Decline of Buddhism in India
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The decline of Buddhism in India, the land of its birth, occurred for a variety of reasons and happened even as it continued to flourish beyond the frontiers of India.
Buddhism had seen a steady growth from its beginnings in the 6th century BCE to its endorsement as state religion of the Maurya Empire under Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. It continued to flourish during the final centuries BCE and the first centuries of the Common Era, and spread even beyond the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia and beyond to China. But a steady decline of Buddhism in India set in during the later Gupta era and under the Pala Empire. Chinese monks travelling through the region between the 5th and 8th centuries CE, such as Faxian, Xuanzang, Yijing, Huisheng, and Song Yun, began to speak of a decline of the Buddhist sangha, especially in the wake of the White Hun invasion. Decline continued after the fall of the Pala dynasty in the 12th century CE and the gradual Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent. By that time, Buddhism had become especially vulnerable to hostile rulers because it lacked strong roots in society as most of its adherents were ascetic communities.
Apart from a small community in eastern Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) in which it had survived from ancient times and Nepal, Buddhism was virtually extinct in India by the end of the 19th century. In recent times Buddhism has seen a revival in India due to the influence of Anagarika Dharmapala, Kripasaran Mahasthavir, B. R. Ambedkar and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
- 1 Early hardships
- 2 Theories of decline due to Indian influences
- 3 Theories of decline due to external influences
- 4 Survival of Buddhism in India
- 5 Revival
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 External links
The Buddha's period saw not only urbanisation, but also the beginnings of centralized states. The successful expansion of Buddhism depended on the growing economy of the time, together with increased centralised political organisation capable of change.
During the Maurya Empire, during which Ashoka banned Vedic sacrifices as contrary to Buddhist benevolence, Buddhism began its spread outside of its Magadha homeland. The succeeding Shungas reinstated the sacrifices. They also built the large Sanchi stupa next to a Shunga capital. The overall trend of Buddhism's spread across India and state support by various regional regimes continued. The consolidation of monastic organization made Buddhism the center of religious and intellectual life in India. Pushyamitra the first ruler of the Sunga Dynasty built great Buddhist topes at Sanchi in 188 BCE. The succeeding Kanva Dynasty had four Buddhist Kanva Kings.
Pushyamitra Sunga (185 BCE to 151 BCE) has been recorded as being hostile to Buddhism, burning Sūtras, Buddhists shrines and endorsing the massacre of monks. Although such issues remains disputed, Belgian historian and Hindu scholar Koenraad Elst writes:
- The story is in fact given in two near contemporaneous (2nd century AD) Buddhist histories, the Asokâvadâna and the Divyâvadâna; the two narratives are almost verbatim the same and very obviously have a common origin. This non-contemporary story (which surfaces more than three centuries after the alleged facts) about Pushyamitra’s offering money for the heads of Buddhist monks is rendered improbable by external evidence: the well-attested historical fact that he allowed and patronized the construction of monasteries and Buddhist universities in his domains, as well as the still-extant stupa of Sanchi.6 After Ashoka’s lavish sponsorship of Buddhism, it is perfectly possible that Buddhist institutions fell on slightly harder times under the Sungas, but persecution is quite another matter.
The gradual expansion in the scope and authority of caste regulations shifted political and economic power to the local arena, reversing the trend of centralisation. The caste system gradually expanded into secular life as a regulative code of social and economic transactions. In ancient times, the four varnas were primarily a categorisation scheme and the Vedas did contain prohibitions regarding intermarriage. There were, however, large numbers of jatis, probably originally tribal lineage groups.
According to many scholars, the Sunga kings were seen as more amenable to Buddhism and as having contributed to the building of the stupa at Bharhut and an inscription at Bodh Gaya at the Mahabodhi Temple records the construction of the temple as follows, "The gift of Nagadevi the wife of King Brahmamitra". Another inscription reads: "The gift of Kurangi, the mother of living sons and the wife of King Indragnimitra, son of Kosiki. The gift also of Srima of the royal palace shrine."
Theories of decline due to Indian influences
The period between the 400 BCE and 1000 CE saw gains by Brahmanism at the expense of Buddhism, although the evolution of Brahmanical ideology influenced by Buddhism was an important factor for the growth of Brahmanism. Traditional Brahmanism is said by some writers to have competed in political and spiritual realm with Buddhism in the Gangetic plains while Buddhism flourished in the realms of the Bactrian kings.
Historians have suggested several possible reasons for the decline of Buddhism. According to the historian S. R. Goyal, the decline of Buddhism in India is the result of the hostility of Brahmins. The Saivite ruler Shashanka of Gauda (590–626) destroyed the Buddhist images and Bo Tree, under which Siddhartha Gautama is said to have achieved enlightenment.
With the surge of Brahmanical philosophers like Adi Shankara, along with Madhvacharya and Ramanuja, three leaders in the revival of Brahmanical philosophy, Buddhism started to fade out rapidly from the landscape of India.
Buddhism saw a brief revival under the Guptas. By the 4th to 5th century, Buddhism was already in decline in northern India, even as it was achieving spreading into Central Asia and along the Silk Road as far as China. It continued to prosper in Gandhara under the Shahi kingdom, who encouraged Buddhist religious ambassadors into Asia. Half of the population of the Gupta dynasty supported Buddhism and the five precepts were widely observed. The Hindu rulers and wealthy laity gave lavish material support to Buddhist monasteries.
Collapse of Harsha's Empire
In the north and west, the collapse of Harsha Vardana's kingdom (606–647 CE) gave rise to many smaller kingdoms, leading to the rise of the martial Rajputs clans across the Gangetic plains. It also marked the end of Buddhist ruling clans, along with a sharp decline in royal patronage until a revival occurred under the Pala Empire in the Bengal region.
Much of what we know about the state of Buddhism during Harsha's reign comes from the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who travelled widely and documented his journey. Although he found many regions where Buddhism was still flourishing, he also found many where it had sharply and startlingly declined, giving way to Jainism and a Brahmanical order.
Xuanzang compliments the patronage of Harsha Vardana. He reported that Buddhism was popular in Kanyakubja, modern day Uttar Pradesh, where he noted "an equal number of Buddhists and heretics" and the presence of 100 monasteries and 10,000 bhikshus along with 200 "Deva" or Hindu temples. He found a similarly flourishing population in Udra, modern Odisha, a mixed population in Kosala, homeland of Nagarjuna, and in Andhra and Dravida, which today roughly correspond to the modern day Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In a region he calls Konkanapura, which may be Kolhapur in southern Maharashtra, he found great numbers of Buddhists coexisting with a similar number of non-Buddhists, and a similar situation in Northern Maharashtra. In Sindh he finds a large Sammitiya and Theravada population. He reports a fair number of Buddhists in what is now the rest of Pakistan.
In Dhanyakataka, today's Vijayawada, he found a striking decline, with Jainism and Shaivism being more popular. In Bihar, the site of a number of important landmarks, he also found a striking decline and relatively few followers, with Hinduism and Jainism predominating. He also found relatively few Buddhists in Bengal, Kamarupa, or modern Assam, no Buddhist presence in Konyodha, few in Chulya or Tamil region, and few in Gujarat and Rajasthan, except in Valabhi where he found a large Theravada population.
During the reign of the Chalukya dynasty, Xuanzang reported that numerous Buddhist stupas in regions previously ruled by the Buddhist sympathetic Andhras and Pallavas were "ruined and deserted". These regions came under the control of the Vaishnavite Eastern Chalukyas, who were not favourable to Buddhism and did not support the religion. Xuanzang's report also mentions that in the 7th century, Shashanka of the Kingdom of Gouda (Bengal) was expanding his influence in the region in the aftermath of the fall of the Gupta Empire. He is blamed by Xuanzhang and other Buddhist sources for the murder of Rajyavardhana, a Buddhist king of Thanesar. Xuanzang writes that Shashanka destroyed the Bodhi tree of enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and replaced Buddha statues with Shiva Lingams. However, it has been claimed by Ramesh Chandra Majumdar that Xuanzhang had a Buddhist bias in favour of the Buddhist rulers such as Harshavardhana and that his account may therefore be slanted. However, Mujamdar's thesis is disputed, and has been claimed by Veradi to be part of a pattern of attempted acquittals of any Buddhist persecution by Brahmanical parties.
Buddhism in Southern India
In the south of India, while there was no overt persecution of Buddhists. Bodhidharma, a patriarch of Zen Buddhism, was of the original Kshatriya caste, and Nagarjuna, a philosopher important to Mahayana Buddhism, was a Brahmin from southern India.
Furthermore, a vigorous Hindu revival of Saivite and Vaishnavite Hinduism in the region led to a sharp decline of Buddhism. Nonetheless, it appears that Buddhism endured longer in southern India than anywhere else in India, with a greatly diminished sangha still extant as late as 1500.
In the East under the Palas in Bengal, Mahayana Buddhism flourished and spread to Bhutan and Sikkim. The Palas created many temples and a distinctive school of Buddhist art. Mahayana Buddhism flourished under the Palas between the 8th and the 12th century, before it collapsed at the hands of the attacking Sena dynasty.
However some scholars believe that they were also Shaivaite judging by the image of Shiva and His ox on their coins and the etymology of their names.; they had also dedicated shrines to Vishnu. Figures of Vishnu were substantial in number in the Pala Era.
The Bhakti Movement
In Bengal (and Kashmir, after 1323), their influence, caste attitudes towards Buddhists, previous familiarity with converting Buddhists, a lack of Buddhist political power, Hinduism's resurgence through movements such as the Advaita and the Bhakti movement, all contributed to a significant realignment of beliefs that relegated Buddhism in India to the peripheries.
One factor that contributed to the demise of Buddhism was the diminishing of Buddhism's distinctiveness with respect to the rise of Hinduism. Though Mahayana writers were quite critical of Hinduism, the devotional cults of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism likely seemed quite similar to laity, and the developing Tantrism of both religions were also similar. Furthermore, Hinduism borrowed elements from Buddhism. Vaishnavites eventually frowned on animal sacrifices and practised vegetarianism (a requirement of Mahayana texts), while Shaivites came to downgrade caste-distinctions as not relevant to religious practice. Furthermore, the prominent 8th-century CE Hindu philosopher Shankara developed a monastic order on the Buddhist model, and also borrowed concepts from Buddhist philosophy.
The relationship of Śaṅkara to Buddhism has been the subject of considerable debate since ancient times. He has been hailed as the arch critic of Buddhism and the principal architect of its downfall in India. At the same time he has been described as a Buddhist in disguise. Both these opinions have been expressed by ancient as well as modern authors—scholars, philosophers, historians and sectaries.
While Shankara is given credit for the defeat of Buddhism in Hindu literature, he was in fact active after Buddhism had faded from prominence in some areas. When Shankara came north to the intellectual centers there, he borrowed many of the ideas that had been formulated by Buddhist philosophers of the past.
Literary evidences point towards an absorption of Buddhist elements by Hindu culture over a period of centuries. Anti-Buddhist propaganda was also reaching its peak during the 8th century when Shankara modeled his monastic order after the Buddhist Sangha. An upsurge of Hinduism had taken place in North India by the early 11th century as illustrated by the influential Sanskrit drama Prabodhacandrodaya in the Chandela court; a devotion to Vishnu and an allegory to the defeat of Buddhism and Jainism. The population of North India had become predominantly Shaiva, Vaishnava or Shakta. By the 12th century a lay population of Buddhists hardly existed outside the monastic institutions and when it did penetrate the Indian peasant population it was hardly discernible as a distinct community. Buddhist monasteries were well-funded and life within was relatively easy.
Theories of decline due to external influences
Central Asian and North Western Indian Buddhism weakened in the 6th century after the White Hun invasion, who followed their own religions such as Tengri, and Manichaeism. Their Hindu Saivite King, Mihirakula (who ruled from 515 CE), suppressed Buddhism as well. He did this by destroying monasteries as far away as modern-day Allahabad.
Muhammad bin Qasim
In AD 711, Muhammad bin Qasim conquered the Sindh, bringing Indian societies into contact with Islam, succeeding partly because Dahir was an unpopular Hindu king that ruled over a Buddhist majority and that Chach of Alor and his kin were regarded as usurpers of the earlier Buddhist Rai Dynasty. a view questioned by those who note the diffuse and blurred nature of Hindu and Buddhist practices in the region, especially that of the royalty to be patrons of both and those who believe that Chach himself may have been a Buddhist. The forces of Muhammad bin Qasim defeated Raja Dahir in alliance with the Jats and other regional governors.
The Chach Nama records many instances of conversion of stupas to mosques such as at Nerun as well as the incorporation of the religious elite into the ruling administration such as the allocation of 3% of the government revenue was allocated to the Brahmins. As a whole, the non-Muslim populations of conquered territories were treated as People of the Book and granted the freedom to practice their respective faiths in return for payment of the poll tax (jizya). They were then excused from military service or payment of the tax paid by Muslim subjects – Zakat. The jizya enforced was a graded tax, being heaviest on the elite and lightest on the poor.
Mahmud of Ghazni
By the 10th century Mahmud of Ghazni defeated the Hindu-Shahis, effectively removing Hindu influence and ending Buddhist self-governance across Central Asia, as well as the Punjab region. He demolished both stupas and temples during his numerous campaigns across North-Western India, but left those within his domains and Afghanistan alone, even as al-Biruni recorded Buddha as the prophet "Burxan". However, many Buddhist sites destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni, such as Mathura, show evidence of having been forcibly converted by Brahmanical rivals first.
Muhammad of Ghor
Muhammad attacked the north-western regions of the Indian subcontinent many times. Gujarat later fell to Muhammad of Ghor's armies in 1197. Muhammad of Ghor's army was too developed for the traditional Indian army of that time to resist.
In 1200 Muhammad Khilji, one of Qutb-ud-Din's generals, conquered a fort of the Sena army, such as the one at Vikramshila. Many Buddhist monks fled to Nepal, Tibet, and South India to avoid the consequences of war.
The Buddhist encounters with Turkics are well documented. According to one myth, Chandrakirti (Nagarjuna's greatest disciple) rode a stone lion to scare away the Turkish army.
In 1215, Genghis Khan conquered Afghanistan and devastated the Muslim world. In 1227, after his death, his conquest was divided. Chagatai then established the Chagatai Khanate. In 1260,Hulagu Khan established Ilkhanate at Iran plateau where his son Arghun made Buddhism the state religion. At the same time, he came down harshly on Islam and demolished mosques to build many stupas. his son Ghazan who converted to Islam and in 1295 changed the state religion. Meanwhile in Chagatai Khanate was split into two part of eastern and western, after splitting of the Chagatai Khanate, Tarmashirin(1331-1334) was converted to Islam, then little mention of Buddhism or the stupas built by the Mongols can be found in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Theory of persecution by Muslims and conversion to Islam
According to this theory, by the time of the Muslim conquests in India, there were only glimpses of Buddhism nor any evidence of a provincial government in control of the Buddhists. During the 7th to 13th centuries when Islam arrived, this theory claims that it replaced Buddhism as the great cosmopolitan trading religion in many places accompanied by a consolidation of the communal peasant religions of Hinduism. The Tibetan scholar of the 17th century Taranatha writes that during the time of the Sena king Stag-gzigs (Turks) had begun to appear on horses and that monasteries had been fortified with troops stationed in them; however, they were overrun and monks at Uddandapura were massacred, the monastery razed and replaced by a new fort and further north-east Vikramshila was destroyed as well. Hardly any contemporary evidence however exists on the destruction of Buddhist monasteries.
Brief Muslim accounts and the one eye witness account of Dharmasmavim in wake of the conquest during the 1230s talks about abandoned viharas being used as camps by the Turukshahs. Later historical traditions such as Taranathas are mixed with legendary materials and summarised as "the Turukshah conquered the whole of Magadha and destroyed many monasteries and did much damage at Nalanda, such that many monks fled abroad" thereby bringing about a sudden demise of Buddhism with their destruction of the Viharas. Buddhism lingered longer in Iran than South Asia and was officially professed under fifty years of Mongol conquest. With the conversion of Ghazan to Islam in 1295, the backlash resulted in the destruction of many Buddhist places of worship and the further migration of monks into Kashmir.
Many places were destroyed and renamed. For example, Udantpur's monasteries were destroyed in 1197 by Mohammed-bin-Bakhtiyar and the town was renamed. Taranatha in his History of Buddhism in India (dpal dus kyi 'khor lo'i chos bskor gyi byung khungs nyer mkho) of 1608, gives an account of the last few centuries of Buddhism, mainly in Eastern India. His account suggests a considerable decline but not an extinction of Buddhism in India in his time.
Under a theory of Sufi influence, it is claimed that when Islam arrived in India, it sought conversion from, not assimilation to or integration with, the already present religions. Under Sufi influence, the pressures of caste, and with no political support structure left in place to resist social mores, many converted to Islam in the Bengal region. After the Mongol invasions of Islamic lands across Central Asia, many Sufis also found themselves fleeing towards India and around the environs of Bengal.
Survival of Buddhism in India
Buddhist institutions flourished in eastern India right until the Islamic invasion. Buddhism still survives among the Barua (though practising Vaishnavite elements), a community of Bengali Magadh descent who migrated to Chittagong region. Indian Buddhism also survives among Newars of Nepal.
Lama Taranatha (1575–1634) mentions Buddhism as having survived in some pockets of India, even though it had greatly declined and had disappeared on many regions.
- 1302-1331: Several groups from Sindh
- 15th or 16th century: a pilgrim from Multan
- 2nd half of the 15th century, monk Budhagupta  from South India
- 16th century Abhayaraj from Nepal
- 1773 Trung Rampa, a representative of Panchen Lama from Tibet, welcomed by Maharaja of Varanasi
- 1877, Burmese mission sent by king Mindon Ming
At the beginning of the 20th century, Buddhism was very nearly extinct in much of India. Some tribal peoples living in the territory of modern India, Nepal and Bangladesh did continue to practice Buddhism.
In Bengal, the Bauls still practice a syncretic form of Hinduism that was strongly influenced by Buddhism. Small communities of Indian Theravada Buddhists have existed continuously in Bengal in the area of Chittagong hill tracts among the Baruna and the indigenous Chakma people up to the present. Though they are under increasing pressure from mostly Muslim Bengali-speaking settlers. There was genocide of the Chakma and Buddhists by Islamists in East Pakistan. The Chakma spiritual practices are a blend of Buddhism/Vaishnavism.
Buddhism survived in Gilgit and Baltistan until the 13th or 14th century, perhaps slightly longer in the nearby Swat Valley. In Ladakh region, adjacent to Kashmir valley, Tibetan Buddhism survives to this day. The historic prevalence and history of Tibetan Buddhism in the above-mentioned Northern regions of Jammu and Kashmir is reported in the Rajatarangini of Kalhana written in 1150/1 CE. It survived in the Kashmir Valley at least until the introduction of Islam in 1323 by the Ladakhi Rinchana, who as King of Kashmir converted to Islam, and even beyond, into the 15th century, when King Zain ul Abidin (1419–1470) had a Buddhist minister.
In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Buddhism survived until 15th or 16th century, as witnessed by the manuscript of the Manjusrimulakalpa. At Nagapattinam, in Tamil Nadu, Buddhist icons were cast and inscribed until this time, and the ruins of the Chudamani Vihara stood until they were destroyed by the Jesuits in 1867. In the South in some pockets, it may have survived even longer.
On pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya in 1891, the Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala was shocked to find the temple in the hands of a Saivite priest, the Buddha image transformed into a Hindu icon and Buddhists barred from worship. The Buddhist revival then began in India, when he founded the Maha Bodhi Society. The organisation's initial efforts were for the purpose of resuscitation of Buddhism in India and of restoring the ancient Buddhist shrines at Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinara. The Buddhist renaissance inaugurated by Anagarika Dharmapala through his Mahabodhi Movement is also described as "conservative" for it held the Muslim Rule in India responsible for the decay of Buddhism in India in the then current mood of Hindu-Buddhist brotherhood. The organisation's initial efforts were to restore various Buddhist shrines that had been neglected under Hindu administration, and to open to the public various Buddhist sites and temples that had been destroyed in various periods of Muslim invasion.
Later in the 1950s Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar pioneered the Dalit Buddhist movement in India for the Dalits (Untouchables). Dr. Ambedekar saw conversion to Islam and to Christianity as a factor contributing to the "denationalisation" of India. The revival movement of Buddhism in India underwent a major change when after publishing a series of books and articles arguing that Buddhism was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality, Ambedkar publicly converted on 14 October 1956 in Nagpur and then in turn led a mass-conversion ceremony for over 380,000 Dalits. Many other such mass-conversion ceremonies organised since and has become a politically charged issue. Since Ambedkar's conversion, many more people from different castes have converted to Buddhism. Many converted employ the term "Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism" to designate the Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar's conversion.
The frequency of such conversion, however, are reducing due to the efforts of Hindu reform movements and gurus who have openly voiced their support for the untouchable caste. Another reason for the decline of conversions is the implementation of government poverty alleviation programs which have greatly improved the situation of many sections of society, including the Dalits.
in 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, escaped from Tibet to India and set up the government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamsala, India, which is often referred to as "Little Lhasa", after the Tibetan capital city. Tibetan exiles numbering several thousand have since settled in the town. Most of these exiles live in Upper Dharamsala, or McLeod Ganj, where they established monasteries, temples and schools. The town has become one of the centres of Buddhism in the world.
- History of Buddhism
- History of Buddhism in India
- Buddha as an Avatar of Vishnu
- History of India
- Buddhism in Kashmir
- Religion in India
- Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent
- Bodh Gaya
- Harsha of Kashmir
- Dalit Buddhist movement
- Shakyamuni Buddha
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