brief History of Buddhism in India
INITIAL SPREAD OF BUDDHISM IN INDIA
Please note that various Buddhist schools may differ in
details of Buddhist history.
Initially, Buddhism remained one of the many small
sects in India. The main breakthrough came when King Asoka (ca.
270-232 BCE) converted to Buddhism. He did not make it a state religion,
but supported all ethical religions. He organised the spreading
of Buddhism throughout India, but also beyond; most importantly
to Shri Lanka. This occurred after the Third Council.
THE BUDDHIST COUNCILS
The First Council
Three months after the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana
(passing away), his immediate disciples convened a council at Rajagaha.
Maha Kassapa, the most respected and senior monk, presided at the
Two very important personalities who specialised in the two areas
of the teachings:
- The Dharma: Ananda, the closest constant companion and
disciple of the Buddha for 25 years. Endowed with a remarkable memory,
Ananda was able to recite what was spoken by the Buddha.
- The Vinaya: Upali remembered all the Vinaya rules.
Only these two sections - the Dharma and the Vinaya - were recited
at the First Council (no mention was made of the Abhidharma yet).
Though there were no differences of opinion on the Dharma there
was some discussion about the Vinaya rules.
Before the Buddha's Parinirvanana, he had told Ananda that if the
Sangha wished to amend or modify some minor rules, they could do
so. But Ananda forgot to ask the Buddha what the minor rules were.
As the members of the Council were unable to agree as to what constituted
the minor rules, Maha Kassapa finally ruled that no disciplinary
rule laid down by the Buddha should be changed, and no new ones
should be introduced. No intrinsic reason was given. Maha Kassapa
did say one thing, however: "If we changed the rules, people will
say that Ven. Gautama's disciples changed the rules even before
his funeral fire has ceased burning."
At the Council, the Dharma was divided into various parts and each
part was assigned to an Elder and his pupils to commit to memory.
The Dharma was then passed on from teacher to pupil orally. The
Dharma was recited daily by groups of people who regularly cross-checked
with each other to ensure that no omissions or additions were made.
The Second Council
According to the Theravadin school (Rahula), about
one hundred years after the Buddha's passing away, the Second Council
was held to discuss some Vinaya rules, and no controversy about
the Dharma was reported. The orthodox monks (Sthavarivada) said
that nothing should be changed, while the others insisted on modifying
some rules. Finally, a group of monks left the Council and formed
the Mahasanghika - the Great Community. (The Mahasanghika should
not to be confused with Mahayana.)
According to another version (Skilton), the Second Council may have
had two parts: initially in Vaisali, some 60 years after the Buddha,
and 40 years after that, a meeting in Pataliputra, where Mahadeva
maintained five theses on the Arhat. The actual split may have occurred
at Pataliputra, not Vaisali over details of the Vinaya. In the non-Theravadin
version of events, the Mahasangha followed the original vinaya and
the Sthaviravada (the Elders) wanted changes.
What exactly happened is unlikely to be ever revealed, but the first
split in the Sangha was a fact.
The Third Council
During the reign of Emperor Asoka in the 3rd Century
BCE, the Third Council was held to discuss the differences of opinion
among the bhikkhus of different sects. At this Council differences
of opinion were not confined to the Vinaya, but also concerned the
Dharma. The President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled
a book called the Kathavatthu which refuted the heretical, false
views and theories held by some sects occurring at the time. The
teaching approved and accepted by this Council became known as Sthaviras
or Theravada, "Teaching of the Elders". The Abhidhamma Pitaka
was included at this Council.
After the Third Council, King Asoka sent missionaries to Sri Lanka,
Kanara, Karnataka, Kashmir, Himalaya region, Burma, even nowadays
Afghanistan. Asoka's son, Ven. Mahinda, brought the Tripitaka to
Sri Lanka, along with the commentaries that were recited at the
Third Council. These teachings later became known as the "Pali-canon".
The Fourth Council
The Fourth Buddhist Council was held under the
auspices of King Kaniska at Jalandhar or in Kashmir around 100 CE,
where 499 monks of the Sarvastivadin school compiled a new canon.
This council was never recognised by the Theravada school.
The Fifth Council (Burma)
The 5th Buddhist Council was held from 1868 to
1871 in Mandalay, Burma where the text of the Pali Canon was revised
and inscribed on 729 marble slabs.
The Sixth Council (Burma)
The 6th Buddhist Council was held at Rangoon, Burma
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FROM 200 BCE TO THE PRESENT
Prior to the Third Council, several schools developed
from the Sthavarivadin: Vasiputriya/Pudgalavadin/Sammitiya (three
names for the same school), Sarvastivadin and Vibajyavadin.
Later on, the Vibhajyavadin school was divided
into the Mahisasika and the Theravada. The Sarvastivadin developed
later sub-schools known as Vaibasika and Sautrantika. The Sarvastivadin
school is important in that it formed the basis for the later development
With the conversion of King Asoka, Buddhism
suddenly became a main religion in India; it had been just one of
the many sects before him.
After the death of Asoka, there followed a period
of persecution under Pusyamitra Sunga (183-147 BCE).
The second royal patron for Buddhism was Kaniska (1st to
2nd century). Under his auspices, the Fourth Council was held.
Legend reports that Nagarjuna (ca.150-250
CE) was the person preordained by Buddha to recover and explicate
the Perfection of Wisdom texts. The first of these texts was the
'Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines'. After one of his lectures,
some nagas approached him and told him of the texts hidden in their
kingdom, and so Nagarjuna traveled there and returned with the sutras
to India. He is credited with founding the Madhyamaka (Middle
Way) school of Buddhist philosophy, which emphasized the centrality
of the doctrine of emptiness.
Nagarjuna's philosophy is usually connected to the emergence of
Mahayana around this time, which meant
a clear distinction into the two main schools of Buddhism.
Approximately two centuries after Nagarjuna, a
new Mahayana school arose in India, which is commonly known as the
Yogachara (Yogic Practice School). The main scriptural source
for this school is the Sutra Explaining the Thought (Samdhinirmochana-sutra),
which consists of a series of questions put to the Buddha by a group
of bodhisattvas. The name "Yogic Practice School" may have been
derived from an important treatise by Asanga (ca. 310-390)
entitled the Levels of Yogic Practice (Yogachara-bhumi). Along with
his brother Vasubandhu (ca. 320-400), Asanga is credited
with founding this school and developing its central doctrines.
Yogachara emphasizes the importance of meditative practice, and
several passages in Yogachara texts indicate that the founders of
the school perceived other Mahayana Buddhists as being overly concerned
with dialectical debate while neglecting meditation. The Yogachara
school is commonly referred to in Tibet as "Mind Only" (sems tsam;
Sanskrit: chitta-matra) because of an idea found in some Yogachara
texts that all the phenomena of the world are "cognition-only" (vijnapti-matra),
implying that everything we perceive is conditioned by consciousness.
From around the 4th cent CE, Vajrayana (Tantrayana)
Buddhism started to develop in India as part of the Mahayana tradition.
In addition to the developments in philosophy, a new trend in practice
developed in India, which was written down in texts called tantras.
These texts purported to have been spoken by the historical Buddha
(or sometimes by other Buddhas), and while they incorporated the
traditional Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva who seeks buddhahood
for the benefit of all beings, they also proposed some radically
new practices and paradigms. The central practices of tantra include
visualizations intended to foster cognitive reorientation, the use
of prayers (mantra) to Buddhas that are intended to facilitate the
transformation of the meditator into a fully enlightened Buddha,
and often elaborate rituals.
In the 5th cent CE, a Buddhist monastic university
was founded at Nalanda, India. This university would become the
largest and most influential Buddhist center for many centuries
Chandrakirti (ca. 550-600) was one of the
most influential commentators of Nagarjuna
In the following centuries, a number of syncretic
schools developed. They tended to mingle Madhyamaka and Yogachara
doctrines. The greatest examples of this syncretic period are the
philosophers Shantarakshita (ca. 680-740) and Kamalashila
(ca. 740-790), who are among the last significant Buddhist philosophers
Following this last flowering of Buddhist thought
in India, Buddhism began to decline. It became increasingly a tradition
of elite scholar-monks who studied in great monastic universities
like Nalanda and Vikramashila in Northern India. Buddhism failed
to adapt to changing social and political circumstances, and apparently
lacked a wide base of support.
When a series of invasions by Turkish Muslims descended
on India in the ninth through twelfth centuries, after the invaders
had sacked the great north Indian monastic universities and killed
many prominent monks, Buddhism was dealt a death blow from which
it never recovered. In 1193 the Moslems attacked and conquered Magadha,
the heartland of Buddhism in India, and with the destruction of
the Buddhist Monasteries, like Nalanda (1200) in that area Buddhism
was wiped out.
Only some small remnants of Buddhist communities,
like in the Himalayan areas, Buddhism remained alive. Apart from
the Moslims, most Indians are Hindu, and to them Buddhism is a old,
dead branch of Hinduism, not a seperate, independent religion.
During the English Colonial Rule, there was a small
resurgence of Buddhism in India. In the 1890's, for example, Dammapara
of Sri Lanka founded the Mahaboddhi Society, and Ayoti Daas founded
the Buddhist Society of South India, as well as other unrelated
Buddhist activities in Bengal and other places in India. The effects
of these activites where localized, never spreading widely.
In 1956 in the state of Maharashutra, in the city
of Nagpur, Dr. Ambedkar held a conversion ceremony, and converted
500,000 untouchables to Buddhism. One of the underlying thoughts
of this re-introduction was to reduce the influence of the Hindu
caste system in India and its detrimental influence on people of
the lower castes. The number of Buddhists in India in 1981 (according
to India Govt. estimates) was 4.65 million people, and in 1991,
became 6.32 million people. About 80% of this population live in
the state of Maharashutra, and in the city of Nagpur; mainly connected
to Dr. Ambedkar's efforts. In the last few years, the counciousness
of human rights has increased in India, and the number of Untouchables
converting to Buddhism is increasing.
Ven. Dr. W. Rahula's "Gems
of Buddhist Wisdom"
Asian studies, Buddha
"A Concise History of Buddhism" by Andrew Skilton (Windhorse 1994).
September 11, 2011