Was Buddhism driven out of India?

By M.S.N. Menon, Organiser.org, Jan 22, 2006

New Delhi, India -- Was Buddhism driven out of India? No. It is a canard, a lie propagated by vested interests. What are the facts? Buddhism was a reaction to the growing permissiveness and distortions of Aryan society. It was, therefore, puritanical. But by banning drinking, dancing, singing and theatre, Buddhism sowed the seeds of opposition.

<< The Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, India

But Buddhism was also revolutionary. It was “the logical development of the religion of the Hindus,” says Dr. Radhakrishnan. It played a significant role in human history.

On this, Northcote Parkinson says: “In the rallying of Asia against western pressure, Buddhism played a central role like no other religion before or since; its influence extended to the whole of Asia. It lent vigour to all that was attractive in Hinduism.”

Naturally, for about a thousand years (from 3rd century BC to 6th century AD), Buddhism was the dominant religion of India, although it broke up into two—Mahayana and Hinayana. It had little opposition. When Fa Hien, the Chinese student, visited India in the 5th century AD, Buddhism was flourishing along with Hinduism. But by the 6th century AD, Buddhism had broken up into 18 sects. So, when Hieun Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim visited India in the 7th century AD, Buddhism was in decline. What is more, by distorting the Master’s message and reverting in some ways to Hindu beliefs and practices, Mahayana had lost its attraction. Buddha himself had anticipated the decline in one of his talks with Ananda, his chief disciple.

The conquest of Central Asia and Afghanistan by the Muslims was a major blow to Buddhism. Historian, Pramanath Bose writes that “Buddhism...got so engulfed in the superstitions of Turanians that it transformed itself into some of the grossest forms of Scythian idolatry.” Buddhism as an ethical system had little impact on Central Asia, which explains how Islam was able to overwhelm this huge region in so short a time.

It was this decline of Buddhism which brought up the resurgence of Saivism and Vaishnavism. And Shankara, by incorporating many of the Buddhist doctrines into Hinduism, made Buddhism redundant. But the final blow to Buddhism came with the advent of Islam in India.

Muslim invaders made it a point to extirpate Buddhism from India. They destroyed every vihara, where the monks lived and taught. Thus, the 500 viharas built by Ashoka in Kashmir and the 600 feet high stupa built by Kanishka were the first to be destroyed. Historian Vincent Smith says that the monks, who survived the holocaust, fled to south and to the Himalayas (Nepal, Tibet). In short, few dared to stay in India. The invaders also destroyed Taxila and Nalanda, the two great Buddhist universities. The cream of Buddhist scholarship lived here. Thus, every symbol of Buddhism was destroyed as part of a deliberate policy.

It is not true that Brahmanism opposed Buddhism. The first disciples of the enlightened one were all Brahmins. For example, Maha Muggalanna, Sariputta, Maha Kashyapa, Asita, Kaundinya. Buddha rejected only the Brahminical rituals, the authority of the Vedas and the oppressive caste system.

According to Smt Rhys Davids, among the 246 poet-authors mentioned in the Thera Gatha, 113 were Brahmins, 70 Kshatriyas. Thus, it is clear that Buddhism had no real opposition in India. In Fact, the kings gave equal protection to both Hinduism and Buddhism. For example, the Gupta empire, although Hindu, gave full protection to Buddhism. So did Harsha’s empire. Lalitaditya, the greatest king of Kashmir, although not a Buddhist, built the largest Vihara for the Buddhists.

If Buddhism was brought down by anyone (which is not the case) it was done by the Buddhist monks. The hasya literature in Sanskrit is full of humour and satire against the Buddhist monks—of how they took to meat, drinks and women. Naturally, Buddhism lost the respect in which it was held earlier.

It may be a digression, but let us see how the Buddhists fared in China. In China, it was the growing monkish population that forced the emperor to ban Buddhist activities. In 477 AD there were as many as 6,478 monasteries in northern China. It grew to 30,000 by 534 AD. And there were as many as 77,258 monks. To the industrious Chinese, this growing parasitic population was a drag on their economy and a danger to their way of life. Buddhism never recovered from that blow. But it is also true that, as in India, Taoism absorbed what was noble in Buddhism.

Although the Buddha did not advocate a monastic life, the monks propagated that only a monastic life could attain nirvana with any measure of certainty. Thus millions of Hindus took to monastic life. It became a way of life among Buddhists.

With focus on nirvana, life itself came to be secondary, not to speak of defence and security matters. India was thus least prepared to meet the onslaught of the Muslims. In the event, the Hindus closed their ranks against the Muslims. And they were not prepared to be tolerant to any divisive criticism from the Buddhists and Jains. Which explains why Buddhism almost disappeared from India.

But where did the Buddhists disappear? They went back to their ancient faith—Hinduism—to resist the Muslims.