Saturday, July 27, 2013

How Buddhism Declined in South Asia

When Chinese Buddhist pilgrims toured India in the 5th and 7th century, they found that Buddhism had virtually disappeared in its Gangetic homeland, under the imperial force of Brahmanism, though it still thrived in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Chinese pilgrim Faxian noted major weaknesses in Indian Buddhism during his visit to India in the fifth century C.E., centuries before Islam came in the world scene. Mahayana Buddhism, with its many idols of 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 Brahmanism, which they had guarded so zealously and exclusively.

Naresh Kumar, who researched 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 Sudras (also spelled Shudra) and ‘Untouchables’, and with that the Buddhist presence was obliterated from the land of its birth.

According to Naresh Kumar, “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, popularly depicted as a Shaivite by many Buddhists, might not have converted to Hinduism. - HS]

“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.” [Disappearance of Buddhism from India: an untold story]

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 CE) destroyed the Buddhist images and Bo Tree, under which Siddhartha Gautama is said to have achieved enlightenment.

The conversion of Buddhists back to the fold of Hinduism did not happen overnight and must have taken a long time during which the Brahmins had to improvise and come up with ways to outsmart Buddhist monks. The Brahmins, who, according to Naresh Kumar, 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 arguably it was meant for the lowest caste Shudras, most of whom had become Buddhists by then, to attract them back to Hinduism away from Buddhism. Brahminism, however, still prevented the Shudras from having access to the Vedas. Mahabharat, to which they were given access, tried to compensate them partially 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 and Yuan Chwang amongst other variants], who travelled widely and documented his journey. In 629 CE, the year after the arrival of Prophet Muhammad's (S) envoys at Canton, this learned and devout Buddhist left Sian-fu (Singan), Tai-tsung's capital, to travel to India. He returned in 645 after 16 years, and wrote an account of his travels which is treasured as a Chinese classic. 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 Magadha), the site of a number of important Buddhist landmarks, he also found a striking decline and relatively few followers, with Hinduism and Jainism predominating. The great Buddhist university at Nalanda was in ruins. Bengal during his travel was ruled by Shashanka, a staunch Hindu ruler. He found relatively few Buddhists in Bengal, Kamarupa, or modern Assam. 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. He writes that Shashanka destroyed the Bodhi tree of enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and replaced Buddha statues with Shiva Lingams.

Xuanzang found no Buddhist presence in Konyodha, few in Chulya or Tamil region, and few in Gujarat and Rajasthan. 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.

Of his travel to Kushinagar, Xuanzang wrote, “The city walls were in ruins, and the towns and villages were deserted. The brick foundations of the 'old city' (that is, the city which had been the capital) were above ten in circuit; there were very few inhabitants, the interior of the city being a wild waste.” He also alluded to internal factors that contributed to the decline of Buddhism. He wrote, “The different schools [of Buddhism] are constantly at variance, and their utterances rise like angry waves of the sea…there are 18 schools, each claiming pre-eminence.”

Shashanka is blamed by Xuanzhang and other Buddhist sources for the murder of Rajyavardhana, a Buddhist king of Thanesar.

It is worth noting here that Shashanka fought an inconclusive war with Buddhist ruler Harshavardhana and retained his territories. After Shashanka's death in around 626 CE, however, Bengal saw a period of political turmoil between Hindu and Buddhist aspirants for ruling the country. When Palas took control of Bengal in 750 CE, they patronized both Mahayana Buddhism and Shaivite Hinduism and not Theravada Buddhism. It was an innovative adaptation to evolving social environment.

The caste origin of the Palas is not clearly stated in any of the numerous Pala records. As to the origin of the Palas, the Ballala-Carita says that "The Palas were low-born Kshatriyas", a claim reiterated by the historian Taranatha in his "History of Buddhism in India" and Ghanaram Chakrabarty in his Dharmamangala (both written in the 16th century CE). The Ramacharitam also attests the fifteenth Pala emperor, Ramapala, as a Kshatriya. As Gopala I was a Buddhist, he was also branded as a Sudra king in some sources.

Notwithstanding, the Palas were responsible for the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and the Malay Archipelago. Bengal became famous in the Buddhist world for the cultivation of Buddhist religion, culture and other knowledge in the various centers that grew under the patronage of the Pala rulers. Buddhist scholars from the Pala Empire travelled from Bengal to the Far-East and propagated Buddhism. A few outstanding individuals among them are Shantarakshit, Padmanava, Dansree, Bimalamitra, Jinamitra, Muktimitra, Sugatasree, Dansheel, Sambhogabajra, Virachan, Manjughosh and many others. But the most prominent was Atish Dipankar Srigyan who reformed Buddhism in Tibet after it had been destroyed by king Langdharma.

The Palas were staunchly anti-Brahmin. They controlled most of north India and supported Buddhists for four hundred years. But after Hemantasena, a Pala tributary, Hindu by faith, declared his own independent dynasty, his successor, Vijayasena (1095-1158) defeated the Palas, pushed Sena armies west across Bengal and northern Bihar, patronized Vishnu worship, and Buddhism was pushed out towards Tibet. Vaishnava Hinduism flourished in Sena domains. The last Sena raja, Laksmanasena, patronized the most famous Bengali Vaishnava poet, Jayadeva, who wrote the widely influential devotional poem, Gitagovinda.

When Bengal came under the rule of the Senas, according to Dr. K. Jamanadas, no Brahmin could be found in Bengal. “Senas had to import Brahmins to their kingdom” from other areas to perform rituals. In a vengeful manner, the Senas expelled Buddhists from its domain (especially, from its western territories) and many of the expelled Bengali Buddhists went on to settle in Sri Lanka where a sizable Buddhist population had existed.

Brahman influence in Bengali society was enhanced from Sena times onward by a distinctly Bengali system of hypergamy in which high caste women married Kulin Brahman men who fathered children with multiple wives; this produced a multi-caste elite that included merchants, landowners, and administrators who flourished under later medieval regimes.

In 1206, Laksmanasena was driven out of Bengal by the Turk conqueror, Ikhtiyaruddin Bakhtiyar Khalji, who shifted state patronage to Islam. 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?

From Khalji times onward, there was a general drift of patronage for Islam to eastern regions of Bengal, where the Senas had not uprooted Buddhists. Muslim converts and migrants populated new agricultural settlements in eastern Bengal, where Vaishnavism in particular but Hindu temples, arts, poetry and music in general also flourished under the patronage of Hindu landlords, merchants, and administrative elites.

Buddhism, which was on the brink of elimination from Bengal under the Senas survived under the Muslim rule.

How about other regions of South Asia?

In the vast majority of the northern and north-western territories like today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan, and central Asia, Buddhism was 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 Buddhist 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 Ghazni (971-1030 CE), Buddhism had effectively died as a state force, and it was the Hindu (e.g., Jayapala and Anandapala) and other non-Buddhist kings (including Muslims) 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, and 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 (Hindu) Dynasty in 1101, the region underwent a steady decline in economic prosperity. Kalasa, a weak-willed Hindu, who involved himself in an incestuous relationship with his daughter, was the king until 1089. His son, Harsa (r. 1089 – 1101), who succeeded him, indulged in incest, too, and was corrupt, cruel and squandering as his predecessors. He taxed his subjects heavily, and looted temples – both Hindu and Buddhist - to further raise money to fund his failed military ventures and his indulgent lifestyle. He razed Buddhist monasteries. All but two of the statues of Buddha in his kingdom were destroyed during his rule. 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 under Hindu rule.

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) of the Second Lohara Dynasty the two Buddha images, which hitherto had survived Harsa’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 (1171 - 1320). Although the monasteries were impoverished, Buddhist activity flourished until at least the fourteenth century with teachers and translators periodically visiting Tibet.

The last of the dynasty was Suhadeva who taxed heavily and exempted not even the Brahmins from his exactions. Although he managed to unite the kingdom under his control everyone was united against him. According to Professor Mohibbul Hasan, the author of the book - Kashmir under the Sultans, "Socially and morally the people of Kashmir had sunk to the lowest depths, for old and young alike had taken to falsehood, intrigue, dishonesty and discord."

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 saint Fakir Bulbul Shah.

Kashmir formally came under Muslim rule when Shah Mir, a Muslim, took over the country in 1339 from Kotarani, the widow of Sultan Sadruddin (alias Rinchan – formerly a Tibetan Buddhist prince who had converted to Islam). By the end of the 14th century the vast majority of the country had become Muslim.

The Katmandu Valley was a Buddhist stronghold ruled by Hindu kings. After all, Gautama Buddha was born in the southern foothills (Terai) of Nepal, where Ashoka inscribed a column. In Gupta times, Licchavis began their long reign, and claiming Kshatriya status, they launched a tradition of sovereignty in which high-caste kings from the Ganga lowlands maintained supremacy over a mostly Buddhist population. According to Professor Ludden, “Powerful medieval kings in Tibet made Himalayan passes to the north major arteries of culture, commerce, and politics reaching into China, which brought more and more Buddhists and patrons for Buddhism into the valley.” Kingdoms around Katmandu became a mixing ground for Hindus from the south and Buddhists from the north.

In the western plains -- in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Malwa, and Bundelkhand -- medieval Hindu dynasties of Kalacuris, Caulukyas, Paramaras, and Candellas patronized Jains, who were prominent among merchants. According to Prof. Ludden, “One Caulukya king is said to have become Jain. Hindu and Jain cultural features blended into one another. Jain temple worship and Hindu-Jain marriage became common. In Gujarat -- Mohandas Gandhi's homeland -- it became difficult to say where Jainism ends and Hinduism begins… Gujarati Bania (merchant) castes made their version of Vaisya culture very Jain, a cultural phenomenon with its origins in the mixed patronage of medieval dynasties.”

In the peninsula, medieval worshippers of Shiva and Vishnu displaced Buddhism and Jainism from the cultural prominence they enjoyed in early medieval times, especially in Madurai and Kanchipuram.

“In the far south,” writes Professor Ludden, “from the eighth century onward, non-Brahman cultural activists took the lead in spreading Shiva and Vishnu worship in old Dakshinapatha by inventing devotional (bhakti) worship that valued emotion above knowledge, discipline, and ritual; by composing vernacular verse in Tamil, not Sanskrit; by promoting female saints and mass participation in deity worship; by giving devotees a direct relation to god independent of Brahmanical mediation; by making low caste status respectable in the eyes of god; by making songfests ad hoc sites of worship; by praising poet saints over Brahman gurus; and by creating pilgrimage places rooted in local traditions. Bhakti poets produced a new style of emotive, popular cultural politics. Devotionalism made divine frenzy and passion for god a high virtue, and by the tenth century, these energies had been turned against religious competitors… Under Chola kings, worshippers of Siva (Shivites) prospered at the expense of Vishnu worshippers (Vaishnavas), triggering battles among sectarian forces.”

“Bhakti devotionalism and sectarian competition challenged Brahman elite proponents of traditional Sanskrit religion as it attracted more patronage from ruling dynasties. To cultivate a popular following, many rulers in the south supported Vaishnava (Alvar) and Shivite (Nayanar) bhakti poets. The most celebrated Hindu intellectual of the early medieval age, Shankaracharya (788-820), made his name during his short life by developing a Sanskrit high-culture rendition of Tamil devotional poetry, by reconciling Shivism and Vaishnavism through a non-dualist advaita philosophy that drew on the Upanishads and incorporated elements from Buddhism, and by travelling from Kerala to Kashmir and back again to establish monastic centres. Shankara helped to absorb and normalize popular devotionalism in elite Brahman high culture. Populist challenges to the spiritual power of Brahmans were mostly of local importance, but one of major regional stature emerged in the Kannada-speaking interior of the peninsula, where the bhakti saint Basava established a sect called Virashaivas (also called Lingayats) with a non-Brahman jangama priesthood. Virashaivism attracted royal patronage and many adherents from merchant communities and became regionally dominant in northern Karnataka, where Lingayats remain predominant today.” [David Ludden, India and South Asia: A Short History]

Overall, in the south India, since at least the 8th century, a vigorous Hindu revival of Shaivite and Vaishnavite Hinduism in the region led to a sharp decline of Buddhism. Several texts also indicate massacres of Buddhists and Jains.

Buddhism existed in the monasteries and unlike the dharmaasutras (ethical codes) lacked a moral code. So when those monasteries disappeared for lack of support from the top, it hastened the demise of Buddhism in most of India.

>>>> To be continued …



Professor Ram Puniyani's article on Bodh Gaya bomb blast

Professor Ram Puniyani has written an article on the Bodh Gaya blast which I recommend strongly. It can be read by clicking here.

Bodh Gaya Blast - who is behind the crime?

One may recall that Indian media  in recent days was abuzz with stories linking the July 7 Bodh Gaya blasts in India’s Bihar province with the Buddhist persecution of Arakanese Muslims, perceiving that sympathetic Muslim groups might have been behind the crime. It was unusual for the so-called liberal media in India. But years of anti-Muslim activities and religious propaganda by Hindu supremacist parties have succeeded in creating the unfortunate divide in that multi-racial and multi-religious country since at least the demolition of the historic Babri Mosque. Then came the Gujarat violence in which Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister and his BJP Party played a direct role that saw the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims.

As the latest news report from India suggests an Assamese might have been behind the crime in Bihar. Click here for the news.


Seema Sengupta has written a good article last week on the danger of ignoring the Rohingya problem in the Arab News. She also criticized the media for jumping into conclusion too fast with stories linking the July 7 Bodh Gaya blasts in India’s Bihar province with the Buddhist persecution of Arakanese Muslims. Ignored there was the in-house players.


Seema Sengupta writes, "Even the most cursory look at the innuendos floating around gives a clear indication of the liberal Indian psyche being gripped by Islamophobia slowly but steadily. Unfortunately, a section of the establishment is complicit in the manufacture of hatred apart from a host of experts who shows no inhibition in jumping to conclusions within minutes of a terror strike."
As to Indian Intel's direct involvement on many illicit matters in the sub-continents, Sengupta mentions that  Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh is a fiefdom of Indian intelligence operatives, to say the least, as the predominantly Buddhist local tribal community are known to be loyal Indian asset.
She suggested that the Buddhist clergy, known as the Sangha, should take the lead in searching for common ground that can serve as a foundation for constructive interfaith dialogue between Muslim and Buddhist community leaders. "There is no denying the fact that some radical Buddhist elements cannot reconcile themselves to the reality of Buddhist majority nations offering due space to minority communities like Muslims and others. Even though they may be a minority in their own community, these individuals with toxic mind must be reminded that it is easy to keep lighting the fires of hatred but extremely difficult to douse them once the flame starts ruining the society we live in. So, instead of being the catalyst for turning the globe into a scary place; let each individual subscribing to whatever faith, strive for overcoming hatred. And as scriptures of all religion teach us — hatred is never overcome by hatred, it can only be surmounted by love."



Sunday, July 21, 2013

BURMA's MASSACRE VIDEO

Here is a recent video clip that I came across on terrible lynching of minority Muslims in Burma in recent days. Please, click here to view this.





Saturday, July 20, 2013

Decline of Buddhism in ancient India


Popular myths circulated and believed amongst many Buddhists about the decline of Buddhism in South Asia or the Indian subcontinent are so bizarre that they are more often than not diametrically opposed to the historical facts. Those myths, unfortunately, define and justify the current genocidal campaigns against non-Buddhists in Buddhist-majority countries. This series of articles aims at an objective study on the causes of such decline.

Against popular Buddhist narrative of history, before Islam came to South Asia Buddhism has already been marginalized by powerful Hindus. Even in Bengal, which is only a short distance from where Siddhartha Gautama 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. This fact should not come as a surprise if the apologists for Buddhist crimes in places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and elsewhere had 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 in Bengal (Banga and Anga), they were treated by the inhabitants as saviors who had freed them from the tyranny of ‘upper’ caste Brahmanism.

Millennia before the message of Islam was preached into the world by the Prophet Muhammad (S), the region we know today as South Asia was very different than it looks today with its national borders separating and enclosing state territories. So for an objective study of the region, one must skip the boundaries of today which have changed dramatically and been defended, contested and redrawn at various points in time.

According to history professor David Ludden of NYU (previously with U Penn), South Asia has always been open geographically for human migration and communication. In the Himalayan localities, migrants, herders and setters had moved to and fro regularly across borders with Tibet. Borders with Burma (today’s Myanmar) were also open with Assam (a northeastern state in today’s India) and Bengal (today’s Bangladesh). The coastal regions had similar connectivity, especially after the advent of iron tools in around 1200 BCE. They were the best trading partners of each other. It is, thus, not surprising that the Bangla (spoken in Bangladesh and parts of India) and the Sinhala (spoken by Sinhalese Buddhists of Sri Lanka) are closely related. This trading extended all the way to Java in Southeast Asia, where a major historical period of so-called Indianization occurred during the first millennium.

By the time of Gautama Buddha around the sixth century BCE, elements of Aryan ideology were adapted to local conditions in South Asia by its elites. Brahmans elevated themselves above others. One hymn from the Rig Veda codified such supremacy. It describes the origin of the world in the sacrificial dismemberment of Prajapati, the Lord of Being, into four human essences or varna – his mouth became the Brahman priest, his arms became the Kshatriya or the warriors, his thigh became the Vaisya (farmer and merchant) and his feet became the Sudra (slave or servant).

In spite of Gautama Buddha’s message that opposed Brahminical hegemony, Buddhism did not become a state force until 236 BCE when Hindu emperor Ashoka of Mauryan dynasty (322-185 BCE) embraced Buddhism after he had committed one of the worst mass murders of the ancient world when India was thinly populated. His conquest of Kalinga, on the Orissa coast, cost more than a hundred thousand lives and displaced twice as many people. By his time the teachings of Gautama Buddha and Mahavira had come to be known as Buddhism and Jainism, respectively. Both these teachings shared many elements with Aryan Brahmanism, e.g., its complex ideas about reincarnation and karma, but opposed its sacred division of caste society.

Brahmanism allowed kin groups to form caste groups or jati by assigning each kin group to a varna. Merchants relegated to lower varna ranks were clearly influenced by Buddhist and Jain monks who rejected that Brahmans are the only ones who could attain the highest spiritual purity. While Jainism became popular in the west – in places like Gujarat and Rajasthan, especially among the baniyas (the merchant class), Buddhism took a deep root in the east – in places like Bengal down the Orissa coast to Amaravati, Kanchipuram, Madurai and Sri Lanka. The Greek king of Punjab, Menader, adopted Buddhism as he sought to attract merchants to his realm. [David Ludden, India and South Asia: A Short History]

Under Ashoka, Buddhism spread widely as elite cultural elements sank local roots from town to town in the ambit of Mauryan Empire and along routes of mobility into Central Asia, the southern peninsula and Sri Lanka. He used his vast winnings at war to support Buddhist monks, ritual centers (stupas), schools, and preachers. He supported Buddhist kings in Sri Lanka and Buddhist centers in Karnatak, Andhra and the Tamil country. Buddhists always confronted proponents of Jainism and Brahmanism, and everywhere, patronage from various sources determined the ultimate outcome.

Such Buddhist patronage obviously did not last long. Brihadrata, the last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty, was assassinated in 185 BCE during a military parade, by the commander-in-chief of his guard, the Brahmin general Pusyamitra Sunga, who then took over the throne and established the Sunga dynasty. Buddhist records such as the Asokavadana write that the assassination of Brihadrata and the rise of the Sunga Empire (187-78 BCE) led to a wave of persecution for Buddhists, and a resurgence of Hinduism. Pusyamitra Sunga (185-151 BCE) was hostile to Buddhism. He burned Sutras, Buddhist shrines, and massacred monks in large numbers.

By the time of the powerful Gupta kings (320-550 CE), who were Hindus, 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. Gupta power essentially launched imperial Brahmanism. Its Hindu rulers donated vast land to Brahmans, funding temple construction, financing temple rituals. [Even at our time, the Gupta core region of Uttar Pradesh in today’s India has the highest Brahman population.]

Such gifts became a hallmark of medieval dynastic authority. As noted by Prof. Ludden, “In the seventh century, the Pusyabuti king Harsha moved his capital to Kanyakubja and celebrated the event with a land grant to two Brahmans. The grant was to be administered personally by one of his commanders under the official protection of janapadas in his realm. This indicates that janapada lineages were still in business and that Harsha relied for his authority on the wealth and power of subordinates supported by local community leaders.”

This trend to bolster Brahmanism continued all across India. The Pallava regime at Kanchipuram is a good example. It emerged from under the canopy of empire thrown across the southern peninsula by imperial Guptas, Vakatakas and Chalukyas. Pallava kings rose from vassal status to become imperial powers in their own right. Kanchipuram had been a centre of Buddhist learning. Under the Pallavas, Kanchipuram became a Hindu sacred site and a royal capital; its seaport, Mahaballipuram, adorned with monumental rock sculpture and temple carving to popularize the worship of supreme Hindu gods, Siva and Vishnu. Under the Pallavas, Kanchipuram became a Hindu pilgrimage site and center for Sanskrit learning, whose temples received endowments from dignitaries and gifts from patrons in localities all across the southern India.

>> To be continued ….

Monday, July 15, 2013

Buddhism in Myanmar

When history is twisted, humanity loses. No country epitomizes this notion to the hilt better than Buddhist-majority Myanmar where history is twisted not only to deny human rights but also to justify genocidal campaigns against religious minorities. There is no historical record of Buddha ever visiting any part of Arakan and Burma, and yet the popular Mon and Myanmar oral tradition, including the chronicle Sasanavamsa, and the belief of the Arakanese Rakhines suggest that the Buddha visited their king and left behind an image of himself for them to worship. The Sasanavamsa mentions several visits of the Buddha to Myanmar and one other important event: the arrival of the hair relics in Ukkala (Yangon) soon after the Buddha's enlightenment.

Modern historiography, of course, dismisses these stories as fabrications made out of national pride, as the Myanmar had not even arrived in the region at the time of the Buddha.

Myanmar is a country of many nations: many races and ethnicities, e.g., Shan, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Rohingya, Rakhine, Mon, Chin, Karen, Chinese, Indians, and many religions, e.g., Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. To insist that Myanmar is the country of the majority Bamar (Burman) - who practice Theravada Buddhism - at the exclusion of the minority religious communities would be a deliberate attempt that ignores and denies the history of the ‘other’ peoples to this landmass.

What we call Myanmar today was known as Burma for most of its modern history. It emerged through the politics of British imperialism. Before its colonization by the British, starting in 1784 CE, Burma went by other names at various periods. Much of its peripheral territories were annexed only after the time of King Anawrahta (1044-1077 CE) who was converted to Buddhism in 1057 CE by a Mon monk named Shin Arahan. He forcibly converted all his subjects in Pagan kingdom into Buddhism. He invaded and destroyed the Mon kingdom and enslaved its king Manuha who was forcibly made a temple slave (Phya Kyaun), an untouchable, at the Pagan pagodas. He made Pagan the center of Theravadian learning by inviting scholars from Mon lands, Sir Lanka, and especially India, where Buddhism was dying.

Since Anawrahta’s time the reach of the Burmese sovereign waxed and waned with the ability of each Burmese monarch. For example, the western Rakhine (Arakan) state, bordering today’s Bangladesh, was a sovereign state with a large Muslim population for hundreds of years (1018-1401, 1430-1784 CE). Under King Raza Gri alias Salim Shah Sultan (1593-1612 CE), Arakan was able to capture the Burmese capital of Pegu in 1599 CE. Burma annexed Arakan in 1784 violating the border demarcation agreement signed in 1454 CE between the Arakanese King Mun Khari alias Ali Khan (1434-1459 CE) and Ava King Narapati (1442-1468 CE).

As to the original inhabitants of Arakan, Dr. Emil Forchhammer, a Swiss Professor of Pali at Rangoon College, and Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey (1881), said: “The earliest dawn of the history of Arakan reveals the base of the hills, which divide the lowest courses of the Kaladan and Lemro rivers, inhabited by sojourners from India… Their subjects are divided into the four castes of the older Hindu communities…”

The Hindu kings that ruled the coastal territories of Chittagong in Bangladesh also ruled the crescent of Arakan. Presumably, the indigenous people of Arakan, much like their brothers and sisters living to the north-west of the Naaf River in (today’s) Chittagong, practiced some loose form of Hinduism. The second phase of Indianization of Arakan occurred between the 4th and the 6th century CE, by which time the colonists had established their kingdom, and named their capital Vaishali [also spelled as Wesali]. M.S. Collis who did extensive research work on Arakan’s history, including studying its coinage and old manuscripts, similarly concluded that “that Wesali was an easterly Hindu kingdom of Bengal” and that “both government and people were Indian as the Mongolian influx had not yet occurred.”

As to the origin of the ancestors of Rakhines, historian D.G.E. Hall said: “Burmese do not seem to have settled in Arakan until possibly as late as the tenth century A.D. Hence earlier dynasties are thought to have been Indian, ruling over a population similar to that of Bengal.”

From the above brief review, it is clear that the rulers that ruled Arakan, in centuries before the Sino-Tibetan invasion in the 10th and 11th centuries, were of Indian descent, as were the people (the so-called Kalas) who lived there. They had much in common with Banga, or today’s Bangladesh. As credible research work by unbiased historians and researchers have amply shown, the Rohingyas, derogatorily called the Kalas (by the racist Buddhist Maghs of Arakan), are the descendants of the indigenous people of Arakan – the true Bhumiputras (adibashis) - of the land. For instance, the distinguished historian (late) Professor Abdul Karim wrote, “In fact the forefathers of Rohingyas had entered into Arakan from time immemorial.” [For sources, see this author’s book - Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan state of Burma (Myanmar) – (available from Amazon.com)]

Burmese historians also concur that the original inhabitants of vast territories of today’s Burma were dark complexioned Indians, esp. from the east coast of India (namely, Bangladesh, Orissa and neighboring areas to the west). They formed trading colonies along the coast of the Gulf of Martaban all the way to Borneo in today’s Indonesia. It is also believed that some degree of migration from India to the region of Tagaung and Mogok in Upper Myanmar had taken place through Assam and later through Manipur, but the "hinterland" was of course much less attractive to traders than the coastal regions with their easy access by sea. It is not difficult to surmise that they practiced some form of Hinduism before Buddhism and other religions entered the region.

The entry of the Indian settlers to Burma predates those of the Mon, Pyu, Bamar and Shan peoples. They also formed the first kingdom at Tagaung in northern Burma. The Mons were greatly influenced by Indians and adopted both the Hindu ideas of the divine king and Hindu law code of Manu. Consequently, Brahmin astrologers were numerous in Mon territories. Even to this day while the Mons have adopted Buddhism, astrology remains very popular all across Buddhist Burma. Burmese historian Maung Htin Aung says that the Mons passed on their culture to the races near them, namely the Pyus, the Tibeto-Burmese and the Khmers – who were in many ways their pupils. Worship of Hindu god Vishnu was widely accepted all over lower Burma, and especially by the Mons. He was brought into the fold of Buddhism by making him a god of Buddhism. This ploy was similar to the Hindu ploy in India in which Buddha was made a reincarnation of lord Vishnu which helped to reclaim Buddhists to the fold of Hinduism.

The Chin and Kachin people were mostly animists before they embraced Christianity during the British colonial period.

And yet, today, the religious minorities living in Myanmar are depicted as foreigners who settled from outside to dislodge the Buddhist majority. Consider, for instance, Khin Maung Saw (Soe) - whose writings and speeches are linked with Buddhist violence against Muslims - has called the Rohingya Muslims ‘ungrateful’ camels that are trying to dislodge the ‘owner’ of the tent - the Rakhine Maghs of the Arakan state of Myanmar. Wirathu, the terrorist Buddhist monk, calls the Muslims ‘mad dogs’ and ‘wild elephants’ who needs to be tamed by starving them. "I don't know how you tame a wild elephant in your country," he told The Sunday Telegraph, when asked what exactly he means when he says Buddhist Burmese should "stand up for themselves", "but here the first thing you do is take away all their food and water. Then when the elephant is starving and weak you give him a little bit of water and teach him one word. Then you give him a little bit of food and teach him some more. That's how we tame the elephants here."

Unfortunately, the abovementioned Buddhists are not the only ones entertaining such deep seated bigotry and racism in Myanmar. These two evils, as a matter of fact, act like the Krazy glue that holds together the racist Buddhist community, justifying bestial hostility against disparate groups that have nothing in common either in language or in religion. And no group is treated as inhumanly as the Rohingya people, who live in the northwestern Arakan state, bordering Bangladesh. The Burmese government has denied them their citizenship rights, and through its genocidal campaigns have forced millions of the Rohingya to live either as stateless people in its own soil or as unwanted refugees elsewhere.

The history of Islam amongst the Rohingyas of Arakan is very similar to the history of Islam in Chittagong and other parts of Bangladesh.

As to the Muslim settlements in Arakan, the renowned scholars of the early 20th century, Professor Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim Shahitya Visarad wrote in 1935: “The Arab traders established trade link with the East Indies in the eighth and ninth century AD. During this time Chittagong, the lone seaport of East India, became the resting place and colony of the Arabs. We know from the accounts of the ancient Arab travelers and geologists including Sulaiman (living in 851 AD), Abu Jaidul Hasan (contemporary of Sulaiman), Ibnu Khuradba (died 912 AD), Al-Masudi (died 956 AD), Ibnu Howkal (wrote his travelogue in 976 AD), Al-Idrisi (born last half of 11th century) that the Arab traders became active in the area between Arakan and the eastern bank of the Meghna River [in today’s Bangladesh]… Other historians also recognized the fact that Islam and its influence developed in Arakan in the 9th and 10th century AD.”

Dr. Moshe Yegar says, “Beginning with their arrival in the Bay of Bengal, the earliest Muslim merchant ships also called at the ports of Arakan and Burma proper… Muslim influence in Arakan was of great cultural and political importance. In effect, Arakan was the beachhead for Muslim penetration into other parts of Burma even if it never achieved the same degree of importance it did in Arakan. As a result of close land and sea contacts maintained between the two countries, Muslims played a key role in the history of the Kingdom of Arakan.”

Unfortunately, these historical findings are denied today by vast majority of Buddhists inside and outside Myanmar to sanctify the genocidal crimes against the Muslims there. Even those who know better are afraid to speak out against a monk like Wirathu who has essentially become the face of Buddhist terrorism in Myanmar.

It is sad to see how Buddhism has been hijacked by neo-Nazi racists and bigots within the community! Very few in this den of racism are ever willing to contemplate that Gautama Buddha, an Indian born in Nepal which is close to Bengal [Bangladesh], must have resembled a Rohingya better than either a Rakhine Magh or a Burman. But who is pondering when history is twisted!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Why Buddhism Declined?

Recently, after the publication of the Time Magazine’s cover page article on Wirathu, the Buddhist terrorist monk of Myanmar, I came across an article in which the writer tried to justify the on-going genocidal activities against the Muslims in Buddhist countries by stating that “There is a common thread that runs through the histories of Buddhist countries; they have all been the victim at one time or the other of aggressive incursions made by people of Abrahamic faiths, i.e., Christians or Muslims. This process has not ended. It still continues unabated and with greater ferocity… One thousand years ago Buddhist Asia ranged from Afghanistan to Japan. Today countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and South Korea are no longer identified as Buddhist… Buddhist countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka today find themselves besieged by forces more powerful and predatory.” The writer went on to state that Time magazine got it all wrong about Wirathu and that the pogroms against Muslims, which was disingenuously called ‘Buddhist nationalism’, must be understood under that context and are a ‘last resort’ to preserve Buddhist ‘heritage, religion and country to ensure history is not repeated.’

Such apologetic writings unfortunately belie history and twist facts and provide the kind of criminal justification for ongoing violence against a targeted minority. For example, consider Sri Lanka, which is currently a Buddhist majority country. But was it always that way? Surely, not! After all, Buddhism came around 247 BCE while the history of Sri Lanka is much older, believed to be at least 30,000 years old. The forefathers of today’s Sinhalese people were not the aborigines of Sri Lanka. They came from Bengal (today’s Bangladesh and West Bengal state of India) and Orissa (of today’s India). Popular Sinhalese legends claim that Vijaya (543 – 505 BCE), the exiled Bengali prince, supposedly born of a mythical union between a lion and a human princess, became the father of the Sinhalese people, after being seduced by Kuveni, a demon (Yakkhas) queen. The two then exterminated the demons and drove others away from the island. Subsequently Kuveni was betrayed by Vijaya. When she returned with her two children to her people they later killed her for her betrayal.

Even if one were to overlook the fallaciousness of such make-belief stories, the fact remains that in the 6th century BCE Sri Lanka was inhabited by other people, e.g., the Veddas (who has close physical resemblance with people of South India), with different set of beliefs than Buddhism. [It is all possible that those mythic demons of the Hindu/Buddhist folklores were actually human beings who were despised and dehumanized.] The same is the case for every country in which Buddhism later spread by supplanting older beliefs and customs. Vijaya and his 700 followers were colonists and not the first settlers of Sri Lanka. The Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka, who are mostly Hindus, trace their roots to at least the second century BCE. Sinhalese Tamils claim that they are the original inhabitants of the island. Before European annexation, parts of the island were ruled by Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus. In the early 15th century, the island even came under Chinese rule when it was conquered by Muslim Admiral Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty. [Zheng He is also credited with discovering the Americas before Christopher Columbus.]

Even in India, before the Aryan invasion (ca. 1800 BCE) the original people, the Dravidians with darker complexion, had sets of beliefs that were different than caste-ridden Hinduism. This invasion led to migration of many of the surviving Dravidians to South India. Vedism as the religious tradition of Hinduism under the priestly elites was marginalized by other traditions such as Jainism and Buddhism in the later Iron Age. The same is the case with Burma and parts of Thailand where dark complexioned Indian-looking people lived before the Tibeto-Mongoloid peoples moved in from outside. Their religious traditions were later marginalized by Buddhism. In the former Kushan territories of today’s northern Afghanistan, Peshawar of Pakistan and Kashmir, Zoroastrianism and belief in a pantheon of gods were popular amongst the people before Buddhism made an inroad. [Some Indians claim that the Kushan invasion in the first century CE in the northwest led to the migration of Indians toward Southeast Asia.]

People have been on the move since the first man walked on earth. There is a plethora of reasons why they moved. Sometimes they migrated voluntarily, e.g., to better their lots and at other times they migrated involuntarily, e.g., because of war and politics. As they settled in newer territories, they absorbed newly encountered systems/ideas and/or implanted their own ones depending on the strength and acceptability of those ideas. However, not every culture has adopted a settled lifestyle. There are still small groups that maintain a nomadic existence, moving from territories to territories selling goods and services or grazing cattle and staying wherever they are not unwelcome. They pass along their traditions to succeeding generations, rarely integrating into mainstream society. They ­speak their own archaic languages, teaching their children themselves. Though often persecuted, many of these groups are protected by laws with the intent of preserving their rare heritage.

In this continuous flux of human activities, it is, thus, not difficult to understand how new traditions, cultures, beliefs and ideas have replaced the old ones, and how sometimes the old ones have also successfully resurrected itself from oblivion or extinction. There were also cases of much synthesis between cultures and traditions. In the context of Muslim-ruled India, historian William Dalrymple says, “This cultural synthesis took many forms. In Urdu and Hindi were born languages of great beauty that to different extents mixed Persian and Arabic words with the Sanskrit-derived vernaculars of north India. Similarly, just as the cuisine of north India combined the vegetarian dal and rice of India with the kebab and roti of central Asia, so in music the long-necked Persian lute was combined with the Indian vina to form the sitar, now the Indian instrument most widely known in the west. In architecture there was a similar process of hybridity as the great monuments of the Mughals reconciled the styles of the Hindus with those of Islam, to produce a fusion more beautiful than either.” [Guardian, March 19, 2004]

It is simply inane to suggest that Buddhism has been integral to places where it has become marginalized. It is the people who make the difference as to what they choose to believe or reject. As history has repeatedly shown forced conversion does not work in long term. Whenever the fear factor is gone, people opt out to choose what suits them. And that has been the history of mankind since the beginning of history. Rulers could not make permanent believers of the subjects if the latter did not like what was forced upon them.

In contrast to popular myths propagated by anti-Muslim zealots, Islam was not spread by sword. Had it been by sword, Islam would have been a majority religion, and Hinduism and other smaller faiths would have vanished. After all, Islam first came to India at the dawn of the 8th century CE with the conquest of Sindh and Muslim power have ruled its vast territories for nearly a millennium. Not a single Muslim military expedition took place in south-east Asia. And yet, there are countries in south-east Asia where Muslims are a majority.

The history of the geographical region commonly known as the South Asia and South-east Asia has no one beginning, no one chronology, no single plot or narrative. This gargantuan fact is recognized by all great historians -- Professor David Ludden, Abdul Karim, Richard Eaton, Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma and many others -- who spent their lifetimes to study the region. To these unbiased and genuine historians of the ancient world, the region did not have a singular history, but many histories, with indefinite, contested origins and with countless separate trajectories that multiply the more we learn about the region.

What is promoted by ultra-racist and bigot monks like Wirathu of Myanmar, and ultra-nationalist and chauvinist revisionist politicians and their fanatical followers, and pseudo-historians as the single tree of their culture, rooted in their racial and religious myths, is actually more like a vast forest of many cultures filled with countless trees of various sizes, shades, ages, colors and types, constantly cross-breeding to fertilize one another. The profusion of cultures blurs the boundaries of the forest. The so-called cultural boundaries of our time are more like an artifact of modern national cultures than an accurate reflection of pre-modern conditions.

Obviously, such an understanding and analysis of history is unpopular and loathsome with communal, racist, xenophobic regimes and their propagandists and vanguards. The latter bigots would rather have it their way in which the minorities or the have-nots in power simply did neither exist nor mattered. To them, the affected persecuted people just appeared in the recent scene through mere accident of history like those possible through a magic lantern! That is the level of their disgusting chauvinism, which is often reflected through the claims and counter-claims of pen-pushing polemicists as was once again evident in the writing of the admirer of terrorist monk Wirathu.

Nearly a decade ago, Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, commented about Hindu extremist BJP’s attempt to rewriting history textbooks: "When history is mobilized for specific political projects and sectarian conflicts; when political and community sentiments of the present begin to define how the past has to be represented; when history is fabricated to constitute a communal sensibility, and a politics of hatred and violence, then we [historians] need to sit up and protest. If we do not then the long night of Gujarat will never end. Its history will reappear again and again, not just as nightmare but as relived experience, re-enacted in endless cycles of retribution and revenge, in gory spectacles of blood and death."

What is happening in Myanmar with Muslim minorities there is worse than what happened in Gujarat. It would be the greatest tragedy and worst crime of our time to find Buddhist excuses for the genocidal activities there. To remain silent is simply shameful and inexcusable!

 

William Dalrymple's must-read article on India

Here is an excellent article, published in March 2004 in the Guardian, by historian William Dalrymple that discusses Muslim rule in India.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Why Buddhism Declined in South Asia?

[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.

Concluding remarks:

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?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

New York Times report on condition of Muslim minorities in Myanmar

In its recent issue, the New York Times has covered the condition of Muslim minorities living inside Myanmar. It can be read by clicking here.