[Preface: I recently came across the writing of Shenali Waduge who is a die-hard apologist for Buddhist crimes against others, esp. Muslims. In that Shenali tried to promote the agenda of Buddhist terrorists like Wirathu and blame Muslims for the decline of Buddhism in South Asia. People like Shenali have intellectual inability to discern truth objectively. Thus, what we find is an ignoble attempt to rewrite history distorting facts with fictions, myths and lies. Here below is my analysis on the subject of decline of Buddhism in South Asia. – HS]
Before Islam came to the Indian subcontinent, Buddhism has already been marginalized by powerful Hindus. Even in Bengal, which is closer to Bihar where Siddhartha Gautam Buddha was born, Hindu Brahmins/leaders/rulers were able to reclaim their control over the people. As a matter of fact, had it not been for Islam, Buddhism would have totally been wiped out by Hindus in entire India. Shenali and other Buddhist apologists for Buddhist crimes may like to read the scholarly writings of unbiased area experts on this issue rather than swallowing poisonous pills that are distributed by chauvinist monks like Wirathu to clear their indefensible ignorance and despicable hostility to Muslims. In contrast to popular anti-Muslim myths, when Bakhtiyar Khilji’s horsemen came to topple Hindu rulers, they were treated as saviors who had freed them from the tyranny of ‘upper’ caste rule.
In spite of Gautam Buddha’s message that opposed Brahminical hegemony, Buddhism did not become a state force until 236 BCE when Hindu emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism after he had committed one of the worst mass murders of the ancient world. Buddhism spread to various parts of the world during his reign. Such patronage obviously did not last long, and by the time of the powerful Gupta Empire, the region had gradually moved back to Hinduism. Regional rulers began to choose Hinduism over Buddhism and alliances with Brahmin priests rather than with Buddhist monks were formed. At the popular level, lower castes—who had earlier found the anti-caste philosophy of Buddhism attractive— also began to shift their allegiances back toward more orthodox Hinduism as an anchor in a time of political change. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian noted major weaknesses in Indian Buddhism during his visit to India in the fifth century C.E. Mahayana Buddhism, with its many god-like Buddhas and bodhisattvas inhabiting a multitude of heavens, seemed so close to Hinduism that many Buddhists must have seen little purpose in maintaining a distinction.
The upper caste Brahmins played a very important role in this battle of religions. They were not as greatly opposed to Buddha’s philosophical teachings as they were to his message that directly challenged their hegemony and the divinity of the Vedas, the bedrock of Brahminism, which they had guarded so zealously and exclusively.
Naresh Kumar, researching the subject of decline of Buddhism in India, opines that to combat Buddhism and revive the tottering Brahminical hegemony, Brahminical revivalists resorted to a three-pronged strategy. Firstly, they launched a campaign of hatred and persecution against the Buddhists. Then, they appropriated many of the finer aspects of Buddhism into their own system so as to win over the “lower” caste Buddhist masses, but made sure that this selective adoption did not in any way undercut Brahminical hegemony. The final stage in this project to wipeout Buddhism was to propound and propagate the myth that the Buddha was merely another ‘incarnation’ (avatar) of the Hindu god Vishnu. Buddha was turned into just another of the countless deities of the Brahminical pantheon. The Buddhists were finally absorbed into the caste system, mainly as Shudras and ‘Untouchables’, and with that the Buddhist presence was completely obliterated from the land of its birth.
Naresh Kumar says, “To lend legitimacy to their campaign against Buddhism, Brahminical texts included fierce strictures against Buddhists. Manu, in his Manusmriti, laid down that, ‘If a person touches a Buddhist […] he shall purify himself by having a bath.’ Aparaka ordained the same in his Smriti. Vradha Harit declared that entry into a Buddhist temple was a sin, which could only be expiated for by taking a ritual bath. Even dramas and other books for lay people written by Brahmins contained venomous propaganda against the Buddhists. In the classic work, Mricchakatika, (Act VII), the hero Charudatta, on seeing a Buddhist monk pass by, exclaims to his friend Maitriya— ‘Ah! Here is an inauspicious sight, a Buddhist monk coming towards us.’”
“The Brahmin Chanakya, author of Arthashastra, declared that, “When a person entertains in a dinner dedicated to gods and ancestors those who are Sakyas (Buddhists), Ajivikas, Shudras and exiled persons, a fine of one hundred panas shall be imposed on him.” Shankaracharaya, the leader of the Brahminical revival, struck terror into the hearts of the Buddhists with his diatribes against their religion… The various writers of the Puranas, too, carried on this systematic campaign of hatred, slander and calumny against the Buddhists. The Brahannardiya Purana made it a principal sin for Brahmins to enter the house of a Buddhist even in times of great peril. The Vishnu Purana dubs the Buddha as Maha Moha or ‘the great seducer’. It further cautions against the ‘sin of conversing with Buddhists” and lays down that ‘those who merely talk to Buddhist ascetics shall be sent to hell.’”
“Kushinagar, also known as Harramba, was one of the most important Buddhist centers as the Buddha breathed his last there. The Brahmins, envious of the prosperity of this pilgrim town and in order to discourage people from going there, invented the absurd theory that one who dies in Harramba goes to hell, or is reborn as an ass, while he who dies in Kashi, the citadel of Brahminism, goes straight to heaven. So pervasive was the belief in this bizarre theory that when the Sufi saint Kabir died in 1518 AD at Maghar, not far from Kushinagar, some of his Hindu followers refused to erect any memorial in his honor there and instead set up one at Kashi. Kabir’s Muslim followers were less superstitious. They set up a tomb for him at Maghar itself,” writes Kumar.
Naresh Kumar continues, “In addition to vilifying the fair name of the Buddha, the Brahminical revivalists goaded Hindu kings to persecute and even slaughter innocent Buddhists. Sasanka [also spelled as Shashanka], the Shaivite Brahmin king of Bengal, murdered the last Buddhist emperor Rajyavardhana, elder brother of Harshavardhana, in 605 AD and then marched on to Bodh Gaya where he destroyed the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment. He forcibly removed the Buddha’s image from the Bodh Vihara near the tree and installed one of Shiva in its place. Finally, Sasanka is said to have slaughtered all the Buddhist monks in the area around Kushinagar. Another such Hindu king was, Mihirakula, a Shaivite, who is said to have completely destroyed over 1500 Buddhist shrines. The Shaivite Toramana is said to have destroyed the Ghositarama Buddhist monastery at Kausambi. [Note: Mihirakula, the White Hun, might not have converted to Hinduism.]
The extermination of Buddhism in India was hastened by the large-scale destruction and appropriation of Buddhist shrines by the Brahmins. The Mahabodhi Vihara at Bodh Gaya was forcibly converted into a Shaivite temple, and the controversy lingers on till this day. The cremation stupa of the Buddha at Kushinagar was changed into a Hindu temple dedicated to the obscure deity with the name of Ramhar Bhavani. Adi Shankara is said to have established his Sringeri Mutth [also spelled as Math] on the site of a Buddhist monastery which he took over. Many Hindu shrines in Ayodhya are said to have once been Buddhist temples, as is the case with other famous Brahminical temples such as those at Sabarimala, Tirupati, Badrinath and Puri.”
According to the historian S. R. Goyal (author of A History of Indian Buddhism), the decline of Buddhism in India is the result of the hostility of the Hindu priestly caste of Brahmins. The Hindu Shaivite ruler Shashanka of Gauda [Gaura in Bengali] (590–626) destroyed the Buddhist images and Bo Tree, under which Siddhartha Gautama is said to have achieved enlightenment. Pusyamitra Sunga (185 BC to 151 BCE) was hostile to Buddhism. He burned Sutras, Buddhist shrines, and massacred monks in large numbers.
The Brahmins, who were once voracious beef-eaters, turned vegetarian, imitating the Buddhists in this regard. Popular devotion to the Buddha was sought to be replaced by devotion to Hindu gods such as Rama and Krishna. The existing version of the Mahabharata was written in the period in which the decline of Buddhism had already begun, and it was specially meant for the Shudras, most of whom were Buddhists, to attract them away from Buddhism. Brahminism, however, still prevented the Shudras from having access to the Vedas, and the Mahabharata was possibly written to placate the Buddhist Shudras and to compensate them for this discrimination.
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 Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang [also spelled Hsüan Tsang], who travelled widely and documented his journey. Although he found some regions where Buddhism was still flourishing, he also found many where it was hovering on the verge of non-existence, giving way to Jainism and a Brahminical order. In Bihar (or old Maghadh – Buddha's birthplace), the 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, or modern Assam; no Buddhist presence in Konyodha, few in Chulya or Tamil region, and few in Gujarat and Rajasthan. During the reign of the Chalukya dynasty, Xuanzang reported that numerous Buddhist stupas in regions previously ruled by the 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. Bengal during his travel was ruled by Shashanka, a staunch Hindu ruler. He described Shashanka as the "vile Gauda serpent" who had destroyed the Buddhist stupas of Bengal and declared an award of hundred gold coins for the head of every Buddhist monk in his kingdom. Shashanka 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.
It is worth noting here that Shashanka fought an inconclusive war with Buddhist ruler Harshavardhana and retained his territories. After Shashanka's death, Bengal saw a period of political turmoil between Hindu and Buddhist aspirants for ruling the country. When Palas took control of Bengal, they patronized both Mahayana Buddhism and Shaivite Hinduism. They were later replaced by the Hindu Senas (1097-1203) before Ikhtiaruddin Bakhtiyar Khilji's conquest of Bengal in the early 13th century. When Bengal came under the rule of the Senas, Shaivism was promulgated and Buddhism was pushed out — towards Tibet. A study of the Bengal Puranas indubitably shows that the Buddhists were mocked, cast as mischievous and malicious in Brahminical narratives, and subjected to immense rhetorical violence.
As the majority of Indian rulers who came after Ashoka supported the new vibrant form of Hinduism, Buddhism lacked the official patronage thus continuing its decline.
Buddhism as a whole was becoming tainted in many ways. As noted by a historian: “From the end of the Gupta period onwards Indian religion became more and more permeated with primitive ideas of sympathetic magic and sexual mysticism, and Buddhism was much affected by these developments.” The direct result of this permeation was the birth of a third vehicle, “the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”, Vajrayana. This new sect misinterpreted religious tenets and allowed the use of intoxicants; it was also lenient in the upholding of celibacy.
Another Chinese traveler of the 7th century, Yuan Chwang, wrote “The different schools are constantly at variance, and their utterances rise like angry waves of the sea…there are 18 schools, each claiming pre-eminence.” The many rivalries between sects destroyed the image the masses held of Buddhism. The religious texts of the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools began to be written in Sanskrit, a literary language that most Indians did not understand; this further distanced Buddhism from the common people. As an essentially non-theistic religion, it could not achieve the same success with the masses as Hinduism, which possessed a pantheon of gods that could intervene in the affairs of men if appeased. The moral corruption of Buddhism also caused degeneration in its intellectual standards; the Hindus, on the other hand, had a strong scholarly foundation.
Buddhism flourished for centuries, but eventually, the corruption of the Sangha, the rivalries between sects, and the lack of protection from the ruling class weakened Buddhism and made it unable to compete with the reformed Hinduism. Buddhism eventually entirely disappeared from India. From the many donations it received, the Sangha became rich, and monks began to ignore the tenth rule of the Vinaya and accepted silver and gold. The Mahayana school introduced expensive rituals and ceremonies into the religion, causing it to cease to be economical.
As can be seen, much of the decline of Buddhism was caused by its own failings. It simply could not match the popularity of the re-energized Hinduism. With the surge of Hindu philosophers and theologians like Adi Shankara, Madhvacharya and Ramanuja – the three leaders in the revival of Hindu philosophy, Buddhism started to fade out rapidly from the landscape of India. Shankaracharya (788-820 CE) and Ramanuja (c. 1017-1137 CE) advanced philosophies based on the Vedic literature known to the common people and built many temples and schools to spread their thought. At the same time, as already noted earlier, Hinduism, following its tradition of syncretism, incorporated the Buddha himself within its own polytheistic universe as an incarnation of Hindu God Vishnu. A devotee could revere the Buddha within the overarching framework of Hinduism without having to leave it. That was the final nail put to the coffin of Buddhism in the very land where Buddha was born. 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.
As also noted by some researchers and scholars of Buddhism no manual for the conduct of the laity in Buddhism was produced until the 11th century. Some scholars have also emphasized the narrative of decay and corruption within a faith where the monks had come to embrace a rather easy-going and even lazy lifestyle, quite mindless of the Buddha’s insistence on aparigraha, or non-possession. The Buddhist monasteries are sometimes described as repositories of great wealth. Dependent on begging for their mere survival, the monks often tied their knots with oppressors rather than the oppressed within the society, a trend which we are to see even today in Buddhist-ruled countries.
The ensuing turmoil and millennium-old hostility between the two religions – Hinduism and Buddhism – with the ordinary masses (non-priestly or ruling classes) caught in the middle that were tired of incessant religious wars actually helped Islam to penetrate to the region, thanks to the Sufis and other Muslims who gradually settled in the region. With its superb morality, message of casteless equality and brotherhood of men, and simple and easy to understand and practice the tenets, it was only a question of time when vast majority of certain areas with access to Sufi Islam would embrace Islam. Moreover, the taxation imposed by the Muslim rulers who from the 13th century started ruling vast territories of northern India was much lighter on general masses (compared to how they were taxed under Hinduism and Buddhism). This also helped the downtrodden Indians to entertain favorable opinion about Islam. To garner further concessions, some ruling classes also embraced Islam. And this change did not happen overnight but took centuries to gradually make Islam the dominant religion of the masses in some parts of India.
It is worth mentioning here that in much contradistinction to the myths circulated by anti-Muslim bigots, the Buddhist institution of learning at Nalanda did not suffer any harm during Bakhtiyar's conquest. The damages to it were all pre-Islamic. The Tibetan translator, Chag Lotsawa Dharmasvamin (Chag Lo-tsa-ba, 1197 – 1264), when he visited northern India in 1235 C.E., found it (Nalanda) largely deserted, but still standing and functioning with seventy students. How could this be if Bakhtiyar’s horsemen had destroyed the place some three decades ago?
How about other regions where Buddhism vanished?
In vast majority of the northern and north-western territories like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and central Asia, Buddhism weakened in the 6th century after the White Hun invasion, who followed their own religions such as Tengri and Manichaeism. Their King, Mihirakula (who ruled from 515 CE), suppressed Buddhism as well. He did this by destroying monasteries as far away as modern-day Allahabad (Prayag). [Note: The White Huns were later converted to Rajput Hindus by Brahmins, and became very hostile to Buddhism.] And all these destructions of Buddhist monasteries occurred centuries before Islam became the dominant religion in those territories.
By the time of Sultan Mahmud of Gazani in the 10th century, Buddhism had effectively died, and it was the Hindu and other non-Buddhist kings that he mostly defeated. The vast majority of people of central Asia accepted Islam after the grandchildren of Hulagu Khan gradually embraced Islam. Ghaznavids did not persecute Buddhism in their holdings in Sogdia, Bactria, or Kabul. In 982, Buddhist frescoes were still visible in Nava Vihara and the colossal Buddha figures carved in the cliffs of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan were still undamaged. Al-Biruni reported many Buddhist monasteries still functioning on the southern borders of Sogdia at the turn of the millennium. Ghaznavids tolerated Buddhism in their lands and even patronized literary works extolling its art.
In Kashmir, from 1028 until the end of the First Lohara Dynasty in 1101, the region underwent a steady decline in economic prosperity. Consequently, the Buddhist monasteries suffered from minimal financial support. Furthermore, cut off by Ghaznavid territory from easy access to the great Buddhist monastic universities of the central part of northern India, the standards at the Kashmiri monasteries gradually declined. The last king of this dynasty, Harsha (r. 1089 – 1101), a Hindu ruler, instituted yet another religious persecution, this time razing both Hindu temples as well as Buddhist monasteries. For most part of the Second Lohara Dynasty (1101 – 1171) both religions recovered once more with royal support. However, according to Dr. K. Jamanadas – the author of the book – The Decline and Fall of Buddhism, during the reign of King Jayasimha (r. 1128 – 1149) the two Buddha images, which hitherto had survived Harsha’s demolition campaigns, were demolished and Buddha Vihara in Arigon, near Srinagar was burned down. The economic situation of the kingdom as a whole declined even further, continuing through the subsequent succession of Hindu rulers as well (1171 – 1320). Although the monasteries were impoverished, Buddhist activity flourished until at least the fourteenth century, with teachers and translators periodically visiting Tibet.
Yet, despite Kashmir’s political weakness for more than three centuries under Hindu rule, neither the Ghaznavids nor their Muslim successors in India sought to conquer it until 1337. As noted by Dr. K. Jamanadas, the credit for bringing Kashmiris to Islam goes to Sufi saints Fakir Bulbul Shah and Syed Ali Hamdani, who is also known as Amir Kabir. [The interested readers may like to read Dr. K. Jamandas’s book to enlighten why Kashmiris became Muslims.]
In the south, a vigorous Hindu revival of Shaivite and Vaishnavite Hinduism in the region led to a sharp decline of Buddhism.
Buddhism existed in the monasteries and unlike the dharmaasutras (ethical codes) lacked a moral code. So when monasteries disappeared for lack of support, it hastened the demise of Buddhism in India.
Some historians are divided on major causes for the downfall of Buddhism in East Asia. But genuine and unbiased historians of the area are unanimous in their verdict that it was not the Islamic conquests which caused Buddhism to fade, but rather resurgent Hinduism that made the difference. The prominent 8th-century CE Hindu philosopher Shankara described Buddha as an enemy of the people. Interestingly, he developed a monastic order on the Buddhist model, and also borrowed concepts from Buddhist philosophy. Anti-Buddhist propaganda was also reaching its peak during the 8th century when Shankara modeled his monastic order after the Buddhist Sangha. 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 and historians. 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.
As mentioned in encyclopedic works, "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. The population of North India had become predominantly Shaiva, Vaishnava or Shakta. By the 12th century a lay population of Buddhists hardly existed outside the monastic institutions and when it did penetrate the Indian peasant population it was hardly discernible as a distinct community. … 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."
During the 7th to 13th centuries when Islam arrived in south Asia, it replaced both Hinduism and Buddhism as the great cosmopolitan trading religion. As already hinted, Hulagu Khan's massacre and destruction in Baghdad in the mid-13th century led many Muslims to seek refuge in areas untouched by such problems. Many came and settled in India. The superior morality that they brought and practiced, plus the Sufi teachings allowed many Indian inhabitants to slowly accept Islam. It was more so in the Bengal region where under Sufi influence, the pressures of caste, and with no political support structure left in place to resist social mores, many converted to Islam.
Bottom line: Buddhism was showing unmistakable signs of its decline long before Islam became established in the Gangetic plains, central India, and the northern end of present-day Andhra and Karnataka. It died a natural death. As noted by a Hindu scholar, "The old Buddhism, which denied the very being of God, offered no hope of human immortality and looked upon all life as misery, love of life as the greatest evil, and the end of man as the extinction of all desire, lost its power. Buddhism was choked by the mass of superstition, selfishness and sensuality which surrounded it… The Mahayana metaphysics and religion in fact was synonymous with the Advaita metaphysics and theism. Hinayana on the other hand, with its more ascetic character, came to be regarded as a sect of Shaivism. Buddhism found that it had nothing distinctive to teach. When the Brahminical faith inculcated universal devotion and love to God and proclaimed Buddha to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu, the death knell of Buddhism in India was sounded."
Quoting Swami Vivekananda “Thus, in spite of preaching mercy to animals, in spite of the sublime ethical religion, in spite of the discussions about the existence or non-existence of a permanent soul, the whole building of Buddhism tumbled down piece-meal and the ruin was simply hideous. The most hideous ceremonies, the most obscene books that human hands ever wrote or the human brain ever conceived, have all been the creation of the degraded Buddhism."
Rather than blaming other religions, Buddhism needs a serious introspection to find the root causes of its demise in India and most of south Asia. When it does, it will find that its demise was prompted by itself and not by some outside forces. It cannot go on blaming others for its monumental failures and accompanying unfathomable cruelties. If it wants to survive in the new century when our world is much more connected it better reform so that it is not viewed as a moribund philosophy that is inimical to human aspirations and genocidal against ‘other’ people. It needs to have less of Wirathu and more of Gambira to make that journey.
Is it ready or more appropriately, will it ever be ready for that quantum leap?