Decline of Buddhism in India

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Ruins of Nalanda University, considered a milestone in the decline of Buddhism in India

A steady decline of Buddhism in India set in during the 1st millennium AD in the wake of the White Hun invasion followed by Turk-Mongol raids.,[1] though it continued to attract financial and institutional support during the Gupta era (4th to 6th century) and the Pala Empire (8th to 12th century).[2][3]

The decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent has been attributed to various factors, especially the regionalisation of ancient India after the end of the Gupta empire (320-650 AD), which lead to a competition with Hinduism and Jainism and the loss of patronage and donations; and the conquest and subsequent persecutions by Huns, then Muslim Turks and Persians particularly from the 10th century onwards.[1][4][5][6]

Buddhism largely disappeared from most of India with the Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent, surviving in the Himalayan regions and south India.[1][4][7]

The total Buddhist population in 2010 in the Indian subcontinent – exclusive of Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan – was about 10 million of which about 7.2% lived in Bangladesh, 92.5% in India and 0.2% in Pakistan.[8]

Growth of Buddhism

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

Buddhism expanded in South Asia in the centuries after the death of the Buddha, particularly after receiving the endorsement and royal support of the Maurya Empire under Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. It spread even beyond the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia and China.

The Buddha's period saw not only urbanisation, but also the beginnings of centralised states.[9] The successful expansion of Buddhism depended on the growing economy of the time, together with increased centralised political organisation capable of change.[10]

Buddhism spread across ancient India and state support by various regional regimes continued through the 1st millennium BC.[11] The consolidation of monastic organisation made Buddhism the centre of religious and intellectual life in India.[12] Pushyamitra the first ruler of the Shunga Dynasty built great Buddhist topes at Sanchi in 188 BC.[13] The succeeding Kanva Dynasty had four Buddhist Kanva Kings.[13]

Causes of decline

The decline of Buddhism has been attributed to various factors, especially the regionalisation of India after the end of the Gupta empire (320-650 AD), which lead to a competition with Hinduism and Jainism and the loss of patronage and donations; and the conquest and subsequent persecutions by Huns, Turks and Persians.

Patronage and religious dynamics

Loss of patronage and donations

In ancient India, regardless of the religious beliefs of their kings, states usually treated all the important sects relatively even-handedly.[11] This consisted of building monasteries and religious monuments, donating property such as the income of villages for the support of monks, and exempting donated property from taxation. Donations were most often made by private persons such as wealthy merchants and female relatives of the royal family, but there were periods when the state also gave its support and protection. In the case of Buddhism, this support was particularly important because of its high level of organisation and the reliance of monks on donations from the laity. State patronage of Buddhism took the form of land grant foundations.[14]

Numerous copper plate inscriptions from India as well as Tibetan and Chinese texts suggest that the patronage of Buddhism and Buddhist monasteries in medieval India was interrupted in periods of war and political change, but broadly continued in Hindu kingdoms from the start of the common era through early 2nd millennium AD.[15][16][17] The Gupta kings built Buddhist temples such as the one at Kushinagara,[18][19] and monastic universities such as those at Nalanda, as evidenced by records left by three Chinese visitors to India.[20][21][22]

After the end of the Gupta Empire (c. 320–650 AD), power became decentralised in India, and Buddhism started to lose financial support from the seventh century onward.[23] The disintegration of central power also led to regionalisation of religiosity, and religious rivalry.[24] Rural and devotional movements arose within Hinduism, along with Shaivism, Vaisnavism, Bhakti and Tantra,[24] that competed with each other, as well as with numerous sects of Buddhism and Jainism.[24][25] This fragmentarisation of power into feudal kingdoms was detrimental for Buddhism, with royal support shifting toward Hindu an Jain communities.[23][26][27][28][29] Vaishnavism, Shaivism and other Hindu traditions became increasingly popular, and Brahmins developed a new relationship with the state,[30] gaining influence in socio-political process, which contributed to the decline of Buddhism.[31]

Religious convergence

Buddhism's distinctiveness diminished with the rise of Hindu sects. 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.[32] Buddhist ideas, and even the Buddha himself,[33] were absorbed and adapted into orthodox Hindu thought,[34][32][35] while the differences between the two systems of thought were emphasized.[36][37][38][39][40][41]

Internal social-economic dynamics

According to some scholars such as Lars Fogelin, the decline of Buddhism may be related to economic reasons, wherein the Buddhist monasteries with large land grants focussed on non-material pursuits, self-isolation of the monasteries, loss in internal discipline in the sangha, and a failure to efficiently operate the land they owned.[17][42] With the growing support for Hindusim and Jainism, Buddhist monasteries also gradually lost control of land revenue.

Wars and persecution

Hun Invasions

Chinese scholars travelling through the region between the 5th and 8th centuries, such as Faxian, Xuanzang, Yijing, Hui-sheng, and Sung-Yun, began to speak of a decline of the Buddhist Sangha in the north-west parts of Indian subcontinent, especially in the wake of the Hun invasion from central Asia.[1] Xuanzang wrote that numerous monasteries in north-western India had been reduced to ruins by the Huns.[1][43]

Mihirakula, who ruled from 515 AD in north-western region (modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and north India), suppressed Buddhism as well. He did this by destroying monasteries as far away as modern-day Allahabad.[44]

Turk-Mongol raids

The image, in the chapter on India in Hutchison's Story of the Nations edited by James Meston, depicts the Turkish general Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji's massacre of Buddhist monks in Bihar. Khaliji destroyed the Nalanda and Vikramshila universities during his raids across North Indian plains, massacring many Buddhist and Brahmin scholars.[45]

The Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent was the first great iconoclastic invasion into South Asia.[46] The Persian traveller Al Biruni's memoirs suggest Buddhism had vanished from Ghazni (Afghanistan) and medieval Panjab region (northern Pakistan) by early 11th century.[47] By the end of twelfth century, Buddhism had further disappeared,[1][48] with the destruction of monasteries and stupas in medieval north-west and western India (now Pakistan and north India).[49]

The Chach Nama records many instances of conversion of stupas to mosques such as at Nerun.[50]

In the Gangetic plains, Orissa, north-east and the southern regions of India, Buddhism survived through the early centuries of the 2nd millennium AD.[42] According to William Johnston, hundreds of Buddhist monasteries and shrines were destroyed, Buddhist texts were burnt by the Muslim armies, monks and nuns killed during the 12th and 13th centuries in the Gangetic plains region.[5] The Islamic invasion plundered wealth and destroyed Buddhist images:[4]

From 986 AD, the Muslim Turks started raiding northwest India from Afghanistan, plundering western India early in the eleventh century. Force conversions to Islam were made, and Buddhist images smashed, due to the Islamic dislike of idolarty. Indeed in India, the Islamic term for an 'idol' became 'budd'.

— Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism[4]

The north-west parts of South Asia fell to Islamic control, and the consequent take over of land holdings of Buddhist monasteries removed one source of necessary support for the Buddhists, while the economic upheaval and new taxes on laity sapped the laity support of Buddhist monks.[42]

In the north-western parts of medieval India, the Himalayan regions, as well regions bordering central Asia, Buddhism once facilitated trade relations, states Lars Fogelin. With the Islamic invasion and expansion, and central Asians adopting Islam, the trade route-derived financial support sources and the economic foundations of Buddhist monasteries declined, on which the survival and growth of Buddhism was based.[42][51] The arrival of Islam removed the royal patronage to the monastic tradition of Buddhism, and the replacement of Buddhists in long-distance trade by the Muslims eroded the related sources of patronage.[49][51]

Islamic conquest and rule

Ruins of Vikramashila

Muslim forces attacked the north-western regions of the Indian subcontinent many times.[52] Many places were destroyed and renamed. For example, Udantpur's monasteries were destroyed in 1197 by Mohammed-bin-Bakhtiyar and the town was renamed.[53] Taranatha in his History of Buddhism in India (dpal dus kyi 'khor lo'i chos bskor gyi byung khungs nyer mkho) of 1608,[54] gives an account of the last few centuries of Buddhism, mainly in Eastern India. Mahayana Buddhism reached its zenith during the Pala dynasty period, a dynasty that ended with the Islamic invasion of the Gangetic plains.[3]

Vikramashila was destroyed by the forces of Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200.[55] Many Buddhist monks fled to Nepal, Tibet, and South India to avoid the consequences of war.[56] Tibetan pilgrim Chöjepal had to flee advancing Muslim troops multiple times, as they were sacking Buddhist sites.[57]

A major empire to support Buddhism, the Pala dynasty, fell in the 12th century, and Muslim invaders destroyed monasteries and monuments.[1] According to Randall Collins, Buddhism was already declining in India by the 12th century, but with the pillage by Muslim invaders it nearly became extinct in India in the 1200s.[58] In the 13th century, states Craig Lockard, Buddhist monks in India escaped to Tibet to escape Islamic persecution;[59] while the monks in western India, states Peter Harvey, escaped persecution by moving to south Indian Hindu kingdoms that were able to resist the Muslim power.[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.[61] Later historical traditions such as Taranathas are mixed with legendary materials and summarised 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 demise of Buddhism with their destruction of the Viharas.[61]

Survival of Buddhism in India

Buddhist institutions flourished in eastern India right until the Islamic invasion. Buddhism still survives among the Barua (though practising Vaishnavite elements[62][63]), a community of Bengali Magadh descent who migrated to Chittagong region. Indian Buddhism also survives among Newars of Nepal.

Lama Taranatha (1575–1634) mentions Buddhism as having survived in some pockets of India, even though it had greatly declined and had disappeared on many regions.

Inscriptions at Bodh Gaya mention Buddhist pilgrims visiting it throughout the period of Buddhist decline:[64]

  • 1302-1331: Several groups from Sindh
  • 15th or 16th century: a pilgrim from Multan
  • 2nd half of the 15th century, monk Budhagupta from South India
  • 16th century Abhayaraj from Nepal
  • 1773 Trung Rampa, a representative of the Panchen Lama from Tibet, welcomed by Maharaja of Varanasi
  • 1877, Burmese mission sent by king Mindon Min

Buddhism was virtually extinct in British India by the end of the 19th century, except from its Himalayan region, east and some niche locations. According to the 1901 census of British India, which included modern Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan, the total population was 294.4 million, of which total Buddhists were 9.5 million. Excluding Myanmar's nearly 9.2 million Buddhists in 1901, this colonial era census reported 0.3 million Buddhists in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in the provinces, states and agencies of the British India, or about 0.1% of the total reported population.[65]

The 1911 census reported a combined Buddhist population in British India, exclusive of Myanmar, of about 336,000 or about 0.1%.[66]


Deekshabhoomi Stupa in Nagpur, a replica of the Sanchi stupa, where Ambedkar became a Buddhist.

In 1891, the Sri Lankan native Don David Hewavitarna who left Christianity and became known as Anagarika Dharmapala visited India. His campaign, in cooperation with European Theosophists such as Madamme Blavatsky, led to the revival of Buddhist pilgrimage sites along with the formation of Maha Bodhi society and Maha Bodhi Journal. His efforts increased awareness and raised funds to recover Buddhist holy sites in British India, such as the Bodh Gaya in India and those in Myanmar.[67]

In the 1950s Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar pioneered the Dalit Buddhist movement in India for the Dalits. Dr. Ambedkar, on 14 October 1956 in Nagpur converted to Buddhism along with his 365,000 followers. Many other such mass-conversion ceremonies followed.[68] Many converted employ the term "Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism" to designate the Dalit Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar's conversion.[69]

in 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, escaped from Tibet to India along with numerous Tibetan refugees, and set up the government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamsala, India,[70] which is often referred to as "Little Lhasa", after the Tibetan capital city. 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 has become one of the centres of Buddhism in the world.

The Buddhist population in the modern era nation of India grew at a decadal rate of 22.5% between 1901 and 1981, due to birth rates and conversions, or about the same rate as Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, but faster than Christianity (16.8%), and slower than Islam (30.7%).[71]

According to a 2010 Pew estimate, the total Buddhist population had increased to about 10 million in the nations created from British India. Of these, about 7.2% lived in Bangladesh, 92.5% in India and 0.2% in Pakistan.[8]

See also


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External links