For Buddhists, India is a land of many Buddhas. From time immemorial, Bodhisattvas have been born within India’s borders, have awakened there, and have attained final Nirvāṇa.
As the Buddha of our Present Era, Śākyamuni is crucial but not unique: The Dharma he taught has been found and lost countless times over the ages:
This myth of Buddhahood has profoundly affected traditional biographies of Śākyamuni, a fact that limits their utility as evidence for “what really happened.”
Historians accept that Śākyamuni lived, taught, and founded a monastic order:
But they cannot easily accept most details included in his biographies. Available sources are 2-fold - textual and archaeological - and neither is satisfactory.
Textual sources cannot be fully trusted, since even the earliest extant texts date to 5 centuries after Śākyamuni’s death; archaeological sources are older, but sparser in their details.
For this reason, scholars cannot agree upon the century in which Śākyamuni lived:
One chronology places his life circa 566-486 B.C.E.; a 2nd, circa 488-368 B.C.E., and other dates are proposed as well.
Scholars do not know all the doctrines Śākyamuni taught, nor how people regarded him in his own day. Lacking even such basic knowledge, one can consider the social milieu of Buddhism’s origins in only the most general terms.
2. Social milieu of early Buddhism
(5-4th century B.C.E)
To understand the rise of Buddhism, one must look to a world in transition:
Approximately one millennium before Siddhārtha Gautama - the man who was to become the Buddha Śākyamuni - was born, waves of nomads, the Indo-Āryan, crossed the mountain passes of Afghanistan in approach to South Asia:
Little is known about these people. What is known comes from their sacred Vedas, collections of hymns and lore to be used in the performance of ritual:
These texts represent the Indo-Aryans as proud warriors, noble masters of the world who by 1000 B.C.E. began replacing their caravans with agrarian settlements. As agricultural production increased, villages developed into towns, and towns into cities.
As the Indo-Aryans settled, Vedic lore increasingly became the dominant ideology of the Gangetic plain in North India:
Vedic Brahmin priests performed rituals, told stories of the gods, and explained the working of the universe; they even guaranteed supporters a favourable place in the afterlife.
But the Vedas had been composed when the Indo-Aryans were nomad-warriors:
Although the Brahmins held that their sacred knowledge was valid in this new urban context, some found that a hollow claim.
Men like Siddhārtha Gautama were not satisfied by the ordinary patterns of daily life, or the Vedic legitimations thereof. Such men left their families and wandered out of the cities to become Śramaṇas (seekers).
Siddhārtha was to become the most successful critic of the Vedic Brahmins, and the most famous representative of India’s seeker movement.
The problem, as Siddhārtha saw it, was that the Vedic priests of his day did not merit their high social status:
Those Brahmins claimed to be the offspring of Brahmā (the creator god), and thus to be conduits of super-mundane power (Brahman) in the human world.
When the seeker Siddhārtha encountered these priests, however, he did not find them upright or learned gods-on-earth. To the contrary, Buddhist texts present them as beguiled by the wealth and tumult of urban India:
They come across as greedy, foolish, proud men who hide their fraud behind high-flown claims to supremacy based upon the ancient names of their clans and caste.
By considering the institutional foundation of Buddhism in its socio-historical context, one finds Śākyamuni to have been a critic and innovator
whose institutional genius lay in his ability to legitimate new rituals of social engagement appropriate to the economic situation of his day through claims that he was merely reforming a broken social-spiritual order.
For instance, verse 393 in Dhammapada (Words of the Doctrine) reads:
“One is not a Brahmin because [one wears] dreadlocks, or due to one’s clan or caste. It is due to truth and Dharma that one is pure, and is a Brahmin.”
This verse promises that Buddhist “Brahmins,” unlike the Vedic, are not frauds, for their Brahmin-hood is guaranteed by the imprimatur of Śākyamuni himself, the teacher of true Dharma.
Vedic priests, by contrast, were not only frauds, but dangerous frauds:
For by denouncing these priests’ Brahmin-hood, Śākyamuni also denied the efficacy of their rituals. In their place he offered his own disciples, who had realized 4 Noble Truths and become worthy “Brahmins.”
The multiple connotations of the word Ārya - the ethnonym for India’s conquerors, the adjective Noble, a description of Buddhist truths - connect Śākyamuni’s religious innovations with hallowed memories of the past.
In sum, rather than sponsor elaborate Vedic rites or pay the fees of Vedic priests, the laity were directed to make offerings of food, clothing, and medicine to Śākyamuni and his Saṅgha (community of monks):
This was presented as a truly efficacious way to earn spiritual merit, ensuring a family member’s favourable afterlife. As receivers of gifts, Buddhist monks were ideally suited to the new urban landscape of northern India.
3. Saṅgha and social norms
(5-4th century B.C.E.)
According to Buddhist lore, the Saṅgha was founded when Śākyamuni taught the Dharma-cakra-pravartana-sūtra (Turning the Wheel of the Law) to 5 men who had been his companions when he undertook intense ascetic rigors before he attained Buddhahood.
Swiftly, Śākyamuni attracted many more followers, ascetics, and seekers to his community:
As the Saṅgha’s reputation spread, it earned support from wealthy merchants and kings. Such patronage was necessary, for this community was comprised of Bhikṣus (beggars living on alms).
Thus, monastic rule books represent Śākyamuni as fervent in his pursuit of a monastic “good neighbour” policy:
For as a social institution, Buddhism was woven into a web of parallel institutions - economic, political, familial, medical, cultural - that had no necessary stake in the Saṅgha’s perpetuation.
Potential donors had definite expectations about how Bhikṣus should comport themselves. If monks transgressed those expectations, they stood to lose support.
It is thus crucial to recognize that although Buddhist monks took the radical step of leaving their families, the Buddhist Saṅgha was neither a radical nor an antisocial institution:
It did not strive to undermine fundamental social canons. Indeed its rules often legitimated and conserved those canons.
Tensions between the Saṅgha’s identity as a community of beggars, and its need to conform to public norms of behaviour, are exemplified by stories about founding the order of Nuns:
When asked to admit his foster-mother, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī, as the first female Bhikṣunī, Śākyamuni refused, even though he admitted that women are as capable as men of becoming Arhats:
The rationale given for his reluctance was that Bhikṣuṇīs would be like blight in a field of sugarcane, weakening the Saṅgha’s vitality:
Śākyamuni prophesied that if he founded an order of nuns the Saṅgha would remain true to his teachings for 500 years only, whereas if he did not admit women, his male brotherhood would survive 1 000 years without decay.
Ultimately Śākyamuni relented, after pledging Mahāprajāpatī and all future nuns to accept 8 extraordinary rules, which thoroughly subordinated the female Bhikṣuṇīs to the male Bhikṣus.
In sum, the male institution’s reluctance to grant unreserved legitimacy to its female counterpart reflected a broader cultural ambivalence in India concerning women, one that was misogynist in its value judgments, even while it recognized the inevitability of women’s social presence.
4. Buddha's death and the 1st Council
(5-4th century B.C.E.)
If the Saṅgha was founded with Śākyamuni’s first sermon, his death forced it to be reborn:
Without a single, universally accepted voice of authority, Buddhist monks became increasingly divided over wisdom, practice, conduct, and religious goals.
The on-going history of the Saṅgha presents a tug-of-war between,
- on the one hand, individuals or groups seeking to conserve what they considered the core of Śākyamuni’s religion, and
- on the other hand, the continuing need to conform to changing social, cultural, political, and economic structures.
The first example of such a battle comes from the stories of Śākyamuni’s own life, when his cousin, Devadatta, attempted to supplant him as the Saṅgha’s leader. The sources suggest that this rebellion was swiftly quashed by Śāriputra and Mahā Maudgalyāyana, Śākyamuni’s chief disciples.
After Śākyamuni’s death, however, a more comprehensive strategy was needed to keep the Saṅgha whole. That strategy is contained in the legend of a First Council: convocation held in the city of Rājagriha during the first summer after Śākyamuni’s death:
Buddhist traditions claim that this council was comprised of 500 monks, all Arhats. It was presided over by Mahākāśyapa, an early convert and the most accomplished monk still alive.
The purpose of this council was to recollect all Śākyamuni’s teachings, and thus to establish the discourses (sūtra), monastic rules (Vinaya), and formal doctrines (Abhidharma) that would sustain the unified Saṅgha in Śākyamuni’s absence.
Scholars do not regard narratives about this council as historically credible. Nevertheless, one can certainly see its rhetorical value:
Buddhists could affirm that within 1 year of Śākyamuni’s final Nirvāṇa,
all of his pronouncements were recited, confirmed as the legitimate Buddha-vācana (Word of the Buddha) by a congregation of perfect men, and set in their appropriate canonical baskets.
5. Schism after schism
(4-2nd century B.C.E.)
The same institutional memory that lauds this “orthodox” meeting also tells of other, “dissident” monks, who rejected the council’s authority:
Accordingly, even if scholars knew that a council of elite disciples really did convene in the year after Śākyamuni’s death,
they still could not reckon how many subgroups existed within the Saṅgha that followed a Dharma and Vinaya owing nothing to Rājagriha’s convocation.
The meeting held in Rājagriha is remembered as only the first of several.
As time progressed, the ideally Unified Saṅgha splintered into numerous disparate sects (Nikāya), each claiming to faithfully preserve Śākyamuni’s Dharma and Vinaya.
It is difficult to give a precise account of these later councils, for each sect relates this history from its own biased point of view.
Nevertheless, the most important of these later councils can be dated to approximately 100 years after Śākyamuni’s death, and placed in the north Indian city of Vaiśālī:
At issue were several practices of Vaiśālī Saṅgha, which some from outside the city considered violations of the Vinaya:
With the exception of Theravada materials, all other sources agree that the dispute was resolved and that the “lax practices” of the Vaiśālī monks were declared unacceptable, a verdict apparently accepted by the Vaiśālī monks themselves.
Thus, for the time being, the unity of the Saṅgha was restored.
Some time after the council at Vaiśālī, however, a more far-reaching dispute erupted, which resulted in the first schism in the Buddhist community:
a division between one group that styled itself the Sthāvira-vāda (Pāli, Theravāda; The Teaching of the Elders) and a second group that called itself the Mahāsaṁghika School (The Great Assembly, or “Majority”).
Accounts vary as to the cause of the dispute; according to some, the disagreement was occasioned by the so-called 5 points of a certain Mahādeva, which concerned the fallibility of the Arhat.
It now seems more plausible, however, that these points arose later and occasioned a schism within the Mahāsaṁghika subgroup itself.
More likely is that the original dispute was provoked by the addition of some new Vinaya rules by the group that styled themselves the “Elders,” which were rejected by the more conservative Mahāsaṁghikas.
In any event, the division between the Mahāsaṁghika and the Sthāvira-vāda is universally accepted within the tradition as the first real schism to split the Buddhist community:
All the schools that subsequently emerged within Indian Buddhism are offspring of one of these 2 main groups.
The schism between the Mahāsaṁghika and the Sthāvira-vāda was but one example of centrifugal forces that had long been present in the Saṅgha:
Multiple claims to authority, differences of language, of location, and of monastic rules, as well as burgeoning differences over doctrine and religious practice
all contributed to the further division of the Saṅgha into numerous Nikāyas, as the Sthāvira-vāda and Mahāsaṁghika sects both ruptured internally.
Though the absolute number of Nikāyas is not known, it is popularly held that several centuries after Śākyamuni’s Nirvāṇa, the Saṅgha had split into 18 separate Nikāyas:
Some of these Nikāyas were distinguished by little more than geography, others by unique doctrines, and still others in terms of their ritual practice.
Each Nikāya possessed its own canon, grounding its own profession of orthodoxy.
Unfortunately, with the exception of the Theravāda’s canon in Pāli, and scattered fragments from other Nikāyas, little of this once vast literary corpus survives.
6. Institutionalization and Stūpas
(5-3rd century B.C.E.)
Monastic competition after Śākyamuni’s death was not the only agent of institutional change.
Traditional stories of Śākyamuni’s biography do not end with his final Nirvāṇa in Kuśinagara:
These narratives describe the people gathered at Śākyamuni’s death as observing a body progressively emptied of personal vitality. The body was cremated. But a dispute soon arose over who owned the funerary remains:
The people of Kuśinagara claimed these relics (śarīra) for themselves, since Śākyamuni had chosen their territory for his final Nirvāṇa. But the people of other territories swiftly demanded relics as well.
To stave off war, equal shares of Śākyamuni’s remains were given to all. Each of these measures was then housed in a memorial Stūpa.
Why would people have been willing to go to war over the funerary fragments of a dead holy man? Here one finds a window onto early Indian Buddhism:
Stūpas associated with Śākyamuni provided sacred sites at which lay and monastic Buddhists alike were able to enter his otherwise inaccessible presence. Once in that presence, they could make offerings and reap merit.
Thus, Stūpas promised spiritual power to the kings who controlled them, and particularly prestigious sites would also have generated great revenues from pilgrims who travelled from far and near for worship.
Similarly, Caityas (shrines commemorating places visited, and objects used, by Śākyamuni) also became pilgrimage centres.
Pilgrimage was enormously important in Buddhism’s development:
Laymen, laywomen, monks, and nuns all encountered one another traversing the Ganges basin, from sacred site to sacred site:
Such shared ritual, in turn, became the foundation of a shared religious identity, an all-inclusive community called “the 4-fold assembly” in Buddhist texts.
But even though patterns of worship gave the laity a bona fide position within this assembly, the institutionalization of pilgrimage also granted additional duties and opportunities to the monks.
Large monastic communities grew up around major Stūpas; these monasteries’ inhabitants served as caretakers, priests, and teachers.
Acting for the good of the Buddha, of their brotherhood, and of their kingdom, monks made Buddhism a fixture of the Indian religious landscape for nearly 2 millennia.
7. Aśoka Maurya
(3rd century B.C.E.)
Artefacts dating to the reign of Aśoka, ruler of the Mauryan dynasty (3rd century B.C.E.), provide the oldest extant evidence for Buddhism in India.
Aśoka was an important early patron of the Saṅgha, and his exertions on its behalf are celebrated in traditional Buddhist writings from Śrī Lanka to China.
Legend holds that Aśoka raided the original group of Stūpas in order to redistribute Śākyamuni’s relics into 84 000 Stūpas, making that presence available throughout his kingdom.
Aśoka is said to have held a Grand Council in order to re-establish a single orthodoxy within the Saṅgha; he also supposedly made pilgrimage to all the places important to Śākyamuni’s life.
Though hyperbolic, these literary paeans point to Aśoka’s prominent role in Buddhism’s institutionalization. Archaeological remains provide more precise, through less glorified, evidence of Aśoka’s activities:
Among the many edicts Aśoka incised on pillars and boulders, several speak to his interest in Buddhism:
The Bhābrā edict, for instance, recommends a set of 7 texts for Buddhist monks and laity to read and study (all the texts focus on ethics, suggesting that, for Aśoka, good Buddhists were also good citizens).
The Kauśāmbi edict denounces disunity within the Saṅgha, ordering schismatic monks to return to lay status.
The Nigliva inscription tells that Aśoka doubled the size of a Stūpas dedicated to a past Buddha named Konākamana.
In short, although sectarian Buddhist writings on the religion’s early historical development cannot be trusted in their details,
archaeological evidence from Aśoka’s reign allows us to accept these texts’ broad characterization of this era, when worship focused on Stūpas,
devoted Buddhists made pilgrimages, and nostalgic tales of Śākyamuni’s harmonious Saṅgha contrasted with the sharp-edged glare of contemporary circumstances.
8. A time of change and development
(2nd century B.C.E. to 4th century C.E.)
The Mauryan Empire did not long survive Aśoka. It was followed by 5 centuries of political turmoil, during which indigenous dynasties and foreign invaders vied for supremacy.
Although Buddhism established a base identity during Mauryan times, the succeeding era of political competition and social diversification fostered new doctrinal and institutional expressions.
During these centuries, monastic spats increased the number of Nikāyas to 18, or more.
Additionally, monasteries and pilgrimage centres were increasingly founded outside the Gangetic basin: in the South (Amarāvatī, Nāgārjunīkoņḍa), central India (Bhārhut, Sāñcī), and the Northwest (Takṣaśīla, Haḍḍa, Bāmiyān).
A tradition of representing the Buddha in iconic form developed during this period as well, alongside numerous regional styles.
Religious creativity was not the sole property of Buddhists, however. This era also saw innovations in Hinduism, leading to its increased popularity:
The Mauryan dynasty was succeeded in north India by the Śuṅga, whose first ruler, Puṣyamitra Śuṅga (185-149 B.C.E.), showed a strong interest in Vedic ritual, and governed with the support of Vedic Brahmins.
Buddhists number Puṣyamitra among the Saṅgha’s greatest enemies. In central India during this same century, a Greek legate erected a pillar in Kṛṣṇa’s honour.
Still, such developments do not signal Buddhism’s eclipse:
One of the Indo-Greek kings, Menander (ca. 150 B.C.E.), is claimed as a Buddhist convert, while the Kushan royal Kaniṣka (1-2nd century C.E.) sought to emulate Aśoka through his generosity and close stewardship of the Saṅgha.
9. The Bodhisattva-yāna
(2-1st century B.C.E.)
The Buddhist Saṅgha was a ritual community pledged simultaneously to the preservation of an ultimate truth and the legitimation of social norms. As social forms, economic systems, and rulers changed, Buddhist monks devised new, locally appropriate expressions of their core principles:
The fact that so many Nikāyas came into being so quickly testifies to the ideological ferment of this time.
A backlash against this turmoil produced the most comprehensive breach in Buddhism’s early history:
Each Nikāya claimed orthodoxy, inspiring some partisans to adopt stalwart sectarian identities.
But other Buddhists found this strident sectarianism a violation of Śākyamuni’s ideals. These latter viewed their brethren as backsliding from the original intent of the renunciate’s life:
Zealous to recover that origin, they accused those monks of being hypocritical, hedonistic, lazy, and unstudied in the rules of conduct. These reformers singled themselves out by advocating living in forests, an optional practice for all monks.
But even more importantly, these monks sought to reform Buddhism by declaring themselves to be Bodhisattvas, riding the Bodhisattva-vehicle (Bodhisattva-yāna) to perfect Buddhahood.
Institutionally, this Bodhisattva-yāna had a diffuse origin:
It cannot be traced to a single social group, Nikāya, locale, or founder. Its members did not claim to be the First Council’s heir, and thus to form a new Nikāya:
Rather, these Bodhisattvas were united by a common vision, for which Nikāya membership was beside the point. They held that Bodhisattva-hood, and ultimately Buddhahood, was the only legitimate aspiration for Śākyamuni’s followers.
This Bodhisattva-yāna was adopted by monks and laity alike:
For the renunciants, monastic vows and Bodhisattva’s vows were not in conflict. To the contrary, by aspiring to become Śākyamuni’s equal, a monk demonstrated just how seriously he took his renouncer’s role.
For the laity, too, to articulate a Bodhisattva’s vows was to signal one’s serious religious intent.
Most Nikāyas held that only monks can become Arhats; individuals who aspired thus were expected to abandon lay life.
But the nature of the Bodhisattva path made it such that a Bodhisattva could marry, work, raise a family, and still be spiritually adept.
Thus the same vow that enabled Bodhisattva monks to aggrandize themselves as Śākyamuni’s legitimate heirs, allowed Bodhisattva laity to aggrandize almsgiving and worship as significant accomplishments on the path to Buddhahood.
10. From Bodhisattva-yāna to Mahāyāna
(1st century B.C.E. to 2nd century C.E.)
The fact that the Bodhisattva-yāna developed simultaneously in many centres makes it difficult to speak of an origin per se, or even a single Bodhisattva-yāna:
However, there is one aspect of religious life that these scattered Bodhisattvas did share in common: a desire to learn more about how they should live, practice, and think as Bodhisattvas.
The Nikāyas had little to say about the Bodhisattva figure, and what information their canons did provide was general and retrospective.
In the centuries after Śākyamuni’s Nirvāṇa, members of the Nikāyas composed (or edited) Sūtras, but they presented their work as the Buddha Śākyamuni’s.
Bodhisattvas were no exception to this practice:
By the 1st century B.C.E., a new genre of Buddhist literature was being written, focusing upon the path and practices of Bodhisattvas.
The first works of this literature are lost:
The earliest texts that do still exist, from circa 1st century C.E., reveal this Bodhisattva movement to have been diffuse and numerically insignificant. But they also begin to use a distinctive name, Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle).
The Mahāyāna began as a minor reform movement within the constraints of Nikāya-Buddhism. It soon developed new and distinct forms of the religion.
The wide range of subjects one finds in early Mahāyāna Sūtras is suggestive of the diverse origins from which it arose:
These Sūtras show that Mahāyānists were concerned with reforming Buddhism on a number of fronts: doctrinal, sociological, soteriological, cultic, and mythological.
Some severely criticize Buddhists who do not take the Bodhisattva vow, while others contain no such polemic; some speak to a monastic milieu, while others champion lay Bodhisattvas.
This early Mahāyāna was heterogeneous, with Bodhisattvas even disputing other Bodhisattvas in an open-ended process of decentralized change.
11. Institutionalization of Mahāyāna
(2-12th century C.E.)
Although Sūtras provide the first evidence for the Mahāyāna’s existence, few contemporaneous material artefacts show their influence:
That is to say, archaeological data do not suggest that the Mahāyāna directly affected monastic life, patronage, ritual, or even education during the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd centuries C.E.
Only in the 5th century is there significant public evidence of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India.
The “underground” nature of Mahāyāna at its inception is one factor in this slow transition from spiritual movement to public institution.
But an important catalyst toward change came in 320 C.E., when Chandragupta I founded a dynasty that united North India as a single state for the first time since Aśoka.
The changes initiated by Chandragupta’s ascension are so numerous that 320 C.E. is often cited as the first in a new era of Indian history. For explaining the Mahāyāna’s institutionalization, however, the most profound development was economic:
Before the Guptas, monetary exchange formed the basis of the north Indian economy. A money-economy circulates wealth through direct transactions between people:
Nikāya-Buddhism was well suited to such a system because the Nikāyas emphasized the worth of the monks (or the Stūpas they controlled) as recipients of donation.
Indeed, Buddhism gained such prominence in the centuries after Śākyamuni’s death in large part because its ideology justified the accumulation of money, and provided a way to benefit from that accumulation even after death.
Beginning with the Gupta dynasty, however, this money-economy began to give way to one based upon ownership of land.
The Guptas did not attempt to govern their entire territory directly from their capital city:
Rather, as “Lords of the Earth,” the Guptas permitted petty kings to retain residual control over their regions, and gave fields and villages to Brahmins, who then administered those lands.
Thus, beginning with the Guptas, wealth became less associated with amassing money than with holding jurisdiction over a quasi-independent territory;
one did not have prestige because one could enter into many exchange relationships, but due to one’s close alliance with the imperial suzerain.
For Buddhism this meant that the wealth, position, and surplus resources of the merchants who had made up the bulk of the religion’s early lay followers were diminished, leaving only members of the royalty and Buddhists themselves as donors.
As possession of land became essential for Buddhism’s survival, Buddhist institutions were ever more dependent upon direct royal patronage:
This required Buddhists to adjust the tenor and focus of their religious productions, and directly address royal concerns in Buddhist media.
The Mahāyāna was particularly well suited to this new economy. Its Sūtras had long used royal imagery when speaking of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas:
Thus, the Prajñā-Pāramitā Literature (Perfection of Wisdom texts) describes Bodhisattvas as fearless heroes, wearing armour while mounted on the Great Vehicle.
Buddhas, similarly, are presented by the Mahāyāna as lords, each of his own personal Buddha-land, surrounded by divine retinues; they engage in demonstrations of mutual admiration and support; they send Bodhisattva emissaries to one another.
In the 5th century, these literary tropes begin to make their mark on public art and inscriptions, revealing the symbolic manoeuvres by means of which Mahāyāna Buddhism became prominent in India.
The institutionalization of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism reached its apogee in the great monastery at Nālanda, which, as a centre for higher education, attracted students to Northern India from throughout Asia:
As delineated by the 7th century pilgrim Xuanzang (ca. 600-664), Nālanda’s foundation dated to the imperial Guptas:
In the early 5th century, one king built a monastery at a lucky spot in this town. Over the next century, subsequent Gupta rulers added to that establishment.
Eventually, devout rulers from other parts of India, and even other countries, made their own donations of buildings and resources.
By Xuanzang’s day, Nālanda had become the preeminent Buddhist University. Its endowment included several hundred villages; its dormitories housed several thousand students.
And although a liberal education was possible - including the Vedas, medicine, and art - every student was required to study Mahāyāna literature as well.
In later centuries, Nālanda was supplemented, and then surpassed, by 2 other Mahāyāna universities, Otantapūri and Vikramaśīla; both were established by the Pāla dynasty that ruled in India’s Northeast from about 750 to 1150 C.E.
Furnished with ample lands by their Pāla patrons, these great monasteries were eventually depopulated, their books destroyed, during the 13th century Muslim conquest of North India.
12. End of Buddhism in India
(7-13th century C.E.)
The fact that Mahāyānists came to have a significant public presence does not mean that Nikāya-Buddhism was eclipsed:
A census of monks, made by Xuanzang in the 7th century, reveals that monks who were primarily identified with the Nikāyas still outnumbered Mahāyānists.
Yet, of the original 18 + Nikāyas, only 4 remained vital, and almost half of all Nikāya-Buddhists belonged to the Saṁmatīya sect, whose tenets were the object of considerable intra-Buddhist polemic.
When Xuanzang’s census is compared with an account given by Faxian (ca. 337-418) in the 5th century, however, one notices, that the Mahāyāna’s institutional gains took place in a landscape within which Buddhism as a whole had become less prominent:
The same economic developments that supported the Mahāyāna also instigated an efflorescence of sectarian Hinduism devoted to Viṣṇu and Śiva.
Like the Buddhists, these Hindus sought royal patronage. But unlike the Buddhists, the Hindus were effective allies for kings who needed to socialize indigenous and tribal peoples:
Brahmin legal codes, rooted in the Vedas, legitimated a strictly stratified society, and gave every person a fixed place within that society. Such codes eventually gave rise to a “caste system.”
Though Buddhist texts take the existence of “caste” for granted, they attempt neither to justify this social system, nor to disseminate it.
From the point of view of India’s rulers, Buddhist monks were less effective ideologues than Brahmins.
In turn, as Brahmins held primary responsibility for transforming villagers and tribals into royal subjects, those peoples came to identify themselves with the Brahmins’ own gods.
Thus, although Buddhism flourished in the post-Gupta period, the religion became increasingly rarefied and disengaged from the immediate interests of the common masses.
This transformation of Buddhism’s social base was, ultimately, the cause of its downfall in India.
Buddhist monks became increasingly professionalized: intellectuals in “ivory towers,” uninvolved in the day-to-day lives of common folk.
The destruction of the great monasteries (Nālanda in 1197; Vikramaśīla in 1203) by invading Turks provided the coup de grace:
Lacking strong royal support, and long since having lost that of the populace, India’s Buddhist monks had nowhere to turn.
A travelogue written by Dharmasvāmin, a monk from Tibet, reveals that by the mid-13th century there were almost no self-professed Buddhists remaining in India.
Over the preceding two millennia, Buddhist institutions, ritual practices, ideas, ideals, and ways of life had become a part of the social landscape in almost every Asian land:
These regional and national Buddhisms all looked back to Śākyamuni for authority, though the incredible diversity of their forms and expressions might have astounded him.
Despite Buddhism’s demise in its first home, its traditions continued to thrive.
13. Revival of Buddhism in India
(19-21st century C.E.)
The 19th and 20th centuries saw a resurgence of Buddhism in India:
The first concerted attempt toward reintroducing Buddhism to the land of its origin was made in 1891, when Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933), the son of a wealthy furniture dealer in Śrī Lanka, visited Bodh Gayā, the site of Śākyamuni’s awakening.
Distressed by the sorry neglect of this site, he founded the Mahā Bodhi Society with the aim of fostering its restoration.
Dharmapāla’s motives were missionary as well as devotional:
Educated in the Christian missionary schools of colonial Śrī Lanka, Dharmapāla imagined that a renewed Bodh Gayā would serve as a centre for the propagation of Śākyamuni’s teachings.
The fact that this small town is now filled with monasteries and hostels serving pilgrims from all over the world is the realization of Dharmapāla’s dream.
However, in terms of the re-creation of a native Indian Buddhism, no figure has been more important than Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956):
As a leader of India’s Untouchables, Ambedkar renounced Hinduism in favour of Buddhism, believing that this conversion would lead to greater respect for his downtrodden people.
Ambedkar himself has now become a central figure of reverence for India’s neo-Buddhist movement.
In 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, escaped to India, soon followed by many thousands of his countrymen. In exile, the Tibetans have remained vigorous patrons of Buddhism:
establishing monastic centres that serve their own people as well as the curious who visit India to learn about Buddhism.
Indeed, as Buddhism became a religion with a global reach during the latter half of the 20th century, all evidence has shown a burgeoning appreciation within India itself for its Buddhist heritage.