Oct 31, 2010

Decline of Buddhism in India

By Xavier Zambrano

How has one of the world’s main religions fallen into such decay in its own birthplace? This article analyzes the historical causes behind the decline of Buddhism in India.

The Golden AgeThe key council for the spreading of Buddhism was the Third, held under the auspices of Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C. The most important decision was the Emperor sending forth of monks to preach in nine different countries. Ashoka consolidated Buddhism as the hegemonic religion in India and initiated its expansion with the conversion of Sri Lanka. By the 7th century A.D. it had spread to East Asia and Southeast Asia (modern Thailand, Tibet, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan). Ashoka, despite his preference and active promotion of Buddhism advocated for religious tolerance, as stated in one of his stone edicts -some current leaders should mark his words:

"But it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one's own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one's own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought "Let me glorify my own religion," only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good.[24] One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions."

Decay and fallBuddhism enjoyed promotion from power until the end of the reign Harshavardhana (8th A.D.) when royal patronage ended. This marked the beginning of a decay that extended until the Muslim invasions in the 13th century. Although Hindu scholars attribute the progressive decay to the divergences between sects and the appearance of tantric deviated conducts in monasteries, Hinduism, and most particularly, Brahmanism (a strict social organization on the basis of some religious ideas) tried to dilute Buddhism by presenting it as a kind of Hinduism. Thus, from the 7th century Buddha was included in the list of Avataras of Vishnu. The Muslim invasions in the 13th century brought the destruction of Buddhist Universities and the killings of Buddhist monks. Again, it is common for Hindu scholars to put the full blame on Muslims, but it is also a fact that there was a certain connivance of the Brahmin class at the local levels of administration, where they retained their privileges, with the new Muslim rulers. Moreover, the formation of Buddhist monks was conducted through rigorous training and therefore, they were less easily replaced than Brahmin priests ready-made by birth. Many Buddhist lay worshipers were driven to Islam by persecution. Evidently, the tolerant spirit of the Ashoka reign had long passed away.

RebirthAfter the 2nd World War, Buddhism initiated a process of recovery in India. In Sri Lanka, 29 countries gathered in 1950 to discuss the preliminary works leading to the Sixth Council, held in Rangoon in 1954. One personality that went to this preliminary works was to become a milestone of Buddhist patronage in India: Babasaheb Ambedkar. He was one of the great activists for Indian independence , a process in which he held some sour discussions with Gandhi on account of his distrust in Hindus willingness to address the caste problem in India. He was a great supporter of the abolition of the caste system, having founded in 1942 The All-India Scheduled Castes Federation to unite all ‘untouchables’ in political party. After independence he became an architect of the Indian constitution passed in 1949. On the occasion he stated that: "I appeal to all Indians to be a nation by discarding castes, which have brought separation in social life and created jealousy and hatred." When he came back from the Sri Lanka conference in 1950 he made another historical statement: "In order to end their hardships, people should embrace Buddhism. I am going to devote the rest of my life to the revival and spread of Buddhism in India". This call was addressed mainly to the untouchables and the lower castes. He blamed Hinduism and its passive acceptance by the lower castes, as the cause of the perpetuation of the caste system. Buddhism could provide an egalitarian ground (one of the principles of Buddhism is the view that all beings have a Buddha nature and are equally equipped to attain enlightment), without completely discarding the traditional Indian religious devotion or introducing forced foreign ideas. In 1956 he wholly embraced Buddhism in a ceremony in which half a million untouchables proclaimed their conversion. Millions of untouchables followed his appeal and converted to Buddhism. In 1891 there were only 50.000 Buddhists in India, while in 1965 the figure raised to 4 million. Actually, the Wheel of Law at the center of the national flag refers to the Dharma-vinaya in Buddhas’ doctrine, and the official seal of the republic is the Lion Capital of Ashoka.

Despite this situation, Buddhism global health is solid and India can be credited for having provided the world with a religious philosophical system and practice that, while remaining deeply rooted into traditional Indian philosophy, has open ground for adaptation to radically different social and cultural realities. This adaptability has proven vital for Buddhism expansion and survival, a survival that in some phases of Indian history was strongly menaced by bigotry and religious persecution.

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