task force to get those edicts planted all over India as a reminder to the people of the moral life he cherished them to follow. Encouraged by his patronage and protection, the Buddhist monks traveled to various parts of India and outside also to spread the teachings of the Buddha and bring people to the path of righteousness.
The Mauryan empire declined after Ashoka and for sometime Afghanistan was left to itself. But it came into lime light once again with the invasion of the Bactrian Greeks. They invaded the subcontinent during the second century BC and established their power from the Oxus river in the west upto the Punjab in the east. Afghanistan was under their control. Not much is known about these new rulers. But we know that in matters of religion and social life they adopted some local practices. While some rulers turned to Hinduism for spiritual solace, some became devout Buddhists and patronized Buddhism.
Buddhism owes a great deal to the Bactrian Greeks, whose patronage enabled Buddhism to gain firm foot holding in Central Asia and Chinese Tukistan. The most famous of the Bactrian Greeks about whom we have some confirmed details was King Menander. He ruled Punjab with Sakala as his capital and he became interested in Buddhism. The ancient Buddhist manuscript, the Milindapatha or the Path of Milinda by Nagasena records the conversations King Menander had with Nagasena about some aspects of Buddhism.
The Bactrian Greeks were soon over thrown by the invading armies of Scythians and Parthians, followed by the Kushanas. The Kushanas were originally Chinese in origin, and came from a nomadic tribe by the name Yueh-chih. They reached India in a circuitous way through Central Asia, Bactria and Afghanistan and into the plains of the Punjab. They established a great empire that extended from the sea of Aral in the present day Russia in the north and the Chinese Turkmenistan in the east upto the northwestern frontiers of India including Afghanistan.
Kanishka (2nd century AD) was the most famous of the Kushana rulers. His period was marked by the rise of Mahayana Buddhism. Pali bacame the principal language of literary experssion. And most important of all the period witnessed the remarkable maturing of the Gandhara school of art. The artists of this school blended both the Indian and Greek traditions of in a very harmonious way to produce remarkable pieces of art. It was an art that used Indian motifs but mostly Greek techniques.
Foremost among the works produced by this school of art were the statues of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas. Many of them now adorn the museums all over the world, while some were stolen and may be in the private collections. We also do not know fully the fate of those pieces that are presently lying in the Kabul Museum, and whether they Government there destroyed them or preserved them.
The Kushanas were subsequently ousted by the Sassanids or Sassanians. They ruled Persia (modern Iran) and parts of northern Afghanistan from AD 224 to 651. Ardasir I was the founder of this dynasty and he was succeeded by his son Shapur I, whose reign lasted from AD 240 to AD 272. Shapur I defeated the Romans and expanded his empire considerably. The Sassanids were fire worshippers and followers of Zarathushtra. But they did not interfere much with way of life in Afghanistan, for Buddhism continued to flourish in the region. Probably after conquering the land, the Sassanids left the governance to local rulers because of the difficulties involved and their preoccupation with other the regions of their empire.
This period is significant in the history of Buddhism because during this period the giant statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan were carved, which were considered to be the largest stone statues in the world, standing 177 feet tall. It is now well know that they were destroyed recently by the government of Afghanistan as a part of its religious zeal.
Buddhism continued to flourish in this region till the 5th Century AD and declined there after. Two factors contributed to this trend. One was the invasion of Hunas. The Hunas were a barbarian and cruel band of vandals who perpetrated many religious atrocities against the native people and put many Buddhists to death.
The second factor was the emergence of the Gupta empire. The Guptas were staunch followers of the Vedic religion, especially Vaishnavism, and they took upon themselves the task of reviving Hinduism which was then in a state of decline because of the popularity of Buddhism. Politically, however, Afghanistan continued to retain its strategic importance, because it still facilitated a great deal of trade along the silk route that connected Xinjiang or the Chinese Turkistan with the Middle east.
With the invasion of Arabs in AD 642, for the first time Afghanistan encountered Islam. The Arabs converted some people there to Islam, but did not stay there for long because of the resistance from the Persians. Islam had to wait for another 300 and odd years to take its roots in the soil. Not much is known about the history of Afghanistan during this period following the Arab invasion. Probably the land was under the control of petty rulers who owed allegiance to the Persians.
Then came the Ghaznavids. The Ghaznavid was a Turkish Muslim dynasty, which captured power in AD 970 and ruled Afghanistan and parts of Iran till AD 1087. Mahmud Gazni was the most aggressive ruler of this dynasty and is well known in the subcontinent for the 17 so called "holy wars" he conducted against the present day Pakistan and India. A materialist to the core who loved the best things of life, and a lover of arts who patronized poets and writers, his main objective was not to spread Islam, but to plunder and loot the rich kingdoms of the subcontinent in the name of religion. He destroyed many Hindu temples, looted the rich treasures of the native rulers and converted some native Hindus and Buddhists to Islam through wanton destruction and use of cruelty and force.
After the Ghazanivids, Afghanistan once again came under the rule of petty rulers and plunged into anarchy. In the 12th Century AD it was invaded by the Mongols under the leadership of Genghis Khan (1167-1227) a ruthless, cruel and notorious ruler, who indulged in the destruction of many cities, including Herat, Ghazni, and Balkh. The fertile regions of Afghanistan were left follow as many peasants either fled their homes or were killed by his cruel and destructive soldiers.
Genghis Khan's invasion was one of the many in a series of invasions by the foreign powers into Afghanistan. One name that is worth mentioning at this juncture is Babur. Babur was the founder of Mughal empire in the Indian subcontinent. He was a descendent of Timur, who in turn was a descendent of Genghis Khan.
A petty ruler with a mighty ambition, Babur ruled parts of Afghanistan for sometime, with Kabul as his capital, before he decided to invade India and try his fortunes. A freebooter with a natural instinct for leadership, he gathered a band of committed soldiers and invaded India supposedly on invitation from some local nobility to fight against Ibrahim Lodi, who was then the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. The Sultanate was already in a state of decline and was ready to collapse any time. The two armies fought a fierce battle on the grounds of Panipat in 1526 and Babur won because of his superior planning, organized army and committed leadership. After the victory, Babur decided to stay in India and consolidate his empire through further conquests.
For nearly two hundred years thereafter Afghanistan remained partly under the control of the Mughals and partly under the Saffavids of Persia. The eastern parts owed their allegiance to the Mughals while the western part to the Safavids. In 1747, following the assassination of Nadirshah of Persia, Ahmed Shah Durrani (or as he is also known Ahmed Shah Baba) established his rule as an independent ruler supported by Pashthun tribal council. The Pasthuns controlled Afghanisthan till the Communist regime came to power in 1978.