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DISAPPEARANCE OF BUDDHISM FROM INDIA:

THE ROLE OF SHASHANKA

ANKUR BARUA, M.A. BASILIO

Buddhist Door, Tung Lin Kok Yuen, Hong Kong

Hong Kong, 2009

Communication Address of Corresponding Author:

Dr. ANKUR BARUA

Block – EE, No.-80, Flat No.-2A,

Salt Lake City, Sector-2,

Kolkata - 700091, West Bengal, INDIA.

Email: ankurbarua26@yahoo.com

Mobile: +91-9434485543 (India), +852-96195078 (Hong Kong)


DISAPPEARANCE OF BUDDHISM FROM INDIA:

THE ROLE OF SHASHANKA

Abstract

The disappearance of Buddhism from India was a multi-factorial causation. When

the Buddhist monks had abandoned their regular community visits and

concentrated on their own salvation, the lay devotees were ignored. Buddhism

started losing the general support from the community. Subsequently, the

Brahmins took advantage of this situation and deepened the rift between the

common people and the Buddhist practitioners. They also manipulated the

contemporary rulers like Shashanka, to withdraw their support from Buddhism

and help in reviving the existing Brahmanism.

Shashanka was the Shaivite Brahmin king of Bengal. He was manipulated by the

Brahmins to become a ferocious oppressor of the Buddhists. He had destroyed

the Bodhi tree of Bodh Gaya and ordered the mass destruction of all Buddhist

images and monasteries in his kingdom.

Key words: Buddhism, Disappearance, Decline, Destruction,

Responsibility, Shashanka, Shaivite.

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DISAPPEARANCE OF BUDDHISM FROM INDIA:

THE ROLE OF SHASHANKA

Introduction

What led to the disappearance of Buddhism from India, the land of its origin is

unknown. Due to the lack of historical and archeological evidence, there is no

absolute consensus on this matter till date.1,2,3

Shashanka, the Shaivite Brahmin king of Bengal was manipulated by the

Brahmins to destroy the Bodhi tree of Bodh Gaya and also order the mass

destruction of all Buddhist images and monasteries in his kingdom. Thus, he

played a significant role in the Disappearance of Buddhism from India.1,2,3,4

Contributing Factors for the Disappearance of Buddhism from India

Buddhism had altogether disappeared from India as a formal religion during the

13th century A.D.5,6 In order to explore the contributing factors for the decline

and disappearance of Buddhism from India; we need to consider all the events in

a sequential and chronological order. These factors could be arranged under the

following major headings: (a) Sectarian and Internal Conflicts – Relating to

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the schisms within the Buddhist faith; the widening differences between the

clergy, Buddhist monks and laity; and the growing corruption within the sangha.

(b) Buddhists were persecuted by Brahmins - Alleged persecution of

Buddhists by Brahmins; the defeat of the Buddhists by the great theologian Adi

Shankaracharya in public debates; as well as the characteristic tendency of

Hinduism, or rather Brahmanism, to absorb its opponents. (c) Secular and

political histories - Withdrawal of royal patronage from Buddhism was

followed by the Muslim invasions which had the effect of driving into extinction

the already debilitated Buddhist community.1,2,3,5,6

It is important to understand that Buddhism was never wiped off from India on a

single day and in any single event. Like the causal web of a disease, it was a

multi-factorial causation. The process of decline and subsequent disappearance

was gradual and lasted for many centuries. So, before we get into the details of

any historical analysis, we should first arrange the factors in a chronological

order and observe the interdependency of a previous event leading to the next.

Secular and Political Factors

During the rule of the Kushanas and the Guptas (325-497 AD), both Buddhists

and adherents of Brahmanism received royal patronage. However, the royal

patronage had shifted from Buddhist to Hindu religious institutions from the

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beginning of the sixth century A.D. Buddhism began to suffer a decline as

Brahmanism veered off into Vaishnavism and Saivism. This was followed by

some regional kingdoms subsequently developing into the major sites of

power.1,2,3,5

Shashanka, the Shaivite Brahmin king of Bengal was manipulated by the

Brahmins to become a ferocious oppressor of the Buddhists. The single original

source for all subsequent narratives about Shashanka’s ruinous conduct towards

Buddhists was documented by Ven. Hsuan Tsang during his visit to India in early

part of the seventh century A.D.

But the exact reasons for his hostile attitude towards Buddhism were not known.

It was believed that the Brahminical revivalists had goaded the Hindu kings like

him to persecute and even slaughter innocent Buddhists.7 It was reported that

Shashanka had destroyed the Bodhi tree of Bodh Gaya and ordered the mass

destruction of all Buddhist images and monasteries in his kingdom. This biased

and sectarian policy of Shashanka had broken the backbone of Buddhism in

India.1,2,3,5,6

Shashanka had also murdered the last Buddhist emperor Rajyavardhana, elder

brother of Harshavardhana, in 605 AD. He had marched on to Bodh Gaya and

destroyed the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment.

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He forcibly removed the Buddha's image from the Bodhi Vihara near the tree and

installed one of Shiva in its place. Shashanka is alleged to have slaughtered all

the Buddhist monks in the area around Kushinagar.1,2,3,7

After the rule of Shashanka, the Pala kingdom was established in Bengal. Though

the Palas of Bengal had been hospitable to Vaishnavism and Saivism, but

nonetheless they were major supporters of Buddhism. However, when Bengal

came under the rule of the Senas (1097-1223), Saivism was promulgated and

Buddhism was neglected. 1,2,3 Another hostile Shaivite king like Shashanka was

Mihirakula who had completely destroyed over 1500 Buddhist shrines. His hostile

action was followed by the Shaivite, Toramana who had destroyed the

Ghositarama Buddhist monastery at Kausambi.7

Conclusions

The despotism of Shashanka and his hostile behavior towards the Buddhists was

carried forward by the revival of Hinduism that led to the further decline of

Buddhism in India. Many scholars often relate this Vedic revival as a tyrannical

faith that caused massive destruction of the Buddhist monasteries. But this

matter is however, far more complicated than this. A recent study of the Bengal

Puranas proved that the Buddhists were mocked and projected as mischievous

and malicious in Brahminical narratives as well as subjected to immense

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rhetorical violence. This rhetorical violence should be interpreted as both

physical and mental violence perpetrated upon the Buddhists. The extermination

of Buddhism in India was hastened by the large-scale destruction of Buddhist

shrines by the Brahmins. The Maha Bodhi Vihara at Bodh Gaya was forcibly

converted into a Shaivite temple.1,2,3,5,6,7

Even though there was hatred against Buddhism, but the Brahmins could never

deny or disrespect the inner truths in the teachings of the Buddha. So, the

subsequent absorption of the Buddha into Vishnu’s pantheon represented some

sort of a compromise between the Brahmins and the Buddhists on moral and

philosophical grounds. What Buddhism stood for to promote peace and harmony

in the society, had been later incorporated into certain strands of modern

Hinduism in order to make it more refined and acceptable to the society. Thus,

the Buddha was finally given his just dues. 1,2,3,5,6

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References

1. Lal, V. 2004. Buddhism’s Disappearance from India [serial online]. [cited


2009 August 26]; [2 screens]. Available from: URL:
http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/paths/BuddhismDisappear.do
c.

2. Jaini, P.S., Narain A.K., ed., 1980. The Disappearance of Buddhism and the
Survival of Jainism: A Study in Contrast. Studies in History of Buddhism.
Delhi: B.R. Publishing Company:181-91.

3. Ahir, D.C. 2005. Buddhism Declined in India: How and Why? Delhi: B.R.
Publishing.

4. Kantowsky, D. 2003. Buddhists in India Today: Descriptions, Pictures and


Documents. Delhi: Manohar Publications: 156.

5. Goyal, S.R. 1987. A History of Indian Buddhism. Meerut: 394.

6. Beal, S. 1884. Si-Yu Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World. London:
Trubner & Co., reprint ed., Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation.

7. Pakistan Defence. 2008. Disappearance of Buddhism from "Non Violent


India": An Untold Story. Daily Muslims. [serial online]. [cited 2009 October 8];
[2 screens]. Available from: URL: http://www.defence.pk/forums/current-
events-social-issues/9222-disappearance-buddhism-non-violent-india-untold-
story.html

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