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Buddhism in India

Buddhism in India ashoka pillar

The doctrine or philosophy declared by the Buddha is known as Buddhism. It is not a religion or a system of faith or worship.

Buddhism starts from the point of reasoning or understanding. It does not advocate any prescribed system of ritual and worship or supplication of deities or gods. It is distinguished and different from other systems of "religion."

It was at Isipatana in the deer park at Benares (Sarnath) that the fully enlightened one has established the supreme kingdom of truth. At the deer park, Isipatana, he addressed the five monks and set in motion the wheel of truth. This was the beginning of Buddhism in India

The Buddha Shakayamuni or Gautama Buddha founded Buddhism between the 5th and the 6th centuries B.C. Buddhism is regarded as one of the three major and most widespread religions in the world. The teachings of the Buddha are given in the Tripitaka or the three collections, namely, Vinaya-pitaka or the collection of discipline, Sutra-pitaka or the collection of discourses and Abhidharma-pitaka or the collection of metaphysics. The theme of these three pitakas is the development of the three higher trainings of discipline, concentration and transcendental knowledge respectively while their prime function is to cure the three poisons of desire, anger and delusion.

Growth of Buddhism in India

The growth of Buddhism in India can be classified into four phases:

The Early Phase
From the mid-6th to the mid-5th century B.C., the Buddha elaborated his teachings while his followers upheld those teachings.

Interpretation of The Teachings
The 4th century B.C to the 1st century A.D. saw the beginning of the division of Buddhism into various schools on the basis of different renditions of the teachings of Buddha. The Hinayana schools arose between the Mahaparinirvana or the death of the Buddha and the end of the 1st century B.C. Hinayana Buddhism was divided into eighteen sub-schools after the third council. It is believed that its doctrines are fundamentally based on the sutras taught by the Buddha, its discipline based on Vinaya-pitaka and the analysis of the Abhidharma-pitaka. Hinayana mainly shows the path of individual salvation called the Pratimoksha.

Buddhism in India mahaparinirvana temple kusinara

Rise of Mahayana Buddhism
The third phase of Buddhism saw the rise of Mahayana Buddhism with its two sub-schools, namely, Chitamattra or the Yogacharya and Madhyamaka. This period is from 1st to the 7th century A.D. Mahayana schools developed particularly during the time of Asanga, Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna.

Rise of Tantric Buddhism
The Buddhist Tantras started to take place after the 7th century A.D in Tibet. Tantric Buddhism existed in India at the same time but in an extremely secret form. It was not accessible to the common Buddhist practitioners. It became even more popular during the time of Saraha, Nagarjuna etc and finally entered Tibet with the blessings of guru Padmasambhava, with Marpa the great translator.

Spread of Buddhism in Asia

From the 3rd century A.D, Buddhism began to spread outside India. King Ashoka played an important role in popularizing and spreading Buddhism outside India. In 250 B.C, Mahinda and Sanghamitta, son and daughter of King Ashoka, made Buddhism popular in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. This was the first time that Buddhism made its presence felt outside India. Somewhere around the 3rd century A.D. onwards, Buddhism spread to Burma or Myanmar, Cambodia, China and Indonesia. Buddhism went to Korea from china in the 4th century A.D, to Japan from Korea in 522 A.D, to Thailand from Burma in the 6th century A.D. and to Tibet in the early 8th century A.D.

Decline of Buddhism in India

For centuries, Indian kings and wealthy merchants patronized Buddhist monasteries and made huge donations besides raising many structures in the memory of Buddha. In fact, archaeological findings have revealed that the ancient city of Nalanda in India was a world center for Buddhist philosophy and religion in the 13th century. However, the advent of the Turkish invaders changed it all. They destroyed most of the monasteries situated in the plains that soon led to the disappearance of Buddhism in India. As a result, Buddhism only survived in the independent Himalayan kingdoms of Bhutan and Sikkim besides some pockets of the tribal areas in northeast India.

Many attribute the disappearance of Buddhism to the shifting of royal patronage to Hindu religious institutions. It is also said that Buddhism always had to struggle against the dynamic Hindu intellectual schools that triumphed in the end. As Buddhists started adopting the popular religious forms, there came a slow but steady amalgamation of ideas in the two religions. This again contributed greatly to its disappearance from India.

Re-emergence of Buddhism in India

Buddhism made a comeback in India during the early 20th century. The foundation of the Mahabodhi Society was a major step in this direction. During the Dalit agitation of 1956, BR Ambedkar announced that he was converting to Buddhism to escape the rigors of the Hindu caste system. As a result, many other people from the lower castes were inspired to adopt Buddhism. The influx of Tibetan refugees in 1959 also raised the number of Buddhists in India. Thus Buddhism is the fifth largest religious group in India now.