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 ….

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