Popular myths circulated and believed amongst many Buddhists about the decline of Buddhism in South Asia or the Indian subcontinent are so bizarre that they are more often than not diametrically opposed to the historical facts. Those myths, unfortunately, define and justify the current genocidal campaigns against non-Buddhists in Buddhist-majority countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka.This article aims at an objective study on the causes of such decline in ancient and medieval India.
Against popular Buddhist narrative of history, before Islam came to South Asia Buddhism has already been marginalized by powerful Hindus. Even in Bengal, which is only a short distance from where Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was born, Hindu Brahmins/leaders/rulers were able to reclaim their control over the people. As a matter of fact, had it not been for Islam, Buddhism would have totally been wiped out by Hindus in entire India. This fact should not come as a surprise if the apologists for Buddhist crimes in places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and elsewhere had read the scholarly writings of unbiased area experts on this issue rather than swallowing poisonous pills that are distributed by chauvinist monks like Wirathu to clear their indefensible ignorance and despicable hostility to Muslims. In contrast to popular anti-Muslim myths, when Bakhtiyar Khilji’s horsemen came to topple Hindu rulers in Bengal (Banga and Anga), they were treated by the inhabitants as saviors who had freed them from the tyranny of ‘upper’ caste Brahmanism.
Millennia before the message of Islam was preached into the world by the Prophet Muhammad (S), the region we know today as South Asia was very different than it looks today with its national borders separating and enclosing state territories. So for an objective study of the region, one must skip the boundaries of today which have changed dramatically and been defended, contested and redrawn at various points in time.
According to history professor David Ludden of NYU (previously with U Penn), South Asia has always been open geographically for human migration and communication. In the Himalayan localities, migrants, herders and setters had moved to and fro regularly across borders with Tibet.
Borders with Burma (today’s Myanmar) were also open with Assam (a northeastern state in today’s India) and Bengal (today’s Bangladesh). The coastal regions had similar connectivity, especially after the advent of iron tools in around 1200 BCE. They were the best trading partners of each other. It is, thus, not surprising that the Bangla (spoken in Bangladesh and parts of India) and the Sinhala (spoken by Sinhalese Buddhists of Sri Lanka) are closely related. This trading extended all the way to Java in Southeast Asia, where a major historical period of so-called Indianization occurred during the first millennium.
By the time of Gautama Buddha around the sixth century BCE, elements of Aryan ideology were adapted to local conditions in South Asia by its elites. Brahmans elevated themselves above others. One hymn from the Rig Veda codified such supremacy. It describes the origin of the world in the sacrificial dismemberment of Prajapati, the Lord of Being, into four human essences or varna – his mouth became the Brahman priest, his arms became the Kshatriya or the warriors, his thigh became the Vaisya (farmer and merchant) and his feet became the Sudra (slave or servant).
In spite of Gautama Buddha’s message that opposed Brahminical hegemony, Buddhism did not become a state force until 236 BCE when Hindu emperor Ashoka of Mauryan dynasty (322-185 BCE) embraced Buddhism after he had committed one of the worst mass murders of the ancient world when India was thinly populated. His conquest of Kalinga, on the Orissa coast, cost more than a hundred thousand lives and displaced twice as many people. By his time the teachings of Gautama Buddha and Mahavira had come to be known as Buddhism and Jainism, respectively. Both these teachings shared many elements with Aryan Brahmanism, e.g., its complex ideas about reincarnation and karma, but opposed its sacred division of caste society.
Brahmanism allowed kin groups to form caste groups or jati by assigning each kin group to a varna. Merchants relegated to lower varna ranks were clearly influenced by Buddhist and Jain monks who rejected that Brahmans are the only ones who could attain the highest spiritual purity. While Jainism became popular in the west – in places like Gujarat and Rajasthan, especially among the baniyas (the merchant class), Buddhism took a deep root in the east – in places like Bengal down the Orissa coast to Amaravati, Kanchipuram, Madurai and Sri Lanka. The Greek king of Punjab, Menader, adopted Buddhism as he sought to attract merchants to his realm. [David Ludden, India and South Asia: A Short History]
Under Ashoka, Buddhism spread widely as elite cultural elements sank local roots from town to town in the ambit of Mauryan Empire and along routes of mobility into Central Asia, the southern peninsula and Sri Lanka. He used his vast winnings at war to support Buddhist monks, ritual centers (stupas), schools, and preachers. He supported Buddhist kings in Sri Lanka and Buddhist centers in Karnatak, Andhra and the Tamil country. Buddhists always confronted proponents of Jainism and Brahmanism, and everywhere, patronage from various sources determined the ultimate outcome.
Such Buddhist patronage obviously did not last long. Brihadrata, the last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty, was assassinated in 185 BCE during a military parade, by the commander-in-chief of his guard, the Brahmin general Pusyamitra Sunga, who then took over the throne and established the Sunga dynasty. Buddhist records such as the Asokavadana write that the assassination of Brihadrata and the rise of the Sunga Empire (187-78 BCE) led to a wave of persecution for Buddhists, and a resurgence of Hinduism. Pusyamitra Sunga (185-151 BCE) was hostile to Buddhism. He burned Sutras, Buddhist shrines, and massacred monks in large numbers.
By the time of the powerful Gupta kings (320-550 CE), who were Hindus, the region had gradually moved back to Hinduism. Regional rulers began to choose Hinduism over Buddhism and alliances with Brahmin priests rather than with Buddhist monks were formed. At the popular level, lower castes—who had earlier found the anti-caste philosophy of Buddhism attractive— also began to shift their allegiances back toward more orthodox Hinduism as an anchor in a time of political change. Gupta power essentially launched imperial Brahmanism. Its Hindu rulers donated vast land to Brahmans, funding temple construction, financing temple rituals. [Even at our time, the Gupta core region of Uttar Pradesh in today’s India has the highest Brahman population.]
According to the area historians of South Asia in ancient times the region was very thinly populated. Vast expanses of open scrubland separated countless, tiny, scattered communities of nomads, shifting cultivators, hunters, gatherers, and settled farmers, who multiplied over the centuries. By Gupta times, an array of densely populated, complex societies thrived in fertile lowlands along major rivers. Their agricultural settlements were still surrounded by dense forest and open scrubland but they were expanding visibly, and they were extensively connected to one another and to many other regions across Eurasia.
By the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era, a second great transformation was well underway with the rise of cities that were surrounded by open land and by communities disconnected from city life. Medieval kingdoms arose from the power of social groups in dynastic core regions.
“Dynasties grew as rising kings subordinated existing local elites and officially recognized their stature in public ceremonies… Local alliances gave local strength to rising dynasties and aspiring kings thus strove to strengthen them by bestowing titles and honors on their leadership. Dynastic lineages competed with one another for supremacy over locals who were often pressed and courted by more than one ruler and often recognized more than one sovereign,” writes history Professor David Ludden in his book – India and South Asia: A Short History.
As we have noted earlier, gifts made to religious institutions became a hallmark of medieval dynastic authority. As noted by Prof. Ludden, “In the seventh century, the Pusyabuti king Harsha moved his capital to Kanyakubja and celebrated the event with a land grant to two Brahmans. The grant was to be administered personally by one of his commanders under the official protection of janapadas in his realm. This indicates that janapada lineages were still in business and that Harsha relied for his authority on the wealth and power of subordinates supported by local community leaders.”
This trend to bolster Brahmanism continued all across India. The Pallava regime at Kanchipuram is a good example. It emerged from under the canopy of empire thrown across the southern peninsula by imperial Guptas, Vakatakas and Chalukyas. Pallava kings rose from vassal status to become imperial powers in their own right. Kanchipuram had been a center of Buddhist learning. Under the Pallavas, Kanchipuram became a Hindu sacred site and a royal capital; its seaport, Mahaballipuram, adorned with monumental rock sculpture and temple carving to popularize the worship of supreme Hindu gods, Siva and Vishnu. Under the Pallavas, Kanchipuram became a Hindu pilgrimage site and center for Sanskrit learning, whose temples received endowments from dignitaries and gifts from patrons in localities all across the southern India.
When Chinese Buddhist pilgrims toured India in the 5th and 7th century, they found that Buddhism had virtually disappeared in its Gangetic homeland, under the imperial force of Brahmanism, though it still thrived in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Chinese pilgrim Faxian noted major weaknesses in Indian Buddhism during his visit to India in the fifth century C.E., centuries before Islam came in the world scene. Mahayana Buddhism, with its many idols of Buddhas and bodhisattvas inhabiting a multitude of heavens, seemed so close to Hinduism that many Buddhists must have seen little purpose in maintaining a distinction.
The upper caste Brahmins played a very important role in this battle of religions. They were not as greatly opposed to Buddha’s philosophical teachings as they were to his message that directly challenged their hegemony and the divinity of the Vedas, the bedrock of Brahmanism, which they had guarded so zealously and exclusively.
Naresh Kumar, who researched the subject of decline of Buddhism in India, opines that to combat Buddhism and revive the tottering Brahminical hegemony, Brahminical revivalists resorted to a three-pronged strategy. Firstly, they launched a campaign of hatred and persecution against the Buddhists. Then, they appropriated many of the finer aspects of Buddhism into their own system so as to win over the “lower” caste Buddhist masses, but made sure that this selective adoption did not in any way undercut Brahminical hegemony. The final stage in this project to wipeout Buddhism was to propound and propagate the myth that the Buddha was merely another ‘incarnation’ (avatar) of the Hindu god Vishnu. Buddha was turned into just another of the countless deities of the Brahminical pantheon. The Buddhists were finally absorbed into the caste system, mainly as Sudras (also spelled Shudra) and ‘Untouchables’, and with that the Buddhist presence was obliterated from the land of its birth.
According to Naresh Kumar, “To lend legitimacy to their campaign against Buddhism, Brahminical texts included fierce strictures against Buddhists. Manu, in his Manusmriti, laid down that, ‘If a person touches a Buddhist […] he shall purify himself by having a bath.’ Aparaka ordained the same in his Smriti. Vradha Harit declared that entry into a Buddhist temple was a sin, which could only be expiated for by taking a ritual bath. Even dramas and other books for lay people written by Brahmins contained venomous propaganda against the Buddhists. In the classic work, Mricchakatika, (Act VII), the hero Charudatta, on seeing a Buddhist monk pass by, exclaims to his friend Maitriya— ‘Ah! Here is an inauspicious sight, a Buddhist monk coming towards us.’” “The Brahmin Chanakya, author of Arthashastra, declared that, “When a person entertains in a dinner dedicated to gods and ancestors those who are Sakyas (Buddhists), Ajivikas, Shudras and exiled persons, a fine of one hundred panas shall be imposed on him.” Shankaracharaya, the leader of the Brahminical revival, struck terror into the hearts of the Buddhists with his diatribes against their religion… The various writers of the Puranas, too, carried on this systematic campaign of hatred, slander and calumny against the Buddhists. The Brahannardiya Purana made it a principal sin for Brahmins to enter the house of a Buddhist even in times of great peril. The Vishnu Purana dubs the Buddha as Maha Moha or ‘the great seducer’. It further cautions against the ‘sin of conversing with Buddhists” and lays down that ‘those who merely talk to Buddhist ascetics shall be sent to hell.’”
“Kushinagar, also known as Harramba, was one of the most important Buddhist centers as the Buddha breathed his last there. The Brahmins, envious of the prosperity of this pilgrim town and in order to discourage people from going there, invented the absurd theory that one who dies in Harramba goes to hell, or is reborn as an ass, while he who dies in Kashi, the citadel of Brahminism, goes straight to heaven. So pervasive was the belief in this bizarre theory that when the Sufi saint Kabir died in 1518 AD at Maghar, not far from Kushinagar, some of his Hindu followers refused to erect any memorial in his honor there and instead set up one at Kashi. Kabir’s Muslim followers were less superstitious. They set up a tomb for him at Maghar itself,” writes Kumar.
Naresh Kumar continues, “In addition to vilifying the fair name of the Buddha, the Brahminical revivalists goaded Hindu kings to persecute and even slaughter innocent Buddhists. Sasanka [also spelled as Shashanka], the Shaivite Brahmin king of Bengal, murdered the last Buddhist emperor Rajyavardhana, elder brother of Harshavardhana, in 605 AD and then marched on to Bodh Gaya where he destroyed the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment. He forcibly removed the Buddha’s image from the Bodh Vihara near the tree and installed one of Shiva in its place. Finally, Sasanka is said to have slaughtered all the Buddhist monks in the area around Kushinagar. Another such Hindu king was, Mihirakula, a Shaivite, who is said to have completely destroyed over 1500 Buddhist shrines. The Shaivite Toramana is said to have destroyed the Ghositarama Buddhist monastery at Kausambi. [Note: Mihirakula, the White Hun, popularly depicted as a Shaivite by many Buddhists, might not have converted to Hinduism. – HS]
“The extermination of Buddhism in India was hastened by the large-scale destruction and appropriation of Buddhist shrines by the Brahmins. The Mahabodhi Vihara at Bodh Gaya was forcibly converted into a Shaivite temple, and the controversy lingers on till this day. The cremation stupa of the Buddha at Kushinagar was changed into a Hindu temple dedicated to the obscure deity with the name of Ramhar Bhavani. Adi Shankara is said to have established his Sringeri Mutth [also spelled as Math]on the site of a Buddhist monastery which he took over. Many Hindu shrines in Ayodhya are said to have once been Buddhist temples, as is the case with other famous Brahminical temples such as those at Sabarimala, Tirupati, Badrinath and Puri.” [Disappearance of Buddhism from India: an untold story]
According to the historian S. R. Goyal (author of A History of Indian Buddhism), the decline of Buddhism in India is the result of the hostility of the Hindu priestly caste of Brahmins. The Hindu Shaivite ruler Shashanka of Gauda [Gaura in Bengali] (590–626 CE) destroyed the Buddhist images and Bo Tree, under which Siddhartha Gautama is said to have achieved enlightenment.
The conversion of Buddhists back to the fold of Hinduism did not happen overnight and must have taken a long time during which the Brahmins had to improvise and come up with ways to outsmart Buddhist monks. The Brahmins, who, according to Naresh Kumar, were once voracious beef-eaters, turned vegetarian, imitating the Buddhists in this regard. Popular devotion to the Buddha was sought to be replaced by devotion to Hindu gods such as Rama and Krishna. The existing version of the Mahabharata was written in the period in which the decline of Buddhism had already begun, and arguably it was meant for the lowest caste Shudras, most of whom had become Buddhists by then, to attract them back to Hinduism away from Buddhism. Brahminism, however, still prevented the Shudras from having access to the Vedas. Mahabharat, to which they were given access, tried to compensate them partially for this discrimination.
Much of what we know about the state of Buddhism in the second half of the first millennium CE comes from the 7th-century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang [also spelled Hsüan Tsang and Yuan Chwang amongst other variants], who travelled widely and documented his journey. In 629 CE, the year after the arrival of Prophet Muhammad’s (S) envoys at Canton, this learned and devout Buddhist left Sian-fu (Singan), Tai-tsung’s capital, to travel to India. He returned in 645 after 16 years, and wrote an account of his travels which is treasured as a Chinese classic. Although he found some regions where Buddhism was still flourishing, he also found many where it was hovering on the verge of non-existence, giving way to Jainism and a Brahminical order. In Bihar (or old Magadha), the site of a number of important Buddhist landmarks, he also found a striking decline and relatively few followers, with Hinduism and Jainism predominating. The great Buddhist university at Nalanda was in ruins. Bengal during his travel was ruled by Shashanka, a staunch Hindu ruler. He found relatively few Buddhists in Bengal, Kamarupa, or modern Assam. He described Shashanka as the “vile Gauda serpent” who had destroyed the Buddhist stupas of Bengal and declared an award of hundred gold coins for the head of every Buddhist monk in his kingdom. He writes that Shashanka destroyed the Bodhi tree of enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and replaced Buddha statues with Shiva Lingams.
Xuanzang found no Buddhist presence in Konyodha, few in Chulya or Tamil region, and few in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Xuanzang reported that numerous Buddhist stupas in regions previously ruled by the Buddhist sympathetic Andhras and Pallavas were “ruined and deserted”. These regions came under the control of the Vaishnavite Eastern Chalukyas, who were not favorable to Buddhism and did not support the religion.
Of his travel to Kushinagar, Xuanzang wrote, “The city walls were in ruins, and the towns and villages were deserted. The brick foundations of the ‘old city’ (that is, the city which had been the capital) were above ten in circuit; there were very few inhabitants, the interior of the city being a wild waste.” He also alluded to internal factors that contributed to the decline of Buddhism. He wrote, “The different schools [of Buddhism]are constantly at variance, and their utterances rise like angry waves of the sea…there are 18 schools, each claiming pre-eminence.”
Shashanka is blamed by Xuanzhang and other Buddhist sources for the murder of Rajyavardhana, a Buddhist king of Thanesar.
It is worth noting here that Shashanka fought an inconclusive war with Buddhist ruler Harshavardhana and retained his territories. After Shashanka’s death in around 626 CE, however, Bengal saw a period of political turmoil between Hindu and Buddhist aspirants for ruling the country. When Palas took control of Bengal in 750 CE, they patronized both Mahayana Buddhism and Shaivite Hinduism and not Theravada Buddhism. It was an innovative adaptation to evolving social environment.
The caste origin of the Palas is not clearly stated in any of the numerous Pala records. As to the origin of the Palas, the Ballala-Carita says that “The Palas were low-born Kshatriyas”, a claim reiterated by the historian Taranatha in his “History of Buddhism in India” and Ghanaram Chakrabarty in his Dharmamangala (both written in the 16th century CE). The Ramacharitam also attests the fifteenth Pala emperor, Ramapala, as a Kshatriya. As Gopala I was a Buddhist, he was also branded as a Sudra king in some sources.
Notwithstanding, the Palas were responsible for the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and the Malay Archipelago. Bengal became famous in the Buddhist world for the cultivation of Buddhist religion, culture and other knowledge in the various centers that grew under the patronage of the Pala rulers. Buddhist scholars from the Pala Empire travelled from Bengal to the Far-East and propagated Buddhism. A few outstanding individuals among them are Shantarakshit, Padmanava, Dansree, Bimalamitra, Jinamitra, Muktimitra, Sugatasree, Dansheel, Sambhogabajra, Virachan, Manjughosh and many others. But the most prominent was Atish Dipankar Srigyan who reformed Buddhism in Tibet after it had been destroyed by king Langdharma.
The Palas were staunchly anti-Brahmin. They controlled most of north India and supported Buddhists for four hundred years. But after Hemantasena, a Pala tributary, Hindu by faith, declared his own independent dynasty, his successor, Vijayasena (1095-1158) defeated the Palas, pushed Sena armies west across Bengal and northern Bihar, patronized Vishnu worship, and Buddhism was pushed out towards Tibet. Vaishnava Hinduism flourished in Sena domains. The last Sena raja, Laksmanasena, patronized the most famous Bengali Vaishnava poet, Jayadeva, who wrote the widely influential devotional poem, Gitagovinda.
When Bengal came under the rule of the Senas, according to Dr. K. Jamanadas, no Brahmin could be found in Bengal. “Senas had to import Brahmins to their kingdom” from other areas to perform rituals. In a vengeful manner, the Senas expelled Buddhists from its domain (especially, from its western territories) and many of the expelled Bengali Buddhists went on to settle in Sri Lanka where a sizable Buddhist population had existed.
Brahman influence in Bengali society was enhanced from Sena times onward by a distinctly Bengali system of hypergamy in which high caste women married Kulin Brahman men who fathered children with multiple wives; this produced a multi-caste elite that included merchants, landowners, and administrators who flourished under later medieval regimes.
In 1206, Laksmanasena was driven out of Bengal by the Turk conqueror, Ikhtiyaruddin Bakhtiyar Khalji, who shifted state patronage to Islam. It is worth mentioning here that in much contradistinction to the myths circulated by anti-Muslim bigots, the Buddhist institution of learning at Nalanda did not suffer any harm during Bakhtiyar’s conquest. The damages to it were all pre-Islamic. The Tibetan translator, Chag Lotsawa Dharmasvamin (Chag Lo-tsa-ba, 1197 – 1264), when he visited northern India in 1235 C.E., found it (Nalanda) largely deserted, but still standing and functioning with seventy students. How could this be if Bakhtiyar’s horsemen had destroyed the place some three decades ago?
From Khalji times onward, there was a general drift of patronage for Islam to eastern regions of Bengal, where the Senas had not uprooted Buddhists. Muslim converts and migrants populated new agricultural settlements in eastern Bengal, where Vaishnavism in particular but Hindu temples, arts, poetry and music in general also flourished under the patronage of Hindu landlords, merchants, and administrative elites.
Buddhism, which was on the brink of elimination from Bengal under the Senas survived under the Muslim rule. There was neither forced conversion nor expulsion or elimination of Buddhists.
How about other regions of South Asia?
In the vast majority of the northern and north-western territories like today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan, and central Asia, Buddhism was weakened in the 6th century after the White Hun invasion, who followed their own religions such as Tengri and Manichaeism. Their King, Mihirakula (who ruled from 515 CE), suppressed Buddhism as well. He did this by destroying Buddhist monasteries as far away as modern-day Allahabad (Prayag). [Note: The White Huns were later converted to Rajput Hindus by Brahmins, and became very hostile to Buddhism.] And all these destructions of Buddhist monasteries occurred centuries before Islam became the dominant religion in those territories.
By the time of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030 CE), Buddhism had effectively died as a state force, and it was the Hindu (e.g., Jayapala and Anandapala) and other non-Buddhist kings (including Muslims) that he mostly defeated. The vast majority of people of central Asia accepted Islam after the grandchildren of Hulagu Khan gradually embraced Islam. Ghaznavids did not persecute Buddhism in their holdings in Sogdia, Bactria, and Kabul. In 982, Buddhist frescoes were still visible in Nava Vihara and the colossal Buddha figures carved in the cliffs of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan were still undamaged. Al-Biruni reported many Buddhist monasteries still functioning on the southern borders of Sogdia at the turn of the millennium. Ghaznavids tolerated Buddhism in their lands and even patronized literary works extolling its art.
In Kashmir, from 1028 until the end of the First Lohara (Hindu) Dynasty in 1101, the region underwent a steady decline in economic prosperity. Kalasa, a weak-willed Hindu, who involved himself in an incestuous relationship with his daughter, was the king until 1089. His son, Harsa (r. 1089 – 1101), who succeeded him, indulged in incest, too, and was corrupt, cruel and squandering as his predecessors. He taxed his subjects heavily, and looted temples – both Hindu and Buddhist – to further raise money to fund his failed military ventures and his indulgent lifestyle. He razed Buddhist monasteries. All but two of the statues of Buddha in his kingdom were destroyed during his rule. Furthermore, cut off by Ghaznavid territory from easy access to the great Buddhist monastic universities of the central part of northern India, the standards at the Kashmiri monasteries gradually declined under Hindu rule.
According to Dr. K. Jamanadas – the author of the book – The Decline and Fall of Buddhism, during the reign of King Jayasimha (r. 1128 – 1149) of the Second Lohara Dynasty the two Buddha images, which hitherto had survived Harsa’s demolition campaigns, were demolished and Buddha Vihara in Arigon, near Srinagar was burned down. The economic situation of the kingdom as a whole declined even further, continuing through the subsequent succession of Hindu rulers (1171 – 1320). Although the monasteries were impoverished, Buddhist activity flourished until at least the fourteenth century with teachers and translators periodically visiting Tibet.
The last of the dynasty was Suhadeva who taxed heavily and exempted not even the Brahmins from his exactions. Although he managed to unite the kingdom under his control everyone was united against him. According to Professor Mohibbul Hasan, the author of the book – Kashmir under the Sultans, “Socially and morally the people of Kashmir had sunk to the lowest depths, for old and young alike had taken to falsehood, intrigue, dishonesty and discord.”
Yet, despite Kashmir’s political weakness for more than three centuries under Hindu rule, neither the Ghaznavids nor their Muslim successors in India sought to conquer it until 1337. As noted by Dr. K. Jamanadas, the credit for bringing Kashmiris to Islam goes to Sufi saint Fakir Bulbul Shah.
Kashmir formally came under Muslim rule when Shah Mir, a Muslim, took over the country in 1339 from Kotarani, the widow of Sultan Sadruddin (alias Rinchan – formerly a Tibetan Buddhist prince who had converted to Islam). By the end of the 14th century the vast majority of the country had become Muslim.
The Katmandu Valley was a Buddhist stronghold ruled by Hindu kings. After all, Gautama Buddha was born in the southern foothills (Terai) of Nepal, where Ashoka inscribed a column. In Gupta times, Licchavis began their long reign, and claiming Kshatriya status, they launched a tradition of sovereignty in which high-caste kings from the Ganga lowlands maintained supremacy over a mostly Buddhist population. According to Professor Ludden, “Powerful medieval kings in Tibet made Himalayan passes to the north major arteries of culture, commerce, and politics reaching into China, which brought more and more Buddhists and patrons for Buddhism into the valley.”
Kingdoms around Katmandu became a mixing ground for Hindus from the south and Buddhists from the north.
In the western plains — in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Malwa, and Bundelkhand — medieval Hindu dynasties of Kalacuris, Caulukyas, Paramaras, and Candellas patronized Jains, who were prominent among merchants. According to Prof. Ludden, “One Caulukya king is said to have become Jain. Hindu and Jain cultural features blended into one another. Jain temple worship and Hindu-Jain marriage became common. In Gujarat — Mohandas Gandhi’s homeland — it became difficult to say where Jainism ends and Hinduism begins… Gujarati Bania (merchant) castes made their version of Vaisya culture very Jain, a cultural phenomenon with its origins in the mixed patronage of medieval dynasties.”
In the peninsula, medieval worshippers of Shiva and Vishnu displaced Buddhism and Jainism from the cultural prominence they enjoyed in early medieval times, especially in Madurai and Kanchipuram.
“In the far south,” writes Professor Ludden, “from the eighth century onward, non-Brahman cultural activists took the lead in spreading Shiva and Vishnu worship in old Dakshinapatha by inventing devotional (bhakti) worship that valued emotion above knowledge, discipline, and ritual; by composing vernacular verse in Tamil, not Sanskrit; by promoting female saints and mass participation in deity worship; by giving devotees a direct relation to god independent of Brahmanical mediation; by making low caste status respectable in the eyes of god; by making songfests ad hoc sites of worship; by praising poet saints over Brahman gurus; and by creating pilgrimage places rooted in local traditions. Bhakti poets produced a new style of emotive, popular cultural politics. Devotionalism made divine frenzy and passion for god a high virtue, and by the tenth century, these energies had been turned against religious competitors… Under Chola kings, worshippers of Siva (Shivites) prospered at the expense of Vishnu worshippers (Vaishnavas), triggering battles among sectarian forces.”
“Bhakti devotionalism and sectarian competition challenged Brahman elite proponents of traditional Sanskrit religion as it attracted more patronage from ruling dynasties. To cultivate a popular following, many rulers in the south supported Vaishnava (Alvar) and Shivite (Nayanar) bhakti poets. The most celebrated Hindu intellectual of the early medieval age, Shankaracharya (788-820), made his name during his short life by developing a Sanskrit high-culture rendition of Tamil devotional poetry, by reconciling Shivism and Vaishnavism through a non-dualist advaita philosophy that drew on the Upanishads and incorporated elements from Buddhism, and by travelling from Kerala to Kashmir and back again to establish monastic centres. Shankara helped to absorb and normalize popular devotionalism in elite Brahman high culture.
Populist challenges to the spiritual power of Brahmans were mostly of local importance, but one of major regional stature emerged in the Kannada-speaking interior of the peninsula, where the bhakti saint Basava established a sect called Virashaivas (also called Lingayats) with a non-Brahman jangama priesthood. Virashaivism attracted royal patronage and many adherents from merchant communities and became regionally dominant in northern Karnataka, where Lingayats remain predominant today.” [David Ludden, India and South Asia: A Short History]
Overall, in the south India, since at least the 8th century, a vigorous Hindu revival of Shaivite and Vaishnavite Hinduism in the region led to a sharp decline of Buddhism. Several texts also indicate massacres of Buddhists and Jains.
Buddhism existed in the monasteries and unlike the dharmaasutras (ethical codes) lacked a moral code. So when those monasteries disappeared for lack of support from the top, it hastened the demise of Buddhism in most of India.
Late Medieval Period
New kinds of society came into being as medieval agrarian domains expanded into landscapes inhabited by nomads, hunters, and forest dwellers. Kings needed to give grants of farm land to temples and Brahmans to express dynastic support for dharma, but they also had to protect local rights to land. Kings, Brahmans, and local landed elites, thus, had to work together to extend and protect the moral authority of dharma. The more popular a temple became — the more praised in song and more attractive for pilgrims — the greater became the value of its patronage and the number of people whose identity attached to it.
Brahmans spread Hindu cultural forms in much the same way as other religious specialists were spreading Jainism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. They travelled extensively. They settled in strategic places under dynastic patronage. They worked with local and regional allies to translate and interpret ideas and rituals into local vernaculars. They defined Hindu orthodoxy in local terms. They contested for local elite support. Their success depended on innovative adaptations to evolving social environments. Brahman rituals and Sanskrit texts became widely influential in medieval dynasties.
On the geographies of religion, Professor Ludden says, “Buddhism and Islam became most prominent along routes of trade and migration that ran from one end of Asia to the other. In the sixth century, Buddhists received most of the patronage available in Afghanistan, the upper Indus basin, and Himalayan regions from Kashmir to Nepal; and moving eastward across Central Asia, Buddhists then established themselves firmly in Tibet, China, and Japan. After the eighth century, however, eastward and southern migrations by Arabs and Turks from West and Central Asia shifted religious patronage to Islam in Afghanistan, along the Indus, in Punjab, and in Kashmir. But Buddhist monks had a permanent political base at the hub of the Indian Ocean trade in Sri Lanka, and from the eighth century onward, they won state support in regions from Burma south into Southeast Asia. In Java, early medieval kings patronized Hindus; in the ninth century, Buddhists supplanted Hindus at court, though Hindus remained influential in royal circles in Bali, alongside Buddhists.
By the tenth century, Arab traders were expanding their operations in the Indian Ocean. Muslim centres multiplied along the peninsula and on coastal Sri Lanka, and merchant patronage for Islam drew local rulers away from Buddhism around many Southeast Asian ports in the later medieval period.”
Like multiple sovereignties in medieval domains, multi-religious cultures developed where patronage sustained diverse religious institutions. Popular devotionalism attracted thousands of passionate believers to temples and pilgrimage sites. This made public patronage of those sites quite important because sects could provide decisive military and financial support for dynastic contenders. Dynasties gave privileges and funds in various forms — minimally as tax exemptions — to various religious institutions and their leaders simultaneously.
“Popular movements made such support contentious. Rulers had to balance support for their core religious constituency with support for others, which brought condemnation from allies. Muslim rulers often faced criticism for patronage they typically gave Hindu groups, following established precedent. Devotees of Vishnu and Siva could be equally unforgiving. As bhakti traveled north along Shankara’s tracks, competing Hindu sectarians not only wrote poems like Jayadev’s Gitagovinda, but also raised armies to fight for sectarian control of pilgrimage sites and temple festivals. From at least the fifteenth century, armies of Shivite and Vaishnava ascetics fought to protect sectarian wealth against raids from competitors and to capture revenues from popular religious gatherings like the kumbh mela in Hardwar and Prayag (Allahabad). In the sixteenth century, the Mughal emperor Akbar witnessed a pitched battle between two sects of Shivites. Akbar’s own religious eclecticism reflects an effort to reconcile contentious evotional loyalties through the medium of mystical speculation.” [David Ludden, India and South Asia: A Short History]
It is not difficult to understand why Buddhism, whose edifice was founded upon patronage, crumbled when it lacked that vital support. It would, however, be wrong to solely blame the external factors as the root causes for decline of Buddhism in South Asia.
Buddhism as a whole was becoming tainted internally in many ways from the end of the Gupta period when it permeated with primitive ideas of sympathetic magic and sexual mysticism. The direct result of this permeation was the birth of a third vehicle, “the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”, Vajrayana. This new sect misinterpreted religious tenets and allowed the use of intoxicants; it was also lenient in the upholding of celibacy. The corruption of the Sangha, the rivalries between sects, and competition between various monasteries to lure donors weakened Buddhism and made it unable to compete with the reformed Hinduism.
The monks whose survival depended on begging and donation became greedy and often tied their knots with the oppressors rather than the ‘have-nots’ – the oppressed within the society, a trend which we are to see even today in Buddhist-ruled countries. From the many donations it received, the Sangha became rich, and monks began to ignore the tenth rule of the Vinaya and accepted silver and gold. With acquired wealth – donated by rich patrons – came decay and corruption within a faith where the monks had come to embrace a rather easy-going and even lazy lifestyle, quite mindless of the Buddha’s insistence on aparigraha, or non-possession. The Buddhist monasteries came to be known as repositories of great wealth.
The Mahayana school introduced expensive rituals and ceremonies into the religion, causing it to cease to be economical for common masses. The religious texts of the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools began to be written in Sanskrit, a literary language that most Indians did not understand; this further distanced Buddhism from the common people. What is also interesting, no manual for the conduct of the laity in Buddhism existed prior to the 11th century.
The many rivalries between sects destroyed the image the masses held of Buddhism. As an essentially non-theistic religion, it could not achieve the same success with the masses as Hinduism, which possessed a pantheon of gods that could intervene in the affairs of men if appeased. The moral corruption of Buddhism also caused degeneration in its intellectual standards and made it unable to compete with the reformed Hinduism.
With the surge of Hindu philosophers and theologians like Adi Shankara, Madhvacharya and Ramanuja – the three leaders in the revival of Hindu philosophy, Buddhism started to fade out rapidly from the landscape of India. Shankaracharya (788-820 CE) and Ramanuja (c. 1017-1137 CE) advanced philosophies based on the Vedic literature known to the common people and built many temples and schools to spread their thought. At the same time, as already noted earlier, Hinduism, following its tradition of syncretism, incorporated the Buddha himself within its own polytheistic universe as an incarnation of Hindu God Vishnu. A devotee could revere the Buddha within the overarching framework of Hinduism without having to leave it. That was the final nail put to the coffin of Buddhism in the very land where Buddha was born. Hinduism in the early medieval age became a more “intelligible and satisfying road to faith for many ordinary worshippers” than it had been because it now included not only an appeal to a personal god, but had also seen the development of an emotional facet with the composition of devotional hymns.
As can be seen, much of the decline of Buddhism in South Asia was caused by its own failings. It simply could not match the popularity of the re-energized Hinduism of the medieval period. This upsurge of Hinduism is quite evident in North India by the early 11th century which produced influential Sanskrit dramas like the Prabodhacandrodaya (written by Krsnamisra) in the Chandela court; a devotion to Vishnu and an allegory to the defeat of Buddhism and Jainism. The population of North India had become predominantly Shaiva, Vaishnava or Shakta. By the 12th century a lay population of Buddhists hardly existed outside the monastic institutions and when it did penetrate the Indian peasant population it was hardly discernible as a distinct community. By the time of the Muslim conquests in India, there were only glimpses of Buddhism and no evidence of a provincial government in control of the Buddhists.
With the fall of Buddhist rulers and the resurrection of Hindu rulers in much of South Asia, Brahmans vied with one another to organize the operation of spiritual power, and they all needed mundane local patronage to flourish, which came from ruling dynasties, merchants, and landed elite. It was only a question of time when the final curtain on Buddhism would be drawn reflecting the impact of the changing religious environment of the region where Gautama Buddha was born and died.
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