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The Buddhism in India: History

India is the land where Buddhism originated. Lord Buddha was an Indian prince who abandoned all materialistic pleasures to find the real truth of life. His teachings today have immense significance. A whole lot of people wish to know not only about his life but also about the status of Buddhism in the country of its origin in past as well as present. Here, through this text, we have tried to trace for you the development, fall and revival of Buddhism in India, from the beginning till date. But before that, we have provided you a list of most important Buddhist attractions – states, cities, monasteries, temples, monuments, caves and festivals – of India. Details of them is essential to understand the developemnt of Buddhism in India more accurately.

Buddha's Statue

The Indian sub-continent witnessed the rise of Buddha and then His thoughts in the later half of the 6th century BCE and the first half of the 5th century BCE. It was after 528 BCE, the year of His enlightenment, that He started preaching the doctrine of Dharma to His disciples. During His lifetime only, a large number of people had turned into His disciples, and after His death, when His chief disciple, Ananda wrote down the teachings of the Buddha into a Pali canon, Tripitaka (three baskets), it was warmly accepted by more and more people from parts of India, Pakistan and Kandhar (modern Afghanistan).

Ashoka And The Spread of Buddhism

However, the growth and spread of Buddhism had not taken a speed even after two Buddhist Councils in 483 BCE(Rajriha) and 383 BCE(Vaishali), till the arrival of the Indian emperor, Ashoka into the scene. It was Ashoka who gave state patronage to Buddhism and sent Buddhist missionaries to different parts of the southeast Asia and the world respectively. He also convened the third Buddhist council in 250 BCE, in which he tried for the purification of the Buddhist movement by reconciling different schools of Buddhism with different thoughts, mainly Sthaviravadins(with orthodox view) and Mahasanghikas(with liberal view).

The Persecution

After the fatal Kalinga war, Ashoka converted into Buddhism and then Buddhism reached its saturation point in India. But, the situation changed after his death when Buddhism had to go through a period of despotism during the reign of Pushyamitra Sunga(183-147 BCE) and his successors.

The Boom

After a phase of religious persecution, Buddhism again received the royal patronage in the reign of Kanishka, which continued on till 6th and 7th century BCE. Kanishka convened the fourth Buddhist council around 100 CE in Kashmir or Jalandhar. It was from this moment that Buddhism remained the most influential religion in India till 7th to 8th century CE AD, thereby inspiring great works of art, literature and philosophy and profoundly influencing the character of the Indian people.

The Schools of Buddhism
Lord Buddha is said to have handed over the task of recovering and explicating the perfection of wisdom texts to Nagarjuna, who completed the task brilliantly. He has also been credited for the foundation of Madhyamaka or the middle way school of Buddhist philosophy with an emphasis on the doctrine of emptiness. It was Nagarjuna’s philosophy that is connected with the emergence of Mahayana. Approximately two centuries after Nagarjuna, a new Mahayana school arose in India, known as the Yogachara or the Yogic Practice School, which gave an emphasis on meditative practices. From around the 4th century CE, a new school of thought, Vajrayana or Tantrayana Buddhism started to develop in India as a part of the Mahayana tradition, which smphasised on tantric practices. All these schools of Buddhism had their own thoughts, own practices and different line of followers.

The Nalanda University
In the 5th century CE, a new Buddhist monastic university was established in Nalanda, India, which soon became the largest and most influential Buddhist centre for learning. It was Nalanda university, which had a famous Buddhist scholar Bodhidharma, who took Buddhism to China, where it was named as Ca’an Buddhism and from China when moved further to Japan, came to be known as Zen Buddhism. During this period, thousands of Indian monks travelled all over Asia spreading the Buddhist thoughts and Indian culture while thousands of people from other countries came to India to study in the Nalanda and Vikramshila University.

The Downfall
The patronage and fame that Buddism had been receiving was soon to be replaced by ignorance due to the revival of Hinduism in India. The spread of Buddhism had been successful in India partly due to the reason that at that time Hinduism had developed into a staunch practice and was not approachable for the common men, especially for those belonging to lower classes, whereas Buddhism did not believe in such things and was easily approachable. But the revival of Hinduism in India in the 8th century CE soon brought back the glorious days of Hinduism, which made people incline towards Hinduism, and so, a large section of people, who earlier followed Buddhism turned towards Hinduism.

Various other reasons further caused tragic decline of Buddhism – internal corruption, the intermingling of Tantrayana into Hinduism, the luxurious life of the monks and ultimately, the arrival of Islam in India. Buddhism was unable to adapt to the changing social and political circumstances and lacked the strength to overcome these difficulties. It further got a jolt when the Turks sacked the great north Indian monastic universities and killed many prominent monks in between 10th to 13th century CE. Buddhism could survive only in small remnants of Buddhist communities in the Himalayan region.

The Revival
During the British colonial rule in the early 20th century, Buddhism again witnessed a comeback to its motherland, India and gained momentum by a combination of European antiquarian and philosophical interest and the dedicated activities of a few Indian devotees. In 1891, Dammapara of Sri Lanka founded the Mahabodhi society to reinforce control over the Buddhist shrine in Gaya, India.

The revival movement got strengthened when in 1956 at Nagpur in the Indian state of Maharashtra, a great Indian political leader, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar held a conversion ceremony, and along with his 500,000 untouchable supporters, converted to Buddhism. The arrival of the exiled Buddhist religious leader, Dalai Lama from Tibet to India along with his thousands of supporters further gave an impetus to the strengthening of the Buddhist movement in India.

The total number of the Buddhists in India in 1981 was 4,720,000 – 0.70 per cent of the total population, which rose to 6,387,000 in 1991 – 0.79 per cent of the total population, while according to the census of 2001, conducted by the Indian government, the total number of the Buddhists in India rose to 7,955,000 million, thereby constituting 0.80 per cent of the total Indian population.

Reena Rawat
Author: Reena Rawat

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