How Buddhism grew and fell in India: The Tribune India

Vappala Balachandran

Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

On December 21, while addressing the 6th Indo-Japanese Samwad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed to create a Composite World Library on Buddhist Studies for scholars to continue “our ancient tradition of spiritual exchange and scholars ”.

In 1938, the French writer-philosopher André Malraux made an almost similar suggestion to Jawaharlal Nehru, who was in Paris after being released from Almora prison on September 3, 1935. Nehru had completed his seventh imprisonment which began on the 12th. February 1934. Malraux wanted to know how Hinduism could succeed in pushing back an organized and popular religion like Buddhism of India without major armed conflict and by absorbing its principles more than a thousand years ago.

Nehru worked hard on this request during his ninth imprisonment from 1942 to 1945 in Ahmednagar Fort prison. The result was his Discovery of India, a 583-page scientific work. Nehru was imprisoned for over nine years in nine phases.

In writing this treatise, Nehru used the impressions gathered during his travels since 1912 across the country back and forth, meeting villagers, observing its mighty rivers, valleys and mountains, forests and plains. His most captivating experience was at Kumbh Mela in his hometown where “hundreds of thousands of people come, as their ancestors had come for thousands of years from all over India, to bathe in the Ganges”.

He would remember what Chinese pilgrims and others wrote about 1,300 years ago about these festivals, even when these melas were ancient and lost in an unknown antiquity. “What was the immense faith, I wondered, that had drawn our people for untold generations to this famous river of India? “

Nehru felt that Jainism and Buddhism were not seen as a revolt against Hinduism but as an attack on polytheism and Brahmanism. He concluded that the Upanishad philosophy produced a powerful wave of materialistic thought, agnosticism and atheism. Buddhism and Jainism were born from this. Vardhamana Mahavira (540-468 BC) and Siddhartha Gautama (560-480 BC) were Kshatriyas and believed in the Hindu principles of karma and rebirth. Both preached non-violence and non-caste societies; however, both did not claim to break with Aryan tradition. This was one of the reasons people didn’t think these two religions were new religions.

The ruling elite found Buddhism attractive, receiving an initial boost during Bimbisara’s rule in Magadha, southern Bihar (540 BC). Bimbisara had met Gautama before his Enlightenment. In fact, the Magadha Empire, the dean of contemporary kingdoms like Kosala (Oudh), was famous as one of the 16 kingdoms known as Mahajanpadas (great foot of the people) in ancient North India for the three religions: Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.

Chandragupta Maurya, who captured Magadha from the Nandas in 322 BC, patronized all religions. It has been mentioned in Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and Greek texts. Later, Ashoka extended his empire through wars to virtually all of India. Anguished by the bloodshed, he renounced violence as a policy under the influence of the Buddhist ascetic Upagupta de Mathura. Yet historians doubt that Ashoka renounced Hinduism.

Years later, Asvaghosha, a Brahmin priest from Ayodhya who became a Buddhist, converted Kanishka to Buddhism. Kanishka was a Kushan (Yuezhi) from western China. He elevated the preacher Buddha to God through the “Mahayana”, borrowing the Hindu theory of reincarnation and introducing Hellenistic features to Buddha statues like Apollo with jewelry.

The Hindu revival was observed during 405-643 AD, from Chandragupta-1 (Gupta empire) until Harshavardhana. Comments by Chinese travelers Fa-hsien and Hiuen-Tsiang at this time indicate that “the ascetic realism of Jainism and Buddhism no longer appealed to the masses unlike the colorful deities of the Hindu pantheon”, although kings condescended Buddhism.

In addition, the evolution of a self-sustaining village community system had a negative influence on Buddhism, which was only patronized by the upper classes. Villagers no longer needed costly monasteries for spiritual upliftment since the “new Brahmins” began to go door to door as priests, agricultural advisers, Ayurvedic doctors and astrologers. It was the beginning of the decline of Buddhism in India.

Nehru’s interpretation of the trajectory of Buddhism has been appreciated and approved by academics around the world. What they could not understand was how a revived Hinduism could indulge in such inhuman caste oppression against non-Brahmins to the point of causing Swami Vivekananda to call Kerala even with a high level of education. , a “lunatic asylum” in 1892. It was so cruel that he decided to appoint Srimad Ramakrishnananada and Sister Nivedita to lead the struggle for reforms.

However, Sri Narayana Guru (1855-1928) had already started his fight in Kerala for “One Caste, One Religion, One God for Humanity” since 1888. Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi visited him in his ashram in 1922 and 1925, respectively. Swami Dharma Theertha, his close disciple, had published A History of Hindu Imperialism in 1941 in Lahore as an alternative interpretation of the Vedas, Brahmins and Sutras. Originally, he was Shri Parameswara Menon, an upper caste activist. In his book he accused Brahmanism of ignoring the teachings of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda and Gandhiji and denying Dalits “the comfort and benefits of education, sanitation, water and air, the use of reservoirs, wells and roads. ”However, the mainstream Hindutva movement ignored all of this.

Babasaheb Ambedkar began to think about converting to Buddhism while in London in 1933. It was not until October 14, 1956 that a sick Ambedkar and his three lakh disciples converted to Buddhists in Nagpur. In his speech, he ridiculed the allegation that he chose Nagpur to confront the RSS based there. Instead, it was to commemorate the one man “Nag” who escaped from the original Aryan massacre and from whom the “Nags” living near Nagpur were descended, who ultimately carried the message of Buddha.

These are the points which should hold the attention of the new world library. In addition, they should also investigate why ocher-clad Buddhist priests like Ashin Wirathu in Myanmar are at the forefront in persecuting the hapless Rohingya against all Buddhist canons.