Decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent

The decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent refers to a gradual process of dwindling and replacement of Buddhism in India, which ended around the 12th century.[1][2] According to Lars Fogelin, this was "not a singular event, with a singular cause; it was a centuries-long process."[3]

The decline of Buddhism has been attributed to various factors, especially the regionalisation of India after the end of the Gupta Empire (320–650 CE), which led to the loss of patronage and donations as Indian dynasties turned to the services of Hindu Brahmins. Another factor was invasions of north India by various groups such as Huns, Turco-mongols and Persians and subsequent destruction of Buddhist institutions such as Nalanda and religious persecutions.[4] Religious competition with Hinduism and later Islam were also important factors.

The total Buddhist population in 2010 in the Indian subcontinent – excluding that 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.[5]

Buddhism expanded in the Indian subcontinent 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 BCE. 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.[6] The successful expansion of Buddhism depended on the growing economy of the time, together with increased centralised political organisation capable of change.[7]

Buddhism spread across ancient India and state support by various regional regimes continued through the 1st-millennium BCE.[8] The consolidation of monastic organisation made Buddhism the centre of religious and intellectual life in India.[9] Pushyamitra, the first ruler of the Shunga Dynasty built great Buddhist stupas at Sanchi in 188 BCE.[10] The succeeding Kanva Dynasty had four Buddhist Kanva Kings.[10]

During the Gupta dynasty (4th to 6th century), Mahayana Buddhism turned more ritualistic, while Buddhist ideas were adopted into Hindu schools. The differences between Buddhism and Hinduism blurred, and Vaishnavism, Shaivism and other Hindu traditions became increasingly popular, while Brahmins developed a new relationship with the state.[11] As the system grew, Buddhist monasteries gradually lost control of land revenue. In parallel, the Gupta kings built Buddhist temples such as the one at Kushinagara,[12][13] and monastic universities such as those at Nalanda, as evidenced by records left by three Chinese visitors to India.[14][15][16]

Chinese scholars traveling 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 Northwestern parts of Indian subcontinent, especially in the wake of the Hun invasion from central Asia in the 6th century CE.[4] Xuanzang wrote that numerous monasteries in north-western India had been reduced to ruins by the Huns.[4][17]

The Hun ruler Mihirakula, who ruled from 515 CE 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.[18] Yashodharman and Gupta Empire rulers, in and after about 532 CE, reversed Mihirakula's campaign and ended the Mihirakula era.[19][20]

According to Peter Harvey, the religion recovered slowly from these invasions during the 7th century, with the "Buddhism of southern Pakistan remaining strong."[21] The reign of the Pala Dynasty (8th to 12th century) saw Buddhism in North India recover due to royal support from the Palas who supported various Buddhist centers like Nalanda. By the eleventh century, Pala rule had weakened however.[21]

The regionalisation of India after the end of the Gupta Empire (320–650 CE) led to the loss of patronage and donations.[23] The prevailing view of decline of Buddhism in India is summed by A.L. Basham's classic study which argues that the main cause was the rise of a ancient hindu religion again, "Hinduism", which focused on the worship of deities like Shiva and Vishnu and became more popular among the common people while Buddhism, being focused on monastery life, had become disconnected from public life and its life rituals, which were all left to Hindu Brahmins.[24]

The growth of new forms of Hinduism (and to a lesser extent Jainism) was a key element in the decline in Buddhism in India, particularly in terms of diminishing financial support to Buddhist monasteries from laity and royalty.[25][26][27] According to Hazra, Buddhism declined in part because of the rise of the Brahmins and their influence in socio-political process.[28][note 1]

The disintegration of central power also led to regionalisation of religiosity, and religious rivalry.[32] Rural and devotional movements arose within Hinduism, along with Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Bhakti and Tantra,[32] that competed with each other, as well as with numerous sects of Buddhism and Jainism.[32][33] This fragmentation of power into feudal kingdoms was detrimental for Buddhism, as royal support shifted towards other communities and Brahmins developed a strong relationship with Indian states.[23][34][25][35][36][37]

Over time the new Indian dynasties which arose after the 7th and 8th centuries tended to support the Brahmanical ideology and Hinduism, and this conversion proved decisive. These new dynasties, all of which supported Brahmanical Hinduism, include "the Karkotas and Pratiharas of the north, the Rashtrakutas of the Deccan, and the Pandyas and Pallavas of the south" (the Pala Dynasty is one sole exception to these).[38] One of the reasons of this conversion was that the brahmins were willing and able to aid in local administration, and they provided councillors, administrators and clerical staff.[39][40] Moreover, brahmins had clear ideas about society, law and statecraft (and studied texts such as the Arthashastra and the Manusmriti) and could be more pragmatic than the Buddhists, whose religion was based on monastic renunciation and did not recognize that there was a special warrior class that was divinely ordained to use violence.[41] As Johannes Bronkhorst notes, Buddhists could give "very little" practical advice in response to that of the Brahmins and Buddhist texts often speak ill of kings and royalty.[42]

Omvedt states that while Buddhist institutions tended to be less involved in politics, Hindu brahmins provided numerous services for Indian royalty:

At the higher level they provided legitimacy by creating genealogies and origin mythologies identifying the kings as Kshatriyas and organising impressive ceremonial functions that invested the king with all the paraphernalia and mystique of Hindu royalty; at the lower level they propagandised the mystique of social supremacy and political power. They taught the population, they established ritual and priestly relations with the prominent households of the region, they promulgated caste and the rights of kings.[43]

Bronkhorst notes that some of the influence of the brahmins also derived from the fact that they were seen as powerful, because of their use of incantations and spells (mantras) as well as other sciences like astronomy, astrology, calendrics and divination. Many Buddhists refused to use such "sciences" and left them to brahmins, who also performed most of the rituals of the Indian states (as well as in places like Cambodia and Burma).[44] This eventually led to further challenges for Buddhists:

Rulers gave financial support to Brahmans, took the responsibility of enforcing varna laws and discriminating against ‘heretical’ sects, and refused state protection to their persons and property—if they did not actively murder and loot them themselves.[45]

Lars Fogelin argues that the concentration of the sangha into large monastic complexes like Nalanda was one of the contributing causes for the decline. He states that the Buddhists of these large monastic institutions became "largely divorced from day-to-day interaction with the laity, except as landlords over increasingly large monastic properties."[46] Padmanabh Jaini also notes that Buddhist laypersons are relatively neglected in the Buddhist literature, which produced only one text on lay life and not until the 11th century, while Jains produced around fifty texts on the life and conduct of a jaina layperson.[47] These factors all slowly led to the replacement of Buddhism in the South and West of India by Hinduism and Jainism. Fogelin states that

While some small Buddhist centers still persisted in South and West India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, for the most part, both monastic and lay Buddhism had been eclipsed and replaced by Hinduism and Jainism by the end of the first millennium ce.[48]

Buddhist sources also mention violence against Buddhists by Hindu brahmins and kings. Hazra mentions that the eighth and ninth centuries saw "Brahminical hostilities towards Buddhism in South India."[49] Xuanzang for example, mentions the destruction of Buddhist images by the Shaivite king Sashanka and Taranatha also mentions the destruction of temples by Brahmins.[50]

Buddhism's distinctiveness also 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.[51] Also, "the increasingly esoteric nature" of both Hindu and Buddhist tantrism made it "incomprehensible to India's masses," for whom Hindu devotionalism and the worldly power-oriented Nath Siddhas became a far better alternative.[52][53][note 2] Buddhist ideas, and even the Buddha himself,[54] were absorbed and adapted into orthodox Hindu thought,[55][51][56] while the differences between the two systems of thought were emphasized.[57][58][59][60][61][62]

Elements which medieval Hinduism adopted during this time included vegetarianism, a critique of animal sacrifices, a strong tradition of monasticism (founded by figures such as Shankara) and the adoption of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu.[63] On the other end of the spectrum, Buddhism slowly became more and more "Brahmanized", initially beginning with the adoption of Sanskrit as a means to defend their interests in royal courts.[64] According to Bronkhorst, this move to the Sanskrit cultural world also brought with it numerous brahmanical norms which now were adopted by the Sanskrit Buddhist culture (one example is the idea present in some Buddhist texts that the Buddha was a brahmin who knew the vedas).[65] Bronkhorst notes that with time, even the caste system became widely accepted "by all practical purposes" by Indian Buddhists (this survives among the Newar Buddhists of Nepal).[66] Bronkhorst notes that eventually a tendency developed to see Buddhism's past as having been dependent on Brahmanism and secondary to it. This idea, according to Bronkhorst, "may have acted like a Trojan horse, weakening this religion from within."[67]

The political realities of the period also led some Buddhists to change their doctrines and practices. For example, some later texts such as the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and the Sarvadurgatipariśodhana Tantra begin to speak of the importance of protecting Buddhist teachings and that killing is allowed if necessary for this reason. Later Buddhist literature also begins to see kings as bodhisattvas and their actions as being in line with the dharma (Buddhist kings like Devapala and Jayavarman VII also claimed this).[68] Bronkhorst also thinks that the increase in the use of apotropaic rituals (including for the protection of state and king) and spells (mantras) by 7th century Indian Buddhism is also a response to brahmanical and Shaiva influence. These included fire sacrifices, which were performed under the rule of Buddhist king Dharmapala (r. c. 775–812).[69] Alexis Sanderson has shown that Tantric Buddhism is filled with imperial imagery reflecting the realities of medieval India, and that in some ways work to sanctify that world.[70] Perhaps because of these changes, Buddhism remained indebted to Brahmanical thought and practice now that it had adopted much of its worldview. Bronkhorst argues that these somewhat drastic changes "took them far from the ideas and practices they had adhered to during the early centuries of their religion, and dangerously close to their much-detested rivals."[71] These changes which brought Buddhism closer to Hinduism, eventually made it much easier for Buddhism to be absorbed into Hinduism.[72]

In ancient India, regardless of the religious beliefs of their kings, states usually treated all the important sects relatively even-handedly.[8] 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.[73]

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 the early first millennium CE.[74][75][76] The Gupta kings built Buddhist temples such as the one at Kushinagara,[77][13] and monastic universities such as those at Nalanda, as evidenced by records left by three Chinese visitors to India.[14][78][16]

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 focused 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.[76][79] With the growing support for Hinduism and Jainism, Buddhist monasteries also gradually lost control of land revenue.

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 smashed, due to the Islamic dislike of idolatry. Indeed in India, the Islamic term for an 'idol' became 'budd'.

The Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent was the first great iconoclastic invasion into the Indian subcontinent.[82] The Persian traveller Al Biruni's memoirs suggest Buddhism had vanished from Ghazni (Afghanistan) and medieval Punjab region (northern Pakistan) by early 11th century.[83] By the end of twelfth century, Buddhism had further disappeared,[4][84] with the destruction of monasteries and stupas in medieval north-west and western Indian subcontinent (now Pakistan and north India).[85] The chronicler of Shahubuddin Ghori's forces records enthusiastically about attacks on the monks and students and victory against the non-Muslim infidels. The major centers of Buddhism were in north India and in direct path of the Muslim armies. Their wealth and them being centres of non-Muslim religions made them a target[86] Buddhist sources agree with this assessment. Taranatha in his History of Buddhism in India of 1608,[87] 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.[2]

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.[88] The Islamic invasions plundered wealth and destroyed Buddhist images.[81]

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.[89] The walled town, the Odantapuri monastery, was also conquered by his forces. Sumpa basing his account on that of Śākyaśrībhadra who was at Magadha in 1200, states that the Buddhist university complexes of Odantapuri and Vikramshila were also destroyed and the monks massacred.[90] Muslim forces attacked the north-western regions of the Indian subcontinent many times.[91] Many places were destroyed and renamed. For example, Odantapuri's monasteries were destroyed in 1197 by Mohammed-bin-Bakhtiyar and the town was renamed.[92] Likewise, Vikramashila was destroyed by the forces of Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200.[93] Many Buddhist monks fled to Nepal, Tibet, and South India to avoid the consequences of war.[94] Tibetan pilgrim Chöjepal had to flee advancing Muslim troops multiple times, as they were sacking Buddhist sites.[95]

The north-west 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.[79] Not all monasteries were destroyed by the invasions (Somapuri, Lalitagiri, Udayagiri), but since these large Buddhist monastic complexes had become dependent on the patronage of local authorities, when this patronage dissipated, they were abandoned by the sangha.[96]

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.[79][97] 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.[85][97]

After the conquest, Buddhism largely disappeared from most of India, surviving in the Himalayan regions and south India.[4][81][98] Abul Fazl stated that there was scarcely any trace of Buddhists left. When he visited Kashmir in 1597, he met with a few old men professing Buddhism, however, he 'saw none among the learned'.[99]

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.[100] In the 13th century, states Craig Lockard, Buddhist monks in India escaped to Tibet to escape Islamic persecution;[101] 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.[102]

Brief Muslim accounts and the one eye-witness account of Dharmasmavim in wake of the conquest during the 1230s talk about abandoned viharas being used as camps by the Turukshahs.[103] Later historical traditions such as Taranatha's 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.[103]

While the Muslims sacked the Buddhists viharas, the temples and stupas with little material value survived. After the collapse of monastic Buddhism, Buddhist sites were abandoned or reoccupied by other religious orders. In the absence of viharas and libraries, scholastic Buddhism and its practitioners migrated to the Himalayas, China and Southeast Asia.[104] The devastation of agriculture also meant that many laypersons were unable to support Buddhist monks, who were easily identifiable and also vulnerable. As the Sangha died out in numerous areas, it lacked the ability to revive itself without more monks to perform ordinations. Peter Harvey concludes:

Between the alien Muslims, with their doctrinal justification of a ‘holy war’ to spread the faith, and Hindus, closely identified with Indian culture and with a more entrenched social dimension, the Buddhists were squeezed out of existence. Lay Buddhists were left with a folk form of Buddhism, and gradually merged into Hinduism, or converted to Islam. Buddhism therefore died out in all but the fringes of its homeland, though it had long since spread beyond it.[105]

Fogelin also notes that some elements of the Buddhist sangha moved to the Himalayas, China and Southeast Asia, or they may have reverted to secular life or become wandering ascetics. In this environment, without monasteries and scholastic centers of their own, Buddhist ascetics and laypersons were eventually absorbed into the religious life of medieval india.[106]

Buddhist institutions survived in eastern India right until the Islamic invasion. Buddhism still survives among the Barua (though practising Vaishnavite elements[107][page needed][108]), a community of Bengali Magadh descent who migrated to Chittagong region. Indian Buddhism also survives among Newars of Nepal, who practice unique form of Vajrayana known as Newar Buddhism.

While the Buddhist monastic centers like Nalanda had been sacked, the temples and stupas at pilgrimage sites (such as Bodh Gaya) didn't receive the same treatment. The reason these were left unharmed was because they were "not material legitimations of rival royal families".[104] Inscriptions at Bodh Gaya show that the Mahabodhi temple was in some use till 14th century. According to the 17th century Tibetan Lama Taranatha's History of Buddhism in India, the temple was restored by a Bengali queen in the 15th century, later passing on to a landowner and becoming a Shaivite center.[104] Inscriptions at Bodh Gaya mention Buddhist pilgrims visiting it throughout the period of Buddhist decline:[109]

Abul Fazl, the courtier of Mughal emperor Akbar, states, "For a long time past scarce any trace of them (the Buddhists) has existed in Hindustan." When he visited Kashmir in 1597 he met with a few old men professing Buddhism, however he 'saw none among the learned'. This is can also be seen from the fact that Buddhist priests were not present amidst learned divines that came to the Ibadat Khana of Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri.[110]

After the Islamization of Kashmir by sultans like Sikandar Butshikan, much of Hinduism was gone and a little of Buddhism remained. Fazl writes, "The third time that the writer accompanied His Majesty to the delightful valley of Kashmir, he met a few old men of this persuasion (Buddhism), but saw none among the learned."[111]

`Abd al-Qadir Bada'uni mentions, "Moreover samanis and Brahmans managed to get frequent private audiences with His Majesty." The term samani (Sanskrit: Sramana and Prakrit: Samana) refers to a devotee a monk. Irfan Habib states that while William Henry Lowe assumes the Samanis to be Buddhist monks, they were Jain ascetics.[112]

Taranatha's history which mentions Buddhist sangha surviving in some regions of India during his time[113] which includes Konkana, Kalinga, Mewad, Chittor, Abu, Saurastra, Vindhya mountains, Ratnagiri, Karnataka etc. A Jain author Gunakirti (1450-1470) wrote a Marathi text, Dhamramrita,[114] where he gives the names of 16 Buddhist orders. Dr. Johrapurkar noted that among them, the names Sataghare, Dongare, Navaghare, Kavishvar, Vasanik and Ichchhabhojanik still survive in Maharashtra as family names.[115]

Buddhism was virtually extinct in British Raj by the end of the 19th century, except 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 British India or about 0.1% of the total reported population.[116]

The 1911 census reported a combined Buddhist population in British India, excluding Myanmar, of about 336,000 or about 0.1%.[117]

In 1891, the Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) pioneering Buddhist activist Don David Hewavitarane later to be world renowned as Anagarika Dharmapala visited India. His campaign, in cooperation 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 occupied India, such as the Bodh Gaya in India and those in Myanmar.[119]

In the 1950s, B. R. 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.[120] Many converted employ the term "Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism" to designate the Dalit Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar's conversion.[121]

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,[122] 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%).[123]

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.[5]