Buddhism began in India and was once the major religion of the Indian subcontinent. Today it is officially followed by less than 0.5% of the population of India, with main adherents being refugees from Tibet and Ambedkarite Neo-Buddhists.
This article tries to trace the disappearance of Buddhism from India through the writings of some eminent Indians.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a philosopher and a former president of India. In his book “Indian Philosophy”, which is considered a classic, he presents his main hypothesis for the decline of Buddhism.
“The vital reason for the disappearance of Buddhism from India is the fact that it became ultimately indistinguishable from the other flourishing forms of Hinduism, Vaishṇavism, Śaivism and Tantrik belief.
Mahāyānism was unable to acquire the prestige of primitive Buddhism, and so proved weak and vacillating in its conflicts with Brāhmanical religion… Throughout its conquests it did not aim at the suppression of other religions, but tried to suffuse them with its own ethical spirit.
Early Buddhism included Indra, Brahma and other divinities. The new converts carried into it much of their reverence for the old gods. The Hīnayāna accepted Brahma, Visṇu and Nārāyaṇa in their own names. The Mahāyāna, we have seen, never seriously opposed itself to the Hindu doctrines and practices. It elaborated the mythology and spoke of a hierarchy of divine grades and capacities, at the head of which was Ādi Buddha. While the Brāhmins looked upon Buddha as an incarnation of Visṇu, the Buddhists returned the compliment by identifying Visṇu with Bodhisattva Padmapāṇi, called Avalokiteśvara. Religion became a private affair, and the Brāhmin ascetics were looked upon as the brethren of the Buddhist śamanas. Brāhmanism and the Mahāyāna faith affirmed identical philosophical and religious views.
The Mahāyāna metaphysics and religion correspond to the Advaita metaphysics and theism. In serving the needs of a large majority of men, it became only a feeble copy of the Bhagavadgītā.
A gradual process of intellectual absorption and modification developed to such an extent as to countenance the theory that Mahāyānism was only a sectarian phase of the great Vaishnava movement. The Hīnayāna, with its more ascetic character, came to be regarded as a sect of Śaivism. Buddhism found that it had nothing distinctive to teach. When the Brāhmanical faith inculcated universal love and devotion to God proclaimed Buddha to be an avatar of Visṇu, the death knell of Buddhism in India was sounded. Buddhism died a natural death in India.”
The main points of Radhakrishnan are
- Mahāyāna Buddhism became indistinguishable from Vedic Hinduism with its plethora of deities and practices.
- There was mutual acceptance and assimilation of Mahāyāna and Vedic Hinduism – acceptance of Buddha as an avatar of Visṇu by the Vaidikas and acceptance of Visṇu as a Bodhisattva by the Mahāyānas.
- Philosophically too, Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta become hardly distinguishable.
- Thus, Buddhism dissolved into Hinduism.
This is highly probable, given the way Buddhism spread to East Asia and beyond. Wherever it went, it took the local form, a fact mentioned by Radhakrishnan too. Having dabbled in Chinese Buddhism for a while, I see little distinction between Chinese Buddhism and Chinese Folk-Religion, especially in the mode of rituals. Buddhism appears like a Chinese religion in China and a Japanese religion in Japan. Similarly Buddhism eventually blended into mainstream Indian religion. Much of today’s Hinduism is heavily Buddhistized. Radhakrishnan eloquently puts it:
“The best things of the world die before they are re-born, and even so has Buddhism perished in India, to be born again in a refined Brāhmanism. Buddha today lives in the lives of those Indians who have not given up their past traditions. His presence is felt in all around. Throughout worshipped as a god, he has a place in the mythology which is still alive, and so long as the old faith remains without crumbling down before the corrosive influence of the new spirit, Buddha will have a place among the gods of India.”
Image source: Theodore Kaye
Pandurang Vaman Kane, a notable Indologist and Sanskrit scholar, rebuts the claim that Buddhism disappeared in India due to persecution by Hindus. He provides numerous examples of Islamic persecution of the people of the lands they conquered and contrasts it with both Hindu and Buddhist kings allowing all religions to flush and even Hindu kings funding Buddhist monasteries. He shows the general pattern of religious tolerance prevalent in pre-colonial India. This theory of Buddhists being persecuted by Hindus is today the pet theory of the Marxists, who use it to justify the persecution of Hindus by Muslims. Kane has provided ample evidence against it in his writings. This article will focus on his reasoning on the disappearance of Buddhism rather than the state of religious tolerance and co-existence in pre-colonial India.
Kane’s reasons for the decline of Buddhism can be summarized as follows
- Buddhism becoming indistinguishable from Hinduism and thus the two merging into one another. This is the same hypothesis provided by Radhakrishnan.
- Internal corruption and strife in the monasteries resulting partially from them becoming too wealthy due to generous donations of the people. Swami Vivekananda also spoke about this. People soon grew disillusioned with the monks and Buddhism.
- Islamic invasions delivered the death blow to Buddhism.
“From about the 7th century A.D. Buddha began to be recognized by Hindus as an avatāra of Vishṇu and by the 10th century Buddha came to be so recognized throughout India by almost all Hindus.
When Buddha came to be worshipped by Buddhists as God, when Buddhists gave up the original characteristic doctrine of the attainment of peace and bliss of nirvāna in this very life through the eradication of selfish desires by following the Noble Eightfold Path, when Buddhists adopted the doctrines of bhakti and the ideal they set up was the evolution of Bodhisattvas through aeons by good deeds, the line of demarcation between Buddhism and popular Hinduism became very thin and was gradually obliterated.”
Here, Kane’s reasoning is similar to that of Radhakrishnan. About internal corruption in the monasteries, he mentions:
“Monasteries of Buddhist monks and nuns became in course of time centres of idleness, pleasures and immorality… A well-known scholar like Rāhula Sānkrtyāyana, himself a Buddhist bhikśu, In a paper on ‘Vajrayana and the 81 Siddhas’ contributed to the Journal Asiatique vol. 235 ( 1934 ) pp. 209-230 was constrained to say “The monasteries and temples were gorged with riches due to the pious offerings made by the multitudes. The life of the monk became more comfortable than that of the layman. The discipline weakened and many unfit persons entered the community. The easy life associated with the culture of a sensual art under the cover of cultured paintings, meditation, gods and goddesses must have inclined the minds towards sensuality.”
This is very likely since monasteries being a center of wealth was one of the motivations of Islamic invaders to desecrate and plunder them. The critique of Buddhist monks living in comfort and luxury isn’t new. In the 9th century C.E., Jayanta Bhatta, a Nyāyika, in Āgamaḍambara, which is a satirical Sanskrit play, lampoons a sect which is a parody of Buddhism, for this reason.
Kane then talks about the devastating effect of Islamic invasions:
“Moslem fanaticism and invasions of India delivered the coup de grace (final blow) to Buddhism about and after 1200 A. D. by ruining famous universities like those of Nalanda and Vikramasila and the monks were mercilessly killed in large numbers. Those who escaped the carnage fled to Tibet and Nepal. H. M. Elliott’s History of India (as told by its own historians) vol. II p. 306 contains a passage from Tabakat-i-Nasiri about Bakhtiyar Khilji that states that Bakhtiyar led his army to Behar and ravaged it, that great plunder fell in his hands, that most of the inhabitants of the place were Brāhmanas with shaven heads, that they were put to death, that large numbers of books were found and it was discovered that the whole fort and city was a place of study (madrasa). The description indicates that that Brāhmana with shaven heads were Buddhist monks.
When Moslem invaders exterminated the monks, the laity became bewildered and were either converted to Islam or became slowly absorbed among Hindus.”
It is also no coincidence that Afghanistan and Kashmir which were once flourishing as hubs of Buddhism are now plagued by Islamic Jihad and human suffering.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar lead the revival of classical Buddhism in India. He tried to answer this very same question of what had happened to Buddhism in India. He was provided a lot of evidence for Islam’s annihilation of Buddhism in his book “The Decline And Fall Of Buddhism In India”. But he tries to force fit events into his framework which he often uses according to which Buddhists voluntarily converted to Islam to escape persecution by Brāhmanas (a term he uses interchangeably with Brāhmana varna and Brāhmana Dharma i.e. mainstream Hinduism comprising of all varnas, thus confusing the reader). This doesn’t quite add up since his book almost in its entirety provides evidence of persecution of both the Brāhmanas and Baudhas by Muslims but provides very little evidence of Brāhmanas persecuting Baudhas. Nonetheless, Ambedkar documents some important evidence of persecution by Islamic invaders.
“There can be no doubt that the fall of Buddhism in India was due to the invasions of the Musalmans. Islam came out as the enemy of the ‘But’. The word ‘But’ as everybody knows is an Arabic word and means an idol. Not many people however know what the derivation of the word ‘But’ is. ‘But’ is the Arabic corruption of Buddha. Thus the origin of the word indicates that in the Moslem mind, idol worship had come to be identified with the Religion of the Buddha. To the Muslims, they were one and the same thing. The mission to break the idols thus became the mission to destroy Buddhism. Islam destroyed Buddhism not only in India but wherever it went. Before Islam came into being Buddhism was the religion of Bactria, Parthia, Afghanistan, Gandhar and Chinese Turkestan, as it was of the whole of Asia. In all these countries Islam destroyed Buddhism. As Vicent Smith points out :
“The furious massacre perpetrated in many places by Musalman invaders were more efficacious than Orthodox Hindu persecutions, and had a great deal to do with the disappearance of Buddhism in several provinces (of India).”
The Musalman invaders sacked the Buddhist Universities of Nalanda, Vikramasila, Jagaddala, Odantapuri to name only a few. They raised to the ground Buddhist monasteries with which the country was studded. The Monks fled away in thousands to Nepal, Tibet and other places outside India. A very large number were killed outright by the Muslim commanders. How the Buddhist priesthood perished by the sword of the Muslim invaders has been recorded by the Muslim historians themselves. Summarizing the evidence relating to the slaughter of the Buddhist Monks perpetrated by the Musalman General in the course of his invasion of Bihar in 1197 A.D. Mr. Vincent Smith says :
“The Musalman General, who had already made his name a terror by repeated plundering expeditions in Bihar, seized the capital by a daring stroke. The almost contemporary historian met one of the survivors of the attacking party in A.D. 1243, and learned from him that the Fort of Bihar was seized by a party of only two hundred horsemen, who boldly rushed the postern gate and gained possession of the place. Great quantities of plunder were obtained, and the slaughter of the ‘shaven headed Brāhmans’ that is to say the Buddhist monks, was so thoroughly completed, that when the victor sought for someone capable of explaining the contents of the books in the libraries of the monasteries, not a living man could be found who was able to read them.‘It was discovered’ we are told, ‘that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindi tongue they call a college Bihar.”” [Emphasis mine]
Ambedkar also provides a good reasoning of why Brāhmanism survived Islamic onslaught in the same book “The Decline And Fall Of Buddhism In India”, which can be an interesting read.
In conclusion, though the physical representation of Buddhism through vihāras, stupas and books was erased by Islamic barbarism, the Buddha lives today through Hinduism. Modern Hinduism embodies a lot of the Dharma which the Buddha taught.
- Radhakrishnan, S. (1941). Indian philosophy. London: G. Allen & Unwin, Ltd.
- Kāṇe, P. V. (1962). History of Dharmasastra. Poona, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.
- The complete works of Swami Vivekananda (Vol. 3, Buddhistic India).
- Ambedkar, B. R., & Moon, V. (2014). Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: writings and speeches. New Delhi: Dr. Ambedkar Foundation. https://www.mea.gov.in/Images/attach/amb/Volume_03.pdf