Why Buddhism Disappeared from India but Not Jainism

The Buddhist Channel, 20 July 2023

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- The ancient religions of Buddhism and Jainism, both founded around the 5th century BCE in India, endured for centuries, but eventually, Buddhism faded away from the Indian subcontinent, while Jainism persisted. Bhante S. Dhammika, now residing in Australia has written an interesting article which explores some of the reasons behind this divergence. The following summarizes his thoughts on the issue.

Jainism, founded by Mahavira (also known as Nataputta), was already gaining popularity when Siddhartha Gautama, later known as Buddha, began teaching. It's worth noting that Vappa, Buddha's cousin, even embraced Jainism. While several religious movements emerged during this period, only Buddhism and Jainism managed to survive for an extended period.

One plausible explanation for the similarities between the lives of Mahavira and Buddha is that the classical biography of Buddha contains later embellishments and legends. This narrative might have borrowed elements from Mahavira's biography, attributing events like Buddha's birth as the son of a king, his life in the palace, and other aspects to create a comprehensive life story.

Mahavira established both monastic orders for monks and nuns and an order of lay followers called "devotees of the sramanas." Over time, the Jain monastic community split into the Digambaras (Sky-clad or naked) and the Svetambaras (White-clad). This division remains more profound than the differences between Buddhist monastic traditions.

Bhante Dhammika contends that the oft repeated notion that Buddhism was wiped out by the Muslims is a myth. Buddhism was already tittering on the edge of extinction when the Muslims invaded. They merely hastened the inevitable. He then raised some differences between Buddhism and Jainism and suggests that these might have something to do with Buddhism's decline from the land of its birth.

1) Deification of Buddha
Over time, Buddhism, particularly in Mahayana, depicted the Buddha as an eternal transcendental being, making it easier for Buddhism to be absorbed into Hinduism. In contrast, Jainism firmly rejected theism and did not deify Mahavira or other Tirthankaras, thus maintaining a clear distinction from Hindu beliefs.

2) Complexity of Mahayana Literature
Mahayana sutras and sastras were highly philosophical and speculative, making them accessible mainly to a tiny intellectual monastic elite. This complexity limited the dissemination of Buddhist teachings to the common people. In contrast, Jainism produced numerous manuals of practice for lay followers, making their teachings more accessible and relevant to the general populace.

3) Brahmanical Revival and Hindu Influence
During the Gupta period, Hinduism experienced a revival, and devotion to deities like Vishnu and Krishna surged, while great epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana gained popularity. Jainism addressed these challenges by creating their own versions of these epics, presenting Jain ethics and attitudes in a popular and appealing manner. Buddhism, however, copied Hindu practices, making it less distinguishable from the dominant religion.

4) Jain Monastic and Lay Community Interaction
Jain monks consistently engaged with and supported their lay community, even in the face of persecution. This close interaction and support cultivated a sense of unity and devotion within the Jain community. On the other hand, the Buddhist Sangha primarily relied on the lay community's support and devotion, rather than actively engaging in their social and personal domains. Buddhist monks have primarily been objects of devotion while Jain monks have been primarily been mediums of support and instruction.

Though these factors are not the sole reasons for Buddhism's decline and Jainism's endurance, they likely played significant roles in shaping the trajectory of the two religions in India. As we contemplate this historical phenomenon, modern Buddhists, particularly in the West, can learn valuable lessons about community engagement, accessibility of teachings and preserving distinct identities within their tradition.

Read more: Why Buddhism and Not Jainism?

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