Sigrid Harris: Research and Writing Blog
When Buddhism arose in India in the 6th century B.C.E. it quickly grew into a great religion, due to a multiplicity of reasons. Nevertheless, after several centuries it began to decline, and by the thirteenth century C.E. it had disappeared from its native land altogether. A different set of environmental factors played a part in both the rise and the decline. At its inception, the spiritual climate of India was ideal for the founding of a new religion; Brahmanism had lost its appeal and the alternative ascetic practices that some resorted to were not suitable for the majority of people. Buddhism provided a path to Nirvana that everyone could take, and the innate compassion at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings drew many to it. But the gradual decay of its moral and intellectual standards and the emergence of a new Hinduism, combined with the anti-Buddhist campaigns of the Muslims, ushered the religion to its decline.
At the time Siddhartha Gautama was born, India was a land of prevailing social unrest and political instability. There were sixteen major states and several smaller ones in northern India alone. Though there were many different forms of government, monarchies and oligarchical republics were predominant. A money economy had developed, giving rise to an immense accumulation of wealth in the mercantile class in particular. Merchants were frequently wealthier than kings, creating a dire struggle between political and economic power. As A.K. Warder observes, “In this society most people found their freedom seriously and increasingly restricted, their property and their lives insecure, the future uncertain and probably worse than the past.”
The traditional religion of India, Brahmanism, could offer little comfort to the common people. The brahmins, the top social caste, had become extremely powerful due to their crucial role in the execution of sacrifices, which, if correctly performed, had immense mystical potency. Nevertheless, few could afford to pay for these sacrifices. Brahmanism, with recondite teachings that were understood only by the uppermost elite, had little appeal for the masses.
Many were dissatisfied with Brahmanical society, and a number of unorthodox philosophical sects arose. The main schools were those of the Jains, Ajivikas, Lokayatas, and Agnostics. But the rigorous ascetic practices engendered by most of these were too exacting for the majority of householders.
The new school of unorthodoxy founded by the Buddha, on the other hand, demanded no intense physical austerities; his teachings were simple and empirical, accessible to all. Unlike Brahmanism, which was essentially ritualistic and mythological, the Buddha’s teachings were inherently psychological. He stated that each person could achieve Nirvana, the ultimate spiritual fulfilment and dissolution of the ego. He preached in the vernacular, Pali, so even the lower castes could hear his message. Buddhism effectively ignored caste – all castes could follow the Middle Way and eventually gain enlightenment, no matter how low they were in society. An order of nuns was established alongside an order of monks; in all of this there was a pervading notion of social equality that gave the religion strength. As well as the religion’s optimistic outlook on the potential of each individual to transcend suffering, its accessibility and democracy rendered it immensely appealing to the people.
The establishment of the Sangha played an important role in the religion’s rise. The Sangha referred to the community of monks and nuns which linked all Buddhist monasteries together; it served as a spiritual example for the lay community. Buddhism was a proselytising religion; its monks and nuns were zealous about spreading the Buddha’s message, and some monks even risked their lives by travelling out of India to preach the way out of suffering. Thus, the Sangha played a crucial role to the early success of Buddhism.
Buddhism was also highly economical. The lavish expenditure required for Vedic sacrifices had taken its toll on many; monarchs had often taxed their subjects for the funds and those in poorer circumstances had no means of assuring their personal prosperity by sacrifice. Following the Eightfold Path of the Buddha, on the other hand, cost nothing.
The royal patronage Buddhism gained from its very inception further strengthened the religion. The Buddha, a Kshatriya prince who had forsaken his former life to gain enlightenment, attracted the notice of many kings. Bimbisara and Ajatasatru of Magadha and Prasenajit of Kosala were only a few of the numerous rulers who converted to the new religion. The support of the ruling class would become significant to the propagation of Buddhism, but it was only one of the many factors that surrounded the religion’s rise. It was the innate merit of the Buddha’s teachings that, sowed in the right historical environment, assured the religion a blossoming future.
But Buddhism’s glory in India would not last forever: in the 7th century C.E., the Chinese Buddhist monk Hsüan Tsang noted that Theravada Buddhism was hovering on the verge of non-existence in most of the Indian subcontinent. Buddhism as a whole had already embarked on a steady decline. It was becoming tainted in many ways: “From the end of the Gupta period onwards Indian religion became more and more permeated with primitive ideas of sympathetic magic and sexual mysticism, and Buddhism was much affected by these developments.” The direct result of this permeation was the birth of a third vehicle, “the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”, Vajrayana. This new sect misinterpreted religious tenets and allowed the use of intoxicants; it was also lenient in the upholding of celibacy.
The Sangha as a whole became corrupt. From the many donations it received, it became rich, and monks began to ignore the tenth rule of the Vinaya and accepted silver and gold. The Mahayana school introduced expensive rituals and ceremonies into the religion, causing it to cease to be economical.
Another Chinese traveller of the 7th century, Yuan Chwang, wrote “The different schools are constantly at variance, and their utterances rise like angry waves of the sea…there are 18 schools, each claiming pre-eminence.” The many rivalries between sects destroyed the image the masses held of Buddhism. The religious texts of the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools began to be written in Sanskrit, a literary language that most Indians did not understand; this further distanced Buddhism from the common people.
Much of the decline of Buddhism was caused by its own failings; it could not meet the popularity of the re-emerged Hinduism. As an essentially non-theistic religion, it could not achieve the same success with the masses as Hinduism, which possessed a pantheon of gods that could intervene in the affairs of men if appeased. The moral corruption of Buddhism also caused a degeneration in its intellectual standards; the Hindus, on the other hand, had a strong scholarly foundation.
After the renowned Buddhist king Ashoka, the majority of Indian rulers supported the new Hinduism. It had the patronage of the Gupta rulers and most of the Rajput rulers, ensuring it prosperity and success among the people. Hinduism also incorporated many Buddhistic elements, such as preaching monks and religious processions; it further claimed the Mahatma Buddha as one of the incarnations of the lord Vishnu. Therefore the common man did not make any great distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism; the new Hinduism embraced some of Buddhism, making it unnecessary for the masses to honour Buddhism alone.
Persecution of Buddhists also played a part in the downfall of the religion. The Muslim invasions left India scarred; the invaders destroyed Buddhist monasteries and universities wherever they went. As Warder writes, “It is hardly necessary to emphasise the thoroughness with which the older religions have been obliterated in practically every country where Muslims have ruled for any length of time.” Though Hinduism was able to sustain itself through these times, Buddhism had been increasingly weak and these raids dealt a final blow.
To conclude, Buddhism from its inception was a religion that captured the enthusiasm of the rich and poor alike. It was a religion that preached a way out of suffering, in a simple and direct fashion that could be understood by the common man. Unlike the Brahmanism that had become too recondite and scholarly for the masses, Buddhism fulfilled the spiritual needs of the people; every person could work their way towards enlightenment. Its notions of social equality earned it much success and the establishment of the Sangha gave it strength. As it was a proselytising religion it spread quickly. It flourished for centuries, but eventually, the corruption of the Sangha, the rivalries between sects, and the lack of protection from the ruling class weakened Buddhism and made it unable to compete with the reformed Hinduism. The anti-Buddhist campaigns led by the Muslims caused its final downfall, and Buddhism eventually entirely disappeared from India between 1000 and 1200 C.E. It left India with a rich legacy that was partially incorporated into Hinduism, and owing to the zest of the Buddhist missionaries, numerous countries were converted to Buddhism; many of them remain Buddhist to this day. Buddhism is at present a world religion, and humankind is the better for it.
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 E. Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, Oxford, 1951, p.117.
 Called the Buddha (“Enlightened One”) by posterity; also known as Tathagata (“Thus-Come”) or Shakyamuni (“Sage of the Shakyas”). The accepted dates of his life are 567-487 B.C.E; see K.M. Panikar, A Survey of Indian History, London, 1963, p. 19.
 A.K. Warder, Indian Buddhism, Delhi, 1980, p. 30.
 Ibid, p. 67.
 Loosely translated as “Church”.
 L.P. Sharma, History of Ancient India, Delhi, 1987, p. 86.
 A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, London, 1954, p.265.
 A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India: A Survey of the Culture of the Indian Sub-Continent Before the Coming of the Muslims, London, 1954, p. 265.
 The other two vehicles were Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”, also known as Theravada) and Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”).
 A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, London, 1954, p. 265.
 Quoted in L.P. Sharma, History of Ancient India, Delhi, 1987, p. 87.
 A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, London, 1954, pp. 265-266.
 A.K. Warder, Indian Buddhism, Delhi, 1980, p. 508.
 E. Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, Oxford, 1951, p.117.