Know the reason behind the decline of Buddhism in India

The era of Mahajanapada was the golden era for the Shramana movement. Buddhism and Jainism flourished with the help of royal patronage. Buddhism even spread to the near by countries during Ashoka’s period. He made sure teachings of buddha reach rest of the world and sent his own children for propagating Buddhism. He built many viharas, he himself became a Bhikku. So what once was a great kingdom of Magadha, now being called as Bihara(land of viharas).

The intention if Shramana movement was to break away from the orthodox practice of vedic culture. Important thing to be noted here is, varna system of hindhu dharma is entirely different from how the modern historians project it. There was no untouchability. Varna system was division of class based on their Udyoga,hence

  • a brahmana can be a kshatriya like Parashurama or Shunga, Kanva and other kings
  • A kshatriya can become a brahmana-like vishwamitra
  • A gopala can rule dwaraka, and a brahmana can lead life of a shudra-Kuchela
  • A brahmana can have vast knowledge of trade and economy like a vaishya-kautilya.

So concluding that varna system is the main cause that lead to acceptance of Buddhism and Jainism is a very wrong concept.

Shramana movement gained momentum because they taught there is no karma, no punarjanma. This attracted many, as vedic practice always teach to attain moksha as the ultimate goal of a human life.

But when a king of certain dynasty embraced Buddhism, the only teaching he received was renunciation of worldly pleasure. As there was no varna system in the their culture, a guru couldn’t take up a role of kshatriya or vaishya. He could only be a Bhikku. So when the foreign attack on Magadha began, it rendered the dynasties helpless and the religious persecution, burning of learning centres, vihara etc lead to the downfall of Buddhism.

How did hindu dharma managed to survive?! It is because for people, following the Udyoga associated with their varna came naturally by birth. A brahmin would learn all the shastra and if called upon by a king as a counsel he is capable of advising king about economy, administration and also spirituality. Hence post Guptha period when Buddhism lost its patronage, kings and common people turned towards hindu dharma again.

Among Ashoka’s numerous children, Tivra, Mahendra, Kunala, and Jaluka were prominent. The Vāyu and other Purāṇas contain several details about this. Among them, Kunala ruled the kingdom after Ashoka. After his eight-year rule, the next generation took charge. Brihadratha was one among them. Some opine that he was the grandson of Ashoka. However, historical studies reveal otherwise. Samprati Chandragupta was a grandson of Ashoka and his son was Brihadratha. All of them were uniformly weak rulers, bereft of kṣātra.

Samprati Chandragupta became a Jain and performed sallekhana (fasting till death) with Bhadrabahu Muni in the renowned Chandragiri hills at Shravanabelagola. Some people have misunderstood this historical fact and are under the illusion that this was Chandragupta Maurya, the disciple of Kautilya, destroyer of the Navanandas. In this regard Rashtrakavi M Govinda Pai has carried out an exhaustive study and has established the truth. [Chandragupta Maurya was in fact the grandfather of Ashoka and lived close to a century before him (c. 4th century BCE).] Incidentally, we mention this because when different facets of history cannot be definitively established, one needs to delve into the primary sources and come to a conclusion. Govinda Pai has done precisely this.

The explosion of ahimsa that emanated during the post-Ashokan period culminated in multifaceted decrepitude. But then Bhagavan Buddha never advocated such inertia. Even among Tirthankaras like Vardhamana Mahavira, none had gone to such extremes. After all, Bharata was ruled by a host of Jain kings all of whom waged numerous wars. None of them resorted to inaction in the name of ahimsa . For that matter ahimsa is held as a sacred vrata in Jainism to the extent that it takes on a rather severe tenor. Ahimsa does not have this sort of severity in Buddhism. In fact, Buddhist bhikkhus are not prohibited from eating the meat given to them as piṇḍa-pāta (the food given as alms).  Buddhism, which has pervaded the world, has not insisted upon strict vegetarianism. But it is not so in Jainism, which while adhering to the varṇa system, insists upon vegetarianism. There are two kinds of vratas in Jainism – aṇu-vrata and mahā-vrata. The latter is for Tirthankaras, munis, and ascetics but the former alone is prescribed for ordinary Jains.

There is a great deal of emphasis laid on ahimsa in Sanātana-dharma as well. But then what would ensue if the principles of sanyasa are enforced upon householders! A sanyasi is ordained to offer abhaya (blessing, spiritual protection) to all and is prohibited from maintaining agni (sacred fire) because in order to keep the fire, trees have to be cut and in general, fire can potentially cause trouble to the world. If one has to maintain agni, he has to offer ahuti; he will have to become a householder. Moreover, fire is not used even for the last rites of a sanyasi ; typically they are buried in the ground, thrown in water, or thrown to the winds. These are different means of performing the last rites in a non-violent fashion.

In our tradition, the degree of ahiṃsā has been prescribed differently for each āśrama. Therefore blanket statements like ‘ahiṃsā in Buddhism and Jainism have had ill-effects’ are unfounded. Perhaps Ashoka did not grasp this truth with wisdom. Being a king, his embrace of extreme ahiṃsā was inappropriate. At one stage, Ashoka had brought almost all of India under his rule. Modern historians opine that the Mughals under Aurangzeb, and later the British held sway over such vastness. But when we observe how this vast empire of Ashoka collapsed like a house of cards, the extent of administrative laxity becomes evident. The Suttapitaka tells us how farsighted Buddha was in anticipating this.

We can provide an example from the life of Bhagavān Buddha. One day, Buddha’s confidant and close relative (from his householder days), the eminent Ananda approaches his guru Buddha with Yashodhara (Buddha’s wife when he was a prince) in tow and asks,

“Please grant sanyasa to women as well.”

When Buddha replies, “No, it can’t be done,”

Ananda asks, “Why don’t you prescribe sanyasa to women? You say yourself that all are equal, don’t you?”

Buddha replies, “No, the sangha will lose its way.”

Ananda refuses to accept Buddha’s view that the entry of women into the sangha will destroys its discipline. He persists in his argument.

Finally Buddha says, “I thought that the sangha will flourish for a thousand years. Given what you suggest, it will face destruction in five hundred years!”

By the time of Ashoka’s reign, about two hundred and fifty years had elapsed since Buddha’s death. By then considerable laxity had enveloped the sangha.

“Bikkhunis (female mendicants), no matter how senior had to compulsorily stand up and pay respects in the presence of even the juniormost bhikkhu (male monk); they had to be under their supervision at all times.” Such are the rules laid down by Buddha in the Vinayapiṭaka. One mustn’t construe such rules as sexist; these were not strictures but guidelines to maintain discipline, not a means to disparage women. In sum, we must mention that Buddha had noticed all these.

Didn’t any of this come to Ashoka’s attention? The Buddhism that Ashoka encountered had already weakened. The traditional practices had dried up. After Buddha’s mahāparinirvāṇa, his prominent disciplines like Ananda, Upali, and Mahakashyapa compiled his teachings in the form of the three piṭakas and placed them before the first sangeeti.

Some people began complaining, “We don’t agree with what you say. We won’t accept your compilation. As far as we remember, this is not Buddha preached.” They later came to be known as Sthaviravadhinis.The rest came to be known as Mahasangis.

The sangha that split in this manner eventually splintered into eighteen categories. It becomes clear how easily and quickly a great principle gets corrupted. Perhaps, this was the reason devotion and rituals gained prominence over inquiry and mindfulness by the time of Ashoka.

Samprati Chandragupta’s son Brihadratha was the last king in the Maurya lineage. The Yavanas (Greeks) invaded Magadha during his reign. We can only imagine the state of military security at the time of such an invasion. Banabhatta records this in his Harshacharita, which is a primary source of great importance.

Around this time, the great general Pushyamitra came to the forefront. Eventually, he earned great renown as the progenitor of the Shunga dynasty. A few opine that he hailed from the Kaashyapa gotra. Other sources mention his gotra as Bharadwaja. Be that as it may, his contemporary was Patanjali who wrote the Mahabhashya, a commentary on Panini sutras. Pushyamitra was also the one who successfully checked alien invasions. The Mauryan Empire had weakened to the extent that the Greeks of Bactria (Bahlika) were able to penetrate even Vidisha and Vidarbha. The one who rectified all this and secured peace for our people was Pushyamitra, a brahmana, who reposed faith in kshatra, thus adhering to the values of our ancients.

Source: Bharathiya Kshatra Parampare by shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh

Dr Sindhu Prashanth