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The Rise and Rise of Buddhism in India

Buddhist writer and scholar enlightening minds with insightful articles.

Buddhism, a spiritual tradition known for its emphasis on peace, compassion, and enlightenment, has a deep-rooted connection with India. Siddhartha Gautam founded it in the 5th century BCE in India. Buddhism has left an indelible mark on the Indian subcontinent, shaping its history, culture, and religious landscape.

Buddhism and India
The Rise of Buddhism and India

It was in the sacred land of India that Siddhartha Gautam attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, Bihar and became known as the Buddha, or “Awakened One.”. The profound insights gained during his awakening laid the foundation for Buddhism’s rise. Historical sites like Sanchi and Sarnath hold immense significance as the places where Buddha preached his first sermon and expounded upon his teachings, respectively.

Rise of Buddhism in the Ancient India

India became a thriving hub of Buddhism, attracting followers from all walks of life. Under the patronage of King Ashoka, who embraced Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE, the faith received royal support and flourished throughout the Mauryan Empire. Ashoka’s edicts, inscribed on pillars and rocks, spread Buddhist teachings far and wide. Ashoka planned Buddhism to have lasting impact on the Indian Subcontinent, in fact one of the Buddhist edicts mentions

“And now, in the thirteenth year of this reign, King Priyadarsi (Ashoka), has been zealous to propagate the Dhamma (Buddhism), in order that both this world and the next may be well ordered.”
Ashokan Edict

Over time, various Buddhist monastic universities and centers of learning were established in India, such as Nalanda and Vikramashila, attracting scholars and students from different parts of the world. These centers became renowned for their scholarship and contributed significantly to the development and spread of Buddhist philosophy, art, and literature. In the seventh century CE, a Chinese Buddhist monk named Xuanzang paid a visit to Nalanda University. He spent 17 years there studying under the famed Buddhist scholar Shan Tsung. He proclaimed that,

“Nalanda is the greatest center of learning in the world. There are tens of thousands of students here, from all over Asia. They study all branches of knowledge, including the Buddhist Dharma, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.”

Misconceptions about the Middle Ages

Despite the popular misconception that Buddhism declined in India, the truth is more nuanced. There are various factors that contribute to this misconception. It includes burning of Buddhist literature during invasions and the rise of Islamic rule during the middle ages. Both of them are correct as a testimony of time but Buddhism as an ideology never declined during this era.

The ideology of peace, love and asceticism is still afresh in the psyche of everyone in India. At its core, Buddhism is a quest of inner tranquility and liberation from suffering. During the middle ages too, Buddhism helped cope people with the travesty of the time.

Not only did the philosophy persevere, but so did Buddhist art and architecture, as seen by the breathtaking structures like that of Ajanta and Ellora caves, which have phenomenal paintings and sculptures reflecting Buddhist stories and teachings.

Buddhism became a part of the ethos of the Indian society long back during the Mauryan Era and through successive Buddhist Councils . The invasions and the centuries long foreign rule were unable to tarnish this deep rooted association. It managed to survive during the middle ages, thanks to the patronage of regional rulers and the efforts of dedicated monks and scholars.

Buddhism and the Bhakti Movement

The other biggest misconception that has been carried on since ages is that due to the revival of Hinduism, more specifically the Bhakti Movement, Buddhism declined in India. In reality the ideologies of both the religions were based on the common grounds like the importance of compassion, wisdom, and mindfulness. As a result, during the middle ages the religions got blended to create an Indian identity.

Buddhism and Bhakti both place a strong emphasis on the value of devotion to a higher power. In Buddhism, this force is frequently perceived as Buddha, but in Bhakti, it is frequently perceived as a personal God. Mantras, or sacred words or phrases, are a tool used in both to focus the mind and establish a connection with the divine. Furthermore, both stress the value of simplicity in daily living. This entails putting an end to connection to worldly belongings and concentrating on the present.

Many Hindu texts that gained popularity throughout the Bhakti and pre-Bhakti eras mention Gautam Buddha as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. These extensively read religious works and traditions include The Agni Purana, Padma Mahapurana, Vishnu Mahapurana, Bhagavata Mahapurana, and Naradiya Mahapurana. They claim that the Buddha was born to help people to understand the true nature of reality.

Buddhism legends have also incorporated Lord Vishnu in their Jataka stories. Many stories states that Buddha met Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, in his previous lives. Similarly, The Dasaratha Jataka is a tale from Buddhist literature that tells the story of Gautam  Buddha’s past life as the prince Rama. Lord Rama is also considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and the son of King Dasaratha.

The Rise of Buddhism in modern India

In the modern era or the contemporary world as well, Buddhism is rising in India. People still draw inspiration from its teachings, as they resonate with the pursuit of peace and enlightenment. Figures like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, embraced Buddhism to advocate social justice in the society. Both Tibetan Buddhists and conventional Buddhists can be seen comfortably practicing Buddhism in modern India.

The influence of Buddhism can also be seen in popular culture, with elements of its philosophy incorporated into modern spirituality, concepts of reincarnation, and the blending of meditation practices with yoga and mindfulness. People from all walks of life celebrate Buddhist festivals like Buddha Purnima with vim and excitement in India.

Today, Buddhist meditation centres and monasteries dot the country, offering practitioners and seekers a space for contemplation and inner growth. The principles of Buddhism continue to inspire individuals from diverse background and fostering a sense of harmony and compassion.

The rise and rise of Buddhism in India is a testament to its enduring relevance and impact. It never declined in India as its philosophy, rooted in ancient wisdom, continue to guide individuals on a path towards spiritual awakening. As India moves forward, Buddhism remains an integral part of its cultural fabric, weaving together the threads of tradition, heritage, and the quest for enlightenment.