Decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent

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Ruins of Nalanda University; its destruction is considered a milestone in the decline of Buddhism in India.

A steady decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent set in during the 1st millennium CE in the wake of the White Hun invasion followed by Turk-Mongol raids,[1] 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).[2][3]

The decline of Buddhism has been attributed to various factors, especially the regionalisation of India after the end of the Gupta Empire (320–650 CE), which led to the loss of patronage and donations, and a competition with Hinduism and Jainism; and the conquest and subsequent persecutions by Huns, Turks and Persians.

The total Buddhist population in 2010 in the Indian subcontinent – excluding that of Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan – was about 10 million, of which about 7.2% lived in Bangladesh, 92.5% in India and 0.2% in Pakistan.[4]

Growth of Buddhism[edit]

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

Buddhism expanded in the Indian subcontinent 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.

The Buddha's period saw not only urbanisation, but also the beginnings of centralised states.[5] The successful expansion of Buddhism depended on the growing economy of the time, together with increased centralised political organisation capable of change.[6]

Buddhism spread across ancient India and state support by various regional regimes continued through the 1st-millennium BCE.[7] The consolidation of monastic organisation made Buddhism the centre of religious and intellectual life in India.[8] Pushyamitra, the first ruler of the Shunga Dynasty built great Buddhist topes at Sanchi in 188 BCE.[9] The succeeding Kanva Dynasty had four Buddhist Kanva Kings.[9]

Gupta Dynasty (4th-6th century)[edit]

Religious developments[edit]

During the Gupta dynasty (4th to 6th century), Mahayana Buddhism turned more ritualistic, while Buddhist ideas were adopted into Hindu schools. The differences between Buddhism and Hinduism blurred, and Vaishnavism, Shaivism and other Hindu traditions became increasingly popular, while Brahmins developed a new relationship with the state.[10] 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,[11][12] and monastic universities such as those at Nalanda, as evidenced by records left by three Chinese visitors to India.[13][14][15]

Hun Invasions (6th century)[edit]

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 Northwestern parts of Indian subcontinent, especially in the wake of the Hun invasion from central Asia in the 6th century CE.[1] Xuanzang wrote that numerous monasteries in north-western India had been reduced to ruins by the Huns.[1][16]

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.[17] Yashodharman and Gupta Empire rulers, in and after about 532 CE, reversed Mihirakula's campaign and ended the Mihirakula era.[18][19]

Regionalisation (7th-11th century)[edit]

The regionalisation of India after the end of the Gupta Empire (320–650 CE) led to the loss of patronage and donations,[20] and a competition with Hinduism and Jainism.

Patronage[edit]

In ancient India, regardless of the religious beliefs of their kings, states usually treated all the important sects relatively even-handedly.[7] 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.[21]

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 the early first millennium CE.[22][23][24] The Gupta kings built Buddhist temples such as the one at Kushinagara,[25][12] and monastic universities such as those at Nalanda, as evidenced by records left by three Chinese visitors to India.[13][26][15]

Competition from Hinduism and Jainism[edit]

The growth of Hinduism and Jainism was a part of the reason for the decline in Buddhism, particularly in terms of diminishing financial support to Buddhist monasteries from laity and royalty.[27][28][29] According to Hazra, Buddhism declined in part because of the rise of the Brahmins and their influence in socio-political process.[30][note 1] Gradually, Hindus and Jains occupied sites abandoned by the Buddhist sangha.

The disintegration of central power also led to regionalisation of religiosity, and religious rivalry.[34] Rural and devotional movements arose within Hinduism, along with Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Bhakti and Tantra,[34] that competed with each other, as well as with numerous sects of Buddhism and Jainism.[34][35] This fragmentation of power into feudal kingdoms was detrimental for Buddhism, with royal support shifting toward Hindu and Jain communities.[20][36][27][37][38] Vaishnavism, Shaivism and other Hindu traditions became increasingly popular, and Brahmins developed a new relationship with the state,[10] gaining influence in socio-political process, which contributed to the decline of Buddhism.[39]

Religious convergence[edit]

Buddhism's distinctiveness diminished with the rise of Hindu sects. 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.[40] In effect, "the increasingly esoteric nature" of both Hindu and Buddhist tantrism made it "incomprehensible to India's masses," for whom Hindu devotionalism and the worldly power-oriented Nath Siddhas became a far better alternative.[41][42][note 2] Buddhist ideas, and even the Buddha himself,[43] were absorbed and adapted into orthodox Hindu thought,[44][40][45] while the differences between the two systems of thought were emphasized.[46][47][48][49][50][51]

Internal social-economic dynamics[edit]

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 focused 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.[24][52] With the growing support for Hinduism and Jainism, Buddhist monasteries also gradually lost control of land revenue.

Islamic conquest (12th century)[edit]

Muslim Turk raids[edit]

The image, in the chapter on India in Hutchison's Story of the Nations edited by James Meston, depicts the Muslim Turkic 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.[53]

The Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent was the first great iconoclastic invasion into the Indian subcontinent.[54] The Persian traveller Al Biruni's memoirs suggest Buddhism had vanished from Ghazni (Afghanistan) and medieval Punjab region (northern Pakistan) by early 11th century.[55]

By the end of twelfth century, Buddhism had further disappeared,[1][56] with the destruction of monasteries and stupas in medieval north-west and western Indian subcontinent (now Pakistan and north India).[57] The chronicler of Shahubuddin Ghori's forces records enthusiastically about attacks on the monks and students and victory against the non-Muslim infidels. The major centers of Buddhism were in north India and in direct path of the Muslim armies. Their wealth and them being centres of non-Muslim religions made them a target[58]

In the Gangetic plains, Orissa, north-east and the southern regions of India, Buddhism survived through the early centuries of the 2nd millennium CE.[52] 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.[59] The Islamic invasion plundered wealth and destroyed Buddhist images:[60]

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

— Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism[60]

The university of Nalanda was mistaken for a fort because of the walled campus. The Buddhist monks who had been slaughtered were mistaken for Brahmins according to Minhaj-i-Siraj.[61] The walled town, the Odantapuri monastery, was also conquered by his forces. Sumpa basing his account on that of Śākyaśrībhadra who was at Magadha in 1200, states that Odantapuri and Vikramshila were destroyed and the monks massacred.[62]

The north-west parts of the Indian subcontinent 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.[52]

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.[52][63] 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.[57][63]

Islamic conquest and rule[edit]

Ruins of Vikramashila

Buddhism largely disappeared from most of India with the Muslim conquests of the Indian subcontinent, surviving in the Himalayan regions and south India.[1][60][64] Abul Fazl stated that there was scarcely any trace of Buddhists left. When he visited Kashmir in 1597, he met with a few old men professing Buddhism, however, he 'saw none among the learned'.[65]

Muslim forces attacked the north-western regions of the Indian subcontinent many times.[66] Many places were destroyed and renamed. For example, Udantpur's monasteries were destroyed in 1197 by Mohammed-bin-Bakhtiyar and the town was renamed.[67] Taranatha in his History of Buddhism in India (dpal dus kyi 'khor lo'i chos bskor gyi byung khungs nyer mkho) of 1608,[68] 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.[3]

Vikramashila was destroyed by the forces of Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200.[69] Many Buddhist monks fled to Nepal, Tibet, and South India to avoid the consequences of war.[70] Tibetan pilgrim Chöjepal had to flee advancing Muslim troops multiple times, as they were sacking Buddhist sites.[71]

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.[72] In the 13th century, states Craig Lockard, Buddhist monks in India escaped to Tibet to escape Islamic persecution;[73] 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.[74]

Brief Muslim accounts and the one eye-witness account of Dharmasmavim in wake of the conquest during the 1230s talk about abandoned viharas being used as camps by the Turukshahs.[75] Later historical traditions such as Taranatha's 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.[75]

While the Muslims sacked the Buddhists viharas, the temples and stupas with little material value survived. After the collapse of monastic Buddhism, Buddhist sites were abandoned or reoccupied by other religious orders. In the absence of viharas and libraries, scholastic Buddhism and its practitioners migrated to the Himalayas, China and Southeast Asia.[76]

Survival of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent[edit]

Buddhist institutions flourished in eastern India right until the Islamic invasion. Buddhism still survives among the Barua (though practising Vaishnavite elements[77][page needed][78]), a community of Bengali Magadh descent who migrated to Chittagong region. Indian Buddhism also survives among Newars of Nepal.

Abul Fazl, the courtier of Mughal emperor Akbar, states, "For a long time past scarce any trace of them (the Buddhists) has existed in Hindustan." When he visited Kashmir in 1597 he met with a few old men professing Buddhism, however he 'saw none among the learned'. This is can also be seen from the fact that Buddhist priests were not present amidst learned divines that came to the Ibadat Khana of Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri.[79]

After the Islamization of Kashmir by sultans like Sikandar Butshikan, much of Hinduism was gone and a little of Buddhism remained. Fazl writes, "The third time that the writer accompanied His Majesty to the delightful valley of Kashmir, he met a few old men of this persuasion (Buddhism), but saw none among the learned."[80]

`Abd al-Qadir Bada'uni mentions, "Moreover samanis and Brahmans managed to get frequent private audiences with His Majesty." The term samani (Sanskrit: Sramana and Prakrit: Samana) refers to a devotee a monk. Irfan Habib states that while William Henry Lowe assumes the Samanis to be Buddhist monks, they were Jain ascetics.[81]

While the Buddhist viharas had been sacked, the temples and stupas didn't receive the same treatment. Inscriptions at Bodh Gaya show that the Mahabodhi temple was in some use till 14th century. According to the 17th century Tibetan Lama Taranatha's History of Buddhism in India, the temple was restored by a Bengali queen in the 15th century, later passing on to a landowner and becoming a Shaivite center.[76]

Taranatha's history which mentions Buddhist sangha surviving in some regions of India during his time[82] which includes Konkana, Kalinga, Mewad, Chittor, Abu, Saurastra, Vindhya mountains, Ratnagiri, Karnataka etc. A Jain author Gunakirti (1450-1470) wrote a Marathi text, Dhamramrita,[83] where he gives the names of 16 Buddhist orders. Dr. Johrapurkar noted that among them, the names Sataghare, Dongare, Navaghare, Kavishvar, Vasanik and Ichchhabhojanik still survive in Maharashtra as family names.[84]

Inscriptions at Bodh Gaya mention Buddhist pilgrims visiting it throughout the period of Buddhist decline:[85]

  • 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 the Panchen Lama from Tibet, welcomed by Maharaja of Varanasi
  • 1877, Burmese mission sent by king Mindon Min

Buddhism was virtually extinct in British Raj by the end of the 19th century, except its Himalayan region, east and some niche locations. According to the 1901 census of British India, which included modern Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan, the total population was 294.4 million, of which total Buddhists were 9.5 million. Excluding Myanmar's nearly 9.2 million Buddhists in 1901, this colonial-era census reported 0.3 million Buddhists in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan in the provinces, states and agencies of British India or about 0.1% of the total reported population.[86]

The 1911 census reported a combined Buddhist population in British India, excluding Myanmar, of about 336,000 or about 0.1%.[87]

Revival[edit]

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

In 1891, the Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) pioneering Buddhist activist Don David Hewavitarane later to be world renowned as Anagarika Dharmapala visited India. His campaign, in cooperation with American Theosophists such as Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, led to the revival of Buddhist pilgrimage sites along with the formation of the Maha Bodhi Society and Maha Bodhi Journal. His efforts increased awareness and raised funds to recover Buddhist holy sites in British occupied India, such as the Bodh Gaya in India and those in Myanmar.[89]

In the 1950s, B. R. 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.[90] Many converted employ the term "Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism" to designate the Dalit Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar's conversion.[91]

in 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, escaped from Tibet to India along with numerous Tibetan refugees, and set up the government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamshala, India,[92] 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.

The Buddhist population in the modern era nation of India grew at a decadal rate of 22.5% between 1901 and 1981, due to birth rates and conversions, or about the same rate as Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, but faster than Christianity (16.8%), and slower than Islam (30.7%).[93]

According to a 2010 Pew estimate, the total Buddhist population had increased to about 10 million in the nations created from British India. Of these, about 7.2% lived in Bangladesh, 92.5% in India and 0.2% in Pakistan.[4]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ 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.[31][32][33]
  2. ^ Elverskog is quoting David Gordon White (2012), The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, p.7, who writes: "The thirty-six or thirty-seven metaphysical levels of being were incomprehensible to India's masses and held few answers to their human concerns and aspirations." Yet, White is writing here about Hindu tantrism, and states that only the Nath Siddhas remained attractive, because of their orientation on worldy power.

References[edit]

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  6. ^ Richard Gombrich, A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, page 184.
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  8. ^ Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, page 208.[2]
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  40. ^ a b Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 140.
  41. ^ Elverskog 2011, p. 95-96.
  42. ^ White 2012, p. 7.
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  50. ^ Edward Roer (Translator), Shankara's Introduction, p. 2, at Google Books, pages 2–4
    Katie Javanaud (2013), Is The Buddhist 'No-Self' Doctrine Compatible With Pursuing Nirvana?, Philosophy Now
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External links[edit]