Decline of Buddhism in India

Decline of Buddhism in India
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The decline of Buddhism in India, the land of its birth, occurred for a variety of reasons, and happened even as it continued to flourish beyond the frontiers of India.[1] Buddhism was established in the area of ancient Magadha and Kosala by Gautama Buddha in the 6th century BCE, in what is now modern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.[2] Over the next 1500 years Buddhism became one of the region's influential sects, spreading across the Indian sub-continent (see History of Buddhism).

After the parinibbana (or death) of Gautama Buddha, Buddhism saw rapid expansion in its first century, especially in northern and central India.[2] The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BCE) and later monarchs encouraged the expansion of Buddhism into Asia through religious ambassadors.

Chinese scholars traveling through the region between the 5th and 8th centuries CE, such as Faxian, Xuanzang, Yijing, Huisheng, and Song Yun, began to speak of a decline of the Buddhist sangha, especially in the wake of the White Hun invasion.[2] A continuing decline occurred after the fall of the Pala dynasty in the 12th century CE, continuing with the later destruction of monasteries by Muslim invaders.[2]

Buddhism was especially vulnerable to hostile rulers because it lacked strong roots in society as most of its adherents were ascetic communities.[3]

Buddhism was virtually extinct in India by the end of the 19th century, excluding a small community in eastern Bengal, with which Buddhism survived from ancient times, as it did in Nepal, to this day. In recent times, Buddhism has seen a revival in India from the influence of Anagarika Dharmapala, Kripasaran Mahasthavir,[4] Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.


Rise and decline of Buddhism's Indian social base

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

The Buddha's period saw not only urbanization, but also the beginnings of centralized states.[5] In turn, the successful expansion of the Buddhist movement, with its surge of monasteries and monuments, depended on the growing economy of the time, together with increased centralized political organization capable of Change. [6]

During the Maurya Empire, in which period Ashoka banned Vedic sacrifices as contrary to Buddhist benevolence, Buddhism began its spread outside of its Magadha homeland. The successor Shungas reinstated the sacrifices and are believed by some scholars[who?] to have allegedly persecuted Buddhism[citation needed]—the large Sanchi stupa was built just next to a Shunga capital. The overall trend of Buddhism's spread across India and state support by various regional regimes continued.[7] The consolidation of monastic organization made Buddhism the center of religious and intellectual life in India.[8] Pushyamitra the first ruler of the Sunga Dynasty built great Buddhist topes at Sanchi in 188 BC.[9] The succeeding Kanva Dynasty had four Buddhist Kanva Kings.[10]

The Gupta Empire period was a time of great development of Hindu culture, but even then in the Ganges Plain half of the population supported Buddhism, and the five precepts were widely observed.[11] The Hindu rulers and wealthy laity gave lavish material support to Buddhist monasteries. After the Guptas, the Shaivite kings of Gujarat (as well as Nepal and Kashmir) also patronized Buddhist monasteries, building a great center of Buddhist learning at Valabhi.[12] The Buddhist emperor Harsha and the later Buddhist Pala dynasty (8th-11th Centuries CE) were great patrons of Buddhism, but Buddhism had already begun to lose its political and social base.[12]

The gradual expansion in the scope and authority of caste regulations shifted political and economic power to the local arena, reversing the trend of centralization.[13] The caste system gradually expanded into secular life as a regulative code of social and economic transactions. In ancient times, the four varnas were primarily a categorization scheme; the Vedas did contain prohibitions regarding intermarriage. There were, however, large numbers of jatis, probably originally tribal lineage groups.

Decline of Buddhism under various governments

Traditional Hinduism is said by some writers to have competed in political and spiritual realm with Buddhism [14][15] in the gangetic plains while Buddhism flourished in the realms of the Bactrian kings.[15]

Contribution to Buddhism

However to many scholars, Sunga kings were seen as more amenable to Buddhism and as having contributed to the building of the stupa at Bharhut.[16]

An inscription at Bodh Gaya at the Mahabodhi Temple records the construction of the temple as follows: "The gift of Nagadevi the wife of King Brahmamitra" So then this further means that the Sungas were in support of Buddhism. Another inscription reads: "The gift of Kurangi, the mother of living sons and the wife of King Indragnimitra, son of Kosiki. The gift also of Srima of the royal palace shrine."[17][18]


Buddhism saw a brief revival under the Guptas. By the 4th to 5th century Buddhism was already in decline in northern India, even as it was achieving multiple successes in Central Asia and along the Silk Road as far as China. It continued to prosper in Gandhara under the Shahi kingdom.

White Huns

Central Asian and North Western Indian Buddhism weakened in the 6th century after the White Hun invasion, who followed their own religions such as Tengri, Christianity, and Manichaeism. Their Saivite King, Mihirakula (who ruled from 515 CE), suppressed Buddhism as well. He did this by destroying monasteries as far away as modern-day Allahabad, before his son reversed the policy.


In the North and west the collapse of Harshavardana's kingdom gave rise to many smaller kingdoms. This led to the rise of the martial Rajputs clans across the gangetic plains. It also marked the end of Buddhist ruling clans, along with a sharp decline in royal patronage. During this period, Buddhists were persecuted by Rajputs[citation needed]. This carried on until a revival under the Pala Empire in the Bengal region.

Buddhism in Southern India

In the south of India while there was no overt persecution of Buddhists at least two Pallava rulers Simhavarma and Trilochana are known to have destroyed Buddhist stupas and have had Hindu temples built over them. Bodhidharma, a patriarch of Zen Buddhism was of the original Kshatriya caste.[19]

Nagarjuna, a philosopher important to Mahayana Buddhism, was a Brahmin from southern India.

The Satavahanas were worshipers of Buddha as well as other Hindu gods such as Krishna, Shiva, Gauri, Indra, Surya, and Chandra.[20] Under their reign Amaravati, the historian Durga Prasad notices that Buddha had been worshiped as a form of Vishnu.[21]

Furthermore a vigorous Hindu revival of Vaishnavite Hinduism in the region led to a sharp decline of Buddhism.[22] Nonetheless, it appears that Buddhism endured longer in southern India than in anywhere else, with a greatly diminished sangha still extant as late as 1500.[23]

Muhammad bin Qasim

In AD 711, Muhammad bin Qasim conquered the Sindh bringing Indian societies into contact with Islam. Nicholas Gier notes the opinion that he succeeded partly because Dahir was an unpopular Hindu king that ruled over a Buddhist majority[24] and that Chach of Alor and his kin were regarded as usurpers of the earlier Buddhist Rai Dynasty.[24] Some others, however doubt this, noting that the diffuse and blurred nature of Hindu and Buddhist practices in the region, especially that of the royalty to be patrons of both[25] leading them to believe that Chach himself may have been a Buddhist.[26][27] The forces of Muhammad bin Qasim defeated Raja Dahir in alliance with the Jats and other regional governors.

The Chach Nama records many instances of conversion of stupas to mosques such as at Nerun[28] as well as the incorporation of the religious elite into the ruling administration such as the allocation of 3% of the government revenue was allocated to the Brahmins.[24] As a whole, the non-Muslim populations of conquered territories were treated as People of the Book and granted Hindu and Buddhist religions the freedom to practice their faith in return for payment of the poll tax (jizya).[24] They were then excused from military service or payment of the tax paid by Muslim subjects - Zakat.[29] The jizya enforced was a graded tax, being heaviest on the elite and lightest on the poor.[29]

Mahmud of Ghazni

By the 10th century Mahmud of Ghazni defeated the Hindu-Shahis, effectively removing Hindu influence and ending Buddhist self-governance across Central Asia, as well as the Punjab region. He demolished both stupas and temples during his numerous campaigns across North-Western India, but left those within his domains and Afghanistan alone, even as al-Biruni recorded Buddha as the prophet "Burxan".[30]

Mahmud of Ghazni is said to have been an iconoclast.[31] Hindu and Buddhist statues, shrines and temples were looted and destroyed, and many Buddhists had to take refuge in Tibet.[32]


In the East under the Palas in Bengal, Mahayana Buddhism flourished and spread to Bhutan and Sikkim. The Palas created many temples and a distinctive school of Buddhist art. Mahayana Buddhism flourished under the Palas between the 8th and the 12th century, before it collapsed at the hands of the attacking Sena dynasty.

However some scholars believe that they were also Shaivaite judging by the image of Shiva and His ox on their coins and the etymology of their names.[33] Art of Shiva also exists in temples such as the Melakadambur in Cuddalore district, in Tamilnadu.where Nataraja and his bull are found.See picture of Karakoil and Rishabathandavamoorthy [34]

They had also dedicated shrines to Vishnu.[35] Figures of Vishnu were substantial in number in the Pala Era.[36]

Other than figures of Buddha, Vishnu and Shiva there were also those of Sarasvati.[37]

Muhammad of Ghor

Muhammad attacked the North-Western regions of the Indian subcontinent many times. Gujarat later fell to Muhammad of Ghor's armies in 1197. Muhammad of Ghor's army was too developed for traditional Indian army for that time.[38]

In 1200 Muhammad Khilji, one of Qutb-ud-Din's generals conquered a fort of the Sena army, such as the one at Vikramshila. Many Buddhist monks fled to Nepal, Tibet and South India to avoid the consequences of war.[39]

The Buddhist encounters with Turkics is well documented. According to one myth, Chandrakirti (Nagarjuna's greatest disciple) rode a stone lion to scare away the Turkish army.[40]

The Mongols

In 1215, Genghis Khan conquered Afghanistan and devastated the Muslim world. In 1227, after his death, his conquest was divided. Chagatai then established the Chagatai Khanate, where his son Arghun made Buddhism the state religion. At the same time, he came down harshly on Islam and demolished mosques to build many stupas. He was succeeded by his brother, and then his son Ghazan who converted to Islam and in 1295 changed the state religion. After his reign, and the splitting of the Chagatai Khanate, little mention of Buddhism or the stupas built by the Mongols can be found in Afghanistan and Central Asia.[41]

Timur (Tamarlane)

Timur was a 14th-century warlord of Turco-Mongol descent,[42][43][44][45] conqueror of much of Western and central Asia, and founder of the Timurid Empire.

Timur destroyed Buddhist establishments and raided areas in which Buddhism had flourished.[46][47]

Ideological and financial causes

The period between the 400 BCE and 1000 CE saw gains by Hinduism at the expense of Buddhism, although the evolution of Hindu ideology influenced by Buddhism was an important factor for the growth of Hinduism.[48]

Hinduism 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.[48]

Xuanzang's Report

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 pilgrim Xuanzang, who traveled widely and documented his journey. Although he found many regions where Buddhism was still flourishing, he also found many where it had sharply and startlingly declined, giving way to Jainism and a Brahmanical order.[49]

Xuanzang compliments the patronage of Harshavardana. He reported that Buddhism was popular in Kanyakubja (modern day Uttar Pradesh), where he noted "an equal number of Buddhists and heretics" and the presence of 100 monasteries and 10,000 bhikshus along with 200 "Deva" (Hindu) temples.[50] He found a similarly flourishing population in Udra (modern Orissa). He found a mixed population in Kosala, homeland of Nagarjuna, and in Andhra, and Dravida which today roughly correspond to the modern day Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.[51] In a region he calls Konkanapura, which may be Kolhapur in southern Maharashtra, he found great numbers of Buddhists coexisting with a similar number of non-Buddhists, and a similar situation in Northern Maharashtra. In Sindh he finds a large Sammitiya and Theravada population. He reports a fair number of Buddhists in what is now Pakistan.

In Dhanyakataka (today's Vijayawada), he found a striking decline, with Jainism and Shaivism ascendant. In Bihar, site of a number of important landmarks, he also found a striking decline and relatively few followers, with Hinduism and Jainism predominating. He also found relatively few Buddhists in Bengal, Kamarupa (modern Assam). He reported no Buddhist presence in Konyodha, few in Chulya (in the Tamil region), and few in Gujarat and Rajasthan, except in Valabhi, where he found a large Theravada population.

During the reign of the Chalukya dynasty, Xuanzang reported that numerous Buddhist stupas in regions previously ruled by 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.[52] Xuanzang's report also mentions that, in the 7th Century, Shashanka of the Kingdom of Gouda (Bengal), was expanding his influence in the region in the aftermath of the fall of the Gupta Empire. He is blamed by Xuanzhang and other Buddhist sources for the murder of Rajyavardhana, a Buddhist king of Thanesar. Xuanzang writes that Shashanka destroyed the Bodhi tree of enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and replaced Buddha statues with Shiva Lingams. However, it has been claimed that Xuanzhang had a Buddhist bias in favor of the buddhist rulers such as Harshavardhana and that his account may therefore be slanted.[53]

Philosophical convergence

One factor that contributed to the demise of Buddhism was the diminishing of Buddhism's distinctiveness with respect to the ascendant Hinduism. 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.[54] Furthermore, Hinduism borrowed elements from Buddhism. Vaishnavites eventually frowned on animal sacrifices and practiced vegetarianism (a requirement of Mahayana texts), while Shaivites came to downgrade caste-distinctions as not relevant to religious practice. Furthermore, the prominent Hindu philosopher Shankara developed a monastic order on the Buddhist model, and also borrowed concepts from Buddhist philosophy.[54]

Pande (1994: p. 255) identifies the entwined relationship of Buddhism and the view of Shankara:

The relationship of Śaṅkara to Buddhism has been the subject of considerable debate since ancient times. He has been hailed as the arch critic of Buddhism and the principal architect of its downfall in India. At the same time he has been described as a Buddhist in disguise. Both these opinions have been expressed by ancient as well as modern authors--scholars, philosophers, historians and sectaries.[55]

While Shankara is given credit for the defeat of Buddhism in Hindu literature, he was in fact active after Buddhism had faded from prominence in some areas. In particular, he was not a contemporary of the great Indian Buddhist philosopher, Dharmakirti. When Shankara came north to the intellectual centers there, he borrowed many of the ideas that had been formulated by Buddhist philosophers of the past.[56]

In his exposition that the world is an illusion, Shankara borrowed arguments from Madhyamaka and Yogacara, though he disagreed with them on some matters.[57] Despite this, Shankara described the Buddha as an enemy of the people.[54]

Literary evidences point towards an absorption of Buddhist elements by Hindu culture over a period of centuries.[58] Anti-Buddhist propaganda was also reaching its peak during the 8th century when Shankara modeled his monastic order after the Buddhist Sangha.[58] An upsurge of Hinduism had taken place in North India by the early 11th century as illustrated by the influential Sanskrit drama Prabodhacandrodaya in the Chandela court; a devotion to Vishnu and an allegory to the defeat of Buddhism and Jainism.[58] The population of North India had become predominantly Shaiva, Vaishnava or Shakta.[58] By the 12th century a lay population of Buddhist hardly existed outside the monastic institutions and when it did penetrate the Indian peasant population it was hardly discernible as a distinct community.[59] Buddhist monasteries were well-funded and life within was relatively easy. To avoid unwanted members, many monasteries became selective about whom they admitted, in some cases based on social class.[citation needed]


By the time of the Muslim conquests in India, there were only glimpses of Buddhism nor any evidence of a provincial government in control of the Buddhists.[60] During the seventh to 13th centuries when Islam arrived it replaced Buddhism as the great cosmopolitan trading religion in many places accompanied by a consolidation of the communal peasant religions of Hinduism.[60] The Tibetan scholar of the 17th century Taranatha writes that during the time of the Sena king Stag-gzigs (Turks) had begun to appear on horses and that monasteries had been fortified with troops stationed in them; however, they were overrun and monks at Uddandapura were massacred, the monastery razed and replaced by a new fort and further north-east Vikramshila was destroyed as well.[61] Hardly any contemporary evidence however exists on the destruction of Buddhist monasteries.[60]

Brief Muslim accounts and the one eye witness account of Dharmasmavim in wake of the conquest during the 1230s talks about abandoned viharas being used as camps by the Turukshahs.[60] Later historical traditions such as Taranathas are mixed with legendary materials and summarized 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 sudden demise of Buddhism with their destruction of the Viharas.[60] Buddhism lingered longer in Iran than South Asia and was officially professed under fifty years of Mongol conquest.[60] With the conversion of Ghazan to Islam in 1295, the backlash resulted in the destruction of many Buddhist places of worship and the further migration of monks into Kashmir.[60]

Many places were destroyed and renamed. For example, Udantpur's monasteries were destroyed in 1197 by Mohammed-bin-Bakhtiyar and the town was renamed.[62] Taranatha in his History of Buddhism in India (dpal dus kyi 'khor lo'i chos bskor gyi byung khungs nyer mkho) of 1608 C.E.,[63] gives an account of the last few centuries of Buddhism, mainly in Eastern India. His account suggests aconsiderable decline but not an extinction of Buddhism in India in his time.

Sufis and the Bhakti movement

When Islam arrived in India, it sought conversion from, not assimilation to or integration with, the already present religions. Under Sufi influence, the pressures of caste, and with no political support structure left in place to resist social mores, many converted to Islam in the Bengal region.

After the Mongol invasions of Islamic lands across Central Asia, many Sufis also found themselves fleeing towards India and around the environs of Bengal. In Bengal (and Kashmir, after 1323), their influence, caste attitudes towards Buddhists, previous familiarity with converting Buddhists, a lack of Buddhist political power, Hinduism's resurgence through movements such as the Advaita and the bhakti movement, all contributed to a significant realignment of beliefs that relegated Buddhism in India to the peripheries.

Survival of Buddhism in India

At the beginning of the modern era, Buddhism was very nearly extinct in mainstream Indian society. Some tribal peoples living in the territory of modern India did continue to practice Buddhism.

In Bengal, the Bauls still practice a syncretic form of Hinduism that was strongly influenced by Buddhism. There is also evidence of small communities of Indian Theravada Buddhists existing continuously in Bengal in the area of Chittagong hill tracts among the indigenous Chakma people up to the present.[64] Though they are under increasing pressure from mostly Muslim Bengali settlers. There was genocide of the Chakma and Buddhists by Islamists in East Pakistan.[65] The Chakma spiritual practices are a blend of Buddhism/Vaishnavism.[66]

Buddhist institutions flourished in eastern India right until the Islamic invasion. Buddhism still survives among the Barua (though practicing Vaishnava/Hindu elements[67][68]), a community of Bengali/Magadh descent that migrated to Chittagong region. Indian Buddhism also survives among Newars of Nepal.

Buddhism survived in Gilgit and Baltistan until 13-14th century, perhaps slightly longer in the nearby Swat Valley. In Ladakh region, adjacent to Kashmir valley, Tibetan Buddhism survives to this day. The historic prevalence and history of Tibetan Buddhism in the above mentioned Northern regions of Jammu and Kashmir is reported in the Rajatarangini of Kalhana written in 1150/1 CE. It survived in the Kashmir Valley at least until the introduction of Islam in 1323 by the Ladakhi Rinchana, who as King of Kashmir converted to Islam, and even beyond, into the 15th century, when King Zain ul Abidin (1419–1470) had a Buddhist minister.

In Tamilnadu and Kerala, Buddhism survived until 15-16th century, as witnessed by the manuscript of the Manjusrimulakalpa. At Nagapattinam, in Tamil Nadu, Buddhist icons were cast and inscribed until this time, and the ruins of the Chudamani Vihara stood until they were destroyed by the Jesuits in 1867.[69] In the South in some pockets, it may have survived even longer.


On pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya in 1891, the Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala was shocked to find the temple in the hands of a Saivite priest, the Buddha image transformed into a Hindu icon and Buddhists barred from worship.[70] The Buddhist revival then began in India, when he founded the Maha Bodhi Society.[70][71] The organization's initial efforts were for the purpose of resuscitation of Buddhism in India and of restoring the ancient Buddhist shrines at Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinara.[72] The Buddhist renaissance inaugurated by Anagarika Dharmapala through his Mahabodhi Movement is also described as "conservative" for it held the Muslim Rule in India responsible for the decay of Buddhism in India in the then current mood of Hindu-Buddhist brotherhood.[73] The organization's initial efforts were to restore various Buddhist shrines that had been neglected under Hindu administration, and to open to the public various Buddhist sites and temples that had been destroyed in various periods of Muslim invasion.

Later in the 1950s Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar pioneered the Dalit Buddhist movement in India for the Dalits (Untouchables). Dr. Ambedekar saw conversion to Islam and to Christianity as a factor contributing to the "denationalisation" of India.[74] The revival movement of Buddhism in India underwent a major change when after publishing a series of books and articles arguing that Buddhism was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality, Ambedkar publicly converted on October 14, 1956 in Nagpur and then in turn led a mass-conversion ceremony for over 380,000 Dalits. Many other such mass-conversion ceremonies organized since and has become a politically charged issue.[75] Since Ambedkar's conversion, many more people from different castes have converted to Buddhism. Many converted employ the term "Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism" to designate the Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar's conversion.[76]

in 1959 Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet to India and set up the government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamsala, India,[77] which is often referred to as "Little Lhasa." 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 is sometimes known as "Little Lhasa", after the Tibetan capital city, and has become one of the centres of Buddhism in the world.

See also


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