August 28, 2021

Does Afghanistan have a link with Mahabharata?

By Nilakhi Banerjee

Once upon a time, Afghanistan was not how we see it today, that is what studies say. It was once known as Gandhara and the fact that it still has a city known by the name of Kandahar confirms the truth. As per the experts, the Gandhara kingdom covered portions of today’s northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. It was spread over Pothohar Plateau, Peshawar Valley and Kabul River Valley.

A peep into the history of Gandhara

The word Gandhāra finds a mention in the Rig Veda, Uttara-Ramayana and Mahabharata. The word means gandha (fragrance), i.e. the land of fragrances. It is said that Gandhara is one of the names of Lord Shiva as mentioned in the Sahastranaam (thousand names) that was obtained by Lord Krishna from sage Upamanyu in the Mahabharata. The same was narrated to Yudhisthira, Bhishma and other members of the Kuru clan. It is possible that the devotees of Shiva were the first inhabitants of Gandhara.


As per the sources, it is believed that people lived on the banks of River Kabul (also Kabol or Kubhā) right till its confluence with the River Indus since the Vedic times. Gandharvas are first described in the Vedas as cosmic beings. Later literature describes them as a jati(community), and the later Natyasastra refers to their system of music as gandharva. Gupt explains1:

Gandharvas, as spoken of in Samhitas and later literature, had derived their name from a geographical people, the Gandharas. Most likely they belonged to Afghanistan (which still has a township called Kandhara). It was perhaps at this time that the Gandharas raised the art of music to a great height. This region of the subcontinent at the time had become the locus of a great confluence of the musical traditions of the East and the Mediterranean. The very art, thus, came to be known by the name of the region and was so called by it even in the heartland of India.

This name, gandharva, continued to be used for music for centuries to come. In the Vayu Purana one of the nine divisions of Bharatavarsa is called Gandharva. Gandhara was the trade crossroad and cultural meeting place between India, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Buddhist writings mention Gandhara (which included Peshawar, Swat and Kabul Valleys) as one of the 16 major states of northern India at the time. It was a province of the Persian king Darius I in the fifth century B.C.E. After conquering it in the 4th century B.C.E., Alexander encountered the vast army of the Nandas in the Punjab, and his soldiers mutinied causing him to leave India.


Thereafter, Gandhara was ruled by the Maurya dynasty of India, and during the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka (3rd century B.C.E.), Buddhism spread and became the world’s first religion across Eurasia, influencing early Christianity and East Asian civilizations. Padmasambhava, the spiritual and intellectual founder of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, was from Gandhara. Greek historian Pliny wrote that the Mauryans had a massive army; and yet, like all other Indian kingdoms, they made no attempt at overseas conquest. Gandhara and Sind were considered parts of India since ancient times.

It is believed that northwest Punjab was also a part of Gandhara once. Studies state that it was a significant route of communication with ancient Iran, India and Central Asia for commercial purpose.

Ancient Taxila and Peshawar

Gandhara’s capital was the famous city of Takshashila. According to the Ramayana, the city was founded by Bharata, and named after his son, Taksha, its first ruler. Greek writers later shortened it to Taxila. The Mahabharata is said to have been first recited at this place. Buddhist literature, especially the jatakastories, mentions it as the capital of the Gandhara kingdom and as a great center of learning. Its ruins may be visited today in an hour’s taxi ride from Rawalpindi (Pakistan).


Taxila was strategically located at the 3-way junction of the great trade routes from eastern India (described by Megasthenes, as the “Royal Highway”), from western Asia, Kashmir and Central Asia. Greek historians accompanying Alexander described Taxila as “wealthy, prosperous, and well governed”. Soon after Alexander, Taxila was absorbed into the Maurya Empire as a provincial capital, lasting for three generations.

The sage Apollonius of Tyana visited Taxila in the 1st century C.E., and his biographer described it as a fortified city with a symmetrical architecture, comparable in size to the most populous city of the ancient Assyrian Empire. Even a thousand years after Buddha, Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa-hsien described it as a thriving center of Buddhism. But by the time Hsuan-tsang visited from China in the 7th century C.E., Taxila had been destroyed by the Huns. Taxila was renowned as a center of learning.


During other times, the capital of Gandhara was Purusapura (abode of Purusha, the Hindu name for the Supreme Being), whose name was changed by Akbar to Peshawar. Near Peshawar are ruins of the largest Buddhist stupa in the subcontinent (2nd century C.E.), attesting to the enduring presence of Buddhism in the region. Purusapura is mentioned in early Sanskrit literature, in the writings of the classical historians Strabo and Arrian, and the geographer Ptolemy. Kaniska made Purusapura the capital of his Kushan empire (1st century C.E.). It was captured by the Muslims in C.E. 988.

Significance of Gandhara in Mahabharata

Mahabharata, the scripture authored by sage Veda Vyasa also mentions the Kingdom of Gandhara. As the story goes, King Subala ruled Gandhara some 5500 years ago. He had a daughter named Gandhari, who was married to the prince of Hastinapur kingdom, Dhritrashtra. Gandhari also had a brother, Shakuni, who later took over the kingship of Gandhara after his father’s death. Gandhari gave birth to a hundred sons, who became famous as the Kauravas.


Additionally, Bheeshma’s ancestors had been responsible for destroying Gandhara in the past; as also for torturing Shakuni and his family. Hence, he wanted to wreak revenge on them. He was well aware that Duryodhana was no match for the Pandavas and yet, he instigated his nephew, knowing that this was the only way he could bring doom to the the Kuru Dynasty. To that extent, he probably never really loved Duryodhana the way he claimed to love him.

 Shakuni was also referred to as Saubala. His father, King Subala, had hundred sons and one daughter, Gandhari. Shakuni was the youngest son; also the most intelligent of the lot. Since he was the hundredth son, he was named Saubala.

It is believed that after failing miserably at the hands of the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata war, several Kaurava descendants settled in the Gandhara kingdom. Later, they slowly migrated to today’s Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Gandhara was also the name of a musical note, a technical term in the art of music. Mahabharata has several mentions of the Gandhara musical note.


The seven musical notes are Shadaja, Rishabha, together with Gandhara, Madhyama, and likewise Panchama; after this should be known Dhaivata, and then Nishada.

How Gandhara became Qandhar (currently Kandahar)?

With the spread of Buddhism in the Gandhara region, including parts of Asia, Shiva worship was slowly wiped out. A few Mauryan kings ruled Gandhara for some time until the invading Muslims, including Mahmud Ghazni, took over the reins in the early 11th century. The rest, as they say, is history.

It is speculated that another super human tribe called the Gandharvas were originally inhabitants of the Gandhara kingdom. Gandharvas were well versed in music and art. This explains why there is much Gandhara influence in Indian Classical Music. Gandhara form of sculpturing is also famous (very close to Greek sculpturing) during the Kushan Era. The Yadava chief Bala Rama saw many Gandharva settlements on the banks of Saraswati River, not far from Gandhara, during his pilgrimage over Saraswati river basin. The Gandharva Kali and Dwapara, probably were princes from Gandhara.

The last two Yugas (prehistoric periods) were named after them. Kuru King Dhritarashtra’s wife was from Gandhara (a Gandharvi) and she was well known by the name Gandhari. There was a Gandhrava also by the name Chitrangada. Gandhara is mentioned as a hilly country at (5,30). “In the Krita age, they were nowhere on earth. It is from the Treta age that they have had their origin and began to multiply. When the terrible period came, joining Treta and the Dwapara, the Kshatriyas, approaching one another, engaged themselves in battle.” Another group comprising Andrakas, Guhas, Pulindas, Savaras, Chuchukas, Madrakas were also mentioned along with the first group.