Monthly Archives: January 2008

Rise and Decline of Buddhism in India


A few days back when I and my wife were having dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant we started discussing the similarities and differences between the cultures of India and China. The discussion changed to religion and we wondered why inspite of being the birthplace of Buddhism, there are so few Buddhists in India. It has spread to China, Japan and other countries from India but how did it die here. In today’s VERITAS
we will discuss the story of the rise and decline of Buddhism in India.

       According to Nehru’s “Glimpses of World history” Buddha lived about 500 to 600 years before Christ. He was born as Siddhartha and was a prince. He was not happy with luxuries and wanted to search for the real truth. This led him to leave his riches and seek enlightenment. He left his riches for a life of quest at the age of about 30. At the age of 35 he is supposed to have attained enlightenment under a pipal tree in Bodh Gaya( Bihar, India). He is said to have discovered the middle path-a path of moderation. The story of Buddha is quite long but that is not the point of this VERITAS. We want to discuss how the popularity of Buddhism changed in India.

       During his life Buddha traveled a lot and spread the new religion wherever he went. According to Nehru the chief reason for the popularity of Buddhism was that at that time Hinduism had become a very complicated religion and the Brahmin priests had introduced all types of rites and superstitions. The caste system had become very strict. The common people were disillusioned with Hinduism and were looking for a way to lead a good life without making their lives very complicated. And Buddhism provided them just that. And Vivekananda also says something similar:
“The Brahmins began to arrogate powers and privileges to themselves…The masses of people were debarred from all knowledge… the priests had made a secret of the Vedas” ( see Vivekananda’s lecture “Buddha’s message to the world”, San Francisco, 1900 AD).

       So a large number of disillusioned Hindus changed their religion to Buddhism. Buddha had organized a community of monks and nuns  called “Sangha”. The duty of the Sangh was to spread the religion. During Buddha’s life several Kings and princes also converted to Buddhism and that is usually a trigger that causes the change of religion of the entire kingdom.

       But the greatest spread of Buddhism happened during Emperor Ashoka’s reign. Ashoka ruled from 268 BC to 226 BC. He converted to Buddhism after the battle of Kalinga which had filled him with remorse over the senseless killing of countless men. Ashoka had a huge empire- it covered nearly the whole of Modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Ashoka wanted to spread Buddhism all over India and if possible outside it. He setup great universities at Taxila, Nalanda, Mathura and Ujjain. People from all over India and from neighboring countries( like China and western Asia) visited these universities and took back the message of Buddhism to their lands. Buddhism also changed Hinduism
during Ashoka’s time. Nehru says “Ashoka’s example and the spread of Buddhism  resulted in vegetarianism becoming popular. Till then Kshattriyas and Brahmins in India generally ate meat and used to take wines and alcoholic drinks. Both meat eating and wine-drinking grew much less”( Nehru, “Glimpses of world History” page 64). Ashoka sent Buddhist monks all over the world- Greece, Egypt, China, Sri Lanka, Burma to spread the new faith.

       In India after Ashoka’s  death the Maurayan Empire crumbled. A general of the Maurayan empire, Pusyamitra Shunga assassinated the last Maurayan Emperor and started a new dynasty around 185 BC: The Shunga dynasty. Pusyamitra was a Brahmin king and did not like the spread of Buddhism. He persecuted the Buddhists and the Buddhists moved out of the Shunga empire to the borders of India: Kashmir, Afghanistan etc.
So Pusyamitra started the revival of Hinduism in Central India. But this Hinduism was very different from the Hinduism that existed in India before Buddha. The dominance of Buddhism for several hundred years had changed it to some extend. And Buddha became a part of Hinduism! The new Brahmin priests made Buddha an avatar of Vishnu! So some Buddhists were sent outside the kingdom and the rest were told that Buddhism was
a part of Hinduism! So though Buddhism was spreading all over the world, in central/north India Buddhism had declined because of the new wave of Hinduism.

       Now the Shunga kingdom was a central/north Indian kingdom centered around Bihar. It lasted from 185 BC to around 75 BC. And we have seen that Buddhists were pushed out of central/north India to the north west- Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir. And it was here in around 1st century that a new kingdom was started- Kushanas. And it was a Buddhist kingdom. The Kushanas were central Asian people. The empire became quite huge: from Afghanistan to the plains of Ganges. The most famous ruler of this Empire was Kanishka. It was during this time that Buddhism spread to China. Buddha had always preached against idol worship. And till about 1st century AD there were no images of Buddha. But in the Kushana kingdom the Brahmins tried to introduce Hindu ideas into Buddhism. And for the first time images of Buddha were being placed in Buddhist Shrines. The Mahayana school of Buddhism was closer to Hinduism and supported changes like having images of Buddha. The Hinayana school was against these changes. The Kushana kings supported the Mahayana school and the changes were implemented.

Buddhism spread to China during the Han dynasty( sometime around 1st century AD). The close interaction between the Kushanas and the Chinese led to the spread of the religion there.

       The Kushana kingdom revived Buddhism in the western parts of India. But the kingdom declined around 250 AD. A new kingdom arose- the Gupta Empire. The Guptas started another revival of Hinduism. Lots of things in Buddhism were adopted into Hinduism- the Mahayana school was close to Hinduism anyway. Buddhism was no longer considered different from Hinduism. And we have seen that Hindu priests had made Buddha an incarnation of Vishnu.Very few purely Buddhist monasteries survived.

 In the 6th century AD the head of Indian Buddhism, Buddhabharta traveled to China and founded the Shaolin Temple. This played a major part in spreading Buddhism in China and from there to Korea and Japan. He was probably attracted by the spread of Buddhism there and he was probably unhappy with the state of Buddhism in India. But after he left, several other Buddhist monks left. There were very few monks left in India and Buddhism never revived on a large scale in India after that.

       So we have traced the rise and decline of Buddhism in India. We have seen that typically the rise and decline of religions is influenced by the religion of the ruler. The ruler tries to make his subjects follow his religion and that causes changes in how certain religions spread. Also we have seen the power of Hinduism to adapt and change which resulted in a lot of Buddhist thought become a part of the Hindu religion. Vivekananda calls Buddhism the “fulfillment of Hinduism”. He says “The Vedanta philosophy is the foundation of Buddhism and everything else in India”
and he goes on to say “Buddha brought the Vedanta to light, gave it to the people and saved India”. ( see Vivekananda, Buddha and his Message)


More Dope : Buddha’s Message to the World : Vivekananda 




 Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
 Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
 Correct old time and regulate the Sun;

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Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.