The myth of Buddhist Persecution
Among the Indic religions, it is Buddhism that spread all over the world, especially in South East Asia, China and Japan. Its influence is visible even in European countries. Buddhism was very much accepted in India also. But as the time passed by, its influence among the mass waned. Yet it survived in certain corners of India, even then. But from the hands of Islamist invaders, Buddhism suffered massive blow and it got totally uprooted from India.
There are many theories from various corners about the extinction of Buddhism from its land of birth. Major one of it, advocated by the leftist ‘historians’, is that Hindu kings and Sages are responsible for the fall of Buddhism in India. Left historians are eager to acquit Islamist Invaders from their attack on Buddhists and Buddhist viharas like Nalanda, Vikramsila, Saranath, Odantapuri, Sravasthi. They point fingers toward Hinduism, for the extinction of Buddhists. However, accusing Hindus and Hinduism, which has co-existed with Buddhism for about 1500 years, for the decline of Buddhism was always an unsuccessful attempt due to the lack of evidences.
It was pointed out by the eminent scholars of Buddhism that the argument (i.e, decline of Buddhism in India happened due to the persecution of Hindus) has no scriptural support. There are no valid testimonies to arrive in such impartial conclusions. The perpetrators of ‘Hindu persecution of Buddhism’ were lead by the erroneous inference, it is pointed out. Thus, eminent Buddhist scholar W T Rhys Davids writes in his book ‘Buddhist India‘ :-
“……. Brahmin accounts attribute the final stages in the movement to a furious persecution brought about at the instigation of the great Brahmin apostle, Kumarila Bhatta, in the first half of the eighth century. This view, having received the support of the distinguished European scholars, Wilson and Colebrook, has naturally been widely repeated until we find the Rev. W. T. Wilkins saying: “The disciples of Buddha were so ruthlessly persecuted that all were slain, exiled, or made to change their faith. There is scarcely a case on record where a religious persecution was so successfully carried out as that by which Buddhism was driven out of India.
I do not believe a word of it. In the Journal of the Pali Text Society for 1896, I have discussed the question in detail, and have come to the conclusion, entirely endorsed by the late Professor Buhler, that the misconception has arisen from an erroneous inference drawn from expressions of vague boasting, of ambiguous import, and doubtful authority. We must seek elsewhere for the causes of the decline of the Buddhist faith; and they will be found, I think, partly in the changes that took place in the faith itself, partly in the changes that took place in the intellectual standard of the people. And in both respects the influence of the foreign tribes that invaded India from the north-west can scarcely be exaggerated”
We shall again re-read the lines.
“…that the misconception has arisen from an erroneous inference drawn from expressions of vague boasting, of ambiguous import, and doubtful authority. We must seek elsewhere for the causes of the decline of the Buddhist faith and they will be found, I think, partly in the changes that took place in the faith itself, partly in the changes that took place in the intellectual standard of the people”
So, in short, the reason for the decline of Buddhism should be sought inside the Buddhist belief and in the intellectual capacity of the people and followers. It is the same methods specified by W T Rhys Davids (viz., ‘doubtful authority’. ‘ambiguous import’,’vague boasting’), that are using by the the left intelligentsia nowadays, to tarnish the Hinduism and Hindu sages.
In the same book, Mr. Rhys Davids opine that, India only up to the period of Kanishka can be called as ‘Buddhist India’, in its exact sense and meaning. After that Buddhism had a gradual decline in its birthplace. His opinion is largely based on the epigraphic evidences available in India. Epigraphic evidences are the primary evidences, helpful to reconstruct ancient history and in determining its exactness.
“Hand in hand with the gradual adoption, and at last with the almost exclusive use, of the Brahmin literary language must have come a gradual increase in the deference and respect paid to the acknowledged masters of that tongue. There were other reasons, of course; and there was action and reaction in all these matters. But the result is very striking. Three fourths or more of the persons named, and the objects of donation specified, in all the inscriptions throughout India, from Asoka’s time to Kanishka’s, are Buddhist, and the majority of the remainder are Jain….”
After the reign of Kanishka, it is clearly visible that Brahmans get wide patronage (along with Jains) than Buddhists, from the Royal treasury.
“…. From that time onward the Brahmans, the gods they patronized, the sacrifices they carried out, receive ever-increasing notice till the position of things is exactly reversed, and in the fifth century A.D. three-fourths are Brahman, and the majority of the rest are Jain. This is the clearest evidence of a strange revulsion of feeling. What had been the predominant national faith has become the faith of a minority. India, which can fairly, down to the time of Kanishka, be called ” Buddhist India’ ceases to be so. And the process goes on, slowly indeed but continually, until there is not a Buddhist left in the land where Buddhism arose.”
Whenever foreign tribes invaded, settled in India and then accepted Buddhism as their religion, the net effect of such adoption were ultimately detrimental to the growth and scope of Buddhism. Rhys Davids continues –
“Just as when the Goths and Vandals invaded the Roman Empire in Europe and it is surprising that an historical parallel so close, and so full of suggestive analogues, has not been pointed out before they did indeed give up their paganism and adopted the dominant Christian faith; but in adopting it they contributed largely to the process of change (some would call it decay) that had already set in; so also in India the Scythians and the Kushan Tartars, after they had conquered all the Western provinces, gave up their paganism, and adopted the dominant Buddhist faith of their new subjects. But in adopting it they contributed largely, by the necessary result of their own mental condition, to the process of change (some would call it decay) that had already set in”
If we replace the word ‘change’ with ‘decay’, we will get the full picture of incidents. Huns are the tribe which conquered the Europe under the leadership of their fiery leader Attila. So, if Mihirakula, another Hun, persecuted Buddhists, that act must not include in the account book of Hinduism. Reasons for the persecution should be sought elsewhere, particularly in the behavior of Mihirakula, who was born and grown outside the Indian mainland. There is a story that he had accepted Saivism. But it is safe to assume that, this alone cannot suppress his violent Hunic character. (The story tells that, Mihirakula wished to study Buddhist Tatvas, but Sangha send an inexperienced novice to teach him. Provoked by this insult, Mihirakula is a said to have embraced Saivism. The veracity of this story is doubtful).
The persecution of Buddhists by Mihirakula must be read in the context of Mr Rhys Davids opinion. When Mihirakula accepted Saivism/Hindusim, it negatively affected the the Hindu tenets. But Hinduism has a built-in setup to withstand such type dilutions or admixing. They usually become a new caste. As long as the Brahman community remain homogeneous, it is not possible to inflict theoretical or spiritual damage to Hinduism. Buddhism has no such setup. Buddhist Sangha accepted followers from various tribes and countries, and this made Buddhist Sangha a heterogeneous one, which lacked unity.
The truth behind the claim of ‘One Dinara for One head of Buddhist’:-
It is often raised in online platforms that Pushyamitra Sunga offered a gold coin for the head of a Buddhist. But this argument is not at all certain as per pioneered Buddhist scholars including Etienne Lamotte. In fact, it is none other than Emperor Asoka, who first offered a gold coin, but this was for the head of a Jain monk. We everyone knew that Asoka was an ardent Buddhist supporter. When he heard the news, that a nirgranta (Jain Monk) insulted the statue of Buddha, he offered one dinara (gold coin) for each head of Jain monks!
“Asoka hearing that a Nirgrantha in Pundravardhana had defiled a picture or statue of Buddha, ordered the destruction of Ajivikas in the locality…. the same crime was later committed by another Nirgrantha layman in Pataliputra, in punishment of which the king offered a reward of a ‘dinara’ for the head of every Nirgrantha brought to him. This second wave of persecution led to the murder of the king’s younger brother, Prince Vitasoka”.
(“History and Doctrine of Ajivikas” by A L Basham, Page 147-8. In those days, Ajivikas and Jainists were very closely related, as per many accounts).
So, the head count was started by Asoka, a Buddhist supporter, and they carefully recorded it in the Divyavadana. That is, this is the predator version of the incident. The validity of such recordings are very high, compared to the recordings from the side of prey. Because people who suffer misfortunes usually exaggerate the incidents out of proportion. But when the predators/aggressors write their history, exaggerations has less space. We can hear incidents almost in exact order and style. When Buddhist did not get such an enormous help from Sunga dynasty, that they got from Asoka, and met some objection to their free run in religious matters, they might had interchanged the characters of earlier head count incident. The possibility for this, is very high. Buddhists have described the persecution details that they faced from Pushyamitra in the following texts.
- ‘Vibhasa‘, a book written by a Kashmiri Arhat in AD 2nd Century.
- The legend of Asoka.
- Taranatha’s ‘History of Buddhism‘.
After checking all of these ‘evidences’, eminent Buddhist scholar Etienne Lamotte, opined in his book ‘History of Indian Buddhism‘ that, surely Pushyamitra did not take a stand that is supportive to Buddhists, but the particular persecution incident is not certain and hence vague.
We must understand that, the Sanchi Stupa, which was said be damaged by Pushyamitra, was repaired by Agnimitra, the successor of Pushyamitra Sunga. All of this points to the unmistakable conclusion that, though Hinduism may not in agreement with Buddhists in all respect, a reason for a constant enmity was not extant then. The objection that a Hinayanist would show toward a Mahayanist, or, a Advaita Vedanti shows toward a Samkhya follower, that same objection a Hindu may have felt toward a Buddhist. And this objection is based on healthy competition. Indian philosophical tradition become very rich with these all various ideas and their constant debates and intermingling.
Problems within the Sangha, that caused the decline of Buddhism:-
There വെre many issues that existed within the Buddhist Sangha, which caused the decline and fall of Buddhism in India.
“The Bhagavadajjukam, a work ascribed to Bodhayana by its commentator and which, the Pallava King shows that beggars flocked to the Buddhist Samgha in order to get free food easily and other material comforts merely at the cost of shaving their heads and wearing the yellow robes” (Ref. I)
“Indulgence in Non-religious affairs by monks and Nuns is testified to by the ‘Mrcchakatika’ and the accounts of the early Arab Invasions of India also. Mentions have already been made of a ‘samant’ of Sindh named Buddharaksita who had family and was actively associated with the political and military affairs of the King” (Ref II)
Buddha opened the door of Sangha to every person in the society. Though this is a good initiative and considers everyone equally, this caused undeserved people to creep into the Sangha and quality of Sangha thereby decreased.
Ref I => Bhagavadajjukam, PP 4, 13 as quoted in Viswabharathi Annals VI P. 147
Ref II => Elliot and Dowson, History of India as told by her own Historians Vol 1, P 147.
The schisms of Buddhsit Sangha:-
There may not be any other belief system in India, which underwent numerous schisms within a short period, like Buddhism. Just a few centuries after Buddha’s parinirvana, there were about twenty sects in Buddhism.
“Buddhism was no longer one system, it had become a family of several systems and schools and communities long before our period. Buddha had apprehended the danger of internal disunity, and ‘Samghabheda’ was condemned as one of the five deadly sins. But, in fact, the history of schism in Buddhism dates back from the time of Buddha himself, regarding Devadutta” (Ref III).
These numerous sects interpreted the teachings of Buddha and tread through their own way. This greatly confused the laymen’s mind. It is also pointed out that certain sections of Vajrayana and Sahajayana convoluted the philosophical ideas and introduced sexual contents in their practices. These caused widespread disrespect among common man.
“The Vajrayana Dogma that ‘everything is pure to a pure man’ and that the ‘yogins’ are beyond good and evil, may have proved very dangerous. Some of the printed texts of the Vajrayana clearly advocate a moral and anarchy among the ‘Yogins’ and ‘Yoginis’. The Five moral Precepts are no longer heard of; their place is taken by ‘Pancamakaras’ and five sacraments; the ideal of incomprehensible Nirvana gives way to that of Great Delight (Mahasukha), attainable not through ‘Sila’, ‘Samadhi’, ‘Prajna’, not even by the noble Eightfold Disciplinary course, but by a mystic union with the ‘Yogini’. (Ref IV)
Ref III => Cullavagga PP 283f, 406f; Rockhill, Life of Buddha, pp. 187f and Yuan Chwang I, 32, 325, 373; and so on.
Ref IV => Cittavisuddhiprakarana, Verses 6, 19, 33; Hevajratantra, Pt.I, pp 65, 71, 91, 96; jnanasiddhi, pp 129-130
Buddha’s prophesy about the future of Sangha:-
Did Buddha foresee the future of Buddhist Sangha that he organized? There is a saying of Buddha in Cullavagga.
“If, Oh Ananda, women had not received permission to go out from the household life and enter homeless state, under the doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Tathagata, then would the pure religion, Ananda, have stood fast for a thousand years. But since, Ananda, women now have received the permission, the pure religion, Ananda, will not last so long, the good law would now stand fast for only 500 years”. (Ref V)
Ref V => Cullavagga, pp, 376; Brewster, Life of Gotama the Buddha, p 119.
Decrease in the patronage from Kings:-
One of the single most important reason for the sustenance of Buddhist Sangha is the patronage of the Kings, rich merchants and local chieftains. Since bhikkhus usually won’t engage in agricultural or other type production activities, they must be supported by someone else. Usually kings and rich merchants were their patrons. We everyone knew that Nalanda University and Vihara was supported by the revenue from many villages. So when Kingship changes and the new king doesn’t pay allegiance to them, financially, Buddhist Sangha suffered badly. In Hinduism such a scenario never occurred because many Brahmans were household bearers and others lived upon the Bhiksha, they get from the mass.
Several references shows the support of Kings to Buddhist Sangha.
“Hwui-li records that the king of Magadha had remitted the revenues of one hundred villages for the upkeep of the Monastery at Nalanda. Two hundred householders of these villages, day by day, contributed several hundred piculs (1 picul = 133.5 lb) of rice, several hundred catties (1 catty = 160 lb) of butter and milk. In this way the clothes, food, beds and the medicines were supplied to the inmates” (Ref 1)
“The most lavish religious endowments were made by Sri Harsa Siladityaraja. He had constructed one of the largest monasteries at Nalanda and built the boundary wall around the whole department. (Ref 2) He had offered revenue of 80 large towns in Orissa for the comfort and support of Jayasena. (Ref 3)
“…Besides this, Harsha erected thousands of ‘Stupas’ on the banks of Ganga, built Buddhist monasteries and public rest-houses; “he furnished the chapels and liberally adorned the common halls of the monasteries. Owing to his influence, the neighbouring princess and the statesman also became zealous in good works. At this royal lodge everyday meals were supplied to 1000 Buddhist monks and 500 Brahmins” (Ref 4)
According to Taranatha, in the time of Gopala (Pala king of Bengal) an upasaka founded the Odantapuri Monastery near Nalanda. This king revived the Monastery of Nalanda and built several monasteries in his kingdom. (Ref 5) The ‘Manjusrimulakalpa’ describes in detail the religious endowments made by Gopala. He is represented as making Viharas, Caityas, gardens, reservoirs, free inns and caves. (Ref 6)
Gopala’s successor Dharmapala was also a great patron and builder of Buddhist establishments. He founded the Vikramsila Monastery. It had 108 rooms, 54 rooms for the general use of the monks and 54 for esoteric practices; in the centre was the great hall. These are surrounded by a wall with 6 gates. The king maintained 108 eminent Buddhist scholars to carry on religious and educational activity of this institution. Besides the students other residents were also maintained by the State. Dharmapala also patronised the Nalanda Vihara. (Ref 7)
Rathnagiri in Orissa, which had yielded many pieces of Buddhist art was also a famous centre of Buddhist culture during this period. A Buddhist monk named Prajnais known from Chinese sources to have lived and studied at the monastery of Ratnagiri. The king of Udra, Orissa named Subhakara (AD 790), who patronised this institution, is said to have sent a section of the Avatamsaka to the Chinese emperor Te -Tsong through Prajna. (Ref 8)
An inscription incised on one of the caves at Dhauli Hill reveals the existence of a Buddhist Monastery called Arghyaka Varatika. The inscription belongs to early 9th century AD. The monastery was built in AD 829 by Bhimata and Loyamaka during the reign of King Santikaradeva. (Ref 9)
Ref 1 => Life (of Hiuen Tsiang, Hwui-li, pp 112-113
Ref 2 => Yuan Chwang, II, 164-65.
Ref 3 => Life (of Hiuen Tsiang, Hwui-li, p 154.
Ref 4 => Yuan Chwang, I, 343-44
Ref 5 => Taranatha (Schiefner), p 204.
Ref 6 => Manjusrimulakalpa (TSS), P. 631.
Ref 7 => Taranatha (Schiefner), p 207
Ref 8 => S.Levi in Epigraphia Indica, XV, PP. 363-364; HCIP, IV, pp. 65, 80.
Ref 9 => Epigraphia Indica, XIX, pp. 363-364. Nov 27, 2011.
The topic of ‘Buddhist persecution’ must not be studied from the Indian perspective only. Instead we must consider Central Asia also, where Buddhism was very strong in medieval period. A Pan Asia study is required. Isolated examinations, circled around India, are partial and not going to render the exact reasons of decline.
It is a well known fact that, different ideologies and belief systems can take birth and evolve into a robust system, only in a land that respects all such faiths. As we see, in India there were Hindu, Bauddha, Jaina, Ajivika, Carvaka and many more religions and sects. This clearly reflects India’s capacity to inculcate friendly atmosphere between different religious and philosophical traditions.
Hinduism and Buddhism co-existed in India for about 1500 years. So to accuse that Hindus persecuted Buddhists, we need at least 150 persecution incidents (say, one evidence for each 10 years). Can we shoot an accusation which is based on a few persecution incidents, especially when the two religions co-existed for 15 centuries? Considering the fact that, Buddhists are well versed scribes, had persecution happened, they must have written it down. But no such data are available. Instead we have a few such incidents and the reason for such incidents can be the socio-political in nature. Hinduism’s fundamental texts do not advocate aggression toward any religions or beliefs. This is the very reason for the existence of many beliefs systems India. And then how can anybody accuse that Hinduism acted against a particular religion?
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