On Why Buddhism Lost Relevance And How It’s Being Revived In India
Buddhism (the law of Dhamma), founded 2,550 years ago, has in its own land today reached the demography of around 8 million (census 2011), amidst the total population of 1.3 billion Indians.
It continues to politically influence the social dynamics, especially of Dalits (lower caste), while at the same time sustaining its own inherent and exclusive spiritual outreach and inspirational advocacy in education, communities, and also globally.
Subtly, Buddhism is also grounded in the symbol of the Asoka emblem, the chakra on the Indian flag, and India’s international affairs’ approaches are embodied with the five maxims of Dhamma.
When critically assessing the rudimentary stages of Buddhism, it was founded revolutionarily. Against Brahminism, in a parallel realm with Jainism, it challenged the then animal sacrifice system, casteist practices, unscientific ritualism and temperamental nescience.
Dr Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, stated that he would find solace in Dhamma and its morality, and he did. On 14 October, 1956, along with 5,00,000 followers, he led the Navayana Buddhism movement and converted it into Dhamma for a better scope of social osmosis.
Dr Ambedkar’s action can be traced back to Buddha’s ordination of Uppali, Prakriti, Suneet and Matangi, who were socially untouchable in the Brahminism society. This feature of Buddhism is what makes it different from the other theistic systems, which are based on hierarchical structures and unempirical notions.
The Desecration Of Buddhism With The Revival Of Brahminism
After King Asoka’s (304 BCE-234 BCE) mission of proliferating Buddhism, ancient India was almost in pacifism since Dhamma emerged as a dominant religion. But the tables turned upside-down when Brahminism was politically revived, this time under the Shunga dynasty (184 BCE-75 BCE) after the assassination of a Buddhist king Bridharita Maurya by the Hindu king Pushyamitra Shunga.
Buddhist monks were beheaded in this reign and around 500 Buddhist stupas, amidst 84,000 stupas commissioned by King Asoka, were destroyed. This event led to the systematic and gradual pauperisation of Buddhism in India.
Patanjali (150 BCE), a contemporary of the Shungas, in his Mahabhasya (2.4.9) stated that Brahminism and Buddhism were eternal enemies. Few Buddhist monasteries at Sanchi in Raisen district, Satdhara (Katni district), Deurkothar (Rewa district), Ghantai, Bhuteshwar, Gokarneshwar and Katra Mound were all vandalised by the antecedents of Brahminism ideology.
Fa-Hsien, a Chinese pilgrim visiting India (399 CE-414 CE) during the Gupta period, saw a dismal picture. Brahmins appropriated the Kushana Buddhist site too. Hsuan Tsang, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, visiting India (631 CE — 645 CE), also notes that King Mihirakula, a follower of Shiva, destroyed 1,600 Buddhist stupas and monasteries.
King Shashanka, a contemporary of King Harsha, also chopped off the Boddhi tree and destroyed the Buddha statue. Then, a Kashmiri King Kshemagupta, in his tenure (950 CE-958 CE), destroyed Buddhist sites too. Kalachuri King Karna (11th century) was also hostile to Buddhism.
A report titled Interpreting Transformation of Material Culture with reference to Stratigraphy by Swadhin Sen confirmed that the Siddheshwar temple was built on the Buddhist stupas. To add more to the woes, Gokulmedh (Mahasthan) and Birampur (Dinajpur) Buddhist sites were also converted to Brahminical temples around the 12th century.
Basudevpur, Bochaganj and Dinajpur were also added to the list. At Sirpur (Raipur district), during the reign of Mahashivagupta Balarajuna (725 CE-786 CE) Buddhist structures were appropriated by the followers of Shiva. They took over other monasteries in the area as well. The main temple and attached monastery were built by the Buddhist monk Anandaprabhu.
At Chezerla (Guntur district), a Buddhist monastery was converted into Kapoteshvara temple during the early medieval period. The Gunadharishvara temple too was built on Buddhist ruins.
Swami Vivekananda joined the bandwagon and commented, “To any man who knows anything about Indian history…the temple of Jagannath [sic] is an old Buddhist temple. We took this and others over and re-Hinduised them. We still have to do many things like that.”
Also, according to him, “Rath Yatra”, an integral part of Jagganath Temple, was a Buddhist ritual too, taken from the original Buddhist temple.
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote: “I am aware that another, and a very reasonable, account of the origin of the festival of Rath [at Jagganath Temple] has been given by General Cunningham in his work on the Bhilsa Topes.
“He traces it to a similar festival of the Buddhists, in which the three symbols of the Buddhist faith, Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, were drawn in a car in the same fashion, and I believe about the same season as the Rath. “It is a fact greatly in support of the theory, that the images of Jagannath, Balaram, and Subhadra, which now figure in the Rath, are near copies of the representations of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and appear to have been modelled upon them.”
The Buddhist Temple at Puri was not the only one Hinduised. Recently, the archaeological findings in December 2020 revealed that the Somnath temple (Gujarat) was built over Buddhist caves.
The Destruction Of Buddhism During The Islamic Conquest
These historical examples of the systematic destruction of Buddhism in India were also met with the Islamic conquest of India. Peter Harvey, in his book An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices, writes:
“From 986 CE, the Muslim Turks started raiding northwest India from Afghanistan, plundering western India early in the eleventh century. Forced conversions to Islam were made, and Buddhist images were smashed, due to the Islamic dislike of idolatry. Indeed, in India, the Islamic term for an ‘idol’ became ‘Budd’.”
The Persian traveller Al Biruni’s memoirs suggest Buddhism had vanished from Ghazni (Afghanistan) and the medieval Punjab region (northern Pakistan) by the early 11th century. By the end of the 12th century, Buddhism had further disappeared, with the destruction of monasteries and stupas in the medieval northwest and western Indian subcontinent (now Pakistan and north India).
The chronicler of Shahabuddin Ghori’s forces records enthusiastically about attacks on the monks and students and victory against the non-Muslim infidels. The major centres of Buddhism were in north India and the direct path of the Muslim armies.
The Buddhist university of Nalanda was mistaken for a fort because of the walled campus. The Buddhist monks who had been slaughtered were mistaken for Brahmins, according to Minhaj-i-Siraj, a 13th-century Persian historian. Around 1200 CE, Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji destroyed Nalanda Buddhist university and other renowned Buddhist viharas at Odantapuri, etc.
The northwest parts of the Indian subcontinent 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.
Many Buddhist monks fled to Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and South India to avoid the consequences. Tibetan pilgrim Chöjepal (1179–1264), who arrived in India in 1234, had to flee advancing Muslim troops multiple times, as they were sacking Buddhist sites.
The Revival Of Buddhism In India
It was only in the 1890s, Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933), a Sinhalese Buddhist monk, and a few British archaeologists revisited the Buddhist shrines and revived the pilgrimage dimension.
Anagarika, in association with American Theosophists such as Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, led to the revival of Buddhist pilgrimage sites along with the formation of the 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 Burma.
In the same decade, an anti-caste activist from Tamilian land Iyothee Thass met Colonel Olcott and expressed his desire to convert to Buddhism. Sir Olcott was a freemason and played a huge role in studying and exploring Buddhism too.
Iyothee Thass had realised that ancient India was a land of Buddha and the Aryan invasion had enforced Brahminism, leading to the systematic extinction of the Buddhist population from India. In 1898, after a visit from Sri Lanka, Iyothee founded Sakya Buddhist Association.
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 Dharamshala, India, 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 Dharamsala, where they established monasteries, temples and schools. As a result, the town has become one of the centres of Buddhism in the world.
Then, the most influential representative of the Vipassana movement is the Vipassana Research Institute founded by S N Goenka (1924–2013), who promoted Buddhist Vipassanā Meditation in a modern and non-sectarian manner. The Vipassana movement has also spread to many other countries in Europe, America and Asia.
In November 2008, the construction of the Global Vipassana Pagoda was completed on the outskirts of Mumbai.
In this queue, Dalit leaders in the political sphere are yet to do a mass conversion event of many untouchables into the religion of Dhamma after Ambedkar’s event in 1956. Recently, the “love jihad” law passed by the Hindutva reign in India has few provisions on the discouragement of Hindus leaving Hinduism for Islam or Buddhism.
In the coming epoch, Buddhism will experience extrinsic challenges this way.
The religion of Buddha morally and practically absorbs different genres of consciousness of humans and their societies. However, in India, its political status continues to be a greater challenge. This can be superseded on the intersectional realisation of various Buddhist sects by breaking the ice amongst each other and receiving special attention for Indian Buddhists from advanced Buddhist nation like Bhutan, Japan, Korea, etc.
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- Sidney Piburn, The Dalai Lama: A Policy of Kindness p. 12.
- Vipassana pioneer SN Goenka is dead, 30 September 2013, Zeenews.
Note: This article was first published on YKA site.