The complete disappearance of the religion of the Buddha from the land of its birth is one of the greatest puzzles of history. Once holding sway throughout the length and breadth of the subcontinent, Buddhism today survives only in the Himalayan fringes along the Tibetan frontier and in small pockets in northern and western India among recent Ambedkarite Dalit converts.
Various theories have been put forward which seek to explain the tragic eclipse of Buddhism from India. According to one view, corruption in the Buddhist sangha or priesthood precipitated Buddhism’s ultimate decline. While it is true that with time the Buddhist priests became increasingly lax in the observance of religious rules, corruption alone cannot explain the death of Buddhism. After all, Buddhism was replaced by an even more corrupt Brahminism. Another theory is that Buddhism disappeared from India in the wake of the Arab and Turkish invasions in which many Buddhists were said to have been killed. However, this theory, too, seems not to be convincing as a complete explanation of the extinction of Buddhism in India. After all, in places such as Bengal and Sind, which were ruled by Brahminical dynasties but had Buddhist majorities, Buddhists are said to have welcomed the Muslims as saviours who had freed them from the tyranny of ‘upper’ caste rule. This explains why most of the ‘lower-caste’ people in Eastern Bengal and Sind embraced Islam. Few, if any, among the ‘upper’ castes of these regions did the same.
Since Buddhism was replaced by triumphant Brahminism, the eclipse of Buddhism in India was obviously primarily a result of the Brahminical revival. The Buddha was a true revolutionary – and his crusade against Brahminical supremacy won him his most ardent followers from among the oppressed castes. The Buddha challenged the divinity of the Vedas, the bedrock of Brahminism. He held that all men are equal and that the caste system or varnashrama dharma, to which the Vedas and other Brahminical books had given religious sanction, was completely false. Thus, in the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha is said to have exhorted the Bhikkus, saying, “Just, O brethren, as the great rivers, when they have emptied themselves into the Great Ocean, lose their different names and are known as the Great Ocean Just so, O brethren, do the four varnas – Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vaishya and Sudra – when they begin to follow the doctrine and discipline propounded by the Tathagata [i.e. the Buddha], renounce the different names of caste and rank and become the members of one and the same society.”
The Buddha’s fight against Brahminism won him many enemies from among the Brahmins. They were not as greatly opposed to his philosophical teachings as they were to his message of universal brotherhood and equality for it directly challenged their hegemony and the scriptures that they had
invented to legitimize this. To combat Buddhism and revive the tottering Brahminical hegemony, Brahminical revivalists resorted to a three-pronged strategy. Firstly, they launched a campaign of hatred and persecution against the Buddhists. Then, they appropriated many of the finer aspects of Buddhism into their own system so as to win over the “lower” caste Buddhist masses, but made sure that this selective appropriation did not in any way undermine Brahminical hegemony. The final stage in this project to wipe out Buddhism was to propound and propagate the myth that the Buddha was merely another ‘incarnation’ (avatar) of the Hindu god Vishnu. Buddha was turned into just another of the countless deities of the Brahminical pantheon.
The Buddhists were finally absorbed into the caste system, mainly as Shudras and ‘Untouchables’, and with that, the Buddhist presence was completely obliterated from the land of its birth. Dr.Bhimrao Ambedkar writes in his book, The Untouchables, that the ancestors of today’s Dalits were Buddhists who were reduced to the lowly status of ‘untouchables’ for not having accepted the supremacy of the Brahmins. They were kept apart from other people and were forced to live in ghettos of their own. Being treated worse than beasts of burden and forbidden to receive any education, these people gradually lost touch with Buddhism, but yet never fully reconciled themselves to the Brahminical order. Many of them later converted to Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity in a quest for liberation from the Brahminical religion.
To lend legitimacy to their campaign against Buddhism, Brahminical texts included fierce strictures against Buddhists. Manu, in his Manusmriti, laid down that, “If a person touches a Buddhist he shall purify himself by having a bath.” Aparaka ordained the same in his Smriti. Vradha Harit declared entry into a Buddhist temple a sin, which could only be expiated for by taking a ritual bath. Even dramas and other books for lay people written by Brahmins contained venomous propaganda against the Buddhists.
In the classic work, Mricchakatika, (Act VII), the hero Charudatta, on seeing a Buddhist monk pass by, exclaims to his friend Maitriya “Ah! Here is an inauspicious sight, a Buddhist monk coming towards us.” The Brahmin Chanakya, the author of Arthashastra, declared that, “When a person entertains in a dinner dedicated to gods and ancestors those who are Sakyas (Buddhists), Ajivikas, Shudras and exiled persons, a fine of one hundred panas shall be imposed on him.” Shankaracharya, the leader of the Brahminical revival, struck terror into the hearts of the Buddhists with his diatribes against their religion.
The simplicity of the Buddha’s message, its stress on equality and its crusade against the bloody and costly sacrifices and ritualism of Brahminism had attracted the oppressed casts in large numbers. The Brahminical revivalists understood the need to appropriate some of these finer aspects of Buddhism and discarded some of the worst of their own practices so as to be able to win over the masses back to the Brahminical fold. Hence began the process of the assimilation of Buddhism by Brahminism. The Brahmins, who were once voracious beef-eaters, turned vegetarian, imitating the Buddhists in this regard. Popular devotion to the Buddha was sought to be replaced by devotion to Hindu gods such as Rama and Krishna. The existing version of the Mahabharata was written in the period in which the decline of Buddhism had already begun, and it was specially meant for the Shudras, most of whom were Buddhists, to attract them away from Buddhism. Brahminism, however, still prevented the Shudras from having access to the Vedas, and the Mahabharata was possibly written to placate the Buddhist Shudras and to compensate them for this discrimination. The Mahabharata incorporated some of the humanistic elements of Buddhism to win over the Shudras, but, overall, played its role of bolstering the Brahminical hegemony rather well. Thus, Krishna, in the Gita, is made to say that a person ought not to violate the “divinely ordained” law of caste. Eklavya is made to slice off his thumb by Drona, who finds it a gross violation of dharma that a mere tribal boy should excel the Kshatriya Arjun in archery.
The various writers of the puranas, too, carried on this systematic campaign of hatred, slander and calumny against the Buddhists. The Brahannardiya Purana made it a principal sin for Brahmins to enter the house of a Buddhist even in times of great peril. The Vishnu Purana dubs the Buddha as Maha Moha or ‘the great seducer’. It further cautions against the “sin of conversing with Buddhists” and lays down that “those who merely talk to Buddhist ascetics shall be sent to hell.” In the Gaya Mahatmaya, the concluding section of the Vayu Purana, the town of Gaya is identified as Gaya Asura, a demon who had attained such holiness that all those who saw him or touched him went straight to heaven. Clearly, this ‘demon’ was none other the Buddha who preached a simple way for all, including the oppressed castes, to attain salvation. The Vayu Purana story goes on to add that Yama, the king of hell, grew jealous at this, possibly because fewer people were now entering his domains. He appealed to the gods to limit the powers of Asura Gaya. This the gods, led by Vishnu, were able to do by placing a massive stone on the “demon’s” head. This monstrous legend signified the ultimate capture of Budhdhism’s most holy centre by its most inveterate foes.
Kushinagar, also known as Harramba, was one of the most important Buddhist centres as the Buddha breathed his last there. The Brahmins, envious of the prosperity of this pilgrim town and in order to discourage people from going there, invented the absurd theory that one who dies in Harramba goes to hell, or is reborn as an ass, while he who dies in Kashi, the citadel of Brahminism, goes straight to heaven. So pervasive was the belief in this bizarre theory that when the Sufi saint Kabir died in 1518 AD at Maghar, not far from Kushinagar, some of his Hindu followers refused to erect any memorial in his honour there and instead set up one at Kashi. Kabir’s Muslim followers were less superstitious. They set up a tomb for him at Maghar itself.
In addition to vilifying the fair name of the Buddha, the Brahminical revivalists goaded Hindu kings to persecute and even slaughter innocent Buddhists. Sasanka, the Shaivite Brahmin king of Bengal, murdered the last Buddhist emperor Rajyavardhana, elder brother of Harshavardhana, in 605 AD and then marched on to Bodh Gaya where he destroyed the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment. He forcibly removed the Buddha’s image from the Bodh Vihara near the tree and installed one of Shiva in its place. Finally, Sasanka is said to have slaughtered all the Buddhist monks in the area around Kushinagar. Another such Hindu king was, Mihirakula, a Shaivite, who is said to have completely destroyed over 1500 Buddhist shrines. The Shaivite Toramana is said to have destroyed the Ghositarama Buddhist monastery at Kausambi.
The extermination of Buddhism in India was hastened by the large-scale destruction and appropriation of Buddhist shrines by the Brahmins. The Mahabodhi Vihara at Bodh Gaya was forcibly converted into a Shaivite temple, and the controversy lingers on till this day. The cremation stupa of the Buddha at Kushinagar was changed into a Hindu temple dedicated to the obscure deity with the name of Ramhar Bhavani. Adi Shankara is said to have established his Sringeri Mutth on the site of a Buddhist monastery which he took over. Many Hindu shrines in Ayodhya are said to have once been Buddhist temples, as is the case with other famous Brahminical temples such as those at Sabarimala, Tirupati, Badrinath and Puri.
Author – Naresh Kumar