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Buddhism has been the object of persecution throughout its history. While this often involved direct religious persecution (e.g., persecution at the hands of dominant iconoclastic religions because of the devotional focus on the Buddha image), if one investigates the context of any particular episode, one may detect nonreligious factors that led to, allowed for, or exacerbated persecution. Such factors include the role of Buddhism in authorizing secular power and acting as the potential and actual supporter of political rivals; the power of Buddhist institutions as wealthy landowners, including the suspected and actual use of fortresslike monasteries as banks or armories; the involvement of monastic groups in warfare, including militarized monks and monastic militias; Buddhism's role as a mediator of political views at the grassroots level; Buddhism's international dimension and potential representation of foreign rather than national interests, along with its emphasis on pilgrimage within and beyond national boundaries; the fact that important sacred sites, objects of devotion, or esteemed religious leaders could develop into rival foci of power or could reflect local rather than national interests; and Buddhism's traditional role in education, making it the source of potentially conflicting views and independent thinking. The fact that it is possible to draw selectively on aspects of Buddhism to affirm virtually all types of governance and political ideology has also contributed to its continued entanglement in power struggles in the huge transformations that have swept the modern world.

In some cases, persecutions were aimed against the representatives of the religion itself—the institutions, texts, sacred sites, or people. At other times, persecutions were waged against groups with which Buddhism overlapped or was coterminous.


The relative roles of religious persecution and the broader factors listed above can be hard to identify. Let us take by way of example the well-publicized attack on the remaining traces of Buddhism in Afghanistan, the demolition in BĀmiyĀn by the Taliban in March 2001 of the two colossal Gandhāran Buddha statues from the third and fourth centuries c.e. Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel described this act as an internal religious affair, stating that "false idols" should be destroyed according to Islamic teachings. While some Islamic scholars point out that Islam does not prescribe the destruction of idols, and some demonstrate that the images of Hinduism and Buddhism are not idols in the sense intended in the Qur'an, iconoclasm within Islam can be based both on the injunctions on Muslims not to worship idols and on repeated historic precedents, starting with Muhammad's destruction of the images around the Ka'ba. A 1996 Taliban ruling against idolatry prohibited portraits in public places. Nevertheless, since the Bāmiyān statues had been standing for centuries in a predominantly Muslim country, since some Islamic powers have advocated tolerance toward sacred objects of other religions, and since the Taliban had as recently as 1999 identified the statues as part of the pre-Islamic heritage of Afghanistan rather than as current objects of idolatry, one must look for further causes underlying this event.

In addition to the reactionary Islam represented by the Taliban, there are two other significant factors. One is the Taliban's long-standing suppression of the Hazara community in the region of Bāmiyān. The other is the international isolation of the Taliban—only Pakistan recognized the Taliban's right to govern. In addition, in February 2001 the United Nations imposed new sanctions on Afghanistan for harboring terrorists. The importance of the Bamiyan statues for world heritage

meant that they were destroyed as "false idols" in a political sense; the destruction served as a message of the Taliban's defiance to the world.

Premodern persecutions

Puṣyamitra. Our ability to interpret the reasons behind a persecution depends very much on the nature of our sources. The earliest recorded episode of the persecution of Buddhism came at the hands of the Indian king Puṣyamitra in the second century b.c.e. The event is related in Buddhist literary works that reached their current form centuries later. Puṣyamitra was a brahmin who murdered and usurped the position of the last king of the Mauryan empire. The most famous Mauryan king had been AŚoka, who lived a century earlier. The legend of Aśoka's patronage of Buddhism has been perpetuated in Buddhist traditions and continues to provide a role model for Buddhist rulers to

this day. Among other great acts of piety, Aśoka had the relics of the Buddha redistributed throughout his vast empire and re-enshrined under eighty-four thousand new stŪpas, the commemorative funerary structures that form the fulcrum of the sacred landscape of Buddhism. Puṣyamitra desired to become even more legendary than Aśoka. Realizing that he could not compete in virtue, he decided to match virtue with vice, and set about destroying monasteries and stūpas, burning books, and massacring monks and nuns.

The destruction of the glories and institutions associated with the royal lineage that Puṣyamitra had replaced can be understood in terms of his wish to undermine rival sources of authority. Puṣyamitra himself celebrated the horse sacrifice, the supreme ritual demonstration of dominion in brahmanical Hinduism, the dominant rival of Buddhism for much of its history in South and Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the narrative also reflects another model—that of traditional Indian drama in which adverse events result from the vices of the king. According to this narrative, Puṣyamitra is driven by jealousy, and although the immediate victims of his persecutions are Buddhists, his acts backfire. Puṣyamitra sets a bounty on the head of all Buddhist monks, and an ever growing number of heads are presented to him. But the inexhaustible supply of heads is the product of a miracle rather than real beheadings, and the resulting bounty payouts bankrupts the royal treasury. When Puṣyamitra later tries to destroy the bodhi tree, its protective spirit has Puṣyamitra and his armies crushed to death beneath a mountain.

This theme of the cruel but ultimately self-destructive whims of kings is widely attested elsewhere in Buddhist literature. It is a recurrent theme in the jĀtaka tales, which teach morals through stories of the Buddha's former births. The vinaya also describes the dangers for monks of associating with kings, an association that has proved both a source of Buddhism's success and a trigger for its suppression.

Zoroastrian persecution. The earliest persecution for which there is contemporaneous historical evidence took place under the Sassanian dynasty, which came to power in Iran in the third century c.e. The context was the centralization of power. We know most about Sassanian efforts to reform and unify the indigenous Persian religion of Zoroastrianism by establishing a single Avestan canon, destroying all royal sacred fires other than its own, establishing a new calendar, and replacing cult images with sacred fires. The iconoclasm extended to images of other religions. Although Zoroastrianism and Buddhism had coexisted peacefully in Iran since the Kushan period (first to early third century c.e.), the dominant Zoroastrianism felt increasingly threatened by other proselytizing religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism. The Sassanian high priest Kirder proudly records in an inscription that Buddhists, along with Jews, Brahmins, various types of Christians, and Manichaeans were being removed from the land. The eleventh-century Muslim historian Al-Biruni, who made use of Zoroastrian sources, claims that Buddhism was widespread in Iran until this persecution. The long-term result of Sassanian iconoclasm and the subsequent rise to dominance of Islam, heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism, is that the only traces of Buddhism in the region are cave temples and place names, such as Naubihar, which means "new Buddhist monastery."

The White Huns. Further pre-Islamic persecution of Buddhism took place under the White Huns, also known as the Huna or Hephthatlites. This tribe, thought to have originated in southwestern Mongolia, invaded areas of Central Asia and India during the fifth and sixth centuries. The invasion of Afghanistan in 515 c.e. by Mihirakula (502–542) devastated Buddhist strongholds in the Gandhāran region along the Silk Road. The resulting diminished state of Buddhism can be traced in the accounts of successive Chinese pilgrims. At the beginning of the fifth century c.e., the Chinese monk Faxian documents the flourishing state of Buddhism in the region. In 520, after the Mihirakula attacks, Song Yan records monasteries in ruins and heavy population losses, which had become total desertion and ruination by the time Xuanzang traveled that route in the seventh century. Nevertheless, finds of coins from later periods in stūpas of the region indicate that patronage of Buddhism did continue beyond this date.

The demise of Buddhism in India. The most famous persecution of Buddhism was that which led to its demise in India, namely, the series of Islamic expansions into the subcontinent from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries. The conquest of the remaining Pāla and Sena dynasties of Bengal and Bihar in the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries brought an end to the last powerful Buddhist kingdoms of India and sent many Buddhists fleeing to safer regions in the Himalayas and mainland Southeast Asia. Although the increasing popularity of other Indian religions, such as devotional Hinduism, and the merging of noninstitutional Buddhist practice into the broader Indian religious milieu are important factors in the dis-appearance of Buddhism in India, several Muslim chronicles of the time portray the impact of repeated massacres, the looting of monasteries, the destruction of Buddhist images, and the burning of books, people, and libraries.

These events had a major impact on the shape of Buddhism in other regions. In particular, they eliminated the South Asian mainland as a source of Buddhism for East, Central, and Southeast Asia. Tibetan and Newar Buddhism preserved most fully the features of Indian Buddhism of the medieval period. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan victory over the Hindu kingdoms of South India, led Sri Lanka to become the dominant source of Buddhist authority in mainland Southeast Asia, while in insular Southeast Asia, Islam became the dominant religion. Buddhism was not completely eliminated from the South Asian mainland at this time. It has continued to maintain a presence in peripheral regions in the Himalayas, mostly dominated by the culture and Buddhism of Tibet. To a limited extent, Buddhism also retained a presence until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in other pockets, including port areas on the southeast coast, where people traded with TheravĀda countries.

Premodern East and Central Asia

In regions often regarded as the strongholds of Buddhism beyond India, namely Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan, periods of flourishing patronage of Buddhism have nevertheless often given way to (sometimes severe) persecution.

The first diffusion of Buddhism to Tibet ended with the ninth-century civil war between factions loyal to the indigenous Bon religion on the one side and Buddhism on the other, an episode remembered in Buddhist histories as the beginning of two centuries of persecution.

In China, arguments against Buddhism almost always related to its status as a foreign religion that therefore undermined Confucian values, the emperor, and the state. The golden era of longevity of pre-Buddhist emperors is adduced as testimony to Buddhism's intrinsic threat to stability. The first recorded Chinese persecution took place under Emperor Wu or Taizi (r. 423–452) of the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534). During the suppression of a rebellion in 446, a cache of arms was discovered at a Buddhist monastery, and Buddhism was seen as loyal to the rebels. Further discoveries indicative of lax monastic practices, including wealth banked at the monastery by locals, were cited as additional reasons for subsequent persecution in which monks and nuns were executed, as was any person who harbored them. Buddhist images were smashed, and monasteries, pagodas, and books were burnt. Although a gradual relaxation took place, Buddhism was proscribed again during the Northern Zhou dynasty (557–588).

State domination of Buddhism continued under the Tang dynasty (618–907) and ordination was forbidden in 845 during the so-called Huichang persecution. Over 260,000 monks and nuns were forcibly returned to lay life and hundreds of monasteries were destroyed. After this time, restrictions controlled the number of ordinations allowed and set age limits, prohibiting adult males under the age of forty from being ordained. Periodic crackdowns on monasteries and ordinations occurred during the twelfth century under the Song dynasty (960–1279). The leaders of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), which imposed hard labor for unauthorized ordinations in the fifteenth century, also persecuted Tibetan Buddhists in Chinese territories. Successive Chinese governments from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century suppressed, often brutally, intermittent rebellions led by the White Lotus Society, a secret millenarian religious group that appealed to the poor and predicted the advent of the future buddha Maitreya.

Mongol invasions of Korea in the thirteenth century devastated the country, destroying Buddhist monasteries, art, and the famous Koryŏ Buddhist canon. Because the wealth accumulated by the monasteries during centuries of state support gave them too strong an influence in national affairs, the Chŏson dynasty (1392–1910) officially promoted Confucianism. The dynasty's anti-Buddhist sentiment developed into full-scale persecution in the fifteenth century. Buddhism suffered again, as did other aspects of Korea's culture and economy, after the Japanese invasions in the sixteenth century. Further persecution occurred during the Japanese occupation beginning in 1910, during which Japanese forms of Buddhism were advanced to supplant Korean forms, especially in urban centers.

In Japan, the militarization of monasteries and their participation in feudal power structures led to competition between schools. By the eleventh century, rivalries among Tendai and Nara monasteries frequently resulted in armed conflicts. Buddhist figures that were regarded as threats to national stability, including HŌnen (1133–1212) and Nichiren (1222–1282), were suppressed or sent into exile. In further reaction to its militarization and political involvement, Buddhism was suppressed in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, particularly under the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582), who destroyed thousands of temples and massacred their inhabitants.

The founding of the Tokugawa military government in 1603 brought stability to the Buddhist establishment in Japan. All families had to register with a Buddhist temple; affiliation became fixed and the temples administered taxes. This development came at the expense of Christian missionaries who were associated with European political ambitions and were thus persecuted as a first step in Japan's two hundred years of isolationism. When the Meiji regime assumed power in 1868, its first act was to disestablish Buddhism and to separate the worship of local gods from Buddhist temples. These policies, which created Shintō as an independent religion, resulted in the destruction of thousands of Buddhist temples.

School rivalry in Sri Lanka

Persecution resulting from rivalries between different Buddhist traditions also occurred in Sri Lanka before the twelfth-century unification of the Mahāvihāra by Parākramabāhu I. After unification, monks of rival schools took fresh ordination in the Mahāvihāra, losing all previous rank. The Pāli canon came to be treated as orthodox, while the Abhayagirivihāra and Jetavana became associated with the more inclusive MahĀyĀna texts.

The Nikāyasaṅgraha also records the third-century persecution of the Abhaygirivihāra by Goṭhābhaya, who burned their books and branded (marked as criminals) the expelled monks. The Mahāvaṃsa records how Goṭhābhaya's successor, Mahāsena, temporarily reversed royal patronage in favor of the Abhayagirivihāra. The Nikāyasaṅgraha further records the decimation of the mysterious blue-robe sect, a form of tantric Buddhism, in Southern India under King śrīHarṣa: "Pretending to be convinced, he sent for the blue-robed brethren and their books, and having got them with the books into a house, he made a fire-offering of house and all" (Fernando, p. 19).

These chronicles, which are recorded in the Mahāvihāra tradition, naturally attribute persecution of their own tradition to evil monks, and the persecution of rivals as a triumph over corruption. Nevertheless, the process described appears to be similar in each case. After consecration of a king, particularly after victory in a major military campaign, the king sought to "purify" the saṅgha in emulation of Aśoka.

European colonial period

From the sixteenth to the twentieth century, the European colonial powers managed to undermine Buddhism through a subtle structure of institutional persecution. Mechanisms for the implicit promotion of Christianity included the establishment of secular and Christian education systems designed for colonial administration, the rewarding of conversion with promotion and employment, nonsupport for state-sangha interaction, and failure to set protocols for lay support of Buddhism. Active persecution also occurred, particularly in the early days of European colonization. These patterns were especially evident in Sri Lanka, beginning with the suppression of Buddhism by Portuguese Catholics in the sixteenth century, and continuing through the active and then implicit promotion of Protestantism, first by the Dutch and later by the British.

Attitudes favoring Christians continued to influence events even after the colonial period. Suppression of Buddhism by the American-backed government in the former French colony of South Vietnam led to the well-known Buddhist self-immolation protests in 1963. The Catholic government was in power in part because of Vatican pressure on the United States to prevent the democratic elections that would have given mandate to the moderate Marxist Ho Chi Minh. President Diem aimed to destroy rival religious groups by passing legislation that gave preferential status to Catholics and prevented the practice and teaching of other religions. The persecution of the majority Buddhist population, including the torture and murder of tens of thousands of Vietnamese and the incarceration in concentration camps of hundreds of thousands, came to a head when Diem prohibited the carrying of religious banners on the Buddha's birthday. This restriction contrasted with the flying of the Vatican flag in celebration of the Catholic archbishop, who was Diem's brother, only a few days earlier. Diem's troops fired directly into Buddhist crowds, and mass hunger strikes and other protests followed. The self-immolation of the monk Thich Quang Duc in 1963 in full view of the international press brought the plight of Vietnamese Buddhists to the world's newspapers and television screens, eventually forcing the U.S. government to publicly distance itself from Diem's religious policies.


The most significant ideology affecting religions in twentieth-century Asia has been communism. Although Buddhism sometimes fared marginally better than other religions, the overall damage has been great because many of the areas affected by communism were traditional Buddhist strongholds.

Some non-communist governments, such as those in Thailand and Indonesia, actively encouraged particular forms of Buddhism by way of defense against communism. In Thailand this entailed undermining some forms of Buddhist practice, including wildernessmonks whose traditional domain was the poor and remote northeast, which bordered countries with Marxist governments. This is an example of the persecution of a group within Buddhism because it was believed to be coterminous with a different target, namely communist insurgents. Other governments, such as that of China, which occupied Tibet and eastern Southeast Asia, have actively persecuted Buddhism. Maoist terrorists in Nepal have also targeted religion.

Communist China did not initially seek to wipe out religion, but to wean people from it gradually as economic and social reforms made the prop of religion unnecessary. In fact, the 1949 constitution advocated freedom of religious belief, and Buddhist institutions were harnessed for welfare work and to educate society about new government policies. The younger generation of monks was particularly enthusiastic, given that the highest ethical value of Buddhism—compassion—could find expression in the ideals of egalitarianism and social uplift, which communism espoused.

Nevertheless, this cooperation with communism undermined the distinctive features of most forms of Buddhism. Monks and nuns had to abandon their traditional "unproductive" roles and undertake activities that were traditionally prohibited for Buddhist monastics, such as farm and factory work. Through the land reform act of 1950, feudal land ownership was replaced by communalization, and monasteries and nunneries lost their sources of revenue. Monasteries were turned into factories, communal food halls, military bases, and government education centers. Furthermore, the government made little distinction between "religion" and "superstition" when attempting to suppress the latter. Government-controlled Buddhist organizations discouraged festivals, offerings to deities, and the burning of paper money for the deceased—all key features of traditional Buddhism. The policy that loyalty to the state was a higher value than religious belief meant that religious activities could be discouraged as a hindrance to productivity.

Moreover, measures taken to ensure that all religious statements were in line with party politics eliminated freedom of expression. The Communist government monitored the recruitment of monks, and their freedom of movement, necessary for pilgrimage, was severely restricted. In a short time, Buddhism was effectively dismantled and transformed into an instrument of the state. By the commencement of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, any pretext of religious tolerance was abandoned, and all personal or material expressions of religion were outlawed and destroyed.

The enactment of these policies in Tibet moved at a slower pace. Communist China's 17-Point Plan, negotiated with Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, in 1950, protected religion and monasteries from communalism, and China pursued a policy of gradual transformation from the top, with the involvement of highly esteemed Buddhist leaders. This approach changed when Mao Zedong encouraged rapid collectivization during the mid-1950s. Opposition to these reforms led to a bloody uprising involving monks from prestigious monasteries in Lhasa. The Chinese army responded with force, the Dalai Lama fled to India, and China abandoned its more lenient policy on Tibet. Religious property was confiscated, religious buildings were destroyed, and monks and nuns were imprisoned, disrobed, or put to alternative work. Still, it was not until the Cultural Revolution that the practice of Buddhism by individuals, so central to Tibetan culture, was banned outright in Tibet, as elsewhere in China. After the late 1970s, Chinese policy toward Tibetan Buddhism gradually softened in the hope of persuading Tibetans to accept Chinese rule. The failure of negotiations with the Tibetan government in exile, however, has triggered a hardening of control since the mid-1990s.

The Chinese pattern of initially using Buddhism for its own ends, then suppressing it, has been mirrored in other communist countries. The saṅgha of Laos had already become politicized, with French encouragement, as part of its defense against the Japanese from the 1920s until the 1940s. When Laos was returned to French colonial occupation in 1946, active members of the Lao Issara, the national independence movement, sought refuge in Thailand. The saṅgha, meanwhile, could promote anticolonial sentiment as an aspect of Buddhist teaching, while also collecting funds for Lao Issara under the cover of the traditional donations given to temples on holy days. After independence, the royalist government of Laos formed a coalition with the Marxist party, the Pathet Lao, in 1957. The Pathet Lao then negotiated the Ministry of Religious Affairs as one of its portfolios, allowing the Pathet Lao to further politicize the saṅgha in its favor.

Monastic teachings reach all levels of society, and the infiltration of the saṅgha by Pathet Lao cadres was relatively straightforward because of the tradition of unrestricted ordinations. Those seeking ordination often came from the same groups most susceptible to Marxist ideology: young men from relatively poor rural backgrounds, who traditionally sought ordination as a means of education and social advancement, but who were excluded from the secular education and economic development experienced by the urban elite. When the royalist government responded by instituting tighter controls on monks, the Pathet Lao could play the defender of religious freedom. By this time, it was too late for the royalist party to regain the authority it once had amongst the saṅgha. When the Pathet Lao formed its own government in 1975, it used the saṅgha to legitimize its increasing monopoly on power. Monks fled to Thailand to avoid being sent to reeducation camps that effectively turned Buddhist preaching into education in government ideology, and the rigorously controlled saṅgha lost credibility among the laity, which had traditionally supported it and from whom its members were recruited.

The persecutions of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were far more extreme than those of the Pathet Lao. As part of the Khmer Rouge goal to transform Cambodia into a truly socialist republic within the space of a few years, Pol Pot oversaw the wholesale destruction of Cambodian society and culture between 1975 and 1978. People were reeducated to not give alms to monks, monks were forcibly laicized, Buddhist rituals were forbidden, and monasteries and libraries were destroyed. Any monk suspected of resistance was executed. Few Cambodian monks survived these years of hard labor, mass starvation, and extermination, which saw the death of an estimated one quarter of the Cambodian population. Although some monks found refuge abroad, more than 90 percent of Cambodia's Buddhist literary heritage was extirpated.

Religion continued to be heavily controlled under the Vietnamese-backed government after 1979, and it is only since the reinstatement of the monarchy in 1991 that Buddhism entered a phase of revival in Cambodia.

The modern world's improved communications, the attendant potential for state intervention, and the mass availability of educational systems that embody an intellectual disdain toward religion, have meant that, to some extent, Buddhism had already begun to lose esteem even before communists came to power. Even where Buddhism is not under attack, modernity has undermined the dominant traditional Buddhism of ritual and worship in favor of philosophy and those aspects of Buddhism that can be mapped onto modern scientific thought and global ethics. To some extent Buddhism has been defended because of the role it has played as a motivating force and as a form of cultural identity. During the twentieth century, these aspects of Buddhism were harnessed both by independence movements that brought to an end the European colonial era and by nationalist governments that drew their mandate from an ethnically Buddhist majority.

See also:Christianity and Buddhism; Colonialism and Buddhism; Communism and Buddhism; Decline of the Dharma; Islam and Buddhism; Meiji Buddhist Reform; Millenarianism and Millenarian Movements; Modernity and Buddhism; Politics and Buddhism; Shintō (Honji Suijaku) and Buddhism; Syncretic Sects: Three Teachings


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Kate Crosby