Buddhism: Origin, Spread and Decline

1. Contemporary Indian Society and Buddhism’s origin

A keen observer of the world history may notice a pendulous motion. At one end of the pendulum’s swing is the society immersed in crass materialism, Pravritti (literally, action) and at the other end is the society engrossed itself in spirituality, Nivritti (literally, withdrawal).

Histories of both the east and the west seem to follow this trend. Greeks were originally Nivritti oriented. The Greek Pythagorean School was Nivritti oriented but later Epicureans were at the opposite end. Romans believed in active life but later Christianity emerged as a monastic movement with celibate monks and nuns. Martin Luther founded Protestantism to reject Catholic Nivritti. The scientific and industrial revolution of the 18th century can be identified as extreme Pravritti and now we are witnessing the Nivritti-oriented people opposing the extremes of science: atomic bombs, pollution etc. And the society is slowly inclining towards yoga, meditation, etc.

Similarly, India had its own share of these cycles. In the pre-historic times, Vedic India had an active life (Pravritti), and then Upanishadic sages realized and propounded the concepts of renunciation (Nivritti). After that, Krishna preached the balance of Pravritti and Nivritti in the Bhagavad-Gitä, by being active in one’s duties but not attached to the results of it.

At the time of the Buddha’s birth, Indian society had lost its balance of Pravritti and Nivritti. Society was divided into different sects. Brahmins who were the torch-bearers of the spiritual wisdom in the ancient times, had limited themselves to rituals. In the absence of knowledgeable guides and spiritual leaders, society had become virtually directionless. Society was looking for the ethical and moral order once again.

In such a chaotic time, the Buddha was born in Northeast India. In his early life, he renounced his wife, son, and kingdom and achieved liberation (nirvana). The Buddha revolutionized the society by showing a new path to spiritual freedom by renouncing the worldly activities. Hundreds of Buddhist Viharas were founded which were instrumental in spreading Buddhism all over India and other Asian countries. Thus, the Buddha rekindled the spirit of propagating spiritual knowledge in the society. Renunciation and passive life (Nivritti) became a major trend of the society.

2. Spread of Buddhism

Before the birth of the Buddha, Indian society had become self-centered (the intellectual class) and ritualistic (the masses). Buddhism provided a new organized form of religious Sangha, which preached a simple message of compassion in Päli, the language of laypeople. This ease and simplicity helped the extensive spread of Buddhism. The cryptic language of Vedic philosophy was difficult for the masses to understand. Buddhism filled the gap by offering a simplified way of noble conduct to the common people. Here are some key reasons for the spread of Buddhism in Asia:

  • India’s Spiritual Reputation In the era of the Buddha, India was regarded as a pioneer in many fields. India had an economic surplus, political stability and more importantly, a history of spiritual and intellectual innovation. India was viewed as a superpower similar to 21st century America. Buddhism was received with open hearts in other countries in Asia because of its origin in India.
  • The Middle Way
    Buddhism provided the middle way in two ways: Philosophically, it neither advocated complete nihilism and materialism of Chärväkas nor accepted the theistic philosophy of Vedas. This appealed to the intellectual class. Secondly, it rejected both the householder life of Vedic Hinduism and the extreme penance of Jain mendicants. This provided a middle way of renunciation to the society. Therefore, it was accepted by intellectual class and the masses alike.
  • Emphasis on Ethics
    Without emphasizing on complex philosophies, Buddhism simply stressed a good moral life. The Buddhist message of compassion was seen as an ethical revolution in the Asian countries and that helped its success there.
  • Sangha — Socialization of spirituality
    As mentioned earlier, Buddhism emphasized the propagation of spiritual practices and principles in the society and stressed on overall socialization of religion by organizing Sangha of monks and nuns. Society supported these Sanghas by the way of donations, both monetary and in the form of land. These Sanghas actively spread the message of Buddhism in India and other Asian countries. Buddhism, similar to Islam and Christianity, has been a proselytizing religion, even if it was done peacefully: Emperor Ashoka’s missionaries went all over Asia and converted vast regions to Buddhism.
  • Universal Acceptance
    Buddhism accepted people of all nationalities, races, castes and sexes with open arms. Although philosophically Vedic scriptures had this principle, the practical and social implementation was carried out by Buddhism at a massive level. It also compromised on certain principles. For instance, although a strictly vegetarian religion originally, it allowed meat-eating people to convert into Buddhism. This flexible attitude helped it to spread easily in Asian countries.

3. Decline of Buddhism in India (7th century onwards)

There are two broad categories of reasons for Buddhism’s decline in India:
• Internal factors (e.g., laxity of monastic rules and internal disputes, etc.)
• External factors (e.g., Hinduism’s revival and Islamic invasion, etc.)

3.1 Internal Factors

  • Degeneration in moral and spiritual attainmentsIn his book “Studies in Buddhistic culture in India,” Lal Mani Joshi quotes a number of references from various texts to show several examples of the moral degeneration of Buddhist monks and nuns. Joshi writes: “It is evident from these references that decadence of Buddhism in India is related, at least in some measure, to the decay of moral and spiritual discipline among the Buddhist monks and nuns. The examples he quotes are from Chinese travelers Yuan Chwang and I-tsing, Kashmiri historian Kalhana, Kalidasa’s Mälvikägnimitra, Bhavabhuti’s Mälati Mädhava, Shudrak’s Mrichhakatika, Dandin’s Dashakumära-Charita, Mahenravarman’s Matta-viläsa-prahsana and Bhagavadajjukam and other anonymous writings such as Chaturbhäni and Räshtrapäla-Pariprichha-Sutra. Even the earliest Buddhist texts reveal an awareness of tendencies towards laxity and corruption within the Sangha, tendencies that eventually developed to the point where large numbers of monks were performing magical practices, amassing personal or community wealth and engaging in various other improprieties. Those who emphasized the significance of this phenomenon are certainly correct in claiming that it represented a serious weakness in the Buddhist community.
  • Schism and sectarian disputes
    Joshi further quotes Chinese traveler Yuan Chwang to show fierce disputes among the Buddhist sects. Buddhism was no longer one system but had become a family of several systems, schools and communities. The Buddha was apprehensive of the danger of internal disunity (Sanghabheda) and had condemned it as one of the five deadly sins. However, the history of schism in Buddhism dates back to the time of the Buddha himself. For instance the followers of Devdatta revolted against the Sangha, Shantideva refuted Abhidharma and Vijnanvada, Chandrakirti’s attacked non-Madhyamika systems, Sammitiyas of Sindh and Prajnagupta reviled the Mahayana, etc. In Joshi’s words: “In short, the controversies among the Buddhists were as bitter as those between the Buddhists and non-Buddhists.”
  • Weakening intellectual base
    As a spiritual force, Buddhism had lost its creative impulse. The Buddhists had nothing new to say any more. By analogy what happened in the first and sixth centuries, a new outburst of creative activity was due in the eleventh century, and was necessary for the rejuvenation of the religion. It failed to take place.
  • International character
    The international character of Buddhism, which had enabled it to conquer Asia, also favored its extinction in India. It had always inculcated indifference to the particular country in which the monks were living, and so the surviving monks left the country in which they could no longer practice their monastic rules and went to Nepal, Tibet, and China etc. Their less flexible and more earth-bound Hindu and Jaina brethren stood their ground and in the end they survived where these religions were.

3.2 External Factors

  • Deteriorating political supportBuddhism had generally relied on the support of kings. The rise of the Brahmanical Shungas, ending the Mauryan dynasty, meant the end of good times for non-Vedic sects in Magadha; thus large numbers of both Jainas and Buddhists moved out of their native region towards Mathura in the west, thence along the mercantile routes into other areas hospitable to their cause.
  • Revival of Hinduism
    The growth of Hinduism, with its firm roots in Indian society and freedom from the costly institution of the monastery, offered a colossal challenge to Buddhism. The eventual triumph of Hinduism can be followed by a number of landmarks often associated with opposition to Buddhism: the spread of Vaishnavism; the great Vaishnava and Shaiva saints of the south, the Alvars and Nayanars, respectively, whose Hindu patrons were openly hostile to Buddhism and Jainism; the ministry of Shankara in Mysore (788 – 850 AD), a critic of Buddhism who was himself accused of being a “crypto-Buddhist”; and the triumph of Shaivism in Kashmir (800 AD).
  • Inclusivist nature of Hinduism
    In the course of 1700 years of co-existence the Hindus had taken over a great deal from the Buddhists and vice versa, e.g., Buddhists started building temples of the Buddha and Bodhisattva. They started worshipping the Buddha as the ultimate creator and preserver of the universe. Carl Jung mentions in “The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation” that in Buddhism, the different gods are symbolic representations. This may be an influence of Hinduism on Buddhism. In consequence, the division between Buddhism and Hinduism had increasingly diminished and it was no surprise for a Buddhist to be absorbed into the largely Buddhified Hindu fold. The philosophy of Nagarjuna had been absorbed into the Vedanta by Gaudapada, Sankara’s teacher; just as the Vaishnavas of later times were greatly indebted to the Buddhists (Bhagavat Purana incorporated the Buddha as the ninth Avatar of Vishnu). The Buddhists Tantras had provoked their Hindu counterparts, which abound with references to Mahayana deities. Eventually, separate existence of Buddhism did not serve any useful purpose. Its disappearance thus was no loss to anyone.
  • Islamic invasions
    By the time of the Muslim conquest, the separate identity of Buddhism resided primarily in its great monasteries and universities. The distinctively dressed monks, all concentrated at these places were an easily identifiable target for Muslim zealotry. Hinduism, by contrast, had no identifiable heart at which to strike. It had succeeded in pervading Indian society while Buddhism had become increasingly isolated in monasteries and universities. Buddhist monks offered no resistance to the invasions, partly in obedience to their vows, and partly because they believed that astrological calculations have shown that Muslims would in any case conquer Hindustan. The destruction of Nalanda in 1197 AD and of Vikramashila in 1203 AD by Muhammad Ghori marks the end of Buddhism in India.

From the above discussion we can conclude that Buddhism collapsed only as a separate identity. Its main principles were assimilated in Hinduism quite harmoniously.

4. Influence of Buddhism in India

  • Religious reformOne of the key contributions credited to Buddhism is its protest against the prevalent violent sacrifices (Bali) in the Yajnas. This may be a misconception founded by Max Muller. The Bali tradition may already have been stopped long before the Buddha’s birth by the Upanishadic sages. The Bhägavada-Gitä has a clear definition of Yajna devoid of any violence and the date of Gitä are still debated vis-à-vis those of the Buddha.The intellectual era of the Upanishads (and intellectual-devotional era of the Gitä) predates Buddhism. If Buddhism was really a non-violent alternative, Buddhist followers would not have admitted meat-eating people into its Sanghas. Moreover, the history of many Buddhist nations is full of violent religious struggles, e.g., Burma, Tibet (900 AD), China, Japan, Sri Lanka, etc. According to Dr Padmanabh S Jaini, Buddhists as meat-eaters could make little effective protest against any violence compared to Jainas who were strictly non-violent in every respect.

    Thus Buddhism downplayed the role of complex rituals prevalent in the contemporary society but did not necessarily reform the violent sacrifices.

  • Buddhism and social reform
    According to Buddhism scholar Edward Conze: “In their desire to express disapproval of Christianity, many authors have painted the record of Buddhism too white.” The situation may be similar with regard to Hinduism. Buddhism is sometimes considered to be a social reformer of Indian society. However, let us examine whether Buddhism reformed the prevalent caste system.In the Buddhist literature, there is hardly any word against the Vedic Caste System. Though professedly open to all, Buddhism was practically limited to the higher castes. It did not interfere with the domestic rituals which continued to be performed as prescribed in the Vedas. The Buddha himself is recorded to have held that the original Brahmins were good men and the Veda (originally) a true doctrine but that both had become corrupt and needed to be completely reformed. Here are two texts from the early Buddhist tradition: the Dhammapada, a major text ascribed to the Buddha himself, and Sonananda Sutta – a minor text recording the Buddha’s dialogues. The last chapter of the Dhammapada is about the Brahmins. Here are three from the fifty odd verses:Not by matted hair, nor by clan
    or by birth does one become a Brahmin.
    In whom is truth and dhamma,
    He is the pure one, and he is the Brahmin ( 393;78)
    And I do not call one Brahmin
    Merely by being born from a [Brahmin] womb,
    Sprung from a [Brahmin] mother.
    He is merely a “bho-sayer”
    If he is a possessor of things.
    One who has nothing and takes nothing,
    That one I call a Brahmin ( 396;78)
    Who, here, having abandoned the human bond,
    Has transcended the heavenly bond,
    Who is released from all bonds,
    That one I call Brahmin (417;81)

    In tenor, theme and substance, all these verses are similar and the Buddha defines a true Brahmin in them. He does not say that being a Brahmin is to be a fraud, cheater, or a liar; he does not call Brahmanism or caste system an abomination.

    Even the Buddhist ruler Ashoka accepted caste system in social matters. He had said: “Caste may be considered when it is a question of marriage or invitation, but not of Dharma; for Dharma is concerned with virtues, and virtues have nothing to do with caste.” According to Etienne Lamotte:

    “Adherence to the Buddhist faith in no way compelled the adept to reject his ancestral beliefs or repudiate the religious practices customarily performed in his circles. The Buddha did not combat the deities of pagan Hinduism. He refused to condemn the paganism as a whole.”

    Buddhism was a powerful force in India for around 1000 years and if it really reformed the caste system and established social equality by removing caste barriers, there was no reason for caste system to be present even today, so deeply rooted in Indian society. At least there should have been a movement to recreate caste system after Buddhism’s demise and obviously no such thing has been recorded in the history. This shows that caste system was always there in India, before the Buddha, during the Buddha and even after Buddhism collapsed in India. Even in other Buddhist countries, equality is a rare commodity, e.g., China never had social, political or economic equality even though Buddhism has been there for almost 2000 years. In his book “The discovery of India”, India’s first prime-minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that the caste system could not be influenced even by the powerful impact of Buddhism.

    Therefore, we may conclude that the Buddha did not outrightly rejected the Vedic caste system but challenged its rigidity by downplaying the role of Brahmins and offering the path of renunciation to people of any caste or gender. The Buddha was mainly interested in spiritual rather than social reform. He founded the monastic system which was open to all castes but the lay society continued its prevalent caste system as before.

  • A simplified and organized ethical system
    The most significant contribution of Buddhism was its emphasis on morality and ethics. The cryptic code of Vedas and the highly intellectual philosophy of Upanishads were carried to the masses by Buddhism. It laid down clear-cut rules for right belief, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right mode of livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness, right rapture. Buddhism proved that spirituality is not limited to any Varna or social class. One can attain Nirvana even without worshipping any deity or relying on any scriptures, just by one’s personal endeavor. Buddhism propagated spirituality all over Asia based on a very simple ethical and moral message. It pioneered the concept of organized Sanghas and Vihäras which helped in reforming the prevalent religious life in India and the rest of Asia.

5. Conclusion

Although Buddhism as a separate religion vanished from India, many of its concepts and principles have merged with mainstream Hinduism. The tradition of organized Sanghas and Viharas was later adopted by Shankara in the form of Mathas. And that same tradition continues today in hundreds of other Mathas under Ramakrishna Mission, Chinmaya Mission, etc.

Buddhism originated as a reaction to Pravritti and propagated Nivritti. This may be a reason for its new acceptance now in western countries. In India, both the Brahmanic and the Shramanic traditions have merged to shape what is popularly called as Hinduism. Other countries may not have had such assimilatory experiments and therefore, Buddhism kept its separate identity there.

Human society will always be indebted to the Buddha for his great contribution in the fields of spirituality.

Buddham çaraëam gacchämi
Dharmam çaraëam gacchämi
Sangham çaraëam gacchämi

Pankaj J, Ph.D.
Author, ‘Sustenance and Sustainability: Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities’

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