Decline of Buddhism in India

Ruins of Nalanda University, considered a milestone in the decline of Buddhism in India

The decline of Buddhism in India, the land of its birth, occurred for a variety of reasons such as sectarian conflicts within Buddhism, a loss in public and royal support for Buddhism, socio-political developments, gains by competing Indian religions such as Hinduism and Jainism, and the invasions of India from central Asia.[1][2][3]

Buddhism expanded in India in the centuries after the death of the Buddha, particularly after receiving the endorsement and royal support of the Maurya Empire under Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. It spread even beyond the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia and China. A steady decline of Buddhism in India set in during the 1st millennium CE, though it continued to attract financial and institutional support during the Gupta era (4th to 6th century) and the Pala Empire (8th to 12th century).[4][5]

Chinese monks travelling through the region between the 5th and 8th centuries CE, such as Faxian, Xuanzang, Yijing, and Song Yun, wrote of a decline of the Buddhist sangha, in the north-west Indian subcontinent, especially in the wake of the White Hun invasion followed by Turk-Mongol raids.[1] Buddhism largely disappeared from most of India with the Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent, surviving in the Himalayan regions and south India.[1][2][6]

Apart from the Himalayas and niche locations, 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.

Ancient India

Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka (260–218 BCE).

The Buddha's period saw not only urbanisation, but also the beginnings of centralised states.[7] The successful expansion of Buddhism depended on the growing economy of the time, together with increased centralised political organisation capable of change.[8]

Buddhism spread across ancient India and state support by various regional regimes continued through the 1st millennium BCE.[9] The consolidation of monastic organisation made Buddhism the centre of religious and intellectual life in India.[10] Pushyamitra the first ruler of the Shunga Dynasty built great Buddhist topes at Sanchi in 188 BCE.[11] The succeeding Kanva Dynasty had four Buddhist Kanva Kings.[11]

Pushyamitra and Shunga kings

Historical evidence about the persecution of Buddhism in ancient India is missing or unsubstantiated; colonial era writers have used mythical folk stories to construct a part of ancient Buddhist history.[12] For example, the Divyavadana (divine stories), an anthology of Buddhist mythical tales on morals and ethics, many using talking birds and animals, was written in about 2nd century AD. In one of the stories, the razing of stupas and viharas is mentioned with Pushyamitra. This has been historically mapped to the reign of King Pushyamitra of the Shunga Empire about 400 years before Divyavadana was written. Archeological remains of stupas have been found in Deorkothar that suggest deliberate destruction, conjectured to be one mentioned in Divyavadana about Pushyamitra.[13]

However, it is unclear whether the stupas were destroyed in ancient India or a much later period, and the existence of religious violence between Hinduism and Buddhism in ancient India has been disputed.[14][15] It is unclear when the Deorkothar stupas were destroyed, and by whom. The fictional tales of Divyavadana is considered by scholars[12] as being of doubtful value as a historical record. Moriz Winternitz, for example, stated, "these legends [in the Divyāvadāna] scarcely contain anything of much historical value".[12] Similarly, Paul Williams states that the persecution claims with alleged dates of Buddha's nirvana (400 BCE) and the subsequent Pusyamitra reign, as depicted in the Mahasanghika school of early Buddhism are the "most far fetched of all the arguments and hardly worth of any further discussion".[16]

According to other scholars, the Shunga kings were seen as more amenable to Buddhism and as having contributed to the building of the stupa at Bharhut[17] 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."[18]

Causes of decline

The decline of Buddhism has been attributed to various factors. In ancient India, regardless of the religious beliefs of their kings, states usually treated all the important sects relatively even-handedly.[9] This consisted of building monasteries and religious monuments, donating property such as the income of villages for the support of monks, and exempting donated property from taxation. Donations were most often made by private persons such as wealthy merchants and female relatives of the royal family, but there were periods when the state also gave its support and protection. In the case of Buddhism, this support was particularly important because of its high level of organisation and the reliance of monks on donations from the laity. State patronage of Buddhism took the form of land grant foundations.[19]

Numerous copper plate inscriptions from India as well as Tibetan and Chinese texts suggest that the patronage of Buddhism and Buddhist monasteries in medieval India was interrupted in periods of war and political change, but broadly continued in Hindu kingdoms from the start of the common era through early 2nd millennium CE.[20][21][22] Modern scholarship and recent translations of Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhist text archives, preserved in Tibetan monasteries, suggest that through much of 1st millennium CE in medieval India (and Tibet as well as other parts of China), Buddhist monks owned property and were actively involved in trade and other economic activity, after joining a Buddhist monastery.[23][24]

Internal conflicts and competition between Buddhist sects

Early Buddhism had numerous sects, each with its own version of canonical texts and all claiming to be the original word of the Buddha. According to Lars Fogelin, the texts with the same title show a spectrum of difference, some minor and some so major that they are different works.[25][26]

The Second Buddhist council witnessed the first schism in the Sangha; after unsuccessfully trying to modify the Vinaya, a small group of "elderly members", i.e. sthaviras, broke away from the majority Mahāsāṃghika during the Second Buddhist council, giving rise to the Sthavira sect.[27][28] Within a few centuries of the Buddha's death, the disagreements on Vinaya texts (disciplinary code for monks) became so significant, that the Buddhist sangha underwent many splits, each competing for monks and financial support while offering different versions of Buddhism.[29] Originally, these schisms were caused by disputes over monastic disciplinary codes of various fraternities, but eventually, by about 100 CE if not earlier, schisms between sectarian Buddhist sanghas were being caused by doctrinal disagreements too.[30] These internal Buddhist conflicts are evidenced in its texts as "Hinayana" (inferior, lesser vehicle) and "Mahayana" (superior, great vehicle), and in the 1st millennium CE Buddhism evolved into two major currents of thought: the modern Theravada and Mahayana traditions.[26]

According to Akira Hirakawa and Paul Groner, the major sectarian schools of Buddhism such as Theravada, Sarvastivada, Sammatiya and Mahasanghika, were still thriving in the 7th century, as evidenced by the Chinese texts left by the pilgrim traveller Yijing. But, Indian texts of these schools have not survived into the modern era and little is known about the mid to late medieval era sectarian Buddhism.[31] The Chinese pilgrim wrote about declining discipline and indulgence in earthly pleasures such as rich foods, sex and wealth by Buddhist monks inside monasteries, while the Indian Mahayana Buddhist sect began questioning why only Buddhist monks can achieve nirvana, why not everyone including the lay Buddhists.[3]

Competition from Hinduism and Jainism

With the Gupta dynasty (~4th to 6th century), the growth in ritualistic Mahayana Buddhism, and the adoption of Buddhist ideas into Hindu schools, the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism blurred. Vaishnavism, Shaivism and other Hindu traditions became increasingly popular, and Brahmins developed a new relationship with the state.[32] As the system grew, Buddhist monasteries gradually lost control of land revenue. In parallel, the Gupta kings built Buddhist temples such as the one at Kushinagara,[33][34] and monastic universities such as those at Nalanda, as evidenced by records left by three Chinese visitors to India.[35][36][37]

According to Hazra, Buddhism declined in part because of the rise of the Brahmins and their influence in socio-political process.[38] According to Randall Collins, Richard Gombrich and other scholars, Buddhism's rise or decline is not linked to Brahmins or the caste system, since Buddhism was "not a reaction to the caste system", but aimed at the salvation of those who joined its monastic order.[39][40][41] According to some scholars such as Lars Fogelin, the decline of Buddhism may be related to economic reasons, wherein the Buddhist monasteries with large land grants focussed on non-material pursuits, self-isolation of the monasteries, loss in internal discipline in the sangha, and a failure to efficiently operate the land they owned.[22][42]

The growth of Hinduism and Jainism was a part of the reason for the decline in Buddhism, particularly in terms of financial support to Buddhist monasteries from laity and royalty.[43][44][45] Gradually, Hindus and Jains occupied sites abandoned by the Buddhist sangha.[43]

Philosophical convergence

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.[46]

Scholars such as Adi Shankara re-energized Hinduism while borrowing Buddhist ideas,[47][46][48] also published influential reviews and original texts, established monastery networks, and explained the key differences between Hinduism and Buddhism. He stated the difference to be that Hinduism asserts "Atman (Soul, Self) exists", while Buddhism asserts that there is "no Soul, no Self".[49][50][51]

(...) Lokayatikas and Bauddhas who assert that the soul does not exist. There are four sects among the followers of Buddha: 1. Madhyamicas who maintain all is void; 2. Yogacharas, who assert except sensation and intelligence all else is void; 3. Sautranticas, who affirm actual existence of external objects no less than of internal sensations; 4. Vaibhashikas, who agree with later (Sautranticas) except that they contend for immediate apprehension of exterior objects through images or forms represented to the intellect."

Adi Shankara, Brihadranayaka Upanishad Bhasya[49]

Buddhism's decline was in part from the rise in competing Hindu philosophies such as Shankara's Advaita Vedanta, from growth in temples and from innovations of the Bhakti movement. These undercut Buddhist patronage and popular support.[52] The period between 400 CE and 1000 CE saw gains by the Vedanta school of Hinduism over Buddhism.[53]

Wars and persecution

Hun Invasions

Chinese scholars travelling through the region between the 5th and 8th centuries, such as Faxian, Xuanzang, Yijing, Hui-sheng, and Sung-Yun, began to speak of a decline of the Buddhist Sangha in the north-west parts of Indian subcontinent, especially in the wake of the Hun invasion from central Asia.[1] Xuanzang wrote that numerous monasteries in north-western India had been reduced to ruins by the Huns.[1][54]

Mihirakula, who ruled from 515 CE in north-western region (modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and north India), suppressed Buddhism as well. He did this by destroying monasteries as far away as modern-day Allahabad.[55]

Turk-Mongol raids

The image, in the chapter on India in Hutchison's Story of the Nations edited by James Meston, depicts the Turkish general Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji's massacre of Buddhist monks in Bihar. Khaliji destroyed the Nalanda and Vikramshila universities during his raids across North Indian plains, massacring many Buddhist and Brahmin scholars.[56]

The Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent was the first great iconoclastic invasion into South Asia.[57] The Persian traveller Al Biruni's memoirs suggest Buddhism had vanished from Ghazni (Afghanistan) and medieval Panjab region (northern Pakistan) by early 11th century.[58] By the end of twelfth century, Buddhism had further disappeared,[1][59] with the destruction of monasteries and stupas in medieval north-west and western India (now Pakistan and north India).[60]

The Chach Nama records many instances of conversion of stupas to mosques such as at Nerun.[61]

In the Gangetic plains, Orissa, north-east and the southern regions of India, Buddhism survived through the early centuries of the 2nd millennium CE.[42] According to William Johnston, hundreds of Buddhist monasteries and shrines were destroyed, Buddhist texts were burnt by the Muslim armies, monks and nuns killed during the 12th and 13th centuries in the Gangetic plains region.[3] The Islamic invasion plundered wealth and destroyed Buddhist images:[2]

From 986 CE, the Muslim Turks started raiding northwest India from Afghanistan, plundering western India early in the eleventh century. Force conversions to Islam were made, and Buddhist images smashed, due to the Islamic dislike of idolarty. Indeed in India, the Islamic term for an 'idol' became 'budd'.

Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism[2]

The north-west parts of South Asia fell to Islamic control, and the consequent take over of land holdings of Buddhist monasteries removed one source of necessary support for the Buddhists, while the economic upheaval and new taxes on laity sapped the laity support of Buddhist monks.[42]

In the north-western parts of medieval India, the Himalayan regions, as well regions bordering central Asia, Buddhism once facilitated trade relations, states Lars Fogelin. With the Islamic invasion and expansion, and central Asians adopting Islam, the trade route-derived financial support sources and the economic foundations of Buddhist monasteries declined, on which the survival and growth of Buddhism was based.[42][62] The arrival of Islam removed the royal patronage to the monastic tradition of Buddhism, and the replacement of Buddhists in long-distance trade by the Muslims eroded the related sources of patronage.[60][62]

Islamic invasion and rule

Ruins of Vikramashila

Muhammad attacked the north-western regions of the Indian subcontinent many times.[63] Many places were destroyed and renamed. For example, Udantpur's monasteries were destroyed in 1197 by Mohammed-bin-Bakhtiyar and the town was renamed.[64] Taranatha in his History of Buddhism in India (dpal dus kyi 'khor lo'i chos bskor gyi byung khungs nyer mkho) of 1608,[65] gives an account of the last few centuries of Buddhism, mainly in Eastern India. Mahayana Buddhism reached its zenith during the Pala dynasty period, a dynasty that ended with the Islamic invasion of the Gangetic plains.[5]

Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar 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.[66]

A major empire to support Buddhism, the Pala dynasty, fell in the 12th century, and Muslim invaders destroyed monasteries and monuments.[1] According to Randall Collins, Buddhism was already declining in India by the 12th century, but with the pillage by Muslim invaders it nearly became extinct in India in the 1200s.[67] In the 13th century, states Craig Lockard, Buddhist monks in India escaped to Tibet to escape Islamic persecution;[68] while the monks in western India, states Peter Harvey, escaped persecution by moving to south Indian Hindu kingdoms that were able to resist the Muslim power.[69]

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.[70] 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 demise of Buddhism with their destruction of the Viharas.[70]

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[71][72]), 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.

Inscriptions at Bodh Gaya mention Buddhist pilgrims visiting it throughout the period of Buddhist decline:[73]

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 the Chittagong hill tracts among the Baruna and the indigenous Chakma people up to the present.[74]


Deekshabhoomi Stupa in Nagpur, a replica of the Sanchi stupa, where Ambedkar became a Buddhist.

In the 1950s Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar pioneered the Dalit Buddhist movement in India for the Dalits. Dr. Ambedkar, on 14 October 1956 in Nagpur converted to Buddhism along with his 365,000 followers. Many other such mass-conversion ceremonies followed.[75] Many converted employ the term "Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism" to designate the Dalit Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar's conversion.[76]

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,[77] 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.

See also


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