Buddhism in India
Buddhism was first introduced to the world in the 6th century BCE by Siddhartha Gautam . It first spread
outside the ancient kingdom of Magadha. At the time India already had an established reputation for
being a land of pioneers in spiritual and intellectual innovation. The Indian demographic at the time,
however, had reached a point where it could be divided into two broad sects: the self centered
aristocracy, and the ritualistic masses.
The Growth of Buddhism in India:
Eventually, resentment towards the injustices suffered by the lower classes, and the overwhelming
powers of the priestly class prompted the development of alternative teachings and philosophies. These
new approaches, however, still maintained that there was some merit to be found in select aspects of
Hindu ritual and tradition. Even the most radical of the new theories never directly challenged the Vedic
beliefs or gods. Siddhartha Gautama, on the other hand, challenged some of the core beliefs that were
revered by the priestly elite. Rituals, and ritualistic sacrifice, were seen as superfluous efforts in Buddhist
philosophy. The foundation of the Buddhist way was the Middle Path—a way of moderation between
self indulgence and self mortification.
The Hindu way of life was indeed becoming increasingly intolerant. The priestly class, the Brahmans,
clung to Sanskrit as their modus operandi, thus alienating most of the masses, who did not have the
right to be educated enough to understand the Vedic texts. The Buddhist teachings, on the other hand,
were conducted in Prakrit, which was the layman’s language of the day. This made Buddhist philosophy
accessible to anyone who felt inclined to explore it.
A large part of the early followers of Buddhist philosophy were merchants and untouchables that
suffered the most due to the societal constructs based on priestly administration. The simplicity and the
method of Buddhist teaching made it popular among the general masses and added numbers to its
following. The teachings were primarily conducted orally. However, these factors also contributed to it
remaining one of several small sects present through the country at the time.
The decisive boost in the popularity and outreach of Buddhism came with the royal patronage of the
Mauryan Empire. Asoka the Great was intensely moved by the cost of war on humanity, to the point of
renouncing violence. Soon after the Kalinga War, he adopted the Buddhist philosophy and assumed
responsibility of spreading the Buddhist message throughout his kingdom. Asoka’s endorsement also
effectively split the Buddhist community into two branches: the Mahasamghika and the Sthaviravada.
Spread of Buddhism in Asia:
The merchant patronage of Buddhism eventually carried the philosophy to all parts of Asia. Buddhism
first travelled to South East Asia and gained popularity, reaching there by sea, and then travelled up to
the eastern coast of China. By land, the Silk Route led it all the way from Central Asia till East Asia.
This period, the Common Era, was a turbulent period of significant cultural change. Kinship based
systems were rapidly dissolving, giving way to bigger, more powerful rulers. These swift measures of
political consolidation, in turn, resulted in the growth of urban centers and trade based economies.
These new centers sought new social identities, language, and institutions, and Buddhism provided this
cultural support. Every region that Buddhism traveled to developed its own monasteries and following.
Decline of Buddhism in India:
Chinese monks such as Xuanzang and Song Yun, travelling through the country between the 5th and the
8th century, first noted what eventually was observed to be a steady decline of Buddhism in India. The
Buddhist patronage was rendered extremely vulnerable owing to the fact that a large portion of the
followers were ascetic communities. Decline accelerated after the fall of the Pala dynasty, and
continued to meet hostile rulers with the gradual Muslim conquest of the subcontinent.
major factor contributing to the decline of Buddhism in India was rise of Hinduism. A vigorous revival
of Hinduism, specifically Saivite and Vaishnavite, in several parts of the country severely impacted
Buddhist patronage. Furthermore, Hinduism grew to borrow elements from Buddhist philosophy;
Vaishnavites eventually denounced animal sacrificed and advocated vegetarianism, while caste
distinctions drastically lost relevance in many sects through the country.
Several external sources have also been accredited with the decline of Buddhism within the
subcontinent, like the White Hun invasion, which resulted in the destruction of Buddhist monasteries far
In the 10th century, Mahmud of Ghazni defeated the Hindu Shahis, decisively diminishing Buddhist self
governance all through Central Asia. Another theory suggests that between the 7th and the 12th century,
when Islam penetrated the subcontinent, it replaced Buddhism as the prudent cosmopolitan trade
Reemergence of Buddhism in India:
Buddhism resurfaced to the forefront of cultural turbulence owing to the Dalit Buddhist movement, a
Buddhist revival movement aimed at urging Dalits to convert to Buddhism, abandoning a caste based
system that placed them at the bottom of the hierarchy. The grandest advocate of the Buddhist revival
movement was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.
After furiously arguing the case that Buddhism was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality,
and going on to publishing several texts to substantiate the claim, Ambedkar publicly converted to
Buddhism on 14 October, 1956. He died less than two months later, and the Buddhist movement was
considerably impacted. The proposed agenda of mass conversion was not as well received as it had been
At present there are more than 7 million Buddhists in India. This makes Buddhism the fifth largest
religion in the country. The primary concentration of the Buddhist revival movement remains in two
states: Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh. There are two dominant branches of Buddhism existent in the
modern context: in Sri Lanka and South East Asia it is the Theravada, and across the Himalayas and East
Asia it is the Mahayana.
¤ Himachal Pradesh
¤ Jammu Kashmir
¤ Arunachal Pradesh