The Glorious Flourish of Buddhism in India and its Ignominious Disappearance

The Glorious Flourish of Buddhism in India and its Ignominious Disappearance

By Deshamanya K. H. J. Wijayadasa, Former Secretary to the President

The Early History of Buddhism in India

Buddhism is the oldest of the great world religions. Its founder Siddhartha Gautama, a prince born in Lumbini in present-day Nepal; achieved enlightenment a little over 2500 years ago; so he was known as the Buddha, meaning the Enlightened One. Buddhism, which flourished in India in all its glory for several centuries; was forced out of its country of birth and enrichment unsung, unwept and by and largely unaccounted for. Before the advent of Buddhism; the two religions which were widely practised in the Ganges valley were Brahmanism and Jainism. Brahmanism was based on the divinity of the “Vedas” or ancient Hindu scriptures. Jainism was more akin to Buddhism in scope and content; hence there was greater room for peaceful co-existence.

According to traditional accounts the Buddha in his lifetime pioneered the movement for the propagation of Buddhism far and wide; by dispatching the first 60 monks ordained by him with the following words of advice. “Go monks and travel for the welfare and happiness of the people, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. No two of you go the same way. Teach the Doctrine monks, which is fine in its beginning, middle and end, with its meaning and letter, sheer and whole, and proclaim the pure holy life. There are beings, naturally of little passion, who are languishing for lack of hearing the Doctrine. They will understand it. “

With these words, the Buddha had dispatched the first 60 monks he had ordained, in different directions to propagate the Dhamma. In fact, the Buddha had lauded the gift of Dhamma as the greatest of all the gifts; “Sabba danam dhammadanam jinathi”. At the time of the passing of the Buddha; the Sangha or the order of the monks had firmly taken root. Shortly after the Parinibbana or the passing of the Buddha 500 senior monks well versed in the Dhamma held a council to codify his teachings. At the conclusion of this Buddhist Council, these monks who were living in monasteries in Bihar spread out throughout northern India and engaged in missionary activities.

The Expansion of Buddhism in India

Buddhism was at the height of its influence in India from around 250 BC to the middle of the first millennium AD. The great expansion of Buddhism came under its benevolent patron Emperor Asoka (268-239 BC). Historians are of the unanimous opinion that Emperor Asoka was the greatest figure in the history of Indian Buddhism after the Buddha. From his capital in Pataliputra (Modern Patna) Asoka ruled over the whole of northern and central India; more than two thirds of the sub continent and probably the largest empire that India was to see for two millennia. Being enthroned as the king of Pataliputra was evidently not good enough to become the Emperor of the vast Maurya empire. He fought a series of battles to annex all neighboring principalities and kingdoms; most of the adversaries happened to be his half brothers. Asoka’s father king Bindusara belonged to the Brahmanical faith. He had provided alms daily to about 60,000 Brahmins. King Asoka continued this practice for about four years until he embraced Buddhism. There is general agreement between Asoka’s minor Rock Edic and Sri Lanka Pali sources that his devotion to Buddhism grew gradually through his association with the Sangha. In all likelihood he embraced Buddhism in the fourth regnal year.

The Kalinga war which was fought in his ninth regnal year marked a veritable watershed in Asoka’s imperial policy. The misery and havoc which this war brought forth made him disconsolate and repentant. In his tenth regnal year he eschewed war altogether and launched Dhammavijaya or conquest by Righteousness. Dhammavijaya which commenced ten years after his consecration continued unabated until his demise 27 years later. He collected the relics of the Buddha from the original relic mounds in which they were enshrined and dispatched them to different parts of his vast empire with instructions that they should be enshrined in stupas for veneration by the Buddhists. Asoka also played a major role in the reforming and purging of the Sangha by convening a Dhamma Sangayana or a Recital of the Scriptures, presided over by Moggaliputtatissa Maha Thero.

He undertook pilgrimages to the holy sites connected with the life of the Buddha such as Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Saranath, Kusinagar etc. and erected massive granite pillars indicative of their true identity and significance. Emperor Asoka’s greatest achievement in life as well as his everlasting legacy to the world was the dissemination of the Buddha’s ethical message not only to the frontier and neighboring countries such as Sri Lanka, but also as far beyond as Greece, Egypt, Libiya and Syria; up to a distance of six hundred “yojanas”. The introduction and spread of Buddhism in different countries of Asia in particular brought in its wake Buddhist thought which embodies not mere faith of creed but an entire culture with a world view, a scale of human values and its perception of the meaning and significance of life.

The fact that Buddhism flourished in India from the pre Christian era up to the medieval period is corroborated by ample literary, archaeological and epigraphical evidence. There were hundreds of Buddhist temples and monasteries in the kingdom of Mathura between 300 BC and 600 AD. The Saka and Kusana monarchs patronized Buddhism, the monks and their monasteries with great devotion while promoting Buddhist art especially in Mathura, Sravasti, and Saranath. Hsuan-tsang who resided in India from 630 AD to 644 AD speaks of the existence of some 115,000 Hinayana and 120,000 Mahayana monks in India at that time. Also he has stated that there were around 2,000 Hinayana and 2,500 Mahayana Monasteries in India which provided shelter, alms and education to monks.

Fa-hsian (399-411 AD) reported the existence of 20 monasteries which sheltered 2000 monks in Mathura. Buddhism flourished in the North-Western region of India in present day Pakistan from around 100 BC to 400 AD as amply evidenced by literary, archaeological and epigraphical evidence as well as unique Buddhist art, architecture and sculpture especially of the Gandhara period. The ruins of Buddhist Monasteries of North Western India provide ample proof that they were foremost among the architectural wonders of Asia. Hsuan-tsang has recorded that around 18,000 monks lived in 1,400 monasteries in Uddiyana in the Swat valley. Nalanda, the seat of the famous Buddhist University was the greatest centre of Buddhist learning in ancient India. One of the largest monastic settlements in India was Saranath in close proximity to Varanasi. Sanchi was a major centre of Buddhist monasticism, art, architecture, sculpture and culture from around 200 BC to 600 AD.

A large number of monasteries and shrines were in existence in several districts of Andhra Pradesh including those of Amarawathi and Nagarjuna Konda which had acquired great fame and acclaim throughout the then Buddhist world. A unique school of Buddhist art and culture flourished in Andra Pradesh from about 2nd century BC to medieval times. Large scale excavation of rock monasteries for the use of monks and nuns commenced around 200 BC in the mid-south west of India and continued up to the 9th century AD. There are over 1000 such rock monasteries in Maharashtra, Madya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. According to oral tradition after the third Buddhist Council Emperor Asoka dispatched Buddhist missionaries to different parts of the then civilized world. Arahat Mahinda set out for the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Mahadeva to Mahismandala, Rakkhita to Vanavasa, Dhamma Rakkhita to Amarankata and Mahadhammarakkhita to Maharattha. There is epigraphical evidence which confirms that Asoka established medical treatment centres for men and animals in the neighboring states such as Cholas, Pandyas Satyaputa, Keralaputa and Thambapanni. Emperor Asoka would have in all probability attempted to introduce Buddhism to the South Indian states but without much success.

However, there is sufficient literary, epigraphical and architectural evidence to establish the existence of Buddhism, even though sporadically, in several states in South India from about the 4th century AD. Hsuan-Tsang ^630-644) has observed that in the Pallava country there were around 100 monasteries with over 10,000 monks. His records indicate that he had visited the Pandya Kingdom called Malakuta and noted the existence of old monasteries which were continuously inhabited by monks. As for archaeological evidence there are numerous images of the Buddha found all over South India. Likewise, there are many Buddha images in Siva Temples in Travancore, Pondichery and Tanjore districts. For several centuries Nagapatam continued to be a centre of Buddhism and a busy port in the Chola Kingdom.

Fa-hien the Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled extensively in India and Sri Lanka has left to posterity valuable and authentic records of his travels in the first decade of the 5th century AD. Buddhism flourished in South India in two phases; firstly, under Pallava rule from the 3rd century AD to the 7TH century AD and secondly, during the Chola period from the 9th to the 14th century AD. The Chola Kingdom with the capital in Kaveripattinam was one of the most powerful, one of the largest and flourishing kingdoms in South India. From the very inception the city had been a centre of Buddhist learning of great repute. Two great Tamil epics based on Buddhist themes, the Silappadikaram and the Manimekhalai, provide insights into Buddhist activities of an ancient Buddhist temple at Kaveripattanam called Indra Vihara.

Likewise there is ample literary and archaeological evidence to establish the existence of several Buddhist monasteries in Nagapattanam and Kanchipuram. An eminent poet of Java writing in the 14th century AD has stated that Buddhism was on the decline in South India; being battered by hostile opposition from Jainism and Hinduism. He has added that Buddhism and Vaishvanism had got so mixed up that it was difficult to distinguish one from the other. Further, he has placed on record that Buddhist Viharas were being converted to Hindu Kovils while Buddha statues were being paraded in the guise of Hindu gods. The closing years of the 14th century AD saw much damage and irreparable destruction of Buddhist shrines and monasteries in South India; the last haven of Buddhism in India.

(Next week ‘The ignominous disappearance of Buddhism from India)


About editor 2171 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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