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Buddhism is a world religion, which arose in ancient Magadha, Indiamarker (modern Biharmarker), and is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who is known as the Buddha (literally the Enlightened One or Awakened One). It flourished during the reign of Maurya Empire. Followers of Buddhism, called Buddhists in English, referred to themselves as Sakyan-s or Sakyabhiksu in ancient India. Buddhist scholar Donald S. Lopez asserts they also used the term Bauddha, although scholar Richard Cohen asserts that that term was used only by outsiders to describe Buddhists.

Buddhism has spread through two main traditions; Theravada which extended south and east and now has widespread following in Southeast Asia, and Mahayana, which diffused first west, then north and later east throughout East Asia. Both traditions have since spread throughout the world.

The practice of Buddhism as a distinct and organized religion declined from the land of its origin in around 13th century, but not without leaving a significant impact. Hindus continued to absorb Buddhist practices and teachings, such as meditation and the renunciation of the material world. The Buddha is regarded as the 9th incarnation of Hindu god Vishnu by Hindus. Idols and images of the Buddha have remained present in the Hindu pantheon. Buddhist practice is most common in Himalayanmarker areas like Ladakhmarker, Arunachal Pradeshmarker and Sikkimmarker. Traditional Buddhism has reemerged as a major faith in India in the past century.

Siddhartha Gautama

Siddhārtha Gautama was the historical founder of Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama was born as a Kshatriya prince in Lumbini, Nepal in 623 BCE. His particular family of Sakya Kshatiryas were of Brahmin 'lineage' (Sanskrit: gotra) as per their family name "Gautama". XIX c. scholars like Dr. Eitel connected it to the Brahmin Rishi Gautama. Buddha is said to be a descendant of Brahmin Sage Angirasa in many Buddhist texts. For example, "In the Pali Mahavagga "Angirasa" (in Pali Angirasa) occurs as a name of Buddha Gautama who evidently belonged to the Angirasa tribe...". Scholar Edward J. Thomas too connected Buddha with sages Gautama and Angirasa.

After asceticism and meditation, Siddhartha Gautama discovered the Buddhist Middle Way—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment sitting under a pipal tree, now known as the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gayamarker, Indiamarker. Gautama, from then on, was known as "The Perfectly Self-Awakened One," the Samyaksambuddha.

Buddha found patronage in the ruler of Magadha, emperor Bimbisara. The emperor accepted Buddhism as personal faith and allowed the establishment of many Buddhist "Viharas." This eventually led to the renaming of the entire region as Biharmarker.

At the Deer Park near marker in northern India, Buddha set in motion the Wheel of Dharma by delivering his first sermon to the group of five companions with whom he had previously sought enlightenment. They, together with the Buddha, formed the first , the company of Buddhist monks, and hence, the first formation of Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) was completed.

For the remaining years of his life, the Buddha is said to have traveled in the Gangetic Plain of Northeastern Indiamarker and other reigons.

Buddha attained Parinirvana in the abandoned jungles of Kuśināramarker.

Just before Buddha died, he reportedly told his followers that thereafter the Dharma would be their leader. The early arhants considered Gautama's words the primary source of Dharma (doctrine, teaching) and Vinaya (rules of discipline and community living), and took great pains to formulate and transmit his teachings accurately. Nonetheless, no ungarnished collection of his sayings has survived. The version of the Canon (accepted scripture) preserved in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan are sectarian variants of a corpus that grew and crystallized during three centuries of oral transmission.

Buddhist movements

The Buddha did not appoint a successor, and asked his followers to work for personal salvation. The teachings of the Buddha existed only in oral traditions. The Sangha held a number of Buddhist councils in order to reach consenseus on matters of Buddhist doctrine and practice.

According to the scriptures, a monk by the name of Mahakasyapa presided over the first Buddhist council held at Rajgirmarker. Its purpose was to recite and agree on the Buddha's actual teachings and on monastic discipline. Some scholars consider this council fictitious.

The Second Buddhist Council is said to have taken place at Vaishāli. Its purpose was to deal with questionable monastic practices like the use of money, the drinking of palm wine, and other irregularities; the council declared these practices unlawful.
The Sattapanni caves of Rajgir served as the location for the First Buddhist Council.

What is commonly called the Third Buddhist Council was held at Pātaliputramarker, and was allegedly called by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. Organized by the monk Moggaliputta Tissa, it was held in order to rid the sangha of the large number of monks who had joined the order because of its royal patronage. Most scholars now believe this council was exclusively Theravada, and that the dispatch of missionaries to various countries at about this time was nothing to do with it.

What is often called the Fourth Buddhist council is generally believed to have been held under the patronage of emperor Kanishka at Jālandharmarker, though the late Monseigneur Professor Lamotte considered it fictitious. It is generally believed to have been a council of the Sarvastivada school.

Following the Buddha's passing, many philosophical movements emerged within Buddhism. The first of these were the various Early Buddhist Schools (including Theravada). Later Mahayana Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism arose.

Early Buddhist Schools

The Early Buddhist Schools were the various schools in which pre-sectarian Buddhism split in the first few centuries after the passing away of the Buddha (in about the fifth century BCE). These schools have in common an attitude to the scriptures, that doesn't accept the inclusion of the Mahayana Sutras as valid teachings of Gautama Buddha. It accepts the Tipitaka as the final recension of the teachings of the Buddha.


The Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism popularized the concept of a Bodhisattva (literally enlightened being or "a Buddha-to-be") and the worship of the bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas like Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, Maitreya became the focus of popular devotional worship in the Mahāyāna sect. According to the Mahāyāna tradition, the key attributes of the bodhisattvas are compassion and kindness.

Mahayana Buddhism includes the following Indian schools:


A form of Indian Buddhism that emerged in the 4th century AD and later became widespread in Tibet, and Japan. The Vajrayana developed in India, but was spread to Tibet, and has also been practiced in Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Mongolia.

This school emerged from forest meditation traditions in northern India, in which the entire emphasis of teachings was on practice, using skillful means to attain the goal of enlightenment in one's present lifetime. This form is also known as Vajrayana (The Diamond Vehicle). Tantrism is an esoteric tradition. Its initiation ceremonies involve entry into a mandala, a mystic circle or symbolic map of the spiritual universe. Also central to Tantrism is the use of mudras and mantras. Vajrayana became the dominant form of Buddhism in Tibet and was also transmitted through China to Japan, where it continues to be practiced by the Shingon sect.

It is generally accepted that the spread of Buddhism from India to Tibet and then to the wider regions of Central and East Asia took place mainly via the trade (and religious) route that went through the valley of Kathmandu, situated in present-day Nepal. The valley, forms the cradle of the Nepali state, and since the farthest point in historical time, has found itself under the cultural influence of the South Asian Hindu (and also Buddhist) civilization. However, being a distant outpost of Hinduism (and Buddhism), it was spared from the ravages of later conquests and social upheavals. Even after Buddhism died in the heartland, it survived in Kathmandu valley. Monastic records in the numerous monasteries show that till the mid-medieval period in Nepali history, Tibetan students regularly came there for learning Buddhism from the local spiritual masters. The Tibetan religious scripts Lantsha and Vartu are variants of the Ranjana system used by the Newars of Kathmandu. However, due to numerous social, economic and political factors prominent among which was declining patronage from the Hindu rulers, Buddhist monasticism in the valley died. By then Tibetan Buddhism had already gained prominence in the region.

Today, in the urban centres of Kathmandu valley, we still find Indian Mahayana Buddhism, modified through mixing with Vajrayana, practiced by the local Buddhist Newar population.

Strengthening of Buddhism in India

National Geographic reads, "The flow between faiths was such that for hundreds of years, almost all Buddhist temples, including the ones at Ajanta, were built under the rule and patronage of Hindu kings."

Asoka and the Mauryan Empire

The Northern gateway to the great Stupa of Sanchi.

The Maurya empire reached its peak at the time of emperor Asoka, who himself converted to Buddhism after the Battle of Kalinga. This heralded a long period of stability under the Buddhist emperor. The power of the empire was vast—ambassadors were sent to other countries to propagate Buddhism. Greek envoy Megasthenes describes the wealth of the Mauryan capital. Stupas, pillars and edicts on stone remain at Sanchimarker, Sarnathmarker and Mathuramarker, indicating the extent of the empire.

Emperor Ashoka the Great (304 BCE232 BCE) was the ruler of the Maurya Empire from 273 BCE to 232 BCE.

Ashoka reigned over most of India after a series of military campaigns. Emperor Ashoka's kingdom stretched from South Asia and beyond, from present-day Afghanistanmarker and parts of Persiamarker in the west, to Bengalmarker and Assammarker in the east, and as far south as Mysoremarker.

According to legend, emperor Ashoka was overwhelmed by guilt after the conquest of Kalinga, following which he accepted Buddhism as personal faith with the help of his Brahmin mentors Radhasvami and Manjushri. Ashoka established monuments marking several significant sites in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, and according to Buddhist tradition was closely involved in the preservation and transmission of Buddhism. He used his position to propagate the relatively new philosophy to new heights, as far as ancient Romemarker and Egyptmarker.

Graeco-Bactrians, Sakas and Indo-Parthians

Menander was the most famous king. He ruled from Taxila and later from Sagalamarker (Sialkot). He rebuilt Taxila (Sirkap) and Pushkalavati. He became Buddhist and remembered in Buddhists records due to his discussions with a great Buddhist philosopher in the book Milinda Panha.

By 90 BCE Parthians took control of eastern Iran and around 50 BCE put an end to last remnants of Greek rule in Afghanistan. By around 7 CE an Indo-Parthian dynasty succeeded in taking control of Gandhara. Parthians continued to support Greek artistic traditions in Gandhara. The start of the Gandharan Greco-Buddhist art is dated to the period between 50 BCE and 75 CE.

Kushan Empire

Kushan Empire under emperor Kanishka was known as the Kingdom of Gandhara. The Buddhist art spread outward from Gandhara to other parts of Asia. He greatly encouraged Buddhism. Before Kanishka Buddha was not represented in human form. In Gandhara Mahayana Buddhism flourished and Buddha was represented in human form.

This tower was reported by Fa-Hsien, Sun-Yun and Hsuan-Tsang. This structure was destroyed and rebuilt many times and remained in semi ruins until it was finally destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni in 11th century.

The Pala and Sena era

Under the rule of the Pala and Sena kings, large mahaviharas flourished in what is now Biharmarker and Bengalmarker. According to Tibetan sources, five great Mahaviharas stood out: Vikramaśīlamarker, the premier university of the era; Nalandamarker, past its prime but still illustrious, Somapuramarker, Odantapurā, and Jaggadala. The five monasteries formed a network; "all of them were under state supervision" and their existed "a system of co-ordination among them . . it seems from the evidence that the different seats of Buddhist learning that functioned in eastern India under the Pāla were regarded together as forming a network, an interlinked group of institutions," and it was common for great scholars to move easily from position to position among them.

Dharma masters

Indian shramanas propagated Buddhism in various reigons, including East Asia and Central Asia.

in the Edicts of Ashoka, Ashoka mentions the Hellenistic kings of the period as a recipient of his Buddhist proselytism. Emissaries of Ashoka, such as Dharmaraksita, are described in Pali sources as leading Greek ("Yona") Buddhist monks, active in Buddhist proselytism (the Mahavamsa, XII).

Roman Historical accounts describe an embassy sent by the "Indian king Pandion (Pandya?), also named Porus," to Caesar Augustus around the 1st century. The embassy was travelling with a diplomatic letter in Greek, and one of its members was a sramana who burned himself alive in Athensmarker to demonstrate his faith. The event made a sensation and was described by Nicolaus of Damascus, who met the embassy at Antiochmarker, and related by Strabo (XV,1,73) and Dio Cassius (liv, 9). A tomb was made to the sramana, still visible in the time of Plutarch, which bore the mention:

("The sramana master from Barygaza in Indiamarker")

Lokaksema is the earliest known Buddhist monk to have translated Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese language. Gandharan monks Jnanagupta and Prajna contributed through several important translations of Sanskrit sutras into Chinese language.

The Indian dhyana master Buddhabhadra was the founding abbot and patriarch of the Shaolin Templemarker. Buddhist monk and esoteric master from North Indiamarker (6th Century CE), Bodhiruci is regarded as the patriarch of the Ti-Lun school. Bodhidharma (c. 6th century) was the Buddhist Bhikkhu traditionally credited as the founder of Zen Buddhism in China.

In 580, Indian monk Vinitaruci travelled to Vietnam. This, then, would be the first appearance of Vietnamese Zen, or Thien Buddhism.
Padmasambhava, in Sanskrit meaning "lotus-born", is said to have brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century. In Bhutanmarker and Tibet he is better known as "Guru Rinpoche" ("Precious Master") where followers of the Nyingma school regard him as the second Buddha.Shantarakshita, abbot of Nalandamarker and founder of the Yogachara-Madhyamika is said to have helped Padmasambhava establish Buddhism in Tibet.

Indian monk Atisha, holder of the mind training (Tib. lojong) teachings, is considered an indirect founder of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism. Indian monks, such as Vajrabodhi, also travelled to Indonesiamarker to propagate Buddhism.

Decline of Buddhism in India

The decline of Buddhism has been variously attributed to varying reasons. Regardless of the religious beliefs of their kings, states usually patronized all the important sects relatively even-handedly. This consisted of building monasteries and religious monuments, donating property such as the income of villages for the support of monks, and protecting previously donated property by leaving them exempt from taxation. Donations were most often made by private persons such as wealthy merchants and female relatives of the royal family, but this correlated with periods in which the state also gave its support and protection. In the case of Buddhism, this support was particularly important because of its high level of institutional organization and the dependence of monks on donations from the laity. State patronage of Buddhism took the form of massive propertied foundations.

The gradual expansion in the scope and authority of caste regulations shifted political and economic power to the local arena, reversing the trend of centralization. The caste system gradually expanded into secular life as a regulative code of social and economic transactions.

Brahmans developed a new relationship with the state. It became the duty of political officials to enforce the caste regulations written by Brahmans. Caste regulations grew over a long period of time. As they did, states gradually lost control of landed revenue. A key transition was the downfall of the Guptas. Indian social structure developed in a manner opposite to that of China or Rome, where administration of law was dominated by government officials. Instead, Brahmans became hereditary monopolists of the law in a series of weak, ephemeral states.

Brahmans came to regulate more and more aspects of public life, and collected fees for the performance of their rituals. Caste law, administered by Brahmans, was built up to control all local economic production and much of its distribution. The transformation of Brahman priests to linchpins of the caste system transformed the functioning property system. The political ascendancy of Hinduism and its displacement of Buddhism's political and social base came by this indirect route. Orthodox Brahmins were now capable of cutting off the flow of material resources upon which institutional Buddhism depended. Parallel developments that led to the decrease in the influence of Buddhism were the institution of rival Hindu temples, which were an innovation of the bhakti movement, and eventually orders of Hindu monks. These undercut Buddhist patronage and popular support.

A continuing decline occurred after the fall of the last Empire supportive of Buddhism: the Pala dynasty in the 12th century CE. This continued with the later destruction of monasteries by the new Muslim conquerors and their attempts to spread Islam in the region.

Influence of Hinduism

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.

The period between the 400 CE and 1000 CE saw gains by Hinduism at the expense of Buddhism.

The White Hun invasions

Chinese scholars traveling through the region between the 5th and 8th centuries CE, such as Faxian, Xuanzang, I-ching, Hui-sheng, and Sung-Yun, began to speak of a decline of the Buddhist Sangha, especially in the wake of the White Hun invasion.

Turkish Muslim Conquerors

The Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent was the first great iconoclastic invasion into South Asia. The resulting occasional and sporadic destruction of temples did not affect Hinduism, but for Buddhism the destruction of the stupas has been attributed with a rapid and almost total disappearance from North India. Additionally, more academic forms of Indian Buddhism relied on patronage by kings and merchants and this change in rulership coupled with the economic integration with the Islamic world and thus the growing domination of long-distance trade by the Muslim merchant class eroded these sources of patronage resulting in an absorption into either Hinduism or Islam.

Causes within the Buddhist Tradition of the time

By the time the Muslims began conquering India in the twelfth century under the Ghurids, the number of monasteries had severely declined. Buddhism, which once had spread across the face of India, was a vital force confined to an ever-shrinking number of monasteries in the areas of its origins. Scholars believe that the monasteries at the time became detached from everyday life in India and that Indian Buddhism had no rituals or priests with the laymen relying on Brahmin priests for marriages and funerals.

Revival of Buddhism in India

Anagarika Dharmapala and the Maha Bodhi Society

A revival of Buddhism began in India in 1891, when the Sri Lankanmarker Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society. Its activities expanded to involve the promotion of Buddhism in India. In June 1892, a meeting of Buddhists took place at Darjeelingmarker. Dharmapala spoke to Tibetan Buddhists and presented a relic of the Buddha to be sent to the Dalai Lama.

Dharmapala built many viharas and temples in India, including the one at Sarnathmarker, the place of Buddha's first sermon. He died in 1933, the same year he was ordained a bhikkhu.

Bengal Buddhist Association

In 1892, Kripasaran Mahasthavir founded the Bengal Buddhist Association (Bauddha Dharmankur Sabha) in Calcuttamarker. Kripasaran (1865–1926) was instrumental in uniting the Buddhist community of Bengalmarker and North East India. He built other branches of the Bengal Buddhist Association at Shimlamarker (1907), Lucknowmarker (1907), Dibrugarhmarker (1908), Ranchimarker (1915), Shillongmarker (1918), Darjeelingmarker (1919), Tatanagar Jamshedpur (1922), as well as in Sakpura, Satbaria, Noapara, Uninepura, Chittagongmarker Region in present day Bangladeshmarker.

Tibetan Buddhism

Following the Dalai Lama's departure from Tibet, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru offered to permit him and his followers to establish a "government-in-exile" in Dharamsalamarker.

Tibetan exiles have settled in the town, numbering several thousand. Most of these exiles live in Upper Dharamsala, or McLeod Ganj, where they established monasteries, temples and schools. The town is sometimes known as "Little Lhasamarker", after the Tibetan capital city, and has become one of the centres of Buddhism in the world.

Dalit Buddhist movement

A Buddhist revivalist movement among Dalit Indians was initiated in 1890s by Dalit leaders such as Iyothee Thass, Brahmananda Reddy, and Dharmananda Kosambi. In the 1950s, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar turned his attention to Buddhism and travelled to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to attend a convention of Buddhist scholars and monks. While dedicating a new Buddhist vihara near Pune, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar announced that he was writing a book on Buddhism, and that as soon as it was finished, he planned to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar twice visited Burma in 1954; the second time in order to attend the third conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Rangoon. In 1955, he founded the Bharatiya Bauddha Mahasabha, or the Buddhist Society of India. He completed his final work, The Buddha and His Dhamma, in 1956. It was published posthumously.

After meetings with the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Hammalawa Saddhatissa,Ambedkar organised a formal public ceremony for himself and his supporters in Nagpur on October 14, 1956. Accepting the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk in the traditional manner, Ambedkar completed his own conversion. He then proceeded to convert an estimated 500,000 of his supporters who were gathered around him. Taking the 22 Vows, Ambedkar and his supporters explicitly condemned and rejected Hinduism and Hindu philosophy. He then traveled to Kathmandu in Nepal to attend the Fourth World Buddhist Conference. He completed his final manuscript, The Buddha or Karl Marx on December 2, 1956.

Vipassana movement

The Buddhist meditation tradition of Vipassana meditation is growing in popularity in India. Many institutions—both government and private sector—now offer courses for their employees. This form is mainly practiced by the elite and middle class Indians. This movement has spread to many other countries in Europe, America and Asia.

Other Buddhist schools

Shinnyo en, a well-known Buddhist school with temples worldwide, is slowly attracting the elite and middle class Indians. Its teachings are based on Buddha's Mahaparinirvana Sutra.

Further reading



Living Religions, seventh edition, by Mary Pat Fisher

External links

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